09 June 2015

Q&A on Open Educational Resources with Robin DeRosa

My friend and colleague (when I was adjuncting at Plymouth State University) Robin DeRosa has been spending a lot of time recently thinking about and working with "open educational resources" (OER), which Wikipedia (today) defines as "freely accessible, openly licensed documents and media that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes." 

I've been following Robin's ideas about OER, and at a certain point realized I didn't really understand the conversation. Partly, this was because most of what I was reading was Twitter feeds and Twitter can be confusing, but as an outsider to the OER world, I also didn't know what sorts of assumptions advocates were working from. I was especially concerned when thinking about academic labor — all the talk of giving things away and making things free sounded to me like a wonderful idea that would in practice just devalue academic work and lead to further exploitation within the highly exploitative world of academia. At the same time, I'm strongly attracted to open resources of various sorts (I'm writing this on a blog, after all!), and so, thinking about it all, I felt befuddled.

The easiest way to get answers to my befuddlements and to allay (or stoke) my fears was, of course, to ask Robin some questions. So that's what I did. Originally, I intended this to be more of an interview, with me adding more questions after she answered a few, but her answers to my first set of questions were so comprehensive that I thought adding to it all would be a bit much. Better to get the conversation rolling, and let it play out in the comments section here and/or on Twitter, other websites, etc.

I can't say I'm not still a little befuddled. But Robin's replies to my queries did help clear up some of my primary fears and misconceptions.

And now, before we begin, an official bio:

Robin DeRosa is professor of English and chair of Interdisciplinary Studies at Plymouth State University, and she is also a consultant for the OER Ambassador Pilot at the University of New Hampshire.  Recently named as an editor of Hybrid Pedagogy (a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology), in August 2015 she'll be be a Hybrid Pedagogy Fellow at the Digital Pedagogy Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her essay "Selling the Story: From Salem Village to Witch City" was published by the open uneducational resource The Revelator in 2011.

You can find out more about Robin at her website or follow her on Twitter: @actualham.

Today, Tuesday 9 June, at 8pm EST, Robin will be moderating a Twitter discussion about OER via the hashtag #profchat. [Update:] The chat is over, but you can read it via Storify here.

Matthew Cheney: In the idea of open educational resources, what does open mean?

Robin DeRosa: Generally, OER practitioners tend to use the Hewlett Foundation definition of “Open Educational Resources:
OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.
Another way to think of “open” is to use the libre/gratis definitions of “free.”  For materials to be “open,” they need to be both free as in no-cost (gratis) and free as in free to repurpose and share (libre).  In addition, we generally think of open materials as allowing learners/teachers to do all of the 5 R’s with those materials: reuse, revise, remix, redistribute, and retain (these are David Wiley’s criteria; the fifth R was added more recently to contrast OER with “free” ebooks that disappear after a certain amount of time, or rental textbooks, etc.).  Key to all of this is the Creative Commons license, which is the general way that creators of OER make it easy to share materials.

MC: I’ve seen OER offered as a solution to high textbook prices, and that both gives me hope and gives me fear. On the one hand, I’m all for anything that reduces the cost of some of the ridiculous textbook prices out there — I didn’t assign a (pretty good) book on writing about film to my film classes because it was a little paperback that would sell for maybe $12 if it were a trade book but instead retails for almost $2/page. That’s just robbery. I would have loved a website like the Purdue OWL for writing about film. Instead, I made do with a melange of materials.

On the other hand, not all textbooks are the same. Some are actually a good deal for the buyer (The Craft of Research, which I use when I teach first-year composition, is full of great information and is pretty cheap), but more importantly, I think especially in English classes there’s a value to the book as material object, an extraordinary technology of its own, and I don’t want to lose that. (I came to this discipline because I like books! And now I have to get rid of my books?!) Further, I fear the message sent: books should be cheap or free, they shouldn’t have value, paying money for books is a bad thing. That message seems to me disastrous in a bunch of different ways. Schools require students to pay a lot of money in fees for all sorts of things that are not as central to education as books are. Why devalue books?

RD: Before I really jump in on this, I will first state the obvious: much OER has little in common with “books.”  OER includes video lectures, podcasts, PPTs, problem sets, simulations, interactive games, quizzes, etc etc etc.  But let’s just stay focused on your question, which is about books.

There are so many tendrils that one could follow in responding to this, and I will pick out a few to chew on, but I don’t expect it all to add up to an answer that completes the conversation.  Obviously the importance of “the book” in culture is just a terrifically rich site for debate right now, particular amongst those who are interested in the future of the library (or, as we are fond of calling it at my own institution, “the learning commons.”  Hey!  We are not just about books anymore!).  So without touching too much of that, I might suggest a few things.  First, I think the end goal of a program without books is a misguided application of OER.  Some programs, like Tidewater Community College’s “Z Degree” (in which the “Z” stands for “zero”—hmmm), are garnering huge press over complete degree programs that have no costs for learning materials…which does most likely mean no conventional books.  While there may be certain kinds of programs that can thrive intellectually without books, I know that no program in which I currently teach could do that.  So I think with OER, it’s very important to really define what we mean by “book.”

