Keynote Talk: Open Education 2019

Juan Pablo Alperin gives the keynote presentation at Open Education 2019

Keynote presented by Juan Pablo Alperin for Open Education 2019: Transforming Teaching & Learning at SFU on May 27, 2019. 


  1. Introduction
  2. Public purpose of higher education
  3. Why do I practice Open Pedagogy?
  4. Student feedback on Open Pedagogy



I want to begin by acknowledging that I am not an expert on Open Pedagogy, nor, as I will show you, am I the greatest educator. Although I have a PhD in Education, my doctoral work was about scholarly communications and open access, and most of what I’ve learned about higher education has taken place in the classroom, not through extensive research. There are many others—very likely including many of you in this room—who know more about Open Pedagogy, its history, and related practices, and, importantly, have experience in its successful implementation.

So, now that I have confessed this, you might wonder why I was invited to speak today, and you would be right to ask why I accepted. While I cannot speak to the former—I am still surprised when I get invitations to speak anywhere—I can certainly tell you about the latter. I have a deep commitment to making knowledge public and to open pedagogy. I see these two things as connected—each is a means of achieving the other—and I am convinced that we all benefit from there being more open pedagogy practices in the classroom. Starting, of course, with the students themselves, both by learning content knowledge and gaining an appreciation for public knowledge.

I have experimented with various open practices in my own classrooms, and I have had both successes and failures. I imagine that most of you here today share my commitment, and so I would like to use my time to share my experiences. For those who know better than me about these things, and for whom none of these pedagogical practices will be new, perhaps you can benefit from hearing the obstacles that well-meaning faculty like myself face. As we promote these practices, it is important to think about the challenges and costs of implementing them. For others who have been curious about open education, but have not had a chance to experiment with it yourselves, perhaps my experience will give you some ideas on where to start.

So this is my plan for the time I have with you today. I will begin by outlining a little bit of my thinking about the purpose of higher education. This is informed by my time in the classroom with David Labaree, a historical sociologist of education at Stanford. Then, I will share with you some of the ways in which I have experimented with open pedagogy in my own classrooms, and finally, I will read to you some of the feedback I have received from my students. This last part—if you’ll forgive me for a bit of a spoiler—will hopefully give you an appreciation for some of the challenges faced by faculty, like myself, who want to try to do things differently.


Public purpose of higher education

In talking about the public purpose of higher education, I need to acknowledge and thank Luke Terra, who was a fellow PhD student at Stanford and is currently the Director of Community Engaged Learning at the Haas Center for Public Service. Like me, Luke was also a student of Labaree, but he clearly learned the lessons much better than I. When he clearly summarized Labaree’s arguments as a guest lecturer in my class last fall, I knew I needed to strive for the same simplicity in explaining it next time. So here I go.

But, before I give you my attempt to crib from Terra and Labaree, let me ask you, as I asked the students who took my course on Making Knowledge Public: “Why do we publicly fund higher education?”

In Canada, certainly, but pretty much everywhere, some degree of public funds go towards subsidizing higher education. We give universities money for students, we give universities tax-exempt status, we fund research at universities, etc. But why? We have obviously determined that subsidizing higher education with public funds benefits society, but how? What’s the argument?

Labaree’s framework categorizes these kinds of rationales into three competing purposes: Democratic Equality, Social Efficiency, and Social Mobility.

Democratic Equality

From the perspective of democratic equality, schools are intended to develop an informed and capable citizenry. Naturally, this comes in the form of the knowledge and critical thinking skills needed to make decisions, but also the social disposition to work collectively. Luke used the example of a parent coming in to a parent-teacher conference who asks not just about how their child is doing in each subject, but also about how well they are getting along with others, whether they seem happy at school, and whether they behave well.

Schools, all the way from Kindergarten up through graduate school, play an important role in the socialization of individuals. Under this category, we have the arguments that schools give people a shared sense of purpose and equal opportunity to make decisions and participate in society.

