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Open Assembly is cloud-based platform for collaborative knowledge creation with open educational resources (OER)

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The Adjunct Problems That Too Few Talk About. Possible Solutions at Our Fingertips?

During National Adjunct Action Week, Feb. 23-27, union-represented adjuncts joined with actions that ranged from creative picketing to teach-ins to in-class explanations of adjunct issues. These were designed to call attention to and illustrate the stigma of being an adjunct and the commitment to changing adjuncts’ status from second-class workers to well-respected, well-trained, well-paid workers with benefits and supportive working conditions.

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On a much quieter note, and with the expectation that over time adjunct working conditions can and will be improved through various union and institutional initiatives, is there something that we (the ed-tech-for-adjunct-faculty fan club) can do to reduce the thorny prick of chronic daily irritants affecting part-time adjuncts–and their part-time students?

Picture a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, perhaps at sunrise or dusk. Two drivers sitin two parked cars on opposite sides of the lot. The drivers happen to be part-time instructors at the same community college, where they teach different sections of the same course. It would be great if they knew they were both dealing with the same classroom challenge—but they don’t: They’re so pressed for time, they have to steal an hour in the parking lot to work undisturbed…even though talking to each other to resolve that common problem would help them get a lot more work done a lot more efficiently.

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To me, this parking lot illustrates the challenges facing part-time students and part-time educators at community colleges: Commuters who travel back and forth between work, home, and school—in the case of adjuncts, between multiple campuses—and who often work in isolation from their peers.

National Adjunct Walkout Day, on Feb. 25, became Adjunct Action Week (Feb. 23-27 ). We heard activists demanding equal pay for equal work, decent benefits, job security, and supportive working conditions, including academic freedom, for contingent instructors. In the meantime, entrepreneurs and researchers have been quietly chipping away at smaller adjunct issues. Theirs isn’t the galvanizing fight over unionizing adjuncts, but rather, the workday struggles of adjuncts. With roughly 70% of community college instructors falling into the adjunct camp (and 70% of community college students attending school part-time), there are means at our disposable to start alleviating these everyday stresses now.

Where does the trouble start? On-demand access to teaching resources is one place.

Let’s look at technology. To do their jobs, contingent faculty rely primarily on learning management systems (LMS). But this technology often fails to meet instructor (and student) needs. For one thing, resources become confined within the LMS. Think of an adjunct who’s teaching a Political Science 101 course at multiple colleges. Our part-time adjunct (Prof. PT) has digital assets ready to go: syllabus, teaching resources, reference materials.

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The problem is, each college has its own LMS, which means Prof. PT can’t easily transfer those materials between college  ”walled gardens”…so our Prof. PT has to do the same prep work all over again, creating a new collection of materials and “courseware” for each college at which s/he teaches. Adjunct professors are freelance education professionals and need to protect their intellectual property. If they don’t, an institution can use or disseminate Prof. PT’s courseware without his/her consent—simply because it’s contained within the institution’s LMS.

Adjuncts also lack the resources that facilitate faculty-student interaction. Chances are that our part-time adjunct doesn’t have an on-campus office, which makes it pretty tough to schedule office hours with students. Yet the most important factor in student success, according to a 2013 report, is interaction with faculty. Limiting these opportunities hurts student performance.

In addition, adjuncts have limited access to two kinds of human resources: professional development support and peer communities. These are traditionally campus-based, but adjuncts are not based on campus—they’re on the go and largely on their own when it comes to professional development. The Coalition on the Academic Workforce considers this reality “another indicator that institutions are not investing in maintaining and improving the quality of instruction,” which—you guessed it—hits the neediest college students the hardest.

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Researchers and startups such as Open Assembly are collaborating to figure out how technology can provide the greatest benefit and user experience for faculty and students. By sheer numbers the majority of these users are adjuncts and the non-traditional “new student majority.” These companies are exploring tech solutions that use existing LMS technology more effectively by extending its capabilities.

Campus technology that first and foremost serves its core users, the students and instructors, helps everyone work more efficiently. For adjuncts teaching on multiple campuses or multiple courses within the same subject, user-focused tech reduces duplication of tasks—no more reinventing the curriculum wheel all over again. Serving teachers first also means recognizing their intellectual property and giving them control of the IP that they have created on their own time and their own dime. This can give adjunct faculty more agency and perhaps eventually, more academic freedom.

