It seems like “Open” ought to be easy

[848 words]

…Yet, it’s neither easy, nor free-flowing nor natural. At least it does not seem so to me as I try to “open” my course development and scholarly work. I know that others have discussed the challenges, but I intend to walk through this on my own two feet (figuratively speaking) and lay things out as I see them from my naïve perspective.

There are two fundamental problems from which a plethora of smaller practical obstacles derive. The first is what I’ll just call history. Or more like… the inertial impact of a long history. The private, for-profit (or, to a lesser extent, not-for-profit) publisher has been the norm for a long time. There is an entire academic culture that has sprung up around the industry of textbook adoption, the purchasing and distribution of software packages keyed to textbooks, the authoring and review of textbook manuscripts, etc. I know because I’ve taken part in it over my career. Entire courses are constructed on the intellectual platform of a particular textbook. And in some domains, certain textbooks have become the “gold standard” for the teaching of X, Y or Z. There is a culture of the textbook, of the publishing package, of the premade curriculum where books for a certain subject and level can be plugged into courses crafted to correspond, not to learners’ interests or breaking news in the discipline, but to a tried-and-true preformatted intellectual trajectory in a particular subject area, at a particular level. “Intro to Bio.”, “Geometry I,” “French II,” “Spanish Conversation I,” “Advanced Grammar,” “Basics of Writing,” etc., etc., etc.

Now to say that all course planning across all of Academe fits this pattern would be an exaggeration. However, those modes tend to dominate. And it’s made all the more necessary by the “adjunctification” of higher education, where a majority of teachers at certain levels in certain disciplines are part-time teachers who also teach at multiple institutions and need to be able to show up one one campus for a particular class, open “the book” to page X and begin teaching. Textbooks and pre-formatting, with software and ancillary materials keyed to the course text make it easy and predictable for teachers — and for students. The question might be asked, though, whether or not there is something better, a way to proceed that is more aligned with critical inquiry, with learner curiosity, with faculty interests, with what’s happening in the real world. The problem is that there is a long tradition and an entrenched culture of “the textbook.”

The other problem, of course, is the entrenched power of money, of profit margin, of payment for services rendered, of contracting. By adopting the textbook, departments and faculty are buying a certain kind of quality and a certain guaranteed stability. Publishers and service providers are maintaining their livelihood. Everybody gains, right? There is a certain logic to the system, which includes a certain level of quality assurance in textbooks, software, online resources keyed to the textbook, etc. It is perfectly understandable that institutions and the people running them would prefer to maintain a system that had kept a certain staid, ordered quality to the process of producing curricular materials of a certain quality.

To jettison those guarantees, those assurances, in favor of the unknown might seem like a risky proposition. What is more, for individual faculty members, it means giving up the efficiency and ease of using predefined, pre-verified, familiar materials and being obligated to devote a lot more time to investigating and assessing other materials in formats that may vary considerably, and will undoubtedly have a plethora of delivery options, divergent qualities, etc.  In a word, it means moving from efficiency, order and familiarity to a chaotic and time-consuming option that may or may not offer high-quality materials that are well-adapted to the instructional needs of the teacher and the learning needs of students. Heck, students themselves often react badly to unfamiliar material that requires greater attention.

So the two major issues are, on the one hand, culture (or history or tradition or inertia) and, on the other, institutional pressures (or profit motive or vested interests, which might include faculty and student interest in safeguarding the familiar). From those two issues emerge a variety of difficulties. Uncertainty about quality. Increased time investment. The need to adapt and adjust both curricula and materials. Inefficiency because of unfamiliar forms or modalities. Discontent among adjuncts and tenure-track faculty because someone has upset the apple cart. In a word, there are lots of down sides.

What are the up sides? Well… one might be that liberating oneself from a “textbook” gives one greater freedom to use authentic materials directly. Faculty and students can see increased timeliness int materials and information accessed in courses. Student self-directed learning has more space to grow when students are made responsible for pursing investigation and finding materials. In a word, intellectual freedom and critical inquiry can soar in this new space. Students can invest themselves more in the process of curriculum development and knowledge creation. It can contribute to active learning.

So… I ask. What’s not to like about “Open”?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s