NSCS Induction Keynote

I had the chance to provide the keynote address at the induction ceremony for the HCC Chapter of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars on November 18, 2018. I have been an advisor (now co-advisor) of the chapter since it was founded in 2010 but this was the first opportunity I had to be the main speaker at induction.

As it happened, I got the invitation less than a week before the event, so without much time to prepare, I went to pretty familiar terrain: a defense of the humanities. The speech could probably use some work, but I thought it might be worthwhile to post it publicly.

Thank you to the officer board, NSCS national office, and Houston Community College for inviting me to talk to you on the occasion of this induction. When Romina asked me to speak at induction, she said that she thought there wouldn’t be anyone better to speak to the society than someone who had been part of it from the beginning.

So, just to make sure she regrets that decision, I thought I’d start with a joke.

Isn’t it annoying when engineering students call themselves engineers? I mean, you never hear medical students call themselves doctors, or philosophy students call themselves baristas.

It gets a laugh because, I suppose, everyone has heard some version of the warning: don’t major in philosophy or you’ll be serving coffee at Starbucks. A couple of years ago, Marco Rubio made a big splash arguing that the world needs more welders and fewer philosophers. In response, academics and statisticians pointed out that, in fact, the career earning potential of philosophers is pretty close to the average earning potential of finance majors. While the highest earning fields are in engineering, a disproportionate number of entrepreneurs and CEOs studied philosophy.

The same argument can be made for the other humanities disciplines, like, English, History, or Art. A recent study by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, found that the employment rate for humanities majors is very close to the average for all college graduates. And, while career earnings for those majors are slightly below average, people who majored in the humanities report higher levels of career fulfillment and happiness than their peers. So, even if these humanities majors make less money, it may be because they pursue careers that sacrifice some earning potential for greater well-being.

Much more importantly, the gap in employment and earning potential between different majors is insignificant compared to the gap in employment and earning potential between bachelor’s degree recipients those who have not received a degree. While the median earnings of bachelor’s degree holders range from $35,000/year to $80,000/year immediately after graduation, the median earnings of those with only a high school degree is under $30,000/year. And when you look at mid-career earnings that gap becomes wider. High school graduates, on average, have limited ability to advance beyond entry-level pay, whereas the median bachelor’s degree earner rises from around $50,000 out of college to $70,000 10 years later. That ability to increase pay as you progress through your career translates to several hundred thousand dollars in lifetime earning potential.

And, yet, there is a growing segment of the population who question the value of a college degree. The Kinder Institute at Rice University does an annual survey of the Houston area. In 2017, they reported, for the first time, that in some demographics of Houston area residents, a majority no longer believe that a college degree is necessary for success. What is going on? The evidence clearly shows that getting a college education is still the single best thing you can do to improve your earning potential. And, yet, fewer people believe that to be true.

You know, it reminds me of another joke:

A young woman is at a job interview and the manager says, “Listen, I like you, you’re smart, but if you want to be successful at this company, you’re going to have to forget everything you learned in college.” To which she replies, “Well, that’s good news because I never went to college.”

The manager looks at his notes and responds, “Oh, I’m sorry, there’s been some mistake. You’re not qualified for this position.”

I think this says something about what’s driving our beliefs about college education – we know college is important, but we don’t know why. In fact, we sometimes recognize that what you learn in college is not directly applicable to the job you do after college. So what is the value of higher education?

I have an answer to that question, but I’m going to postpone it for a moment because I’d like to stop and reflect on this evening, on why you all are here looking lovely, with your family and friends. Thank you family and friends for coming to support your NSCS inductee. What I want to do is to pause for a moment and consider the origins of this sort of accolade. Why is it that we celebrate scholarship like this?


If you look at the NSCS seal, you’ll see that it employs classical symbols, like the torch, symbolizing enlightenment, the book, representing learning, and the laurel, representing a crown of achievement. We typically associate the laurel with the great Olympians – winners of athletic competitions. But why do we crown high achieving students? I think we have somewhat lost the meaning of that tradition.

In Ancient Greece, intellectual skill and learning were honored, typically by virtue of oration or rhetoric. The greatest politicians and statesmen were known for their excellent speeches. Among these is the funeral oration by Pericles, honoring the dead after a particularly bloody battle in the Peloponnesian Wars. In that speech, Pericles honors the dead, but also encourages the living. He famously links the virtues of love, friendship, bravery, and the ability to endure hardship to democracy. He reasons that those who have a stake in their own government, who are truly free, are more likely to possess these virtues and thus better equipped for war. The speech is a wonderful combination of honor, exhortation, and political philosophy.

