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Guest Post: An educator’s response to my open access pitch

August 20, 2010

Professor Amy Kinsel

When it comes to many curriculum, management, labor, financing and other issues in higher education I often look to my thoughtful and highly qualified constituent, Professor Amy Kinsel, for hands-on insight. Amy is a professor of History at Shoreline Community College as well as past president of the faculty senate. More than any one position, she holds a genuine ‘systems thinking’ approach to higher education, something we share and an idea that is essential to our state’s long term success. She’s both a strong supporter of two and four year institutions as well as a person who has taught me a great deal about creative ways to approach shared resources such as library infrastructure.

This week Amy had some particularly sharp thoughts about my post on open access to higher education through open course materials.

I invited her to outline her thinking in a blog post response. I am more than pleased to post it here and hope you’ll share any additional thoughts you may have either directly or publicly in the comment section.

If you’d like to make a guest post on an issue that has engaged your thinking, please reach out to me.

(Beginning of Kinsel post)

As a community college instructor and “passionate advocate of higher education and lifelong learning” (to borrow your phrase), I read with interest your August 12, 2010 blog post, “Want government reform? Open access to higher education.” I find much to agree with in your call for open access to higher education, yet I also have some concerns.

Unfettered access to information is one of the intellectual tenets of higher education. You call for open access to information online. I agree that Washington state students should have greater access to the educational resources they need online. As it stands now, Washington’s community and technical college students do not enjoy the same access to online resources as do students attending Washington’s four-year universities. Online resources such as e-books, digitized articles and documents, and scholarly journals and databases that are available to students at the University of Washington are not available to my students at Shoreline Community College. Providing these expanded online library resources to all the college and university students in the state would end what you call “artificial restrictions and limits” on access to information that is as essential to the educational success of my transfer students at Shoreline Community College as it is to the freshmen and sophomores attending the University of Washington across town. More radically, I believe that expanded online library resources should be made freely available to all Washington state residents who wish to access them, not just to college and university students.

As you note, access to information is powerful, and government-supported institutions should not be in the business of restricting access to information. However, equal and open access to information is only a part of what is necessary to provide educational opportunity for everyone. You write, “We need to educate more people to higher levels.” But will educating more people to higher levels happen simply through opening the spigot of information and letting it flow?

As an experienced educator, I know first-hand that education does not consist primarily of the transfer of information from books or professors to students. Access to information alone does not equal education. This is something I remind my students of all the time. I tell them at the beginning of each quarter that my job as their teacher is not to pour information into their brains and hope that some of it will swim around in there and morph into thinking. I tell them that my job is to help them learn how to think critically by asking questions, analyzing information, and expressing their own ideas about that information. My purpose is not to get students to memorize and regurgitate what they read. It is to get students to analyze what they read. The bulk of the learning in my classes takes place through assignments, in my case written assignments, that help students develop analytical skills. Merely knowing ideas and information is not enough. Developing the abilities to locate and evaluate resources, ask questions, analyze information, and reach conclusions are the higher-level cognitive skills that I grade students on and that employers are looking for.

In addition to open access to information, you call for additional investment in online instruction. This raises the question of how successfully online courses deliver education that is centered on developing higher-level analytical skills. I teach fully online courses that I believe are highly successful at developing these skills. I am confident that students who successfully complete one of my online courses have learned the critical thinking skills I aim to teach them. But surprisingly, some of what makes these courses successful are the very things that David Wiley of Brigham Young University, whose article on open education you post, criticizes. I’ll give my educator’s perspective on three issues that Wiley discusses: the high cost of textbooks, the restrictive practices of course management systems, and the potential to increase educational capacity through online instruction.

First, Wiley doesn’t like proprietary textbooks and advocates for open-source textbooks, presumably because of cost rather than an aversion to textbooks. For any introductory college course that presents a great deal of material that is new to students, assigning a pedagogically-sound textbook is essential to student success. This is especially true in an online course where reading is the primary method for conveying this material to students. Like most educators, if I could find a good well-written open-source textbook, I would assign it. Yet high-quality open-source textbooks don’t exist in many disciplines, particularly in politically-contentious fields like History. Until pedagogically-sound open-source texts are available in our disciplines, faculty like me will continue to assign commercially-published textbooks.

These can be a lot less expensive than many people think. In fact, using open-source texts may not be the best way to get around the high cost of commercial textbooks while still assigning challenging pedagogically-appropriate books. Making sure students are able to sell used books back to the bookstore every quarter results in tremendous cost savings and in my view is the best way to keep student costs down. This year, if students who register for a U.S. History survey course at Shoreline buy used textbooks and sell them back to the bookstore, they will have an effective cost for a commercial text with full-color illustrations and maps and online study aids of $27.26. Because this textbook covers the entire three-quarter U.S. History survey curriculum, students who enroll in all three U.S. History courses, buy a used textbook, and sell it back to the bookstore will have an effective textbook cost of $9.09 per quarter. With a cost-effective commercial textbook option like this, I don’t need to ask my students to use a second- or third-rate open-source text.

