Why Create and Use Open Educational Resources?

open textbooksI'm currently working on redesigning courses to use only Open Educational Resources (OER). Ever since I have worked in higher ed, whenever I have discussed open resources that are offered for free some faculty will always ask "Why do people create these things for no money?"
Most of us do our work and create our "intellectual property" (some of which is called that isn't really IP) in order to make money, and in academia to gain promotion and tenure too.
Some of the main motivations for creating OER are the same as the reasons for using OER. In my current project at a community college, we are trying to create course that save students money. Ideally, the course has no cost after students pay their tuition. The biggest cost is almost always textbooks, so using free, open textbooks is important.
I feel that too much course design is based on the textbook used, so OER redesign offers an opportunity for real course redesign. 
On the pedagogical side, open textbooks solve the problem of students simply not buying the book and trying to get by without it. I taught in secondary school for years and all the textbooks were free and I will always say that a free book does not solve the problem of students who do not read the books.
We also know through many studies that students who are strapped for money often choose courses when possible based on low or no cost for textbooks.
Students get annoyed when a professor only uses a small part of the textbook. Using open textbooks allows us to select the sections that we really want to use. Many OER courses use portions of several texts - a few chapters from one and a few from another.
If you not totally happy with the content in an truly open textbook, you can edit it yourself. You can add your own content, add your own images. Of course, in most cases those edits also have to be made open to others to use. I think of an open textbook as a starting point.
Which brings us to the point that creating an OER course takes work. Finding resources is very time-consuming. Editing them is work. If you do it, you do it for your students, for education and for a love of learning that you want to share with the world.
OER creators don't usually make money from their efforts, although there are platforms that offer resources in printed formats for a price. But creators can get recognition and exposure for their efforts and that can sometimes help in the job-hunting and promotion and tenure processes.

A New Kind of Way to Read 'A New Kind of Science'

In 2002, computer scientist and physicist Stephen Wolfram published a bestselling book A New Kind of Science about fundamental problems in science, from the origins of apparent randomness in physical systems, to the development of complexity in biology, the ultimate scope and limitations of mathematics, the possibility of a truly fundamental theory of physics, the interplay between free will and determinism, and the character of intelligence in the universe.
Wolfram’s blog post announced this online edition, he revisits the intellectual contributions he made with the book.
You can still buy the book, but now Wolfram has put his book online in its entirety. You can read it online for free and download it as PDFs.
The book is also part of a very good collection of free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices from openculture.com

Making Critical Thinking Critical

The news is full of specious reasoning, logical fallacies and cognitive biases. In other words, there is a lack of critical thinking. Most colleges and some high schools offer courses in critical thinking. If those terms are unfamiliar, you probably haven't taught (or taken) a class in critical thinking.

What is critical thinking? There are many definitions. I have found in talking to teachers and to students that everyone seems to believe that they are using critical thinking. I suspect that most of them are not teaching or using it, or at least not as well or as consciously as they might.

For me, critical thinking is a very conscious use of certain techniques and processes. Do we use critical thinking when we make a major purchase like a car or home? You would certainly hope so, but many purchases are made, large and small, with some thought but no real critical thinking. Not all thinking is critical thinking. I would argue that most thinking is not critical thinking.

I doubt that you would get any argument in saying that one of the most desirable characteristics of school graduates is that they can think critically. Employers always list it in the top section of skills they want in new employees. But teaching critical thinking is not something that teachers are explicitly trained to do. It is just assumed that it occurs naturally in doing academic work.

Can you read and not be a critical reader? Absolutely. And there are times - vacation and leisure reading - when that is fine. I teach film and communications and there are ways to be a critical viewer, but even I don't really use all the tools when I'm just watching a sitcom on my couch.

Our curriculum often does not demand critical thinking. It often focuses on the recall of the "pedagogical content knowledge" because that is the basis for much assessment.

The next six months I will be developing a critical thinking course using OER, so I am back into my critical thinking mode. I have taught undergraduate critical thinking courses and I think they should be a requirement at that level and also in elementary, middle and high school.

I like this article that says that one problem is that "critical thinking is the Cheshire Cat of educational curricula – it is hinted at in all disciplines but appears fully formed in none. As soon as you push to see it in focus, it slips away. If you ask curriculum designers exactly how critical thinking skills are developed, the answers are often vague and unhelpful for those wanting to teach it. This is partly because of a lack of clarity about the term itself and because there are some who believe that critical thinking cannot be taught in isolation, that it can only be developed in a discipline context – after all, you have think critically about something."

