The ed tech dream is dead

As if regular old political news weren’t bad enough, we must make connections between the behemoths of technology and the decline of enthusiasm for web-based educational technology and online learning in general. The conclusions are not inspiring.

As you know if you read my blog, I essentially gave up on web-based apps for my students a couple of years ago, and have moved all my class activity to the Canvas system or a Canvas-based LTI within that system (with the exception of one Honors blog).

As the author of Insidious Pedagogy, this has been a painful, soul-searching path leading to closing my classes. Since the beginnings (I started teaching online in 1998), I have encouraged faculty to put their pedagogy first, to find ways to force the technologies to do what you want. As an early fan of pedagogies that emphasize constructivism and connectivism, I have experimented with many formats (contract grading, connectivist learning, open blogging). If you’ve heard of Ning, Glogster, Dellicious, Blip,tv, Blabberize, Elgg, Eyejot, GoAnimate, Lingr, Mind42, MyPlick, Overstream, Plotagon, Plupper, Screenr, Slideshare, Trialmeme, and Posterous, you have some idea of what I’ve tried.

My college went over to Canvas in the wave of California Community Colleges who’d been made an offer we couldn’t refuse. As California began to standardize its online college education, mass media began to cover the concerns I’d had all along about student privacy and exposure in online environments. I no longer had any arguments to answer those who objected to students working on the open web, even as the web was closing.

So whatever else Facebook and Google have done (and none of it struck me as exceptional or unusual), they have underlined my concerns about students working openly, and undermined public confidence in living portions of our lives on the web. We were so concerned about not being sold by Learning Management Systems that we were sold by the very providers who gave us freedom.

Educators who persist in using social media for the classes are not just outliers in ed tech anymore – they are now collaborators in the dissemination and sale of student information and data. Stalwarts who object to online teaching and web-based learning can now say, “see? it isn’t safe!” Anything not in a protected, encrypted, controlled system is rightly suspect.

We’ve lost, and to me that has meant not only abandoning my own open classwork and my own research in educational trends but a return to subversion inside the system.

My pedagogical focus now is creating encouraging environments and meaningful tasks for students that take advantage of system-based automation while allowing for freedom of pursuits. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in ed tech — Canvas forces me to take my place as a nobody functionary, a foot soldier following orders, with limited creativity and continual frustration. It’s one of the worst LMSs ever created, with a “community” deluded into thinking we help improve it. When my head is flat from pounding it against Canvas walls, I try to remind myself it’s like making a movie during the Hays Code.

But doing anything else isn’t moving forward.

5 comments to The ed tech dream is dead

  • Your post really made me think about just why Canvas is working for me… and I know coming from D2L gives me a very different take on that. Anyway, I wrote up my thoughts here; thank you for the excuse to write a blog post that is not just my latest nitty-gritty here’s-how-to-embed-whatever in Canvas, which is what most of my blog posts are admittedly about nowadays. HAPPY SUMMER! 🙂

    • Lisa M Lane

      I knew you’d provide the more optimistic view, and so quickly! Thank you. Trusting embed for now is a wonderful thing – I do it too, and put away my crystal ball for now.

  • And I make sure to let the Canvas people know just what I do value about their product… including for selfish reasons, ha ha. I am really hoping that now they have invested tons in new gradebook and new quizzes (neither of which do me any good), they will now maybe consider some content development features, which is surely one of the most neglected areas of Canvas right now. And you know I will be lobbying for student-authored content! 🙂

    • Lisa M Lane

      I have always envied your joyful approach to Canvas’ many faults, but cannot join in. They have not only built in difficulties, but are increasing them rapidly (see my current problem, at 101 votes, but which I have little hope will be fixed and will cost me many hours). I first became disillusioned with the community when I was told that:

      “Feedback comes from a lot of different sources, and Community comments only account for a portion of the feedback we receive. Not all customers interact in the community; a good majority of them never comment and prefer to communicate with their Customer Success Manager. Other feedback comes from product reviews conducted by our product managers”.

      I was naive enough to think we were the main movers and shakers in development. You have had far more success promoting change (like getting the awful “Late” thing improved), and I’m very glad of that.

  • Very true about low participation in the Community, and the participation is very much skewed to system administrators and other professional ed-tech staff. Not so many instructors… just as a guess I would say I see many more K-12 instructors because they are used to the idea of using social media spaces. Higher ed faculty not so much. I’ve given up hoping that will ever change; higher ed faculty are just not going to participate, even though I think it really is to our benefit. It certainly has been for me. But I guess most faculty communicate through their sysadmins. Or don’t communicate at all.

    And wow, I just voted up on yours. I had no idea they took away the column resizing in the new Gradebook. That will be a nightmare for me. There are other problems with the new Gradebook (you have to remove the awful late/missing crapola assignment by assignment last time that I checked), so I had not switched and do not want to switch. I have about 200 assignments per class (because students choose), and even squished down to the minimum, the Gradebook was hard for me to scroll through. I guess I’ll just have to start exporting the (damn) thing to Google Sheets to get anything done.

    This is why I don’t really hold out hope for the LMS changing in ways that will make it better for me: if there are so many problems with the new Gradebook after a lengthy and expensive development process, then they will have to keep working on the Gradebook. And presumably they will have to keep working on the new Quizzes. And so they will spend all their time and resources working on Gradebook and Quizzes into a Sisyphean eternity. I do not plan to hold my breath for improvements to the actual CONTENT side of Canvas. Which is also desperately needed. I occasionally check in on the discussion with hundreds, literally, of people pleading for folders in which to organize their Pages…

OERs again

I’ve posted a number of times on Open Educational Resources, and mentioning these might help explain why I subject the entire issue to serious criticism, a small sigh, and a raised eyebrow.

