Learning in a Pandemic – 1

Now, new and improved with proofreading!

poster saying keep calm and keep teachingOPEN LETTER to MY FACULTY COLLEAGUES

There’s a pandemic happening and it’s called COVID19 just in case you’ve been under a rock and haven’t heard. It’s going to have starting to have a big impact on higher education, not to mention a lot of ordinary lives. We are starting to see schools having to close their campuses to face-2-face classes and make the emergency switch to “online” to complete their terms. University of Washington and Stanford have already closed their classes and “flipped the switch”. I’m reading lots of commentary about it. And now I’m going to add my $5 worth (enormous inflation perhaps?)

Spoiler alert: it’s not really as simple as “flipping a switch”.  It’s also not really a switch to “online”. It’s completing a f2f class without having to meet f2f under emergency circumstances using available tools, many of which are also used in online class.  Remember that. It will help you.

I’m going to speak from my role as a professor of economics, my role as a faculty developer and open learning/OER champion in my school’s Center for Teaching Excellence, and my role as a faculty old. As an old, I’ve been teaching a long time. I’ve also been learning a long time. I’ve also had two careers and planning/strategizing has been a big part of  both.  I’m mostly going to share my thoughts based on my experiences in the hope of helping others.

A disclaimer first: I am fortunate. I work with an incredibly functional group of faculty in my program. We’ve largely already discussed the possibility and figured out our contingency plans. My school isn’t faced with an imminent threat of needing to make the emergency switch, or at least we aren’t as of today, March 8, 2020. But things happen fast in a pandemic.  I also teach mostly online and everything I’ve taught f2f, I’ve also taught online, much like my ECON colleagues. So an emergency switch will be relatively easier for us should it be necessary. But even for me, a switch will necessitate changes since my online class’s final exam is currently proctored.

More disclaimer: This is likely to be the first of multiple posts. Don’t expect my normal thought-out structured writing. This is likely more stream of consciousness. I’m going to write as if I’m talking directly to a fellow faculty member who isn’t as prepared or who hasn’t been as obsessed as me with studying this thing for weeks.  It’s a lot of tips and questions to ask yourself. This first post is more about getting your mind right. The next post will be more about class planning and actions. If that sounds like a teaching approach, well, good. I’m mostly talking to fellow community college and teaching-oriented colleges/universities. This is because it’s what I know and most familiar with. If you’re at a big, prestigious research university, I hope some of what I say is useful, but I can’t vouch for it. I don’t have enough experience with your situations to say. Time is of the essence, and I’ve already wasted a lot of words here, so here goes.

Put Your Own Mask On First

By “mask” I mean your own mindset and attitude – how you are thinking and relating to this whole COVID19 pandemic.  You are an academic. Trust your own intellect. Be curious. Question things and think things through, including what I tell you. In other words, be an academic but don’t be argumentative just to argue.