Community colleges also need to do a better job of fostering greater interaction between learners and educators, and between the instructors themselves. Since colleges don’t provide enough private campus spaces for student-instructor conversations, how about creating private virtual spaces? Under the current professional, and even technological, structure of community colleges, adjuncts also have limited opportunities to connect and interact with colleagues. Since contingent faculty are not rooted on any one campus, they need an on-demand digital space in which they can share best practices with peers and colleagues, and social media isn’t going to cut it. They need adjunct-managed, adjunct-centered peer communities.

If an institution provides the flexible technology that can handle these suggested solutions, along with support from campus administrators, colleges can achieve a high ROE: return on education. What does high ROE look like? For starters, increased student engagement and success; improved efficiency of instructors and instruction; lower turnover rates among contingent faculty. All of which drive down costs for institutions.

Group of People Using Digital Devices with Speech BubbleMaria Maisto, English instructor at Cuyahoga Community College, member of the MLA Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities,  and president of the New Faculty Majority, which advocates on behalf of contingent faculty, has said that “authentic learning cannot take place in isolation.” Teachers and students who participate in that learning must belong to a community.

When they don’t belong to a community, they end up like our lonely drivers at the beginning of our story, on opposite sides of that empty, sprawling parking lot: struggling to work in the in-between hours they have, with too little time, and no one to reach out to in a pinch.

Annals of an Adjunct: Open Assembly Test Drive

To better engage her students, this adjunct details how she used our platform to track their progress (and find out whether they were really paying attention in class).

This summer I had the opportunity to take the Open Assembly platform for a demo in my image-based humanities course at a large urban public institution.

As a teacher for 14 years in some way or another, I have developed my own style of teaching that I’ve honed over the semesters. I’ve found that as my confidence in my voice grew, I abandoned the podium to which I originally found myself tethered. Because of this style of instruction, I did not teach directly from the OA platform, but I did spend many hours crafting the course within OA using information that reinforced what we covered in class.

While some students are able to take notes and still follow along, for others this proves difficult.  This summer I had two foreign students who were somewhat new to the U.S. Their writing was fine, but when speaking with me, it became clear that they did not understand everything I was saying. This is problematic in an accelerated course where content is covered quite rapidly. Both of these students greatly benefited from reviewing the content on our OA course page, where they could review the learning materials at a slower pace and re-watch the video content until they understood.

This brings up the way I enjoyed using Open Assembly the most during these courses: taking advantage of the ANALYTICS function to track students’ access to resources that I uploaded for the course. Through blank stares and low test scores, I had a hunch that certain students were not following along. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw that they had not accessed either the readings or the modules on the OA platform. While it seems a little “Big Brother,” it is a useful tool that allowed me to follow up with students who were not accessing the course materials.

Another significant benefit of Open Assembly was that for the first time, every one of my students had access to the assigned textbook. Prior to this semester, I had not used an open textbook before. I found an excellent open educational resource (OER) alternative to the (somewhat costly) textbook I had been using before, and assigned it to my latest crop of students. For once I had a level playing field in my classroom, with every student being able to afford this (free & open) textbook.

One of the ways that I plan to use the Open Assembly platform in the future is for constructing debate and assignments that can take place outside of class time. Case in point: there is immense debate over a group of sculptures known as the Elgin marbles or Parthenon marbles. These relief sculptures decorated the interior and exterior of the Parthenon temple that sits on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Acquired by Lord Elgin during his time as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century, they are now on display in the British Museum. This debate involves repatriation of artifacts and the question of who rightfully “owns” the Parthenon marbles. The Greek government contends that they were taken out of the country illegally, and there are numerous documents and video clips giving alternate sides of the argument.

