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Can Universities Finally Learn to Share Before Facebook Does It for Us?

Universities can be stronger together.

May 4, 2020
 
 

“Oprah Winfrey will be everyone’s graduation speaker this year,” CNN reported this week. In a move blithely unconcerned with individual campus traditions and efforts, Facebook announced that it will hold a virtual graduation on May 15 for all college seniors unable to attend physical ceremonies at their own colleges. And Winfrey will be joined by Jennifer Garner, Lil Nas X and Awkwafina, with Miley Cyrus as musical backup. Resembling a Super Bowl halftime show more than the uniformed marching band performances of an Army-Navy game, Facebook graduation has gone all pro for sure.

Among other things, Facebook’s graduation ignores the obvious fact that most colleges and universities have been planning their own virtual graduation events for weeks, going to painstaking effort to make their Class of 2020 feel special with virtual message boards, home mailings, our very own graduation speakers and degree conferrals that reinforce the uniqueness of that magical moment when students are transformed into alumni of the college they have lived and studied at for four or more years.

Facebook’s play to outsource graduation feels much like an online program management company’s move to make university curricula ready for online prime time -- a bringing in of the big guns in order to do the thing up right. But more fundamentally, Facebook’s transformation into the OPM of graduation compels us to consider a thornier question: maybe Facebook is on to something. Should universities be duplicating effort and stretching limited finances in the middle of a global crisis, or should we think about ways that we might join forces to be more than the sum of our individual parts?

As universities around the world moved to remote teaching this spring, thousands of teaching and learning teams rushed to develop their own documents of best practices. And hundreds of thousands of faculty members started recording lectures in Panopto or Kaltura and developing new final exams that could be taken at home with books open.

Perhaps key elements of every class are unique and can’t be duplicated or reused. But every syllabus is also filled with textbook chapters and critical essays and video recordings made by others. Teaching is always, in a sense, an act of curating ideas and materials -- and, in the process, of collaborating in a de facto way with others across institutional divides.

For decades, educational activists have been developing open educational resource libraries -- banks of syllabi, lectures, exam questions, images, charts and other materials to be used in classes. One of the most ambitious efforts to create open resources is MIT’s 2001 OpenCourseware project, which put the university’s entire curriculum online, causing engineering schools around the world to remake their own rosters and course modules.

During the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen organizations and corporations around the world go open. The British Museum put close to two million images online this week for anyone to download and use. The Metropolitan Opera, the British National Theatre and other national, regional and local theaters have been streaming performances for the past six weeks. Performers from Lady Gaga to Lin-Manuel Miranda have been performing for free from their living rooms.

Educational software, databases and collections have also been opening up as physical libraries remain closed. Adobe made its creative suite of software available to students, scholarly repositories like Project Muse and JSTOR opened up access during the pandemic, and digital platforms like Coursera and edX have launched COVID-19 response programs that make their courseware available to universities and colleges, not to mention the billions of students around the world unable to attend classes.

Many of these efforts engage universities in myriad ways -- as partners who provide curricula, as clients who license material and as users of resources. But they, like the universities they serve, assume that a stance of competitive isolation rather than collaboration will govern how universities interact with each other.

Of course, universities compete with each other in many ways. They compete for students, faculty, donors, rankings, resources, and the list goes on. And brand differentiation is key to this competition. But at a time when we are all in it together -- struggling to adapt to the challenges brought by COVID-19 -- and when we collectively confront the potential challenge of delivering all or part of the fall semester online, joining forces to develop the best pedagogical resources for the classes that we all need to teach might make sense.

Adopting a special teams approach to the game we are going to play come August might mean that we coordinate efforts now to develop a shared bank of guest lectures for common subjects and courses that could be used in flipped or hybrid classroom settings. We could create a password-protected repository of take-home, open-book exam questions. We could share the expense of creating laboratory, design studio or computer simulations. Dividing the load of producing asynchronous course materials could enable us to scale up in the three months ahead, and we would all end up more prepared to offer the highest quality of instruction.

There has always been some resistance to open resources -- who wants another voice in the classroom, and will these other voices potentially threaten our lone instructional authority? Could shared resources obviate the need for faculty altogether, even though textbooks, syllabi and lecture videos have never been a substitute for the personal interaction of a classroom? And then there are intellectual property issues to consider, though Creative Commons licenses can help. A special teams approach might mean that we reach across the institutional aisle to develop new approaches to assessments and share best practices that have begun to emerge.

Awkward as this coordinated approach might initially feel and limited as it may ultimately be to solve all the challenges we confront this summer, it may be worth undertaking if we don’t want outside players -- like Facebook or others -- to swoop in with self-interested attempts to "save the day" for universities that such companies are only too happy to depict as being unable to cope. Maybe it’s time to say, “Facebook, we’ve got this one covered.”

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