My Dissertation: The Lonely Toddler Years

My dissertation turned 2 years old on February 1, 2015. Like most dissertations, mine has been mostly useful to me and me alone. I have secured two pretty great jobs since successfully completing my Ph.D. and I attribute some of this success to having completed a dissertation. I doubt anyone at either of my places of employment over these past two years has actually read my dissertation (nor do I expect them to), but the sheer fact that I completed the thing likely counted for something in the hiring calculus.

As I continue to learn more and more about the world of OER, I have reflected a bit on the work that occupied every waking hour of my life for several months not too long ago. I haven’t published my work in a journal, but I have a goal to do so by the end of 2015 (open-access, of course). The case I might make in such a publication would probably relate to the potential usefulness of my work to faculty using OER, especially to faculty using open textbooks.

The research I conducted involved a mixed-methods approach where I first gathered a large amount of qualitative (interview/survey) data from college students who were using open, digital textbooks as part of a large OER initiative. I asked these students what they thought made for good (“high quality”) digital textbooks. I analyzed this data and looked for emergent themes, searching for the main aspects of digital textbooks that mattered to students. I then used this qualitative data to construct a quantitative measurement model (this it where it gets wonky, but stay with me). In essence, I mapped out the themes in a nifty little diagram that looked like this:

Factor Model

The themes (called factors in this model) are the ovals. This diagram allowed me to construct questions (the rectangles in the model) that would map to each of the factors. Essentially, with the factors in place, I was able to construct specific questions about each theme that would allow me to test the viability and relationships of the factors in another population of students. For example, for the first theme that emerged from the qualitative data – Navigation – I wrote several questions, including this one:

  1. How useful to your learning is the search function in your digital textbook?
    1. There is no search function
    2. Not at all useful
    3. Slightly useful
    4. Moderately useful
    5. Very useful

I wrote several questions for each factor and compiled these questions into a questionnaire, which I then administered to a several hundred students who were using a digital textbook in one or more of their courses. The student responses provided data that allowed me to refine and improve the questions (or remove some altogether) and also test the accuracy and reliability of the model.

The end game in all of this was to provide empirical evidence about what students think are the important things authors should consider when constructing a digital textbook. In the context of OER, this model and the final questionnaire that derives from it provide an empirical tool that faculty can use to continually revise and adapt their open textbooks – in real time. The value of my dissertation to others then, if there be any, is in the context of Open Pedagogy (or Open Educational Practice…pick your poison for now). As Wiley defines it, Open Pedagogy includes teaching and learning activities that are only possible in the context of the 5R Permissions of OER: revise, retain, remix, redistribute, reuse. When these permissions are in force for a digital textbook, the model and questionnaire I have developed could be useful in informing faculty in their revision decisions and, presumably, support changes that improve the content in terms of student outcomes.

I would love to see my model and questionnaire used in practice, so I’m making it available for anyone to administer at any time, either by porting the Word version  into an online survey tool of choice or by administering via the Qualtrics link tied to my personal account (this option requires me to pull the data and send it out upon request, which I am happy to do, but be sure to include a unique identifier for your course so that I can find your students’ responses).

I would also love to see my model and questionnaire improved and iterated upon. I don’t do research myself anymore (that was so 2010-2012 for me), but I am posting here and on my dissertation page the quantitative data I used in my modeling work, with a CC-0 license. It’s an experiment in openness for me, and something that, on a personal level, is long overdue.

Happy birthday.

Z as in Zero: Increasing College Access and Success through Zero-Textbook-Cost Degrees

**This is a cross-posting from an entry I wrote on the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation blog on Jan. 6, 2015**

The Hewlett Foundation gives nearly $8 million each year to get Open Educational Resources  (OER) into mainstream use. We believe that one of the natural consequences of widespread OER adoption will be an increase in students’ educational access and success—with the average U.S. college student now spending $1200 each year on textbooks and other course materials on top of tuition, it’s easy to see how those costs are hindering lower income students from attending college. And that’s not all: a 2014 study by the Student Public Interest Research Group showed that a majority of college students actually base course selection decisions on textbook prices and avoid courses with expensive content. Other students simply don’t purchase required textbooks or show up on the first day of class without a textbook because the cheaper used version they found online is still at the online merchant’s warehouse. Amazingly, the cost of textbooks now sometimes exceeds the cost of tuition, particularly at the community colleges that have traditionally provided a lower-cost alternative (e.g., programs at Cerritos College in California).

