Learning Resources: Where’s the REAL Commons?

Have you ever wondered why, over thirty years after personal computers became affordable, and over twenty years after the widespread adoption of the Internet, digital technologies have still not reached their full potential? There are some generally good reasons why this is so and it’s not primarily due to resistance to change. Let’s examine a typical course.

The Setting

Consider a reasonably popular and somewhat universal course of study: First-year University Physics. This course is taken by students primarily interested in pursuing careers for which a knowledge of that discipline is a necessity—all jokes aside, that is it is manly a course people take because they need to. It is a gateway to a career in oil & gas, mining, engineering, aviation and, yes, the very few who wish to become physicists also take it but they must be considered a minority. The students who sign up are typified by a wide range of interest and ability. Some of them have studied physics in high school and come to the course with a solid background—that is, well-developed laboratory/inquiry skills, mathematics skills and a decent grasp of the fundamentals. Still others have next to no experience in the area, a weak grasp of mathematics and, sadly an interest level that leans more in the direction of “Mom/Dad wanted me to do this,” rather than “This is cool.” The majority, as you would expect, find themselves clustered closer to the middle of these extremes, that is, they have some background and experience as well as enough motivation to make them show up for class and put at least some effort into performing the various required activities (being attentive during class, performing the lab work and making their way through the written assignments as best they can). Overall, to a few the course is pain to be tolerated, to another few it is a total joy; the essence of their existence, but to the majority it is a right of passage; a series of tasks to be done with care but not necessarily with the burning love and passion felt by the instructors and other members of the faculty. Simply put, the audience is reasonably competent and serious but by no means a young version of the faculty

The content of the course is a wide-scale survey of the discipline as a whole. To the extent that it can it tries to provide an overview of the various areas in which the discipline has stepped into. Over two semesters–two courses actually–it includes:

  • A non-matrix approach to statics (forces at rest).
  • A non-calculus approach to mechanics, including potential and kinetic energy, impulse and momentum as well as Newton’s Laws of motion (and maybe Universal Gravitation) with a particular focus on the 2nd.
  • Static electricity including the concepts of fields ( but without the use of field equations), charge and electric potential.
  • Current electricity including Ohm’s Law and Kirchoff’s rules but with a focus on DC circuits and a serious limitation in terms of complexity—the circuit analysis rarely involves the use of simultaneous equations.
  • An introduction to waves, including basic coverage of sound and light. Wave phenomena such as the Doppler effect, diffraction and interference are introduced with a minimum of mathematics.
  • Perhaps: An introduction to special relativity and quantum mechanics, fluid mechanics and geometric optics.

The course endeavours to serve as a bridge in many ways. It tries as best it can to be accessible to students who do not have a previous background while, at the same time, not boring those who do. It does try to impart a fair degree of disciplined thinking while at the same time, encouraging further study. All in all the managing of the course can be described as quite a balancing act.

But here’s the thing: like most (but not all) scientific disciplines it is reasonably universal. That is, the background required by students does not tend to vary much by geography. Unlike, say, history which is impossible to separate from the local culture, first-year physics can be assumed to be more or less the same just about anywhere.

The Issue

This brings us to the big issue: even though there is the potential for a large audience for it, there does not exist a high quality integrated set of digital teaching and learning resources for that course. There are, rather, collections of good efforts that must be assembled and then put to use at each institution, each doing as best they can despite limited human resources and budgets. All things considered this is a great loss.

The same is just as true in other subject areas including Pre-Calculus and Introductory Calculus, Chemistry, Biology and Earth Science, along with possibly Psychology.

Now, before this gets too far let me hasten to explain why this discussion is dwelling on just STEM. It is solely because those disciplines are reasonably global in nature, that is, there is more-or-less worldwide uniformity on what is taught and how it is taught. This is simply not the case for other first year courses such as English (or whatever you wish to call the study that centres on the most popular language in the region), any of the fine arts, liberal arts or social studies. In all of those disciplines the local context matters far too much for anyone to get very serious about talking about a global approach to learning resources. But let us leave that for another time and just return to the ones for which it is the case.

So what is the extent of available learning resources for STEM? Here’s a partial list.

