Rajiv Jhangiani, Ph.D.

Open Education, SoTL, Psychology

Tag: Advocacy

OER, Equity, and Implicit Creative Redlining

The open education movement wants to be a force for equity. The argument is straightforward and powerful: Widen access to educational resources and those who disproportionately suffer at the hands of the exploitative business models of commercial publishers will disproportionately benefit, in both economic and educational terms. As someone who has personally benefited from generous and life-changing sponsorship of access to a high quality education, this argument is not simply theoretical for me. It is my lived experience. This is why I will never stop pushing for nor understate the importance of widening access to education. But if the open education movement holds the goal of equity as dearly as I believe we do, we need to ensure that we do not restrict our definition of equity to only those who will reuse the resources. For if we ignore the question of equity as it applied to educators who create, revise, and remix OER, we risk perpetrating harm with the best of intentions.

In my capacity as an administrator supporting open education at a public post-secondary institution with an open access mandate, I am vehement about the need to adequately support those of my colleagues who wish to engage in open educational practices. And by support, I mean through sufficient time, adequate funding, required training, and earned recognition. While this position may be construed as pragmatic or instrumental, for me it strikes at the heart of addressing equity. For if the movement relies on voluntary academic labour or severely under-compensated academic labour to create, peer-review, and contextualize OER, we are in effect perpetrating an implicit form of redlining*, one that reserves the capacity to create or adapt OER for those who already enjoy positions of privilege, such as the tenured or those who do not need the income. In such an eventuality, despite the best of intentions, the ideologies (including biases and prejudices) associated with those positions of privilege become reflected and over-represented in the available OER. And while I often describe how powerful it can be to exercise the permission to revise OER by simply changing the names that appear within a text’s examples so that they reflect the diversity of the classroom, that we have to do this at all is a subtle symptom of the types of exclusivity that can exist in OER—and something we need to work against.

Make no mistake—in highlighting this problem, I am not pitting the democratization of knowledge creation against equitable access to education. Rather, I am highlighting that access to knowledge creation ought to be equitable as well. As has been noted before, diversity is a fact but inclusion is a choice. So this is a call for open education projects, funders, and universities to become aware of the inadvertent implications of inadequately supporting OER creators and adaptors as well as to be attentive to who are given the opportunity and support to create and adapt OER. Supporting and nurturing stewards at a grassroots level and supporting the building of community across such stewards helps make open education both more sustainable and more equitable.

One of the things I love about the open education movement is that its values are those that educators largely already hold. This is why you find that even the decision of an academic department to standardize an assigned commercial textbook is usually driven by a desire to negotiate a lower cost for students and/or to avoid having students who need to re-take a course having to buy a second book. This also means that the seeds for a grassroots community have already been planted. And while the image of grass growing out through cracks in concrete may be used to signify resilience and drive, I would much rather ensure that we deliberately cultivate more fertile ground.

*For related concepts see Chris Gilliard’s writing on digital redlining and Safiya Noble’s writing on technological redlining

Connect, Collaborate, Innovate: My first month at BCcampus

As I write this I am in the air, on my way to the #OpenEd17 conference in Anaheim. But as I reflect on my life over the past month—the first of my year-long secondment to BCcampus—I realize that for once my life has been anything but up in the air, as I have enjoyed the most rewarding and stable period of my work supporting the open education movement. It really is amazing what you can accomplish when you are able to pursue your passion on your desk, not just on evenings and weekends and at the expense of a healthy work-life balance.

Even before my secondment began, I received clear signals that wellness was valued and actively promoted at BCcampus, from the important words and concrete actions of our illustrious leader and model Mary Burgess through to policies and procedures concerning “time off in lieu” of work (TOIL), access to mental health support services, and constant reminders of the importance of taking vacations. I honestly *almost* feel like I might get into trouble if I work on evenings and weekends, which, for an academic, feels really strange and is taking me a while to get used to. But I am. And so is my happy family.

