Sloan-C Conference: Day Two

A SLOAN-C Welcome

Couldn’t help but smile when I opened my hotel room door (stumbling out to forage for coffee) to find a shrink-wrapped copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education (with special online education insert) on my doorstep.  Ah, yes…I am in the right place. Here at SLOAN-C, I feel like I’m steeping in the most satisfying cup of tea, surrounding by smart, adventurous thinkers who see education as an exciting landscape, full of potential.  Hundreds of sessions (each one sounds like something I’d like to hear about), live twitter feeds displayed around the hallways, each session’s outside the room poster includes a QR code (shown above), the exhibit hall chock-full of intriguing products and services, and even a smart phone app to create your own personalized conference schedule.

Creative Commons Licenses

Today’s agenda started off with a plenary address from Cable Green (Director of Global Learning, Creative Commons) , “The Obviousness of Open Policy“.  Green explains that he is interested in questioning current business models and practices. His slides are all up on slideshare.net/green, under a creative commons license (but of course).

Green gave us a rousing intro to the “open” community – the players and the philosophy….the hope that everyone, everywhere can access affordable access to training for whatever knowledge/skills they want to acquire. It’s not just free (as in free beer) but free as in “freedom” – this is critical to the academy as we take these resources, re-purpose them, improve them, and redistribute them. The internet, of course, is our free distribution network and a new mass willingness to share – an empowerment to do so is the fuel that will run it. According to Green, there 500 million items on the web with creative commons license.

He talked about rivalrous vs. non-rivalrous reources.  A rivalrous resource is one that can only be used once or is rare. But with the internet and open sharing, these basic education resources can be non-rivalrous. David Wiley (BYU and “Chief Openness Officer” with Flatworld) challenged public school teachers in Utah to replace their commercial textbooks with OER textbooks.  The teachers located the books they wanted, amended them to make them their own, they ran 2000 copies to give to the students in print for $5/book.

The commercial textbook industry really took a hit in his talk –  Green took aim at the $20 billion per year spent in the U.S. on textbooks, paid for by taxpayers. According to Green, most countries spend between 5-6% of their GDP on education, which extrapolated out across worldwide spending, comes to $2.9 trillion per year world-wide. How much of that is spent on developing courseware or purchasing textbooks?  He didn’t know….but his argument is that if we move to a simple open policy, then it will free up billions of dollars to invest differently in education.  Kind of fast and loose with the math there, I think. Textbook purchases are a small portion of the amount of money spent on education in our country, or any country.

I am a big supporter of Creative Commons but I think that demonizing the commercial publishing industry is a straw dog. Making educational materials open, affordable, and is certainly a good idea, but that alone will not solve the world’s education problems. I also think that advocates of open source education materials grossly under-estimate the amount of time, attention and care required to keep materials “accurate, current, and effective.” Speak to any textbook author about how much work is required to get those materials right – this is not trivial work. Sharing creative commons materials and asking faculty to “refine and make them their own” (as Green advises) merely shifts the responsibility and the work from the commercial publishers to the faculty members on campus.

Not only that, I think that so much focus on the cost of textbooks deflects from all of the other costs and issues that make education so expensive. We need to be talking about all of that – tuition costs, administrative costs, research costs, bricks & mortar costs, academic athletics. Using open source textbooks provides small relief to that total.

It’s as if the commercial publishing industry is a convenient enemy – a scapegoat.  Those “evil publishers” raking in the dollars (which many faculty members complain about as they gladly accept the publishers’ gratis testbanks, professional development, online animations, and videos) and locking up the copyright on their content which was incredibly expensive to create. I say, let a million flowers bloom – many schools and instructors will want to continue to use vetted, refined, commercial education products and others will want to make their own or share a creative commons product. That’s fine. Stop obsessing on commercial publishers as the bad guys and start thinking more creatively about how to make education work.

Having said that, I found him provocative and interesting and admired his passion for the subject (though I could have done without the revival-preacher tactic at the end, getting us all to chant in unison). I see tremendous strength in his recommendation to make a mental shift from “not invented here” to “proudly borrowed from there”.

After the plenary, I did a bit of grazing – bouncing from session to session.  Not very satisfying but there were so many good talks that I couldn’t help myself. I stopped in to see Rochester Institute of Technology’s use of SL to teach computer technology, listened to part of a panel discussion on for-profit colleges and their impact, and an interesting session on data visualization. I finally landed in Laura Dell’s (University of Cincinnati) session called “Design on a Dime:  Using Open Source Technologies for Online Learning“.  Terrific session – really practical and specific. Here are some of her gems:

– She goes by the “rule of one” – she will use one new technology in a given course (otherwise the course becomes about technology and not about the content) and always leaves room in the schedule for problems

– She’s finding many more of her students are doing their assignments on a mobile device (she gets more emails these days with “sent from my Blackberry” on the bottom)

– She uses Eyejot – the free version now lets you record up to 5 minutes on the free version (used to 1 minute which was why I didn’t use it – cool!).  Recordings go straight to email, recipient doesn’t have to have Eyejot account. They have an embed feature.

– She creates brief PDF instruction documents for students for the tools she uses (they like having that on paper)

– Tries to add more audio to her courses (often audio can solve the problem and it’s much easier to create than video).  She uses audio feedback in her courses (she records 2.5-3 minute feedback to students – faster and easier to give constructive feedback, also files are small, easy to email)

– She likes VoiceThread (free tool to structure group conversations around images) in place of discussion boards. She likes it because she can set up a VoiceThread and the students can choose the way they give their input on that item. You can type, you can upload a video file, you can “phone it in” (3-minute limit) and record yourself speaking. Free version but she’s opted for the pro account as she needed the added administrative functions and storage space. In the final product, each person’s feedback is represented by little boxes, framed around the main image. There’s also a VoiceThread mobile now.

One of the things I really liked about this session was Laura’s attitude toward it all – she was practical, clear-eyed, and optimistic without being a pollyanna. For example, one of the folks asked, “what do you do if a student comes to you to debate their grade and the VoiceThread or the Eyejot has been deleted?” Laura responded by saying that she tries not to focus too much on the outliers as she develops her courses and assignments.  Some students will cheat, some will complain or sabotage projects but she’s opted to concentrate on all the ways that these new tools will benefit most of the students and not get bogged down in the few that will subvert the system.  Amen, Laura.

In the afternoon I attended a great session on mobile learning.  Lots of fun playing with iPhones & iPads.  Good idea:  inject an expert into a small group of students by use of FaceTime on the iPhone. Have the expert lined up in advance, s/he talks with the students in their group via FaceTime.  The organizers of this session passed two iPads and two iPhones around the crowded session room and we were all amused over and over again, waving to each other via Face Time.  Also took a look at the Chromebook (under $400 – net appliance) and the NeuroPhone (out of Dartmouth) wireless EEG-enabled user control of an interface (whoa).

Sloane-C poster session

One final session that wasn’t all that good (so hard to tell and then, once you’re in there, seems rude to leave) and then the poster session which, true to the audience here, is an electronic poster session. High tables set up in the center of the exhibit hall with a position, marked by a QR code-adorned sign, for each poster presenter to put their laptop. I wandered through, spoke with a few of the presenters, and then back to my room to collapse.  Feeling like my head’s about to explode!

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