--- A guest post by John Drabinski (Amherst)
Should professors make their teaching and research openly – even massively – accessible? Last year, we discussed the ramifications of free access rather intensely in the Amherst College faculty. The content of our discussions can provide food for thought for faculty members at places facing similar decisions.
The three decisions: 1) we approved a web-available College repository for College faculty members' article publications; and 2) we approved making Amherst College Press an open-access press; but 3) we refused to accept MOOC proposals from the Big Three: Udacity, Coursera, and edX.
Let me explain why we made those decisions.
Let me say at first that we have a bottom-up governance structure. So much of the discussion came from us, not the administration
Repository. The first initiative was the introduction of a generalized appendix to article publication contracts, which requests transfer of non-exclusive rights to the College, which then transfers the rights to the author. The author uploads the PDF to a depository on the website, making the work free to all with an internet connection (and the luck of finding the way to the depository - but that's another issue.).
There was reluctance about the repository, but it passed. People worried about their work being so readily available, supporting the virtue of selecting their audience through paywalls and databases. People also worried about the future of small print journals - even though there's nothing wrong with recasting those same journals as open access (as we did with the Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy). There is actually no evidence that university repositories lead to subscription cuts.
Open access press. The second initiative was the founding of of Amherst College Press as a peer-reviewed, fully open access publisher of books (and perhaps journals). The open access press passed without resistance. That the press is fully funded by the College so that the funds do not come from salary or benefit pools no doubt helped
MOOCs. The third initiative was whether or not to align ourselves with MOOC providers. We were courted by edX, Coursera, and Udacity, who sent reps to pay us a visit and made their pitch. We turned them down.
Udacity, Coursera, and edX all came to make a pitch. The pitch always appealed to principles of open access publishing and open repositories: massively open availability of all that we do. I liked that. I liked edX because it was floated on MIT and Harvard monies, has no aims (we were told) to make a profit, and claimed no price for taking their courses. You make an online course and the curious can take it.
Of course edX isn't just a large-scale course webpage. It's open, it's available, but it also sells certificates. The courses are full and packaged, so a lot can be done with them. What can be done? What limits might there be? Can participating faculty stipulate that their course be excluded, forever, from college credit earning? No one would say.
The San Jose State professors reached a smart and suspicious conclusion. They have a point too. It's about "prestige," which in this case means having the right institutional names next to the edX name. The pitch told us as much. "We're building a brand" and "we've turned down a few hundred applications, but want you, Amherst College, because you have a special name." It’s worth saying: that part was exciting. Who doesn’t like to be called special, right? But it also felt like a business pitch. That feels less special, and that's where the resistance started. It was aesthetic, really, because it seemed in poor taste, kind of gauche. Not the best reason for resistance, but a reason.
A colleague asked: have we considered how this will affect faculty and friends at cash-strapped institutions? Or our own students as they go to graduate school and try to nail down a job, which will surely be more difficult if MOOCs from our college start replacing bread and butter courses at such institutions? The edX reps kept the focus on flattering us about our specialness: don't you want to share your super talents with the whole world? And they also responded to our hesitations with a reduced set of terms. In exchange for our help in branding the project, we could have a contracted, three-year experiment, with hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in everything from creation of sound and video labs to technical support to specialized software to funds for unforeseen needs. We could break off the relationship after the dating period, as it were, but the participation was real. The courses belonged to the provider, make no mistake, and we heard it over and over: “these courses are open to all, and who knows what the future will bring.” That last part made a lot of people pause. I get the open thing. I get it, that is, until the life of the course you made is open to reinvention. The hesitation has plenty of justification. Just ask Maryland.
It occurred to me then, after we discussed this in pairs and groups and as a whole faculty, as it occurred to most, that openness is nothing like an absolute value. In fact, it is a value that is made good by what it enhances in self and offers to others. When we publish, openness is a value because it enhances our visibility and offers ideas to others without classist and cultural conditions. If you think that is worth doing, you support (in this case) the repository and the press.
But what about the MOOC thing? It enhances self, yes. You get to perfect your materials and presentation and share stuff you think is really, really important with whoever has an internet connection and interest.
And then you think about what it offers others. To random curious people, maybe it offers a lot. I'd like to think it would, especially when I think about my formerly posted lectures.
And then you remember your colleagues and all the at-risk folks in the profession.
And then you have the question: are you responsible for participating in this? Some colleagues said no, the bus has left the station, our withdrawal means nothing, so why not participate? We have no responsibility for what they do with what we do. Others had a moment of horror, thinking about having our college's name on this imperial force. The latter voice won out - over the preferences of the administration, actually - and we declined.
In the end, what made these conversations so interesting to me was this: we faculty members really struggle to feel and act upon a sense of solidarity with our colleagues, especially outside one's own institution. This played out in two opposing ways:
Our initial resistance to the open repository was a resistance to sharing research, somehow imagining that a paywall would restrict access to the right sorts of audiences. But we forgot to think about the underemployed, the unemployed, the activists, the long-term, unaffiliated dissertation writers and all those others.
And our initial enthusiasm about MOOCs largely derived from a sense that the magic one has (or imagines) in the classroom should be magic for everyone with a high-speed internet connection. But we forgot, for a moment, to think about the professoriate as a community worthy of solidarity, support, and just decent choices in that interest.
And we forgot, too, how we came to be intellectuals, book lovers, thinkers, and teachers in the first place: the presence of a professor or professors at “that moment.” You know, that moment in which we decided this is a life passion, life changing, and worth time and energy. This was sounded in our discussions with the simple claim: what we do is worthwhile because we do it face-to-face. Embodied teaching and learning means something, whether a long mentorship relationship or that after-class conversation that makes a student think, hey, I have something to say. There was a lot to explore in terms of the human meaning of teaching, but, in the time-compression (one and a half semesters, advantage to MOOC pitchers) of decision-making, it was only a small part of the conversation. It probably should have been front-and-center.
What this underscored for me was how, despite all the voting patterns and stereotypes about lefty beliefs, the actual behavior and values of so many academics is a sort of rancher libertarianism: let me do my thing. Let me publish without thinking outside my own gratification and imagined audience. Let me light the world with my great lectures without thinking outside my own employment and tenure (be real: they aren't asking adjuncts to design MOOCs).
What won the day against MOOCs was a suspicion about their hidden business agenda, though there was also that creeping sense that we might be undermining our friends and colleagues and, in the end, their students.
What would it mean to put those friends and colleagues and their students first in all of our professional thinking? That's my question. Solidarity with not only our colleagues at other peer institutions, but also with institutions teetering on the edge of faculty (never admin) collapse, the under- and unemployed because of budget slashing, activists, the readerly and curious, the ABD without affiliation, adjuncts between contracts, and so on. It would change our values when making work available (more of it) and, of course, when considering MOOCs (we are in fact responsible for participation). I say put all those people first.