We cannot allow our curriculum to be set by Wall Street.
I am increasingly viewing my own work as an educator from two different sets of eyes. One pair of eyes is my own, with all of my experience and all my frustration at what is available to students, and with all the motivation to provide better options for my students.
The second pair belongs to my eldest child, now well into their 20’s, as they navigate through the extractive pits and snares that so many publishers have left in the traditional regional university.
We shared a moment of frustration one Friday afternoon wrestling with the homework solution associated with the campus’ recently-adopted inclusive access option. The problem was straightforward enough, but the software wouldn’t accept the obvious answer. There was even a fit of the frustration every physics student knows well – let’s just toss ANY possible answer around that possibility into the software, because I know the calculation is right. Nothing was accepted.
I suggested “try 0.674 instead of 0.67.”
“No, Dad, that’s too many significant figures.”
“DGAKDGAKGEKAGDKS THAT IS TOO MANY SIGNIFICANT FIGURES BUT IT TOOK IT”
I know exactly why that worked, of course, because I used that exact software over a decade ago, before it became a pawn of the academic publishing monolith who is pushing that inclusive access option on a whole campus of unsuspecting students. Despite the code existing within their software to check for significant figures, that particular question predates the code – and never has been revised. It checks within percentage tolerances – in this case, plus or minus 0.5%. It would accept 0.671 meters to 0.677 meters, in this case – but the answer was based on multiplying a sine of 22 degrees by a measurement of 1.8 meters. The correct answer, by significant figure rules, must be 0.67 meters.
That same dumb issue has existed for over a decade. And, at least in one class of problems in the software, it’s never been fixed. And the price of the software keeps climbing – the two-semester access to that software, which is required, is now $127.50. Of course, buying the access in a bundle with new textbook – or even with other coursework, under our fancy inclusive-access scheme – will lower your costs.
Because of course you don’t want to pay too much for software we haven’t overhauled in a decade.
I have been quietly working in my corner over a decade of my own, from Shorter University to Virginia Intermont College to Tennessee Technological University and now to Tusculum University. I’ve been learning the ins and outs of a different piece of software, called Moodle, which is open-source learning management software. And the way I’ve been learning it is finding better ways to deliver homework to my own students, in a fashion that lines up with what the software from the for-profits can provide, but is more immediately customizable to what I’m trying to accomplish and that I can be more accountable for.
I don’t need to work in the corner anymore. As the costs that are placed on our students become more and more oppressive, the work I do increasingly needs to be in the open. And other people like me who are working in their own corners need to be called into the open as well.
One of the most vividly informative experiences I’ve been able to have in my career was the chance to work in the Innovation Lab at the Online Learning Consortium’s Innovation conference in Nashville in April 2018, and through the connection with Keegan Long-Wheeler of the University of Oklahoma, to help moderate a conversation on “Online Lab Science” (the website for that conversation may be found at onlinelabsci.keeganslw.com). It became clear from listening to faculty, program coordinators and instructional designers in that conversation that the reason for many to be interested in how laboratory science coursework could work online was rising pressure from their own campuses to have science curriculum online, to complete a fully online program. Many science faculty had reservations; many online program coordinators and instructional designers reported back that their own faculty were resistant or simply rejected the idea out of hand.
My own interest in how laboratory science education could be brought online was a product of Tusculum’s need, for the repurposing and development of a physical science course that would allow students to complete general education requirements exclusively online. I was qualified for this work because of my previous experience; I had previously brought two courses online at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia – astronomy, based on Seeds’ Astronomy: The Solar System and Beyond, and a “survey of natural science” course based Trefil and Hazen’s The Sciences. I have found both books to be tremendous resources, and so my own curriculum development for those courses was relatively minimal. Labs were not terribly sophisticated, either; the astronomy course “lab” was star observations and a video presentation that only two students (in a class of four) completed successfully, while the survey course had no lab at all and only a few hands-on activities. I implemented publishers’ online materials for the purposes of assessment (MasteringAstronomy for Seeds, WileyPlus for Trefil and Hazen), and the course was very ordinary, both in terms of material covered and bimodal student outcomes. The only grades I gave in these classes were A, B, and F, and the students who “earned” the grade of F did so by failing to complete a large fraction of the course requirements, stopping out before the course was done. And the work that the students did in those courses were the very definition of “disposable assignments” – locked in an learning management system, to which access to the course was closed off at the end of the term.
