One could easily vilify the textbook publishers and their online learning platforms. In higher ed, we hear the student complaints. They pay tuition with the expectation that faculty will help them build competence and credentials. They trust the instructor to select or write appropriate content, design support activities that help students understand and apply the skills, elicit performance, provide feedback and so on. They are placing their trust in the instructor and their trust in the institution. When students perceive that instructors have transferred that responsibility to textbook publishers, they make comments like “Why am I not paying the publisher directly?”
But my intent is not to vilify publishers. They have obviously responded to a strong demand and need for their platforms and resources. In many cases, instructors don’t have the time, dedication or wherewithal to develop courses. They don’t have time to create the content, develop the activities and assessments and still be engaged in the course discussions and in providing constructive feedback to their students. In some cases, they concede that they couldn’t match the publishers’ course material and the quality of their offerings even if they wanted to. After all, how many faculty write their own textbook?
Rather, this post recognizes the challenges that constrain faculty and offers an alternative to publisher platforms. Chances are good that you follow this blog because you are concerned about making your online courses better. You choose to be in ‘control’ of your course. The publishers may be broadening their reach to include your discipline – but you wish to select content carefully, add activities and assessments and continually improve your course based on student feedback. Your student feedback. And yet you are faced with constraints on your time and, perhaps, lack of support.
Textbook Publisher Platforms
You stand in stark contrast to the current trend in education. For better or for worse, higher education is ceding control to the textbook publishers. The publishers are developing new business models that include online learning platforms, online courseware, adaptive learning, and digital books, all of which, they claim, improve quality, reduce costs and provide a more stable revenue stream to them in the form of subscriptions.
All of these platforms are not alike. The offerings are on a continuum from supplemental resources to pre-made courseware to integrations with university learning management systems to full-blown adaptive learning platforms with supplemental instructor resources and more.
Textbook publishers carefully vet their content and do the best job possible without knowing the specifics of your students and the context of their learning. At the very least, the courses are well-organized. When publishers are in complete control, the outcomes match the readings and activities. Errors, inconsistencies and incongruities are exposed and eventually removed. (When publishers are in partial control, misalignment occurs between the publisher materials and, for example, dated faculty-generated quizzes.)
In 2014, Slate published an article titled “College in a Box” that explored an emerging state of affairs related to textbook giants and online college courses. The article described two college students who were separated by 600 miles attending different colleges but taking the same course, produced by a major publisher. The students read the same online textbook, watched the same media, and completed the same assessments with little interaction with their professors. The students were generally happy with the courses, received good grades, got assistance in the form of well-produced videos and, presumably, progressed toward graduation.
Publishers have long had tremendous influence over a course. This isn’t new. In my first year of teaching, our department assembled and planned curriculum. The curriculum plan was based almost entirely on the table of contents of the adopted text. (As a young teacher, I heard how the textbook purchasing power of California and Texas dictated the content of the textbooks for everyone. Today control has shifted from the state to the districts and textbooks are not required to meet 100% of the state standards.) In recent history, publishers have become more sophisticated at producing online courseware. Today, students pay fees to access publisher course material, which include activities and assessments. Undoubtedly, in many cases, the publisher content and collateral is much better produced than the homespun online course.
I can’t even begin to address the societal implications of this development. Slate asks “Why are universities buying ready-made frozen meals instead of cooking up their own educational fare?” The suggestion, obviously, is that textbook online course sites are the ready-made frozen meals. The benefit to universities is that the cost of course development is passed directly to the student. Rather than a university compensating faculty with stipends or release time to develop online courses, students pay a fee to publishers. Research will eventually disclose to us the full cost of abrogating the instructor’s role in course development. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t account for the unique situational factors of the class. And other concerns surface. Will publishers’ courses eventually end-run colleges and universities? After all, don’t employers in some sectors care about competence over degrees? Finally, what role does the instructor play? Is the instructor replaceable by a person of lesser rank and cost?
In the end, I believe that economics will win out. Publishers are putting to use all of the great developments in the last few years at a speed and economy of scale that most mid-sized universities cannot match. I am thinking about adaptive learning, rich interactions and even Open Educational Resources (OER). Their systems are improving; their design is improving. They lessen the load on instructors and shift the cost to the student.
But even in the industrial revolution, certain guilds of manual artisans survived. That’s how I picture the online instructor who designs his or her own course: An artisan. I think of the positive aspects of a course crafted with care, compassion and skill.
Today, conferences such as OLC Innovate convene educators who share their views on online learning, emerging technologies, and best practices. OLC Innovate celebrates instructors who post their intellectual property to repositories like Merlot.org and participate in editorial groups. It is a homespun, cottage industry – but it is vibrant.