  • Keep calm.  The essence of a pandemic is uncertainty. Don’t let that uncertainty overtake you or your students. There will be difficulties. There will be things you can’t plan for. We’ll all deal with it together. You may have fears about the pandemic and your health, your community, your finances, your school’s management of the situation. Don’t pass those fears onto your students. They have their own difficulties. You need to be an adult in the classroom.
  • It’s in your class now. No, the odds that you have an infected student in your classroom right now are extremely, extremely low. That’s not what I mean. I mean that whether or not your school is making “the switch” or not, from here on for at least the rest of this semester/quarter/term, the idea and thoughts of COVID19 are in your classroom. It’s in every classroom. These thoughts will hang around like the proverbial “elephant in the room”.  They will take up space in your students’ minds reducing cognitive resources for regular learning. A good teacher recognizes, adapts, and responds to the elephants in the room and doesn’t ignore them.  Your students will be concerned, afraid, confused, dismissive, and maybe even argumentative. It’s the new social reality for this year. I know.
  • Be a Model Academic.  Academics learn. They deal with uncertainty by researching, sharing information, evaluating claims and evidence. They use their minds and don’t just repeat stuff. They develop informed judgements. They use science and evidence and logic. Pandemics cause fear and confusion in the society. You may be feeling uncertain and uninformed yourself. Or your school might be taking a “don’t say much and they won’t panic” approach. Students look to you as a model. They don’t really expect you to be the all-knowing oracle, but they will absorb your example. Try modeling how to find good answers and how to calmly deal with uncertainty.
  • Your Bosses Aren’t Your Parents.  They won’t have the answer or the magic key. The college president or dean or provost or VP of whatever may not even truly understand the complexities of what needs to happen or when to “make the switch”. Colleges are hierachical socio-economic organizations. There’s  a widespread myth in our society that the best leader is the boss who “takes charge” and “issues commands”. It unfortunately plays into people’s inner child that wants an all-powerful parent to act in crisis to protect them. That same inner child gets angry and throws a tantrum when the boss isn’t an all-powerful, protective parent. Either way, those reactions hurt yourself.  “Take charge” leadership isn’t really how people or orgs survive in a crisis. It doesn’t work that way. I’ll comment on that in another post. For faculty, this means that you have to figure out the nitty-gritty and your own solution to how to finish the semester. Your best resources are your fellow faculty, your students, and the faculty-support entities in your college (like the Center for Teaching Excellence where I work). Talk with them. Don’t expect them to solve your problem for you. But they can help you understand what you really need to do. They can help focus what will be scarce time and resource.
    • Aside to administrators and leaders on campus: Don’t play the great in-charge hero here. This is a time to call attention, keep people focused on the essential, and ASK THEM HOW YOU CANT HELP!  It’s time for servant leadership. Run errands for questions.
  • Remember it’s not Online. You are NOT preparing to teach online. You are planning to finish a f2f class or hybrid class or online class that required f2f proctoring without meeting f2f for the remaining days. That’s revision of a class. It’s not “going online”. Why do I make the distinction? Lots of people will bombard you with lots of things you need to create a “successful online class”. Most of it is irrelevant to your immediate situation, much of it is wrong or poorly supported anyway, and it won’t help you. It will likely make you feel worse and distract from the real stuff.
  • You Need Thinking, not Materials. If you’re making an emergency switch to online, you need to start thinking first. That’s your biggest task. Don’t fall for the temptation to immediately worry about and create “materials” to put online in some LMS.  That’s a tempting distraction. But online materials do not make an online course and they sure aren’t the completion of a course that started f2f. Yes, you’ll need to put somethings online or on the web. But think it through first. The real issues are:
    • redesigning/reimagining assignments so they don’t rely on f2f time
    • figuring out how to adapt assignments like that group project that’s already been started but now needs to finish with some artifact other than an in-class presentation.
    • alternatives and accomodations for things like exams.
    • how to add flexibility to schedules
    • how can some? all? of the planned remaining synchronous activities be made asynchronous and still be valuable learning experiences.
    • I’ll write more in the next post
  • Plan Now. If you teach any classes this semester/quarter/term, it’s time now to start planning for how you will do this. Yes, pray to your God or whatever guides your life that you don’t have to do it. Because if you don’t have to make the switch it means your community is being spared the worst  of this pandemic and human lives matter most.  But IF you need to do it, you won’t get much notice. Likely you will  have no notice. Then you’ll be in crunch mode. It’s so much easier to plan calmly and know what you’ll need to do. Start thinking about it now. Start casually sharing and talking with your colleagues. Division of labor is a real thing, but it works most effectively when done in small groups by those in the group themselves.
  • Be Flexible. If you have to make the switch to finish, then flexibility is essential. This is no time for posturing about “academic rigor” and deadlines for deadlines sake because “it builds character”.  Your students are human. They are in a community that is stressed. Lives are literally at stake. Some students won’t be able to access the LMS. You might think they have web access and resources because you see that new iPhone 11 they have and your stereotype says they’re privileged. Think again. You don’t see the limited pay-as-you-go plan with little data, or see the fact this phone just replaced the 5 year old phone that broke and is being paid for $20 a month by cutting out lunches on some days. Sure students might have web access at home. But then, there’s a good chance they don’t beyond the phone. If you think the phone is useful web access, try reading  that pdf you’re writing on the phone before you send it. Maybe they do have so-so web access at home but they share it with 4 other family members including a parent who now has to work from home online too while all of them watch the two little kids who can’t go to school.  It’s a tough time. Be human. Be kind. We get through it together.
    You can make the choice whether to see your students as slackers or see them as heroic folks working hard because they want to learn under trying circumstances.  I tell you from my experience, you get more effort from them when you choose the latter.

  • Keep Teaching. Adapt. Keep your eyes on the prize. In making a switch, you’ll likely not be able to teach some favorite sub-topic or assignment that you’ve long thought was so important to the course. Instead, think (there’s that word think again) about what the real purpose, the threshold concepts, of your course are. How can you salvage what you’ve started f2f and adapt in midstream to achieve some version of that?  You’re not making a permanent commitment to changing the curriculum in this course for all time or for all of higher education. You are trying to make sure these students finish this semester with the essentials of this course.

    There are, of course, some things that just can’t go remote (as far as my imagination has envisioned). I have a hard time seeing how clinicals in many health services classes could be done on online. Some third party accreditation/state authorizations require x number of documented f2f contact hours. Paramedic training comes to mind. If you teach those things, then your obligation is raise the flag to the senior leadership. Educate them. And work to see what is fair for your students.

  • Technology will not fix things for you.
  • Seize the Teaching Moment. Even if you don’t need to “make the switch”, consider that COVID19 presents teaching moments. For example, I’m working on a lesson now for my macroeconomics students. I hope to use the COVID19 pandemic to explain how it might result in a recession. It’s a perfect example of a process described in the course but in more general, abstract terms. I’m confident that if I re-explain those terms and abstract concepts in the context of the virus now, I’ll get enormously better, deeper learning than I ordinarily would.  A virus pandemic has aspects that touch most course subjects in some way: humanities, sociology, economics, chemistry, biology, math and stats, etc. Seize the moment.

These are not normal times.  Pandemics put a premium on our social relations and our ability to learn.

more to come with more specifics in other posts

 

 

 

 

Scale and Scope

Note: A couple of friends have asked why I say “A commons doesn’t scale, it scopes”. This is a relatively quick note to explain some thinking on why. It’s a topic I’m deep into researching now and developing my thinking as it applies to higher education as a commons, so with the caveat that I may alter some stuff later, here’s my thinking right now. This is part one of a two part answer. Typo in paragraph about Facebook now corrected.