Similarly, some of the greatest statesmen of the Roman Republic, including Cicero, were excellent orators. Throughout the classical period, the ability to demonstrate learning through public speaking was highly praised. The skill of public speaking was connected with memory, a good speaker must have a great memory and intelligence. Good rhetoric appeals to an audience’s emotions, but also their intellect. A well-composed speech tells a story with a moral. But, perhaps most importantly, a good speech is thought to stem from the character of the speaker.

In Athens, speakers could test their mettle by delivering speeches in the Athenian “assembly,” a body of 6,000 citizens who were the judges and legislators of the Athenian democracy. This body passed laws and decided civil and criminal cases. And Athenians were notoriously difficult to persuade. They prided themselves on discerning good from bad, right from wrong. And their culture encouraged loud and outspoken expressions of opinion. All of this is to say that if the Assembly considered a speaker boring or false, they wouldn’t tolerate it. Only the best orators could get through a speech without being shouted down or laughed off the stage.

One of the greatest orators of the same era as Pericles was Demosthenes. And while accounts of Demosthenes commend his knowledge of history, his memory, and his hard work, one of the features that stands out about Demosthenes is that it is said that his speeches flowed naturally from his character. He spoke from within himself. The beliefs, virtues, and principles he spoke about emerged from who he was. In other words, his speech and his acts were praised because they emerged from a certain kind of character – they represented an inner virtue that was honorable and praiseworthy.

I am not telling you this because I think that all great orators or politicians are great people. I suspect that you know that’s not the case. Instead, what I’m trying to suggest is that there is a link between words, deeds, and person. Our capacity to demonstrate our knowledge through our actions and words is a manifestation of who we are. I am trying to convince you that the reason why the Ancient Greeks and Romans praised great orators – or the reason why we want our leaders to be smart, well-spoken, and capable people – is that we recognize that our ability to speak and act in ways that are praiseworthy is a function of who we are.

Consider the great public figures of the past who we later find out had many moral failings. What was your reaction when you discovered the infidelities of John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. If they aren’t your heroes, then what was your reaction to the revelation that Ronald Reagan was fairly aloof and disengaged privately, even uncommitted and unaware of basic policy decisions inside his administration. When you learn these things, I suspect you resist and recoil. How is it possible that someone who spoke so eloquently and passionately about the things that motivate you politically could have had such personal failings? This reaction, I think, proves the point. We are shocked at the disconnect between person and words when we discover that the person we admired was not who we thought they were. We struggle to make sense of that picture. I suspect this is one reason why public figures fall from grace so quickly when we discover their personal failings.

The fact that the sins of our heroes stings us is a sign of the close connection we perceive between character and words and deeds. The natural arrangement of things suggests that words and deeds are an outward manifestation, a public representation, of the inner mind. This is why it is so difficult to understand how the two could be at odds, how great public figures could be inwardly flawed. Certainly, we probably expect too much of those we admire, but we also assume – I think for good reasons – that there is a close connection between what you say and do and who you are.

Let’s bring this long detour back to what this evening is all about. I think that this very fact – the close connection between mind, word, and deed – is what we honor at events like this. We honor the promise of great words and deeds, great scholarship and achievement in you because you have shown that you are willing and able to succeed at the college level. You have demonstrated your desire to be a part of a national society of scholars. And we honor that because we recognize that there is a close connection between your mind and your actions. You have the potential to do great things because you have the capacity to think great thoughts.

When we started the HCC chapter of NSCS in the fall of 2010, we inducted 345 new members. I thought that was pretty great. That year, we had a wonderful, active officer board and we achieved bronze star status. The following year, we inducted another 400 members, we won outstanding service event in a project with the University of Houston, and we achieved gold star status. In the summer of 2012, we raised money and organized a service trip to Guatemala. The following fall, we inducted over 900 new members! We would achieve gold star status again in 2014. We’ve done a lot of really amazing things as a society, but the only way this society thrives is if you, the members, participate and get involved. This society is built around its members and student leaders who choose to invest themselves in it. It grows and thrives when you, that’s right you, do interesting things that attract new members.

Right now, you are being drafted into the NSCS as new members because you show promise for future greatness. But whether or not the society is great, whether or not you fulfill your promise is still unknown.

I started this talk by posing a question that you may have heard before. It’s a question that many people ask about college: what is a college education really worth? Does it matter what major I choose? A lot of what is unknown and uncertain about college is the same as what is unknown and uncertain about this society. Will it be worth it? What will you get out of it? Why do it?

