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

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Audrey Watters

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.

CEO Domi Enders Loves Audrey Watters Keynote

One of the high points for me at the Open Ed Conference was listening to Audrey Watters deliver her brilliant keynote. Audrey took on the language of the Apocalypse that dominates discussion and innovation in the education technology space, and took us on quite a journey.

You can enjoy it here.

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