And now? I’m even more skeptical, because now my own institution is pushing them. I think it was Alan Levine who first turned me on to the idea that state legislatures in the U.S. want OERs because it saves them money — they can decrease their education budget if everyone’s using “free” textbooks.

CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s easy to see who makes the money with a textbook – the publishers, then the authors. With OERs it’s harder to see. In this case, it’s the state saving money, or pulling it from education. In other cases, it’s more commercial. I remember how happy I was, many years ago, when MIT released hours of lecture on YouTube. Then I discovered a company that had built a “shell” for this content, adding some discussion boards and a document that looked like a syllabus. As an instructor, you bought access to their platform for the semester, and used it like an LMS, with all the content comprised of MIT’s “free” videos. The company got money, but not MIT, not the professor. It seemed wrong then. It seems wrong now.

So now my question is, cui bono? Who benefits from OERs?

Lest you think I’m just a grumpy old prof, I don’t have to whine about my own institution’s intellectual property policy. It was developed in the first year we offered online classes (1998) by my prescient and exceptional colleague, Louisa Moon. She saw immediately the potential for online classes to be taken over by institutions, and taught without the faculty member being needed at all. One could develop a class, and the college could decide to take it and have “staff” teach it instead.

So our policy not only preserves ownership by faculty of the things we create, but even our sabbatical policy says we keep ownership so long as we don’t make excessive use of campus resources when creating stuff. I think that’s fair.

However, I work at a public community college. We do not have the same issues as universities, with their endowments and grants. But we do have a recent push to adopt OERs, and I’ve argued against it as a requirement. Not that I like textbooks (just search “textbooks” here on my blog to see how much I despise them and the whole publishing model), but if there aren’t even good open textbooks for History, there must be other areas where nothing good is available. So for me, the four priorities for using OERs are:

  1. The academic freedom of the professor in choosing what to assign
  2. The quality of the materials
  3. Whether commercial entities benefit from their use
  4.  Everything else discussed in this unit: the 5 Rs, open licenses, etc.

I guess that’s a little different than what this unit intended.

11 comments to OERs again

  • I understand your frustration. I think Seth Golden shared a book with an open license, only to have a company print and sell a paper version of his free book. Just thinking out loud here, but can OER’s have a non-commercial CC license or would that limit positive use of them? ie Can something be both ‘Open’ and ‘Non-commercial’ or does that by nature make it not open?

    • Lisa M Lane

      I know there are good people who advocate for the BY license only, but I strongly believe that NC is essential to make intentions clear. Also SA, frankly. I do want to limit use, to those who won’t make money off of my labour. But, of course, CC licenses are even less enforceable than copyright…

  • I completely agree Lisa, I subscribe to Stephen Downes’ view that BY-NC-SA is ‘More Free’ than just ‘BY’ as I shared in last week’s assignment:

    A topic that I think needs to be openly discussed because while I believe this, I also think it contradicts David Wiley’s definitions. So, even if I’m wrong, I do believe it is worth hashing out.

    I also appreciate that you are openly sharing your concerns. So far most of my ‘learner activity’ reads for #openedmooc have been summaries of the readings and not a true conversation… Thank you!

    • Lisa M Lane

      Unconstrained by either the need to read all this stuff again, or by the ability to put any formal class credit to good use, I can engage by taking off from the topic, rather than sticking to it! 😉

  • jennymackness

    Thanks for this discussion. I have the BY-NC-SA license on both my blog and my Flickr site but as I mentioned in a post (and as Lisa has said) I don’t think this is enforceable. My personal view is that if you are bothered about what is going to happen to your ‘stuff’, then don’t put it in the open.

    Dave – can you say more about what you think contradicts David Wiley’s definitions.

  • From David Wiley:

    Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
    Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
    Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
    Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other open content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
    Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)

    One question I would have is, if I’m at an institution that chooses to put this in a course that students pay for, how would that differ from someone doing it for private gain? I’m sure there are other issues with BY-NC-SA that other smarter people might have, but that would be my main question/concern to start us off. Others?

  • jennymackness

    Ah I see. Thanks for that Dave. This is what happens with some of my blog posts. I have the BY-NC-SA license on my blog, but I know from the stats that some blog posts are used for University courses. I don’t know what they are used for, because I don’t have access to the courses – they are password protected – but as you say, presumably the students have paid for the course. But this doesn’t really contradict David Wiley does it? It simply means that the course that is using the blog post is abusing my license – or have I still misunderstood 🙂

    • pbnilsson

      Really interesting thread. Thanks, all. To what extent, I wonder, does Fair Use enable the kind of sharing you’re describing (Jenny) in an academic course? The same way fair use (in my admittedly non-thorough understanding of it) enables use of copyrighted materials in limited contexts, does it also enable “violation” or “abuse” of CC licenses?

  • jennymackness

    Fair use seems to be a bit of a grey area – – The license on my blog permits everything except commercial gain. Does taking a post from my blog and posting it in a closed environment for use in a course which students are presumably paying for count as fair use? I have never really thought about this in terms of ‘fair use’, but since it has never bothered me I think for me it must count as fair use.

    • I think that if they want to share your work in a closed learning environment, then the correct way to share is to provide a link to leave the environment and to go to where you share it openly. But if they are taking your content and replicating in a closed course then I would assume that would be violation of BY-NC-SA… just my interpretation, I could be wrong.

  • […] For that reason, it was refreshing to see Lisa M. Lane discuss OERs again. […]

Copy rights and the encouragement of learning

This week’s work on copyright in the OpenEd MOOC should ring a bit of a historical bell. James Boyle’s chapter on Jefferson (assigned reading for this week) does a great (and lengthy) job analyzing the various positions of the founders, and European intellectuals of that time, on copyright. (I did find something a little more succinct here.)