But there is light at the end of this dark textbook tunnel. Last year, faculty and administrators at Tidewater Community College (TCC) in Virginia accomplished something remarkable. Relying heavily on OER, TCC designed a curriculum that allows students to skip nearly $3700 in textbook costs and achieve a two-year degree in Business Administration. The “Z-Degree,” as it’s known, has had some incredible impacts. In the first year of Z-Degree implementation, TCC saw a significant increase in the percentage of students completing courses with a C or better, while simultaneously cutting the cost to graduate by 20-30%. TCC also saw a significant decrease in withdrawal rates among students enrolled in the Z-Degree. In a recent report, TCC administrators indicated that they are hopeful that other institutions will follow their lead: “Tidewater intentionally developed a model that can be reproduced. All of their curriculum materials are openly available under a Creative Commons Attribution License, and there is a wealth of additional open resources available.” Indeed, several other institutions and systems are developing or have developed their own zero-textbook-cost degrees, including the Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), the Virginia Community College System, the Washington State Community College System, Thomas Edison State College, and the University System of Maryland.

The zero-textbook-cost degrees at institutions like TCC and NOVA represent models that other institutions can adopt or adapt to help their own students lower the costs of higher education while increasing college access and success. Additionally, the OER used in these model degrees allow faculty to select, adapt, and/or create materials that are aligned with the learning outcomes of their courses and learning profiles of their students, giving them greater flexibility and academic freedom in course design and delivery. Importantly,  the zero-textbook-cost degree is a concept that is easily understood with relatively low barriers to implementation. A significant investment from philanthropy and government to encourage other institutions across the country to experiment with this model has the potential to start a movement. Indeed, this kind of movement has the potential to effectively solve the textbook cost and access issues faced by students  And since OER is the most practical means for establishing zero-textbook-cost degrees, it could also directly promote large-scale adoption and adaptation of OER in higher education (a goal of particular importance to the Hewlett Foundation), creating an infrastructure for improving teaching and learning through adaptable, localizable curricular materials.

I see two ways that the zero-textbook-cost degree movement could take hold on campuses: a large-scale persuasion campaign directed toward colleges to convince them to do the right thing;  or forcing colleges to create this type of degree, primarily through legislation that would mandate (and hopefully fund) their creation. Persuasion makes more sense to me. Given the important role of academic freedom on American campuses, colleges have traditionally resisted reform efforts imposed on them from the outside and often find ways to work around such changes rather than embrace them. A bottom-up approach driven by faculty and embraced by college administrators is far more likely to lead to changes that will be broadly accepted on campus and endure.

The persuasive approach could include three main components: (a) spreading the word about the zero-textbook-cost degree concept, (b) direct fiscal incentives for institutions to establish their own degrees, and (c) research about the impact of the degrees on college access and success to encourage further efforts.

Spreading the Word. Communicating about the concept by highlighting the work of institutions that have established zero-textbook-cost degrees has great potential to attract mainstream media and create an atmosphere of excitement around the idea. Many non-profit organizations have expressed interest in offering their expertise on how to share the story of the Z-degree. Support for such activities could increase the likelihood of successfully bringing the concept to scale.

Direct Incentives. The second component to this approach could involve directly incentivizing institutions to establish their own pathways for students to complete a degree without textbook costs. With funding from philanthropy and government, a grant competition could be created where institutions propose plans for establishing their own zero-textbook-cost degrees and apply for funding to support their efforts. A competitive RFP process would allow institutions to determine the approaches that work best for them in their own contexts and allow them to maintain academic freedom. The scope and potential impact of the competition would be determined by the funders and other organizations involved and the amount of funding available. An existing or newly formed non-profit could facilitate the RFP process, similar to the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC) funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

Research. As zero-textbook-cost degrees are implemented across the country, research could be conducted to analyze the impact of degree establishment on student access and success, as well as on faculty pedagogical practice. Metrics related to access and success might include credit loads, withdrawal rates, persistence rates, pass rates, and actual cost savings. Establishing a research agenda and including data sharing requirements in the RFP could lead to deeper understanding of the impact of the program and lead to further expansion of the concept throughout the U.S. higher education system.