I want to close with some thoughts about all of this because, as a professor here at HCC for the past 10 years, and a college instructor for the past 16 years, I have some thoughts on the topic. First of all, I think a lot of people misunderstand the true value of a college education. And when we try to measure the value of higher education by looking to future employment and earnings, we miss the point even more. There’s a connection between these things, but it’s not direct. The reason why higher education is important is actually very tightly linked with the reason why some of the most successful people in the world never graduated from college. I know that sounds crazy, but I think it’s true. The real reason college is important is the very reason why a hiring manager could say in one breath “forget everything you learned in college” and in the next breath “a college degree is required for this position.” In fact, this connection comes down to what I’ve been talking about all along: the development of your character and your mind.

The most amazing thing you have available to you right now, as a college student is something you probably never even think about. The most valuable resources at HCC are your professors, librarians, and huge databases of information, tools, labs, 3-d printers, and machine shops that are accessible to you by virtue of your student ID. Every professor and librarian here has an advanced degree and has spent the better part of their life thinking about some subject. They are an enormous resource. And your student ID, right now, can get you access to 100s of thousands of journal articles, thousands of video titles, 10s of thousands of books, a maker-space with all the cool gadgets you can imagine. But once you graduate, that will all be gone. You will never be in a place where you have direct access to so many smart people and so many academic resources.

The value of higher education is that you get to be in a place where you have the opportunity to learn a little bit about almost any portion of the vast wealth of social knowledge that forms the very foundation of modern civilization. You have the opportunity to absorb that information, to train your mind, and to acquaint yourself with the habits of thought, speech, and writing that are shared by the greatest minds in the world. And the extent to which you take advantage of that, the extent to which you allow your mind, your character, your person to be changed by your access to these resources is the extent to which you will be able to accomplish great things.

Even though Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg never graduated from college, they made their first great insights while at a college campus. They tapped into a vein of knowledge that was available to them because of where they were. The reason why employers want college graduates, even if they know that what you learn in college isn’t directly applicable to the job, is because they want minds that have been touched and shaped by the greatest ideas and thoughts in human civilization.

At the start of this journey, seeking a college degree, joining a society of collegiate scholars, you have the opportunity to be shaped into more than you currently are. You have great potential, but if you are going to be great, you have to be willing to be shaped by the ideas and knowledge that has come from human history. You will need to take advantage of the resources and opportunities you have in front of you. You need to engage your minds in the pursuit of excellence. If you do that, you can wear the pin of NSCS with pride. You will have deserved it.


Think About Capabilities, Not Permissions

To move OER forward, I wonder if we might not be better served by shifting our focus away from the permissions or licenses that makes something an open educational resource and shifting it toward capabilities that open resources ought to possess. What I mean is that we might be better off focusing on the capacity OER have for future sharing, updating, and integrating into teaching and learning operations, rather than what OER really are.

Understanding the 5 R permissions remains a necessary framework to describe what typically distinguishes an OER from a traditionally copyrighted instructional resource. But I don’t think that further refining, expanding, or updating those permissions will be sufficient to move OER forward. Instead, I propose we focus on how we might design OER and OER-supporting technologies in order for those resources to have the greatest impact. To facilitate thinking about OER from this perspective, I suggest that we think in terms of capabilities. That is, I suggest we think in terms of what we want the OER to do and how we can create the conditions that encourage OERs to do those sorts of things. In order to do that, I’ll start by identifying two ways I think we go wrong when we focus on permissions and licenses.

First, I often see people try to be more restrictive in their interpretation of what counts as an OER, for instance, by insisting on compliance with all of the 5 R permissions or adding qualifications to the list. One example would be the idea that we ought to rule out “No Derivatives” works from OER. While it is true that “Revision” and “Remixing” are two of the 5 Rs, it seems misguided to insist that every OER ought to be revisable and remixable. There may be very good reasons for different types of creative works (poetry, literature, photography, film, painting, etc.) to bear a “No Derivatives” license. These reasons are grounded in what are called the moral rights of authors. Moral rights are those rights of authors to control the ways their work will be represented in the future. They include the right of attribution and the right of integrity. Any creative writer can appreciate the desire to have their creations properly attributed to them and not reproduced ways that changes their meaning or undermine the intention and context of the original expression. Historically, copyright disputes have included a substantial number of – sometimes perfectly reasonable, sometimes unreasonable – requests by authors for their work not to be appropriated in ways that run contrary to their artistic intention. Such concerns are worth considering. And if some content that is openly available for teaching and learning has restrictions on how it can be modified in the future, it doesn’t seem like it ought to be considered “not really OER.”

