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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Open assessment

This is my post for open assessment, otherwise known as the badge topic.

As a prospective badger in the Introduction to Openness course, it’s nice to know that folks are thinking about how they can be displayed and used. Below are some key points I noted in the videos and resources.

Learning happens

Learning happens formally and informally. It is not limited to schools. As Arne Duncan stated in the DML competition video:

“Badges can help speed the shift from credential that simply measure seat time, to ones that more accurately measure competency”

Some people learn faster, or in different settings. What’s important, in the end, is  being able to assess that the person knows what they need to know, and has the skills that are required for a task.

Duncan also referred to badges as being a stepping stone to helping students with special needs, from the ones with learning disabilities to the gifted students. If seat time is definitely going away as a metric, the time spent on acquiring skills can vary from student to student.

Recognition is a challenge

Our society has built this schooling infrastructure that has been in place for over 100 years. This system has enjoyed a quasi-monopoly on credentialing, i.e. certifying that a certain individual had achieved a level of competency required for certain types of jobs (general education, Bachelor’s, Master’s, Doctoral degrees).

Badges, without taking away this infrastructure, add to the mix by providing a wider view of the competencies and achievements of individuals. But how many badges does one need to be equivalent to a bachelor’s degree? Or how many (or which) school-issued badges does the owner of a bachelor’s degree need to design an ad campaign for an agency?

Some disciplines, where the skills are easier to demonstrate, will be able to take advantage of the badge infrastructure. Computer science, for instance, is a discipline where most of the accomplishments of an individual can be made visible online, for anyone to drill-down and confirm if the artifact works or not.

There are still some issues regarding plagiarism and the notoriety of the issuer of badges, but the fact that a badge system is transparent should allow potential employers to be able to see through this. This is called “badging literacy”, I guess…

More work needs to be done

As Julia Stasch said in her remarks:

“To design and test badges is a way to help people learn, to assess that learning, to demonstrate the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. Just as important, we’re looking for researchers to explore key questions about the role of badges in learning recognition and accreditation.”

Badges need some serious research work to be done in order to create a framework that society will accept.

The Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure is a step in the right direction, offering a way for badges to be issued, displayed, and distributed across the web, and, most importantly, “reverse-engineerable” (offering a way for people to drill-down and make their way back to the issuer of the badge, the requirements, and the work that has been done by the individual to claim the badge).

I think the work related to the Badges for Heroes initiative, described by Charles F. Bolden. will be very beneficial to society as a whole. Military personnel, trying to reintegrate the civilian workforce, need a way to demonstrate their skills as they translate the military jargon to actual work skills.

Badges as ePortfolio artifacts

I was blown away by the Media Master badge demonstration linked from the Towards a Comprehensive Understanding of Badging Systems: A Participatory Work-in-Progress document. This Voicethread presentation was very well done to demonstrate the experience of that young lady in acquiring those badges, and will forever be a milestone to be showcased, but also referred to as a reminder of the prior learning of that person.

I’ll be teaching a class during the fall about social networking for educators, and I’m planning on using the Mozilla open badge ecosystem to chunk the class in challenges related to social media, media literacy, and personal learning networks, where students will choose what they want to pursue and make their discoveries available in the open.

I want what students learn to stay with them. Therefore, I will stay away from the LMS as much as I can. I plan on offering a discussion forum anyway, in case someone wants to discuss in private, but I will ask them to justify why this discussion need to occur in the walled garden of the LMS for every post.

Badges take the feedback closer to the work

What needs to be done to acquire a badge should be made available in advance, in ways that the prospective badgee should know when it has been achieved. This auto-feedback mechanism (reflecting on the acquisition of the badge) is a powerful motivation and independent-thinking process in itself. It also provides stepping stones to scaffold learning.

Now, most importantly, if I learn of to make honey, would that make me a honey badger? 😉

Reflections on Educational Assessment and Scalability

As some of you may know, we are currently in the midst of a big electronic portfolio pilot project here at UD. Our primary focus for this first round of projects is to gather student artifacts to assess the achievement of some of our ten general education goals by our undergraduate population.

This project, like many others involving changes in educational practices, brings back to the surface the struggle between providing top quality education versus controlling costs and staff time. Of course, it would be great if every college student could have a one-on-one experience with a faculty member for their whole four years, but let’s be realistic, it won’t happen (overnight) –unless students are willing to pay the professor’s salary in its entirety plus administrative costs, which would bring the tuition fees well over $100K per year.

In order to be able to make sure that students get the same kind of educational experience, we usually come up with sets of standards, definitions of what students should know and be able to do after going through educational programs. The most famous ones are the SAT, TOEFL, GMAT, etc. Standardized tests scores are usually used to predict one’s probability of success in certain areas of studies and therefore considered in accepting students for undergraduate and graduate programs.

So these tests are some way to set the bar. In order to be allowed to pursue a certain career path, you are required to AT LEAST demonstrate that you have acquired this knowledge, these skills. They are requirements to allow an institution to graduate you without shame, allow you to use its reputation to market yourself as a viable contributor to society.

But standardized tests, though very cost efficient, don’t tell the whole story. College students need to be able to use their time to develop themselves beyond standards. And I think this is where the use of eportfolios comes into play and adds value to higher education.

Below is a visual representation of what I have in mind when it comes to the role of standardized testing versus portfolios. I have aligned the last column with the Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs, Herzberg’s Hygiene-Motivation Theory, and Bloom’s Taxonomy, to show which kind of activities are best assessed with different modalities.

Standardized Test vs. Portfolios

Of course, there is nothing scientific about this, but it is still my perception of the Standardized Testing-Portfolio continuum. The lower you are, the more general and the easiest it is to scale up (explicit knowledge, hit or miss); the higher you are, the most specific and demanding it is to assess, and the more important it is to involve experts to make judgement calls (implicit knowledge, values, attitudes, shades of gray).

So, my question to you is:

Is there a way to scale up the use of electronic portfolios to assess higher-level competencies in higher education? Please share your thoughts!