I’ve been saying for awhile now in discussions of the commons, OER, and higher education that a “commons doesn’t scale, it scopes”. Before I explain why I think a commons doesn’t scale very well, I probably need to briefly clarify what’s meant by scale and scope. Like many terms in economics, they’re both commonly used terms in both business and everyday life, but in economics they may carry a subtly different, more precise, or richer meaning. Both terms refer to the production of an increasing volume of output of some kind. Enthusiasts of particular good(s), be they an entrepreneur producing the a product they hope will make them rich or an open educator advocating for more open licensed textbooks because it will improve education, generally want to see their ideas scale. And by scale, they generally mean “be produced in larger and larger volumes”. Larger volume of output, of course, brings a larger volume of benefits to more users. More output –> more users –> more benefits. But it’s the behavior of costs that really intrigues us when we think of “scaling” as a way to increase output. More benefits is nice, but if more benefits also means an equal increase in costs, then it’s not so attractive.

The era of mass production has brought a popular expectation that increased output should bring an increased total cost, yes, but with decreasing average costs. In other words, as you produce more it, the product (or service, or activity) becomes cheaper. This is what we call economies of scale and it’s why scale seems to be such an attractive idea for things we want more of. The idea of economies of scale goes back to Adam Smith.

But since at least the work of Panzar and Willig (see Wikipedia footnotes 3, 4 for links and full citation) around 40 years ago, economists have added a richer explanation. We (well not all economists, but IO and institutional types do) now distinguish between economies of scale and economies of scope.

Scale is to produce to the same thing in larger and larger volumes. It’s doing the same thing over and over again. A lot. There’s little variety, just volume. Scope on the other hand is a way to get to large volume by adding variety to the mix. Scope means doing a lot of things that are different by share some apects. The more aspects shared, either in final form or in production process, the closer you get to scale. The more variety you have, the more scope you have.

For some simple examples, think Ford Motor Company’s Model T. That’s scale in action. Enormous volumes of the same car – even down to the same color. Mass production generally involves scale. Standardization is a virtue in scale. Standardized inputs, processes, and outputs, all enable the great of economies or efficiencies we associate with scale. Massive scale can be managed within a hierarchical structure. The hierarchy adds costs, but it more than makes up for it by through an ability to control and standardize inputs, processes, and outputs. Hierarchical management achieves enough economies of scale to more than offset its added overhead costs.

Scope can bring economies, too. This was part of the Panzar and Willig contribution. Economies of scope are more difficult and complex than economies of scale. They’re less automatic and less obvious. Variety, whether it’s variety of location, product, inputs, processes, or outputs complicates things greatly. However, economies of scope are possible through shared services or other aspects. There are lots of examples of scope economies in the business world, although not so many in real life as business people imagine (I speak from experience). When you hear an executive make the case for merging two different businesses and say they’ll achieve cost savings through “synergies”, that’s economies of scope they’re chasing (and likely not getting, but the investors won’t know that until management has fled the scene). When a school district operates a multiple types of schools (pre-K, elementary, middle, high school, specialty) in multiple locations but insists on centralized purchasing and accounting, that’s an attempt at economies of scope.

When businesses, industries, or products first start to grow, they usually scale. But eventually there are limits to scale. When firms hit the limits of scale in growth, they begin to scope. They usually start with product differentiation and geographic expansion. Then comes segmentation of the market and multiple brands. Variety and variation bite back. Remember Henry Ford’s famous quote about “the customer can get it in any color they want as long as it’s black”? Economies of scale talking there. Unfortunately for Henry, his quote came just as Sloan and Durant at General Motors were pioneering ways of adding product differentiation and segmentation – variety.

When Facebook burst on the scene and seemingly everybody in America (and elsewhere) started signing up, that was scale. But when FB added What’s App and Instagram and Messenger to the corporate portfolio in order to keep the growth going, that was scope.

How does scale and scope apply in education? Scale seems to me to be the impossible dream. We’ve achieved very tiny little scale efforts. When a large flagship university (itself a shining example of wide scope) runs 600 seat lecture classes in principles of economics supplemented with smaller discussion/lab sessions taught by TA’s, that’s a scale effort. It’s tiny though. 600 is only 20x the size of the principles class I teach at the community college. In contrast, business world scale usually means thousands-times larger. We’ve tried to scale by producing textbooks and that has had some positive effect in that it enabled hiring more instructors (adjuncts in particular) at lower costs. But it’s limited too.

Society has for much of the past century been trying to “scale”. Society needs more college-educated people, yet, for many reasons, it is reluctant to pay more them. The idea of scaling education is tempting. If only we could scale up education like we did cars, or clothing, or beer, or music, then we could have more college educated folk and not have to pay the full costs. It hasn’t really happened.

I’d argue it can’t. Scale economies require standardization from inputs to process to outputs. That’s not education. Every learner is different – that’s variety and scope there. What works for one doesn’t work for another. Processes are different. Despite all our efforts in recent decades to define “learning outcomes”, they still defy definition let alone control and standardization. Education requires scope.

There’s more to why a commons won’t scale, but that’s in part two.