Another way people argue for more a more restrictive understanding of OER is by adding “permissions” to the 5 Rs. Some OER proponents insist on only Non-Commercial future uses of their copyrighted content (this isn’t really a permission, but an impermission). It is true that having a large repository of non-commercial, publicly available resources increases the knowledge commons and public domain. But if we insist that all OER remain non-commercial throughout their life-cycle, then we may miss out on the potential capacity of for-profit and non-profit commercial enterprises to support and augment open resources in ways that make them more user-friendly or even more effective for teachers and learners. It seems to me it would be short-sighted to prohibit such support completely.

A similar sort of move was recently defended in a thoughtful article by Chris Aldrich, “A Sixth ‘R’ of Open Educational Resources.” To be clear, the basic proposition defended in this article is awesome and I wholeheartedly support it. Aldrich argues that we ought to develop some version control software for OER. In effect, the software would provide a mechanism for easily sharing updated versions and archiving older versions of a particular resource. These versions could be publicly accessible and thus provide a rich catalogue of possible content for specific instructors’ needs. Finally, he proposes that users should be able to request an update (the sixth “R”) to an OER through this software. The request for revision could kick back to authors and the community in such a way that it prompts them to undertake a revision. This is a wonderful idea and articulates exactly the sort of design that would enable OER to have the capacity for regular revision and update, a capacity that is essential to the long-term sustainability of OER. But this is not a permission; it’s a feature. And it would probably be excessively restrictive to insist that any resource that lacked this software feature fails to be a genuine OER.

There is an understandable tendency to want to build all of our important concepts and ideas back into definitions. This seems conceptually grounded, solid, and firm. But it can be misguided. By crafting a more and more delimited definition of OER, we may actually choke off and restrict the lifeblood that will ultimately enable OER to thrive. Additionally, we risk retreating into more and more exclusive sects of open education practitioners based on disagreements over definition, a move that may inhibit the sort of growth we all want and need in order for the movement to survive.

A second sort of error comes from shifting responsibility for the flourishing capabilities of OER from the designer to the user. Instead of proposing that OER designers, authors, or creators ought to build in properties that expand the power of OER – features like interoperability with learning tools (like the LMS), common protocols for platforms, user-friendly interfaces for revising and remixing content, and version control software – instead of seeing these capabilities as the responsibility of designers, some advocates have shifted responsibility to the users. Here, I’m primarily thinking about the CARE Framework. Like the positions discussed above, this framework articulates a number of very important values for the OER community and for the ultimate sustainability of OER. But it does so by seemingly (I say seemingly, because I think the framework is vague on this point and I have not yet received clarification from an earlier request) requiring every OER user to be an active participant in sustaining OER by contributing, empowering, attributing, and releasing content. This vision takes some important actions that are necessary for the sustainability of OER and (I think) demands that every user ought to be responsible for putting them into practice.

I think this view (if that’s the view) is misguided, first, because it is pragmatically unnecessary and, second, because it raises barriers to OER adoption. The view is pragmatically unnecessary because not every user needs to be engaged in contributing, attributing, empowering, or releasing content in order for OER to be regularly updated, sustained, and widely shared. The four practices of good stewardship are certainly excellent practices that I hope OER designers, authors, and advocates will put into practice (I know I’m trying). But it’s not practically necessary for the average teacher – or student – to be fully engaged in stewardship in the same way. To illustrate, consider the success of open source software. The mainstream success of open source software is actually predicated on the fact that the vast majority of users are unaware of how one contributes, attributes, or releases versions of the software. Many millions of people and organizations use Firefox browsers and Linux-based enterprise IT systems because they like the products. The vast majority of them are not participating in stewardship practices around these products. They are just users. I would like to hear an argument for why we should expect OER to be any different. In fact, I think it would be a great achievement if millions of teachers and students used OER without having much awareness of the underlying copyright or the mechanisms for attribution, contribution, and release of those resources. Of course, it would remain possible for anyone to participate in these stewardship activities; sustainability would remain a community effort. But there is no pragmatic reason why we should insist that every user has a responsibility to be a good steward as long as there is a sufficiently active core community of authors, designers, and engineers that are.

