Public libraries and OERs

The closest libary to me is the Fairfield County District Library, a public library with one main location and four outlying branches. It is not intended as an academic library per se but as a community library.

As a result of Gov. John Kasich’s drastic measures (shifting the burden of most public expenditures to the local level so he can say he has cut state spending), the local libary has substantially cut services, even closing at different times to furlough its employees. The Main branch is in Lancaster, Ohio, which is a small city of about 38,000, according to the latest Census data. Only roughly 13% of people here have their bachelor’s degree (0.3% have a doctorate; I guess that would be me and 10 other people). The median household income is just over USD$38,000, compared to the state’s median of USD$50,000. Poverty is estimated at about 10%. Luckily, it’s fairly cheap to live here.

Because I’m self-employed, I spend a lot of time at the library, and I see three general types of patrons during a typical workday: mothers with small children, elderly persons, and people using the computers. It’s unclear what the unemployment rate is here, but Ohio’s is about 10.5%, and my best guess is that Lancaster, given the educational levels of residents, may be higher than that.

People in Lancaster need their public library. And the library does a lot more than just check books in and out: it’s part of the larger community, and I’ve seen librarians take an hour helping someone with the online GED materials, for instance. Compared to university systems, a public library is ultra democratic. With the university library, you’re already putting a “firewall” between potential users and the library’s resources: the only way to really access materials is to be a student, faculty member, or staff. Public libraries, on the other hand, only ask that at some point you wander down and fill out a short form to get a card. They ask that you live there, but even that is negotiable. And around here, that card is good for your whole life.

So the Fairfield County Public Library is a repository for mostly physical and some digital materials. Of its limited digital materials, some are housed in collections (mostly photographs) and a few are linked to other sites that might be considered OERs. In the catalogue search, I typed in the keyword “writing” and got 2,943 hits. Narrowing my search to Electronic Resources culled the list down to 507 entries. I further narrowed it by the category Adult Education; the result was a list of 83 resources; here is the top of the list, which contains a link to an online course for high school students:

To go further I had to log in to the statewide Ohio Public Library Information Network, so in this way the Fairfield County library functions as a limited referatory. Here it gets a little more interesting. When I get to the OPLIN, it seems to share more of the qualities of a repository like the ones housed inside an educational institution; clicking the tab Skill Building for Adults gives me the following screen of choices, for example:

This is actually new to me: I have never before visited this site (which brings up a point for me, so what might that mean about other folks using the Fairfield County library, who may not be able to navigate as intuitively?), which contains learning objects called eBooks, Tests, and Courses. As the Educause article  notes, many other respositories such as MIT organize their collections in these familiar ways (p. 5). You can search for a word and a type of resource. Many of the Test resources seem to be preparation for civil service positions, police officer exams, GED preparation, or practice for the Federal Clerical exam (these are the ones under adult skills). Just for fun I took the Diagnostic Writing Skills test; it turns out I’m pretty good at grammar and mechanics.

I chose a public library instead of one associated with a teaching institution because I think there is a huge “repository” potential in truly public libraries to collect helpful learning materials and make them available to all sorts of patrons. I did not expect that it existed in even a sort of limited form as it does in OPLIN. But that seems to be a first step in some basic OERs. Could a next step be for those currently placing OERs in more institutional settings to migrate some of them to public libraries? What kinds of audiences are some of the OERs that are online now (MIT, Open University, etc.) targeting and getting? It seems to me that public libraries could capture more types of people than just the university crowd. I don’t think the folks at my local branch are going to go online to find courses at MIT; I’m not sure that would even occur to them. But they might just start with a search at their familiar, comfortable library that will end taking them into learning experiences they may not have anticipated. And then who knows what could happen with their journey?


