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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10 Responses to A value proposition, basic respect, whatever…

  1. Pingback: Confluence: Greg Ritter

  2. Jim says:

    What’s wrong with simply bagging on the CMS/LMS? 🙂

    Well, the abject shows the way, and I think you get at the crux of the matter via the inimitable Andre Malan—how can having access to the work you have done and the resources you have been “given” not be seen as a basic right of one’s education and part of the “value” one pay’s for. (Value is in quotes because whenever I say that word I think of “value added” and want to puke on my keyboard.) Your frame for this is excellent, and it disembodies thi argument from a technology and returns the onus to administration, professors, and students everywhere, who, I would argue, viz–viz the closed systemic logic of most LMSs have been able to ignore this simple idea of respect and access in the name of security and some notion of proprietary knowledge. And I think that is where the real issue leads to, what does it mean to make learning and sharing a proprietary act when it can be accomplished through cast networks for the sweat of one’s brow (which isn’t free, but ain’t $100,000 either—this is in US according the the cost of undergraduate costs).

  3. Brian says:

    Greg – I remember you from the glorious early days of my ed tech blogging journey, back when you had Ten Reasons Why you were right. We should have another beer sometime. But the link referenced in your trackback, pointing to something which I gather discusses my post, is itself closed off from me. I wish I knew what you were saying, especially since I presume you are sharing my views with others inside Blackboard.

    Jim – I’ll leave the bashing to the professionals. Your reaction to the term ‘value-added’ prods me to confess that I very nearly wrote about the competitive advantage of openness as offering a “superior product”… It was a horrifying moment, almost made me trash the whole post. So thinking in this way is something of dangerous game for me, and I figure it’s only a matter of time before I step on a landmine.

  4. Andre Malan says:

    You are right Brian, this is completely not about Blackboard or other LMS systems, I think my reaction yesterday was a bit knee-jerk. After all, any LMS developer’s first reaction when quizzed on openness will be “being closed is what was in the requirements”. That is what the administration wants and that is what the LMS delivers. The shift really has to come in terms of what value universities believe that they provide. Is it a degree? Or is it a network of peers, backed by knowledge of, availability and experience with high quality resources?

    I think the “experience with” part is something that is not often thought about and that neutralizes a lot of the force behind “But everyone else, even the students at other schools, will have access to the same resources!” I worked with those particular resources for 4-8 months, giving me a much greater ability to utilize them than anybody from a different school.

  5. Brian says:

    “a network of peers, backed by knowledge of, availability and experience with high quality resources?”

    Careful Andre. You’re getting dangerously close to describing an approach that would actually support real life-long learning.

  6. Pingback: A Value Proposition for Openness «

  7. Greg Ritter says:

    Brian, I didn’t even know I was sending you a trackback! 🙂 Here at Blackboard we use a wiki (Atlassian’s very excellent Confluence) for both client knowledge bases and internal project tracking, requirements, etc. Staff also have our own (internal-facing) personal wiki space. One of my users for my personal wiki is as a notebook for capturing “big ideas” from the industry that may be useful as a reference later. Apparently, Confluence has a trackback feature that I didn’t know about, though! Guess I should have RTFM, eh?

    Andre Malan’s problem, that you describe in your post, is not uncommon. It might interest you to know that there’s nothing in the Blackboard Learn product that requires a course to be inaccessible to a student after it is completed. It’s quite simple for an institution to continue to provide access to courses, and in fact that’s the default behavior of the product!

    Institutions have to take some action (e.g. disable/remove/archive the course site, disable/remove the user account) for the user to no longer have access to the course. However, most institutions implement policies of that nature. There are many reasons for that, but the most prevalent is rather pragmatic: in a university-managed system, it’s expensive and resource-consuming (from disk, database, and performance perspectives) to keep every course site for every section ever offered live and available in perpetuity. So most institutions implement some process where completed courses are archived offline after x amount of time.

    Anyway, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for change here — both in institutional policy, in the scenarios that our product supports (or could support), and in how faculty select and make available educational resources. That’s why I saved a link to your post in my notebook — it’s a story worth keeping in mind as we develop future versions. 🙂

    — Greg Ritter (Director, Product Management, Blackboard Learn)

  8. Brian says:

    Thanks for clarifying that Greg, I understand how these things go…

    And for what it’s worth, I agree with you (and with Andre’s point in his comment above), that when it comes to questions of openness and closed content, it is as much a question of policy as technology. I also know that archiving courses is fraught with complexity. (It must be even more difficult to make materials available, because I know we archive online courses in our LMS for a number of years for audit purposes, but obviously in a way that is not accessible to users).

    That said, I guess that’s why I think it is preferable to put materials in open, relatively lightweight content management frameworks whenever possible – as you know, it’s the security and multi-role access (yes, usually specified as a requirement by the users) that makes things complicated.

    I’m heartened to know that you are taking these thorny questions of openness into account in your development process. Feel free to drop by the Abject any time, Greg.

  9. Thanks for sharing your writings and experience…

  10. Pingback: Textbook torrents a-crashin’

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