My last online course before this year was in 2011. In the intervening years, it is increasingly apparent that major publishers and other vendors have seen the desire of instructors and institutions to outsource the development of curriculum to save time, and have provided the resources to match that desire – with all the trappings that come with purchasing designed equipment and proprietary software. Publishers in particular have made their course materials increasingly extractive, designed to maximize their profits at the expense of taking permanent course supplies away from students. The “inclusive access” plans that Pearson PLC or Cengage Learning are marketing with increased intensity to professors involve providing access to online textbooks and proprietary software for the period of time the student is enrolled in the course, at prices that are well reduced from the list price of the textbook. The catch, of course, is that the online access is cut off at the end of the term, so that the publisher doesn’t lose any of the value to the cynical student who will sell the text at term’s end. In a subtler way, laboratory kits that suppliers provide for purchase, by their very nature, provide enough unique equipment for a single semester’s study, and are designed to only allow the student to do work in the context of a class. When the kit is out of material, replenishing that material can be prohibitive to the student whose curiosity is heightened.
All of this reinforces the concept that the knowledge the student is obtaining through their coursework is disposable and only exists to allow them to complete course requirements – not something that is permanent and can be carried with them in relevant ways throughout life.
This flies in the face of my hope for education, as something that is genuinely empowering and that can be carried with the student not merely for the duration of the course, but beyond.
One of the least realized promises of the world we have created with the Internet is the capacity for students in different places to communicate knowledge with one another as part of their process of learning – peer teaching over distances and in different geographic contexts. In parts of the world such as central Appalachia, exposure to authentic diversity has to be an intentional effort, and it is not done easily through student recruitment. Connection to students at other institutions from cultures that are apart from central Appalachia – even outside of the microculture of the rural online learner – can help the student go beyond the textbook towards authentic learning. After all, we are preparing our students not for a world of knowledge scarcity, but knowledge abundance (Weller, 2011; Stewart, 2015) – the literacy of the student is not going to be determined by their recall of a wealth of facts that they could look up elsewhere, but for the capacity to use that information in creative ways and communicate the applications of their understanding, both to their neighbors and the wider world, not merely by traditional communication and presentation but by networked means.
I work at Tusculum University intentionally, because of the place of the institution within the central Appalachians, because of the freedom provided by the institution’s independence from the state, and because of the civic arts tradition of the institution that obligates me to be the best possible citizen of the region, state, country and world. If my belief is that education is empowering, and I am an experienced practitioner of education in ideas that are freely available, it follows for me personally that I have a moral obligation to share my expertise and resources as freely as I am able to do so in faithful service to the institution that employs me.
I am incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in meetings like OLC Innovate, and I don’t want to minimize that gratitude. But a majority of the publishers and vendors who support such meetings and who engages in sales at those meetings are working to extract the last possible dollar from the students who use their services, not to provide the first available dollar to support the learning of the student (language borrowed from Shirky, as reported by Young, 2013). It is critical to me to be able to work out means to support student learning separate from publisher resources, using as many resources that the student can keep for themselves permanently.
The open education movement fits alongside these goals (as introduced by Biswas-Diener and Jhangiani, 2017). Open education is best known in the substance of Open Educational Resources (OER), freely accessible textbooks and similar resources that can take the place of the textbooks and proprietary software that students are sold. The free availability of these resources is the most frequently reported appeal of OER, and in an environment where textbook prices are spiraling out of control, that appeal is obvious.
But again, publishers can cynically use the pursuit of “low cost” to sell more extractive resources, resources that limit access and communicate the wrong lessons about the applicability of coursework beyond the classroom. So it is important to take the practice of education beyond simply the communication of free resources and the implementation of OER in coursework, to philosophies of open pedagogy (DeRosa and Robison, 2017). We seek not merely to have students use freely accessible resources, but actually develop their own educational creativity to provide their own material to add to those resources, and in the long term, for infrastructure to exist that’s sufficient for students to produce their own resources that will meet them at their point of need. In this we approach the full realization of education as empowerment; we do not merely teach students facts or ask students to complete cookbook laboratories, we provide students the structure necessary to use the resources available to them to make knowledge most relevant to them, and even to extend that knowledge as scholars in their own right and communicate that knowledge to peers as widely as possible.
We don’t merely want our students to be the best possible scholars we can be; we want them to set their own direction through that scholarship. In an environment that seeks to eliminate our students’ agency, we want to provide our students with a climate that allows them to take the most complete control of the resources at their disposal, and use those resources for their best benefit.
The results of a rather remarkable study were released on July 26, 2018.
The study addressed student attitudes towards the increase of textbook costs. The headline data from the study were the kind made for newspaper headlines – 43% of students surveyed reporting that they’d skipped meals to afford textbooks and class materials; 85% reporting that class materials were a source of financial stress, in line with tuition and a greater source of stress than highlighted items such as room, board, and health care; just shy of 70% of students who worked while in college saying books were a major reason they needed a job; disproportionate minority impact.