The Hewlett Foundation, in conjunction with Student PIRGS, SPARC, Creative Commons, the Open Education Consortium, and several other non-profit organizations will be convening interested parties over the next several months. We welcome your views on the details of the approach described here and any alternatives you might suggest.  If your organization is interested in joining the conversation, partnering, or simply learning more about this opportunity, please contact us at

Building Measurably Better Lives


Next week I will officially begin my term as the OER Program Officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. It is hard for me to express my excitement and anticipation for this new experience. I am looking forward to so many things, most especially the opportunities I will have to build relationships with the many wonderful people from around the world who are engaged in the work of open education.

In preparing to interview for the position earlier this year, I scanned through the many, many successful OER projects that have been funded by my predecessors at the foundation. I was amazed at the scope and breadth of the list. As I browsed, I realized that I had personally interacted with people from several of the funded projects. This realization caused my excitement to grow even more, as I looked forward to the potential of renewing and growing my relationships with so many of my former friends and colleagues.

I think the reason the relationship factor is so appealing to me is because I have long viewed the Hewlett Foundation as much more than simply a source of funding. To those in the OER community, the Hewlett Foundation is an invaluable source of counsel, guidance, insight, networking, and direction. Money is certainly an essential resource, but it is not always the most valuable service that the Hewlett Foundation provides. To me, the Hewlett Foundation is like a parent. Through interaction with others, the foundation helps bring ideas to life, provides means to help these ideas grow and mature, and, ultimately, intends for the ideas to move out and be successful on their own in the world. Just as children would rarely think of their parents as simply their source of funding (though parents certainly serve that role for an extended term), those who receive support from Hewlett do not think of the foundation as just a fountain of cash. Instead, they look to Hewlett (and the Program Officers especially) to help them make connections, navigate the landscape, and measurably improve lives through their ideas.

I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity to play this sort of role in the open education movement. I know I have some big shoes to fill (and know I will be standing on the shoulders of giants), but I cannot wait to be fully involved again with the OER community. I cannot wait to learn and to grow together with so many great thinkers and doers from around the world. For me, this is a dream come true, an opportunity to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause.”

**The opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.**

Photo Credit: Ezra Katz –

Reflections of a Former Bureaucrat


Friday, June 6, was my last official day as the Director of Assessment and Accountability for the State Department of Education in Idaho. Over the past 18 months, I have had the opportunity to work with hundreds of wonderful and dedicated educators across the Gem State. I have learned much from their experience and expertise, and my understanding of public K-12 education has evolved dramatically. I have gained a deep respect for the challenges and complexities of this grand enterprise. Most especially, I have a gained an abiding admiration for those who have devoted their lives to teaching and guiding our children, despite these challenges and complexities.

You may notice that this is my first blog post since beginning work at the Department.  As an aide to an elected official, and because it has been my responsibility to oversee some of the hottest current political issues in Idaho education, I made the decision not to opine publicly via this blog. Out of respect for my former colleagues at the Department (most especially the wonderful PR staff), I will refrain from commenting on anything specific related to my work there – though all are free to browse through pages and pages of my public communication to schools throughout the state.50a2089995a26.preview-300

The only thing I will say about my time at the Department is this: I thoroughly enjoyed working with and learning from Superintendent Tom Luna. I did not know Superintendent Luna before I came to Idaho last year, but I am glad I got to know him. He has been an example of kindness, integrity, humor, and leadership to me. And while there are still many throughout the state who bristle at even the mention of his name, I predict that he will eventually be recognized as one of the most successful and forward thinking educational leaders Idaho has ever seen. I’ll be candid that I do not agree with Superintendent Luna on every philosophical point. I knew that would be the case coming in. But I have discovered that that’s exactly what makes him such an effective leader: He is willing to allow even those who disagree with him to have a meaningful seat at the table. Many of the reforms he has led, including the Common Core State Standards, more fair school accountability, increased transparency in government, and expanded use of educational technology, will have lasting positive impacts on Idaho’s students and Idaho’s economy. The people of Idaho, whether they recognize it or not, have been lucky to have Superintendent Tom Luna leading the state’s public education system for the past 8 years.