Social Efficiency

The next perspective is that of social efficiency. From this perspective, the purpose of schools is not to prepare individuals to be able to engage in democratic actions, but rather to fulfil efficient economic roles. In this group, we would place the arguments that schooling should be equipping individuals to fulfill the economic functions (jobs) that are needed in a society. That is, that public funds should be allocated to schools to train individuals to carry out the jobs that are in demand in a market. Here you will find those who are calling for the slashing of Arts and Humanities, and probably most of the social sciences, as their economic function is less clear (maybe economists are excluded from this). As Luke put it when he came to class, where Democratic Efficiency comes from the perspective of the citizen, Social Efficiency comes from the perspective of the taxpayer.

“Where Democratic Efficiency comes from the perspective of the citizen, Social Efficiency comes from the perspective of the taxpayer.”

Social Mobility

Then comes my most loathed perspective, and probably the one that is most commonly found today. The perspective that schools are supposed to serve the individual by allowing them to personally gain a better position in society, or in many cases, maintain the advantageous position that they already have. This perspective leads to a form of credentialism, where school is seen as a place to acquire the highest value credential that students can use to gain social advantage. Education becomes valuable, not for the development of human capital—the knowledge the student walks away with—but for its exchange value. This brings a market logic to universities, which views students as consumers of education. This approach lends itself to universities competing for students and striving to rise in rankings, which are viewed as a market signal of the value of a degree. Here I could go on a long tangent about the neoliberal university and how these effects are felt in so many other aspects of faculty work and in the student experience, which is why my students often leave the comment “Very enthusiastic, but rambles at times.”

But I digress.

To get me back on topic, let me say that these perspectives are not completely at odds with one another. An individual seeking social mobility may be focused on attaining a particularly high paying job, and wants the education they receive to give them access to that job, both by providing knowledge and credentials. This is a sign that the Social Efficiency perspective is also dominated by a market logic—but I am going off on a tangent again. What I really want to draw your attention to is that the rationale for why we have education in the first place matters. It affects not just what we teach, but also how we teach it. And, as I will come to describe, it also affects how students perceive their educational experience.

“The rationale for why we have education in the first place matters. It affects not just what we teach, but also how we teach it.”

In this sense, it is important to highlight the main differentiating factor between the Democratic Equality and Social Efficiency perspectives and that of Social Mobility. While the former two see education as a public good—with the costs and benefits shared by society as a whole—the social mobility perspective sees the benefits of education accruing for the individual, and undermining arguments for the need for public funds at all.

As Kathleen Fitzpatrick notes in her recent book Generous Thinking: “to restore public support for our institutions and our fields, we must find ways to communicate and to make clear the public goals that our fields have, and the public good that our institutions serve.”

And this is where I stop pretending to be an education scholar—thank you Luke and David—and I begin to tell you about why I do what I do in my classrooms.


Why do I practice Open Pedagogy?

I am unequivocally in the first camp. I wish to impart to students a sense that they can—and have an obligation to—engage with the world through their intellectual pursuits. I want to empower students to be publicly engaged citizens after they leave the university. At the same time, in my research, I study the public’s use of scholarly research and actively advocate for greater access to research outputs. I do this under the belief that, when research is made freely available (as so much of today’s work is), it has the potential to make meaningful and direct contributions to society.

All of this is work is motivated, in part, by a desire to build a case for public support of education. I pursue this goal first through what I can do in my daily interactions with students, like Robin DeRosa (who many of you may know and who has been an inspiration in this area). And second, by advocating for changes within academia more broadly, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick argues in Generous Thinking.

I had been doing the work around faculty since before becoming a scholar, through the work I did with the Public Knowledge Project and the promotion of Open Access. But it was not until I arrived at SFU that I began to work on making my own classrooms more open and democratic. Now, let me actually get to talking about my own efforts. (I should say, I have been trying to do this since my very first semester at SFU. When I think back on the hubris I exhibited, as a new professor who was himself still a graduate student, I can’t even…)

Let me try to group these efforts into two categories: first, those that promote public knowledge, and, second, those that aim to make the classroom a more democratic space.

