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Three ideals in one assignment!

Before I carry on any further with digesting Spiro and Alexander’s paper on open education in the liberal arts, I wanted to do two things: first, try to clarify a little of what I was discussing last week, and jump to the end of the paper to check out the section on obstacles facing open education. Wonderfully, I think I found a way to tie them both together! It’s a tenuous connection, but it is there.

What I was essentially trying to say last week is that grades and the degrees students are issued based on those grades are not intrinsically valuable; in much the same way as our currency operates, they operate on a belief system and, so long as we measure academic achievement in grades and degrees, the hope is that they can be “cashed in” down the line for a job, or an even more valuable degree. In that sense, a degree operates as a type of currency, an investment that will hopefully ensure a greater return in the future than the amount of money and effort initially invested. The problem, of course, is that rates of inflation for tuition have skyrocketed, student debt is at an all-time high, and the degree that would have guaranteed you some kind of employment a generation ago is now a riskier investment than ever.

In some ways, open education and edtech seek to combat this by reducing the cost of some facets of education, as well as making higher quality education available to more people. My thought on how to expand that even further, as I attempted to explain last week, was to create open online courses with final or periodic assessments based on student creations which have intrinsic value.

Think of it this way: for most classes, a final exam that tasks students with answering multiple-choice questions has no value outside of the class in which it is taken. You can’t take that final exam and cite it on a resume or show it to a potential employer as evidence of your aptitude. However, if the final assessment was to create a series of video lectures in which you demonstrate your knowledge of the material learned over the course of the semester, those lectures could be utilized as learning tools in various other contexts. They have usefulness and value outside of the class for which they were created, and might even be beneficial in demonstrating a student’s skills to someone who has no connection to that specific classroom environment. Of course, video lectures are only one example; anything that connects to the content being taught and has some usefulness or value outside of the classroom would fit the bill (eventually I suspect I am going to have to delineate between “usefulness” and “value,” since this study is becoming increasingly rhetorical, but within my own head they are fairly synonymous). You could also envision this idea as the difference between an economy based on paper money and one based on trade: in the first model, a symbolic representation of work is considered valuable because everyone agrees that it is, not because the bills themselves are useful. In the second, one might end up trading farm equipment for a goat, both of which have obvious intrinsic usefulness.

I do see the necessity in an educational model that offers more rote assessments, and I’m not trying to say that it should be abandoned. All I’m trying to suggest is that open online education is uniquely positioned, considering the potential for significant flexibility within that field, to provide an alternative model that could prove extremely beneficial for students.

Here’s where it gets really interesting, and a bit out there.

In the paper I’m reading, Spiro and Alexander describe some of the challenges impeding the adoption of open courses at liberal arts institutions. One of the biggest issues is, of course, money, and how to produce open educational resources (OER) that are high quality and low-to-no cost.

“Much of the work advancing open education takes place at the grass roots, with faculty contributing hours of free labor to produce OER. Although some authors are motivated by the opportunity to share their knowledge, it may be difficult to scale up the production of OER beyond this committed core without incentives. For faculty, time is at a premium, so most would need release time, funding, and/or credit toward tenure and promotion to commit to writing [OER such as] an open textbook.”
– Spiro and Alexander, 38

If you’ll follow me on this, what if the students themselves contributed to the creation of these resources, and what if their role in that creation was what they were ultimately graded on? UMW’s digital storytelling class maintains an Assignment Bank that students not only access to complete course objectives, but also contribute to by creating their own assignments. Doing so not only deepens their understanding of the medium they’re learning to create within, it gives them a greater sense of empowerment over their own education, and student-motivated learning is yet another huge component of edtech and open education. While the Assignment Bank is a far cry from a biology textbook that could be used in any classroom, open or not, I see great potential in this concept. Imagine if students were able to help their professors craft new OER as part of their overall learning experience, they could attach their name to whatever content they had taken part in creating, enabling them to use that creation as proof of skill (such as a chapter in a textbook, or a video lecture, or creating a worksheet), and said OER could go on to enrich the classes of other students and teachers down the line?

There’s a reason I’m tagging these posts as “rampant idealism,” of course; the educational model I’m describing above probably couldn’t function in the majority of open online classes going ton today, and would require a smaller course with more direct instructor involvement, such as ds106, to have any hope of functioning. But having students teach in order to learn is by no means a new concept, and the potential to empower students and give them something much greater than a grade at the completion of a course is worth considering, at least.


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