Open educational resources, editing, and economics

This graphic was created by my mom, who runs

It’s impossible to disagree with the principle of, as Ilkka Tuomi says in Open Educational Resources: What they are and why do they matter“a world where teachers and learners have free access to high-quality educational resources, independent of their location. Who wouldn’t want that? And what makes sense to me in the Cape Town declaration is the idea that if the public is paying for educational resources, the public should have free access, and “the public” includes the students using them. Last semester I taught some freshman composition courses, and my students at the community college paid more than $150 for the books for the course! For a writing course! The initiative from Cable Green and Washington State makes good sense for that reason alone. At the same time, however, that initiative is funded by a private foundation, Gates, which of course has its own agenda for educational change and certainly won’t keep underwriting this kind of development for every state in the union. In addition, it’s finding some challenges in the process (see thet commentary in the linked article about Washington State).

I want to be selfish for a minute, though, and figure out what all that means for me, given all the hats I wear. For instance, one of my larger clients is an academic journal publisher, for whom I edit papers appearing in seven different journals. I copyedit for the researchers and statisticians, making stylistic choices to adhere to the journal’s formal tone as well as ensuring things like all the citations in the text have sources listed in the References list. I also see journals, whether open or not, that are not edited in this way, and my eye immediately goes to the typos and infelicitous uses of language, errors, and usage problems. Likewise, when practitioners promote their theories on their blogs in order to foment that public discussion, I’m intrigued and interested in the results—while at the same time, I cringe at the run-on sentences, comma splices, typos, poor organization, unclear references, incorrect use of words like “comprise,” and so on. (I also cringe at these in the materials generated by my stepdaughters’ teachers.)

Definitely, my eye is more finely tuned than a normal person’s to grammatical nuances. But language primarily communicates, and poor language usage means that a reader is not receiving the clear communication she wants. Frankly, not all academics or teachers are, in fact, writers. Is there a place in open educational resources for qualified professional editing? Or do I need a new job?

This question becomes even larger: not everyone who knows about a subject is an expert in organizing content so that learners have the best experience they can, especially younger learners. Not everyone understands children’s cognitive and social-emotional development. That’s why K-12 teachers are required to attend hours and hours of professional training every year in order to remain a teacher and renew their licenses: in theory, at least, it helps them keep up with research in these subjects. That’s also why textbook publishers often pay for their editors to attend graduate school for MA degrees in education. My other clients are mostly educational publishers who are worried about the death of publishing. Sure, textbooks are expensive. Too expensive. But not everyone understands the enormous work that goes into creating them. Just as one example, at the K-12 level in the United States, each state has its own set of learning standards for, say, social studies. Maybe “history” in the generic sense doesn’t change…but what each state deems important makes it change, at least for the publishing industry. My old day job used to be keeping up with these developments in state legislatures and education departments, and publishers scramble to keep recreating textbooks when states change their minds about whether Thomas Jefferson is a crucial part of the U.S. History curriculum or not.

Perhaps it’s just that I don’t understand the economics of open source. How can I create “content” to share freely with the world when I need to be paid, somehow, in order to keep the electricity on?

One of the three strategies of the Cape Town Declaration includes the call for “educators, authors, publishers and institutions to release their resources openly. These open educational resources should be freely shared through open licences which facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone.”  Fulfilling this and other strategies “will make it possible to redirect funds from expensive textbooks towards better learning.” I’m not seeing the step-by-step, flowchart kind of logic that shows this kind of business model, and I hope that my next course in the University of Manitoba Emerging Technologies in Learning certificate program, Open Educational Resources, gives me some ideas about how this can actually work in the context of U.S. elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education. The principles of open access to information and knowledge appeal to me greatly, especially as someone who simply loves to learn; I look forward to learning about some practical examples that show how it can work.

AdjuncTechnology, or why I can’t figure out Blackboard

It’s ironic, really. Enrolled in the Emerging Technologies in Learning certificate program, participating (or trying to) in MOOCs, teaching myself skills in WordPress and other tools…I certainly appear to be on top of all things ed-techie.