  • Commercially available print-based resources including textbooks and self-study guides. These tend to cost in the range of around $200 each and are generally of good quality. They are logically organized, well-illustrated, complete and correct (contain modes of thinking in-keeping with the established canon). For the motivated student who reads well they serve as excellent and compete resources. For those less motivated they often lie unused, as evidenced by the many so-called “used” (Irony, yes) books out there with unblemished spines.
  • Instructors’ notes and personal websites. Once something you could only get if you could afford the photocopying fee, thanks to scanners, word-processors and most importantly electronic Learning Management Systems these are becoming increasingly accessible. The quality varies widely, owing to the lack of formal peer-review processes that typifies other areas of academic life, but at least in my experience leans toward “very good” more often than “lackluster.” Notes tend to be short-form representations, lacking in the commentary and elaboration available in books. They also tend to be more to the point and, unlike the texts, do tend to be carefully read by students.
  • Communitarian resources such as Wikipedia. Over the past decade these have significantly improved both in terms of scope and quality. For any given topic that one would find in a first-year STEM course the entries tend to be complete and useful. There is no guarantee, though, that the depth of treatment is the same as is expected in the course. Instructor guidance is definitely a must if Wikipedia is used as a source.
  • Other web-based resources. A significant number of piecemeal efforts exist. These do an excellent job on portions of a course but do not try to be a single point of contact. A good example of this is the University of Colorado’s Phet site, which has developed a huge array of Java-based science simulations. Taken one by one any of the Phet resources does an excellent job of exploring the topic it intends to but it has to be left to the instructor to decide which ones to use, how to use them and how to link them in with the rest of the course resources.

So a wide variety of useful resources does exist so what, then, is the big deal.

A Simple Vision

Let’s think for a moment what it could be like online when a student accesses the course.

The course home provides an overview of what’s in the course along with a summary of progress to date. This includes a list of tasks completed, along with appropriate achievement indicators (grades, etc.), upcoming events and deadlines as well as uncompleted tasks, along with suggested resources and activities. It’s worth noting that just about any online Learning Management System (LMS) such as Desire2Learn, Blackboard or Moodle can do this right now.

For any given course organizer (whether it be lesson, topic or learning outcome, for example) course resources are provided in a variety of formats including:


  • Print Materials, and preferably in a format that lends itself well to display using either paper or an electronic reader such as an eBook reader or tablet device.
  • Multimedia presentations—that is, an electronic version of an in-class presentation, complete with visuals and audio—that could be created with software such as Adobe Captivate.
  • Interactive simulations (where applicable) in which students could investigate topics of study. These should be similar to the ones already available from Phet but with the added value of having guidance on what you are looking for; the simulation has a built-in lesson plan. In some, but not all, cases (investigating DC circuits, for example) these could replace activities generally done in the lab.
  • Laboratory resources in the form of videos, analysis software and handouts that would be used in conjunction with lab activities. Students would still be expected to go to the lab but because these would replace the lab manuals and demos from the front of the room. Students would have more autonomy, meaning that at any given time various activities could be managed at once in the same location.


For any given course organizer the course would also host a variety of assessment/evaluation tools including these:


  • Traditional written assignments. These could be printed off, completed on pencil and paper, scanned, and then uploaded to the assignment drop-box for that item, where they would be graded, probably by a TA.
  • Online assignments, similar to the above but with the submissions and solutions done online. This is similar in form to the existing open source LON CAPA program currently used worldwide but with several important additions: (1) integration with the LMS instead of just stand-alone (2) provision for viewing of solutions, not just answers.
  • Interactive, Simulation based assessments. Instead of just working in pencil and paper the student would perform actual tasks online and be assessed on them. For example, the student could use an interface to work through an exercise traditionally done with paper and pencil or could use a drag and drop interface to assemble, test and analyze a circuit. These tasks could be done, for example by tweaking existing java based simulations or built from scratch using the simulation features in software such as Adobe Captivate.


Overall, you may notice that none of the items mentioned are too far-fetched. While this could have been listed: “The development of a completely immersive online lab based learning environment for physics,” it was not, owing to the extremely prohibitive cost (probably in excess of $50M).

The course assemblage mentioned has a much more modest cost, probably in the vicinity of $1M or so, with the majority of it going to the programming efforts of getting the interactive pieces up to a sufficient quality. While it is unlikely that any given institution could be expected to foot this sort of development bill, when you consider the fact, already mentioned, that this course is one that would have worldwide appeal it is rather amazing that it does not already exist.

The Barrier

Think about the numbers for a moment. Consider just doing the course in English and thus limiting it to primarily English – speaking countries (of course we really want this done in all popular languages but lets look at a limited, simple case here, just to make a point). This would potentially give a market in which millions of students would wish to access it. Currently those students are expected to purchase either new (at around $200/copy) or used (at around $100/copy) traditional textbooks for the course. What if, instead, this money which, at a conservative count would be around $50M per year (assuming that only half the students purchase the text and most of them buy used) were instead invested to the development of online resources? If the figures given were correct, the development costs would be recouped in such a short while as to be insignificant!

