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Some Thoughts on OER and an Odd Matrix Analogy

A Rambling Essay by Adam McKee

I first heard about OER by that name when listening to a presentation on the University of Arkansas System's eVersity initiative led by Dr. Michael Moore in late 2014. I had maintained a website for most of my professional career, and have used it to post study guides, notes, and so forth. I had also used online documents—mostly government publications—as class readings. I had been posting study guides and such online for years, but the idea that complete course could be sourced with free online materials intended for educational purposes never occurred to me. My misconception at that time was that only very technical material was available in the public domain. That is, you could do a graduate course with free materials (original research reports, law review articles, government agency technical reports, etc.), but undergraduates needed material geared toward their level of knowledge and experience. To my way of thinking at the time, there was no middle ground between sources that "anyone can edit" and highly sophisticated academic publications.

Any discussion of OER brings up questions of quality. Are your OER resources as high in quality as the traditional resources everyone else seems to be using? A direct comparison between my OER materials and a $200 hardback textbook may not be in order. We first must take into account the fact that a large number of my students were not actually buying the textbook because of the "sticker price." Any assignments based on the unpurchased text were not getting done, and the assumption that students were keeping up with the readings was patently false in many cases. For a long time, I selected texts based on pedagogical concerns. I must also confess that I was influenced by how easy those texts made my life. The more ancillary materials, the more favorably I looked on the text. I never thought to check how much it was going to cost students. I knew that textbooks were expensive in an abstract sense, but I did not realize that some students were paying more for textbooks than for tuition.

In hindsight, I now realize that the textbook publishers had colored my thinking about how to design a course very early in my career. Lacking any firm foundation in pedagogy, my process essentially involved selecting a text and designing a syllabus around it. I didn't realize it at the time, but I wasn't teaching courses. I was teaching textbooks. As I gained experience, I realized that textbooks tend to be bloated, and some chapters are essentially filler. I stopped assigning a chapter a week and started thinking about what my course was supposed to impart to the learner. I concluded that in many circumstances, depth was more important that breadth, and that the ubiquitous "Future of Your Discipline" chapter at the end of the text was purely speculative and not very useful.

A major hurdle in building courses with OER materials is overcoming the mindset that the mega- publishers have instilled in as many of us as they could. In hindsight, I realize that I bought into the notion that "canned" courses are inherently superior. The mantra that a good textbook is thorough, comprehensive, and comes with lots of extras (PowerPoints, test banks, study guides, an author website, etc.) went unchallenged. I would like to use the phrase "suffered under this delusion," but in reality I suffered not at all. It was my students who were suffering under the yoke of an expectation that they would buy a $200 textbook. When I think back on all of this, I am reminded of a line from the film The Matrix where the character Morpheus explains to the character Neo the source of his psychological dissonance:

“Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind …”

We all see our professional self through a particular lens. Some of us teach, but primarily consider ourselves to be researchers. Some of us consider ourselves golfers, and just teach to pay the bills. With some introspection, I have determined that my ego identity is intricately linked to my role as a teacher. The ultimate criterion of how good I am at this defining role is student learning. Amazingly, I never really applied this elegantly simple fact to my process. My process evolved from accidents of history; I taught my classes the way my professors taught their classes. I imagine that this progression has gone on in the ivory tower since the middle ages. Certainly, we've added new window dressings. My professors used chalkboards, whereas I use data projectors. Nevertheless, the basic method of "talk and chalk" has not changed on a fundamental level in a millennium. The education literature is full of caveats and empirical support for better methods and procedures, but this is not my literature. My literature revolves around how law enforcement can make our streets safer.

It follows from this epiphany that not only do I have a responsibility to master the craft of teaching, but I must also take responsibility for curriculum design. In other words, master teachers not only teach well, but decide exactly what it is they will teach well. I am convinced that optimal content is not universal. Methods and materials must not be carved in granite; they must be cast in quicksilver and morph as the discipline and student cohorts transform over time and space. Being offered a chance to participate in a world where these characteristics are the expectation reminds me of yet another quote from The Matrix:

"This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."