So when I started teaching again this fall as an adjunct instructor in English, hired about one week before classes began, I thought of the opportunities to work with students that technology gives us that I did not have 15 years ago, the last time I taught freshman composition courses. Would I have them each keep a blog? A class wiki? How could we do email and online conferences? Handed the books I was required to use and the essay rubrics I had to teach to, I was informed that the school also used Blackboard to communicate with students.

Wow, my first experience with a traditional learning management system! After all the LMS-bashing I’ve heard from my compatriots in MOOCs and read online, I looked forward to contributing a bash or two.

But between putting in the enormous amount of time dealing with the required texts and rubrics, the sheer volume of written work, and managing a full-time business on top of it…figuring out Blackboard hasn’t taken priority. As an adjunct, I am paid only for the hours I’m actually in the classroom—three per class—which works out to about $7 an hour when I account for the class preparation and grading and student meetings outside of class and supplementing the standard texts with materials that will actually help students write their required research papers. I simply can’t afford more time, which would be deducting from the time I spend writing and editing—what actually keeps me financially afloat. Forcing myself to limit the hours I spend on this teaching hobby sets up a choice between learning Blackboard or spending time with a student struggling with an essay. Of course the real-live person in need is going to win.

Considering that there are about eight full-time faculty and about 80 adjunct instructors in English, is it any wonder that the syllabus and texts I was given to work with look suspiciously like the ones I had 15 years ago? My students say they have not been using Blackboard because none of their instructors do, and I suspect that other departments have the same skewed faculty lineup. For an open enrollment community college, which has an equal mix of students planning to transfer for a four-year degree and students planning to earn their HVAC or culinary certificate, that skew is not surprising. This college is the only affordable option, and to keep it affordable means relying on part-time instructors who don’t get paid very much.

As I think more about it, the debates about doing away with traditional textbooks (my students claim that their rhetoric/grammar cost $78! $78?) could have an unintended consequence for adjunct faculty. If I had to find my own resources, gather them in the LMS, etc., how much more of my time would part-time teaching take up? And then how much more time to be innovative by crafting blog-based assignments and class wikis? I’m frustrated with forced choice I had to make, so frustrated that I’m not going back. (Yes, I know; in theory, the planning/supplementing time would decrease next semester because I’ve already got materials in place and my syllabus planned out…but I’m just not that type of teacher. I’ve always got to remake things so they have a chance to work better.)

We just had a big union fight here in Ohio (and our side won!) so that (full-time) public employees have the right to bargain collectively for their working conditions and benefits. I’m lucky I can walk away from part-time teaching because I have a good income in other ways; some of the adjuncts who are just out of grad school aren’t so blessed (I remember those days). I keep thinking about the loss to students, though, of teachers who have time not only to figure out Blackboard or any LMS but also go beyond that to engage students with new ways of communicating that are authentic and have the potential of a readership wider than just their freshman comp classroom and instructor. I’m jealous and sad I don’t get to be one of those teachers.

Career channeling change

The other day I tweeted a cry for help:

Smart writer enamored w #edtech. Bkgd publishing, higher ed. Should I learn programming? Advice sought!

and tagged it for MOOC participants in the last couple of courses I’ve taken.

Oddly, no one had The Answer. No voice from on high said, “Go learn Java!” or “Try creating an app!” Where is a dictator or a paranormal being when I need one? I don’t believe in either, but frankly at this point I’m looking for any clue.

I have been in and out of educational publishing for the last decade, and I think that the industry as we know it is going to look very different in 10 years. Already the larger publishers reach out into software and even into directly granting degrees. Businesses are getting (too) interested in the economic potential of education and are seeing the arena as an untapped fount of (mostly public) money; the publishing or “content delivery” side of things is one potential area of investment and acquisition.

But in the small company I currently work for, I hear comments like “We’re not a software company” and executives wishing aloud that technology would just “go away.” Hence, I’m not learning anything. Don’t get me wrong: informal learning works, especially for me. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I have a big brain. But I have to translate that into a resume entry, a “marketable skill,” or ideally some sort of portfolio of interesting work.