I think the definition changes quite a lot from case to case.  If a book is just writing that is on paper and bound, then a technical manual on electrical wiring, a biology textbook, a poetry chapbook, and a phone book all qualify.  I love a good smelling Borzoi novel, and I don’t think I’d equate the pleasure of reading it to the experience of reading the Grainger industrial catalog (though my partner would actually totally counter me on this).  I just offer this to suggest that we might not always know what we mean—and we might not always agree with each other about what we mean—when we say that we “like books.”  I think, then, it falls to OER practitioners to determine what the purpose of the book is in the educational process.  For example, if the materials are created solely to help students learn (the project for most textbooks, I would imagine), then as a believer in public education, I think those materials should be free to students.  The growing availability of OER in most fields is clearly demonstrating that we do not need to pay 3rd-party vendors enormous sums of money to curate and distribute these materials; most open pedagogues actually believe that static, unchanging, single-author, non-collaborative textbooks are generally not as useful as the kinds of materials that generate over time when the materials can be revised by users.  So I think where textbooks are concerned, no-cost is a no-brainer, and openly-licensed is in the best interest of the community that textbooks intend to serve.

For other kinds of “books,” open might not make sense.  While the public domain license on Shakespeare plays allows for cool remixing, we also do want to read Hamlet in its original and protected form. I think if a book is functioning as an “artifact,” meaning that its stability in its physical form is part of where its value inheres, then that might be more like a commodity, and something to pay for; for this reason, my English courses still often require students to buy novels and other literary texts.  Basically, I think every adoption needs to be set into its pedagogical context, and then it should be easier for faculty to make decisions: always choose the text that works best for the learning that’s happening in your course.  For textbooks, I think the other benefits that “open” affords (customizing, remixing, collaborating, students shifting from consumers to producers, etc.) make the no-cost condition the least of what’s awesome about choosing OER.  In other cases, a book that we pay for may be absolutely perfect (if students can afford it).

I also want to add here that I think there is too much silence amongst OER practitioners about what it means to transfer from a reader of print to a reader of digital materials.  While students clearly spend many, many hours a day reading off screens, there is lots of research (please, don’t quote it to me) that suggests that we aren’t processing information the same way when we read digitally.  Leaving aside for a minute my own melancholia (manufactured for you, Matthew, since I don’t know if I really have it) about losing “books,” I certainly think that teachers should spend time thinking about what pedagogical work needs to be done if we move a course from print to digital.  Most OER has print-on-demand options that allow us to make digital materials look pretty much like conventional books (without the smell and feel and such…I know, I know).  But what do we lose when we reify these dynamic materials this way?

My colleague, Scott Robison, who directs my university’s Learning Technologies office, once remarked how interesting it was to browse the materials at a site like Open Stax and see that the OER is organized into what are called “books” (and they look like pictures of books…even though many of them will never exist in three-dimensional printed form).  Scott has also raised the question of whether we should talk about the “quality” of OER in the same way that we talk about the “quality” of a textbook (this is a rich debate in the field right now, stemming from a post by David Wiley); OER is only really OER (inasmuch as it depends on its openness) if it is a process, in movement, embedded in pedagogy, and deeply engaged in a reciprocal relationship with its users.  I would advocate that we not think about OER as a replacement for books, but think of it as a process, which should be theorized differently from the way that we theorize “books.”  The bottom line in terms of practicality here, though, is that I also believe that we need to do better to identify the challenges in digital reading and annotation, so we can begin to create better pedagogical tools to help work through those challenges; in this way, we can fully capitalize on the potential of open materials, a potential which does so often depend on their digital format.

MC: How can OER and an understanding of academic labor as labor work together? Since we don’t (yet) live in a utopian society, we’re stuck in a neoliberal/capitalist system of exploitation, and academia is at least as exploitative as every other institution. How can OER avoid further devaluing academic labor? And not just devalue academic labor, but avoid further expanding the huge divide between the academic haves and have-nots — it’s one thing for a tenured Ivy League professor to give their work away, but what about the adjunct who makes $20,000 a year and has no health insurance or retirement or anything, and who is vastly more typical of today’s professoriate than the tenured Ivy League prof is?

