Rajiv Jhangiani, Ph.D.

Open Education, SoTL, Psychology

Tag: OER

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.

Review, Revise, Adopt. Rinse and Repeat.

I am often asked about how I got involved with the open textbook movement. My red pill moment was when I first heard the term “OER” uttered by David Wiley in May 2013 at an annual workshop held at Thompson Rivers University for faculty in their Open Learning division. This is when I began to see the Matrix for what it was—an artificial, parasitic, publisher-driven system in which faculty are unwitting carriers. Continue reading

The Fellowship of the Open

Over the past year I have had the pleasure of working with the fine folk at BCcampus a fair bit – first as a reviewer of two open textbooks, then as an adopter of three, adapter of two, organizer of an open test bank sprint, and a co-presenter at professional development workshops at Capilano University and Kwantlen Polytechnic University. So when I saw another potential excuse to spend time with Mary, Amanda, and Clint, I couldn’t help but apply for one of three Faculty Fellow positions with their open education program.

Today was the first meeting of us fellows – Christina Hendricks (UBC Philosophy) and Jessie Key (VIU Chemistry) are the other two – at BCcampus headquarters in Victoria. We received a briefing about the status of the Open Textbook Project and discussed our roles over the next year (mainly research, advocacy, & feedback to the OT team). In some ways this will be a continuation of our efforts thus far but there are many new opportunities as well (e.g., outreach within our disciplines and to student groups, presenting at the next Open Textbook summit in Vancouver, research funding, etc.). I am especially pleased to lead the research initiative, including an online survey of BC faculty that Clint and I have been working on recently with Beck Pitt (OER Research Hub) that is almost ready for launch, and that fits very well within my own research agenda at KPU.

Christina and Jessie are already doing remarkable work in the open arena and I look forward to working closely with them. Our mandate is thrilling, we have great support at BCcampus, and I believe we will collectively be able to help tangibly advance the open education agenda here in BC.

The Future is Open (https://creativecommons.org/weblog/entry/43164) by Luke Surl under CC BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

A Faculty Perspective on Open Textbooks

Recently I have found myself at many meetings and events (e.g., the Open Textbook summit) centered on Open Education. Despite my non-representativeness due to self-selection, I am often called upon at these meetings to represent the “faculty perspective.”

As much as I would love to do this, in my experience, there is no single faculty perspective on open education in general and open textbooks in particular. Some, like myself, are early adopters. Others are willing to go along if their concerns are addressed. Still others remain skeptical and resistant. And there are many views in between, many of which contain a mixture of curiousity, interest, and concern. And this is not a bad thing. Academic freedom is sacred. And, at least in my experience, a faculty members’ teaching philosophy is often intimately connected with their openness to openness.

Most faculty I know consider the cost to students when assigning a textbook for their courses. For them, shifting to an open textbook (assuming one is available) provides a clear advantage. Students can download and use a digital copy of the textbook for free or even print a physical copy at a fraction of the cost of a traditional textbook. At a time when a growing number of students are attempting to hold down full-time jobs while pursuing their post-secondary educational ambitions, this is a tangible benefit with a human face. Every semester I notice students in my classes who elect not to purchase the course textbook (despite cautionary notes from me) due to financial constraints. My colleagues report the same. In the battle between groceries and a textbook, the textbook loses every time.

This is especially true given the increase in the price of a traditional textbook over the past decade. We cannot fault our students for questioning the value of their (forced) purchase. As an example, the textbook I previously assigned for Research Methods in Psychology (which just happens to be the most popular textbook for this course in BC) is a softcover book printed in black ink that runs 416 pages long and retails for $114.95 + taxes & shipping. I should say that it is a great book and well written. But, in contrast, the Canadian edition of the open textbook for Research Methods in Psychology that I revised includes colour graphics throughout, runs 378 pages long and costs my students nothing. If they wish to order a print copy of the book it will cost them $13.06 + taxes & shipping. At least on price, there is no contest.

So why are faculty not yet adopting open textbooks more widely?

1. Quite simply, for many disciplines and courses, there is no open textbook available. So other than putting together a set of existing open educational resources, the nontraditional options are limited. I should say here that cost-saving alternatives like e-textbooks put forward by the big publishers are often a terrible option for students because they come with a time-limited license and have no resale value, which means that they often end up costing the students the same (or even more) in the long run, as compared with biting the bullet and buying the assigned traditional textbook.