Promoting Public Knowledge

  1. I assign only open access readings. This might be easier for me to do than others, but I sincerely believe that it is possible to find readings that are publicly available in any discipline.
    • I do this in part to show that OA is valuable (I point it out to my students);
    • I pick readings that are not only peer reviewed and academic, to show that we can learn from what is written in the popular press.
  2. I have students post all their assignments publicly. Obviously this works better if students are primarily writing for their assignments, but my goals here are multiple:
    • It gets them to think about where their content should go. I’ve given options to post on their own blogs, a site I used to help with called The Winnower, or on a blog I set up for them (they seem to like it when I give them a space);
    • I’ve seen interesting things happen: assignments posted on Tumblr, posts getting shared dozens of times on social media (Instapoetry), a professor in Australia giving a negative review.
  3. I get students to give each other feedback openly. I do this in two ways. One is by having them actually write a comment on their post, the way any other commenter would. The other is by using online annotations, which I’ll discuss in more detail in a moment. This practice serves multiple purposes:
    • they read a bit more of each other’s work;
    • they practice critique when they are themselves exposed, and when they have to look that person in the eye next time they come to class (good modeling for when they comment publicly someday);
    • they become accustomed to their ideas being critiqued.
  4. I ask students to do a public scholarship assignment. This practice is a lesson I learned from my supervisor, John Willinsky. It can involve either:
    • Leaving a comment on a news story, including bringing in some additional resources;
    • Editing or creating a Wikipedia page. I’ve done this without my guidance before, but last semester I tried the Wikipedia Education modules, which seem great, but which my students bailed on, because,overall, Wikipedia is actually a lot of work.

Creating Democratic Classrooms

  1. I have students lead seminars on topics of their choosing.
    • They can come to me for advice, but, ultimately, they pick the readings;
    • I try to encourage them to pick the activities, and then they guide the discussion;
    • This make the class theirs, especially when paired with creating their own syllabus.
  2. On my first term I began to experiment with having students create their own syllabus, either completely from scratch or by working off of one of mine. This:
    • Leaves room for them to work out what should be on the syllabus;
    • Gives them a sense that the course is theirs—that they chose the topics, and that they are there to learn what they want to learn.
  3. I let students choose the percentage that each assignment is worth. In this case, I offer a percentage range for each assignment, including 0, to let students focus their attention and energy on the things they want to work on, or the things they were good at, depending on their attitude.
  4. I use contract grading. This involves laying out a list of things that need to be done for each grade, with every assignment graded on a Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory basis. This gives students the ability to manage their workload, dedicating more or less energy to my class if they want to.
  5. I offer negotiated grading. To take the emphasis off of the importance of grades, I tell students that they’ll have a say into what score they receive so that they don’t feel they are just being judged by others.
  6. I use open-ended assignments, with students setting their own questions and assignment length, and no specific rubrics. My goal here is to have students work to the best of their ability and to the extent of their interest.
  7. Finally, my favourite, is social annotation, which Esteban Morales will talk to you more about later today. (He’s in the audience now, getting nervous about whether he will have to completely change his presentation after I say all the things he planned on saying…) You’re going to get more detail, so I won’t dwell on it, but I do want to say that having students leave comments for each other and reply to each other in the margins of all the readings, does a lot for:
    • Building community;
    • Showing students how others think;
    • Making it obvious that they are learning from each other;
    • And, most importantly, getting them to think about what ideas others care about and how they can serve the community by sharing the most useful knowledge possible.

I should say, many of these practices I have learned from the HASTAC community, which I recently learned is pronounced Haystack. There are some great blog posts on there which are very much worth reading.


Student feedback on Open Pedagogy

There are resources to help educators navigate these practices, as well as guides on how to be more successful than I was, but few point to the likelihood that it won’t go very well the first few times. Nor do they answer many of the practical questions, such as: Are any of these practices actually “allowed”? Is it okay to ask your students to work in the open? Is giving them the opportunity to use a pseudonym enough? Can I ask them to post on the Web? Do I have to give them a space on a university server? What if a student does not want to post publicly, for legitimate reasons? Who is one to ask these questions to? And, most importantly, what if I ask and I get told I am not allowed to do this? Better not to ask.

So, to any of you who think that this approach to open pedagogy sounds amazing, the truth is that it is very hard to run a classroom in this way. I was super enthusiastic about doing it, but failed pretty hard on some aspects.

