Chance encounters

One of the quirks of publishing course materials through the official channels of DeC (Distance and e-Learning Centre) at USQ has been that materials are revised each year and, whether the changes are major or minor, the publication date appears as the year in which the course is offered. In other words, it is not possible to know from the publication date printed on the materials, or shown in electronic materials, whether the materials are entirely new, updated with current developments, or essentially the same as those prepared several years previously.

The same system results in authorship being diffuse, indeterminate or even disputed, because material prepared by one person may be subsequently revised, in a major or minor way, each year by different authors. The published materials may sometimes carry some of that history but often they don’t. For authors, the problems may occur at either end of the spectrum of having personal authorship diluted, with loss of academic credit, over time or, as the latest reviser, being held responsible for work prepared by somebody else in years past. Neither situation is satisfactory.

All of this is by way of introduction and background to some comments in response to a chance meeting with Peter Sefton (Pt’s outing) last week. Peter reminded me of some comments I had made at an earlier meeting with him and the director of DeC. The gist of those was that, rather than perpetuate a system in which the currency of course materials was prone to be misrepresented and academics not given due credit for their work, we should move to a system in which course materials would be given more credit as published fruits of serious academic work and would bear appropriate attribution and publication dates.

Over the past several years, DeC has been progressively implementing the GOOD (Generic Online Offline Delivery) system which stores structured course materials in XML for publication to paper, CD-ROM or web (as PDF or HTML) as required. As currently implemented the system would continue the existing practice of changing publication dates for each annual version, no matter how minimally different from the last, and obscuring the authorship of materials.

However, it needn’t be that way. It would be equally as possible to prepare, probably higher quality, documents of genuine academic merit with fixed authorship and publication dates and to use those as the basis of course packages with smaller more ephemeral documents included as instructional support. With the USQ Library about to launch an ePrints Repository, it ought to be possible to “publish” at least some materials written for courses there and refer to them from the course materials. The benefit to academics who write the materials would be due recognition of materials deemed to be “publishable” and encouragement to raise the quality of more materials to meet the required standard.

All of this links to another recent chance encounter with Garry Putland, General manager at education.au, a company owned by the Australian Ministers of Education and responsible for EdNA and associated services. That meeting was at an EdNA consultation where, in a discussion of how to encourage academics to engage with EdNA services, I raised the possibility of recognising quality teaching materials in ways similar to recognition of publications as a basis for distribution of competitive funding from government. Merlot and some other initiatives have provided models for peer review of teaching materials that could be used to create a system somewhat parallel to that which exists for recognition of academic publications.

All of this is a long way from being a fully fleshed out proposal but it seems to me that creating a proper publication process and an associated reward system for teaching materials might encourage and reward some of the effort required to create high quality materials. That surely must be a good thing for teaching and learning in the university.