As my family and I head off on new adventure, I will always be grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to rub shoulders with some of the greatest people on earth.

Way to go, Idaho!

Rapid Response: FlatWorldKnowledge Decision (Updated)

I was extremely disappointed to learn that FWK had made the decision to exit the OER community and, indeed, the OER cause. If the company is not careful, they have the potential to do great damage on their way out the door. The publishing industry has already begun the “We told you so” rhetoric because FWK has so far failed to make clear the reasons behind their decision. It is not likely the case that FWK wasn’t sustainable as a provider of high quality OER. They’ve been growing under their business model for quite some time. It is more probably the case that those funding the venture weren’t satisfied with the profit margins and revenue pace. In short, FWK wasn’t making enough money (or they weren’t making it fast enough) for those who don’t share the very principles of openness upon which the company was founded. If I’m correct about this, then FWK should take pains to emphasize that their OER business model is actually sustainable, so long as sustainability (not uber-profitability) is the primary goal. A statement to this effect would effectively nueter the hounds (or Cheshire cats, as the case may be) who are clamoring for opportunities to kill the OER movement.

If I am wrong about this and the FWK model is not, in fact, sustainable, then this should be made clear as well. In this situation, FWK would need to concede that this first attempt at a sustainable OER business model didn’t work in the long run. But, this would be no reason to give up on trying to figure it out. What if Thomas Edison or Abraham Lincoln or scores of others had given up on their first (or second, or third) attempts? I, for one, am confident that a sustainable model for producing and distributing OER is possible.

OER Policy Presentation Posted

Earlier this week I gave a presentation on OER Policy at the Virtual Schools Symposium in New Orleans. In this talk I gave the standard technical argument for OER and then discussed three unique cases of state-level policy models related to OER in Washington, Utah, and Texas. I was honored to have Rep. Scott Hochberg of the Texas House of Representatives join me in discussing the OER policy he pushed and successfully passed in Texas. In addition, Senator Howard Stephenson of Utah was kind enough to provide his brief first thoughts about OER and OER policy. I look forward to continuing the conversation with him here in Utah – especially since, up to this point, there hasn’t been any policy action on OER in the legislature.

You can access and download the slide deck from this presentation here.

OpenEd 12 Presentation: A Student Measure of the Quality of Open Digital Textbooks

I’ve posted the slide deck for my talk at Open Education Conference 2012, coming up next Wednesday in Vancouver, BC. This talk describes the work I’ve been doing to understand student perceptions of their open digital textbooks. My research is laying the groundwork for a rating instrument that teachers can use to get validated feedback from their students that will inform decisions about updating and revising their texts.

Check out the slide deck on Slideshare.

Illustrating the Pain

This simple figure illustrates the barrier between teachers and (a) assessment training and expertise, (b) access to higher quality test items, and (c) self-awareness about actual assessment expertise. The barrier is multi-faceted and includes availability, opportunity, time, and money. Our edstartup idea provides clear and innovative solutions to each of these facets.

Validating Our Assumptions

Today I chatted face-to-face with eight teachers from various schools and subject areas (as well as with a couple of people within a school of education) to verify that the assumptions we have made about teachers’ pain are accurate.

Through my interviews, I was able to confirm each of following seven basic assumptions:

1. Teachers lack assessment training.

2. Teacher training programs do not have curricular space (or priority) for assessment training.

3. Assessment development is time consuming and often tedious.

4. Teachers rely on test banks and other sources of assessment items that have unknown quality and alignment.

5. Many teachers aren’t doing much to solve this problem. However, some teachers have started collaborative assessment development activities at the department, school or district levels. This means that some teachers, at least, are looking for ways to increase the test development efficiency and quality.

