Who is in the Open Learning ’17 Community?

Where is our community? The above google map shows the locations of everyone who was registered, at http://openlearninghub.net as of this morning. We will update the map over time so feel free to check back.

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Virginia’s Faculty Collaboratives Project

I am excited to work on the AAC&U’s Faculty Collaboratives project. The project is being implemented at the state level. Half a dozen states were in the first cohort, which began last year. Virginia is in the second cohort, which means we have benefited by learning from the experiences of the first cohort.

The nominal goal of the Faculty Collaboratives project is for each state group to develop a collection of faculty development resources to increase awareness of how to enhance the effectiveness of teaching and learning, especially in the liberal arts & sciences. These resources will be based on the findings of learning science over the last few decades–findings of which I suspect most rank & file faculty are unaware. I don’t know about you, but learning science was not part of my graduate program. AAC&U has conducted a number of initiatives in this area, including the two I’m most familiar with: LEAP and VALUE. The challenge is to get these resources into the consciousness of faculty.

Gardner Campbell, who is leading the Virginia initiative, expresses the challenge this way: How can we help students (and faculty) see general education requirements as more than checkboxes on the road to the student’s real education (e.g. in the major)? How can we help students and faculty see general education as more than just a set of hurdles to be gotten past? How can we help students and faculty see general education as a foundational part of their undergraduate studies as well as lifetime learning?  In short, how can we do what we’ve always valued, only better.

What approach are we taking in Virginia? We decided early on to use open educational practices as the model for our approach. Virginia has a vibrant open education community, so we have both resources and interest to draw from. David Wiley describes what we’re planning as rethinking general education requirements as if the Internet existed.

Open education can be pursued from a variety of angles, including open pedagogy, open access, open educational resources (OER), and more. There is no universally accepted definition of open education, which allows a diversity of approaches to be tried. It’s probably best to think of open education as a philosophy of teaching and learning, a set of practices, rather than a specific technique or set of skills. One can try some, but not all practices, and that’s fine. If this sounds imprecise, we will be exploring these concepts in more detail soon.

Our project will operate at several levels.

  • We want to create an online platform to showcase a set of teaching resources and practices.
  • We want to make the resource organic and sustainable so that the platform doesn’t die when the project is over.
  • We want to model what we’re presenting, using open educational practices.
  • We want to assess whether the platform makes a difference in faculty teaching practice and effectiveness.

Not too ambitious, huh? Beginning later this month (January 2017), we will conduct an open online course to explore open educational practices. The idea is to give interested faculty the opportunity to learn by doing. The course is designed for anyone who would like to learn more about open education, regardless of your background and experience. Everyone is welcome!

The course will be organized by topic. If you are only interested in one or two topics, you can simply participate those weeks.   Of course, you’ll get far more out of it if you participate in the whole course. If you have tried taking a MOOC (e.g. Coursera, Udacity) before, you will find our course very different. It will be based on the Connectivist MOOC model developed by George Siemans and Stephen Downs and exemplified by DS 106. For additional information on the course and how to participate, check out the project hub at http://openlearninghub.net. I hope to see you there.

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Letter to a New President

One of the unfortunate legacies of nearly two decades of UMW’s inconsistent leadership has been the creation of program silos moving in different directions. Many faculty like that. They like being able to do their own thing, and many of these things are worth doing, but that doesn’t mean these things are consistent with each other.  There is a widespread practice of people (faculty, departments, colleges, etc.) working to solve their own problems with no regard for how those solutions impact other programs.

Many of our faculty have never experienced strong leadership. By strong leadership, I mean leadership with a plan for our future, clearly articulated to faculty, who generally buy in to it. At present, there is little sense of institutional identity among faculty, who see themselves as economists, biologists and anthropologists but not as members of the university community. In part that is because we lack a clear sense of what the institution is or what it is trying to become. We had that sense some decades ago, but we’ve lost it. We are three colleges, but how they relate to each other is unclear, and the role of the arts & sciences in the whole is also unclear. The only message we (in the arts & sciences) have received in recent years is “keep doing what you’re doing”–which helps explain the silos.

