David Wiley: Open Teaching Multiplies the Benefit but Not the Effort

A number of years ago, my wife and I were driving through a small town in southeastern Ohio when we saw a sign hanging outside a pizza shop that read, “Buy One, Get One.” We commented that if we paid for one, we’d by golly better get one. Such is the humor of academics. But jokes aside, I am increasingly amazed by the ease with which participatory technology allows university faculty members to go two-for-one in the reach and impact of their efforts in teaching.

In 2004 I began asking my students to post their homework on their personal, publicly accessible blogs. (Students who didn’t have a blog before taking a class from me signed up for a blog as one of their first assignments.) By changing their homework assignments from disposable, private conversations between them and me (the way printed or e-mailed assignments work in students’ minds) into public, online statements that became part of a continuing conversation, we realized very real benefits.

The very first semester I began asking students to share their homework this way, a popular e-learning newsletter found and liked one of my students’ essays and pointed its readers to the student’s blog. When the visits and comments from professionals around the world started coming in, students realized that the papers they were writing weren’t just throw-away pieces for class – they were read and discussed by their future peers out in the world. The result was a teacher’s dream — the students’ writing became a little longer, a little more thoughtful, and a little more representative of their actual intellectual abilities. And this benefit came by simply asking students to submit their homework through a different channel. They were already going to write and submit it; I was already going to read it. This was a true two-for-one.

At the same time in 2004, I began posting my syllabus on a publicly available wiki and doing my best to select only readings that were also publicly available and that I could link to from the syllabus. On the one hand, this took some time because I needed to find online articles and materials that my students would be able to get with a single click at no cost. On the other hand, it saved some time because I was able to do all my materials research online.

As I began blogging about my online teaching materials, people from around the world began to see and make use of them in their own courses. Others outside universities started using them to guide their personal study. (These courses eventually ended up in the university’s OpenCourseWare collection.) I was going to create and post the syllabus anyway, and I already had to select readings for students to use. This was another true two-for-one.

In 2007 I began teaching a class that is not offered anywhere else (and still isn’t, as far as I know): “Introduction to Open Education.” I put the syllabus and all the readings online (no extra cost) and planned for all the student writing to be online (no extra cost). As the course was somewhat unique, I extended a broad invitation to people around the world to participate informally in the course — even in online class discussions. The result was a group of approximately 60 people from around the world who read, worked, wrote, and discussed together – and fewer than 10 of them were registered for credit at my university.

The added richness of broader, international perspectives that these outside, informal students brought to the course was priceless for the official students in my class. And there were huge learning benefits for the informal participants as well. (The group of informal students from Italy went on to publish a paper about their experience in the course in a peer-reviewed journal.) I even offered certificates that said, “Congratulations, you completed my course,” to the informal students. These papers did not come from my university or have the university name or logo on them – they were a personal letter from me to them. And yet several people asked for, and obviously valued, them.

For me, for my students, and for the informal students who looked in on or participated in the course outside my university, this “open teaching” was better than a two-for-one. It was a thousand-for-one. When the costs of “open teaching” (freely allowing people outside the university to view course materials and informally participate in the course) are so low, I ask myself a question. Do we professors, who live rather privileged lives relative to the vast majority of the planet’s population, have a moral obligation to make our teaching efforts as broadly impactful as possible, reaching out to bless the lives of as many people as we can? Especially when participatory technologies make it so inexpensive (almost free) for us to do so?

I believe the answer is yes. —David Wiley

David Wiley, our July guest blogger, is an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University.

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