These two things—the ability to support open education initiatives on my desk and the opportunity to do so within such a positive organizational culture—have allowed me to bring my best to this work.

Over the past month I have worked with colleagues at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Thompson Rivers University, and the Justice Institute of British Columbia to initiate the planning and development process for Canada’s first three Zed Cred (zero textbook cost) programs. This is one of the larger projects on my desk and I have been delighted to see how thoroughly these three institutions have embraced an open and collaborative planning process. They are already looking at co-developing, peer reviewing, and reusing one another’s OER. Contracts have been drafted, deliverables outlined, and methodologies for identifying and flagging Zed Cred courses shared. Everyone realizes we are making history here and the spirit of openness is infectious. As the BCcampus tagline goes: Connect. Collaborate. Innovate.

In addition to starting work on the Zed Creds, I proposed three new initiatives to the Open Ed team at BCcampus, all of which received enthusiastic support. One involved the launch of the monthly Awards for Excellence in Open Education, what I saw as an important way to recognize the efforts of our many unsung Open Education heroes in British Columbia, be they students, faculty, support staff, administrators, or even those working from outside of post-secondary institutions. The other was the launch of Communities of Open Education Practitioners (COEPs) in Physics and Psychology (with other disciplines to follow soon). As I have written about previously, I firmly believe that the next phase of the open education movement will involve a lot more collaboration across institutions, including and especially within disciplines. This is how the movement will mature from one that is sustained by philanthropic or government support to one that is community-driven and sustained. These COEPs (which are not restricted to educators in BC) are bringing together lone innovators, enabling them to, among other things, share ideas and practices and envision and pitch OER or ancillary resource creation projects (such as a collaborative question bank authoring pilot project we are planning with Anthony Albano from Proola). One neat element of the COEPs is that these educators will use the Hypothes.is plugin to annotate open textbooks that they are using to flag areas that need updates or revisions, correct errors, and even to share relevant pedagogical resources. In fact, thanks to our receptive and helpful partners at Hypothes.is Jeremy Dean and Jon Udell we are even using an experimental version of the Hypothes.is plugin that has enabled me to pre-populate the list of tags. Once again, Connect. Collaborate. Innovate.

A third initiative I proposed (which will launch shortly, watch this space) is a listserv that will serve to connect the Open Education Working Groups (OEWGs) that have sprung up on so many BC campuses. Once again, this is a mechanism to connect like-minded people in a way that will enable the sharing of strategies, procedures, and resources, and even facilitate the coordination of event planning around Open Access and Open Education weeks. Of course, as with the COEPs, I am most excited to see all of the ways in which members of our community use the OEWG listserv that I haven’t anticipated. Yet again, Connect. Collaborate. Innovate.

Outreach has been another important focus of my work over the past month. A lot of this has been with students, who, it cannot be said too often, are vital partners in the Open movement. I have connected with the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA), the BC Federation of Students (BCFS), and the Alliance of BC Students (ABCS) and supported and advised student associations at Simon Fraser University, Dalhousie University, UBC-Okanagan, the University of Regina, University of Lethbridge, Mount Royal University, Western University, McMaster University, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Sheridan College, Capilano University, and Douglas College. It pleases me greatly to see so many of them taking great strides forward. For example, take a look at this eloquent and compelling argument for federal support for OER creation made last month in Ottawa by the CASA Board Chair Shifrah Gadamsetti.

Another group I have been delighted to connect with is the Commonwealth of Learning, who operate mainly in the Global South but coordinate their operations out of Burnaby, BC. Their expertise is truly staggering and the challenges they face sometimes daunting and I am grateful to Ishan Abeywardena and Johannes Hendrikz for being enthusiastically open to collaboration. I looking forward to seeing where this new-found relationship takes us. Connect. Collaborate. Innovate.