So what I’ve done is. . .quit my day job. (Music swells here.) As of next week, I will be cobbling together several great freelance gigs and part-time teaching at a local community college (read: minimum wage) to support my quest for figuring out what makes most sense for me to do with the rest of my time on earth. I am hoping that I can free up some time to participate fully in Change MOOC (#change11) as well as the Instructional Design course I am taking through the University of Manitoba’s Emerging Technologies in Learning certificate program. I am hoping to offer my skills to further this odd movement of creating artifacts, writings, and videos just for and about learning, but I don’t know where that road takes me. Unlike my usual nature to plan everything, I’m planning only to leave myself open to all sorts of possibilities that hover around (“learning” ≈ “education” ≈ “technology” ) and try to leave some helpful breadcrumbs for others even in my mistakes.


Comparisons between China and the United States
America Meet China
Created by: Online University Rankings

Mobile spelling games

My final project for Mobile Learning; I have figured out how to show the videos for the sample game ideas. Click the slide or the text below the embedded slides for a flash version.

Sample Game 1 (Maze) Sample Game 2 (Monkey Throw)

Update 9/1/2011: A great post at PBS about gaming literacy.

A survey of mobile learners and teachers

For an assignment, “Each learner is to produce three critical findings from the survey and suggest three recommendations in support of/against mobile learning based on the outcome of the survey. Support your comments with the survey results. Post comments on your blogs giving a background of the study to your readers.”

In the late spring 2011, the course participants in Mobile Learning, a class out of the University of Manitoba’s Emerging Technologies for Learning certificate program, created and sent a survey to their networks of friends and colleagues asking their views of the future of mobile learning. Using SurveyMonkey, we received 153 responses to our request. Because this was an opt-in survey, and because the link could be forwarded to anyone outside of these networks, we do not know how many people may have actually received the invitation to participate. Assuming we had an acceptable, roughly 30%, response rate, we might estimate that the reach extended to roughly 450 people or greater.

These folks, of course, as a sample, are not truly representative of the population as a whole. For one thing, they are limited by their inclusion in a network of people that start with adult students enrolled in an online course about mobile technologies in education. I think a good case could be made that this network would already be primed to be thinking about these issues if not actively engaged in them already. For another thing, they are also self-selected: those who took the survey had to take action to get to the survey itself (that is, click a link in a post or email).  That means they may have already been interested in the topic or they may simply know a person who personally asked that they complete the survey. All these caveats are just to say that this is not a random sample but a deliberate one.

Because I am focused on K-12 education, here I’ll look at the responses primarily from that group of people. Out of the 153 respondents, 49% (75 respondents) identified themselves as working in the K-12 sector. This result was surprising to me; I expected most participants to be postsecondary instructors and I also expected that K-12 was severely limited in its ability to embrace mobile technologies. Here in my geographic area, most schools have a strict policy against using cell phones at any time during the school day, for example. Still, the results are pretty interesting.

Finding 1: Respondents are divided over mobile devices’ gaming possibilities for education

Respondents were given a prompt that read “Indicate your level of agreement with each statement on potential or suitable uses of mobile devices in formal education or institutional training settings.” Choices to rank were the following:

  • to conduct polls (clickers)
  • handheld gaming situations
  • access lecture notes
  • conduct searches or research
  • communication device (IM, email)
  • complete forms
  • collaboration (documents, content creation)
  • play audio or video podcasts
  • geolocations

Both K-12 and university respondents were divided on the question of handheld games, with slightly fewer K-12 workers strongly disagreeing that they had a place in education and slightly more strongly agreeing that they did. Summing the two categories “agree” and “strongly agree,” 53.6% of K-12 respondents agreed that handheld gaming had potential, whereas 58.8% of university respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed. Given the recent report Pockets of Potential, which documented that in 2008 more than 50% of children ages 6-9 owned a portable video game, I would have expected many more K-12 associated respondents to see these devices as possibilities for learning (Shuler, 2009, p. 11).  If I had the opportunity to add a question, I would have asked respondents whether they were parents and attempted to correlate these responses. Anyone who is around children should see clearly that gaming is part of their lives. Research company Latitude just issued the results of a worldwide survey of children on the future of technology that found 48% of the children envisioned games as the future of technology.

