A Call to Action

The first reaction most people have had to the idea proposed by this site has to do with whether or not I can actually do this.  I can certainly understand the reservations some people may have to what I am proposing here, however, I think I can allay most of these concerns by asking people to consider the relevant available analogies and examples and also by requiring that site users observe some simple rules when using the site to post their content.

It is widely accepted that content which faculty create for courses is solely their own, except in cases where such content has been developed via stipend or using other resources provided by academic institutions or grants.The AAUP has a wonderful essay, entitled, “On Professors Assigning Their Own Texts to Students”, which discusses the concerns involved with professors assigning their own texts for their courses and so we know these are not new or revolutionary concerns. Much of what is written in the article pertains here as well.  If we accept that content developed on their own, during time they are not being compensated for by their employer is their own, then it should be an easy matter to imagine that faculty own the rights to such content and can make it available for sale or free use.

Consider a faculty member who is an artist who uses some of their own content in course material and who also sells their artwork. We would not propose that such a person would not be allowed to enjoy the proceeds from such artwork or that selling it somehow makes it unacceptable for teaching purposes.  We do need to be sensitive to the concern that students are a captive audience and we certainly do not want to encourage a situation in which faculty can take advantage of students, asking them to pay large sums of money for course materials at a direct profit to faculty. Is there a way to ensure that faculty are not expected to create course materials for free and yet still attend to the concerns of the quality and affordability of this content for students?

This concern is dealt with most straightforwardly by first accepting that the best interests of students, in terms of the assignment of quality education materials at a reasonable price, is inextricably bound up with the well-being of faculty who are in the best position to create such materials.  Any model which purports to solve either of these problems must do so simultaneously. Consider an example for the current model relevant to these problems: Often faculty are asked to create content for a course and they are not adequately compensated for doing so. Thus, they do the math and decide to turn to corporate academic publishers for a textbook which they know will also provide them, in many cases, with everything they need to teach the course (slideshows, quizzes, tests, notes, activities, videos, etc.). The cost of this is passed to students who pay a large sum for the textbook and the publisher profits because they can offer those same packaged materials to every professor teaching a course of that kind and they only have to update every few years, if at all.  The same is true of sites that provide activities tied to a textbook that are accessed via a code which is purchased by students.  These activities are often auto-graded so the professor does not have to grade them. This model is widely and generally accepted and has remained the standard for at least the last 7-10 years.  The materials produced are often generic and it is not clear who produces the course materials for the professor but it is certainly the case that the large publishing companies win.

The model we are proposing removes the power from large academic corporate publishers and places it into the hands of faculty and students.  It provides a platform for faculty to take materials they have developed, often over the course of years, that is informed by it’s real-life success or failure in the classroom.  It is obvious who the author of the material is and the instructor purchasing the materials or agreeing to use them in their classroom can have an open and informed dialogue with the person who created them.  They can get access to research, if it is offered, ask questions about how best to implement the materials, and can also offer up their own feedback in terms of the material’s successes and challenges in their own classrooms.  They can and should consider the amount of development time which preparing the materials cost them, accounting for any time which may have already been compensated, and set a fair price for them which is unaffected by concerns for corporate profit margins and the cost of publishing, advertising, and overhead which is at the forefront of the concerns of academic publishers.

In short, we are hurting ourselves and our students by being willing to settle for what is easy and what is generally accepted.  As instructors we should not be placing the control for the content we assign our students in the hands of those motivated solely by profit.  We can do this better than they (large corporate educational and academic publishers) can.  

The culture of sharing materials in academia has always been rich, however, often faculty (particularly part and adjunct faculty) are asked to engage in unpaid course development. This is unacceptable and we can no longer rely upon those in positions of authority to fix this because institutional barriers to this will prevent them from being able to. We must fix this ourselves and present our solution as an accomplished fact to our administrators.  Most of them are likely to applaud our efforts at honoring the hard work and human needs of our colleagues and our efforts at seeking out the best possible content for our courses.