We need senior leaders who convey hope, not hopelessness. I’m tired of hearing “Well, sure, but we can’t do that. We don’t have the budget.” If you believe something is important, FIND THE BUDGET. Otherwise, it’s not important.

Good leaders motivate/encourage their staff to do their best work, to work beyond what they are capable of on their own. By that measure, UMW has lacked good leadership.  As a faculty member, I haven’t had any substantive feedback about any of my professional duties from my department chair, dean or any leader in years. No one has said I’m doing a good job or a bad job in any aspect of my professional life.  One reason expressed has been “why evaluate if there’s no budget for pay increases?”  That seems shortsighted at best. See above re: strong leadership.  Formal evaluation is secondary.  It’s communication and feedback which are of primary importance.

In recent years, I have regularly heard faculty across the disciplines/colleges say things like:

I’m not responsible for admissions, retention, completion, advising or anything outside my unit, or even some things within.

The term for these professional activities is “appreciated, but not valued”. The administration wants faculty to do these things; indeed, they are necessary for the success of the institution. Doing these things well can take significant thought, effort, and time. But faculty do not receive any significant credit or reward for doing so. These things are “counted” towards salary increases and promotion in the same way as attendance at department meetings is counted.  As a consequence, lacking a strong sense of identity as a member of the institutional community, many faculty simply go through the motions.

Faculty feel underappreciated and exploited.  I expect staff feel that way too.  Appreciation doesn’t require salary increases; indeed, salary increases alone are probably insufficient. Why has there been no public recognition of excellent teachers, excellent scholars, extraordinary service?

There are many faculty who are interested in making the institution better, making things right. They have been tolerated, but ignored. They have not been given the authority or support to make (much) positive change.  Many are discouraged, but most are still open to the possibility of something better. You could start with them.


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Course Evaluations for my Waymaker Course Pilot

LumenWaymaker-400x80This past term, as part of a nation-wide pilot including more than 9000 students, I pilot-tested Lumen Learning’s Waymaker platform in the online version of my ECON 202, Principles of Microeconomics course.  I hoped that Waymaker would provide a useful structure for my online course.  At the end of the term, I asked the students to complete a course evaluation that I constructed. The responses were anonymous, though I gave each student who submitted one extra credit towards their final grade. (I ask them to email their responses as anonymous attachments to my colleague, Bob Rycroft, who sends me the list of names, but holds the evaluations until final grades are turned in.) Out of 36 students in the course, I received 28 submissions so the response rate was decent.

The evaluation included questions on the online course (since I’m still trying to improve my online teaching) as well as on the Waymaker platform. The questions asked for student perceptions and included both quantitative and open-ended responses. My statistical analysis of learning outcomes for this course, as measured by student performance, will come later.

This past week I reviewed the student submissions and coded them into Excel. I prefer to do this myself, rather than asking a student aide to do so, because in reviewing and coding I find myself doing some processing of the results. More precisely, because I’m working one submission at a time I get a sense for what and how each student is thinking; I get a sense of consistency or inconsistency in responses to different questions, and I get a sense of the relationships between responses on one question and responses on another.   For example, and this is just a casual feeling, it seemed like non-traditional age students were less likely to buy into the Waymaker approach, which attempts to facilitate deep learning. This manifested in things like not watching the video content, not doing the simulations, and asking for study guides that would explain exactly what they were expected to learn. Don’t get me wrong; I am not anti non-traditional age students. Some of my best students fit that demographic.

So here are my initial impressions.

ECON 202, Principles of Microeconomics is an introductory-level course. The course is required for the business, environmental science and international affairs programs, as well as for certifying to teach K-12. While the intent is for students to take this course early in one’s academic career, some defer it until later. The majority of my respondents were in their first (10 students) and second year (11 students). The remaining seven students were third (5 students) and fourth years (2 students). Most of the students (18) live on campus. Three live close by; the remaining seven live as far as 50 miles away.

Interpreting a survey like this is challenging. Some students seemed to try to say what they thought I wanted to hear. Some gave answers to related questions that were inconsistent with one another. Some students didn’t interpret the questions as I intended or didn’t think carefully about them, dashing off answers that don’t provide much useful information. One student wrote,

“The hardest material to learn was anything really extensive and difficult.”

