on openness in academia: why I’ll be posting my coursework online

By | August 31, 2010

cross-posted at the HASTAC blog.

Academics don’t really like to share.

There are lots of reasons for this, and many of the reasons are built right into the foundations of the ivory tower. We can’t forget that the success of the modern university depends on a scarcity principle: There is important knowledge available inside of those gates, and not everybody can access it, and the knowledge is therefore worth paying for. The more exclusive universities presumably offer more exclusive knowledge to a much smaller set of students, which means they are therefore worth even more money.

And god knows there are plenty of universities that want to leverage scarcity: There are more than 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States alone, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That makes scarcity a hard sell for prospective students, and it adds another wrinkle: Academics who want to attain prominence in their field need to prove they have something to offer that the bajillion other academics in their field don’t have. For many scholars–especially early-career academics–that means sequestering their work off from public view. There’s good reason for this: The best thinkers recognize a good idea when they see one, and they’re likely to latch on to good, useful ideas. While there aren’t too many academics who would plagiarize outright someone else’s research, there are many who would appropriate a big idea or two for use in their own work and, potentially, get their name attached to ideas that came from some poor scholar who hasn’t hit the big time yet.

For better or worse–I think for better–the scarcity model of scholarship and education has been replaced by an abundance model. At least in theory, new technologies make it possible for practically every American to access knowledge and information that was previously protected by the gatekeepers of higher education. These gatekeepers include a k-12 education system that prepares wealthier, whiter kids for a white-collar trajectory while preparing poorer, darker-skinned kids for the working class; a financial aid system that offers scholarships to the wealthiest and the highest-achieving kids and grants to the poorest kids, but almost nothing for everyone in between; and a general educational culture that discriminates against nontraditional students including older learners and parents. At least in theory, new technologies and virtual communities make it possible for everyone to access and make use of knowledge and research from the most prominent universities in the world.

If the university wants to survive, therefore, it needs to find a new model to replace the scarcity approach to knowledge-sharing. This starts with learning how to share–breaking down the goddamned walls academics erect to “protect” our research. Here’s what the fantastic blog Scholarly Communications @ Duke has to say about openness in academia:

There are many reasons to share scholarship, and very few reasons to keep it secret.  Scholarship that is not shared has very little value, and the default position for scholars at all levels ought to be as much openness as is possible.  There are a few situations in which it is appropriate to withhold scholarship from public view, but they should be carefully defined and circumscribed.  After all, the point of our institutions is to increase public knowledge and to put learning at the service of society.  And there are several ways in which scholars benefit personally by sharing their work widely…. Openness should be the default for academic work, and closed access only an alternative when there are clear and coherent reasons that justify it.

I am one hundred percent on board with this stance, though the devil is, of course, in the details. What reasons justify closed access? What constitutes “sharing” scholarship, and which tools–blogs? wikis? open-access peer reviewed journals?–are best for sharing? Is simply sharing research sufficient, or does true openness require active collaboration with other scholars?

These are questions worth exploring, and as part of my exploration, I plan to make my academic work and development as public as possible. To this end, I’ve decided to make much of my coursework available to others by posting it to my blog. I hope that in doing this, I can offer access not only to my developing ideas but also to the process of my own development as an educational researcher. I believe that openness is not a thing so much as it’s an activity, a process, a series of small and large decisions, and I want to be honest and transparent about how and why I make those decisions.

Everything on my blog–including all coursework I post–is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. This means you can feel free to share, adapt, and remix my work, but you can’t make any money off of it and you gotta give me credit and, most importantly, anything that uses content from my blog must be made available for others’ use in exactly the same way.

Description of the Creative Commons license attached to all content on my blog

8 thoughts on “on openness in academia: why I’ll be posting my coursework online

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