Friday, April 02, 2010

We Learn

"If we are not careful," warns Michael Feldstein, "open education may actually end up reinforcing economic divides."

He explains, "It's easy for those of us in the open education movement to see our work in opposition to proprietary technology companies, proprietary textbook companies, and the gatekeepers in the university system. But it's not the 'evil' LMS companies, or the 'evil' textbook companies, or the 'evil' administrators and bureaucrats that are failing these students. It is all of us."

Really? Even those working in the edupunk movement - the subject of this post - who are doing everything they can to throw open the gates of learning to all comers? Even the people trying to free learning from the shackles of publishers and vendors that are trying to destroy public education and lock down all learning content? I would like to have it explained to me in what way it is "all of us". What are we not doing?

Feldstein responds, "You seem to have missed the main point of my post. The millions of learners I am talking about will not magically learn just because we make resources freely available.. My point is that edupunk and OER do nothing, in and of themselves, to help these student leap the chasm that they will have to leap in order to further their education. Pretending otherwise is pernicious."

First of all (I write back to him), I did not misunderstand the point of the post. I know that this is what you're saying.

My response is predicated on what seems to be the presumption in your post that, though OER and edupunk do not provide the support these students need, corporations and institutions *are* providing that support.

So my first line of response is to reject that presumption. The reason we have so many students who are utterly unable to learn for themselves is precisely *because* of corporations and institutions.

They are not providing help. They are actively hindering it. It is in their interests to keep students dependent and unable to learn for themselves. They actively act against attempts to provide this support.

The other part of your argument, the part you stress here is the proposition that edupunk and OER do not, by themselves, provide the support students need in order to learn for themselves.

But this is to raise the same point raised by David Wiley and invites the same sort of answer I gave there.

In particular, "So long as we depict open learning as some form of 'independent study, then yeah, it will appeal only to the fifteen percent of people that likes to study.

"But mostly the people behind open education – the technologists, at least – the administrators remain institution-bound – depict it as anything _but_ ‘independent study’. It’s depicted as more like creating art and music and games and other content, activities that engage far more than some elite fifteen percent, and when sufficiently equitable, attracts something more like 85 percent than 15 percent."

If you get beyond the characterization of open education as an alternative *institutional* response, and see it in its much more true light as a set of mechanisms to encourage and allow creativity, engagement, and empowerment, then you locate in edupunk and OER the missing elements.

The problem with depicting edupunk as *only* the provision of free resources is that you ignore the forces and mechanisms put into place to put those resources there in the first place.

And while David Wiley and others talking about more traditional OER (eg. here ) the approach I and the edupunks take is that these resources are produced by the members of the community themselves.

As I said here  "the functions of production and consumption need to be collapsed, that the distinction between producers and consumers need to be collapsed. The use of a learning resource, through adaptation and repurposing, becomes the production of another resource."

Edupunk, and for that matter OER, are not and should not be thought of in the context of the traditional educational model, where students are passive recipients of 'instruction' and 'support' and 'learning resources'. Rather, it is the much more active conception where students are engages in the actual creation of those resources.

Now to return to my original point, this is exactly what corporations and institutions do *not* want edupunks and proponents of OERs to do, and they have expended a great deal of effort to ensure that this does not become the mainstream of learning, to ensure students remain passive and disempowered.

They through fear, uncertainty and doubt into potential supporters by raising the sceptre of copyright infringement, patent challenges, and dangerous content, so much so that material that is not professionally produced are deemed too dangerous to be used in education, and connections to distributed networks of resources are so risky they must be blocked in companies and educational institutions.

They redirect those people who are actually good of heart and want to contribute to OERs toward a model that emphasizes production and publication by institutions, and employ foundations and funding agencies to guide this effort, and perhaps incidentally (though not so far successfully) to flood the market with institutional OERs that would eliminate the need for community produced OERs.

They attempt to co-opt nascent OER initiatives by directing them toward commercial enterprise, arguing that resources must allow commercial licensing, and directing production toward enterprises and initiatives that must receive see funding and draw a return on that investment through the conversion of OERs into commodities.

And they foster a sense of incapacity in opinion and the media to suggest to students themselves that they are incapable of independent action without the comforting support of corporations and institutions, that they are simply not capable of learning form themselves. From the first utterance that "OCW is not an MIT education" the suggestion has been that education must need be a high-priced endeavour, available, really, only to those willing to pay the price.

In fact, what we see on the internet, and especially (albeit constrained) in web 2.0 services, a blossoming of creativity and initiative. Even if this currently represents only a minority of the population (and studies, depending on how you look at them, argue both ways) it seems clear that this is something that has taken hold and is in the process of becoming mainstream.

It is activity and work that is taking place outside educational institutions, and would, if it could (and often does), take place outside the corporate environment.

It is the world of mashups, of deviant art, of self-help discussion groups, of environmental activism and pirates, of self-managed learning, of hobbiests, of hackers, of open source programmers, and on and more and more.

Don't tell me none of this exists.

If you care to say all of this is not providing the support students need, make the point. But I think we cannot start from the presumption that edupunk and OER are doing nothing to support, motivate, scaffold and empower students. Quite the opposite. 

13 comments:

  1. So what sort of companies "... is in their interests to keep students dependent and unable to learn for themselves." I must have been working for the wrong sorts of companies because in every job I have had being able to learn on ones own is a critical skill. The companies I have worked for all want people who are creators and more than just consumers.

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  2. Without getting into the specifics of a certain large company you work for, I think you have to agree with me that it has been subject to numerous criticisms over the years for being anti-open content, anti-open source, anti-competitive, interested in promoting proprietary products in closed formats in closed environments, and more. Do you really want to go down that road?