An additional complication was that this was an online course, which is relatively rare at my institution, so some of the criticisms expressed by students were criticisms of online courses, rather than of the Waymaker platform. Similarly, economics is a challenging subject, since unlike English or History, many students haven’t studied it before. So some of the criticisms were really about the discipline rather than Waymaker.

Waymaker is a next generation courseware environment, combining text, video, and animation/simulation, all embedded in a mastery learning framework with formative and summative assessments interleaved through each content module (analogous to a book chapter).

Three quarters of respondents were generally favorable towards the Waymaker modules, and only 18% said they preferred a traditional textbook. 42% of respondents said Waymaker was easier to understand than a traditional textbook, while 32% said a commercial textbook was easier. As one student said,

“The combination of videos, self-checks [formative quizzes], and worked examples allowed for small checks for understanding that a textbook does not provide.”

Students indicated that the hardest material to learn was specific economic theories, understanding graphs or understanding the math. Anyone who has taught principles of economics would find this pretty normal, but I wonder if Waymaker could do better than text, given its multimedia approach?

Let’s look at some of the specific features of Waymaker.


None Some All  
1 20 7 How many videos did you watch?
3 13 12 Did you watch them in their entirety?
No Yes
12 16 Did you ever watch the same video more than once?
Not very useful 1 2 3 4 5 Very useful
0 6 6 8 4 On a scale of 1 to 5, how useful were the
25% 25% 33% 17% videos for learning concepts or models?

Only 25% of students (7) indicated that they watched all the videos. Is this a problem? Slightly less than half the students watched the videos in their entirety. More than 60% (16 students) watched the same video more than once, while 75% found them somewhat to very useful.  25% indicated the videos were not very useful.


None Some All  
1 18 9 How many animations/simulations did you play?
2 15 11 Did you play them in their entirety?
No Yes
10 18 Did you ever play the same animation/simulation more than once?
Not very useful 1 2 3 4 5 Very useful
1 6 10 5 4 On a scale of 1 to 5, how useful were the
4% 23% 38% 19% 15% animations/simulations for learning concepts or models?

About a third of the students played all the animations/simulations, and the same number found them somewhat or very useful.  27% found them not very useful.   My impression is that students who like them, liked them a lot.  I didn’t get the same impression with the videos.

Study Groups:

Less Same More
3 10 15 Did you learn more from working with your study group than you would have learned on your own?
Own Group When you did group assignments, did you mostly work on your own & share, 
7 21 or did you work together as a group and go over each others’ contributions? 

One of the features of the online course was study groups, which I used to counter possible feelings of isolation for students working online. Slightly more than half the students (54%) said they learned more from working with their study group than they would have learned on their own. About 11% said they learned less. Three quarters indicated that they worked together as a group on assignments, while one quarter divided up the assignments, worked individually, and then shared answers. Some study groups were effective, because the student drew on each other’s strengths. Others were less effective, either because one or more students didn’t participate easily (or were hard to reach), or because “no one in the group knew the answers.” I need to do more research on group work to see if I can improve these results.


No Scores Yes  
1 8 17 Did you use the self-checks to assess your learning? i.e. Did you use the self-checks to think about what you knew or didn’t know, or did you just focus on the scores.
Never Some Often  
4 11 13 Did you use the module quizzes to study for exams, aside from doing them for the grade? 
Less Same More  
7 10 11 Compared to using a traditional textbook, did you think about how well you were learning as you went through the modules?

Nearly all students used the self-checks (formative quizzes); only 28% (8) focused on the scores, while a majority (17 students – 68%) used them metacognitively to think about which topics they had mastered and which they had not. Nearly half (13 students – 46%) used the summative end-of-module quizzes often to study for exams, while another 39% (11 students) used them sometimes. 39% (11 students) indicated that thought more about how well they were learning using Waymaker compared to a traditional textbook. 25% (7 students) said they thought less about how well they were learning using Waymaker.

