The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all.” Yet, even in North America in 2017, “the likelihood of earning a college degree is tied to family income” (Goldrick-Rab). For those of us who work in Higher Ed, it’s likely that we have been casually aware of the link between family income and college enrolment, attendance, persistence, and completion. But for those of us who teach, it’s likely that the pedagogies and processes that inflect our daily work are several steps removed from the economic challenges that our students face. Even though 67% of college students in Florida and 54% of those in British Columbia cannot afford to purchase at least one of their required course textbooks, we more readily attribute their inability to complete assigned readings to laziness and entitlement than to unaffordability. This is precisely why the push to reduce the high cost of textbooks that has been the cornerstone of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement has been a wake-up call for many of us who may not always have understood what we could do to directly impact the affordability of a college degree.
When faculty use OER, we aren’t just saving a student money on textbooks: we are directly impacting that student’s ability to enroll in, persist through, and successfully complete a course. In other words, we are directly impacting that student’s ability to attend, succeed in, and graduate from college. When we talk about OER, we bring two things into focus: that access is critically important to conversations about academic success, and that faculty and other instructional staff can play a critical role in the process of making learning accessible.
If a central gift that OER brings to students is that it makes college more affordable, one of the central gifts that it brings to faculty is that of agency, and how this can help us rethink our pedagogies in ways that center on access. If we do this, we might start asking broader questions that go beyond “How can I lower the cost of textbooks in this course?” If we think of ourselves as responsible for making sure that everyone can come to our course table to learn, we will find ourselves concerned with the many other expenses that students face in paying for college. How will they get to class if they can’t afford gas money or a bus pass? How will they afford childcare on top of tuition fees? How will they focus on their homework if they haven’t had a square meal in two days or if they don’t know where they will be sleeping that night? How will their families pay rent if they cut back their work hours in order to attend classes? How much more student loan debt will they take on for each additional semester it takes to complete all of their required classes? How will they obtain the credit card they need to purchase an access code? How will they regularly access their free open textbook if they don’t own an expensive laptop or tablet?
And what other access issues do students face as they face these economic challenges? Will they be able to read their Chemistry textbook given their vision impairment? Will their LMS site list them by their birth name rather than their chosen name, and thereby misgender them? Will they have access to the knowledge they need for research if their college restricts their search access or if they don’t have Wi-Fi or a computer at home? Are they safe to participate in online, public collaborations if they are undocumented? Is their college or the required adaptive learning platform collecting data on them, and if so, could those data be used in ways that could put them at risk?
OER invite faculty to play a direct role in making higher education more accessible. And they invite faculty to ask questions about how we can impact access in ways that go beyond textbook costs. At the very least, they help us see the challenges that students face in accessing higher education as broad, as severe, and as directly related to their academic success, or lack thereof.
So one key component of Open Pedagogy might be that it sees access, broadly writ, as fundamental to learning and to teaching, and agency as an important way of broadening that access. OER are licensed with open licenses, which reflects not just a commitment to access in terms of the cost of knowledge, but also access in terms of the creation of knowledge. Embedded in the social justice commitment to making college affordable for all students is a related belief that knowledge should not be an elite domain. Knowledge consumption and knowledge creation are not separate but parallel processes, as knowledge is co-constructed, contextualized, cumulative, iterative, and recursive. Just as the open license allows for the remixing and revision of OER, it also opens the gate into a particular way of thinking about learning. It’s an update of Freire, as we move from a banking-model– conceptualized as the download of information into the student brain– to a participatory model, conceptualized as an interaction between a learner and their learning materials. To use John Gardner’s metaphor: a move from providing cut flowers to growing plants. A move exhibited by shift in instructional mindset from “how do I cover all of the canonical content?” or even “how do I map my lectures onto the textbook’s table of contents?” through “how do I create or modify instructional resources to serve my pedagogical goals?” to “how do I work with my students to co-create not just resources but an environment purposively built for authentic learning?”
In this way, Open Pedagogy invites us to focus on how we can increase access to higher education and how we can increase access to knowledge– both its reception and its creation. This is, fundamentally, about the dream of a public learning commons, where learners are empowered to shape the world as they encounter it. With the open license at the heart of our work, we care both about “free” and about “freedom,” about resources and practices, about access and about accessibility, about content and about contribution. This is not a magical thinking approach to digital pedagogy. It’s an honest appraisal of the barriers that exist in our educational systems and a refusal to abdicate responsibility for those barriers. At Digital Pedagogy Lab Vancouver, we will work in the shadows of the Trump travel ban; work together to critically examine the challenges and violence that constrict learning; work to open collaborative, inquisitive, inclusive pathways to learning for our students, our communities, and our world. We invite you to join us.