I’ve mentioned the Persona Project a few times in passing here. It was for me a major turning point in my life. I had been on a track to get a PhD. in linguistics, and, it being 1996, I ended getting an assistantship as a web developer, building the college’s first web site.
At the end of the project, they were really happy with me and the site, and I made my pitch. I said — we have all this marketing stuff on the web to get students here. But shouldn’t we be using the web as a way of teaching our students as well?
Let me stop here and say this was not a novel insight in 1996. If you’re my age in instructional technology you have a story like this too. The weird thing about the mid-90s was that innovative thinking was pretty common, much more than it is now. What I was saying at the time seemed like common sense.
Anyway, I said — here’s my idea. Instead of the students writing throwaway papers in English composition, we have the students build an online encyclopedia. We’ll start with an online encyclopedia of biography. We’ll call it the Persona Project. Freshmen will spend time researching a historical figure, but they’ll being doing real work, that will be read by real people. Eventually we’ll have a wide-ranging encyclopedia other students can use.
It was 1997 by then, so they were like — well, this kid is the web expert, this must be what people do on the web. They actually gave me two months paid time to pull the whole thing together.
And so we built it, and put out a press release, and recruited professors.Got coverage in the student newspaper. Etc. Etc. And we put it up. Here’s a sample student article from the project (most of those other names are stubs, we only had success that first year with one faculty member).
And then…I left.
I had just gotten married, and I’d decided to take the Masters degree and head out to Seattle.
So the site just sat there, unused, a collection of stubs with a smattering of student articles. About ten years later they took it down. It changed my life: it got me into educational technology, which has more or less been my field since then, and it still forms the model of so much of what I try to do in my work with professors and students.
But the site itself? It died. It was my first lesson in what has been a recurring theme throughout my life: People make things possible. Institutions make them last.
I had worked my heart out for this thing, evangelized widely, written up the prototypes and the stubs, explained it to the college. But I hadn’t institutionalized it. And so it was bound to die the minute I left.
Why do I mention this? Partially because I am prone to occasional bouts of nostalgia. But also because I want to respond to a lengthy (and good) Twitter debate about the value of OER as a path to Open Pedagogy.
You see, Open Pedagogy — student blogs, wikis, etc. — has been sitting in the backseat of the Initiative-mobile for what seems like forever, while OER and friends drive around doing errands, fiddling with the radio, and pushing the seats way too far back. And we keep getting told — oh no, just one more stop, and then we’ll get to the pedagogy piece, I swear.
But the next stop is Burger King, where OER orders up a Value Meal and a shake and asks the Open Pedagogy folks in the backseat whether they want a water or something. “You hot back there? Yeah, absolutely, just a few more stops and we’ll get to pedagogy. I swear.”
Then it’s off to the textbook store. Plus, it seems like every 20 minutes someone is walking up and writing OER a check. “I love your work! What’s that in the back, luggage?”
So Open Pedagogy gets a bit cranky. There’s a lot of effort and a LOT of money flowing into resources; pedagogy, on the other hand, not so much. And what Open Pedagogy keeps hearing, for ten years now, is this is Phase One. Phase Two, after we open the materials up, we SWEAR, it’ll be all about you folks. Just a few more stops.
So when we have Twitter debates like yesterday the way I read it is that Jim Groom (and others) are saying “Enough of this. Let me out of the frickin’ car. We’ll find our own ride.”
And I’m the person in the backseat saying — “I think it really is a just few more stops.”
Which maybe means I’m a chump.
But here’s what I know. The death of the Persona Project was the norm, not the exception. It happens all the time. Where I work right now had a great student and teacher wiki up in 2008. But it got nuked in a transition. The Homelessness Awareness wiki I worked on with Sociology students (and demo’d with Jim Groom in 2011) is ghost-towned. The disability research one has been slammed by spam. And even more than that, each time I work with a professor on these things (most recently on a Colonial Theory wiki) we spin up from scratch, and leave it to rot afterwards.
People make things possible. And we have such great, great people in Open Pedagogy.
But institutions, they are what make these things last. And my sense is that the recurring cycle of CELT and TLT center layoffs is all you need to look at to see how much of what we do is built on sand. It scares the heck out of me. It really does.
What keeps me in the back seat of the Initiative-mobile, besides the passion of the students around this issue, is that OER has done the hard work of bringing OER work to the center of the institution, rooting it in institutional policy and practice in a way that Open Pedagogy hasn’t been able to do. And while we like to scoff at all the mucky-muck bureaucracy around training, budgets, policy and messaging, it’s precisely that stuff that prevents your dream initiative of today morphing into rotting infrastructure of tomorrow. It’s all too easy in this business to end up the new interactive whiteboard — bought one year as the must-have accessory and abandoned the next.
What I see in these OER initiatives is a way to plug Open Pedagogy into the institution at a molecular level. A way to build infrastructure that survives staff turnover, and the inevitable disintegration of your teaching and technology unit. A way to foster cross-institutional collaboration that doesn’t require Herculean efforts.
This isn’t because I don’t care about DIY, or people power, or mavericking it. It’s because I respect the work that all of us do in the open — faculty, students, staff — and want to see that work plugged as deeply into the university as the textbook industry used to be. I don’t want to re-graft open practice onto classes each semester; I want it to be at the heart of what we do. And if you want to do that you have to start by replacing the proprietary textbook.
Anyway, that’s why I stay in the car and help out with these things. And that’s also why I completely sympathize with the frustrations of others, who are tired of waiting. But in the end, I do believe it’s worth it, and I do believe we’re on the verge of a change in focus here.
After just a few more stops. 😉