Sharing, Reuse, and Frameworks

(hoisted from the archives)

When it comes to OER, sharing, in general, is not the problem. Reuse is the problem.

Anyone who has been working in the Open Education space for any length of time knows this, so I won’t go into it too deeply. But the key to everything is reuse, at least reuse broadly envisioned. AsDavid points out, the key metric is not how many toothbrushes you distribute, but ultimately how much they were used, and, one metric beyond that, what impact they had on community health.

As Open Education has moved into the HE vernacular, I repeatedly see people laboring over the problem of production, reuse, and, at the edges, sustainability. Again, I hate to belabor this point, but history says if you are looking for significant impact you are working the wrong end of the problem. You have to work back from reuse to production, not the other way around. You have to develop an impact theory of OER, not an input theory of OER.

The most elegant defense of what I’ll call the input theory of OER is “We just publish by-products of of work, which is sustainable (we have to do the work anyway) and useful (after all, we’re using it).” I’m sympathetic to this view — the best view of the input theory lot. In a lot of disciplines, it’s pretty close to the truth. So let’s discuss why the input theory works in some applications, but tends to fail in education.

  1. I’m a writer and performer of synthpop. One thing I do for a song is tweak the hundreds of dials on my virtual, computer-modeled synths (in a program called Reason) to get a unique sound. I can then save those settings and share them. If other people like my sound they can drop that file into Reason, and viola! instant sound.
  2. My wife uses internet recipes a lot, some off of a site called FitDay. If she comes up with something she can write it up and share it on FitDay — if it is in recipe form any other competent cook can make something close to what she did. Because it’s on FitDay, the cook also gets all the nutritional information they need to track — protein, carbs, vitamin B12.
  3. I’m a programmer, and I write a Python module that, given a matrix of test results, spots questions where performance does not correlate with overall skill (a point biserial correlation for the assessment geeks out there) and returns an array of question numbers to take a second look at. I share this up.

The list could go on. In all these cases reuse is successful, useful, and pain-free. And to the extent the materials are good they will be reused.

But one of the things all of these have in common is that the use of the object is pretty well defined in the process. As a matter of fact, the recipe, the module, and the synth sound are all round pegs waiting for someone to have a round peg problem.

This is important, because for things to be re-usable, you have to understand how it relates to its context. (Yes, LO refugees, hold on a minute, I’ll get to you, I’m a refugee too).

If a recipe had to explain everything about cooking — what it was to beat an egg, what it meant to mix something, how broiling differed from sauteeing — well, no one would write recipes, and no one would use them. Recipes exist in a system of cooking that is relatively narrowly defined — the framework is in place, it just needs this thing called the recipe to work.

David Snowden, in a knowledge management piece that mostly talks about why much tacit knowledge cannot be shared at all, has this excellent observation about what does work (via John Tropea):

Now it is important to note that I am not saying that there is no place for explicit or codified knowledge in any approach. However any such material does not arise from a conversion process, it’s one method of augmenting memory. Now this is a subtle but vital point so let me expand on it. A set of engineering drawings is the primary knowledge object. It’s not that an Engineer carries the knowledge of the whole plant in their heads and then codifies it.

The engineering drawing details the aspects of the plant which are unique to the plant but not shared engineering knowledge. And it’s designed at the level where the engineer who creates will use it. It’s the one of the primary artifacts of the job and it exists whether we share or not.

In that way, the initial impulse of OCW and other movements was exactly right — what are the artifacts of the course? Syllabi, Powerpoints, Reading lists, etc. It made sense.

Unfortunately they were artifacts of a lecture based framework which we are trying to move away from. Yes, if you want to do straight-up lecture hall lecture and testing you can find a bunch of resources on the web.

But we don’t want to do that. That format is exactly the format that is ruining education.

So we start getting people to share their non-lecture assignments, and what do we find? When we get away from the lecture format there are no commonly defined artifacts. Everything is contextualized for own custom format. Reuse ends up being hard, for two reasons. First, if I want to produce reusable materials I have to go above and beyond what I would do for myself.  I have to spend a bunch of the recipe explaining what pan-frying means, so to speak. So the sustainability (and diversity) question raises its head here. More effort, no extra money = large chance of failure.

Second, as a consumer (or co-user) of the materials produced, I find that I have to really understand the specific context of your classroom to make your assignment work. What’s the sequence, how big are the student groups? Do they work together during class? What’s the grading scheme? I’m then going to have to figure out how we can mold your assignment to fit into my classroom — which turns out to be often as much work as just writing the darn thing myself.

Finally, there’s the demand side. The reason I go out and get a recipe is I realize “I need a recipe for this!”. The reason I grab a new synth sound is I think “I need a new synth module!”. When an engineer walks into a new building, he asks “So where are the engineering drawings at?”

Commonly defined artifacts set within a commonly accepted methodological framework make much knowledge transfer seamless. We know what we are looking for, so we go out and get it.

What does an instructor say they need when they walk into a classroom where they want to teach in collaborative way?

It depends. If the instructor has a set framework they know exactly what they need. If you are using Mazur’s Peer Instruction, you need ConceptTests and short model presentations. If you are doing POGIL, you need the group worksheets with the Focusing Questions. If you are doing TBL maybe it’s the IF-AT RATs.

Give a person a knowledgeable in the framework one of these artifacts, and they are good to go.

If, on the other hand, you’ve created a sort of bricolage of methods with no knowledge of what frameworks the pieces came from, you’re a bit out of luck. Figuring out what you need is harder, and the embedded context of the OER you find is going to kick harder against what you do, and require a lot more tweaking — if you find it at all.

This is why it’s no surprise that much of the best sharing and reuse has nothing to do with traditional OER. Look at the reuse of ConcepTest questions in Physics or Earth Science, or the amount of reuse of Focusing Questions for POGIL practice in Chemistry. People go to their conferences on these methodologies and talk in their online peer groups and share constantly — because they have a common framework and well-defined primary artifacts.  Most OER projects would die to have just the amount of resource reuse in POGIL’s hard science materials.

These sort of things are the exception, though, not the rule. Most instructors see their instruction as a set of tips and tricks acquired over a period of time, and see no connection to larger communal frameworks.

So what does this come down to? If you want to pursue an impact model of OER instead of an input model,  then stop focusing on sharing and start focusing on getting instructors to see how their work fits into standard frameworks: POGIL, TBL, Peer Instruction, whatever. Then get them plugged into those communities which are already doing more sharing and reuse than most OpenEd projects.

If you are a funder, look for frameworks that work and have defined common artifacts. Fund the development and assessment of those.

That sounds, I suppose, limiting to a lot of people — I’m asking you to pigeonhole your instruction! But I’m not — I’m asking you to see your work as part of a larger framework others are involved in, and learn the framework rather than see everything as an endlessly expressive bricolage. And the reason is the same reason one learns disciplinary frameworks — because it allows the sort of shorthand that makes the sharing of ideas and artifacts easy.

You can’t crack the sharing question in any significant way without cracking the framework question. Never has been done, never will be.

[I said I’d say a word to my fellow Learning Object refugees on why this is not LO, The Sequel. But this is long already, so maybe a separate post. Or attack me in the comments!]

One thought on “Sharing, Reuse, and Frameworks

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