Not only is the notion that OER-sustainability is the responsibility of the end-user pragmatically unnecessary, it also places barriers to adoption that will inhibit rather than encourage future use. By insisting that every user become a good steward of the OER they use, we risk placing demands on users that they will perceive as a cost of adoption. One of the continuing barriers to OER adoption right now is the perceived difficulty in locating and adapting resources for use in the classroom. Faculty members – sometimes rightly – feel that adopting an OER will increase their workload without compensation; adopting OER looks to them like a cost. While they may be motivated out of altruistic concerns for their students, we shouldn’t rely on such motivations to sustain the growth of adoptions. Instead, we should do what the most successful OER producers (like OpenStax, Pressbooks, Lumen Learning, Top Hat, Pan Open, and others) have already done – that is, make OER look and feel as polished as traditionally copyrighted, publisher-provided resources. When OER look and feel comparable to publisher-based resources, faculty adopt in large numbers. If we insist that faculty or student adopters bear additional responsibilities to ensure the sustainability of the resources they use, I am confident that we will lose adopters. Such a proposal increases the cost of adoption, which will depress demand.

I don’t want to sound overly critical of the efforts of others to move OER forward, so I will end on a positive note. The good news is that we can have our cake and eat it, too. If we just shift the conversation away from the objects (OER), their definition, and the normative demands on users to a conversation about how we can design capabilities right into the OER we are building and using, then we can work together to make better OER that will be used more and will be easier to support, adapt, update, modify, and distribute. (Also, everything I’ve mentioned here is something that people are currently doing. I’m just trying to provide some language to talk about it in a different way.)

Why is Justice Partisan?

I remember when I first voted in Texas. The most striking thing about the Texas ballot is the judges. A typical ballot may include local representatives, city council, state reps, and a couple of national races. But the ballot is dominated by 40-50 judges in courts you’ve never heard of. Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, and even the occasional Green Party justice. Coming from Colorado and Massachusetts, I was confused. Why am I electing a judge in a court I’ve never heard of whose name I don’t even recognize? Today, I’m reminded of such strange practices in American democracy. The following are some random thoughts sparked by recent news on the Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court announced its ruling on Trump’s “travel ban.” Though a case against the president’s ability to limit entry into the United States on national security grounds was always going to be an uphill slog, this particular president had seemed to make it much easier by constantly, publicly insisting that his “travel ban” was an intentional restriction on Muslims to enter the country. This, of course, is unconstitutional. Even the president cannot exclude individuals entry to the country on the basis of race or religion. But the ban itself had been reworked (and then reworked) sufficiently that, apparently, those intentions were sufficiently concealed for the majority. Nonetheless, Justice Sotomayor in her dissent compared the ruling to the Korematsu case of 1944, upholding President Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese citizens. What is striking to me is that our political polarization appears mirrored within the rulings of the Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, every 5-4 decision in this court is going to recall the unprecedented power grab orchestrated by Mitch McConnell when he denied Merrick Garland a hearing, following President Obama’s nomination, and then repealed the filibuster in Supreme Court nominations — effectively eliminating the minority’s power to protest. The fact that these 9 justices exercise so much power for so long makes the process of nominating them incredibly politically charged. With Kennedy’s announced retirement and the Democrats promising retribution for Garland, the politics of the court will only get more ugly.

And yesterday’s decision on public-sector unions has me feeling a bit desperate. I remember Samuel Alito’s nomination hearings. He, more than any other justice I remember, was responsible for introducing stare decisis into the common lexicon. Maybe that’s because he said so little else of substance when pressed on how his political views would inform his judgeship. At any rate, his majority opinion — which, by the way, will impact teachers more than any other sector of the workforce — is remarkable for overturning a 40-year old precedent that had held that agency fees were warranted in the case of unions. Alito’s argument is summarized by Amy Howe at Scotus blog. I excerpt here:

Stare decisis is “at its weakest,” Alito reminded his readers, in cases involving the interpretation of the Constitution, “because our interpretation can be altered only by constitutional amendment or by overruling our prior decisions.” Moreover, he added, the doctrine “applies with perhaps least force of all to decisions that wrongly denied First Amendment rights.” Because “[f]undamental free speech rights are at stake,” Alito concluded, there are “very strong reasons” to overrule Abood.

The free speech rights at issue here have to do with the way money is used to lobby governmental entities (who, in the case of public sector unions, also happen to be management). Political conservatives have consistently worked to align speech with money, a view no more clearly expressed than in the Citizens United case. I argued against some early opinion pieces in this direction on this blog many years ago. It’s very troubling when the First Amendment freedoms are identified with financial power because nothing is less evenly distributed in today’s United States than money. But, as a fundamental right of our democracy, free speech must be a right that all have access to exercise equally. When money is speech, that simply will not be the case.