This, of course, makes no sense. Commercial publishers are not stupid enough to pass up such a lucrative cash cow so why has this not been done? I would suggest it is the sum of three interacting causes.

Educational institutions are unable or unwilling to fund the development of high-quality course content. It costs money—lots of it, and in these times when all institutions are facing increasing pressure to keep costs down any requests for additional funding are unlikely to be met with anything other than skepticism. To develop course content requires (1) time for the subject matter expert—likely an already over-burdened instructor (2) time for an instructional designer as well as (3) various multimedia/programming professionals who assemble the content into the various types mentioned in previous posts. Generally there is little or no money available to put the IDs and multimedia specialists on the projects and requests from the instructor for release time are met with the response, “we are already paying you your salary and we assume that the development if class-related materials is included in that already.” Simply put, the administration does not have the extra funds to pay the people and the instructors do not have the extra time to prepare the content that would be needed to take it to the next level.

Educational institutions do not cooperate to share the development burden. It has already been suggested that, while individual institutions are likely unable to fund the development of high-quality materials, collectively, the human and monetary resources exist when you consider that, at least for the courses mentioned, most institutions are, in effect, teaching much the same courses. If instead of each institution doing its own thing, they cooperated and jointly developed the materials it would apportion to very little.

The fact is, though, that this is one of those things easier said than done. To pursue a joint venture there must be (1) an overall plan (2) formal coordination and management of the project and (3) buy-in. The fiercely competitive atmosphere that exists between institutions coupled with the absence of a formal unifying body means that it’s hard to get this done, especially when you realize that this whole topic is nowhere near the top of most educational administrators’ lists of priorities. Still, it is a shame as the Internet has already demonstrated how well it is suited to cooperative development projects, as evidenced through successful development projects such as Mozilla as well as more communitarian development such as has been done with Wikipedia.

Commercial educational publishers are unable to implement an effective business model. Ask just about any administrator that holds the educational purse strings for education this question, “Why don’t you allocate money towards the funding of teaching and learning resources?” Chances are this will be the response: “Because that is the job of the educational publishers. We can’t afford to do it ourselves but they can because they can access a much larger market.”

Fine; after all, why waste taxpayers’ money when there’s a much better way?

Now go ask any executive with any of the major publishers the same question. Chances are, this will be the response: “Because we cannot recoup the development costs. Not only are institutions unwilling to pay the license fee, even though it is significantly less than they used to pay for textbooks, but, worse, our experience has been that people will always find a way to obtain and use our materials, regardless of copyright. We just can’t win, no matter what we do.”

Put the three together and you get the situation we face today. Despite the huge potential that Internet-based resources hold for improved teaching and learning in first year courses much—not all, mind you, but still the majority—of that potential remains untapped, with little sign of any widespread, sustained effort to do much of anything about it.

Suggested Solutions

This is not to suggest that the appropriate response is to just accept that things are the way they are for good reasons and the best that we should all do is to learn to accept the status quo. While it is unlikely that any revolutionary change is likely to happen in the short-term, significant benefits can still be realized from some straightforward actions. If sustained, some of the items below are likely to go a long way towards realizing the dream of much more optimal usage of digital technologies in service to teaching and learning. Here are three items which, taken together, hold every possibility of resulting in widespread improvements.

Existing and prospective faculty need to continue to work toward positive change. Large scale changes take time. Not only do materials need to be developed but, more importantly the two book-ending sets of activities need to be done right. (1) The preliminary work of understanding the current problems and planning appropriate responses need to be done well. Likewise (2) the follow-up activities of fine-tuning introduced measures and modifying them in light of unexpected contingencies is something that cannot be forgotten. In situations where the general consensus is that things are just fine as they are, the general response is not just one of stagnation but even worse, is one of gradual decline. Things break. Things change. If there is no response, what’s broken remains broken and sustained change brings the reality increasingly further and further from the classroom. If, on the other hand, the general consensus is “We need to make things better” then the meaningful improvements—that is the ones forged from REAL need—will slowly be realized in a spirit of collegiality.