That’s not the remarkable bit.
Cengage dunked on a problem they helped to create, in order for them to promote…their own solution (emphasis my own):
“The survey’s results should be a wake-up call for everybody involved in higher education. This is especially true for the publishing industry, including our own company, as we historically contributed to the problem of college affordability,” said Michael Hansen, CEO, Cengage. “The data is clear: high textbook costs pose barriers to students’ ability to succeed in college. Too many learners today are making painful tradeoffs between course materials and bare necessities like housing and meals. Our industry must embrace what students are telling us. That’s why our company has developed a new subscription model that lowers costs.”
It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so cynical.
I will freely own forceful distrust of Wall Street solutions to a problem that Wall Street created, and I will own that distrust even more forcefully given the doctoral degree I hold, and the advanced degrees we’re required to hold as faculty of the institutions where students deal with these problems most. The theory is that we earned those degrees because we’re capable of coming up with explanations for difficult circumstances, and solutions to difficult problems. We should not protest our own helplessness when it comes to the costs our students bear.
And frankly, when it comes to solving those problems, I’m far less likely to trust Wall Street than I am to trust the people of the land around me. The places where I live and work weren’t so much planned as they were carved out. The terrain is some of the most difficult in the country, even the world. The blood and sweat and ingenuity of generations past allow me to make my life here doing the comparatively comfortable work of making scientific knowledge understandable and accessible. If they feel like somebody’s getting rich for no good reason, somebody’s probably getting rich for no good reason.
We cannot allow our curriculum to be set by Wall Street. We cannot allow what is presented to our students in classrooms and in study to serve corporate aims. We must clear space for what our students study to be subservient to our students’ needs, first and foremost – in cost, in accessibility, in permanence, in creativity, in empowerment.
I’m publishing this today in parallel with a third and final presentation in a cycle of talks I’m giving surrounding my work in non-majors physical science teaching online, at the Open Education Southern Symposium at the University of Arkansas. Similar material was presented at Transformative Teaching and Technology conference at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI (where slides have been uploaded) and at Appalachian College Association Summit XXI in Kingsport, TN.
The past two years have completely redefined who I am as a scholar. I have been on this path for a very long time but the past two years have provided multiple opportunities for me to actually put what I’ve been doing into a meaningful context, and to realize that I have something very important to add to this conversation.
The people cited below – and in particular, Rajiv Jhangiani, Robin DeRosa, Keegan Long-Wheeler, Bonnie Stewart, Bonnie Stewart, and by the way did I mention Bonnie Stewart – have been incredibly generous with their time to make sure I had points in this document right and to lead me to this point. I cannot possibly thank them enough.
My “second postdoc” as instructional staff at Tennessee Tech laid much of the groundwork for this direction; thanks to Steve Robinson for the offer of the job and for being a spectacular (accidental?) mentor in STEM education research, to Paula Engelhardt for also modeling spectacular work, and to Mary Kidd, Mustafa Rajabali, and Adam Holley for being wonderful colleagues and collaborators.
Laura Gogia has collaborated with me on a publication that indirectly fed into this work, and I’m completely in her debt for her work and her support. Rissa Sorensen-Unruh did spectacular work editing that volume, and has also fed into spectacular conversations going forward.
I also owe a mammoth debt to Karen Cangialosi, Maha Bali, Ken Bauer, and so many others in the open education community (and I’m certain I’m not remembering names of key folks!) for important conversations at points in this process.
Lastly, to Autumm Caines, Jim Luke, and Lee Skallerup Bessette, who in so many ways are People Without Whom.
Biswas-Diener, R. and R. Jhangiani. 2017. Introduction to open. In Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science. London: Ubiquity Press.
DeRosa, R. and S. Robison. 2017. From OER to open pedagogy: harnessing the power of open. In Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science. London: Ubiquity Press.
Stewart, B. 2015. In abundance: networked participatory practices as scholarship. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 16:318-340.
Weller, M. 2011. A pedagogy of abundance. Spanish Journal of Pedagogy 69:223-236.
Long-Wheeler, K, and Pearson, D.C. Online Lab Science. Website archive produced for OLC Innovate 2018; onlinelabsci.keeganslw.com.
Young, J.P. 2013. Clay Shirky says MOOCs will matter, but worries about corporate players. Wired Campus blog in The Chronicle of Higher Education online (audio of quote lost).
2018. New survey: college students consider buying course materials a top source of financial stress. Press release from Cengage Learning with associated infographic.