UHK #3: Course Materials, Courseware, and The Costs of an Increasingly-Cloistered Internet

UHK #3: Course Materials, Courseware, and The Costs of an Increasingly-Cloistered Internet

This week I am thinking about educational technology, course design, and open educational resources (OER).

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a three-part series this week on "courseware" in higher ed. It's the kind of reporting that might be particularly eye-opening to folks who haven't interacted with a college in years as a student, parent, or employee.

For instance, the second installment in the series, "The Homework Tax," focuses on the economics of courseware from the perspectives of students and publishers.  Some of the more troubling takeaways from that piece:

  • "...in STEM subjects, especially, the price of a courseware product can exceed $200." That's per product, by the way, which means that students are shelling that amount out per course, per semester. And oh yeah, students don't even get to keep the material permanently, let alone make a few bucks back on required course materials by selling their used copies to a university bookstore or a weird trailer parked just down the block from campus.
  • Oh oh and also, these publishers extract a ton of valuable data from students using this courseware (as the third article in the series points out in greater detail). Companies are making millions and billions off these products.
  • Usually courseware also includes interactive elements, multimedia content, and assessment materials. Some instructors use the latter material as part of core course assessment materials. Unfortunately, "Representatives for Pearson and McGraw Hill also confirmed that their courseware can’t fully run on a mobile device." As this article notes, many students in the U.S. lack reliable access to desktop or laptop devices, let alone reliable access to a stable internet connection.

The articles do note that many educators have responded to the economic burdens of courseware by refusing to use these products, or by making their use optional. Open educational resources are an inexpensive alternative that many institutions have increasingly turned to in order to help students manage the cost of education. For example, Salem State University (my current employer) has an OER & Textbook Affordability Initiative, and it's also participating in a statewide, grant-funded initiative where faculty interested in creating OER textbooks are given money and resources to create those materials.

But as faculty who have gravitated towards OER in recent years may know, it can take time to vet and select material that aligns with course learning goals, contains relevant and engaging content, remains up-to-date in terms of both subject matter and technology (some OER content has not aged well), and resonates with students.

For example, when I was teaching a U.S. History undergraduate survey course a few years back, some colleagues recommended The American YAWP as an OER resource in lieu of asking students to purchase a history textbook. YAWP is in many ways a remediation of a traditional history textbook in terms of its organization and its emphasis on a text-centric learning experience. There are images in many of the chapters and there is a primary source reader companion piece to the textbook, although the latter is text-centric even when it comes to twenty-first century contexts, perhaps due to copyright issues and investments in ease of text-based reuse.

YAWP offers a format and approach that I think is recognizable (and even comfortable) to educators that value sweeping textbooks and to students who may be looking for a solid foundation of knowledge. This latter investment feels a bit illusory to me in traditional textbooks and in digital projects that hew closely to those narrative and organizational leanings, though; while I was reading sections from this book in preparation for the course, I kept wondering whether this mode of writing and performance of cultural authority was something that I wanted to center or amplify here, especially when I lean more heavily towards unraveling and interrogating these kinds of storytelling choices. I did add a few chapters from YAWP here and there as recommended secondary readings, but I ultimately opted for a wider range of primary and secondary readings drawn from library resources, public-facing websites that did not have paywalls (or were part of library subscription packages), digitized archival materials from a few different institutional sources, and a few other OER options that were more multimodal (even at the level of, like, providing hyperlinks) like Wikipedia.

It was a lot of work pulling those various resources together and organizing them in a clear and coherent way in my course learning management system. I was also fortunate to have some institutional support via communication with a university archivist, which was particularly helpful in course contexts where I asked students to work with primary materials and think about the relationship between archives and historical knowledge that draws on (or ignores, or remixes, or critiques and subverts, or expands) archival materials and methodologies. Because I was teaching the survey for the first time, I tried to balance a desire for more "evergreen" or more reusable bits of materials with some nods to experimentation and "ripped from the headlines" course content that might resonate with students and the worlds they inhabited outside the classroom.

I ended up not re-teaching this course and moving on to a different institution, but I found the experience to be enlightening and valuable overall. It was definitely a labor-intensive process, and taking up this work as an adjunct meant that my hourly rate of compensation got smaller and smaller the longer I tweaked and refined things. I know that higher ed institutions don't always view adjunct labor through such temporal lenses, but I've found it helpful to do so when I'm trying to decide whether or not a job is literally worth my time; I have turned down positions where the math did not add up and there was no additional money to be found.