When I started, I certainly had not gained any appreciation of how complicated open practices can all be. I didn’t realize how much I have learned about how to practice it until recently. Even the use of what I consider to be a simple tool——proved to be complicated when I encouraged its adoption in other classrooms. I spent a bunch of time last year trying to convince instructors to adopt open annotations, and I managed to convince several others to do so. But, it turns out, I have learned something from using multiple times a year for five years, and I didn’t realize the effect my approach to implementing it had on its successful implementation.

Let me share some of the less-than-amazing course evaluations I’ve received. Some are from my early terms, but some are from last semester. Here is my version of “celebrity reads mean tweets”:

  • “Juan is an engaging instructor and knows the subject matter very well. I am sympathetic with the fact that many students weren’t open to having their views challenged. But I think the course could have been structured in such a way that things felt less combative—a more typical seminar format would probably have helped.”
  • “Overall, it seemed like Juan was trying to make the class more open, interactive and flexible—but this didn’t happen. It was far too academic. I found useful—but didn’t have any more comments to add in class.”
  • “Juan generally operates under a principle of maximum freedom, minimum clarity.”
  • “The professor set up things in a purposeful way, but was not very good at explaining that purpose.”
  • “Expectations were often unclear.”

When I was evaluated after 1.5 years on the job, here is what my (generally extremely positive) letter said:

Juan’s Course and Instructor Evaluation scores were quite varied in his first three terms … The cause for the variability in these scores is not easily pinpointed, but some variation might be expected in the first two teaching terms of his career, especially given his heavy teaching and service load (see below) and his very active research profile.

It is apparent that his energy and enthusiasm for teaching and for his students works well for him; he is responsive and interested to try out new things in the classroom. On arrival he immediately set about re-designing two courses and substantially updating a third. In 2015, Juan introduced the annotation tool into both undergrad and graduate courses, with considerable success; we look forward to a publication that reports on this experience.

The committee unanimously recommends…with a note that some aspects of his file suggest even greater recognition. That said, the committee further noted that future successful reviews would be contingent on better teaching evaluations.

Here are some examples of criticism that I take as complementary, but that was still associated with low ratings:

  • “I feel like this project was very self-taught and that could be improved.”
  • “The instructor covered the content by leaving us to work it out mostly ourselves, but I believe that was the point!”
  • “How successful was the instructor in communicating course content?: ‘not too successful. He did not deliver the course lectures… we did!’”

But one of my favourite student evaluations comes from when I had the pleasure of teaching the President’s Dream Colloquium on Making Knowledge Public. A class where every week we had the opportunity to discuss the various forms and merits of public knowledge. Here’s what the student had to say:

You really challenged my thinking about the responsibility to contribute rather than just consume in the public debate. I have a tendency to err on the side of keeping quiet with my opinions in a lot of contexts (except maybe in class), mainly because I have a hard time saying (or implying) that someone else is wrong. This class made me reevaluate my role and consider the perspective that it is actually also a responsibility of people with education and expertise to share that rather than hoarding it for themselves.

It’s hard to balance to be generous with one’s knowledge and experience without crossing the line into arrogance, snobbery and judgementalism, but this class made me rethink what educational privilege is, and how now participating in public debate and dialogue is just as much a symptom of elitist snobbery as the opposite pole of being too vocal and critical.

Like this, there are other, sometimes less explicit, but equally rewarding messages.

Open education is one piece of a very complex puzzle, but I think it can be a starting point for giving students a sense that their knowledge is a public good, and that we are all better off when they share it. If we can foster in our own classrooms this notion that education is a public good whose benefits should be accrued by society, not just by the individual, then I think we can walk back the prevailing notion that education is a commodity to be traded. We can, instead, create spaces where thinking, exploring, and sharing knowledge will thrive. I am convinced that by doing so we will serve our students and our society well.

Perhaps this is a lofty goal for this mediocre instructor, but it is one that I deeply believe is important and achievable. I look forward to learning from you all how we might achieve it together.

Thank you.

For more, check out the video of the full keynote below.