When librarians are obstacles

Heading into the Open Ed Conference and especially the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival, I expected to be one of only a handful of librarians participating. Librarians haven’t been terribly involved or engaged with the open education movement, but our values and missions align so well that I expected to be welcomed by the professors and the edupunks as a peer and fellow traveller. Well, I got the first part right – I met only a couple of librarians all week – but the second, not so much. Imagine my surprise when the other two speakers in the session on libraries and the future of OER spent much of their time criticizing the ways in which librarians have engaged with open education, and lamenting the possibility of librarians being anything other than a liability.

Julià Minguillón, a computer science professor who spoke about digital preservation issues, described attempting to deposit an equation into his university library’s OER repository, only to be told that because his equation did not have a title, it could not be included in the collection. He then went on to criticize librarians’ obsession with the “useless” metadata of “author, title, date.” He argued that if we put librarians in charge of OER repositories (exactly the thing I argued for in my paper), we will sacrifice broad, immediate access in favor long-term preservation and proper metadata schemas.

R. John Robertson gave a paper about the role libraries can play in supporting OER initiatives but a significant portion of his presentation was given over to his concerns about librarian participation in this work. His experience with librarians is that they are so risk averse that the merest hint of a copyright issue is likely to send them running for the hills. Like Minguillón, he had anecdotes to back up his worries about librarians as obstacles in the field of open education.

In a word: Blergh! How did this happen? Why, despite biannual New York Times articles about how modern and hip librarians have become, are we still perceived on our own campuses as fearful impediments to progress?

Okay, I know why. Some librarians are fearful impediments to progress. Some librarians allow perfect metadata to be the enemy of good access. Some libraries, as institutions, do not foster innovation and experimentation, and are deeply resistant to change. It’s so disappointing.

It probably says something about the job I’ve had for the last year and a half that I see this primarily as a failure of management. On the plane to Barcelona I read a column by Meredith Farkas in American Libraries called “Nurturing Innovation: Tips for Managers and Administrators.” She offers a number of excellent suggestions for ways to adjust the institutional culture at libraries to support and embrace innovation: Encourage staff to learn and play, give staff time to experiment with potential new initiatives, keep an open mind, develop a risk tolerant culture. These suggestions kept coming back to me at Open Ed as I struggled to defend librarians and libraries against accusations of stodginess. I wanted to hand the article over to the people who complained about their uptight, change resistant libraries and say, “It doesn’t have to be this way. Go talk to your Dean. Make it better.” I also, in that way that sometimes happens, added one more suggestion to the list, thinking it was from Farkas but it’s from somewhere else, part of a theme that developed at Open Ed: Library administrators must make some room in their budgets for failure.

Innovation and progress can’t happen without failure. It’s how we learn, as individuals and as institutions and as species. Yes, library budgets are tight these days. Tighter than we ever thought they could get. With money so tight, and cuts so deep, it’s easy to think that now is not the time to take risks, but of course, now is exactly the time to take risks. How else will we prepared to address the challenges that await us in next year’s budget cycle, and the one after that, and the one 15 years from now?

To use one relevant example: The current commercial scholarly publishing apparatus is choking us. We know this. Knowing this, we have two choices: We can invest in activities that could ease the financial pressure – open repositories, deposit mandates, awareness campaigns – or we can choke. In this case, many libraries are experimenting, and sometimes those experiments even fail. As Farkas points out, when our experiments fail we still learn something valuable from them, something that can set us on a path to succeed the next time.

It’s not enough simply to encourage our staff to experiment. We need to give them money to play with, to set up a repository or buy a license to a promising tool or hire an expert to train staff in something new. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money, but it does have to be relatively free from strings. And then, we need to make sure our experimenting staff share what they’ve learned with colleagues in other libraries, the successes and the failures. It’s how we will all evolve.

