USG symposium debates the future of open education

David Wiley, the keynote speaker of the UConn open source education symposium at the Rome Common Ballroom, gives a speech on defining the word "open" on Tues., April 19, 2016. Wiley is known by those in the field as the godfather of open education. (Zhelun Lang/Daily Campus)

To embrace open and affordable education resources will require passion, creativity and hard work from individuals, including students, according to a Tuesday presentation at the University of Connecticut from a Brigham Young University professor and open education resources (OER) advocate.

“I want to persuade you that education is a special kind of sharing. Great teachers have a knack for sharing passion of their discipline; not just a bunch of facts but a love of learning,” said Professor David Wiley, who serves as Chief Academic Officer of Lumen Learning and as Education Fellow at Creative Commons.

Wiley was the keynote speaker of “Affordable Textbooks: It Starts With Us,” a symposium in the Lewis B. Rome Ballroom organized by UConn’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and Affordable Textbook Initiative.

OER includes  open source textbooks, which are essentially free or extremely cheap textbooks that students can access online.

“This (event) is the culmination of a year marked by great strides in open source,” said Martha Bedard, UConn’s Vice Provost for Libraries.

Two years ago USG, UConnPIRG and UConn’s libraries collaborated to create an open source committee, which Bedard currently chairs.

“Students haven’t just been talking this,” USG president-elect Daniel Byrd said. “They’ve been taking action and putting their money into this.”

Open source, particularly open source textbooks, intends to combat the rapidly increasing cost of textbooks. Textbook prices have increased about 1,500 percent since 1970, Wiley said taking data from the Economist.

 

A new textbook for Fundamentals of General Chemistry I, for example, costs $297.35 through the UConn Co-op Bookstore.

“I haven’t met a student who hasn’t been affected by textbook prices, be it dropping a class or going without a class,” Byrd said.

Some students, especially those in math- and science-related majors (where textbooks are generally most expensive) might be expected to pay about $1,200 (about the cost of a new Apple laptop) each semester, Byrd said.

In the same era that textbook prices are skyrocketing, the Internet has made it possible to share massive amounts of information at almost no cost, Wiley said. Many students download free textbook materials from the Internet, which publishers say is illegal and unethical.

“Students have related that it’s just as unethical to exploit them through online quizzes (which require they buy a new issue) and a new edition every third year,” Wiley said. “They get really worked up… but I’m more inclined to agree with the students.”

What the Internet makes technically possible, open source would make legal, Wiley said.

In keeping with his philosophy, all the slides from Wiley’s “High Impact OER Adoption” presentation are available for free online.

Wiley defined “open” as offering free and unfettered access, along with an essential “5Rs:” Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix and Redistribute. The ability to retain is the most essential, he said.

Many of today’s popular sharing sites, like Netflix and Spotify, are “faux-pen,” Wiley said. A user can view or listen to the content (usually through a fee) but cannot make their own copy.

“If I can’t make my own copy I’ll always be at someone’s mercy,” Wiley said.

To extensively adopt OER (through what Wiley dubbed “High Impact OER”), would make education more affordable and improve student success on a wide scale.

Wiley said open source could even be beneficial to administration. Textbook costs are so high that they often discourage students from taking classes. Not only does this dampen the education they’re receiving; the students are actually paying less tuition to the university.

Wiley’s keynote was followed by a presentation from political science doctoral student Tim Dzurilla and then a panel made up of students, faculty and administrators.

During the panel discussion Professor Jeremy Teitelbaum, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, expressed doubts about OER.

“Open coursework is a wonderful thing but I think it’s important that people are allowed to benefit from their work,” Teitelbaum said.

Teitelbaum said it’s reasonable for individuals to make a profit from their creative contributions, while acknowledging that publishers have used some exploitative tactics.

“Patent and copyright are essential to innovation,” Teitelbaum said. “Only if people are able to protect and profit from their work will incentives for innovation be there.”

Teitelbaum added that some particular textbooks have “literally revolutionized” their fields, particularly Paul A. Samuelson’s texts on economics. Teitelbaum said these Samuelson’s work made it possible to teach economics to the masses.

Another panelist, chemistry professor Edward Neth, said the viability of OER depends on the field.

“You could probably take the top five chemistry books, swap their covers and hand them out to faculty and no one would know the difference,” Neth said. “If you try to innovate, publishers will shoot you down. They want to appeal to the broader market.”

Neth himself is working to adapt an open chemistry textbook developed by OpenStax, a nonprofit at Rice University, for his own chemistry classes. Students will receive the option to get a free electronic copy or a $50 hard copy.

Wiley acknowledged that open source is likely to require some major investments, but he said that they have potential to be superior to traditional materials.

Undergraduates in the U.S. spend approximately 40 million hours doing homework every year, Wiley said. Much of this time is spent on “disposable assignments,” which are graded and then discarded.

Students could instead be spending their time on “renewable” assignments, which would involve actively engaging with learning and creating education resources that other students could use. There are ways students could even be recruited on the path to designing open education resources.

his own classes, Wiley has had students supplement the syllabus with additional readings and videos. Another project of his creation had students edit the Kennedy-Nixon debate to address the differences between blogs and wikis.

At one point in the video project, the Kennedy character says, “Ask not what your wiki can do for you, but what you can do for your wiki.”

Wiley explained that this line of thinking could be essential for making OER accessible while also making learning a creative process.

In his own presentation, Dzurilla said that organizing and contextualizing information through projects (perhaps similar to Wiley’s) are the real process of educating.

“OER complements an engaged, practical pedagogy,” Dzurilla said.

Kathy Labadorf, project coordinator for the Affordable Textbook Initiative, said that open source has great potential but requires contributions from creative and passionate individuals to fix its current shortcomings.

“Open is disruptive just like Napster was disruptive,” Labadorf said. “Hopefully in the end the bad will disappear and the good will remain as we move along.”


Chris McDermott is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.mcdermott@uconn.edu.