I get the feeling sometimes that most of the creative energy spent on courses is in designing the perfect syllabus and choosing the right readings to create the Platonic Course. What students learn is a more or less successful corruption of that ideal, but rather than focus on students, we tinker with the syllabus and readings. I came to this conclusion about syllabus construction when I was involved in the student learning outcomes part of faculty development. When faculty got together to redesign a course, what they wanted to do was tinker with the syllabus and readings. They wanted to focus on something they felt they could control – what they would teach. Learning was presumably up to the students.
The other ingredient that seems to occupy a lot of creative energy is selecting course texts. Some content-heavy courses really need a textbook to reinforce and systematically explain things that will be foundational to an entire course of study. For more advanced courses, the reading load often consists of classic essays and book chapters, ones that in some define the discipline or challenge it in important ways.
But there’s a limit to how much students can absorb from any of these resources. I hear again and again from students that they have so much to read they don’t have time to read well. The might get the reading “done,” but they feel they barely skimmed the surface. I suspect faculty inadvertently are using the banking concept of education. Deposit course readings into the syllabus and from there into the student and voila! They have been educated.
Investing in the Bank of Education
Apart from the pedagogical issues involved, we’re running into another banking concept that is troubling. It seems appropriate to be writing this on the day when Wikipedia, the world’s most ambitious attempt to pool information about everything and make it available to everyone without accruing any profits, has gone dark in protest of bills before Congress that are supposedly meant to stop piracy but would actually break the Internet as we know it without denting piracy. By happenstance, it’s also the day that the Supreme Court upheld the right of Congress to take public domain materials and give them to the private sector whenever it wants. 'Cause, you know, they can; promoting science and the useful arts is optional. We have relied on the private sector to create course materials and to disseminate our research. In some cases, scholarly societies publish research, but many outsource their publishing to private corporations or make so much money themselves on publications that they join with the public sector in opposing the open access movement. Education is big business, and educational publishing is, too.
Here's a thought: What if, instead of handling information as intellectual property, we thought about it like libraries? What if we believed that it was socially beneficial to share knowledge and resist attempts to censor it? What if we believed that people should be allowed to read widely without being tracked because privacy is an important condition of intellectual freedom?
We’d fall afoul of the information industries as they exist today which depend on monetizing personal information and/or disabling sharing. These industries are pushing legislation that will protect those business practices, even at the cost of breaking the Internet and taking libraries offline.
Take a bite of this apple and you'll know everything!
New platforms aren't going to fix the problem. In so many ways we are treating the Internet the way deregulated banks treated the housing market. Everyone can play! No nasty regulations to tie our hands! Don’t bother reading all that technical fine print, just sign here. We do it all the time with our scholarship – and it becomes property of highly profitable corporations who price it out of range for most libraries. We know textbook prices are too high, but we adopt them anyway because . . . well, it’s not coming out of our hides. Besides, we aren't hounded by reps to adopt open access texts; we have to find them ourselves - and no free tote bag. We let Apple and Amazon lock culture up because their platforms are just so darned convenient and slick and inviting.
The word of the day seems to be “friction.” Libraries are full of friction, because you have to work to find what you need. Some friction is added artificially because intellectual property owners demand it. Buying an ebook is easy, but downloading a library ebook is not. That’s deliberate, and it’s not the library’s choice. Lots of publishers and film companies are now simply telling libraries they can't have their new wares. Now, that's friction.
Let me put that a different way. They will not let us share what we’re willing as a community to pay for. A wrinkle on that is scholarly presses suing academic libraries for putting electronic materials on reserve rather than expecting students to pay dearly for the right to read. (You should read that blog post. TL:DR version: it would cost you over $3,000 to provide access for a class enrolling 100 students to the article "Selling (out) Feminism: Sustainability of ideology – viability tensions in a competitive marketplace." That's just one article! Somebody sold out something.)
Just as we're awating some big announcement that Apple will be making with its usual Apple-polishing panache, a group of large institutions is trying to broker a better deal with textbook publishers. Good luck. Library consortia have been doing this for a long time. It’s not working out so well. Why can’t we broker a deal amongst ourselves to fund the development of open textbooks and open access research? We have the content and we have the skills to build our own GarageBand for education. The library once was a sort of GarageBand for education - both platform and content. We can make it frictionless if we don't give copyrights away routinely and if we invest for the future. We can build the platform and fill it with content - and with all the money going to locked-up content, we could do it really well.
The other word of the day is “sustainability.” That one drives me crazy. The People have sustained libraries longer than the companies that legislate against libraries and the Internet have been in existence. There is no reason we can't spend our money differently to sustain a model that respects openness and sharing to advance knowledge for all - if we choose to.