Can We See the Real U? (OER19)

Cover slide of "Can We See the Real U?" presentation showing the cover image from The Who's Quadrophenia album and titleIt’s been a couple days after the fact, but I wanted to make a post to go with my presentation at OER19. Fortunately, thanks to the nice folks at ALT and the magic of Martin Hawksey, I don’t have to try to write a long post explaining what I said and you don’t have to look at slides that don’t have many words on them and try to guess what I said!

Now, if you weren’t there and haven’t seen it already, you can play along with the home game!  Just point your browser to my wonderful page from the conference website. You can watch the whole thing!

Nonetheless, I will be doing some blogging based on the presentation. Instead of doing my usual “oh I’ll just include the slides and give a brief post” that ends up being 4000 words, I’m going to do it different this time.  I’m planning to write a series of posts – a post for each slide or two. The feedback I got at the conference tells me not only that more but shorter posts is better, but more importantly, people want to hear more depth on some of the individual concepts on the posts. For example, judging by my discussions afterwards the one line I have in there about “a commons doesn’t scale, it scopes” is worthy of post all its own.  So stay tuned.

Writing that series of posts should be useful for me too. I’m excited and gratified by the feedback I got at the conference that has encouraged me to research and write more about the academy-as-commons. I thought maybe I could bring some new perspective to the idea of commons since I’m not only an economist, but I’ve also had a whole other career in business strategy & consulting and I’ve been heavily involved in higher education governance & accreditation.  The conference confirmed that. So I’m committing to writing this stuff and continuing the research and exploration. I know there’s a book somewhere here and who knows what else coming.  I’m excited about it.

I’m also very interested in any thoughts you have on the topic feel free to comment or message me.

Finally, if you’re interested having the slides themselves, you can download my slide deck from my Dropbox.

Remember, #CommonsIsAVerb and let’s #ReclaimTheAcademy.

 

 

 

Orality, Literacy, and the Education Commons

Note: This post is my reactions to the assigned readings in the LCC Literacy and Education Faculty Learning Community this week.

I’ve always felt myself a stranger in a strange land academically. I’ve been intimidated by the thought of academic writing. Writing is so, so central to academia and I’ve thought or seen myself as writer. I never had a college-level comp course unless you count “Business Writing”. I placed out of college comp and I largely skipped all my senior year English classes in high school.   The Econ Masters thesis was 6 years in gestation. The dissertation? Started 3 of them and, well, we’re still waiting.

The irony is I have a BA in Speech & Rhetoric. I won a prize in grad school for best economic writing (yes, I realize that can be considered an oxymoron). The key here is that I wasn’t writing. Not in my mind. I was speaking. Years of college speech & debate and decades of presentations & meetings taught me to make speeches. My rhetoric studies were in a Speech department, not an English or Composition department. Everything I’ve written is largely a speech  I hear myself making. It’s all oral rhetoric. I can talk. Podiums, meetings, seminars, and the TV camera are my comfort zone.  Keyboard or pen? Not so much.

animated minions clapping excitedlySo when I saw that our first two readings in this “literacy” FLC were both about orality, I got excited – fist-pumping excited. Speaking. Listening. Oral. Now we’re talking. Literally.

Barton and Hamilton refer to the tyranny of writing over orality in the academy. They recount how the study of rhetoric, dating back to ancient Greece,  started with the oral tradition but the necessity for written artifacts (texts) to facilitate the study of rhetorics led to a domination of the written text over the oral:

The impression grew that, apart from the oration (governed by written rhetorical rules), oral art forms were essentially unskillful and not worth serious study.

Reading this, I was reminded of the story of the growth and emergence of higher education I read earlier this summer. Lowe and Yasuhara document extensively how in multiple ancient civilizations, the library, a massive collection of written texts, was the seed around which centers of higher learning grew. These library collections of texts attracted scholars. The scholars taught and learned from each other using the texts. Eventually, centuries later these collections of scholars centered by the library of texts became universities and colleges.

I’ve presented and written about how this academic, scholarly tradition is effectively a commons.  What’s relevant for this discussion about higher education as a commons is that the core activity of higher ed, teaching and learning, is primarily oral.  We prefer oral. We teach face-to-face. Seminars and conferences are built on dialogue, the oral. Even when we teach online, we add video orality and discussion forums.  As academics, we love the oral back-and-forth. We naturally gravitate to the oral tradition for teaching and learning.

Yet we also write and read. The necessity of producing the “artifacts” of learning, the texts, articles, and books that document our learning for future generations, perpetuates the “library”, the corpus of scholarly texts.  There is, or should be, a virtuous spiral here. We engage the texts by discussing, talking, presenting, and arguing. Then we write what we learn, adding to the corpus for future learners. We pad the shoulders of giants with writings for future learners to see further.