At any rate, back to stare decisis. The reason the courts defer to precedent is so that they do not undermine their credibility and also maintain predictability in terms of both the perception and impact of their decisions. One wonders why these concerns are not pressing in the case of Aboos. As Elena Kagan writes in her dissent (again from SCOTUS Blog):

Kagan complained that there “are no special justifications for reversing Abood”: ”To the contrary,” she argued, “all that is ‘special’ in this case—especially the massive reliance interests at stake—demands retaining Abood.”  Kagan stressed that the Abood ruling “is deeply entrenched,” as over “20 States have statutory schemes built on the decision” that “underpin thousands of ongoing contracts involving millions of employees.” Kagan criticized the majority for acting, in her view, “with no real clue of what will happen next—of how its action will alter public-sector labor relations. It does so even though the government services affected—policing, firefighting, teaching, transportation, sanitation (and more)—affect the quality of life of tens of millions of Americans.”

This decision will surely be devastating to current Police, Fire Fighter, and Teacher unions. Private-sector union membership has been decimated. Now public-sector union membership will probably also decline. It’s ironic that the death blow to unions has been delivered in the name of the First Amendment, given that unions are intended to provide a voice for workers at the table with management.

I guess I would search for ways to make this more palatable to myself, but I just don’t trust the judicial process much anymore. It reeks of partisanship. And with Kennedy’s departure, I’m afraid the worm will finally turn. The Robert’s Court will begin a long period of very conservative rulings that will shape culture and law for many, many decades. After Trump chooses his nominee and congress stamps it, the court will have a solid 5-vote majority of conservative jurists with Clarence Thomas, the oldest of the bunch, only seventy years old (Kennedy is 81). While Roberts has shown his willingness to break from the conservative block in several high-profile cases and Gorsuch has hinted that he might be willing to do so, Alito and Thomas have voted together 94% of the time. Incredibly, the conservative consolidation of the highest court will occur at a time when the public opinion is moving in the opposite direction. It looks like justice will only get more political in the years to come.

Normative Demands in OER and the CARE Framework

Back in March, three academics published a manifesto of sorts, called the CARE Framework. In case you are unfamiliar, they have a web page here that explains the framework. I followed a number of the early reactions with interest. You can read the news article from Inside Higher Ed; David Wiley posted a response here that revised an earlier piece that had received some critical feedback. More recently, OEC Executive Director Paul Stacey refers to the framework in a piece in EdScoop on OER partnerships with publishers. In the past month, I’ve participated in a couple of webinars with the OpenStax Institutional Partnership and CCCOER where the framework was a central point of discussion. Though the topic surfaced back in March, it has shown a persistent relevance to the OER community. (As an aside, this was the issue that inspired me to fire my old blog back up. I wanted to comment, but I had more to say than fit into a tweetstorm or blog comments.)

The authors have presented the framework as a model for stewardship to achieve sustainability in OER. The topic of sustainability has been a central concern for the OER community. Typically, sustainability discussions surround financial questions, such as how to support an OER program at your college, how to develop and maintain platforms for delivering content, and more pointedly, what to do once the grant funding dries up. In contrast, the CARE Framework’s approach to sustainability emphasizes norms or standards of behavior for community members. It’s a call to stewardship that links values with sustainability.

The norms or values articulated by the CARE Framework are quite helpful. It identifies four categories of action that OER stewards ought to engage in:

  1. Contribute: “OER stewards actively contribute to efforts, whether financially or via in-kind contributions, to advance the awareness, improvement, and distribution of OER.”
  2. Attribute: “OER stewards practice conspicuous attribution, ensuring that all who create or remix OER are properly and clearly credited for their contributions.”
  3. Release: “OER stewards ensure OER can be released and used beyond the course and platform in which it was created or delivered.”
  4. Empower: “OER stewards are inclusive and strive to meet the diverse needs of all learners, including by supporting the participation of new and non-traditional voices in OER creation and adoption.”

Each of these categories include a range of possible activities that would promote the main objective. For instance, to contribute to OER a steward may actually write instructional resources or design platforms, but they might also give money to support the cause. Similarly, OER stewards should promote inclusion and diversity (this is part of empowerment), but a steward may accomplish this in a variety of different ways. Again, the framework states that OER stewards ought to release their work for public use, but also emphasizes that OER publication ought to be released in such a way that it is able to be revised, remixed, and redistributed by others.