So to wrap up this meandering post with a tidy bow: Higher education is changing, and our campuses are full of people (many of whom were at Open Ed and Drumbeat) experimenting with new models, tools, and philosophies related to teaching, learning, and research. The primary responsibility of academic libraries is to support teaching, learning, and research, and so those experiments and the people conducting them are highly relevant to us. We must make sure that we remain relevant to them. If they see us as an obstacle it is only a matter of time before we become obsolete. We want those experimenters and innovators to view the library as both a resource for and a partner in their work, and we can do that by funding innovation among our own staff, expanding our definition of the library’s role on campus, and embracing the possibility of failure. If we neglect to do these things, we don’t just risk becoming obsolete, we guarantee it.

The ecosystem of educational resources

This week I am in Barcelona for the Open Education Conference and the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival. It’s been a very inspiring few days, and most inspiring so far was a talk by Hal Plotkin, Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education in the United States Department of Education. The title of his talk was “Meeting President Obama’s 2020 College Graduation Goal – The Role of Open Educational Resources,” but his focus was actually on how to foster a culture of sharing among academics, including the very important role that government policymaking has to play. I think it’s exciting to know that there is someone helping to make educational policy who thinks the way Hal Plotkin does.

The most compelling element of this talk for me was Plotkin’s framing of the market for educational resources as an ecosystem. It began with an anecdote: At Foothills De Anza Community College, where Plotkin worked for many years, he saw at the start of each term students roaming the college bookstore, course catalogs in hand, trying to figure out which courses they could afford to take based on how expensive the textbooks were. Economic considerations were often the most important factor that students used to decide what course they could take.

There was a statistics professor at Foothills De Anza who had created his own textbook, and sold it through the college bookstore. Another statistics professor came to campus, and she wanted to create an open stats textbook, one that would be available to students for free online. The college helped her do this, and then there were two statistics classes available to students, one with a free textbook and one with a textbook they had to buy. Students voted with their feet, and enrollment in the class with the proprietary textbook dropped so low that the college nearly cancelled it. It also turned out that students in the OER class did better in subsequent stats classes, probably because they could keep their textbooks instead of selling them back to the bookstore so they could afford books for the new term. Over time the faculty member with the proprietary textbook finally understood what was happening, made his book open, now there are choices between two different open textbooks and sections on campus.

This shift from closed to open happened at Foothills De Anza Community College, not by mandate or new requirements, but by the creation of an alternate OER universe, one that is so advantageous to the community that, and I’m quoting Plotkin here, “in the natural biology of things it overtakes the less useful organism that’s part of our enterprise.”

Expanding on this story, Plotkin argued that what’s most effective in changing the culture is to look for the adopters of OER and to impel or encourage our governmental entities and governance structure in higher education to support the faculty members who want to engage in OER scholarship and the OER community. We can do this without wasting any energy in trying to convince those who are not convinced. We have enough opportunity on our hands, enough interested scholars and faculty members around the world who want to participate in this alternate academic universe that we can spend all our time fruitfully engaging them and working with them without ever wasting our time on the opposition. Over time, if we continue to nurture and support the faculty who want to be a part of a different structure, an open structure, a sharing structure, these stronger, healthier practices will overtake the old, closed practices, and push them towards extinction.

This is not a new argument. Here’s the part that was new to me: We don’t need to do this by changing the copyright law. We don’t need to attack the existing structures head on. We don’t need to fight against anything. We can let the Elseviers and Cengages keep their life plus 70 copyright terms and their draconian licensing practices. All we need to do is help open educational resources flourish – on a giant scale, a federally funded scale – and soon enough, the tough old dinosaurs of commercial publishing will evolve or die out.

Plotkin’s talk focused on the role of government and higher education administrators to support open models of educational publishing, but I think it applies just as well on a micro level. Rather than trying to convert the masses of faculty who have never heard of OER, or who actively oppose it, librarians and other proponents of sharing on campus should focus all of our time finding, reaching out to, and supporting the faculty and students on our campuses who already get it. I’ve been thinking a lot about how exactly we can do those things, and I hope to write more about it in the coming weeks.