Second, Wiley doesn’t like commercial learning management systems (LMS) like Blackboard. It’s true that these are profit-making ventures and colleges pay fees to use them. If the cost of these systems is Wiley’s main concern, there are open-source alternatives available. Here’s a recent article about colleges that have moved from commercial LMSs to open source systems: Moving to an Open Source LMS: 3 Stories.

Wiley’s primary objection to LMSs seems not to be their cost, however. He complains that the LMSs are guilty of “hiding educational materials behind passwords and regularly deleting all student-contributed course content at the end of the term.” Wiley asserts that this “conceal-restrict-withhold-delete strategy is not a way to build a thriving community of learning.” On this point, I disagree. Yes, passwords in Blackboard restrict access to each classroom to students who are enrolled in the class, and student information and student postings are inaccessible to students after the end of the quarter. But why is this wrong? The online class disappears just like a face-to-face class ceases to exist when the instructor and the students no longer meet. What’s more, the “conceal-restrict-withhold-delete” process that Wiley criticizes is necessary and desirable for a number of good reasons that include student privacy rights and the responsibility of the instructor to create a safe learning environment for students. Frankly, I don’t see how a different approach would be consistent with federal law and with appropriate classroom pedagogy.

The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects students’ privacy rights to their educational records, including information about the courses they take, their grades and transcripts, and the work they create in class. Students may share their own personal information and classroom work as they see fit, but a college may not. Not only would doing so be illegal, it would not help students learn. In a “thriving community of learning,” students explore ideas, voice opinions, and try out arguments. All of these things are a bit scary and ought to be done in a classroom environment that feels safe to the students. Students need to feel confident and secure in their classrooms in order to risk stretching their minds by asking the “dumb” questions that show they are thinking or voicing the “weird” ideas that show they are learning. What sort of freedom of expression and thought would students engage in if they were worried that anyone in the blogosphere could see their names and read what they wrote forever? I’d have at least half or even more of the class opting out of posting online if they thought their posts would be open to the world.

Third, Wiley conceives of online instruction as easily and cheaply expandable. This differs significantly from the reality of my online teaching experience. Wiley’s contention that online teaching can be easily scaled up “to satisfy rapidly increasing popular demand” for higher education would be plausible if education really did consist of transferring information from textbooks and faculty to students. But since an education worthy of the name consists of learning, not information transfer, I submit that Wiley is wrong to suggest that online instruction is a cheap solution to higher education’s capacity and funding shortfalls. Certainly, there are no physical barriers to adding as many students as possible to the online courses I teach. But as a practical matter, making a course open to all comers will mean there are far too many students in the online classroom for critical thinking skills to be developed.

If I were responsible not for 25-30 students per online class but 60 or even 100 students, I would need to change how I teach. I could not assign analytical papers that I’d have to read and comment on, I could not field student questions, I could not read or reply individually to student posts, and I could not ask students to write essay exam questions that told me how well students understood important concepts and were able to apply critical thinking skills. Instead, my “teaching” would consist of pushing information out to students, not knowing whether they were critically engaged with the material, and relying on automatically-graded multiple-choice tests that assessed the students’ ability to repeat information from their textbooks. In addition to losing out on the development of critical thinking skills, students in this “open” course would have little opportunity to interact with me or their fellow students and would be unlikely to form a “community of learning.” Scaling up my course in this way might “educate” more people and be more “efficient” than the small classes I currently teach, but I have to wonder how well educated students in a larger online class would really be and whether many of them would even stick around to the end of the quarter to complete the course.

My online course for the upcoming fall quarter is U.S. Immigration History. This course meets a general education requirement and immigration is a hot topic right now. Although fall classes do not begin for another month, there are currently 25 students enrolled in the course with 15 students on the waiting list. With additional budget cuts looming for community and technical colleges, the college won’t be able to open another section of this course to accommodate those 15 waiting students and the 10 others who would quickly fill the class if a second online section were made available. Adding another online section is technically easy, but assigning me to teach another online course would mean assigning someone else—most likely an adjunct faculty member—to teach one of the face-to-face U.S. History courses that is currently on my fall schedule. This year the college has no money to do that.

Online education is a useful tool for reaching out to students, but it requires adequate funding. In this necessary discussion of how to make good on the core value of providing access to educational opportunity for everyone, I would first carefully examine how Washington’s colleges and universities are funded and look for ways to stabilize this funding. The current system of ever-declining state support and ever-increasing tuition rates is not sustainable and is already failing to make educational opportunities available for all students. Until we tackle the funding problem, talk of reaching additional students through online instruction will not result in additional capacity, additional access, or additional opportunity. I’d love to teach a second online class this fall, but even a dedicated public servant like me can’t do it for free.

(End of Kinsel post).

Your partner in service,


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