I didn't realize it at the time, but when I made the decision to join the eVersity team, I had swallowed the red pill. I would be forced to confront my deeply rooted paradigm of how higher education should work, and watch it crumble under the weight of evidence based best practices that I was confronted with at every turn. The status quo was not sacred, and there were better ways of doing things. My practices were effete and based on tradition rather than the empirical evidence that I long claimed to hold dear as a social scientist. Perhaps the most important reality that I was forced to face was the fact that students tend not to buy overpriced textbooks. My paradigm was rooted in the idea that students would read the course materials that I assigned, and that this would fuel brilliant intellectual discourse in the next class session. That faulty assumption failed to withstand the light of empirical research as well as my personal experiences. I knew that many students were not reading, but it never occurred to me that this was because they simply were not buying the textbook.

By directly being involved in a new breed of course design, I was forced to change the way I did things (by mandates from my friendly but firm instructional designer). After I had done things their way, I became convinced of the general superiority of those methods. Not long after, the new catchphrase on my home campus became "student retention." The literature on this topic suggests that economics is a barrier to many students staying the course. This was not lost on our administration at the time, and talk turned to OER as a way of reducing student costs. We in the ivory tower often lose sight of the economic reality of higher education—it's an expensive endeavor, and you must "pay to stay." To my surprise, many of the faculty bitterly resisted the idea of OER. I proffer another quote from the sage Morpheus to explain this phenomenon:

"…[Y]ou have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it."

One of the most prevalent arguments I heard against OER was quality control. Simply put, OER is not vetted for quality in any way. While this argument may sound valid on a prima facie basis, it is not logically consistent on closer examination. Textbooks, unlike journal articles, are not usually peer reviewed. An editor whose job it is to sell expensive textbooks, not serve as a gatekeeper for the professional literature, editorially reviews them. The ultimate flaw in this argument is the very fact that the people making the argument are Subject Matter Experts (SMEs in the literature). They have terminal degrees in their respective fields. They have conducted research in those areas. Who better to vet OER materials for quality than those tasked with teaching the material? I submit that if a professor is uncomfortable judging the quality of educational resources, then he or she is not an expert in the field and has no place in the classroom. In the final analysis, support of this argument is tantamount to admitting that you are a fraud.

Before you take the red pill, there are some things you should consider. Many have complained that there is no central "comprehensive catalog of resources." This thinking reflects the old paradigm; a search for a complete package that replicates what the textbook publishers have to offer. The beauty of OER is that it allows you to teach exactly what you want to teach the way you want to teach it. If it does not fit your vision of what your course should be, you simply reject it and move on to something else. This means curation of resources on the smallest of levels. Do not think of a course as a textbook; think of it as a mosaic of facts and ideas that you and your students produce through synergy. The questions that you must ask yourself are simple: What facts and ideas do I want my students to learn? What is the absolute best way to present that information to my learners? Once you have answered these questions, you are ready to dive into the rabbit hole; you will find to your dismay that the rabbit hole is very, very deep.

By "very deep" I mean that the world of free information (Creative Commons licensed, public domain, government publications, and so forth) is dauntingly immense. When you think on the level of ideas rather than courses, the problem will not be finding resources. It will be sorting through myriad resources to find the perfect one that accomplishes just what you want it to accomplish. Sometimes the perfect solution may not be out there; it is more likely that you just haven't found it. Either way, a potential solution is to write your own OER materials. By creating your own OER (and listing them with catalog sites such as Merlot and OER Commons) you not only improve the quality of your own classes, but potentially strengthen education across your entire field of endeavor. The cost of all this free information? Time. Staggering swaths of precious time. If you subscribe to the adage that "time is money" then you will never be an OER enthusiast or author. Curating materials takes time, and writing OER materials takes still more. Your motivations must be altruistic, and your rewards will be intrinsic. If you are the type of person that is willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good and that feels comfortable thinking outside the box, then you will find using and creating OER immensely rewarding. I leave you with one last Matrix quote, this one from The Oracle:

"I don't expect you to do anything. I expect what I've always expected, for you to make up your own damn mind. Believe me or don't."



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