Reflection: Teaching openly is all I have #openeducationwk

Since it’s Open Education Week, here is a rare blog post of mine. Disclaimer: Opinions below are my own and do not reflect my employer’s view.

I’ve been reflecting lately about why higher education faculty members don’t embrace open education (and open teaching practices) as much as I do [in the time I took to write this post, I stumbled upon Martin Weller’s one that clarifies some of these issues as well]. This post is just some sort of brainstorm of reasons why I think the task at hand is harder that it seems to be. (Warning: I’ll be jumping around from a faculty perspective to a student perspective, and discussing the issue from and adjunct instructor’s point of view).

Can I use this opener on your teaching practices, please? Photo credit: CC-BY-NC Stephen Downes on

It hasn’t been around long enough

Even though the open education has been around for 15 years or so (I’m using MIT’s Open Courseware initiative as the start point), many people had not paid attention until recently, when Stanford-branded Massive Open Online Courses got some press. Academia is a very stable industry that rarely jumps on bandwagons without carefully looking at evidence.1 Not much literature has come up to my attention to really demonstrate the idea that open education is better for student learning, but, more importantly, better for tenured and tenure-track faculty members doing their every day job, which brings me to my second point.

Open education doesn’t appeal to full faculty

Many higher education institutions are composed of research faculty members, who were selected by colleagues for their accomplishments in a specific discipline. Those faculty have built-up their reputation through research, scholarship, and presentations at disciplinary conferences that value pushing the discipline, not the transfer of its basic principles to undergraduate students. Full faculty members already have promotion channels for what they do, so open education is not something they are looking for in terms of spreading their knowledge.

If they have any interest in teaching, one of the ways they have found to promote it is to write a textbook for one of the 4 or 5 big publishers. This also helps them get additional income if the title becomes popular (and if they assign it to their own students, they already have a niche for it). A chunk of full faculty do not want to support open education for fear of losing revenue generated by textbook sales, same goes for campus bookstores (which are usually co-owned by the universities).

Students are also a part of the issue. They are familiar and have become desensitized to the fact that they need to buy learning materials, no matter the cost, and no matter what the learning outcome for them is (and Daddy pays for it anyway). The real cost of textbooks is not as bad as the retail price suggests though, as Phil Hill has demonstrated in the past.

Course evaluations are private

Most institutions have a formal course evaluation made of online surveys taken by students near the end of the semester. Those usually measure satisfaction with your class, and sometimes contains nice messages about how good of a teacher you are. Unfortunately, that data is private, and can only be seen by you and your department chair. You cannot use that to promote yourself that much, outside of your current department.

Openly available course evaluation information, like Rate My Professors, is generally frowned upon by higher education as a whole.

Faculty are shielded from the real cost of textbooks

The deal is done between the publisher and the faculty. Faculty get free copies of the textbook and all the ancillaries, and forward the ISBN to their campus bookstore. The bookstore then packs the shelves with the assigned textbook, padding the price enough to justify their own existence.

In the end, the students are the ones coming out of pocket for the textbooks, and they figure out creative ways to lower the cost by reselling, renting, getting digital versions, etc., or they simply take a chance and go without, thinking that faculty will lecture the content of the course that will be covered in the exams anyway.

Faculty don’t pay enough attention to their online footprint

When you Google someone’s name, a lot more than academic articles comes out. In general, departments put out some sort of short bio and list and of academic papers (that is usually outdated). Conferences also leave traces of the faculty’s presentations and such, but again, those become outdated pretty fast. And like most of us, faculty use social media for social needs, not so much for developing their professional network.

But what about adjuncts?

If, like me, you have a day job and teach once in a while on a short-term contract, open education should be on your radar. Why? Because that’s all you have to show for all your work.

You don’t publish in academic journals. You don’t attend academic conferences. You might attend professional conferences, but those rarely make it on department chair’s radar. Unless you have the freedom to do research in your free time, the traditional promotion and tenure channels basically work against you.

So, what can be done?

I believe adjuncts, as much as possible, should consider themselves education free agents. We are most likely rooted in one institution, one physical area, but teaching is not. As an example, I teach for the Social Media Marketing Strategy certificate at the University of Delaware, a hybrid program, and for the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee in the M.A. in Education program. I have never set foot on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus, but teach online for them.

As a free agent, you want to make sure that you leave a trace when you teach. I usually ask my employers if I am allowed to make my slides available online, if I can assign a Creative Commons license to my work, etc. It’s not always granted, but one way around it is to create or assemble a personal OER collection in advance (Laura Gibbs’ one is fricking impressive). One way I have done this is on Slideshare, another way was to run a webinar for Open Education Week about a class I taught in 2012. Once you have created and openly published content online, all you have to do is link to it from your walled garden also known as the LMS, or reference your own content under the Creative Commons license it was originally produced under. Participating in the Open Education movement is therefore a great way to “bypass” institutional legal firewalls.

Also, besides Rate My Professors2 (which I personally encourage my students to honestly complete because I know that’s where students will find information they trust), there are other ways to make sure people who find your profiles also know what your courses are like. For instance, writing recommendations for deserving students and displaying theirs on your LinkedIn profile or blog can be a great way to increase the transparency of your teaching philosophy.

Also explore other “opennesses”, as Martin Weller suggests. Open access, open textbooks, open data, open government, social media-powered personal learning networks, working out loud, etc. Whatever works for you to increase your value as an expert in your discipline, but also as an educator, will increase your chances of people finding you and wanting to collaborate or teach for them.

In the end, as an education freelancer, my online footprint is all I have, so it better be abundant, it better be current, and it better reflect who I am.

1. Although some might argue that the MOOC movement has been one of the most bandwagonish behavior seen in higher education for quite a while.

2. Here are my UD and USFSM profiles on Rate My Professors.


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