Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What is the teacher's most valuable IP?

I have an ongoing discussion with several colleagues about the basic question of where a teacher's value lies. This is particularly important in a field like game design, where a new professor is likely going to be the only one in the department with any game-related expertise and will therefore be doing some curriculum development, some course content development, and of course the actual teaching.

There seem to be two schools of thought with respect to this.

The first model, I'll call "value in output." The professor is a machine that converts money and coffee into curriculum and course materials. The real value is in these secrets of the field that the professor distills into small documents like lesson plans and curriculum documents. This is valuable information that must be protected. You can tell the schools that think this way because they have something in their contracts that makes sure the school gets IP ownership of the professor's work, or (at the very least) they would be very much against a professor releasing this material to the public, or taking it to another school.

The second model, I'll call "value in person." The idea is that it is the professor who is valuable, not the work. A skilled professor can always create more classes, revise the curriculum or what have you, and it is therefore the human being that has value. An analogy would be valuing the goose more than the golden eggs. You can tell the schools that fall into this category by their willingness to release their course content online, give their professors more control over their own work output, and are generally happy to just sit back and do nothing as long as the profs are bringing glory to the school.

We have this in the game industry, too. Where is the value in a game: the IP, the code base, or the development team? Depending on a publisher's viewpoint, they will treat their developers very differently.

If you're a teacher or a developer, think for a moment about how your school (or your publisher) sees you and your contributions. Is there more focus on your work output, or your ongoing ability to produce that output? Which view is superior? If the answer is "it depends," what does it depend on?


GordonG said...

This is a very interesting viewpoint. My wife and I are both educators (myself in visual art, she in general ed.) and I have never observed the first phenomenon you discuss. I don’t know if this is unique to universities, but having just read your description, I was very shocked – I believe this is a dangerous practice that erodes morale and degrades the overall quality of the curriculum and especially the instruction. What happens when the original professor leaves? Does the university then mandate that his replacement teach from the original curriculum? How can one truly know and understand material without having explored it oneself? As a visual arts teacher, I was expected to create examples and actually be able to do the material I was expecting the students to do. How can one be sure the replacement professor is truly competent in the subject matter when he is simply teaching from a prescribed curriculum of which he has no personal investment in? When I taught game design at the Wexner center, how could I expect the students to invest themselves in the work, let alone understand it without showing that I had the same passion they had, but with a greater understanding? While the concept of “value in output” seems very alien to me, the concept of “value in person” seems natural. In K-12 education, competition for jobs is so fierce that administrators must find the person who is the best of the best. This person must normally prove themselves - usually through years of being an underpaid substitute or instructional aide. Through personal observation, fellow teachers then vouch for the individual’s ability when it comes time to fill a new position. The practice of valuing content over individual ability is something my wife has noticed in charter schools. Teachers at these schools usually teach from a prescribed curriculum handed down from on high. The teachers at these schools are usually less qualified and have weaker classroom management skills. Therefore the instruction suffers. In my current position I know that it is my personal abilities that are valued because I have unique knowledge and skills which I bring to the position. If I were to leave the library system now, there would be precious few individuals who could do what I do, how I do it. Though I am not currently in the game industry I would hope that it is the unique abilities of the team members and what each can bring to the table that strengthens the game, but I could see how some studios might only take on individuals to increase their output. Some might be comfortable in that role, but not me.

Ian Schreiber said...

Yes, that's exactly what happens: another teacher is given the course syllabus, lecture notes and lesson plans and told to teach from that. I've taught some classes myself where this information was given to me as a resource if I wanted to use it, and other classes where it was mandated from on high (and the best I can do is tell the students that I personally disagree with this or that in the lesson, and turn it into a discussion).

Lewis said...

If the school sees teachers as "deliverers of content", then the first attitude will prevail. I was at a school where I was expected to (in effect) write a book that would enable people who don't have a clue about game design, who aren't even lifelong game players, to teach game design classes. I refused, not only because I already had the heaviest workload I've ever had as a teacher, but because there's no way to succeed. If the person has no clue about game design, no practical experience, they aren't going to be good teaching game design. Further, I was planning to create a game to help students understand game design, and the department administration maintained that anything I created should belong to the school! I've heard of few schools that claim ownership of a book or other work written by an instructor while a teacher at the school, but these are exceptions. (No, I wasn't at that school long; and they still have no clue about teaching game design, despite my (unsuccessful) efforts to change how they did it.)

So the more the school sees teachers as something that can be plucked off a nearby tree and plugged into a class with "content" created by someone else (or that relies almost entirely on a textbook, as is common), the less the subject expertise of the teacher will be valued.

If the teacher is seen as valuable because he or she can convey the benefit of his/her experience to the students in an interactive manner (as a master might to an apprentice), the more the teacher will be valued as an individual and person, because that teacher is much harder to replace and is probably a much better teacher than the "deliverer". In game design, particularly, where almost all teachers of game design have little or no good practical experience, the practitioners should be valued. (I see so many teachers who say they're game designers, but they actually haven't done anything, or very little. It's as ridiculous as someone who "teaches" orchestral composition but has written little or no high-quality music of any kind.)

Unfortunately, we get more and more teachers in schools at all levels who have no subject-matter expertise in practical subjects; it's in their interest to minimize the value of practical expertise, and prefer the "deliverer of content" model, because that's how they do it. This is perpetuated by accrediting organizations, which strongly tend to value degrees over practical experience.

Schools at all levels are rapidly going toward "teacher as deliverer of content" (it IS, after all, much cheaper). Hence "output of content" is valued in a a full-time instructor, not practical experience (or ability to teach). Much of this also comes from government regulation and standardization, and from the fundamental misconception (nay, stupidity) that memorizing material to answer multiple choice questions is the mission of students and teachers. Some also comes from the mania for "distance education" classes, which are almost always a case of "delivery of content," mostly from a textbook or books.

In a sense also it's the triumph of ignorance, the notion that "objective" (translated wrongly as "easy to measure") is more viable, somehow better, than "subjective" (translated wrongly as "a matter of opinion").

luz reyes said...

I would argue that the professor in person is the real value add. After all - you can get information from just about any book, can't you? What is difficult to do is to present the material in easily digestible chunks, in the correct ORDER. Imoh, game design teaching is no different in this regard than any curriculum. I was lucky to have good teachers, which landed me my dev position at GS, which I link to.