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

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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.

Textbook Bang for the Buck: Print, Digital, or Open?

With the fall semester upon us, students are already asking themselves which textbook option will best serve their learning needs and their wallets: is it print, digital, or open?

Because when it comes to shopping for course materials, students hold conflicting views about whether digital or print will give them more bang for their buck. That’s according to a fall 2013 study by the National Association of College Stores (NACS), which surveyed 20,000 students on 20 college campuses about their textbook-buying habits.

On the 20 Million Minds blog, Phil Hill sums up the most surprising findings from the NACS report: A majority of students reported that, in the long run, their most affordable option was “to buy the print textbook and then resell it at the end of the term.” Yet about 20 percent of students surveyed had rented or purchased a digital textbook because they thought digital was less expensive than print.

Edtech watcher Dean Florez has been calling out textbook publishers for their print offerings that can cost students more than $1,000 each semester. The industry’s digital options also have left Florez pretty unimpressed; Amazon.com’s Textbook Store, he writes, is charging for print versions of free, open-access texts and not providing much of a discount on the Kindle versions of popular texts, even the used copies.

As we’ve noted elsewhere on our blog, the affordability (or not) of course materials plays a huge role in whether a student will actually purchase the recommended or required textbooks, digital or print. Phil Hill notes the following patterns in the NACS survey (emphasis ours):

  • Price is the top factor in decision whether to acquire course materials
  • Price is the top factor in decision where to acquire course materials
  • Price is the top factor in decision on which format to choose for course materials
  • Students are becoming savvy shoppers, checking multiple purchasing channels for materials

Thanks to legislation that passed in 2012, college students in California now have access to very affordable textbooks via the California Open Online Library for Education (COOL4Ed). The state agreed to fund 50 open-source digital textbooks, targeted to lower-division courses in subjects including math, business, and art history. Students can download these books for free or pay $20 for hard copies.

Moreover, all of these new open textbooks are required to carry a Creative Commons license—which allows faculty at universities in other states to use these textbooks with their own students. The COOL4Ed collection also features free and open-access journals and open course materials (case studies, quizzes, and more).

The California Open Educational Resources Council, comprised of representatives from the state’s three college systems (community colleges, the Cal State University, and the UC), has already established the next round of peer-review panels for open textbooks, with more to come this fall.

Higher Education Act’s Stamp of Approval on Edtech Innovation

HigherEdStamp
This work is used under CC-PD-Mark

Recent legislative plans to overhaul education came in two forms: jumbo and bite-sized. Senate Democrats presented a 785-pages-long bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, while a House committee, equal parts Republican and Democrat, offered 11 pages of targeted proposals for reform.

When it comes to digital innovation in education—especially as it relates to Open Assembly’s mission with regard to open educational resources (OER)—here are the three sections worth checking out.

1) Section 795E recommends an innovations fund for minority-serving institutions to boost student success, in part, by assessing the needs of any given institution, then researching and prototyping educational innovations that can improve student outcomes. Those innovations can and should include OER and digital content.

2) Section 796D offers grants to states that are able to greatly increase access to higher education for and foster the success of low-income students by 2020—especially students facing such barriers to college as having no high school diploma and working more than 25 hours a week. To qualify, states have to present plans that, among other things, promote technology to increase personalized learning and student retention. This includes blended- and flipped-learning innovations.

3) Section 932 outlines ways to provide accessible learning tools to students with disabilities, though we believe that the recommended reforms must apply to all students. The proposal calls for efficiently developing and delivering these materials to post-secondary students with print disabilities, such as open textbooks and other digital resources. States would need to compete for public or private grants and contracts to implement these improvements.

The House and Senate have their mark-up period in the weeks ahead, during which they’ll add amendments to their respective proposals before they leave for their August recess. Ever a hopeful bunch, Congress hopes to vote on the Higher Ed Act reauthorization before the mid-term election.

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