Less Same More  
5 17 6 How much time did you put into this course compared to others you have taken at UMW? 
Easier Same Harder  
0 7 16 How did this course compare with the others you have taken at UMW?

A majority of students (57%) found the course harder than others at UMW, but only 26% put more time into the course, which seems odd to me.

What tentative conclusions have I drawn from these survey responses?

Some students liked Waymaker; some students didn’t. What was the difference? Was it merely a question of taste, or something more substantive that could be improved?

Weaker students seemed to not like Waymaker, but was this cause or effect?

Some students didn’t seem to take the Waymaker features very seriously or they didn’t give them a serious try. For example, a number of students didn’t do much with the videos or the animations/simulations. Look back at the Video & Animation/Simulation results above. Students who responded None to the video or animation/simulation questions obviously didn’t benefit from them, but I suspect that many of those who responded Some/Some/No were also disengaged.

At the same time, 50% of the respondents said that the videos were useful or very useful for learning concepts or models, while only 25% said they were not useful. Similarly, 35% said the animations/simulations were useful or very useful, while 27% said they were not.

My impression is that some students, especially first semester first year, or transfer students, don’t seem to understand learning at the university level. Some don’t know how to study deeply and effectively. They have adopted the “school is about grades” motivation, and their approach to studying is to skim the readings looking for key terms to memorize. I know not all FY students or transfers are like this, but it’s a pattern I saw in the survey.

Waymaker was designed for deep learning; it was designed to mimic Socratic questioning of the student. It’s not perfect yet, but those were some of the goals.

Two common themes in the student comments were time management/self-discipline and the greater time required compared to a face-to-face course. The first theme is common to online courses. As one student explained it, “Being responsible and getting assignments done without having the professor in class reminding you.“

The second theme was more interesting. A number of students objected to the time required to work through the modules. But compared to what? The time spent reading a traditional text? But that’s not the right comparison. Waymaker tries to provide the structure students get in a face-to-face course. So the proper comparison should be time in the classroom plus time spent reading the text. I don’t think most students understood that.

Several students mentioned that the course required them to teach themselves! But what do they mean by that, and how is it different in a face-to-face course? If they simply mean the lack of lectures meant they had to filter the content and discern meaning for themselves, that’s almost tautological. And some research suggests that might actually enhance learning, for those that do it seriously.

But what if part of the pushback was students’ lack to experience with studying in depth? Then if they had bought into the program they could be more successful, but if they didn’t buy in they could be frustrated and unable to see the superficiality of their study approach, possibly leading to giving up on Waymaker. We might be able to test this if we have time-on-task data or some other measure of engagement.

I’m ending up with at least as many questions as answers here. Much to ponder. Next fall, when I teach both face-to-face and online sections using Waymaker in both, perhaps I’ll be able to tease out some more answers.


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Response to Robin DeRosa’s “My Open Textbook Pedagogy & Practice”

This is an amazing and thought-provoking post. There’s so much here that I just want to put my initial thoughts out; otherwise, I may put it aside and not respond at all.

I’ve done this sort of thing before but never as ambitious a project as a complete text—see http://2008financialcrisis.umwblogs.org and more recently http://WhitherTheEuro.umwblogs.org —so I can speak to how much work and energy on your part is involved. I can also affirm that students who participate engage with the project far more deeply than with most academic assignments.

First, the naysayer: Did you review and/or edit the students’ commentary? That could move it from an excellent student project to a more serious professional resource, albeit at the cost of taking something away from the students, and more of your time. For my financialcrisis project, I ended up spending a huge amount of my summer reviewing, editing and other production work. Do you have a better way?

In my view, there are a couple of takeaways here:

  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. One shouldn’t compare an open text like this one to a finished, glossy commercial text. A better comparison is with a first draft manuscript—the one the author submits. The content is pretty much all there, though the finish may not be. But that’s okay.
  • It’s hard to understate the learning experience of the students. This learning experience is so much more profound than what a student normally gets from reading a book, because the process of curation requires students to examine assumptions, consider alternatives and evaluate what they conclude—all things that we at least subconsciously hope students will do when they read, but which realistically very few do—in part because we haven’t taught them to read that way, and in part because it’s hard work and takes a lot of time.

