Production is sexy. Reuse is not.
The famous recurring lie of George Costanza on Seinfeld is that he is an architect. “Nothing is higher than ‘architect’,” he says to the young slacker he is mentoring in one episode. If you’re going to say you’re something, you might as well go with that.
And culturally, he’s right. You can use a building, remodel a building, restore a building. You can save a building from termites, convert an office building into condos or vice-versa. You can make a building accessible to the disabled, come up with a time-sharing plan that effectively doubles the building’s capacity, retro-fit it with solar panels, or reinforce it to meet existing code. All these things are important. Some might save the world. But not one of them will get you the respect that designing and building a new building will get you.
Production is a nice place to be.
Credit: David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp
The issue in higher education is that the really hard and important problems — the problems that no one has solved yet, the problems that will ultimately destroy us — are problems of reuse, not production. David Wiley nailed this years ago in his reusability paradox. Briefly stated, the paradox is this –
- Designing for reuse (in most situations) means removing contextually-dependent hooks from designed objects.
- The value proposition of higher education, unfortunately, is largely the process of contextualization of knowledge. What students find useful in a course is the coherence-building that a teacher and other students provide. Small contextually-dependent hooks such as “As we mentioned last week” are the bread-and-butter sense-making of any course.
- Therefore “pedagogical effectiveness and potential for reuse are completely at odds with one another.”
To some extent calling out this paradox was a plea for a truly open set of educational resources – not PDFs of slides, but actual editable PowerPoints. Not DRM’d learning objects, but cuttable videos. Not textbooks as ePubs, but textbooks as editable documents. To be open is to permit local re-contextualization.
In reality, we did not often meet that challenge. How much time did we waste with OCW stamped on every page with an unremovable logo that screamed to students “This is not your class. This is not your teacher.”? Dig deep into the history of open education and you’ll find that much of its grant-funded design is not only indifferent to institutional reuse, but openly hostile to it. And it is that way because the perception is that production, not reuse, is the issue we are trying to solve.
So where do we go from here, in the age of MOOCs? It depends, I suppose, on what you want to happen. CMOOCs dealt with the reuse issue by pushing the contextualization down to the level of the participants. XMOOCs dealt with the issue by making everybody part of the same big class. In an xMOOC the phrase “As we were talking about last week” makes sense because to be using the learning object is to be in the class.
While both of these approaches have their uses, particularly in the areas of lifelong learning, professional development, and distance education, none solves the problem that I and many, many others remain obsessed with – how do we bend the cost curve of traditional face-to-face higher education while improving its quality? How do we use technology to strengthen and improve the higher education system we already have?
If you want that – if you want a world in ten years where most students still have access to face-to-face experiences with students and professors — the key to that is MOOC reuse.
For producers of MOOCs, this means actively engaging populations that want mesh your MOOC with an existing class or credit-bearing experience. The University of Mary Washington’s Ds106 project has been exemplary in this regard, and the flexibility that course has gained through its multiple institutional re-imaginings has made it stronger for all involved, including students at UMW. On the other hand, over in the realm of anti-patterns, Coursera actually prohibits students from using their materials as part of a credit bearing class. For all the talk about Coursera, this fact generally goes unremarked. From a production perspective, Coursera is incredibly impressive. From a reuse perspective Coursera is as unrevolutionary as a for-profit textbook publisher. An openness that does not allow institutional reuse is not is not an openness we can afford to support at this point in history.
Allowing for reuse is just one step. Building a culture of reuse also means designing for reuse. In the Intro Psych xMOOC project I am working on, we have struggled with how different institutions might “wrap” a variety of experiences around the core course. One of the problems is that different institutions might want to use different amounts of the running xMOOC — one professor might want to use the lectures, readings and reading quizzes from the class, but handle the reading response activities on her own. Another might want to use the class, only the reading response activities. One might want to use it as a one-credit equivalent supplement to an existing course, another might like it to function as a nearly complete experience. How do you accomplish this in the context of a single running class?
The way we are solving this is simple, but I have not seen it used as a solution elsewhere. Each assignment (watching video lectures, reading supplemental readings) is paired with an assessment (video quizzes, reading response). That assessment is weighted based on the amount of time exemplary completion by an average student would take, where 6 points equals sixty minutes. The co-instructors using the course in a wrapped context will get a course section assignment for their subcohort, which will allow them to see the point totals in different areas. From there, it is as simple as saying on the syllabus “For this class you are expected to complete 60 points of reading responses in the xMOOC.” and this is easily understood by the professor as about 10 hours of work in the xMOOC. It’s simple fixes like this, added together, that will result in truly great pairings of centrally run courses with engaging local experiences. And it starts with seeing the reuse perspective as being as important as the use perspective.
Finally, we need more than reuse-conscious MOOC builders. What we really need are people that are will to take on the more demanding task of figuring out how reuse could work from the perspective of an institutional consumer of MOOCs. And when I say “more demanding”, I don’t think I am exaggerating. We’ve had successful production of OCW and other OER for over a decade now, with plenty of use-cases of self-learners being successful. We’ve done online learning since at least the 80s. We’ve done CBT since the 60s. There’s a ton of successful models for people to draw on if they want to build effective large scale online courses. Even in MOOC-world, we are entering year five of these things, and it has been a pretty successful five years.
On the other hand, we have failed miserably at institutional reuse, and at using these distributed experiences to help slow the rising cost of education. And I think we are failing because reuse is a harder problem with less prestige associated with solving it.
Ages ago, David Wiley talked about calculating your “EduCarbon footprint” – figuring out how much you reused the educational materials of others vs. creating your own and taking pride in that reuse.
I suppose, four years later, I’d like to propose something even simpler. If everybody currently producing MOOCs for their college would commit to reusing just one other institution’s MOOC or ds106-like experience in their college as part of a credit-bearing course experience, and if they would report out on the obstacles and opportunities with that, then we might actually start to solve the problems that matter rather than just producing more vanity-ware. And reusing the works of others, in turn, will not only impact our bottom lines, but also be an important lesson that feeds back into how we design for reuse and impact.
There are models out already out there, waiting to be tested. I alluded to some above. A “wrapped MOOC” wraps a face-to-face seminar (or other high-impact experience) around a MOOC core, allowing the offering instructor to spend her time helping students make meaning rather than designing quizzes and delivering PowerPoints. A “MOOC follow-on” would allow students to use a MOOC as a prerequisite to a locally grounded, community engaged project – students take the MOOC with an eye towards later in the semester when they will have to apply that knowledge to a project-based learning course. If they demonstrate the knowledge provided by the MOOC in the construction of the project, they get credit for both experiences.
Offerings like this would help us break through the credit-hour productivity problem, providing students more credit hours than we have to explicitly teach, while allowing faculty to concentrate on the sort of things that face-to-face environments do best. They have the potential, if we get them right, to preserve the face-to-face experience of college for future generations and to make sure that the state colleges that are the hub of so many small communities don’t implode, taking the surrounding communities with them. They have the potential to prevent the dismantling of education into a series of consumer goods offered through a voucher system that benefits corporations at the expense of students, and the potential to protect the important cultural role played by university researchers and experts.
Experiments with reuse can do all of that. They could save the whole damn thing.
Or we could continue to build yet more vanity MOOCs for our institutions, which might get our press releases picked up by The Chronicle.
It’s our choice, really.