Barton and Hamilton cast written literacy as a tyrant. Ong observes

socially powerful institutions, such as education, tend to support dominant literary practices. These dominant practices can be seen as part of …institutionalized configurations of power…

I see this happening in higher education today. The curriculum is no longer what is taught and learned, the course of learning. It is a document, a written text, a “master syllabus”, a set of standardized “learning outcomes” to be measured and recorded. The “course” is no longer what a professor does in class, or what students do, or what activities they perform. The “course” is now a set of files and documents contained in a “Learning Management System”. Pedagogy, of course, being the dialectic between teacher and student is primarily oral. The literacy practice of written curriculum and textbooks ascends and pedagogy recedes

This domination of the written in the curriculum serves the purposes of the capitalist and the market. The market and the capitalist in particular is the enemy of the commons. The logic of the market commoditizes and standardizes everything. It is about things, goods and resources, not doings, like people and activities. Texts can be commoditized. Oral tradition less so.

I am excited to see where this faculty learning community takes not only me, but us. After all, it’s all about the dialogue to me.

References

Barton, David and Mary Hamilton (2000). Chapter 1:Literacy Practices. In Situated Literacies: Reading and Writing in Context (pp 7-15) Available at: http://e503.weebly.com/uploads/8/6/2/3/8623935/situated_literacies_-_ch._1.pdf

Lowe, Roy and Yoshihito Yasuhara, (2017) The Origins of Higher Learning Routledge: Taylor and Francis. https://www.routledge.com/The-Origins-of-Higher-Learning-Knowledge-networks-and-the-early-development/Lowe-Yasuhara/p/book/9781138844834

Ong, W. J. (2002). Chapter 1: The Orality of Language. In Orality and literacy(pp. 5–15). Retrieved from https://lcc.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=lfh&AN=17442153&site=ehost-live

Reflection on OpenEd18: Becoming Open Education

Last week I participated in OpenEd18. This was my fourth OpenEd which, given the growth in the conference, makes me one of the “old hands” in the kind words of David Wiley.  This is the first of two reflections I’ll post about the conference. In this one, I’ll give some broad impressions of the topics and content, and how it influenced me. In the next post I’ll cover a bit more of my personal experience of the conference.

The conference this year, I’m told, was the largest yet topping out with over 1,000 registrations. I can’t verify that but I know it seemed larger. I know there were lots of great sessions, often competing with each other, creating as Rolin Moe observed a “tragedy of riches”.  Yes, the opportunity costs of sessions were often high.

I’ll just list here some of the highlights for me.

  • Jess Mitchell’s keynote on inclusion and access. Actually, calling it inclusion and access doesn’t do it justice. It was an inspiration and a model of just being human and treating and seeing everybody as human. Thank you Jess. This was also my first time meeting Jess in person and having a chance for multiple conversations with Jess was a real highlight for me.  I’m richer now.
  • Panel discussion at OpenEd18My panel discussion on “Publishing Your Own Textbooks”.  I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion with three fantastic and smart people: Karen Lauritsen of Open Textbook Network, Allison Brown of SUNY, and Lillian Rigling of eCampusOntario.  I honestly don’t understand why guys so often organize manels.  It’s pretty easy to look smart when you got a crew like these three leading the way.  Thanks Karen, Allison, and Lillian.
  • There were several sessions discussing the broad, institutional and organizational aspects of open education in higher education, often couched in terms of a “commons”.   I’d like to include my own talk on whether higher education is a commons or not, along with David Wiley’s session and Paul Stacey’s, among others.
  • It was great to see Pressbooks and Rebus community getting so much attention. I really think PB is a key to our future.  I also want to thank Bryan Ollendyke of Penn State and Hugh McGuire for the multi-hour conversation we had about future (it’s present for Bryan!) of the Web technology.  In particular, his explanation of web components and his HAX project had me excited but also had my head exploding. The brain is full.
  • Rolin Moe’s session on innovation and open closed it out for me.  I love it when a session gets me thinking “oh, I don’t thought about that…” and then the grey cells start firing away with all kinds of possibilities.

I was impressed with the number of sessions (including the afternoon “unconference” session) focused on reflection of what our values as open education are, do we really live up to them. Lillian Rigling did a wonderful reflection afterwards about putting our values into practice.  The conference has come a long way in this regard, but there’s more to do as Lillian notes. I have noticed as an “old hand” how much the conversation has shifted from just free textbooks/OER to include sustainability, inclusion, and open pedagogy.

The conference is not just growing but it’s also maturing.  That’s a good thing. Free textbooks and OER are always important, but they’re only part of “open education”. We need to continue to include all aspects of an open education:  including K-12, open institutions and open organizations, open pedagogy, critical pedagogy, sustainability, inclusion, open science, and open access.

Overall, a good conference.  Thanks to David Wiley and the program committee for organizing it.

OER, Higher Ed, and the Commons

After spending the past year studying both the economics of a commons, as well as the history and evolution of higher education, it’s long past time to say something about what I’ve figured out.  This is the first post along those lines and I hope it’s not the last. What follows here is a light introduction to a model I’ve developed about how higher education operates as a commons. I’ll also be talking and introducing the model this week on Thursday morning at the OpenEd 18 Conference in Niagara, NY.  I hope you can you be there, but if not, you can follow along here with the home game.

In the past year or two, or maybe since this whole OER discussion began, several questions have frequently popped up in open education circles. I think the model I’ve developed might help us gain some insights on these questions. I know it is helping me. The model isn’t perfect. Right now it’s even primitive. I know I’ll make statements and warrants below that need to further exposition in future blog posts and papers. But I think the model’s got legs in helping generate insights.