Although other projects—such as research with the Open Education Fellows and planning for the 2018 Festival of Learning—quietly continue in the background, two other things have been especially noteworthy about my first month. One has been the space and time intentionally set aside for strategic planning. Amanda Coolidge organized this early for the Open Education team at BCcampus, which allowed Amanda, Lauri, Josie, Lucas, and me to collaboratively envision and plan for our team’s goals for the year ahead (and beyond). Along the same lines (although more recently), I was invited to Thompson Rivers University to facilitate the development of a strategic framework that would bring together their various open education initiatives (championed variously by the library, Open Learning, and the TRU student union). As with the BCcampus Open Education planning session and the initial planning meeting with the Zed Cred institutions, the spirit of innovation and collaboration was apparent at this meeting (for more, see this blog post by Irwin DeVries). The resulting framework and implementation plan will soon be shared publicly and, I hope, will serve as a model for other institutions that wish to follow TRU’s lead in this space.

The second noteworthy aspect has been the intentional thought and focus on inclusion, diversity, and equity at BCcampus, which has included a terrific and thought-provoking webinar with the peerless Lorraine Cheun and a follow-up roundtable discussion at the BCcampus staff retreat. Every team at BCcampus appears to me to be invested in this discussion and critical self-reflection, from those leading our indigenization initiative to those supporting educational technology (e.g., Are we using any algorithms that inadvertently reinforce existing power structures?). It has been gratifying to see how personally invested my new colleagues are in ensuring that we as focused on values and process as we are on the provision of resources and services.

One final note, this one a personal one addressed to my new colleagues on the Open Education team Amanda, Lauri, Josie, and Lucas. Thank you for welcoming me so warmly into the fold, for being patient with me, for taking the time to teach me, for sharing your nascent ideas with me, and for trusting my judgment. I have long admired your work from a distance, but up close it is truly inspiring. You are now part of my family and I am very proud and grateful to be a part of yours.

Openness, Gateways, and Agency

Consider the following personas:

First, picture a faculty member who has just learned about the existence of open educational resources. Imagine that this faculty member then also learns about how many students (including by extension their own) are unable to afford required course materials. Assuming they are able to locate a relevant, good-enough quality, and openly-licensed resource, they may adopt OER in order to dampen the relationship between affordability and performance, motivated by concerns for student access and success. They may learn lessons from this first foray that—if not overly negative—may lead them to make incremental changes to their practice in all of their courses, such as how they assign required readings. Given a positive experience with this first adoption they may go on to adopt OER in as many of their courses as they can locate relevant, good-enough quality, openly-licensed materials for. They may even act as an advocate for OER within their department or discipline.

Now picture a different faculty member, one who is not especially aware of issues pertaining to student access, but who is motivated to create authentic learning experiences for their students. This faculty member may learn about open pedagogy and feel inspired to redesign a single course assignment to help their students contribute to an OER. They may begin with a type of assignment they have learned about, for which there is a path to follow, a model to exhibit, a rubric to adapt. They may learn lessons during this initial experience that—if not overly negative—lead them to make incremental changes to their practice in all courses, such as in the kinds of support they provide students. Given a positive experience with this first instance they may go on to adopt open pedagogy in as many of their courses as they have freedom to do so. They may even act as an advocate for open pedagogy within their department or discipline.

Each of these personas illustrates practices that reflect specific motivations, shaped by both experience and constraints. But of course they are not mutually exclusive. The former faculty member may enter the world of OEP though the gate of OER and later adopt open pedagogy while the latter may enter through the gate of open pedagogy and later adopt OER. Yes, one can easily serve as a gateway to another. Yet neither gate should be described as a gateway drug. You see, openness is about more agency, not less. More agency for faculty, who may adapt educational resources to better suit their context, and more agency for students, who may be empowered through meaningful, renewable assignments.

But beyond being inaccurate, the drug metaphor also sends the wrong message. After all, we as open advocates are not in the business of handing out free samples, limited-term pilots, sponsorships, or kickbacks in the hopes that the faculty we work with will grow dependent on these trappings. We don’t control the periodic release of new product into the ecosystem, concocting artificial scarcity in order to manufacture demand. We don’t pass on the burden of cost to our most vulnerable constituents. We don’t report to shareholders and profit is not our motive. So if you are an advocate for open, please be careful with the metaphors you employ. We are not trying to infect people with a virus, this is not a crusade, and this is certainly not about drinking any Kool Aid. Openness supports democratization over corporatization and recovers previously-ceded ground in the battle for academic freedom. It is not a drug. It is rehabilitation.

