Building a Network, Expanding the Commons, Shaping the Field: Two Perspectives on Developing a SOTL Repository

by Tom Carey, Jennifer Meta Robinson and John Rakestraw

Tom Carey, How Do Open Education Resources Acquire Their Value for Teaching and Learning?

Jennifer Meta Robinson, How Can a Repository Make the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Usable?

Introduction by John Rakestraw
More and more college and university faculty–in community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and large research universities–are working to improve their teaching practice. Many of these teachers see themselves as part of a larger community, and they are eager to learn more from other teachers and scholars about the practice of teaching. They learn from conversations with local faculty colleagues, and many are fortunate to work with teaching centers and other school resources dedicated to the promotion of teaching and of reflection on teaching.

However, when they look for resources beyond the local setting, they are often overwhelmed by the mass of information. Whether they are seeking answers to specific pedagogical questions–e.g., how might one help students in an intermediate-level class  to frame their own research questions in a discipline? Or asking broader curricular development questions–e.g., how might a senior capstone course help students to build upon and integrate work done in lower level courses in the major and in general education?–they are often frustrated. In some instances they find an abundance of theoretical information but lack the time to explicate fully just how this theory might apply in a particular situation. In other instances they find reflections on particular teaching practices, but those reflections are grounded in very different teaching situations, making  it difficult to relate the conclusions to their own teaching. These frustrations are often intensified when one adds to the mix the question of whether or how to use a particular technology to support student learning. To build on an earlier example, how might an online writing environment help students work collaboratively between face-to-face class sessions to define their own research questions?

All of these questions together pose the important challenge: just how do teaching faculty–faculty who, after all, were trained in particular disciplines rather than in general teaching skills–cultivate and then share knowledge about teaching practice?

Building a Scholarship on Teaching and Learning
One approach to answering this last, larger question is embodied in the field now known as the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, or SOTL. SOTL practitioners are building a body of research  that’s impressive in its breadth and depth. However, they have not yet solved the problem of making this work accessible. SOTL researchers are presenting their scholarly products in different media, ranging from digital stories to electronic posters to more traditional scholarly papers. Moreover, although there are conferences and organizations (such as the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education) that provide professional settings in which those engaged in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning can present their research and discuss the growing body of literature in the field, these organizations still attract only a small subset of the teacher-scholars engaged in scholarly reflection on the teaching practice. Finally, while many of these works are being published on the World Wide Web, this publication takes place in a variety of venues, from organized collections (like this issue of Academic Commons) to school Web sites, to Web sites developed and maintained by individual scholars presenting their own work. There are more and more resources available, but teachers and scholars still face significant challenges in their attempts to locate materials particularly relevant to their own situations.

These challenges are not unique to SOTL. All of these factors–the variety of media, the relative isolation of many of those doing the work, and the different venues of web publication–create difficulties for practitioners even of established academic fields to do research in their field and to build on the work of others in the field. However, the difficulties are even more pronounced in SOTL simply because the field is still not clearly defined and established. Scholars of teaching and learning, both those well established and recognized and those just beginning work in this field, find it difficult to keep up with others’ contributions, and to figure out exactly what is encompassed by the label “SOTL.”

The two articles presented here discuss the possibilities of using online technologies to respond to these challenges. Authors Jennifer Meta Robinson and Tom Carey consider the question of how online environments might not only house collections of SOTL contributions and reflections on pedagogical practice, but also host ongoing exchanges about how these contributions can be used and developed more fully by both teachers and researchers. While Robinson and Carey share much common ground–indeed, as will be obvious, they have participated together in many discussions about these issues–they come at the challenges from different perspectives.

Carey is particularly concerned that users of the repository will come to see it as a resource for what some have called Just In Time teaching practice. He would like teachers to discover in such a collection teaching resources that they can incorporate efficiently into their own teaching practice. Moreover, he argues that the technology housing the collection must allow these teachers and others to make their own contributions, and comment on work done by others, in a dynamic collaborative space. He and others suggest that it’s best to see the collection as bringing together both people and resources–an “Open Educational Resources Knowledge Exchange Network.”

Robinson considers the question of what an online collection would add to already existing collections and Web search tools. She also notes that the practitioners of SOTL are not only grounded in a wide variety of academic disciplines, but also employed in a variety of teaching environments ranging from K-12 schools to community colleges to large research universities.  She suggests that an online collection developed by and for scholars doing this work would help to shape the still coalescing field, and foster the development of a community of scholars.

Robinson and Carey’s brief essays begin to draw into focus what a SOTL repository might look like, and to envision how such a repository would influence the direction of the field of SOTL itself. However, as Robinson, Carey, and other scholars continue to grapple with the challenges of designing a repository, some of their questions, and others as well, remain. These questions, both conceptual and logistical, to consider as this process moves forward include the following:

  • What should be the level of institutional affiliation for the repository? What kind of visible support from organizations such as the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning or from specific colleges and universities would lend the repository the credibility it would need to persuade scholars to view it as a valuable and legitimate resource?
  • What is the incentive for users to contribute to the repository? How can we aid users in feeling that they were contributing to a scholarly community? What kind of institutional support and reward system would encourage users to contribute original items and to develop or comment on existing items in the repository? For example, education and library science students from research methods courses might be paired with professors in other departments who wanted annotated bibliographies or other digests of the state of the literature on a topic related to their SOTL.
  • How can we address the diversity of users’ primary disciplines and of the types of participating institutions? Robinson reports that, in discussions among members of her working group, some of these initially fragmenting differences ultimately proved to be broadening and productive. How can that experience be replicated among members of the repository community, without the benefit of face-to-face meetings and working groups?
  • Should the repository aim to collect, contextualize, and present work that already exists, or to elicit production of new work?
  • What is the right balance to strike between the value of community-generated knowledge, on the one hand, and the value of direction provided by some kind of an authority, on the other? In other words, how do we blend the openness of Wikipedia with the credibility of an academic journal?
  • Are there ways to combine elements of these approaches into a hybrid model, e.g., links in the repository to wiki-type discussion boards?

As both Robinson and Carey suggest, answers to these questions and to others that follow will emerge  in the concrete practice of teaching, as teachers and SOTL scholars contribute to existing collections and make use of the teaching resources they find there. However, it’s important to remember that the use of particular tools will not only lead to changes in the tools as they’re adapted to new uses, but will also help to create new ways of working together for those teachers who see themselves as part of the larger community of teachers reflecting on the practice of teaching.

Follow the links to the two essays:

Tom Carey, How Do Open Education Resources Acquire Their Value for Teaching and Learning?

Jennifer Meta Robinson, How Can a Repository Make the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Usable?