Leaders (Deans, Directors and College Presidents and perhaps government officials) should move for more inter-agency cooperation. While there are few formal opportunities for collaboration, the academic world is rife with opportunities for informal exchanges: presentations, conferences and such. If, at those occasions the topic was, brought around to the whole idea of cooperatively developing teaching and learning resources, in time the interest would build and, along with it, the ways and means of getting it done. People who acknowledge a need tend to see the opportunities for finding the means by which to solve the problem—a positive off-shoot of the generally unhelpful confirmation bias. In short, talk about it and a way generally tends to be found for getting it done in a way that everyone can live with.

Publishers need to work more closely with institutions. Despite the fact that they work closely with some faculty members—after all most current texts are authored by faculty—publishers tend not to have good two-way relationships with the learning institutions their whole business model is built upon. Generally the only formal relationship is through the bookstore and the general attitude is one of client service, that is, the university states a requirement, generally in the form of a syllabus and then evaluates the available resources. This activity is generally muddied somewhat by the publisher’s efforts to sharpen their competitive edge through either the provision of some free goodies or through the haranguing of either the dean or the individual committee members. Often the relationship shakes out something like this: Faculty view the publishers as greedy & grasping and publishers view the institutions as needy & cold-hearted. All in all not a great atmosphere in which anyone can be expected to thrive.

It does not need to be that way. Institutions have great need for improved resources, especially as students gravitate more and more toward the Internet and away from print-based materials. Likewise the publishers are faced with an ever-diminishing pool of revenue as more and more of the old-style core business of just feeding the thirst for basic knowledge is met more and more through existing resources such as Instructors’ own websites and Wikipedia. What’s needed, then is a more sincere and productive dialog in which the publishers gain a better understanding of how to meet current needs while universities find better ways in which to ensure that the publishers’ financial expectations are met.

Overall, the situation is far from desperate. Despite the many shrill cries of doom and gloom our modern educational institutions are by no means in a sorry state; far from it. First year students do as well as they always have—in many cases even better. Enrolments, overall, tend to be strong, and the product—students who achieve and thrive—tends to be good, as evidenced by the continued relative success that all still seem to enjoy.

That said, the situation as always can be improved. The great potential that the Internet holds for education is far from being realized. An overall attitude that is conducive toward positive improvement coupled with a willingness to strive collectively, achieving the small gains that, measured together will result in great strides is just what we all need.


7 thoughts on “Learning Resources: Where’s the REAL Commons?

  1. Of your proposal makes sense – it is basically what any global corporation does in streamlining and re-using internal training material and material to be used in trainings delivered to customers… in the same way in every country…. and which are today often delivered online.

    However, I guess I would have missed that very idiosyncratic imperfection introduced by every professor… the different ways in presentation (even if those are strictly speaking not always improving the pedagogical value) or some anecdotes from contemporary research. Basically what Feynman did.
    I was once very impressed that all of these “basic” / “foundations” lectures in the first year were given by tenured full professors with a lot of research experience. Although not all of these lectures were “good” I wouldn’t want to trade that experience for “perfect”, yet a bit “canned” education or the delegation of the seemingly unwanted lecturing duty to underpaid adjuncts.

    It was also interesting to recognize the differences in educational systems – in the first two years I had attended “foundations” lectures specifically for physicists which made use of calculus and fields. There were other lectures like “Physics for Engineers”. I often read in American discussion groups that “college is not trade school”… I think in Europe it rather is (or has been). There were no “majors” – you studied just physics from day one (plus math, and a bit of chemistry and programming) but there were no philosophy or German lectures for example…) and nobody cared about the few students who went to a less math-heavy high school.
    It was expected that you pick a field that you feel comfortable with; maybe some tutorial courses have been provided as a service to the less experienced. I was then happy to specialize – after 12 years of “well-rounded” education.

    1. You are absolutely right and I would also add to that my complete faith in the notion that there is no best way of approaching learning. Yes there are lots of wrong things but there are also an equal number of right things. The best we can do realistically is to utilize as many strategies as we can under the circumstances. What I think is the best–and this is generally known as Blended Learning-is to combine both the face to face strategies with the online ones. In this way the students get the opportunity for that very vital opportunity to experience the content in different ways. That’s the key to success.