AACU Critical Thinking VALUE Rubric (below) click for full pdf  


The Dark Side

dark side
The dark side - it sounds so evil. Darth Vader and "The Force" used for the wrong things. Online there are a number of "dark" places: darknet, dark web, black web, and black net. And then there is the deep web, which is often associated with (and confused with) these other dark places.
The deep web is all of the information stored online that is not indexed by search engines. You probably use Google for search, but it only indexes a fraction of the Internet. Some estimates say that the web contains 500 times more content than what Google returns in search results.
The results you get when you do a search on Google and other search engines dome from the “surface web.” The results that you're not getting returned would be from the “deep web” or “invisible web”.
Are those things hidden because they are evil or illegal. Actually, much of it hidden for less dramatic reason. Some of it probably would not be relevant to most searchers, or it's old and outdated. A lot of it is in databases that Google is either not interested in indexing or barred from accessing. That is sometimes good for our privacy. You wouldn't want Google to be indexing your phone apps, the files in your Dropbox account, or your social media accounts. Other places, like subscription academic journals and court records are also deeper in the web than search engine can or want to go.
Actually, Google has a separate search engine called deeperweb.com. Give it a try. Search for yourself or some "deep" subject. It doesn't really go deep into the dark and scary Net. Reading their tutorial, you find that DeeperWeb is their metasearch engine that employs tag cloud techniques for navigating through regular Google search results and using Topic Map methods gives results relevant to a specific topic.   
A lot of social media shares occur in what some people call “dark social” which comes from the “dark web” but it might be better called "deep social." 
The dark web is different from the deep web. This darker side is is only accessible by means of special software. Many people using that software to search want to remain anonymous or untraceable. That does sound a bit evil - and it might be. Although someone might be searching anonymously because they would be embarrassed by their search being discovered, someone else could be trying to avoid law enforcement. These darknets form a small part of the larger deep web.
Dark web sites are also where narcotics, firearms, and stolen credit card numbers are bought and sold. They are sites that get shut down sometimes because someone uses them to search for hitmen or share pornography or something else illegal.
But it is not all evil. Journalists and whistleblowers use it to exchange sensitive information. Depending on how you view someone like Edward Snowden, this usage is either treasonous or heroic.
The most common way to access this darknet network made up of servers scattered around the world is through something like Tor. The name is short for The Onion Router (Darknet website URLs often end with .onion rather than .com or .org.) The Tor browser relays traffic through encrypted connections and all the traffic bounces between relays located around the world, making the user "anonymous."
Before you decide to go over to the dark side, know that although your ISP and the government might not be able to view your activity when on the Tor Network, they do know you are on the Tor Network. As this guide to the deep and dark web notes, "that alone is enough to raise eyebrows. In fact, a recent judgment by the US Supreme Court denoted that simply using Tor was sufficient probable cause for the FBI to search and seize any computer around the world."
Many Tor users add a further layer of security via a Virtual Private Network (VPN). But I use VPN provided by my university in order to connect to the their network from off-campus using my own Internet Service Provider (ISP) and have secure access to the university's network resources from anywhere at anytime. Every tool can be used for good and evil. 

Following the Expansion of the Google Classroom

Google Classroom is now used by more than 20 million educators and students. It is used by teachers in schools as a limited but free learning management system (LMS), and I am sure Google is using it for their own developers who are building educational technology.

This academic year, Classroom updates show some of the direction this project may take. There were changes to allow more individualized work for differentiated learning. Google saw that teachers were creating "workarounds" to differentiate their instruction. Now, when creating an assignment, post or question, teachers can choose whether to share it with the entire class or just with a subset of students. Designers using full-featured LMS (Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard et al) have been doing that for at least ten years.


There are also updates that are more for the teacher, such as notifications to manage student work. Teachers now receive two new types of Classroom notifications—one when students submit work after the due date, and one for when students re-submit work. Again, these are features that have been offered in other LMS for quite awhile.

It seems that Google is moving towards creating a fully-featured LMS. Will that expanded product remain free, or are they moving towards a competing commercial product?

Updates that are more for developers, such as new capabilities to the Classroom API to make integrations with Classroom more seamless, also seem to indicate future expansion, Integrated applications can now programmatically add materials to coursework or student submissions and can modify existing coursework they’ve created. For K-12 schools the demands to integrate arelessthan those in higher education, but grading and student information systems (SIS) become criticl when any LMS is used in an "enterprise" manner. Other educational applications have been integrated with Classroom since the launch of the API, including tools like Flat.IO, Classcraft and Little SIS. I'm sure Google is monitoring these uses with an eye to future development of their Classroom platform.

Social Media Research Tools

Social media can be viewed as a distraction. Some people rely on it as a news source. Companies use it for marketing purposes. And some of us study it in a more academic way.

In higher education, we at least touch on all four approaches. Some teachers find it all a useless annoyance. In communications and journalism courses, it is studied as another medium. In business school, it has moved into marketing and advertising courses and conversations. Beyond the theories of social media use, there is learning about the design and analysis of social media.

Studying online communities and social networks is leading to developing new tools and methods for analyzing and visualizing social media data. One of the better compilations of social media research tools has been curated by researchers at the Social Media Lab at Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University.  Their site has more than fifty tools that they have reviewed academically. Many are free tools to use and are fairly simple to implement and use to collect data for analysis, while others require some programming experience.