Ever since a Twitter discussion a couple weeks ago, I’ve been mulling over the idea of sustainability in education. In contrast to expansion-oriented or profit-driven “business” models, what would a focus on sustainability look like in the academy? I offered the following ideas on Twitter last night.
What if we focused less on scalable pedagogy and more on sustainable pedagogy? #digped— Kris Shaffer (@krisshaffer) April 11, 2014
After all, sustainability encourages replication—also a kind of scalability, but one that distributes authority. #digped— Kris Shaffer (@krisshaffer) April 11, 2014
I’ve been increasingly frustrated when new ideas are quickly interrogated with the question, “but can you do it at scale?” While “at scale” can mean a number of things, it usually means doing it big.
My thoughts here are that often we come up with a good idea, and maybe even implement it with success, but because it cannot be done big—or as big as the things it might “compete” with—it is dismissed by some in power. For example, this past summer, some colleagues from FlipCamp Music Theory and I published a peer-reviewed ebook, Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy. We collected short essays, performed non-blind peer review in Google Drive, and used command-line utilities to convert the essays to MarkDown format, then published them on GitHub Pages using a (slightly tweaked) stock template. This cost us nothing (except $6/year for the flipcamp.org domain—which we use for more than the book). The authors, reviewers, and editors were volunteers (as is the case with most academic music journals), the publication tools were all open-source, and the online hosts (Google and GitHub) were free to use.
This project took a form that I would call sustainable: unpaid labor that minimizes the strain on the volunteers, free tools, and a free publishing platform. However, when sharing this model in discussions with established publishers (or, rather, debates—such as one I got into with representatives from Springer and Sage at CU’s “Open Access Week”), I often get the reaction, “That’s great if you can do that for your small project, but it doesn’t scale. That’s why you need us, and that’s why we charge authors for open-access publishing.”
If the “scale” of which they speak means the administrative work of handling hundreds or thousands of submissions and the requisite review work that some larger academic fields deal with, then perhaps they’re right. However, what if more academics figured out how to go small? In the case of publishing, keep the administrative load low so that volunteers can handle it without being overworked, publish on a simple, no-frills platform (which the big publishers usually give academic journals anyway), accept and distribute no money, rinse, repeat. Don’t take over the world. Just be a good journal, operating a sustainable model, and let others replicate your success.
(I should point out that I’m not at all opposed to academic publishing where money changes hands. However, I would then consider a model sustainable when the money that comes in pays authors, reviewers, and editors a reasonable fee for their work—not one where revenue pays the publisher and not the academic labor. If the creative labor is free, there’s no reason in today’s technological world that access to the publication shouldn’t be free as well.)
In other words, we don’t have to figure out the single best way to do something big and profitable. We can “go big” by doing something small and sustainable many times over.
When doing something “at scale” means doing one big thing, we prioritize control and profit. #digped— Kris Shaffer (@krisshaffer) April 11, 2014
Control and profit should not be the goals or the means of the academy. #digped— Kris Shaffer (@krisshaffer) April 11, 2014
In the academy (and beyond?), trust & empowerment > control; sustainability > profit. #digped— Kris Shaffer (@krisshaffer) April 11, 2014
The big difference, as I see it, between going big and doing something small many times is one of control and profit. This is particularly important for pedagogy. The business of the university is not profit. It is not our job to make our university the one place that everyone goes for the best instruction in [academic field of choice]. We need to live within our means, yes, but increasing profit is not (and should not) be part of the mission of an institution of higher education.
Similarly, control of the scholarly ecology is not (and should not be) part of our mission. One-size-fits-all education rarely fits anyone well, and the world would be all the poorer for only having a small number of elite institutions to go to for massive, “at scale” education. Just as biodiversity is good for a species’ long-term survival, intellectual and ideological diversity is good for society, and a diversity of pedagogical approaches is good for our diverse students. Further, doing it small in many different places means doing it under many authority structures. Given the severe threats to academic freedom and integrity of late, distributing authority in education is our best chance at holding our ground (or at least losing ground more slowly). And, of course, doing it sustainably means ensuring that we can continue to do it into the future.
Heard the term “zeroscaping” this week. Cultivating plants that survive drought without irrigation. Great metaphor for the academy. #digped— Kris Shaffer (@krisshaffer) April 11, 2014
(It turns out the term is actually xeriscaping—this is what happens when you learn a new term from the radio!)
So what does sustainable pedagogy look like? What would a xeriscaped class look like? A xeriscaped department? degree program? college? university?
Or, turning the tables (scales?), how can we do intellectual and pedagogical diversity “at scale”?
These are things that I’m mulling over now, and I’d love to hear thoughts on them. Is your department sustainable? What issues are the most important when considering sustainability in the academy? How can we stop doing content at scale and, instead, do academic diversity at scale?