Imagine that I create a course packet for my class which carefully pulls together some of the newest and best research on the main topics for my course. I expend a great deal of personal time and energy on this, tailoring it to specifically target my demographic of students at my institution of employment.  Imagine that I carefully ensure that all copyright obligations are met, using my own money to pay any fees associated with being able to place this into a course packet for my class and then paying any fees associated with printing as many copies as needed to supply my students who enroll for my courses. Imagine then that I give this away to students for free or at such a ridiculously low price that it would take years of selling them just to cover the costs of publishing enough for my enrolled students every semester. Imagine also that my institution does not pay me for my research, expenses, or publication costs. At this point, you should be asking why anyone would do this. Now consider that they do.

It is unfortunately the reality that many instructors face when trying to prepare their own materials for use in a class. However, the reverse is also true, some institutions allow professors to require students to purchase textbooks or academic books they have published in conjunction with wealthy academic publishers at exorbitant costs.  This platform aims to completely alter this paradigm by creating a culture of compensation for creative production and simultaneously create a culture of affordability for students.  Our future as instructors is bound completely with the futures of our students and it is time we demand more and better for them and for ourselves.

There are some simple rules which should be used to govern our efforts in this area in order to ensure that no person or entity takes advantage of the changes this platform seeks to bring about:

  1.  Prices set for course materials should be reasonable and based on a thoughtful consideration of the cost of producing the materials, the necessity of the materials for teaching the content of the course, and the amount of time spent preparing them with a focus on what it is reasonable for faculty to expect per hour for their labor. Checking out the average hourly or per credit compensation for faculty in your area is suggested.  Also, consider whether you would like faculty to pay you in total for the content and buy continued use rights to it or whether charging students a subscription fee, which allows you to fund future content development time, is the best solution for you. Prices set for content should be well under the going market rate for similar content being offered by publishers.  Reports of price gouging will be taken seriously and investigated by the site. If you are offering content on this site at high prices to students, you may be asked to explain your pricing model and you may be told to reconsider these prices or have your content removed from the site.

2.  Consider the quality of your content when setting a price. Everyone imagines that they are a genius and their content is worth millions. Get over it! People cannot afford to pay this amount and the goal is to make the cost reasonable while also honoring the amount of time and resources it took you to create it.  Do some research and find out what publishers offer to faculty when they agree to use their textbooks and how much students are charged for the text. Then consider what you are offering in comparison and the mode of presentation you have to offer the content in. Is it something that can be implemented into any modern LMS? Are you offering a textbook with the materials?  All of these questions should be considered.

3.  Consider that the materials you developed should be offered to your own students for free!  Often your own students are your source of precious feedback and research on the quality of your content.  If you can give it to them for free or at a nominal fee then this is a wonderful way to respect any time you are compensated for with regard to course prep from your institution and to honor the invaluable contributions your students will make to bettering your content. This may also help you avoid any concerns about the ethics of your endeavors at your own institution.

4. Ensure absolutely that you own the rights to any content you are including as part of the course material and activities. It is perfectly acceptable to sell materials you own the rights to but not to sell the rights to materials you are using that are not your own and that you cannot purchase the commercial rights to.  This site will take very seriously any claims of copyright infringement and will investigate such claims to the fullest extent possible.

5. Ensure that you are an individual or group of individual educators looking to market quality content you have created. If you are a publisher or are looking to re-market someone else’s content, this is not the place for you. Anyone who violates this policy will have their account at the site terminated.

6.  This site is a non-profit and any money the site itself makes will go towards supporting the continued use of the platform, compensating those who work on the site for their time, paying fees associated with running the site, and funding the efforts of faculty who wish to spend time creating amazing content for students. In the future, a separate page will be set up with an application that will allow faculty to apply for development grants as long as they agree to offer the content developed for free or at a very reduced cost agreed upon by those who manage the site. Consider donating to our very worthy cause!

7. Consider the format of your class and how you will deliver the content to another instructor for use in their class when you are trying to decide whether or not your content is a good candidate for listing on this site. Make sure you are following all relevant rules and laws regarding student privacy. FERPA regulations should be your guide in this.

8. Be willing to take a risk. This site platform represents a monumental shift in terms of how we think about academic content. We are embarking into uncharted territory here and this means that courage and confidence in the rightness of our goals is needed. Carefully consider constructive criticism and be flexible.  Chances are we will need to adjust our expectations and our guiding rules as go, but this is our start.

I’m sure much of this essay has raised more questions than it answers. Please check out the rest of our site to get familiar with the education content platform idea and how you can get involved.