As a philosopher and OER advocate/administrator, I am particularly interested in specifically how Petrides, Levin, and Watson envision their framework to be interpreted. When they make normative claims, how do they imagine these claims ought to operate in the community of open education? By setting up a framework that defines what it means to be a good OER steward, they invite judgments about bad stewards as well. So, I want to know how the framework authors imagine we, as a community ought to handle such questions.

To be clear, it’s important for any community to articulate standards of behavior. Frequently, such standards are set through practice and without reflection. So, it’s really helpful to engage in a theoretical dialogue around standards of behavior — this is the heart of political philosophy. Even more, for the OER community, it’s important that these standards pertain to the sustainability and vitality of the resources themselves. Questions surrounding the durability of the commons – a catch-all designation for the body of openly licensed resources – turn on such community standards. As I understand it, this is one of Eleanor Ostrom’s chief insights, namely, that there need not be any “tragedy” of the commons when the community that uses the commons shares values and practices that sustain it (see particularly Jim Luke’s insightful piece). Indeed, this insight suggests that Petrides, Levin, and Watson were right to tether values to sustainability.

However, when I probe the framework for answers to my questions, I find it lacking. Let’s start where the rubber meets the road, in the section titled “Applying the CARE Framework.” The authors start:

The values expressed by the CARE Framework support a hopeful vision for the future of OER and education, positively impacting not only issues of access and affordability, but also the seemingly intractable issues of equity and inclusion.

Here, the authors claim that the framework articulates a “hopeful vision” by promoting the values articulated above. A hopeful vision sounds like an ideal that community members should strive toward. Such an ideal could be promoted as the sort of praiseworthy and excellent practices that exemplify what it means to be an outstanding member of this community. This may or may not require sanctioning bad practices. It may recognize that failure to live up to the ideal is common. The ideal stands as a goal, perhaps even a goal that may be unrealizable by some in the community. What’s important about the goal is that it orients and directs behavior of community members so that they work together rather than at cross-purposes.

But the next sentence suggests this interpretation may not be correct:

Thus the CARE Framework is meant to be applied by all individuals, organizations, and institutions who share a stake in the field’s long-term success and sustainability. This includes individuals who create or adapt OER for their own teaching and learning purposes; nonprofit OER publishers and libraries; commercial OER publishers; as well as educational technology vendors looking to incorporate OER into their products or services.

Here, the authors state that all individuals should “apply” the framework (equally?). Moreover, the way the four categories are articulated (as a conjunction: contribute and attribute and release and empower), the authors suggest that each individual ought to apply every aspect of the framework (again, equally?). They even list different roles that are responsible for applying the framework. But it’s still not clear to me how this is applied to real-world positions in the community.

It’s easy to imagine people who may feel part of the OER community (or aspire to be part of it) but who simply don’t have the resources or ability to participate fully in all four dimensions of the framework. Imagine a librarian who doesn’t see himself as a content-creator and serves a relatively homogeneous population. This person may not be able to “attribute” conspicuously or “empower” non-traditional voices. Or, we might imagine someone building some great homework tools for certain subjects. They might “release” that content, “contribute” and “attribute” where possible, but their reach might be limited by focus and resources (whether this is a commercial, non-profit, or hobbyist endeavor). More importantly, they may not control how their content gets embedded into other platforms and courses as used by instructors. They may even prioritize ease of use, clean design, or instructional benefit at the cost of conspicuous attribution or easy, non-technical remixing. And, if the project is small, it may not be possible to ensure that they are “empowering” others with the OER tools they are creating. More pointedly, what about the adjunct instructor (more than half of all higher ed instructors) who wants to save her students money by using OER but has no time or support to worry about “contributing” and “releasing” content. She may practice good attribution and try to empower her students, but when measuring herself against the criteria of the framework, she may feel like she can’t live up.

I don’t want it to seem like I’m splitting hairs or picking hard cases just to stir the pot. I’m also not insisting that every member of the OER community be assessed by the same standards. Quite the contrary, I want to highlight that without clarifying what it means to apply these values when they are at odds with the circumstances and demands of the real world of education, the authors have set up a framework that is open to misapplication. By framing what it means to be a good steward, the authors invite judgments about bad stewardship. And as long as that judgment is possible, it will be possible for good-faith members of the community to feel excluded or to be in fact excluded on the basis of this framework. This is not hypothetical – bad reviews and moralizing whispers can sink a start-up OER platform, tenure review, or new hire.