Although Benjamin Franklin, having earned enough on his inventions to retire at a young age, apparently didn’t patent or copyright his work, other founders were most vociferous in their support of copyright. Without much debate, it was put in the Constitution (Art. I, Sec. 8, Cl. 8):

“the Congress shall have power . . . to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

But apparently this wasn’t enough. By 1790, there was a Copyright Act, called An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Securing the Copies of Maps, Charts, and Books to the Authors and Proprietors of Such Copies. Note the language: the encouragement of learning. The idea was to encourage authors and scientists not to keep it to themselves – to share. Since, as I teach my students, there is no reason for a law unless people are doing the opposite, this encouragement must have been needed at some level.

So one can assume there was a dearth of publications in the new country.

Interestingly,  the acts themselves were clearly copied from England’s own copyright laws (the Licensing Act of 1662, the Act of Anne in 1710). I wonder whether they cited these?

Jefferson’s letter, which seems to oppose copyright but actually proposes a short, socially agreed-upon copyright, was written in 1813. By then, there were significantly more publications and Jefferson, who did not make his living with his writings, was sharing his complex opinion on the subject (all the founders were complex intellectuals – it’s actually difficult to peg most of them to a “position”).

So on to now. Let’s say the original reason for copyright was because there were too few ideas out there. We do not have a dearth of ideas now. Some of them, of course, are heinous yet available to all through the medium of the web. So let’s hold them to the standard of the 1790 law: does copyright today encourage learning?

Open education, open sources, open access – it seems to encourage more learning than something as restrictive as copyright. Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not A Gadget,  would disagree. In fact he does, here in this interview and elsewhere.

Lanier sees that what seems to be free and open can be detrimental to society as well as to creators who are not paid for their work. But someone is getting paid, and getting paid a lot, in the sharing economy: companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon. They are benefitting from the labor of others: “ordinary people are expected to share while a few companies at the center get all the money”. The solution?

I would like to see more systems where ordinary people can get paid when they contribute value to digital networks; systems that improve their lives and expand the overall economy.

Right now, I’m contributing to something. For free. Sharing what’s in my head (whether Boyle’s sources see that as natural, or even mine, has been debated). I benefit from others doing the same. But Lanier’s point of view makes me wonder: who else is benefiting from my work?

I agree with Lessig and others who say copyright should not be perpetual, and with the founders that it shouldn’t be for long. Extension of copyright beyond the lifetime of the creator has always seemed ridiculous to me.

But Karl Fogel’s article claims that copyright was never about creators or jobs, but about publishing rights and vendor claims. Intellectual property law was created by and for business interests, not starving artists. He suggests copyright is doomed anyway:

The abolition of copyright law is optional; the real force here is creators freely choosing to release their works for unrestricted copying, because it’s in their interests to do so. At some point, it will be obvious that all the interesting stuff is going on in the free stream, and people will simply cease dipping into the proprietary one.

In the academy, it remains very difficult for ones work to be taken seriously unless it’s published in a proprietary, copyrighted journal. While I am aware of trends toward more open sharing of ideas and science, I am unclear as to how one would actually reach an audience without those nasty publishing types.

So I’m considering things in a different way, as small and large markets for knowledge. One possible historical argument might claim that in the past (17th-18th centuries),  there were not enough ideas in published circulation, so it made sense to give legal rights to those who were willing to publish under condition that their ideas be attributed to them and not claimed as original by others. They were reluctant to share their ideas, inventions, stories, without that assurance. Publishers could expand their reach and markets, making a large profit for doing so. Thus authors and artists have always been at the mercy of business, at least if they wanted their ideas widely accessible.

Now, the argument goes, everything is widely accessible via the web. So we don’t need copyright and we don’t need publishers. I think this leaves out a crucial piece: access to the appropriate market. I “publish” freely on this blog. I pay for the privilege of not having nasty hackers hog CPU percentage on a rented server (the reason I had to leave off blogging in my own installation). Since they are “out there” on the web, my ideas presumably have a large potential audience. But my blog does not have many readers. Traffic peaks during MOOCs and such, but I rarely get more than 40 readers in a week, and most only stay for a few minutes until they figure out my blog isn’t what they wanted to read. I’ve never particularly cared, since I don’t really write for an audience.

But let’s say I wanted to do that, reach a larger audience, perhaps even get paid for doing what I spend so many hours doing. Would I value copyright? You bet I would. I’d need those evil publishers, who have connections to readers beyond my measly scope. The learning that I want to encourage simply won’t be seen by many interested parties unless I use the system, and I won’t be able to benefit much financially if I don’t.

Why? Because it seems to me that openness as a way of serving ideas benefits those with access to that which is not open – those with PhDs, connections to businesses, government grants, and/or startup money. And Lanier is right – it does it by using the labor of people like me. I am a “free” student in this MOOC, since I’m not paying EdX and the University of Texas for a “verified certificate”. George and David have done what I do for students, putting up readings and videos, but quite a bit of content is expected to come from us free participants. When I search around about this MOOC, I see corporate sponsors, and Gates grants and things, and research. Someone is making money. It isn’t me. Perhaps I am a rat in the lab?

Or am I a member of the commons? I have thus far used Creative Commons on all my lectures for my classes. But I am rethinking. In medieval times, the commons was used by everyone, but it was owned by the lord of the manor. On the web, this landlord could be Facebook and Google (as Lanier notes), or my ISP, or But unlike a peasant on a manor, the sheep I’m tending in their field really are mine. (Yes, they derive from the sheep of others, as all do, but they are mine.)

Exploring these issues, even after 20 years in online teaching, makes me more uncertain, not less, about what’s going on. And that, at least, has encouraged my learning. It may also encourage me to copyright my work.