I anticipate that dedicated artisan instructors will prevail. They will continue to participate in membership groups and conferences of like-minded people. They will embrace a raft of tools to help them communicate with students, motivate, collaborate, challenge, and assess.
They’ll embrace digital stories, eBooks, simulations, videos, and whatever they need to engage students.
Fortunately, exceptional support for the artisan comes in the form of the open education movement. For some, Open Educational Resources (OER) may represent a significant alternative to publisher platforms.
Open Educational Resources
Open Educational Resources are typically open textbooks, software, web pages, learning activities, simulations, case studies, quiz banks and media that are available to faculty and to students for free. Typically, they are licensed under Creative Commons, which means, in all cases, that you must provide the author attribution. The debate about what constitutes “open” gets more complex when you ask the question “Can I change the resource and adapt it to my own needs. Can I offer the new ‘derivative’ product to another professor?” Some would argue that ‘open’ requires the ability to revise, remix, reuse, and redistribute.
Others are content with a narrower definition. The Hewlett Foundation, an ardent supporter, defines OER as
“teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.”
Today, university systems are bootstrapping OER in a number of ways. They are utilizing open source repositories like Islandora and Equella. They are paying faculty to review open resources and participate in editorial teams for such altruistic efforts as Merlot.org, a curated repository used all over the world. Universities house and support a network of OER repositories, the breadth of which is evident in this Google Map: http://maps.repository66.org/
In my experience, the bane of OER was in the search and discovery of resources that closely matched our course learning outcomes. It required patience – and busy faculty quickly became disillusioned.
Today, search and discovery are easier. A number of federated search tools have been developed and made available through such organizations as Merlot.org, Creative Commons and even the federal Department of Education.
Recently, I learned of something that suggested better times to come. A colleague at the Minnesota State System Office introduced me to Intellus Learning.
Intellus Learning is a subscription-based platform that makes it easy to find high quality OER content. Instructors find content aligned to their objectives, embed that content into their learning management system and monitor student usage. Intellus searches across many OER repositories, saving instructors considerable time. I’ve only trialed this tool, but I can imagine a new breed of software that makes it easy to discover, explore and mash-up open resources. My searches returned materials from OpenStax (open textbooks), EBSCO, YouTube, OER Commons and dozens of other places. I conducted the same search using no-cost publicly available search tools and came up short in comparison. The exception was Merlot, which provided me with a useful listing of resources.
Again, in my experience, the single-most deterrent to the use of OER is the time wasted in search of materials that truly align to the course outcomes. OER has the potential of leveling the playing field. If instructors can find quality content, free-of-charge and aligned to outcomes, then the majority of their time can be dedicated to designing interactions between students, between students and their instructor, and between students and the content. In short, instructors would have more time to address the cognitive and social needs of their students.
In contrast, I’ve observed too many instructors burning up their time in producing text content. The acts of writing, finding and organizing content challenge instructors. It is a lot of work – and yet, only the beginning of the effort. Instructors complete the marathon, only to find themselves at the starting line of another. Organizing content isn’t the end of it. What about motivating students, establishing relevance, developing clearly understood expectations and syllabi and other course documents? What about the stumbling points in the curriculum and the prerequisite skills and the recall of prior knowledge and the assessments and discussions and capstone projects? How about usability and analyzing whether or not the activities promoted or impeded the outcomes?
OER can help lessen the load on instructors – but, as a community, we need to uncover a process that makes it easy to find OER and, in the future, align activities to OER content.
Many for-profit entities are leveraging OER faster than universities. Adaptive Learning Vendors (Knewton, CogBooks and Acrobatiq) are using OER in their content delivery systems. Their value-added is in the learning paths they have generated, the mapping of prerequisite skills to targeted learning outcomes, decision-making algorithms, and the analytics that are generated on time-on-task, confidence and performance.
OER matched with activities, discussions, and assessments are an effective strategy for busy instructors who wish to maintain control over their courses.
Large higher ed systems like SUNY and Minnesota State have the opportunity to incentivize faculty to develop, share and evaluate resources. In the past, such efforts were too small in scope and scale to succeed. Times are changing. Today, we are achieving a critical mass in many content areas. We need mechanisms (application programming interfaces, import tools, discovery standards, metadata standards, package exchange notification services, etc.) to align and integrate the types of activities that this web journal is dedicated to: case studies, decision making scenarios, leveled challenges, geolocation-aware activities, simulations, games, and stuff that will help students understand, apply and synthesize the content.
In short, we need the option to take charge of our courses and help students succeed. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Open Educational Resources. Successes? Great resources? Concerns? Please register and share!