In a group-based discussion exercise, students often need prompting to start the debating, but once started, many join the conversation. Unfortunately there is not enough time in the semester to devote a whole class to this exercise, so this is how I plan to use the Open Assembly platform: through videos integrated within my curriculum, students will be able to form their opinions about the status of these sculptures, then make a statement through the COMMENTS interface, forcing them to take a position. This is followed up with a formal writing assignment where the student has to make a statement and then defend that decision in a two- to three-page written response. I’m really excited about the debate possibilities that Open Assembly can bring to my classroom.

CEO Domi Enders Presents at EdLab Demo Night 4/1/14

Do the Right Thing: Pay for Feedback

I am behind on my reading, I admit, and only just got to Hack Education’s March 15 post “(How) Should Startups Compensate Schools and Teachers for their Feedback?”. I do indeed have some experience with this question, having prototyped Open Assembly v1.0 with adjunct instructors in community colleges last summer.

Let me first say that having been an adjunct did not in any way make it easier for me to reach my former colleagues and interest them in our platform and what we’re up to in general. It’s a tough and lonely crowd.

But having been an adjunct, I did understand the necessity to offer proper incentive to get instructors to a) take the time to try out a new product in their classroom, even for just a few weeks, and b) complete a detailed feedback survey after the fact. After all, the first question is always, and rightfully, “What’s in it for me?”

My very first prospect let me know that he considered testing, even so much as “glancing” at our interface, to be contributing to the IP of the company–for which he should be royally compensated and publicly recognized. Literally. For one crazy second, desperate for feedback and having no other prospects on the horizon that week, I actually considered giving him founder stock.

Equity? That would have been a better deal for me than for him. Equity in a startup is fool’s gold to an instructor, whose horizon is only a semester long, one semester at a time.

Our product is specifically focused on addressing the needs of adjuncts (and their students). This means:

  • It must truly save them time in the exercise of their teaching activities or it’s just bunk

  • It must not require any special training (our motto is “no manual required,” the gold standard of a good UX/UI, and glaringly absent from most edtech offerings)

  • It must at least show that it has the potential of improving student engagement and learning outcomes

All of this is a tall order, and without the participation of and honest reviews from our prime end-user, the adjunct, there’s no way we can come even close to creating a platform or service that they want and will use–so that their students also will benefit.

A choice between money or a seriously good piece of mobile hardware: yes, that’s what it took to get my “pilot adjuncts” on board. It makes sense. After all, I was asking them to spend time to set up courses and share their valuable observations in an extensive survey. We offered a sum that was significant enough to attract interest, but not too big to break the (startup) bank.

As a result, we received crucial, detailed feedback that helped us understand where we were on the right track, and where we were not. Without that feedback, we would not be where we are today: gearing up to publicly release our beta (Open Assembly v2.0, currently in soft release) that so far delights our early (adjunct) adopters.

Adjuncts are the backbone of the college instructional corps, the majority teaching impacted introductory classes. Adjunct faculty now make up a majority of the higher education instructors nationwide, in a reversal from just a few decades ago. In some departments it’s 100%, according to a 2013 research study, yet part-time faculty members make about one-fourth what a full-time faculty member gets paid per course, as reported in another 2008 study.

In a recent post Fabian Banga, (tenured) professor and department chair at Berkeley City College describes the financial and professional uncertainty overshadowing the lives of adjuncts: “…[L]ittle or no security of employment. Budget cuts affect the whole campus population but especially adjunct instructors. They are always the first to be cut when there is a reduction in the number of classes. They do not have the benefit of the academic freedom associated with tenure…[yet] they are also active in other curriculum development areas involving the adoption and assessment of materials and classes, the creation of OERs and the support and counselling of students. In a very cruel irony, many of them are very supportive of the department and do many extracurricular activities to gain the appreciation of students, of tenured professors and deans, with the hope of a security of employment that, in many cases, never materializes.”

I truly feel that adjuncts are the unsung heroes of higher education, and very much underserved. Long-term subs in K-12 schools (7% nationwide) are treated and compensated far better, even receiving benefits.

The build-measure-learn feedback loop with educators is crucial to successful product development, “successful” meaning a product that actually addresses the needs of instructors and learners. Unless you’re in edtech for the wrong reasons.

So do the right thing: 1) invite adjuncts and other instructors into your development process, and 2) compensate them properly. In the same way, pay teachers and schools for their invaluable feedback.

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