No comments yet to Copy rights and the encouragement of learning

  • I like to think that i’ve benefitted so much from everything i’ve found on the Internet that sharing back is par for the game.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Yes, me too! I’ve gotten ideas from so many people, and been happy to share. But for some things I’m no longer sure that’s suitable, because “the internet” isn’t a single place. It’s not even an entity I can support or discard, or within which I can act as a shareholder and influence policy. Selective sharing may include the idea of copyrighting certain work, ironically to keep it within the intentions of encouraging learning. I am not sure I am willing to share all my work with the entire internet. Here be dragons.

      • Certainly, all Internet participants reserve the right to not share when they don’t want to, and that’s fine. Owning the rights to certain contents also probably makes sense, in some scenarios at least, and publishing a book is not evil in itself.

        Publishing papers that come out of publicly financed research behind paywalls is where i would draw the line, though. Materials that are published by public institutions should probably also use a Creative Commons license by default, in my mind.

  • “Here be dragon”

    Algorithms are not neutral and by definition the corporate entities that mine our data from the “commons” are not neutral. I think Audrey Watters made that case convincingly in her post “Education Technology’s Inequalities” when she says ,

    …”when the software is proprietary, there’s little chance one can examine the algorithms in play. ….That’s a problem with all these algorithms – we can’t see them, we can’t evaluate them, and we can’t verify their “accuracy.” 
    “There remain very little insight and very little accountability in these algorithms, particularly in education. And, based on what we know about institutional and corporate biases, there is every reason to believe that these algorithms are exacerbating educational inequalities.”

    From a technical perspective Danah Boyd in her her keynote at the 2017 Strata Data Conference suggest that
    “….these research efforts are not enough. We need to actively and intentionally build a culture of adversarial testing, auditing, and learning into our development practice. We need to build analytic approaches to assess the biases of any dataset we use. And we need to build tools to monitor how our systems evolve with as much effort as we build our models in the first place. My colleague Matt Goerzen argues that we also need to strategically invite white hat trolls to mess with our systems and help us understand our vulnerabilities.

    We no longer have the luxury of only thinking about the world we want to build. We must also strategically think about how others want to manipulate our systems to do harm and cause chaos.

    There still be dragons here, however.

    PS I am an admire of yours since CCK08 and have follow your blog posts through RSS to include you recent trials a tribulations with Captivate. I have written some of the above in a blog post that has not made it into the learning activity hub but can be viewed here xAPI – Formative Assessment and Open Assessment Resources (OAR)

    Thanks Frank

    • Lisa M Lane

      Hi Frank, and thank you for your kind PS on your reply. 🙂

      “We no longer have the luxury of only thinking about the world we want to build. We must also strategically think about how others want to manipulate our systems to do harm and cause chaos.”

      All I could do was nod here, although I really don’t want to have to be thinking about it. I think you got to the core of my disquiet.

      I looked at your post, and find it enlightening that you are bouncing around instead of following the “teaching pathway” through course. Content may not be king, but it can certainly be combined in ways that create different understandings.

Open can be bad

Open is considered a force for good in many forward-thinking educational communities. I was an enthusiast at one time, but I reluctantly gave up on openness for my own college classes in the summer of 2013, as evident here. The world has not improved since then. In addition to surveillance, we now have an appalling acceptance of unacceptable behavior and uncivil conduct, which in my country has now reached the highest levels of power.

That said, I continue to learn in the open myself, and share what I learn (for those who don’t know me, I teach History at a two-year public college). For many years I conducted the Program for Online Teaching’s open online programs for professors, and I now assist my college’s professional development program’s with blogging and sharing. I use open resources for my classes, usually created by me since there really does seem to be a cost to everything.

One of the first questions in the OpenEdMOOC is what might be bad about open, so I really couldn’t resist.


Open leaves learners vulnerable, particularly those who are ignorant of the operations of  the web. The worldwide web used to be an open place, a Wild West. Commercial entities (and those which were free but became commercial) made the web easier to use, part of the infrastructure of everyday life. Users willingly not only sign Terms of Service to be able to do tasks which have become basic, but post their children’s school habits and location, sign up for loyalty programs that track all their purchases, and have their information shared for them by places like Equifax.

Education is not only far from immune to such practices, but can actively encourage them.  So my angle is about thinking things through. My position at the moment is that there is value in closed education, if only for the purpose of separating certain kinds of learning from the distractions of daily life — the opposite of “applied” education, if you like. I think I’ve expressed this view best in my blog post from July. I’ll be looking to see how those concerns are affected by what I see in this course.

No comments yet to Open can be bad

  • […] can be said’ attitude, presumably because the recipient of the comments cannot be seen. As Lisa Lane has written “…. we now have an appalling acceptance of unacceptable behavior and uncivil conduct, which in […]

  • Dan

    Hi Lisa,

    I read your blog post from July, and I think you’d be interested in reading “Quiet” by Susan Cain. Cain mentions how some learning must be done in a quiet and controlled environment, away from distractions including the internet. That way, the student can concentrate and develop ideas.


    • Lisa M Lane

      Hi Dan – thanks for the recommendation. That’s the one about introverts, yes? It makes me wonder whether extroverts might need the privacy even more…

OER and the Powers that Be

Me: Gosh, I love Open Educational Resources. I hate those high textbook prices, because they’re high for no reason. Plus a lot of them aren’t very good, and go in directions I don’t want. Luckily, there’s a lot available on the web.

Powers that Be (15 years later): Wow, we want to get into OERs! We just discovered we can save students money and achieve local, state and national political kudos for doing this. We’ll have grants!

Me: That’s great! I want to apply. I created two of my own textbooks out of Wikipedia articles that I edited. Then I edited a bunch of primary sources and added them to the books. They’re in pdf. Students just print them if they want to, or read them online – saves tons of money! Where do I sign?

