it’s a pretty expansive idea. transparency, access, intellectual property (or not), sharing freely. we want openness because it offers greater opportunities for more people to engage with fewer barriers. it makes perfect sense. i think that for academics, however, openness is feels like a dangerous word because it implies giving up our ownership of our own material.

in the unforgiving world of publish or perish, where earning tenure is paramount and proving our worth is equated with our success in convincing journal editors that our work is worth publishing, holding on to what we have developed and making sure that everyone else knows it’s ours is pretty damn important. this goes for research, mostly, but it also goes for our teaching materials. universities are paying greater attention to pedagogical skills than ever before, and that means that academics need to showcase their teaching skills as well as their research prowess.

some academic teachers write textbooks to cement their place of authority. self-published books (especially of the e-variety) seem to be more and more frequent, probably because they are easier to publish yet can still be of very high quality, but critical minds will likely wonder at their credibility. with the need for increased skepticism when considering source material retrieved online (pseudoscience is a troublesome beneficiary of this, and the recent outbreak of measles in Canada as a result of the anti-vax idiots is a tragic example of grossly inappropriate scrutiny of source credibility) and increased focus on teaching students to think about the credibility of different types of sources, self-published works always rank lower and peer-reviewed journal articles tend to be at the top. the big academic publishers still hold tremendous authority, and rightly so. fraught as it may be with imperfections, the peer review and editorial systems used in academic publishing still present the greatest chance for a published work to truly be of high credibility and subject to proper scrutiny.

the issues plaguing the world of academic publishing are numerous and complex. moves to offering open access publication exist, but new journals that are 100% open access have awoken concerns about the quality of vetting: stories of fake papers being accepted for publication aren’t hard to find. but the peer review system in subscription-based journals has its challenges as well. the peer review system isn’t a silver bullet, but neither should it be eliminated as an important step in getting good work published.

of course, we may not have the same approach to our teaching material as we do to our research, if we do indeed work as researchers. teaching might not even be that important compared to our research. we may not have any concerns at all about making our teaching material available to anyone who wants it. but for those of us whose place in the academic world consists mostly of teaching activities, we might not have research publications to rely on, or we may be trying to work our way up to earning research time; in this case, our teaching material can be precious.

so openness becomes tricky. we keep our own teaching material and use it to document our teaching activities, to be sure, but if we’re interested in upping our h-index to prove that our work is impactful and of interest to other teachers, don’t we need to put a copyright on it? how do we show that our work has impact in the pedagogy of our field if other teachers don’t cite our work in a trackable way? this is as true of old-fashioned chalk-and-talk teaching as it is of modern, tech-driven approaches, and it’s worrisome.

but this desire to pursue reward and recognition for our teaching kind of clashes with a student-centred teaching philosophy, doesn’t it? if we believe the pedagogical idea that student learning is at the centre of teaching, then the teacher’s ownership of teaching material is less important than the possibility of other students benefitting from an excellent lesson. teachers should share, freely and widely, so that the collective wealth of pedagogical tools grows.

well, no. they shouldn’t just let anyone take anything at any time. i don’t buy the idea of complete communistic generosity here, just like i don’t buy the idea of complete protectiveness.

we need to aim for a middle ground.

a good teacher can’t run on intrinsic motivation alone, just like a good student doesn’t slog through a university degree “just for the experience” – they want the degree! as academic teachers, we need to publish our work so that we can track its impact and ensure that we build our teaching portfolio.

i believe that all academics should publish in all areas of their jobs, teaching and research alike. i see the peer review system as an opportunity for rigour, and a way of ensuring that what gets out there is the result of good work. we should work hard and earn recognition for our efforts. but we should also understand where ownership is important. something about the teaching culture of the academic world makes it acceptable to use teaching materials without attribution even though we would never dream of stealing the work of other researchers. it’s no wonder that some teachers are reluctant to share, because they have seen first hand when someone takes a lesson or activity and passes it off as their own.

we need better integrity when it comes to teaching materials if we want to promote openness in this highly competitive environment. if we make use of the creative commons when preparing teaching materials while at the same time using good citation practices when borrowing from published works, then we can build a system in which we promote free sharing while protecting our own creations. we pay it forward, as it were, and if we hold each other responsible for giving credit where credit is due, then perhaps we can find a happy middle ground.


5 thoughts on “openness

  1. lindasambib says:

    Your post raise many interesting issues! And the comparison with the publication process, being cited and being able to measure it in a similar way of what we do for scholarly publications is important. I’m not a researcher myself, but I have colleagues that are. The pedagogical work is often not valued as as important as publishing, and if we could find a way of trace other teachers use of our materials and measure the impact our work has, then I agree with you, I think more teachers would share. And as you say, how come teachers don’t give attribution when it comes to teaching materials? I think it’s natural to do so. We encourage our students to not steal or plagarise, but then think it’s ok to do it ourselfes? We need to set an example in all areas, not just in academic articles or papers. And the copyright laws will need to be followed, as a student, but also when they’ve graduated. Why not teach our students how to do that, isn’t that part of the education we are supposed to give them?


  2. Very well written around this heavy subject when it comes to copyright! I think I would like that, I am always very proud when someone use my material and remembers to namedrop the author (me….). But. I am also happy to share whatever I produce even if my name won´t be mentioned during use of “my” material. And by the way, is it my material or does it belong to the institution/company that payed my salary when I made the material….? And is it “my material” when another person use it? Teaching is so much more then transferring knowledge, it is also – or so much more – culture/system, psychology, variation/flexibility and knowledgebased developement…


  3. The notion of sharing versus the pressure to publish is certainly not a new dilemma; and I do agree with you that smart use of Creative Commons licensing (combined with sound citation practices) can at least allow (especially) academics to put some of their misplaced paranoia to rest and to understand that ‘access’ does not necessarily mean relinquishing all ‘control’.


  4. I like this blog post and the parallel between publishing research and “publishing” teaching materials. There is a huge problem in education related to how teachers are inspired or steal content from the internet with out asking for permission or acknowledge the owner. Everybody in research knows that plagiarism is wrong and that it is easy to get caught with modern techniques.

    I am not convinced that the Creative Commons licensing will take over the world but it is a step in the right direction to make it easier to solve this problem and change the attitude among educators. I think that Universities need to point out the rules regarding this and that the teacher and the person responsible for the course need to realize the importance of copyright.


  5. This is a great blog post. I think the issues you raise are concerns for all of us and your sentiments are ones that I share. In general, the handwork that goes into being a good university “teacher” is not sufficiently recognized. The lecturers that I considered the “best” were not those who had the best research output, rather they were great teachers and cared about their students! For little or no acknowledgement from their university!


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