2. In my experience, reason #2 has to do with concerns about quality (e.g., comprehensiveness, clarity, currency, etc.). Some faculty are instantly skeptical of open textbooks and hold them to a higher standard than traditional textbooks. This is fair, because traditional textbooks typically have several sets of eyes on them through their development and are later sent to many other faculty for their review. Although some open textbook initiatives (such as the BC Campus Open Textbook Project) collect and post comprehensive faculty reviews for the books in their repository, others do not. Where available, open textbooks or chapters written by leading scholars (e.g., the NOBA project) are especially helpful in countering doubts about quality.

3. But let’s imagine that a high quality open textbook is available for a particular course. Sometimes these are entirely text-based – no illustrations, charts, or graphics to aid comprehension. No questions or critical thinking exercises embedded. No online learning management system available that students can rely on for formative feedback. And, crucially for many faculty, no testbank, which means that the instructor is then obligated to write every question for every assessment for their course. Considering the amount of time it takes to write good test questions that are reliably able to distinguish between different levels of understanding, this is a tall order.

4. The choice of textbook is sometimes not an individual one. Especially for large, multi-section introductory courses (sometimes offered in two halves), in order to facilitate student mobility, academic departments often mandate that faculty adopt the same textbook across all sections. This reality often makes switching to an open textbook a less nimble decision.

One of the myths I often try to dispel is that faculty are the enemy and have some great stake in upholding the traditional textbook model. To be clear – assuming they are not the author, faculty do not receive any benefit when they assign a particular publisher’s textbook. Faculty are, however, deeply concerned about student learning. For this reason I believe that if faculty are presented with an open textbook alternative that has been favourably reviewed by other faculty, embeds good pedagogical features, and has an available testbank, it would be more difficult for the majority to continue upholding the status quo.

Beyond merely speaking to the legitimate concerns of faculty, however, I find it more refreshing to speak to the additional advantages that open textbooks bring to faculty:

1. Faculty have the ability to adapt and remix the textbook to suit their needs. They may choose to delete specific chapters or sections or even write and insert sections for their open textbook, making it possible to incorporate recent developments in research and theory much faster than the traditional textbook’s five-year review cycle permits. In other words, an increase in academic freedom!

2. There is some evidence to suggest that when an open textbook is carefully adapted to suit a particular program, student performance and retention is actually enhanced.

3. The ideal textbook does not exist. My colleague Takashi Sato at Kwantlen Polytechnic University recently made this excellent point. There are always tradeoffs that faculty make when adopting a textbook. Often it is a question of whether the content is “good enough,” assuming that several other resources are in place. For the reasons listed above, open textbooks are very often better than “good enough.”

4. As soppy as this sounds, the looks on your students’ faces when you tell them that you have adopted an open textbook. You have them at hello.

5. Although this post is about open textbooks, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the open research movement is a natural and strong ally, particularly when addressing faculty. Open access journals like PLOS ONE have become mainstream as researchers have come to appreciate the need for the fruit of their labour (and public tax coffers) to be shared with the public. In many ways, open textbooks are merely an extension of this same philosophy and permit faculty to live more closely in concert with their values.

Of course there are many remaining issues to work on before open textbooks can go mainstream. The sustainability of who will continue to revise and update the open textbooks is one such question. Government support and resource sharing agreements help a great deal. But ultimately I believe that it is institutional culture that will need to shift. A university’s strategic priorities need to include moving towards open education. From the president’s office down, open education initiatives need to be supported for these to develop and mature. This includes time releases for faculty adapting/adopting open textbooks, institutional recognition of this work, practical and regularly offered professional development workshops, and the consideration of the development of open educational resources in the files of those on the tenure-track.

I recently met a student from the University of Regina who spoke eloquently about why we should avoid pitting different stakeholders (e.g., faculty and students) against one another. I believe she is correct. There is not just one reason to consider adopting open textbooks. The benefits to students are obvious, the benefits to faculty can be highlighted, and the benefits to the institution (e.g., with recruitment) may need to be spelled out. Open textbooks represent a rare win-win-win scenario, the kind we do not see very often in post-secondary education.

To finish, I ask you to engage in a useful thought exercise: Imagine a world in which open textbooks, open research, open pedagogy, and open educational resources are the norm. In this future world, imagine that a representative from a for-profit publishing house approaches a faculty member in order to persuade them to adopt one of their textbooks. What would their pitch look like? And what could they possibly say that would convince faculty to adopt their product?