RD: If we think of OER as just free stuff, then we do see some of the same problems inherent in the production of OER as we see with the production of regular textbooks.  While it may seem that an adjunct could make out better by publishing a conventional textbook for which they could be paid royalties or even an advance, writing a textbook still takes “free” time, and getting it published still often takes the cred of having a full-time institutional affiliation.  For the last collection I published (before I figured out that I really have no interest in publishing this way anymore), I had to switch from one academic press to another because the first one would not take the collection unless I decreased the ratio of non-tenure-track folks (grad students, adjuncts, independent scholars, and non-academics) to tenure-track folks; they requested this after accepting the proposal but before reading any of the content, so this was not about the quality of the work.  Academic publishing is a mess right now, and I always want to make sure that when we critique the problems with open publishing, we do that in a way that sets those problems in conversation with the problems in conventional publishing, which are many (I am not enumerating them here).

So OER may be no worse than conventional publishing in terms of the ways that it can exclude contingent labor, but I know there are fears that OER can exploit contingent labor in a particular way.  For example, if an adjunct creates some kick-ass OER, is it possible that it might get co-opted by the institution for which she works, and used to dramatically increase revenues by contributing to the production of course shells that are pre-packaged, assigned to very low-cost labor (or maybe, ultimately, used in a course with virtually no teacher at all)?  Should an adjunct give away their intellectual property to an institution that doesn’t even pay them a living wage, thereby strengthening the institution and perhaps further devaluing their own importance within it?  I don’t want to pretend this isn’t a valid or real concern, but I might offer some other ways to think about OER that are more liberatory, ways that resist rhetoric like “co-opt,” “property,” and “production.”

First, I might suggest that OER is value-less without teachers and students.  In other words, you can’t “steal” someone’s OER, because it is not a product with a stable existence that can exist in a constant way outside of how it is situated into a course and engaged with by learners.  OER is just free stuff (there’s lots of that all over the internet) if it’s treated this way.  But for us to understand the true potential of “open,” we need to help faculty see OER in a more complicated and process-oriented way.  Joss Winn and Richard Hall are the two people I look to for help in thinking this through.  Winn argues that OER misses the mark by attending to the “freedom of things” rather than the “freedom of people.”  He suggests—after problematizing open ed philosophies that fail to critique the private and corporate qualities of university institutions that sustain most open ed work right now – that we should insist on open education as a transformative tool to help us build cooperative forms of higher education.  In “Open education and the emancipation of academic labour,” he envisions a post-capitalist model (wasn’t it Whitman who wrote, “Am I a Marxist? Very well, then I am a Marxist”), and he argues that CC licenses should be revised so that they work in concert with a public “commons”; openly licensed materials should be free for non-profits, but for-profit companies would have to contribute back to the commons or else pay a fee to use the materials (more about this proposal can be found in Michel Bauwens’ post on cooperativism in the peer-to-peer age).  Basically, the idea here is that education must be for the public good, and that OER is a step toward rethinking where the real value actually is in the educational system (with the people, not with the institutions).  This, ultimately, could open us up to a radical restructuring of higher ed, where those who teach and contribute are not exploited by institutions that do little but mediate and discipline academic labor.

Richard Hall really pushes these ideas into territory that excites me, and he’s also been nice enough to talk with me about where to start with some of the good questions you have asked.  Hall calls for open, participatory publics and co-ops that firmly situate the value of education within the community.  He thinks about MOOCs as spaces that could potentially resist neoliberal projects to control and commodify sites of learning.  The pitfalls here are many, as he points out.  I myself have given my fair share of OER-related pitches at the administrative level in which I have demonstrated (accurately, I believe) that most institutions stand to make significant financial gains by implementing OER initiatives, even as their students save money and faculty develop new and exciting pedagogies.  It sounds like a win-win-win.  Many schools use MOOCs to advertise and then sell their closed content and credentials.  Again it seems like a win-win: students can study for free, and the institution only gets stronger for it.  But if we use “open” as just another marketing tool, we strengthen an educational system that is deeply corrupt.  So personally, I have challenged myself to think of “open” as a tool for true transformation, in which we move away from a commodities-driven market and towards a community-oriented conversation.  This may not directly produce a living wage for adjunct faculty, or bring them economic gain from their intellectual property.  But by focusing on the public good, by shifting intellectual “property” to the intellectual commons, by thinking less about courses, credentials, and copyrights and more about communities, access, and sharing, I think we will ultimately build a higher education landscape that is less exploitive of both students and contingent faculty.  Hall notes that this would “abolish the present state of things.”  So I realize that lurking throughout this, there is a revolution that would deeply upset many careers and livelihoods, my own included.  It’s not a simple path to equity or security, for sure.  But for me, open education has some promising foundational philosophy for those of us who are disgusted by the current exploitation in higher ed.  I’m sick of being stuck with it, so I am heading this way, walking gingerly and trying to avoid the sly ways that institutional power can co-opt subversive movements and use them as a marketing advantage.

[The discussion continues this evening via the Twitter hashtag #profchat. The chat is over, but you can read it via Storify here.]