A value proposition, basic respect, whatever…

Open Access Chalkboard shared CC by Gideon Burton

An anecdote from Andre Malan’s must-read blog:

I am currently working at a software company as an intern, writing a program. Now of course, as anybody who has taken Software Engineering knows (don’t worry readers who are not in Computer Science, I promise I will not lose you), when you make software you have to provide different types of documentation about it. Things like, why you made it, how it works, how to use it, who is going to use it… all these things and many more have to be written down formally and saved somewhere in order for your software to live a long and happy life.

Now, Software engineering (CPSC 310) is a class that in part teaches you how to write all of this essential documentation. I took this course with Meghan Allen, one of my favorite professors simply for the fact that she teaches like a human being and not an automaton. This is post is no reflection on her, just on the system that she is pushed into using by those above her . Anyway, in the course she would explain why this documentation was needed and how to do it. She would then provide us with careful examples of what it should look like. We were asked to use her examples as reference when creating our own documentation for our class project.

So far so good, pretty normal learning experience. But, we skip ahead to right now. My little program that I am writing for this big software company needs documentation. I remember why, but am very fuzzy on how. What to do? Of course, I can just go back to the example from class an… but wait. The examples were posted in Blackboard. I can’t see them anymore. They were a great resource… utterly useless as I have no way of applying it to a real life situation.

Andre is none too pleased, and it’s hard to blame him. But I’m not writing this post to bash anyone, in fact before I go on I’ll extend Andre’s generous account of Allen’s motives to the vast majority of the education professionals who use learning management systems. These people don’t set out to screw students, though at some point our inability to permit basic access should force us to ask some fundamental questions about the assumptions embedded in the technology we use. Not only is Andre denied access to materials that he has paid for when he’s out in the workforce, he (along with his fellow students, and instructors) is similarly prevented from making links, references and building upon other courses that he’s taken even when he is an active student.  At some point even the noblest motivations aren’t enough.

The point here is not to trash the proprietary CMS, but to point out a value proposition that is obvious, but one I don’t hear stated near often enough. An institution that embraces openness can tell its students, potential students and alumni that a real effort will be made to ensure access to the resources one encounters in courses. Usually, when the argument for sharing is made, the automatic rejoinder is that to make learning materials available is to surrender some kind of competitive advantage. “Look at MIT“, they say, “ever since they launched OpenCourseWare they are just another school, their once-esteemed reputation is in tatters.” But couldn’t an institution that gets ahead of its competitors be able to claim a genuine advantage over schools that don’t?

“But everyone else, even the students at other schools, will have access to the same resources!” I hear you say it. “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” Really, I hear you say that too. But these cliche-spewing voices in my head are not your concern. Note instead that Andre is able to quickly find comparable content online. And isn’t it obvious why he would still prefer the course materials? Anyone who has taken a good course from a good teacher is aware of the energy generated in the spaces between the human element and the subject matter. It’s why most of us need more than a library card to get an education. It’s why Andre wants to be able to apply something he learned from an excellent instructor in the manner that she contextualized it.

Wouldn’t the people charged with recruiting student for an institution be able to make a claim for superior practice? Wouldn’t they like to be able to claim that a real effort to use lower-cost open textbooks is made whenever possible? Call it fair value for the commitment required to get an education. Call it a recognition of the extraordinary economic challenges that students face. Call it basic respect. Call it kicking ass and taking names. But an embrace of openness need not be seen as an act of charity, but one of enlightened self-interest.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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