I look forward to reading the next chapter in your exploration of open texts.

PS: As I was thinking about responding to Robin’s post it occurred to me that the way I respond to a blog post is a little different from the way I respond to a colleague’s paper. Perhaps it’s the nature of blog posts, which are less formal than papers. Whatever the reason, I find I respond affectively to blog posts as well as cognitively.  It’s not that a post can make me feel good or bad, but rather my response is coming from a deeper level than when I respond to a formal paper.


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Is the Purpose of Teaching Student Learning or Student Grading?

Brief Remarks for the UMW “Faculty Conversation,” May 11, 2016 

Is the purpose of teaching student learning or student grading? I don’t believe that you can have it both ways. That is, grading, at least the way it’s commonly done, inhibits student learning. This is not merely my idea. David Brooks wrote a piece in the NYT about this, saying

“We all know why it exists, but the grade-point average is one of the more destructive elements in American education.

In life we want independent thinking and risk-taking, but the  GPA system encourages students to be deferential and risk averse, giving their teachers what they want.“

Think about that.  Does anyone who’s taught for any length of time disagree on this point?

The “F” grade, in particular, is an artifact of the current focus on teacher as grader, rather than teacher as learning-facilitator. It’s also an artifact of the system where students don’t want to be in the class. Even the “good” students more often than not see (most) classes as things they have to take, rather than things they want to take, or things they have a real reason to take.

Contrast this with the real world: In the real world (or for adult learners), there is a real purpose in learning something. If the learner doesn’t achieve mastery in some period of time, they keep at it until they do. What about those who are time constrained? They either need to work smarter or take longer. If they really need to learn something, they will find a way.

Only in school do we give students fake assignments where the answer is already known so the task is to identify the one specific answer. If you get something else, you are WRONG. But I digress.

Let’s take a lesson from writing teachers. No one writes a perfect paper on the first draft! Rather, good writing teachers understand that writing well is a process; that it takes multiple attempts to improve, to get it right.

Suppose you read a student paper, and put an A on it. How will the student react? How will they probably feel? They will feel great, successful. What’s the likelihood that the student will want to improve the paper?   Answer: zero.

Suppose you read another student paper, and put an F on it (with no comments). How will the student react/feel? This student will likely be upset, possibly angry, possibly bewildered. How will the F help the student become a better writer? By itself, it won’t.

Suppose you put an F on that paper AND you write comments to explain the grade. If you allow the student to revise the paper, he or she will likely try to fix the problems you identified. If they do, will you give them an A? Probably not, because a good writing teacher won’t identify everything that’s wrong with an F paper, they won’t cover the paper in red ink, rather, they will just focus on the highest level flaws.

Notice what’s going on here: The student is trying to satisfy the teacher, rather than themselves.

Suppose you read the paper, write the comments and omit the grade. How will the student react: Not upset, not angry; hopefully just interested in improving.

More and more, I am attracted to Mastery Learning. Don’t worry! I’m not using it in all of my courses, just some of them. Mastery Learning is a binary system: Either you’ve learned the content sufficiently to use it. Or you haven’t yet.

In other words, Mastery Learning is something like a pass/fail system, except that failure doesn’t mean the student is a failure (though I think we often treat it that way).  Rather, the alternative to Mastery is “Not Yet,” as in “the student hasn’t mastered it yet.” This is not just semantics!

Think about the artificiality of term lengths. What is sacrosanct about a 14 week term? Why don’t we recognize/accept that students learn at different speeds? A senior colleague once told me that speed and intelligence are highly correlated, so the student who completes the test first tends to score the highest. As a slow learner, someone who likes to chew while thinking, I don’t agree and I’d like to see the literature on it. Why not extend the length of time for students that need it?

Imagine, if instead of the current system, students were trained to see learning as a process, taking work, but ultimately leading to success.

Imagine that students were trained to expect to make mistakes along the way, that mistakes were not signs of failure, of hopelessness, but rather just steps towards learning.

Imagine if we taught students to evaluate their own work, rather than deferring to the authorities to do it for them.