Pragmatism vs. Idealism and the Identity Crisis of OER Advocacy

In a couple of weeks I will be in Cape Town, presenting at the 2017 OE Global Conference. This blog post is a preview of some of the ideas I will discuss during my talk (which shares the title of this blog post). A longer version of this post is currently under review in Open Praxis.

Funny Gears by Alan Levine (CC-BY 2.0)

Funny Gears by Alan Levine (CC-BY 2.0)

The open education movement has made and continues to make great strides, with the creation, adaptation, and adoption of OER slowly but surely becoming mainstream practice. However, as the adolescent OE movement enters a growth spurt that may see its use as primary courseware triple within five years, some noticeable paradoxes have emerged that hint at an identity crisis within the OE movement and, in particular, within OER advocacy.

Free vs. Freedom

Open education advocates customarily define OER as “beyond free,” based on the permissions to reuse, revise, remix, retain, and redistribute these resources. However, in practice, OER advocacy often centres on the unaffordability of commercial textbooks and the cost savings associated with the adoption of open textbooks (i.e. merely “free”). On the one hand, this appears appropriate, even pragmatic, given the significance of the burden of student loan debt in North America and the impact of escalating textbook costs on students’ educational choices and outcomes. Moreover, textbooks are a familiar entity to academics, and, unlike with tuition fees and costs of living, faculty control adoption decisions and consequently the cost of required course materials. At the same time, this narrow focus on cost savings is immediately less relevant in countries where faculty are less reliant on expensive textbooks. In fact, it may not even be pragmatic in North America, as recent research shows that the cost of resources is among the least-considered factors for U.S. faculty when assigning required course materials. Moreover, although a cost-savings framing appeals most directly to student groups, as pointed out it is faculty who control adoption decisions. Finally, framing OER in terms of zero cost (one among many implications of open licensing) may unintentionally constrain the use of the permissions that come along with OER and disengage faculty from the opportunity to move away from bending their courses onto the structure of a textbook. Indeed, faculty who reuse, redistribute, and retain OER (themselves a minority) continue to greatly outnumber those who revise and remix OER, a pattern that may be perpetuated through the best of intentions of OER advocates. As Weller and his colleagues put it:

if cost savings were the only goal, then OERs are not the only answer. Materials could be made free, or subsidized, which are not openly licensed. The intention behind the OER approach is that it has other benefits also, in that educators adapt their material, and it is also an efficient way to achieve the goal of cost savings, because others will adapt the material with the intention of improving its quality, relevance or currency. (pp. 84-85)

Evolution vs. Revolution

OER advocates often highlight the advantages of the internet and digital technologies, especially as they enable the marginal cost of reproduction and distribution of educational resources to approach zero. However, the OER movement itself continues to grapple with questions from a pre-digital past, such as the responsibility of updated editions of open textbooks and the development of ancillary materials such as question banks. Although OER funders may (rightly) consider these matters stumbling blocks which, if not addressed, would inhibit uptake, employing the language of the commercial textbook industry runs the risk of dragging along a traditional mindset based on the top-down delivery of static and (falsely) scarce information. This begs a broader question: If open educational practices are a game changer, why are OER advocates playing by the rules of the commercial textbook industry?