Powers that Be: Oh, no, we don’t want you to create the OERs. Look at all the stuff out there! We’ve got textbooks and materials, not very well organized and into multiple places. Go search those. Adopt one of those. Then you can have the grant.

Me: Oh, well there are some classes I teach where I haven’t done my own books. American History, for example. Hmmm…not much good stuff, though there are quite a few texts available. Here’s one that will do – I just need to annotate it in an accessible way – it doesn’t seem to have the Salem Witch Trials and other important things. It’ll be quite a bit of work. But that’s OK — where do I sign for a grant?

Powers that Be: Oh, well you have to show that you’re saving students money from the previous semester.

Me: But the previous semesters I’ve been using either open resources or my own edited books and materials. I haven’t used a commercial textbook in some of these classes for several years.

Powers that Be: Then you get no grant. You have to show a difference between what your students spent last semester and what they’ll spend with your newly adopted OER.

Me: But I’ve been giving my students OERs for years! I’ve been in the vanguard! A trendsetter! Without people like me you wouldn’t even know what OERs are!

Powers that Be: You’re misunderstanding the goal here. We need to show we are saving students money after we became involved.  That’s what the grant is for. Then we need to show exactly how much we’ve saved. What’s happened over previous years doesn’t matter.

Me: You know, it seems like it’s more important to you to take credit for OERs than to expand their use, or to assist people like me who have been developing, revising and using OERs without compensation for the last two decades or so. Perhaps those who claim that the real purpose behind institutional OER adoption is to allow states to reduce funding to public schools are correct. Is my taxpayer money going to grants like this?

Powers that Be: You bet! Be proud to be a part of such educational innovation. 🙂

2 comments to OER and the Powers that Be

  • Great post Lisa, which made me laugh out loud, although I suspect you are more than a little fed up with this ridiculous situation.

    > I’ve been giving my students OERs for years! I’ve been in the vanguard! A trendsetter! Without people like me you wouldn’t even know what OERs are! < Love it! And it's so true.

    You will just have to keep doing what you have been doing so well for so many years – although I can see that a grant would have been good 🙂

  • Todd Conaway


Textbook balancing act

No, I’m not talking about improving your posture by putting it on your head. Rather, I am once again examining the possibility of using textbooks (both open and closed) as I contemplate writing another online class (this one Early American).

I have been looking at open textbooks.  Last semester, for my modern US History class, I used OpenStax. When I printed it out, though, it filled a large binder, logging in at 579 pages (yes, of course I printed double-sided). Then I discovered something much more succinct – the textbook at the US Department of State’s website  (don’t panic – it doesn’t get overtly political until the last three chapters, so I can use that for teaching).

I decided to use the State Department text for my Honors section, but as I worked with it, I decided it was good for my regular sections too. So I spent some weeks writing test questions, and am using it this semester.

But when I looked at it for Early American, it seemed sparse – only 7 chapters for 16 weeks. I realize that the historian who most recently revised it fully (Alonzo L. Hamby) is an expert in modern American history, so I understand why. So I went back to look at OpenStax, and others. But they’re so huge! The one I really liked, a good textbook written by profs at the U of North Georgia came out at 852 pages!

Then I realized the issue wasn’t the textbook, but my lectures. I have no online lectures for Early American history. But I have good, long, multimedia lectures for Modern American. So it makes sense for the modern class to have a small textbook (State Department) and the new course to have a more complete text (OpenStax, perhaps).

The lesson I recalled: when you adopt a textbook, really adopt a textbook, you have to acknowledge the reality of student reading. Many students today have trouble reading, both in terms of practical literacy and concentration. They have challenges of structure, vocabulary and content. We can’t do what was done when I was in college – assign a standard text, expect that they’ve read it, give a quiz or two, and ignore it in lecture. They won’t read it, or even buy it.

Current publishers have understood this, and now provide guided reading tools as part of course packages. Pearson’s REVEL is the most interesting, because it literally guides students through each page of the text, reading it aloud to them and highlighting pertinent passages. I call this Ethel the Aarvark pedagogy (from the Monty Python skit where the bookshop owner has to read the book to the customer).

So even if I don’t want to use the pablum packages (and I did consider this for my failed Jekyll and Hyde experiment), I must face reality about student reading abilities. If I adopt a textbook, I have to get into it, help them through it, work with it. It has to become central to the class, and all other aspects must be built around it. That will only work in a class format where I do not have my own lectures, but rather comment on the unit and the textbook. Otherwise, if I want to keep the lab aspects of my class, there’d be too much for community college students to manage.

Nevertheless, I confess that the pre-digested history in a textbook is not very palatable…

Maybe free is bad – something else not to talk about

I have just spent the last few weeks doing as I meant to do for the last year – creating a book of Wikipedia text and my own edited primary source documents to create a free textbook for my students in Western Civ I.

Now that I’ve finished, and it’s all ready for my summer classes (both as a pdf they can download and print, and chapters inside my online class), I can go back and catch up on my reading about online teaching.

One of the things I’m supposed to be reading about is OEI, the California Online Education Initiative being run by a number of wonderful people. What they’re creating, however, will undermine artisan course design and bring in rubrics that already have several good online teachers in tears.

As part of this project, there are courses being offered by faculty at several institutions. A number of faculty have volunteered to have their classes be models for the new system (I declined when I saw the rubric). The word “model” has now been thrown around the administration as meaning they are great classes.

Some may be. Some of the most lauded, however, are taught with prepackaged course cartridges and full technology from a major publisher. I went and looked at that publisher’s offering for one “model” class, their costly package to students, and found what I expected – the cartridge is essentially teaching the class.

While it’s sickening that this kind of thing is the new “model” course for the future (I’ve ranted about that elsewhere), I was looking at the price. $177 new, with rentals varying from $80-133.