Just imagine.


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Helping FY Students Take Ownership of their Writing

Remarks for the UMW FSEM Swap Session, May 5, 2016

This year is the 10th anniversary of our First Year Seminar program (FSEM).  Since the beginning, introducing FY students to college writing has been an element of FSEM. Through the years, we’ve had a number of workshops on how to teach writing to first year students and what writing problems first years bring to college.  These remarks are intended to be a small continuation of that conversation.

One of the goals of FSEM is to change students’ perception of writing assignments from something they do for us, to something they do for themselves.  I tell students I’m not looking for them to identify the right answer on their papers, but rather that I genuinely want to know what they think.  Some students seem sceptical, as if (to quote Gardner Campbell), “[they] assume there is a rule they don’t khttp://www.gardnercampbell.net/blog1/now about that teachers will hold against them.”

Some years ago, I noticed that grading student papers seemed to be an adversarial process. I would read a student paper and then start thinking about what was wrong with it, how I could deduct points to determine a grade.  Yes, I knew that I was supposed to include positive as well as negative comments, but when one is grading a lot of papers, it’s much easier to focus on what’s wrong with a paper, rather than what’s right.  After all, students are supposed to be able to write, so why should I credit them with what they should be doing already?

One day, I had an epiphany:  The way I read/comment on my colleagues’ papers is very different from how I grade students’ papers.

Why is that?

One reason is that I’m not reading colleague’s papers for a grade.  Rather, I’m trying to help them improve their work.  But isn’t that, or shouldn’t that be, the same goal for reviewing student writing?  That depends on whether reviewing student papers is perceived as formative (part of the learning process), or summative (a final judgment).

As I developed my first FSEM, I made the choice to change the way I read student papers:

  1. I give students a hard deadline for the first draft.  If they meet that deadline, they qualify for the following.
  2. I review the draft like I was reviewing a colleague’s:  I identify parts of the paper I don’t understand and ask for clarification or elaboration.  I identify parts of the paper that piqued my curiosity, and/or that I’d like to hear more about.  I identify places where I lose the argument.  I make suggestions for improvement.
  3. I tell students that these are my comments, but that the paper is theirs to revise as they see fit. I hope they will take my comments seriously, but any changes are up to them.
  4. I don’t say anything about a grade. In fact, while I’m reading I’m not thinking about a grade. Rather, I’m just thinking exclusively about what suggestions for improvement I can make.  (By contrast, when I grade papers, the comments I write are very different than the ones I put on drafts.)  This was difficult when I started the practice, but it comes without thinking now.
  5. I tell students if they revise their paper I will review it again, as many times as they like for the next 4 weeks until the final paper is due.  Only when they decide their paper is “done” will I put my grading hat on.

I want the students themselves to evaluate their writing, to decide when it’s done.  I think we’ve trained students to expect the teacher to tell them how good their work is and when it is done.  I think when we do this for them, they miss out on an important part of the learning process.  Suppose on the first draft I told a student s/he had an A paper. What more work would they do?  Is an A on an FY paper as good is it could be?  Suppose a student writes a weak paper.  Asking s/he to reflect about how good it is might help them take their writing more seriously, especially if you draw out their thinking.  (What makes you think it’s strong/weak?)

This probably sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But it’s not as much as you think. FSEM’s are small classes capped at 15 students.  These are short papers (3-5 pages).  Only a few students write more than three drafts.  Except for the first one, the drafts come in in a staggered fashion, allowing me to read and comment on them one at a time.  All students write fewer drafts as the semester progresses.

As a bonus, I feel much better about how I teach writing in the FSEM.

The next step in my evolution as a writing instructor, which I will try next fall, is to lead my FSEM students to develop a rubric for me to use in evaluating their papers. I’m thinking of a list of what makes a good paper (and what makes a poor one), rather than a rubric listing requirements for formal grades. HT to Robin DeRosa for inspiring this.  Now that I’m planning this, it seems like an absolute no brainer.

