The Access Paradox

Following is the fifteenth and last of a series of posts by participants in the Spring 2021 Open Pedagogy Fellowship, coordinated by the Mina Rees Library. Fellows will share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences in the Fellowship. Applications are currently being accepted for the next two cohorts of Open Pedagogy Fellows.

Allen Zheng (they/them) is a Ph.D. student in Physics at the Graduate Center and is currently researching in a NMR lab at Hunter. They graduated from the City College of New York in Physics and have been teaching intro physics labs at Hunter College since Fall 2020. Allen is recently interested in radical pedagogy practices after exchanges with childhood educators in Brooklyn. They believe dramatic changes need to be implemented particularly in STEM fields to break from current product-oriented banking system education, an issue which has particularly impacted CUNY’s underprivileged demographic in NYC. Currently, Allen is interested in learning more about theory on radical pedagogy and practices to implement.

As a Physics Ph.D. candidate who was sent into the role of the educator without any guidance, I felt it was necessary to personally seek out guidance. I have suffered through too many educators in science who did not seem to refine their pedagogy, and subjected their students, even unintentionally, to harmful practices. The Open Pedagogy Fellowship offered a specific aspect of refinement in my pedagogy. 

Interacting with fellow educators at the Fellowship confirmed and gave name to the many grievances that students and educators experience in the academic world. The problems presented can seem daunting. The trend of educational access being blocked by financial concerns seemed to be worsening, though vigorous work has been done to push against this tide. The Fellowship provided many tools to work through technicalities in open resources, towards their implementation in pedagogy. Such technical skills and considerations will no doubt prove important, while the pedagogical tools will take a lifetime to hone, as plasticity is fundamental to engaged pedagogy in an evolving world. There is no one right way to teach. Each educator must learn and relearn how to teach constantly—every course, every semester, every student, every day.

Hard sciences often have the greatest barriers between educational resources and students or educators. On top of the already difficult to parse language and practices, the sharing of written information is often blocked behind formidable paywalls and exclusive academic institutions. At CUNY, much work needs to be done to offer pathways through these barriers. 

On the technology front, simple solutions such as providing students and educators with access codes to software such as the Microsoft Office Suite and MATLAB immediately increase the accessibility of learning in the sciences. In conjunction with providing computers and auxiliary equipment to take home or to use in campus libraries, students can set foot into the world of scientific writing, presentation, and data analysis that is augmented by ever-expanding technological tools. 

Once the barriers of hardware and software access are overcome, so too must the barrier of written information access be addressed. Perhaps the most relevant barrier to younger students and their educators is the textbook. Tomes of knowledge are often hailed as the backbone of undergraduate studies, yet sold at preventative costs. This is particularly egregious given the underprivileged, working-class students that institutions such as CUNY take pride in providing upward economic mobility to. Without a sufficient range of free textbooks, educators can only blame textbook editors, who can then only blame company costs. In the hope of relief from the burden of physical texts, we may turn to the internet for open or alternative materials.

The access paradox is that the internet has become a nearly infinite collection of humanity’s most open creation of written texts from around the world—scientific journals, research reports, review papers, textbooks, course materials—yet at the same time, structures of tiered access hide many of these resources behind subscription costs and royalty fees. Even free library copies and access codes given through educational institutions are barely able to worm through this barrier. Finding organizations that are willing to provide information for free remains challenging.

Since publishers and educational institutions are slow to provide open access, it often remains solely the educator’s responsibility to consider open options for the sake of themselves and their students. Open resources may be found at the cost of additional time and energy by scouring the internet or making physical copies at a printer, presenting less robust information backed by underfunded groups. Or it can become the educator’s job if they cannot stomach the rising cost of textbooks, instead casually offering free, but illegal, online copies.

It seems the solution to closed educational resources is complicated, requiring a balance between fully open access of all materials and providing funding for technology and written works. To demand that all lengthy texts and complex technology be open is to demand a world without monetary costs, or an extremely generous patron of academia. Since ideas are meant to be dreamed, a non-monetary economy is a sweeter dream anyway.

Perhaps a truly open academic world can only exist when much greater economic structures are removed, when that world values labor, not money, when that world values the sharing of knowledge. This becomes apparent when you follow the chain of blame of inaccessibility from student to educator to institution to institution. For now, we implore governments and schools for funding, we shoulder the labor of hosting papers to free publishers and creating free internet tools, and ultimately we all face the choice: to share what knowledge we can, simply for the sake of sharing.

About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.