Publishing Teaching: A New Opportunity for Higher Ed

Banner image

This past fall Jim Fowler, a visiting professor in Ohio State University’s math department, moved to a tenure track appointment based on his demonstration of teaching excellence in online courses, including massive open online courses (MOOCs). In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Jim credited MOOCs for allowing him to “publish” his teaching and went so far as to say that his work developing and refining pedagogical strategies in MOOCs “should qualify as research.”

The startling premise of this story, that accomplishments in teaching could become quantifiable enough to compete with research as a basis for academic careers at a major research university like Ohio State, comes as no surprise to those who have been watching recent developments in higher education. While we are still far from having a widely accepted set of metrics and practices that would make teaching as measurable and visible as research, one of the most promising emerging trends in educational technology is the ability to publish and recognize faculty work in teaching.

These developments are not limited to the video lecture, which, while important, actually represents only one of many effective pedagogical practices. Rather, through innovative uses of technologies such as analytics and repositories, we are beginning to be able to trace the once ephemeral trails of effectiveness and influence in the field of teaching.

The rapid growth of online courses, and MOOCs in particular, has played a large part in this new concept of publishing teaching. videos from online courses have begun to supplement or replace textbook readings...Video of master lecturers making a topic accessible for viewers has been useful not only for students, but also for other teachers seeking a standard by which to measure and improve their own skills. And thanks to public video publishing platforms like YouTube, and a growing interest in “flipped classroom” pedagogy to promote active learning, videos from online courses have begun to supplement or replace textbook readings in many college courses.

However, the surge in interest in video has also exposed its limitations. MOOCs, which situate lecture videos within a group of learning activities that constitute a course, reinforce the fact that students do not learn by lecture alone, and even the best lecture videos need the support of other pedagogical practices to be effective. In fact, the “flipped classroom” practice, in which instructors move a portion of course lectures to videos viewed outside of class and use class time for student-centered activities, such as discussion or problem solving, grew from this recognition. [Tweet: Publishing Teaching]

The Current Landscape

Fortunately, there have also been developments in the ability to publish and track a full range of pedagogical practices. Lecture videos compose a subset of the massive amount of open educational resources (OERs) now available for sharing and re-use in repositories and through social media. One notable example in this space is MIT’s Open Courseware project (OCW), which puts thousands of course materials, such as lecture videos, syllabi, assignments, and multimedia readings, online each year. Usage of the materials is tracked and summarized in an annual impact report.

Perhaps most important to establishing standards and practices for teaching is the effort that MIT’s OCW project makes to contextualize the course materials it publishes. Each course includes a section entitled “This Course at MIT” that explains how the materials were used in the MIT course, student outcomes, and educator reflections on practice. Some OCW courses also include a short introductory video of the faculty member discussing his or her pedagogical approach and rationale for the course materials. This treatment of teaching as a coherent, iterative practice shaped by an instructor’s approach and interests situates the work in a context similar to that created for the use of research as an indicator of faculty professional achievement.

A similar spirit fuels the grassroots movement to develop academic and pedagogical uses for the code-sharing and collaboration repository known as GitHub. In a seminal 2012 post for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker blog, “Forking Your Syllabus,” Brian Croxall encouraged instructors to share their teaching documents publicly, acknowledge their influences, and encourage others to use and remix their materials with appropriate attribution. He promoted GitHub as a place where this might be accomplished.

Since then, a variety of practices, such as those outlined by David Parry in his AcademicHack blog posts like this one, and projects, such as the Modern Language Association-cosponsored “book”, Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities, have emerged using GitHub as a platform. This usage of GitHub gives teachers a publicly accessible portfolio that can show their impact on other teachers through the number of times a document has been accessed and “forked,” or adapted. While these data are still fairly broad and imprecise, it makes an important first step in showing how professional influence might be measured in teaching as well as in research

A similar line of inquiry underpins the Open Syllabus Project, a Sloan Foundation-funded effort to create the first open online database of university syllabi for research, teaching, and tool development. The project issued its first API for researchers last spring and now includes more than two million syllabi. In publishing and promoting documents generated for teaching as a field of research in itself, this project makes an important intellectual statement about teaching as a quantifiable, researchable practice on which we can gather data and draw conclusions.

Meanwhile, on the for-profit side, edtech startup Top Hat is approaching the question of measuring the effectiveness of teaching materials by experimenting with an Amazon-like self-publishing model. Faculty members can create content in the Top Hat content management system (which offers, among other features, rich learning analytics) and then sell it to other instructors through the company’s Content Marketplace. The potential for gathering two sets of data on these teaching materials—their influence on other instructors, and the level of student engagement with the materials—makes this project an important one to watch.

One can also imagine this type of information being interesting to nonprofit entities outside of academia, such as grant-funding organizations. Many funders now include dissemination and preservation of digital objects as grant requirements, and being able to measure the efficacy and impact of these resources is a logical next step.

Next Steps

The big challenge ahead for everyone involved in the effort to make teaching measurable and visible lies in creating an understanding of the value of well-developed learning materials and practices, and a standard for judging them. Pearson has begun to articulate this issue in its new focus on efficacy for all its educational products and development of a do-it-yourself “efficacy tool,” essentially a set of questions with scores attached to them that individuals can ask about learning or workplace activities. Like many of the other efforts, it represents an interesting start.

In many ways, the casting of teaching as “unquantifiable” has been no one’s fault. Until now, evidence of efficacy has been largely anecdotal on the part of learners, or measured in largely unsatisfactory ways, such as through standardized tests or employment figures. Recent gains in technology have begun to remove some of the most persistent black boxes associated with teaching—the effectiveness of lectures, textbooks, and teaching practices—and have allowed a re-envisioning of effective teachers as practitioners who research, innovate, and refine their methods over the course of a career.