What I’d like to see is a recognition that each of the four practices actually identify a class of actions on a spectrum. Contribution, attribution, release, and empowerment can all be accomplished in a variety of ways with varying degrees of impact. This ought to be explicit. By recognizing this, the authors ought to make it clear that satisfying each of the four pillars of the framework is not a simple yes or no but a matter of degree.

Additionally, I would like the authors to be clear about whether and to what extent the framework sanctions bad behavior. Is a member (or aspiring member) of the community a bad steward if they fall below a certain threshold of participation on one or more of the dimensions of the framework? What is that threshold? Can a steward focus their energies on one or two dimensions, while ignoring the others? Or should every OER user make a good-faith effort to advance every dimension of the framework, recognizing that limited resources may demand focusing on one or two? Is it possible to just demonstrate some effort along each dimension as long as one exceeds some threshold along one or two? Again, what threshold? In short, I want the authors to be explicit about how the framework ought to inform our judgments in practice. The framework is clear about what sorts of practices are praiseworthy, but it doesn’t give us any guidance to decide which actions are blameworthy, which are permissible but neither blameworthy nor praiseworthy, and which are impermissible. And yet, just these sorts of judgments are invited by the framework. Without clarification, I fear the framework could do harm as much as it does good.

Blogging again

I started this blog when I was writing my dissertation in 2006. At the time, I wasn’t on social media, but I found that I was emailing a group of friends and family frequently with links to articles I was reading. Eventually, I thought I would save them the spam and just start writing a blog. I blogged somewhat frequently for a year and a half here at this site. And then I went on the job market and had a lot of pressure to finish the dissertation. The blog fell into the background, I got a job, joined Facebook, and suddenly felt like I had a new platform for sharing articles and thoughts.

In the meantime, I started blogging off and on for an online magazine, called Elephant Journal. That was a fun time. I had a much larger platform and began to use Twitter to converse with people in environmentalism/yoga/buddhism circles. But this was only tangentially related to my interests and my energy returned to Facebook.

Unfortunately, I realized much too late how Facebook was a terrible platform for developing and sharing ideas. Not only did I find myself in heated political debates with close friends — which was sometimes illuminating, but mostly frustrating — but Facebook makes it almost impossible to retain any virtual memory of what you’ve posted and how your thoughts have developed over time. They have no archive of old posts that isn’t cluttered with “activities.” The search tool is miserable. And, so, even those more interesting and illuminating conversations are lost to the ether. More importantly, Facebook is draining — of both time and energy.

Recently, I have become engaged in the Open Education community, reactivated my Twitter account, and started thinking about blogging again. The final straw was a month or so ago when I wanted to comment about something on Twitter. It required far more than 280 characters, so I started a tweetstorm. But then I wanted to edit and rearrange my tweets. By the time I posted the thread, it was missing tweets and the formatting was all off. I tried again. Failed. Tried a third time … and then I gave up. I realized it was the length of thought that required a blog post.

Coming back to the blog I see all of these old posts from 2006 and 2007. But what’s nice about them is I hear my voice and I read my thoughts. There are times in the intervening years when I would have benefitted from reminding myself of those thoughts. There are some good posts here and I stand by them. It will be interesting to see where this goes, but I think I’m writing this time more for me and for chronicling my thoughts than anything else. A little lesson: the blog format remains as a viable form. It’s useful in ways that other platforms just aren’t. So, I’m back. I may even keep it up this time.

Dear Baseball Gods: I’m not gloating

Look, the entire season I say nothing. I prayed diligently and quietly throughout the entire “drought” of .500 ball while the Yankees became the hottest team in the American League.

But Beckett just pitched a complete game shutout, saw only 31 batters on the night, 4 hits, no walks on 108 pitches! A thing of beauty must be recognized. Surely the baseball gods understand that.

Elite Colleges and Affirmative Action

Following up on some of my previous affirmative-action posts, I found this op-ed in the Boston Globe particularly interesting. The op-ed centers around some new research of the most highly selective Universities in the US. What they find is that roughly %15 of white students at these Universities fall below the institution’s minimum admissions standards. Contrary to the story propagated most recently by the Supreme Court, white students who fall below the minimum standards are twice as likely to be admitted to these Universities than their minority counterparts.

This evidence clearly discredits the myth of the over-qualified white student who is denied acceptance to the most selective Universities because of racial quotas. What it demonstrates is that the much older system of affirmative action, namely, the good ol’ boys network, is still the most powerful system of disenfranchisement at elite colleges.

Of course, this kind of empirically driven argument seems incapable of convincing staunch conservatives, who find Justice Robert’s pithy logic–“the best way to end discrimination based on race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race”–more compelling.