Framing OER as free, digital versions of expensive print textbooks also risks playing directly into the hands of commercial textbook publishers who are in the midst of a pivot away from a business model based on selling “new editions” of print textbooks every three years to one based on leasing 180-day access to digital content delivery platforms. As post-secondary administrators begin to more seriously consider the social and fiscal consequences of high textbook costs, it will be tempting for them to capitulate to aggressive sales pitches from publishing coalitions that exchange faculty choice and student agency for slightly discounted digital textbooks. In order to avoid the most effective arguments of OER advocates being further co-opted by commercial publishers (e.g., see this product brochure from Pearson Education for their digital platform that cites data on the impact of OER adoption on student outcomes) and especially to realize the full potential of OER, the goal posts must be placed further than simply cheaper textbooks. As Robin DeRosa, an open educator who clearly favours revolution over evolution, puts it, “Fundamentally, I don’t want to be part of a movement that is focused on replacing static, over-priced textbooks with static, free textbooks.”

Resources vs. Practices

The tensions between cost savings and textbooks on the one hand and the affordances of open licenses and digital technologies on the other are manifested by contrasting emphases on OER vs. open educational practices (OEP). The latter is a broader, superordinate category that encompasses the adoption of OER and even open course design and development, but which places pedagogy (and therefore students) at its core. OEP most often manifests in the form of course assignments in which students update or adapt OER (e.g., with local examples or statistics), create OER (e.g., instructional videos or even test questions), or otherwise perform scaffolded public scholarship (e.g., writing op-ed pieces or annotating readings on the open web). Crucially, adopting OEP requires more of a shift of mindset than does adopting OER, more critical reflection about the roles of the instructor and the student when education continues to be based on content consumption rather than critical digital literacy despite information (and misinformation) being abundant. As David Wiley writes in his blog (albeit with the byline “pragmatism over zeal”), “when faculty ask themselves ‘what else can I do because of these permissions?’, we’ve come within striking distance of realizing the full power of open.”

Happily, advocating for OEP avoids the problem of inadvertently striking a judgmental tone when describing non-OER users (who may have excellent reasons supporting their choice) because discussions about innovation are not driven by guilt or avoidance. Rather, OEP articulates a vision of education that is aspirational and driven by an approach motivation. Within this broader vision, significant cost savings to students are the least significant benefit of OER.

Idealism vs. Pragmatism

The psychologist Erik Erikson articulated an eight-stage theory of psychosocial development that centered on an adolescent crisis between identity and role confusion (1956). During this stage, which persists through the college years, the adolescent begins to struggle with questions about who they really are and what they hope to achieve.

Although Erikson developed his theory to better understand lifespan development within individuals and not social movements, it is difficult to ignore the parallels between the tensions of an adolescent OE movement and the adolescent identity crisis that he described. Specifically, I believe that the frictions described above between “merely free” and “beyond free,” resources and practices, and evolution and revolution are each symptomatic of a psychosocial crisis within the OE movement that pits pragmatism against idealism.

Although OER advocates may understand and even experience both impulses, their goals and strategies often reflect one or the other. For example, whereas idealists push for for radical change that questions the status quo, pragmatists seek to build incrementally on the status quo. Whereas idealists might work through collaborative networks such as faculty learning communities, pragmatists might work to create grant programs for individual faculty to create, adapt, or adopt OER. And whereas idealists emphasize student-centered, personalized solutions that foreground process and agency, pragmatists emphasize instructor-centered turnkey solutions that foreground content and efficiency.

Outlined like this, it is easy to recognize the merits of both strategies. Indeed, idealists would do well to recognize that open textbook adoption tangibly benefits students in material and educational terms that are not insignificant. On the other hand, pragmatists might recognize that the idealistic approach is appealing to those for whom the construct of a traditional textbook is a dinosaur best served by a meteor strike (and can therefore can be pragmatic).

An Integrative Solution to the Crisis

Given that Erikson believed that the individual could not be understood in terms that were separate from his or her social context (1959), I believe the key to resolving this crisis lies with an integrated approach that is sensitive to the diversity across and within the audiences whom we seek to serve.

As I have written elsewhere:

For faculty who enjoy experimenting and innovating, open textbook adoption does feel like a meagre position to advocate. These are instructors who care deeply about authentic and open pedagogy, who may take full advantage of the permissions to revise and remix, and who understand that adopting OEP is really just about good pedagogy and in that sense is not at all radical.