6. Very few teachers obtain assessment training through professional development activities. Generally, teachers who do obtain some training are those who have been asked to help in the development of large-scale standardized tests. This kind of training has limited applicability at the classroom level.

7. Teachers have limited access to high quality test items, but many teachers desire more access to such items.

In addition, my conversations with these teachers (and other education experts) revealed at least one other critical reality: teachers often don’t know what they don’t know about assessment.

It turns out that most teachers feel that they have sufficient capability in assessment development and evaluation. However, a few teachers that I talked to who had received minimal training (and one currently enrolled in a measurement Ph.D. program who has received significant training) were emphatic that their assessment knowledge prior to training was exceedingly limited but that they weren’t aware of the fact. What this means is that it will be critical to find the best way to help teachers realize the benefit that could be gained by using our product. One teacher (who is training to become a principal) recommended focusing our marketing toward administrators who, if bought-in, could persuade their teachers to use it. A second way to increase use would be to offer some sort of credit (college or licensure) for those who complete the training.

Finally, most of the teachers I talked with gave very positive feedback about the idea itself, including saying things like “I would use your database” and “Your training and database would be so helpful to me and other teachers I know.”

Photo Credit:

Open Education and Democracy

If you were to walk up to some random person waiting for the bus and say, “Hey, did you know that learning is ‘the act of gaining knowledge?'”, you probably wouldn’t end up in a heated theoretical street fight (though I’d like to witness one of those some day). Indeed, Collins’ definition of learning seems fairly straightforward and innocuous. What we need to recognize, though, is that underlying this definition of learning is the metaphor of acquisition.

Within the metaphor of acquisition the goal of learning is individual enrichment; learning is the acquisition of something; the student is the recipient or consumer; the teacher is the provider or mediator; knowledge is a property, possession, or commodity; and knowing is equivalent to having or possessing knowledge (see the left side of Table 1 created by Anna Sfard).

You probably aren’t surprised by the acquisition metaphor for learning. Odds are, you agree with all or part of it. In fact, the vast majority of people view learning through this metaphor, and have done so for millennia. But despite (or perhaps because of) its near universal acceptance and elegant conceptual framework, the acquisition metaphor for learning has had at least one important effect on society: the commodification of knowledge. Anna Sfard described the consequences of knowledge commodification in a vivid and accessible way:

“If knowledge is conceived of as a commodity, it is only natural that attitudes toward learning reflect the way the given society thinks about material wealth. When figuratively equated, knowledge and material possessions are likely to play similar roles in establishing people’s identities and in defining their social positions. In the class-ridden capitalist society, for example, knowledge understood as property is likely to turn into an additional attribute of position and power. Like material goods, knowledge has the permanent quality that makes the privileged position of its owner equally permanent. As result, learning according to the acquisition metaphor may draw people apart rather than bring them together…A not-altogether-infrequent occurrence of self-centered, asocial attitude toward knowing, creating, and learning is certainly a case in point. If people are valued and segregated according to what they have, the metaphor of intellectual property is more likely to feed rivalry than collaboration.”

Another way to view learning is through the metaphor of participation. Within this metaphor the goal of learning is community building; learning is defined as becoming a participant; students are peripheral participants or apprentices; teachers are expert participants and perservers of practice; knowledge is an aspect of practice, discourse, or activity; and knowing is defined as belonging, participating, or communicating (the right side of Sfard’s Table 1).

Almost prophetically, Sfard argued that “the participation metaphor has a potential to lead to a new, more democratic practice of learning and teaching…Only time will tell whether the promise of a more democratic process of learning, brought by [the participation metaphor], is going to materialize.”

It’s important to note that Sfard published her prediction in 1998, just as the concepts for open education were being formulated. In the ensuing 14 years, the open education movement has exploded. Knowledge is becoming uncommoditized at an unprecedented rate and people the world over are realizing that “education for all” is a near-term reality, not just a fool’s dream (or worse). The Internet and the legal “freedoms” of Open Educational Resources have made participatory collaborative content development possible and increasingly popular.

Is open education a materialization of Sfard’s prediction? If so, it seems time that we started exploring to what extent the open education movement is contributing to a “more democratic practice of learning and teaching” around the world.