Among the questions I keep hearing in open education circles include:

  • Are OER sustainable?
  • Are for-profit publishers and their “inclusive access” programs helpful and supportive? Or are they just open-washed attempts at enclosure?
  • What’s the relationship between open pedagogy and OER?
  • Is there a connection between open pedagogy, OER, and critical pedagogy?

I hope the model can begin to help sort out these questions.

First off, though, we need to establish some basics about what a commons is and what it isn’t. Many people have grown up and been educated with the Garett Hardin myth of the “Tragedy of the Commons”.

There are lots of flaws with Hardin’s characterization of  a commons. I won’t go into detail about them here, I’ll just let my slide from the presentation summarize of few of them.  Basically, what Hardin describes as a “commons” isn’t one. As Lin and Vince Ostrom spent their careers documenting, the commons does work. In fact, it often works so well that we are blinded to it’s existence.  Before I leave a discussion of Hardin and the “tragedy” of the commons, I want to make a few points. There is a lesson to be learned from Hardin’s “tragedy”. Namely, if we allow conditions and norms to develop within the OER/open education efforts such that we mimic Hardin’s description, then it will lead to tragedy and failure. It will not be sustainable.  Specifically, if we allow unrestricted free access and usage to anyone without regard to reciprocity or care for the commons, then OER is not sustainable. If we allow purely self-interested behavior by participants that emphasizes monetization and a purely transactional, consumer orientation regarding OER, tragedy will ensue. And, most important, if we continue to foster isolated users and isolated teaching while pushing for a commodification of “knowledge” into books and course materials, then our commons will fail.  I don’t believe it must be that way.

Lin Ostrom wrote and researched extensively about what a commons is and how to govern a sustainable commons. Her greatest books, Understanding Institutional Diversity and Governing the Commons are admittedly a tough slog for the reader not well versed in game theory or institutional analysis.  However, there are some clear conclusions that highly relevant to our open education discussions.

First, a commons is NOT about the resources. The commons is about the institutional structures and norms that people use to govern themselves in a productive situation that poses a social dilemma. Yes, there are often resources involved (duh, it’s “productive”).  But the resources in question are what’s properly called a common pool resource (CPR) not “a commons”.  Indeed, it’s not even any particular characteristics of the resources in the CPR that creates the commons. Resources just are. They’re resources. Things. Stuff people use to make to other things. It’s the institutional, social, economic, and technological structures and norms that people create that constititute the commons. They create a commons because they want to produce using an CPR.  Although it’s true that resources which are rivalous (sometimes called “subtractive”) in nature often tend to be associated with a commons, it is not a necessary condition.

So what makes a commons and what is a commons?  In simple terms, a commons is social-economic institution that conforms to neither the market-private property paradigm or the state-leviathan paradigm. The commons is rather stuck between the rock of private property, profit-seeking organizations in the market and the hard place of state organized and run public bureaucracy. In our modern world, particularly in the more developed, richer nations, we have lived under the domination of these two paradigms of socio-economic structures, market and state, for so long it’s often hard to imagine a commons. Yet over 2 billion of the 7 billion on the planet depend on the commons for their subsistence. And nearly all of us are dependent on the commons in one way or another for some significant aspects of our lives.

In short, Commons is A Verb.  A commons is what people do and the institutional structures and norms they establish to accomplish their goals.  Their goals do not necessarily have to be shared goals or priorities. What is is necessary is that the realities of production or achieving their goals causes some group of people to be inter-dependent upon each other for the outcomes.  Yes, a limited, shared CPR that consists of rivalous, non-excludable goods  such as fish in a particular fishing area will create the conditions. But the conditions/properties of the goods themselves do not dictate the existence of a commons. The commons is the response of a group of people to a shared social dilemma. In broad terms, a commons arises when people have individual choices to cooperate or not cooperate but the personal outcomes to them depend on both their own choices and the choices of others.

How is this relevant to OER and open education? OER is not what’s primary.  Yes, OER consists of “educational resources” and we often think of OER as a common pool resource. It is in a way, but it’s not the primary resource and it shouldn’t be the focus of our attention on the commons.  OER are “resources” and we use them to help produce more learning. They’re inputs into the learning process. But they’re not the only resource pool and they’re not the critical resource pool.  If we consider that the pool of OER itself is replenished by the activities of scholars – faculty and students – we realize that OER is more of an output pool of artifacts of previous learning. Educational resources – books, etc – can be thought of as community produced capital goods. Educational resources might appear to us to be a scarce resource, but that’s only a side effect of the technology and organizations used to print and publish educational resources them. With recent revolutions in web technology and information publishing, we might to get past that scarcity. However, we still face some critical CPR’s and a need for a commons.

Higher Education is a Learning Commons.

If we start with the idea that a commons is a verb. That is, it’s what people do, then we can better see the real commons in higher education. What we do is learning. We learn. Faculty and students alike learn. We’ve been enculturated as faculty in the last century to see teaching and research (or scholarly work) as somehow separate. They’re not. They’re both learning. In “research” we focus on ourselves as the learners. In teaching, we focus on the students as learners.