In all classes except one, now, I’ve given all the materials to my students. They don’t need to buy anything. My classes have students who go in and out, don’t do all their work, fail because they don’t follow instructions. In the “model” canned course, student success rates are high, as is retention. Extremely high. Only 10% seem to leave the class. Grades are high too. In History classes overall, it isn’t unusual to have 20% drop the class. We have always thought this is because our History classes are more demanding than what is being offered in other disciplines.

But there may be another aspect. If one pays $177, perhaps one is more dedicated to the class? Or could it be that the canned class makes it easier for students to pass without much stress (i.e. thinking) so they tend to stay? Or could the canned class be better? for whom? for learning? or just to make everything easier for everyone, student and instructor alike?

But wait! I know of another discipline (again, not mine) with high student success and retention also, where their online numbers equal their on-site numbers, but the classes are not canned, and in fact are outstanding artisan classes. The book? $95 new, $52-72 for rental.

My conclusion? I should not be creating free materials – it may be devaluing the classes I’m teaching. I know it’s not the quality of the materials – not only do I edit them all myself, but I have reviewed dozens of textbooks (see my name in many of them) and most are not very good. It’s the perception of the quality of the materials.

I had a student comment on an evaluation that he didn’t want to read the article I had linked from Wikipedia, because it made him feel like he wasn’t in a college class – if he wanted to read Wikipedia, he didn’t need to be paying college tuition. (Of course, he isn’t paying much tuition – the state has him covered – but that’s another post.) The quality of the article wasn’t the point – it was Wikipedia, so it must be useless.

If I’m right, the point that has gotten lost in the anger at high textbook prices, the insistence that community college remain open access, and the administrative concern about retention, is that students may want to pay high prices for textbooks. It may keep them dedicated to the class, even when they have to borrow money to buy them. I don’t think anyone really wants to talk about that possibility.

3 comments to Maybe free is bad – something else not to talk about

  • Well, I’ll offer my class as a counter-example: I’ve always had the Myth-Folklore readings online for free. For 10+ years I had a choice of two readings each week, but as I saw the EXPLOSION of public domain online sources, I spent last summer retooling my Myth-Folklore UnTextbook so that it had 100 reading units total, rather than 28 as before, and student response has been tremendous (seriously, they really love it, mostly because of the choices, but also because it’s free, and they already pay an outrageous $120 online course fee/penalty to enroll in an online course as opposed to classroom-based course).

    I’m spending this summer building an UnTextbook for my other course (Indian Epics), and I am really excited about it. The free part is good, but the better part is being able to build student choice into the course design, providing a better reading experience than I ever could with a static textbook. More about how the OER affects my course design:

    So, I’m sticking to artisan and free, trying to find lots of ways to make the class valuable for students… esp. since they are paying a penalty to enroll to begin with. Why? Who knows: I have no office, I make less than a TT faculty member, I require no classroom… but there’s a hefty online course fee, and it’s even gone up in recent years. Sigh.

    • Hi Laura! That makes me wonder about primary vs secondary sources. I’ve never had a concern about the free primary sources available online everywhere, and students never have either. It’s the concept of “textbook” (even if I’ve tried to call them context readings) that I think is an issue. Or perhaps I am totally wrong.

      I don’t really want to cost them money either. I was up hours last night going through course cartridges. If I switched I would pull the whole focus of my classes away from skills and onto content. That isn’t really what I want to do. I’d lose the whole active learning part of my class.

      My problem is that I don’t just want them learning content – I want them to be historians using the sources. That takes time, thinking, effort in a completely different way than using a groovy textbook that quizzes them as they go along and gives them lots of hints when they’re wrong (aka adaptive learning). But my method is increasingly being seen as “not working” for success and retention, and I’m flailing around trying to figure out what to do about it. 🙂

  • Yes, the primary sources are what interest me too! I am very lucky that in the areas I work in, public domain sources are abundant and valuable, so the materials I prep for my students are those primary sources with very limited commentary from me, and sometimes no commentary from me at all, just my repurposing of the public domain books. For Indian Epics, I am in more of a bind … and in a world where all books were free, sure, I’d order my favorite contemporary translations for the students to read. But books are not free, and I was amazed by what I found when I started poking around in the 19th- and early 20th-century translations I could use. And, to compensate for that, the OER person I mentioned in my comment on your previous post made it possible for our Library to buy a complete collection of Amar Chitra Katha comic books which I can make available on reserve in the Library. JACKPOT!!! I’m guessing the students will find that very groovy, and I do too!!! Here’s how I hope to get them to work with the comic books while also reading primary sources:
    It’s a new experiment. I hope it works!!!

Textbooks (yes, again)

Well, we all know how I feel about textbooks, the adoption of which seems much more necessary for on-site classes (they basically refuse to read them online). I have dumped textbooks for my US History classes, which I teach online. I have an atlas (out of print – the next problem) for History of England. For modern Western Civ, I took the lectures I have online (which are lengthy) and adapted them with my set of primary sources to make a makeshift text, but that didn’t work well.

This semester I’m teaching early Western Civ in the classroom. I have used three texts in three years for early Western Civ. I didn’t want to do it, but this semester I went ahead and used a text I’d used before that wasn’t too bad, and refurbished a full set of 16 quizzes for them. I had tried to create my own out of Wikipedia, but had run out of time and was unable to deal with problems of the granularity of content.

nobleadvantagearoowsWe started the semester on Monday. By Wednesday I couldn’t stand the textbook and was standing in my office, hating it, at 10 minutes before class. The bookstore had neglected to purchase the text back in April, and had to rush copies to campus. I had visited the bookstore and couldn’t find them – they were turned sideways about 12 feet from their shelf tag, under another class’s tag. I counted 14 of them. I have 32 students. The universe was trying to tell me something.

