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 Flickr.com

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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Providing “pause mechanisms” in the classroom

During a recent workshop, I got engaged in a very interesting conversation about increasing the perception of the classroom as a safe, mistake-resilient environment.

Crying child by Binu Kumar on Flickr (CC-By)Kristen Hefner (doctoral student and instructor, Sociology and Criminal Justice) exposed her “Ouch/Oops” rule, which I found fascinating. She teaches a topic that touches on current debates in society, and wanted to make sure people could express themselves, but within boundaries. So, when a student expresses something that another student finds offensive, the other student can yell “Ouch”, and the class pauses to allow for the offensive comment to be examined, tweaked, explained, retracted, etc.

I think this kind of process empowers the students to control what happens in the classroom, and increases engagement in debate-based classes. The same kind of process could be applied to knowledge mastery classes, allowing for students to interrupt a lecture to ask for clarifications on new terms or concepts.

The next, less disruptive iteration of this idea would be to allow for a “parking lot” of requests for explanations. That parking lot could be physical (write your question on an index card and pass it to the TA; write the question on a blackboard) or digital (tweet your question, use the discussion board, use a collaborative Google Doc for the class, etc.). For these processes to work, it is important for the instructor to monitor and address the parking lot into the class routine, either as face-to-face or as online loops.

Anyway, just a little teaching nugget I wanted to share!

Flipping the classroom with mini-lectures

I read an interesting article in Inside Higher Ed this week about the story of a marketing professor at Central Michigan University. In this article, Mike Garver, a self-proclaimed great lecturer, explains his process to remove lecturing from his classroom altogether:

“I kind of gave up lecturing in the classroom,” Garver says, adding that he was tired of having to choose between introducing ideas and letting students try putting them into practice. “There was never enough time for both,” he says.

Instead, he creates mini-lectures on his computer to introduce topics students should master.

This is how Garver lectures these days: He gives his lectures alone, at home, on his own time, into a microphone. “I get fired up with coffee, I go into the studio, and I just start cranking out lectures,” he says.

He then uses his class time this way:

At the beginning of each class, Garver uses classroom clickers to quiz students on the concepts covered in the previous night’s lectures. For the rest of the class period, Garver typically divides the students into teams and asks them to apply those concepts to specific use cases. “What we can focus on is the upper end of Bloom’s Taxonomy,” he says — that is, hands-on learning.

The rise of online video

Online video is now so easy to create, edit, store, and access. UD faculty can create them using the self-service UD Capture room in 309 Gore Hall, in addition to whatever free service that’s available, such as Youtube or Jing, and the multitude of cheap recording devices such as Flip cameras, webcams, and smartphones.

Khan Academy is entirely based on one guy recording his screen and narration. Production costs are coming down to nearly zero, but potential impact is global (if you do it right).

Online video works because it’s short. “Chunking” your lecture into short videos seems to work best at making sure you stay focused, and that your students won’t get overwhelmed.

Garver says he believes that even disciplined minds have trouble focusing on something as dense as a lecture for more than 15 minutes. When he first began recording lectures and assigning them outside of class, Garver says his students sometimes found it even more difficult to stick with the lectures amid the distractions of home than in the classroom, where they were at least a captive audience. “They’d say, ‘Oh my God, that hour-long lecture — what were you thinking?’” Garver says.

The School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania has a series they call the 60-Second Lecture, that relies on the same principle. Here’s an example:

So please comment on the following questions:
  • Has online video changed your teaching practices?
  • Can you envision other ways your class could change to take advantage of online video?

The English Language Institute’s SALC: Adding digital depth to physical resources

Now that students are equipped with the latest and greatest in mobile technology, the very existence of computer labs on university campuses is being challenged. How can you make the most use of your current computer lab and make it a place where students really learn instead of checking email and playing Farmville?

Nicole Servais, Coordinator of the Self Access Learning Center (SALC) at the English Language Institute, came up with several smart and affordable solutions to help students be more focused on learning English inside and outside the computer lab. She uses QR codes, Google Sites, and Google Analytics to enhance the physical resources available in the SALC. The following video highlights some of these ideas.

Can you think of ways QR codes could be used with your students? Have you used Google Sites or Google Analytics? Please share your ideas or experiences below!

Free Computer Science Class On Machine Learning From Stanford

Professor Andrew Ng from Stanford University will offer his class on Machine learning for free to anyone on the web. All you have to do is visit the site and sign-up. Non-Stanford students will have to follow the same pace as regular students, but will not get college credits for completing the course, but will get a certificate of completion.

Here are some questions for you to answer as comments to this blog post:

1) As a learner, would you sign-up for something like this under these conditions? If you do sign-up, let us know!

2) As an instructor, would you be willing to support this kind of class?

3) List benefits or challenges you envision this professor will experience.