I suggest that the commons in higher education is a learning commons. Ostrom points out that a successful commons has clear boundaries as to who is in and who is out of the commons. I should probably be precise and say higher education consists of a “scholarly learning commons”, but for convenience I’ll stick with learning commons. I emphasize learning commons instead of “education commons” or “knowledge commons” since those alternate terms emphasize things which easily get confused for resources. They’re nouns. The commons is about the doing, the verb. We learn. We facilitate learning in others. And we learn from them.

An aside: I do find it inconvenient that college presidents throughout the country have jumped on a bandwagon to rename tutoring centers as “learning commons”. That’s not what I’m referring to. That’s just a buzzwordy renaming of an existing department. 

There are alternative institutional arrangements for the activity we call higher education. Indeed some of those alternatives such as for-profit, corporate-like structures are attempts to rebuild higher education as a private property, market-oriented firm. Even some non-profits, such as Western Governors, are doing that in my opinion. But, if we think of higher education as a possible learning commons we can begin to see the connection between the learning commons and critical pedagogies. Paulo Friere, of course, in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed,emphasizes the roles of teacher-student and student-teacher and how both teachers and students learn from each other. This is consistent with concept of a learning commons. One feature of any commons that helps distinguish it from private property-market institutions is how members of a commons are simultaneously both producers and consumers. There may be exchange between them, but it’s secondary. Everybody acts as both creator/producer and user/consumer to some degree. Most importantly, the value created in the commons is not universally commodified and monetized. Market exchange is not central.

I think the real reason faculty and students join and engage in the learning commons is because they want to learn. It’s easier, faster, and more rewarding to learn socially. It’s certainly possible to learn more, faster with some instruction than it is by oneself.  This is the core motivation. Certainly it’s the real reason faculty engage the learning commons for a lifetime. They love learning. It’s certainly not the money. The money has never been very good relatively speaking.

But, it does take money or some source of support to live. For that, civilized societies have throughout history (or at least the last 2-3 millenia) found it useful to support some of these specialized learners. There are broad positive externalities to society to having at least some very learned people focused on learning, so the society provides some pools of resources to support the learning commons. In return, the commoners, the scholars, return knowledge and external benefits to society. It’s actually very rational.

The learning commons model with CPR's identified as libaries, places, and learner time.But what kinds of resources does society provide? Are they common pooled resources?  I think there have historically been three major common pooled resources. First is that the learners  themselves must be supported so that they can spend their time learning, studying, and teaching each other. Ultimately, this is the most critical common pooled resource we have: learner time and by learner, I mean both faculty and students.

The other two significant common pool resources are place and libraries/books. Of these, place has been historically one of the most critical since the learning commons is social. It has historically required a dedicated place where learners come together. Roy Lowe and Yoshihito Yasuhara explain very well in The Origins of Higher Learning how these two are closely linked. Dating back to the earliest civilizations, where states created libraries are where the great centers of higher learning emerged. They eventually became our colleges and universities. Libraries gave birth to higher learning.

Books, in fact, are the capital goods of higher learning. The process of learning itself – what the faculty and students are doing in the learning commons – often is best done by writing or creating artifacts. This creates a virtuous cycle. The act of learning is facilitated by writing. We write to learn. But by creating these artifacts, we are not only facilitating our own learning, we are creating the very capital goods – books, articles, notes, lesson plans, etc – that empower greater learning in the future. Libraries (and museums), of course, have been the main repositories of these artifacts of learning. The primary limiting factor on the creation of new education resources is the time of faculty and students to create them and the willingness of faculty and students to share them.

So where do printers and publishers fit in this model? This topic, what I think of as the “capital structure of learning”, is worthy of an extensive deep-dive, which I hope to write soon. Here, I’ll just highlight a few aspects.  The invention of printing by the Chinese 1500 to 1800 years ago helped spread libraries and higher learning by making more copies available faster than was possible from hand-copying. The social accumulation and dissemination of capital (books) made it possible to locate higher learning in more places, making learning more accessible.

When Gutenberg invented moveable type and mechanized the printing press in the 16th century, the accumulation process took off. It really accelerated the collection and dissemination of the written artifacts of learning. Books spread and with them libraries spread. More colleges and universities became possible. The invention of printing made higher learning more accessible to a wider range of people in more locations. In effect, the printing press boosted and accelerated the capital accumulation process in higher learning. More books. More copies.

However, printing presses are themselves capital investments of a different kind. While printing presses could easily disseminate hundreds or thousands of copies of a book or pamphlet, they couldn’t easily print and disseminate all written material. The press, or access to the press, had to be rationed somehow.  Thus began the process of “peer review” or vetting of materials to see if they were “worthy” of printing and dissemination. For several hundred years the primary effect of printing on our learning commons was to enable learning in more places and by more people. Colleges and universities began to grow and really thrive.  Yes, there was an added cost and therefore an added drain on the gross resources devoted by society to higher education but it was easily offset by the expanded positive externalities to society of expanded access to higher education. So far. So good.

