The Constraints of Curriculum

Part 1 of 5 Reflections on Open Education

Posted by David N. Wright on November 24, 2015

The Preamble:

As is evident by the title, this is the first in a series of posts I’ll be writing that emerge from the 2015 Open Education Conference. It was my first up-close encounter with an Open Education conference. I’ve trolled the annual conferences before on the backchannels (see: this year’s Twitter hashtag) and kept up with a few discussion groups that stem from the conference and its participants, but this is the first time I’ve ever attended in person. In general, it was a great conference. I wanted to collect a few thoughts that emerged from the event; so I did. This first one deals with curriculum. Posts that follow will address definitions, people, sponsorship and venue, while suggesting what I think the future might hold.

Curriculum Delivery and Open Education:

The constraints of curriculum point to an issue not often raised by the presenters or questioners that I encountered at the conference–though I have no doubt it is an “undercurrent topic” for the hallways and breakstands. Briefly, I am referring to the way the departmental situation–its politics, curriculum, traditions, disciplinary assumptions–impacts the delivery of open education, and how the curriculum decisions that department makes about fulfilling its pedagogical duties impose constrains on delivery.

For instance, the College where I work has curriculum guidelines (CGs) that outline the requirements for course delivery and the expectations for student outcomes. There can be no doubt that they are a handy tool for figuring out how to best deliver a course and they help keep all of us teaching similar content. They’re also essential for coherence in the British Columbia College <–> University transfer system that allows students to seamlessly transfer credits obtained from one institution into another. All that said, these institutionally governed “guidelines” can be unduly restrictive if the venue for delivery changes.

For instance, one of the English Department–where I am nested when I am not coordinating research–curriculum guidelines notes that “Course grades will be based on at least six evaluations, including three distinct academic papers”; it goes on to say that “At least 15% of the course grade will be based on in-class writing.” Now, let me say right off that I have no fundamental issue with this curriculum requirement. However, when we change the venue for–or mode of–academic delivery, lines like these can restrict how “experimental” or “innovative” we can be in our pedagogical delivery. No one, I hope, wants to violate the fundamental curriculum requirements of her discipline. Some questions that emerge here might relate to: 1) how do I deliver this course online and fulfill the “in-class writing” requirement? 2) can students utilize mash-ups, video, audio, maps, and all the other quirks of the online world and still create what is an “academic paper”? 3) How can I best deliver these outcomes outside the disciplinary traditions in which I was educated? Should I even do so? These are but a few questions and there are many more that problematize both our expectations for curriculum–what is an “academic” paper anyway–and how we are trying to deliver that curriculum.

Another curriculum guideline asserts, “1) A minimum of two formal academic essays, with a combined value of at least 40% of the course grade; 2) A minimum of 80% of the course grade will be based on writing assignments (essays, essay-based exams, journals, paragraphs); 3) A maximum of 20% of the course grade may be based on informal writing (quizzes, short answer tests); oral reports/presentations; participation/preparation grades; and/or other non writing-intensive assignments; 4) A minimum of 15% of the course grade will be based on in-class writing (essay or exam).” Again, the CG is loaded with language that signals traditional delivery modes and assumptions about what constitutes critical practice in the discipline. The question becomes: how am I supposed to deliver a uniquely “open” experience using open educational tools that does not simply mimic the traditional processes and outcomes nested within a closed post-secondary context? In particular, how am I supposed to get everyone in a department on board delivering open education when it means challenging some of the assumptions around the traditional delivery of curriculum within the discipline? That’s a tall order for newer faculty who are usually the ones keen to implement open learning practices.

The Borderlands Between:

I noted at the conference during the question and answer session to Amy Collier and Jen Ross’s excellent presentation that those of us who want to implement open educational practices are often transgressing institutional borderlands. That borderlands space–stealing Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s take–in between the demands of an institutionally sanctioned (through shared governance no less) curriculum and my own individual value system that believes education should be open and accessible–it doesn’t matter “how” a student demonstrates critical thinking, as long as she does. Whether that demonstration materializes out of traditional essays or out of a revamped oral tradition collected and curated as audio files on a website doesn’t matter–if the learner can do it; then she can do it. One of my responsibilities as an educator is to sometimes employ an “I know it when I see it” perspective to the deployment of disciplinary critical practice. It might not look like it used to, but it still “performs” the task required of the disciplinary practice.

Of course, the difficulty arises when the institutionally-sanctioned methodology for getting credit conflicts with the possibilities of a truly “open” education. If we are going to be responsive to new territories for learning and educating, we might need to begin by turning the gaze inward and examining how our processes for accreditation represent walled borders in and of themselves. In short, it might not be implementing the tools for open education–open textbooks, open courseware, open learning management systems–but the governance systems setting the educational outcomes that are the problem. We might need to set out a roadmap for the reform of curriculum expectations before we can begin to implement the promises of open educational resources, whatever they might be.

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