I wondered what would happen if I dumped the text right then. Bad timing, I know. I decided to ask the students whether anyone had bought it, then see if those who had were ok with dumping it. We could write our own. Maybe we could put together the Wikipedia version I’d failed to create. Something. Anything.

So I went in and asked how many students had bought the text, since they were required to do so by that day. Three. Well, four if you count the one who had it on his Kindle. So I presented them with my problem, and my hatred of textbooks, and quickly discovered they basically felt the same way.

Then I told them the real problem behind the textbook issue, writing it on the board. I explained that there are three levels to my pedagogy:

  • Facts – the building blocks of history. We don’t have to memorize them but we must have familiarity with quite a few.
  • Interpretation – the use of those facts to support arguments, which I want them doing right away in their primary source work.
  • Themes – which require analysis on a larger scale than interpretation, and where they get to choose their own path.

The difficulty was only with the Facts. How do we get them? What possible use is there for a textbook if it’s only for facts, when we can find those facts elsewhere?

When I presented my idea for creating our own textbook somehow, from open and available sources, half a dozen students got all excited and participated in a lively discussion of how that might work. One student asked if they were really qualified to do this. I told them of my failed Wikipedia effort.

How, I asked, should we decide what to do with the idea? Not all students were into doing it. Some might be happier with the same old thing. One of the excited students said we should vote. I explained that I was concerned about the minority, who would get overrun. Between their mumblings that majority rule was what democracy was all about, and mine about my experiences being in the minority on many votes, we decided we should somehow have choice. I explained the quizzes were written already, and they were based on the book. How about if I gave them the question bank in advance and they can decide whether to buy the book, use it in the library, or just look up answers online to study? How about if those who wanted to edit the new textbook didn’t have to deal with any of that, but would have more work out of class?

By the third class meeting, 14 students had gone ahead and bought the book anyway, I assume to preserve comfort and predictability. It didn’t work – most students did poorly on the first quiz. I’m hoping that’s a separate problem.

The editor students so far seem to want to use Google Docs instead of a Moodle wiki to put together the book. I think it’s a bad idea because I can’t fix anything in a Doc really (no HTML toggle), but they essentially told me that making it look good was my problem. And I want them to work where they’re comfortable and have a sense of ownership. Today I created the file in Google Drive, like they told me to.

So we’ll try it. It might succeed, it might fail.

It’s hard to be dictatorial about these things when I know that there is no best way to do this stuff.

Redesigning the open online class show: POT Cert

I spent last week at the Connected Courses workshop, where amazing people are creating an open online class about, basically, how to teach an open online class. The energy was such that it reminded me of my previous life working in the theatre. The design and beginning development of that class in many ways looks like our POT Cert Class looked last year. Or really, two years ago, when we ran it in WordPress, using the FeedWordpress plugin to aggregate the feeds from participants’ blogs.

But there’s a huge difference between POT Cert and the Connected Courses theatrical productions. Connected Courses is supported by a grant structure and has staff, techies, a paid director, and many resources in addition to the design team I got to be part of. A Best Play Tony would send 20 people up to the stage. POT’s certificate class has been run by community theatre style volunteers: myself, the POT leaders who wanted to work on it, and the generous moderators and mentors (faculty, ed tech folks, and others) who paid it forward after getting their own certificate or joined out of altruism, love, appreciation, or insanity.


La Cage Aux Folles original cast, 1983

We have no money to act as either motivator or thanks – this is not professional theatre. We refused money years ago, because it corrupts our artistic freedom. But this isn’t a world where people can really afford to work for pizza (or retweets or good reviews), and no one wants to run the same show year after year. We must economize. Even Les Miserables and La Cage aux Folles have pared down their production designs. I think a lot of the POT Cert cast and crew have tired of doing it.

Another reason for ennui may be because the class never seems to move forward. Even the best, most experienced online instructor could become bored with the same interpretation of the same play.

I teach History to community college students. While my methods and materials may change each term, the students do not – they are beginners in History in the same way the faculty who need the POT Cert Class are beginners in online teaching. In both cases we’re trying to help newbies, not only by teaching them methods and having them explore content. Like any good play, we have a message. For History, my message is that primary sources can be put together into diverse narratives that answer the needs of society at the time. For online teaching, POT’s message is that faculty must begin with their own pedagogy, and then select and control the technologies that support and expand that pedagogy in the online environment. It’s the reason POT exists – to start faculty with pedagogy rather than letting technology control them. We don’t want an audience who’s seen this show before.

My emphasis in the old days was design, and in many ways it still is. Our current POT Cert design was moved from WordPress to Google Sites last year in order to simplify production with a smaller crew. As always, participants had to set up and run their own blogs, but instead of their posts feeding into a central blog via FeedWordpress, they had to post a link to their work in the discussion, and conversation took place at the Site instead of on their blogs. This worked well with the 25 or so participants we had, though I will never forgive Google Sites (or the many discussion forum alternatives) for not nesting replies cleanly, as WordPress does.

The number of participants in POT Cert has gotten slightly smaller each year, likely because there are now so many alternative shows competing with what we do (and I ain’t no Michael Eisner). Unfortunately, many of these Broadway alternatives provide technology training rather than pedagogical preparation, and are developed by educational technologists rather than in-the-trenches teachers. So what we do continues to be important. We rage against the Disney-fied edtech commercial culture machine.

Last year’s class in Google Sites was hard to run with three facilitators, though it was easier than in WordPress (FeedWordpress can have problems that would frustrate anyone who doesn’t code). And even with audience participation, the show runs too long for current tastes. At 24 weeks (a badge for each semester, and a certificate for completion of two semesters), it is a bit too Angels in America.