Games should be incorporated into learning experiences, even if to reinforce and support more traditional learning goals. More than three-quarters (77.18%)  of survey respondents  are between the ages of 31 and 60, so I would be interested in how that answer breaks down in a larger, more diverse group. Perhaps people around my age (I’m 46) think only of the disruptive possibility of games rather than their educational use? In any case, my recommendation that gaming be taken seriously as one tool in the educator’s belt is not supported by the survey results, but I think that in this case the survey respondents were short-sighted.

Finding 2: Respondents in both K-12 and postsecondary accessed online public resources with their mobile devices more than they accessed either proprietary, fee-based, or institutional content

The results of our survey fit well with the general trend for mobile use; a Pew Internet Project study recently found that 25% of adult smartphone owners surveyed used their smartphone as their primary connection to the Internet, so it is not surprising that our survey respondents accessed Internet resources on their mobile devices.

Clearly this finding supports mobile devices as an important connection to Internet resources. YouTube “how to” videos, Wikipedia entries, and recipes are perfectly bite-sized pieces of content to access using a device that is smaller than a laptop or desktop.

What is intriguing about our survey respondents is that their access to public resources that are not specifically “educational” outpaces their access to those that deliberately are (OERs): out of all our survey respondents, 86.1% accessed public resources and less than half that percentage (41.7%) accessed OERs. A clear takeaway from this finding is that if you want to reach the widest audience of learners, using public sites is a key strategy: this obviously brings up the question of how, then, learners could find your resources. Corollaries to this question might be these: if you use public resources for learning, how do you find them? Once you find them, how do you know they’re credible? If you don’t find them at first, what do you do?

Finding 3: Respondents believe that mobile technology use is less likely to grow in elementary school settings

Asked to ” Think about changes in technology and learning coming in the next five years: what do you think might happen?” respondents mostly replied that “Mobile devices will be used…” more frequently in most learning situations. However, nearly one third of all respondents (32.4%) thought that mobile devices would be used about the same or even less frequently in elementary school settings: among K-12 respondents, 32.7% responded similarly; among postsecondary, 32.4% did.  No other setting or group came close to this outcome—college, high school, and other settings all were identified by respondents as frequently or more frequently using mobile devices by a large margin.

In the survey, 69.3% of K-12 respondents identified their role as instructor/teacher/faculty and 18.7% as administrator. I would be curious about the breakdown of the response to this question along teachers and administrators. Likewise, I wonder what the breakdown of respondents is by level taught (K-5, 6-8, 9-12). If the survey were more robust and generalizable, as a marketer in K-8 educational publishing I would have to wonder whether any new digital efforts involving mobile learning would be worthwhile: if the people within those institutions believe that the elementary level is not a site for innovations in using mobile technology, perhaps that is not the area to pursue. At the same time, however, I question whether the students wouldn’t give a different answer. Adults not directly involved with elementary aged children may have different ideas about their capabilities when it comes to technology in general. According to the Pockets of Potential report, children under age 12 in the United States “constitute one of the fastest growing segments of mobile technology users” (p. 4), and mobile technology with its instant-on, instant-gratification seems ideally matched to children. Perhaps one recommendation out of our survey is to persuade educators “in the field” that this is so by showing them successful implementations of mobile technologies for younger people so their pessimism decreases.


Addendum: See other analyses conducted by my colleagues in the course:


Shuler, C. (2009). Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children’s Learning, New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.