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Friendly Amendment to “OER: Some Questions and Answers”

A couple weeks ago, David Wiley responded to a clever Pearson op-ed, which attempted to damn [OER] with faint praise. Among other things, the op-ed states:

“OER often shine in their variety and ability to deepen resources for niche topics.“ (emphasis added)

I have a couple of thoughts on the op-ed and David’s response.

The op-ed asserts that while OER could be high quality, few “instructional design-minded instructor[s]” would be willing to put in the required effort without “fair compensation”. The author’s implication is that OER is extremely unlikely to replace commercial textbooks.

To this point, David responds that the public good nature of digital OER refutes this:

“The nonrivalrous nature of digital resources (the technical ability to share copies of resources at almost no cost) combined with open licenses (the legal permission to share copies of resources at no cost) means that only a handful of people need to be actively involved in producing or making substantive improvements to OER in order for the public to have free and open access to resources whose effectiveness is on par with those created by commercial publishers.”

David goes on to state that the classic theory of public goods,

“lacks an account of why people volunteer for or donate their time, money, and effort to a range of charitable and other causes, including the creation, improvement, and maintenance of open source software and open educational resources.“

I respectfully suggest that the theory suggests otherwise.

A positive externality occurs when the benefits of some action accrue to people other than the consumer who pays the cost. A good example is flu shots. The rational individual will get a flu shot if the benefit he or she receives exceeds the cost they pay. But note that if you get a flu shot, I benefit also since I won’t catch the flu from you. In other words, there is an external benefit to your getting a flu shot (or to put it into economic jargon: the marginal social benefit exceeds the marginal benefit to you). But you don’t take the benefit to me into your calculations. For some people, the cost will exceed their perceived benefits. Those people won’t get the flu shot even when the social benefit (to them and others) is greater than the cost. This is the argument that private markets will under-produce goods with positive externalities.

A public good is a little different. With a good like a flu shot, the main benefits go to the consumer, while the external benefits are secondary. Or to put it more generally, the private benefits make up a substantial part of the total social benefits.   With public goods it is the opposite.

Public goods are defined as those with a high upfront cost, but a zero (or low) marginal cost for others to benefit once the public good is provided. With a pure public good, no one finds the benefit to them worth the substantial upfront cost. Thus, no public goods are provided, even though collectively the social benefits exceed the social costs.   Provision of public goods requires a mechanism for the collective decision to consume and pay for them.

“Non-rival” means that your consumption doesn’t detract in any way from my consumption. An apple is a rival good. If I eat it, you can’t. A printed text is largely rival, since if you are reading it, I can’t read it too, at least not easily at the same time. If more people want copies, they have to pay for them. This is why students generally obtain their own copy of a text, rather than sharing with someone else.

A digital text is non-rival. The cost of creating the text is substantial, but an infinite number of people can download and use a digital text at no additional charge (except for maintaining the server). Thus, a digital text is a public good, while a printed text is a private (rival) good. What about commercial digital texts? Commercial digital texts are technologically-speaking, public goods, but economically-speaking they are not. Property rights to the producer make them artificially private goods. Note that it is (near) impossible to prevent one student from benefiting from another student’s flu shot, but it is entirely possible through DRM to prevent one student from benefiting from a commercial digital text unless they pay the price. This is true even though the actual cost of an additional download is zero.

The classical public good argument is not an argument for why public goods won’t be produced by people who don’t see any personal financial benefit. A flu shot doesn’t convey any (direct) financial benefit to the recipient. There are benefits, but they are not financial. What the argument says is that the personal benefits do not exceed the personal costs. This raises a couple of questions. If this condition characterizes a major work of OER, like a complete textbook, one that could replace a commercial text, then such OER is, indeed, a public good, and by the theory requires public support (e.g. a subsidy) for the OER to be provided. Thus, the grant funding behind a lot of OER makes sense in the context of public good theory.

But there’s another dimension to OER, and this is where I think David is mistaken. When David claims that the theory of public goods can’t explain why people devote time, money and effort to creating OER, I disagree. The theory suggests that people will do this when the benefit to them exceeds the cost. I think that the benefits perceived by these individuals are the benefits their actions provide to other people. Altruism provides a benefit even though the benefit is not financial. I think that explains that why people are often willing to contribute to improvements to OER, once the OER exists. And this makes no sense to anyone who limits their understanding to the realm of commerce. To phrase it differently, new major OER is a public good, but improvements to the same are positive externality goods.