  2. Nicely done Maurice, you have managed to distill the salient points. From the perspective of a faculty member I should point out something which I am sure you already know, and that is that there are tremendous demands on the time of faculty. Especially early in one’s career (when one would be most inclined to undertake the development of electronic resources such as you suggest) faculty are expected to excel in their particular areas of professional expertise. They are expected to run a lab, involve students in research, bring in grant money, and publish. At the same time they are expected to participate in the governance of the institution which they serve, and at several levels. Add to that student advisement, program development, and TEACHING. There’s very little time for the development of the eLearning environments which you would like to see in place. It has been my experience that Presidents, Provosts, and Deans aren’t much impressed by faculty who dedicate significant amounts of time to the development of eTeaching and eLearning platforms. Sure, they’d like to see us using them … but development is, I think, a separate issue. The approaches you describe require the interest and investment of folks at ‘the top.’ Without vision on the part of those that pay the bills, none of this can happen. And, maybe, in the final analysis much of this cannot happen at large, research, institutions. Their focus is elsewhere. Perhaps what has to happen is that such programs need to be the focus of folks at somewhat smaller institutions … where teaching and learning are higher priorities? On a final note I will comment on my perception of academic administrations as fickle. Changeable. At my place of business the administration was keen to develop a program in Nanotechnology. Faculty, equipment, courses … you name it … were all put in place as part of a groundswell of administrative enthusiasm. Someone, apparently, thought this was the wave of the future – just waiting to be ridden. Just the other day ominous clouds began to gather. Although the administration appeared willing to continue to participate in the program there was no promise of continuing support. I think the lesson can perhaps be more widely cast. Efforts of the sort required to develop the kinds of programs you describe must be funded and encouraged from the top … and the focus of the top seems to change on a timescale which cannot support the sorts of complex programs in eLearning you describe. Also, the changes you describe must be seen as fundamentally changing the nature of teaching and learning. What institution would be willing to venture out into that great abyss? D

    1. You have just illustrated nicely why WordPress is so much better than Twitter. Unlike Twitter, where trite off-the-cuff thoughts rule, WordPress gives a chance to properly develop ideas. It’s interesting to note that your comment, at 448 words (you knew I would do that, didn’t you) probably qualifies as a blog post by itself 🙂

      I like how your comment complements the original post. In particular it highlights the main issue at hand, at least as I see it: The university ethos makes it difficult–if not impossible–to move the business of teaching and learning toward the excellence we all wish to achieve.

      The pressures on faculty are enormous. Besides the workload you oitlined there’s also the current attitude toward Ph.D’s (again at least as I see it): specifically that they are not valuable, as witnessed by the fact that post secondary institutions everywhere are applying dowaward pressure on new faculty’s salaries while, at the same time, vastly increasin their workloads. You are absolutely right: no institution can afford to take the kids of steps that I have outlined.

      It gets worse in my Country. There’s no federal department of education as in the province’s terms of union Education is seen as a provincial matter. This means that there’s no real government avenue by which any development can be farmed out and coordinated.

      In the end all I can say is that it’s too bad because while there is no organization around who can really afford to do the things I am describing, collectively the finances and resources exist.

      I’ll close on a personal note. I ended my education after getting B.Sc., B.Ed and then M.Ed. It’s always been in my thoughts that maybe someday I would go ahead and pursue a Ph.D. in education. Now, at the point of my life where it’s probably doable again I have elected not to. The costs associated with the four years of financial downtime needed to do it will never leave me in a position in which I could recoup the lost earnings. I’m way better off doing what I am doing, that is, doing contract work in the private sector (which, by the way is quite enjoyable–essentially no red tape; I just design & develop then implement content) and taking on the odd teaching gig as a per-course instructor.

  3. So, you’ve ended on a negative note, ‘ … there is no organization which can afford to do the things I am describing …’ That leaves the whole thing unresolved. We have good technologies, a huge amount of knowledge, and (sometimes) willing clientele and yet we are unable to build bridges between and among these. Will the system lose momentum and slip back to the times of overheads and blackboards or will it maintain this not-quite-perfect status quo (and drive you nuts)? D

    1. I am guessing more-or-less status quo. None of this is to suggest that things are bad as they most certainly are not. The proof is in the many successful students we have.
      What bothers me is that we have some serious unrealized potential that we cannot tap into. The things I am suggesting are not to replace existing classroom practice but, more importantly, to augment it in ways that appeal to and benefit students. It’s those extras that won’t happen.
      ON a related note and coming around to something you said–who else will do this. That is a little scary. There are numerous institutions all around the world who purport to “deliver courses via eLearning.” While some are good, unfortunately some are all kinds of bad (cheating, over-charging, providing terrible instruction and service, poor materials and certifying fraudulently…diploma mills). I do not know the proportion of good to bad (an interesting topic for study, eh) but I do know that the possibility exists for some to put together a shoddy version of what I just described and implement it with a lax set of evaluation materials, in effect putting in place something that looks reasonably good but which is, in the end, a travesty. Now there’s a negative thought!

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