I think courseware is often marketed to adjunct and contingent labor (as well as to departments that rely on these types of labor) as a way to navigate the economic conditions of scarcity prevalent in higher ed. Courseware can deliver pre-packaged and pre-vetted materials, exercises, forms of online interaction. This material can also be accessed by students via LMS integrations in lieu of bouncing across multiple tabs and browser windows or downloading additional software.

OER initiatives have been thinking about assessment and interaction alongside the provision of traditional course materials like readings. Pressbooks has a collection of what it calls "Interactive OER," for instance. H5P has been increasingly used to create interactive content that can be embedded in OER editions or course sites. But there is still a lot of work to do on these fronts, and OER advocates and content creators are often at a disadvantage when compared to the deeper pockets financing courseware. I'm glad that this Chronicle series is highlighting the many downsides of courseware despite some of the surface-level advantages: its cost, its impact on  learning experiences, its tendencies to view students and faculty as little more than data that can be scraped and further monetized.

I do think there are takeaways from the appeal of courseware that OER advocates should reflect on and address. In 2021 Julie Irvine, Royce Kimmons, and Jacob Rogers wrote a compelling piece for EDUCAUSE about "what it will take to realize the potential of OER." They highlight a lot of areas I've considered when assessing and incorporating OER content: concerns about the accuracy and relevance of content, design choices that may not take full advantage of digital media, questions about accessibility and usability. They also emphasize the ways that institutions need to demonstrate the value of the time, labor, and expertise regarding employees who might contribute more (locally, nationally, and globally) to OER initiatives. Some institutions seem to view OER as a quick and cheap fix that does not require a reckoning with how they support and compensate innovations in course design and commitments to equity. And even grant funding may not go far enough for long-term, sustainable impact, given that OER should ideally include workflows that iterate, revise, and expand upon their initial foundations (in terms of content and the technologies underpinning their accessibility and ability to be widely used). I like that this article is advocating for additional resources (monetary and staffing).

I am also worried about what I call an "increasingly-cloistered" online experience. For example, I write these newsletters on my personal time on a personal device, and for my professional employment I use a laptop that was provided by my employer where I have my various employer-provided subscriptions to content and software. Shifting from one device to the other reminds me, for instance, that I read the Chronicle in work contexts because I have institutional access to that important news site. I've spent a lot of time talking about courseware critiques that some readers of this newsletter may not be able to access themselves. The Wayback Machine could help, but that's often an incomplete crawl in terms of images and multimedia, and we know that The Internet Archive has been under a lot of fire despite the tremendous value they provide many of us.

I like to tell folks doing online course design or project development that they can't just ignore the rest of the web when they make certain choices, because their audience will definitely not be doing that! For instance, digital humanities projects often look like "digital humanities projects" due to constraints related to budget, staffing, expertise. Online courses and course content run into similar challenges. It's getting more challenging to rely on code embeds and permalinks in some contexts due to changes in the ways we access and create digital content. Many online courses are still designed with an imagined user who is accessing that material via a laptop or desktop instead of a mobile device.

I guess I'll wrap up by saying that I don't think it's possible to "future-proof" educational resources at the level of, say, building something that anticipates and outmaneuvers every potential change on the horizon (though I do think investments in "minimal computing" make a lot of sense, given these conditions). But I think higher ed can do more to "future-proof" at the levels of carving out space, time, money, and collaborative methodologies that employ groups of experts in these matters. We saw how caught off-guard many institutions and employees were when early pandemic conditions drove them to online course modalities. And AI (and the iterative and increasingly pervasive dimensions of AI) brought another wave of challenges and complications. The bad actors selling courseware persist and thrive because they view this environment and the concerns they bring, capitalizing on these conditions by selling tidy solutions. Many institutions have folks who can see the benefits of alternate ways of thinking and working. Hopefully there are enough of us to win out in the end.

On that pleasant note, I'm off to catch a 70mm screening of Oppenheimer at my favorite local movie theater. This week was pretty fun outside of work stuff between going to TD Garden for professional wrestling and hanging out with friends in this nice wave of good weather. I've also been reading and enjoying my friend Jeremy Bushnell's new book, Relentless Melt. Highly recommended for folks looking for a book that weaves Boston history into speculative fiction. See you all next time.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to check in via Twitter while it still lasts (or Mastodon), or you can email me: jimmcgrath[dot]us[at]gmail[dotcom]. You can also learn more about my interests and work on my website. Oh yeah, I'm on Bluesky now too (jimmcgrath.bsky.social)