[ By the way, I’m not wowed by the Wikipedia quote on public goods that was cited in the post. Free riding does not cause private costs to exceed private benefits. Rather, it strengthens the case for collaborative action because private action is less likely to occur.]

Beyond this point, my reading of the op-ed suggests that Pearson is setting up a strawman to represent OER. The author implicitly compares comprehensive commercial text books to the single piece of OER created by a random faculty member to teach Topic X, or even an open source text written by a faculty member on his/her own with no editorial or publisher support and no extra quality control. This is not the type of major OER that David and other OER publishers like OpenStax are about. Of course, it’s in Pearson’s interest to promote this myth.

It also seems to me that the commercial publishers are trying to design products for instructors who want to minimize the amount of work they must do to integrate the text into their course–time-constrained adjuncts and lazy tenured or tenure-track faculty come to mind. An obvious example is the powerpoint slides provided by publishers to mirror the book’s content. The op-ed alludes to this when it brings up the costs to faculty of adopting OER, and the implication that these costs are less for commercial texts.

I have to admit that earlier in my career, I adopted textbooks that I had never read. I suspect that’s pretty common across academia. I simply assumed that if they were commercially published, they must be good, right?  David’s post exposes the iie in that assumption.

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2016 OpenEd Presentation

[ to be posted here ]

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Online Shouldn’t Mean a Robo-Course!

This is the time in the semester when the workload starts to increase and the ability to think metacognitively decreases in proportion.  Many folks, both students and faculty, are just trying to keep their heads above the water.  Which means this is a bad time to enter into the most analytically complex material in principles of microeconomics: namely, the theory of the firm.

I sense that my students are struggling.  It’s not just intuition–Waymaker is sending me students’ scores on module quizzes and the scores have dropped significantly compared to earlier in the term.  Students who are ahead of the pack, who had been earning 80+ percent on their first quiz attempts are getting 60% plus or minus.  Ideally, these students will review the material carefully and deeply before going on to their final quiz attempts. These are good students, but I worry about the rest, not just the bottom cohort who tends to have trouble finding time to do the work, but the middle group who can generally be successful with enough effort.

This morning I was reminded of an experiment I tried in the mid-1980s:  I attempted to teach without formal textbooks, instead using books for popular audiences (e.g. Freakonomics, The Undercover Economist, and the like.)  My hope was that students would find those books more appealing and thus get more out of them.  I learned a great deal from that experiment, including that while students can learn most of the content of principles of economics from popular books, they can’t learn theories & models as well.  They need to have a textbook-like treatment that they can review multiple times if necessary.  As a result, I switched to more basic, less encyclopedic textbooks, which seemed to work fine in my face-to-face courses.  I was able to clear up any problems or misconceptions my students got from the text.

Now that I’m teaching online, I don’t have the same opportunity to either read students’ body language to see when they are having problems, or to explain difficult material.  How can I provide the same support in an online course?

One option is to change nothing.  The Waymaker content is pretty good, though to be fair this is the first time I’ve taught with it, so there may be shortcomings in places.  That’s why they call this a pilot!  It may be that the Waymaker approach will work.  Students will struggle on the quizzes, they will return to the content, study carefully and pass on the second quiz attempt.  Perhaps, but since this approach didn’t work with textbooks, I wonder if there’s something I can’t do to insure better outcomes.

One thing comes to mind, and yes, I know this is a “duh” moment. But like Nobel Prizes, it’s only a duh moment after you’ve had it.  The first time I taught online my students struggled to grasp supply & demand analysis.  So what I did was create a small group assignment that required groups to do several supply & demand problems.  Working thru multiple problems and working in groups seemed to do the trick.  Since I’ve already got study groups in my online course, I’m going to give them some “theory of the firm” problems to work thru and we’ll see if that helps.

Image “Dog Paddling” courtesy of Lorenia (via flickr)

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