On the other hand,

there are faculty who currently adopt high-priced, static textbooks but care enough about their students to feel guilty about this decision (principled agents in a principal-agent dilemma). In at least some of these cases, the ensuing guilt leads them to bend the course to map onto the textbook, which, while not an example of great pedagogy, could be construed as an empathic response that ameliorates both their guilt and their students’ resentment. This is . . . where the social justice case for open textbooks may resonate particularly well.

According to Weller and his colleagues, there are three categories of OER users:

1) The OER active are

engaged with issues around open education, are aware of open licenses, and are often advocates for OERs . . . An example of this type of user might be the community college teacher who adopts an openly licensed textbook, adapts it and contributes to open textbooks. (pp. 80-81)

2) OER as facilitator

may have some awareness of OER, or open licenses, but they have a pragmatic approach toward them. OERs are of secondary interest to their primary task, which is usually teaching . . . Their interest is in innovation in their own area, and therefore OERs are only of interest to the extent that they facilitate innovation or efficiency in this. An example would be a teacher who uses Khan Academy, TED talks and some OER in their teaching. (p. 82)

3) Finally, OER consumers

will use OER amongst a mix of other media and often not differentiate between them. Awareness of licences is low and not a priority. OERs are a “nice to have” option but not essential, and users are often largely consuming rather than creating and sharing. An example might be students studying at university who use iTunes U materials to supplement their taught material. For this type of user, the main features of OERs are their free use, reliability and quality. (p. 85)

This taxonomy serves as a useful guide to OER advocates seeking to diversify or tailor their outreach strategy. For instance, OER consumers may be most interested in open textbooks and related ancillary resources that can be deployed with little or no effort. For this group, unfettered access for their students is highly desirable, with cost savings a nice bonus. On the other hand, the OER active group will be more sensitive to the impact of cost savings while also keen to learn more about the permissions to revise and remix OER. Finally, those in the OER as facilitator group will be excited by the potential to involve students in the creation or adaptation of OER via renewable assignments. Of course, this is far from an exhaustive list of strategic possibilities and only aims to illustrate the mechanics of an integrative approach.

Despite its merits, it would be naïve to believe that adopting an integrative approach would eradicate all tension within the OE movement. Idealists may continue to insist on the application of CC licenses that meet the definition of “free cultural works.” Pragmatists, on the other hand, will acknowledge that OER creators may have reasonable grounds for including a Noncommercial (NC) or even a NoDerivatives (ND) clause, even though an Attribution-only license (CC-BY) facilitates the maximum impact of OER. Pragmatists may also want to first ensure basic access for all whereas idealists may think it arrogant to insist that students first need access to required resources before partnering in pedagogical innovation. But while these tensions will not disappear, I believe it essential that we recognize both drives and have a deliberate, nuanced conversation about how best to harness both idealism and pragmatism in service of the goals of the OE movement.

So What’s Next?

In Erikson’s lifespan theory, the stages that follow adolescence pit intimacy against isolation (young adulthood), generativity against stagnation (middle adulthood), and, finally, integrity against despair (later adulthood). If these at all suggest a trajectory for the OE movement beyond its current adolescence, its advocates should aim for the next phase to involve a lot more collaboration among faculty and students, both across institutions and cohorts. This shift will require tools that support radically transparent collaboration (e.g., see the Rebus Community for Open Textbook Creation) but especially a break from traditional (opaque, territorial, top-down) approaches to curriculum design and development. As the proverb says, “if you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Greater collaboration and a true democratization of the process of OER development will in turn engender a move away from philanthropic, government, and other unsustainable funding models in favour of a grassroots-based, community-driven, self-sustaining approach that resembles a bazaar in its connectivity and generativity far more than it does a cathedral.

Achieving this, while neither easy nor assured, is a necessary step for the OE movement on its path to becoming more critical, more self-aware, and more inclusive of a diversity of voices. In other words, a movement characterized by integrity, not despair.