So this summer Laura and I began to design a self-paced learning pathway, with only six units, as a static WordPress site. It’s like the TV version of our class. The idea was that people could use the pathway themselves or in cohorts at their institutions. Communities using the content could be run elsewhere if desired, like friends sitting around a living room to experience it together. Or people could do the pathway on their own, and somehow automatically get a badge. But then the Connected Courses workshop reminded me that the cohort aspect of an open, online class is extremely important. The audience must feel and hear each other for it to work. I realized that the “self-paced” idea likely wouldn’t fly.

La Cage Aux Folles 2008 revival, London

La Cage Aux Folles 2008 revival, London

I think the new production will involve something like this:

1. Separation of the show from the audience 
This allows for more flexible use of the content, and a bit more instruction. And as we write it, Laura and I sense the joy of creation. Perhaps someday it will be a book, its own script.

2. Assigned seating 
Although anyone may use the content, we do need to “run” the community, and have continual feedback from other community members and ourselves. Without content, it’s just a community. Without community, it’s a disembodied course. With content and community connected, it’s a class. What happens on stage is only half, or less than half, of a successful show.

3. Audience as creators 
Our current class has always required participants to blog every week, with the final post of the semester and year consisting of a list of annotated links to all their previous work. It is that post, combined with their self-assessment, that we used to evaluate for the badge or certificate, since it puts everything in one place. Calling the blog posts something like Portfolio Assignments will make that clear from Day 1.

4. Angels in the Outfield instead of Angels in America 
If it has enough content, and more options for more experienced people, it should be possible to put what we need into a 12-week format.

So that’s where we’re headed, at least for now…I think we’ve got a show.

Tracking my elusive OERs

So I return from Connected Courses (whole other wonderful story) to find Alan Levine’s call for Open Educational Resources, and I think, hey, no problem, got lots of ’em…

I started hunting them down. Alan’s right – it wasn’t easy. Found some scat. Some prints… Oh! I remembered where I put one!

In the MERLOT cage…

where it’s so lonely, since 2006. No peer reviews, no discussion, no indications of use. Did anyone use it? I don’t know. It says it’s copyrighted when I didn’t copyright it. I’ll have to stuff it and mount it on the wall. Can’t claim it as a live sighting.

Over the years, I’ve seen my stuff, the stuff I put out in the wild. I’ve seen this image from my blog in a number of places (like wikis and Stephen Downes’ OL Daily). The post that went with it has been cited in a number of dissertations about MOOCs.

Are those real sightings? or just scat?

Maybe it’s more important that others have sighted my stuff, and used it for themselves, rather than redistributed it. They’ve taken a photo of my OER in the wild and put it on their wall of learning instead of cloning it. Before Slideshare got rid of my audio (for which I shall never forgive them), I had a number of lectures there as slidecasts.

Over 6,000 people viewed my “A Very Brief History of American Women Before 1919” (now in YouTube). Over 5,000 viewed my 6-slide presentation on Online Learning Theory. But what’s really interests me are my hour-long class lectures in history, which (when they had audio) were like taking a whole correspondence class in Western Civ. Thousands of views, many from regions far from the US. Somebody out there was learning, though without the audio they’re now learning a lot less.

So in Slideshare I have a graveyard of OERs, each with a flashy tombstone and visitors who put flowers on the graves.

I also have a fairly complete bank of my online lectures. They’re on a web page, in plain ole HTML. Does anyone use them? I don’t know.

I use several tools designed to track my influence on the web, but they hardly ever tell me when people post about me, so I can’t find these OERs either. (Lisa M Lane is the name I use. The other two Lisa M Lanes who are big on the web are an author of erotic vampire novels and a chess champion. I gave up.)

Do articles count as OERs? I put them on the open web so anyone can use them. Tweets? Flickr pics? Blog posts? This blog post? What about my the assignments I added to ds106?

So, like any academic, I’m gonna question the proposition. What is an OER? Is it a learning object in a repository? An idea (written or visual) that I put on the web and others used? Or are all these just blurry pictures?

5 comments to Tracking my elusive OERs

  • Lisa, I saw this post yesterday and kept on thinking about it, since this is a topic much on my mind this summer. Although I don’t think I really answer your questions, I wrote up a blog post here on why I value open content:

    And I guess I really don’t even use the phrase OER a lot because, at least for me, it’s not even exactly helpful (which is why I am a “secondary” type of person per Martin Weller’s categories). The crucial term for me is OPEN (i.e. really open, on the open Internet, searchable, linkable – no login, no password), and another key term for me is PUBLIC DOMAIN (since I am lucky enough to be able to rely almost entirely on the public domain for the content I am repurposing). Is the public domain an OER? Is it millions and millions of OERs? I’m not sure, but the public domain is essential to the content creation/curation work that I do, and I make sure to publish every single thing I create online. It’s easy, it’s optimistic, it works for me! So I use the words “open” and “public domain” a lot, but I really don’t use the term OER much at all.

    Meanwhile, I am jealous of your doppelgangers. There are lots of Laura Gibbses out there, but mostly lawyers and doctors, although there is one TV reporter and also an artist. But nothing so exciting as the author of an erotic vampire novel! 🙂

  • Thanks Lisa, your effort at sharing are vast and certainly “count” for sharing. It’s actually hard to find examples of ways people have reused your content unless they actually did that courteous act of letting you know via email, tweet, letter in the mail, etc.

    I remain completely gobsmacked, for all the stuff people tweet, talk about all these great resources, why can’t a few people just tell me a story of one small bit of re-use. Maybe I am not asking the right way…

    • Is “story” throwing them off? That implies a beginning (I post an OER), a middle (someone uses it) and an end (I find out or are told and that’s interesting somehow).

  • […] Lisa M Lane looked far and wide among her shared open content and found nary a nibble of reuse. […]