Eventually the industrial revolution hits and printing/publishing of educational materials becomes a capitalist for-profit enterprise itself.  What started as a service provided to higher education by printers becomes a for-profit, investor-funded capitalist industry. Growth of the publishing enterprise and its profitability rather than the dissemination of learning becomes the overriding objective. There are some  reliable and time-honored strategies for growing highly profitable industries in capitalism. Not all of them involve net gains for society.  The publishing industry has pursued all of them:

  • creeping enclosure of the commons and conversion to private property
  • divide some sphere of activity into producers and consumers with a resultant commodification and monetization as market transactions
  • erect barriers to entry, limit access, or create an artificial scarcity, ensuring higher prices and therefore profits
  • seek either government subsidies or the creation of a government/social provided stream of resources which can be tapped for investors to extract their profits

I will leave it to another post to detail how the publishing industry has done this, but suffice to say here the fight over OER is a battle over these strategems.  Copyright law has converted books and the information in them into private property. The educational publishers extract value from the same source of resources as all higher learning but the existence of profits (economic profit rates of return) means they remove more than they return – an unsustainable drain on the commons. The emphasis and shift to textbooks as opposed to treatises, simple books, or monographs has been as much an attempt to enclose and displace the faculty as it is a “quality enhancement” or time saver. The expansion of publishers into course platforms, online homework packages, and course-in-a-box represents more of the same expansion of the publisher’s realm. And with that expansion of the publishers role and realm is a shrinking role for the faculty. Faculty and students become consumers, not producing-using learners. They adopt and buy instead of creating and learning. The commons fails and is enclosed.

Toward a Comedy of the Learning Commons

Lin Ostrom and others have talked about how to create a comedy of the commons, meaning the opposite of a tragedy. Fortunately, there are people doing that. I am encouraged, for example, by the Care Framework put forth in the spring of 2018. I wrote about that in a post earlier this year on OER, Care, Stewardship, and the Commons. There are many other noteworthy efforts. This post is already too long, so I’ll only list what I think are some of the key ways we need to change our focus so we can build a comedy of the learning commons.

We need a concerted effort to determine and enunciate what our community values and norms are. Ostrom also points out that a comedy of the commons actively monitors and enforces its norms. That needs to be part of the discussion. The Care Framework is a good first step.  So are the many discussions happening at open education conferences and online about what does it mean to be open. But we need to expand these conversations. We need to involve questions of governance of our college, university, and learned society organizations.  We need to involve as many of our colleagues as possible, not just the “open evangelists”.

Perhaps the CC-BY license isn’t the best for the learning commons. It’s not the only “open” license. There’s GPL. There’s Peer-Production License. There’s also CC-BY-SA and NC. Perhaps we need to write a new one that conforms to our needs and norms.   Yes, CC-BY and CC0 are the “most free” licenses in the free culture sense. And yes, using those licenses constitutes commoning in the Creative “Commons” (remember it’s the actions, not resources that are the commons). But a successful commons is a layered, nested, polycentric thing.  The most successful commons is a small one with personal communication and familiarity among the members. We need to do what is best for our learning commons. But we can only discover what that is by talking.

We need to emphasize fairness. The perception of fairness is critical. I encounter large numbers of faculty who are have created large amounts of educational resources themselves. I suspect everyone who has ever taught has a some files or papers they’ve created but not shared. It may be worksheets. It may test questions. Whatever. But they are isolated. They’re not shared. Why? They’re not shared partly because sharing is actually pretty hard or time consuming these days – and remember, our time is our most scarce resource!  But increasingly I’m hearing and seeing people not sharing because they perceive unfairness. Others will “take” their work and not reciprocate. A perception of unfairness or lack of reciprocity by others will kill any commons. The current craze for “inclusive access” programs by publishers whereby faculty create OER but the access is monetized and sold to students rightly strikes many as unfair.

We need to recognize that higher learning itself is the commons and that our time as faculty, teachers, students, and librarian/archivists is the critical common pool resource. The books aren’t the CPR. We are.

We need to recognize that the creation of learning materials is the critical step. It is integral to learning. Instead of increasing the division of labor wherein a few publishers dictate who the few “creators” are and the rest of us become mere consumers or adopters, we need to focus on creation.

A focus on creation means more and better tools. Some of this happening. Pressbooks is an example. But we need more. A lot more. We need and easier ways to share the pieces or components of educational resources so we can make or mix our own. We need a commons of our own in every college department for sharing assignments, images, questions, and chunks so we can roll-our-own quickly and easily. It’s our time, after all, that’s the scarce and subtractable resource. the critical CPR.

We need to go beyond permissions. Yes, permissions are necessary in a world of state-granted copyright monopolies and property rights. But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that assigning a CC license to a work alone is being a good commoner. The permission to revise or remix is meaningless if source code or source marked up texts or the original creation platform is not available. If it’s impossible or impractical to exercise the permissions, then they are useless virtue-signaling.

Finally, we need to pay attention to resource flows. I’m not opposed to private enterprises. Payment for services is a legitimate use of our scarce resources in higher education if we get good value. But investor-funded for-profit organizations are a risk. Their first objective must always be returns to the investors, not the health of the commons. Further, as the public in general comes to see higher education as just another capitalist industry feeding large publishers, they lose sight of the value to society of supporting higher education with public funds.

We need to add another R to David Wiley’s 5 R’s:  Reciprocity.

My OpenEd18 presentation Powerpoint file on OpenEd18 oct 2018 Commons Tragedy Comedy is available for download here.