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  3. Stephen -- Have been appreciating your thoughtful posts for some time; thank you for your straightforward insights!

    Alfred's comment points to the successful smoke screen most companies have managed to generate regarding what they want from their employees. You're absolutely correct, Stephen, that the facts prove corporations, by and large, do not walk the talk.

    It's not in a company's best interest for employees to learn too much (take it from me -- a former educational counselor in one of the US's largest corporations -- who saw clear evidence first-hand). Informed employees, they believe, are troublesome. Who knows what someone might learn about labor laws or safety issues or -- heaven forbid! -- a better way to do things.

    Here's a tiny example, from a different company I worked for: most requests to attend professional conferences were denied. Stated reasons: projects were too pressing, money was too tight. Real reason (this was confessed later by a key leader): they were afraid the networking opportunities at those events would result in employees leaving (as if they didn't or wouldn't, anyway).

    Free access to wide-ranging resources that contribute to an individual's knowledge base is very threatening on all sorts of levels.

    Make no mistake: companies might say they want someone who can learn and adapt, but what they mean is they only want that within the specific confines of the output they desire from that employee. Believe otherwise and you're only deceiving yourself.

    That something like the Web could threaten such long-standing institutions as academia is nothing short of revolutionary.

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  4. Looks like the handiest piece I've ever seen to re-describe to the confused what a learning resource is now.

    Thanks a zillion.

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  5. The kids/students that Michael is talking about (who need learning support and guidance and so forth) are not at any of those sites you linked to. They aren't at opencourseware sites, either. Those (adults) who are at opencourseware sites are not re-using/re-mixing anything. There is no producer-consumer collapse, unfortunately.

    Survey kids or the general public, and they don't know anything about any of this stuff.

    They know Google, Wikipedia, Yahoo Answers, Youtube, Facebook. The last 3 are where they really interact, and Yahoo Answers is where you find many students actually learning (and yes, cheating).

    Yahoo Answers is the type of 'support' site that Michael might be referring to, and that David Wiley has mentioned before as one of the critical services of education (that he thinks can be disaggregated from the others).

    And yes, corporations and educational institutions are providing support for learners/trainees. Even by just putting multiple learners in the same room together or in the same office as other employees you provide some support. It may be poor support, but you don't see them just dumping lectures and expecting people to learn from them on their own.

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  6. Indeed, what surveys? Show them to me.

    Also show me why Yahoo answers, Facebook and YouTube don't count as instances of just the sort of creativity I've been talking about?

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  7. Stephen, your reply to me was a complete non sequitur. My question stands unanswered. I work for a company that provides lot of free educational resources and even hires teachers to develop concept based, project based, creativity focused materials. We give huge amounts of free software to students and encourage them do to innovative things with them. SO do several other companies I have worked for in my career. Maybe the assempbly line companies what mindless automatons but not hi-tech companies.
    You thing Google wants mindless drones? You think Apple wants mindless drones? I think not.

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  8. I tend to agree with you Stephen.

    My kids learn voraciously. They learned to use my iPod Touch with barely any help from me. Every day features a a barrage of questions I increasingly struggle to keep up with.

    They like school. But I don't think they need school as much as it needs them.

    I recently had to grovel for permission to take my kids out of school for a couple of days to visit the London Science Museum (perhaps one of the most amazing "OERs" in existence). We get the stark choice of either full-time school or full-time home-school, and not "usually school but not if there is something more interesting, fun, and educational to do that day instead".

    Thats the institutional response we'd need for informal learning and OER - the right to take time off to learn for ourselves, whether as a pupil, student, or worker, without automatically losing all the rights to public education that have been so hard fought for.

    However I don't think we've done a good job yet at thinking this through for the whole community, and that poverty-education connection just cannot be ignored. (Sadly its not just the education system that beats the creativity, engagement and empowerment out of children.)

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  9. It may be a sidebar comment, or at least a shift in levels of argument, but what I think really needs to happen is for self-imposed Edupunks & multi-national companies to set aside 'dissing' each other and come together in order to figure out how to close the gap between those that have access and those that do not. The magical key to accessing most OER's is being online.

    So, on another level completely Michael Feldstein is correct in that 'all of us' are 'reinforcing economic divides' by not working together.

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  10. Nice post. I think Alfred Thompson made a good point, too.

    I think we should now carefully think what kind of people the society will need in 20-140 years from now. Education is a long-term investment.

    I agree that if we want creative, engaged and empowered people, we need edupunk and community created OERs. But that is not enough. We also need quality basic education: art and culture, reading and writing, even math - done in the spirit of creativity, engagement and empowerment. Participation to self-managed learning (like Knowmade) is mostly possible only when you have some basic skills and most importantly the spirit to learn and develop. This is what the basic education (actually all education) is for: to give people skills to learn and develop.

    In the basic education children (many adults, too) need help from their peers, from little older children and from adults. To learn people must be brought to the zone of proximal development (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_of_proximal_development). It doesn’t just happen automatically online. To provide meaningful learning opportunities we can be systematic, too. We can design schools (and Universities) that will -- at least – increase, not decrease the possibility of helping people to become part of the edupunk and community created OER (and many other good things).

    I wrote a bot more about the topic in here:

    http://flosse.blogging.fi/2010/04/06/a-real-educational-revolution-system-thinking-long-term-thinking-universal-basic-education/

    - Teemu

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  11. I must agree with Stephen here. The problem with institutions and organizations is not limited to education. Over time, institutions almost inevitably experience goal displacement. This is the process by which the initial objectives (the provision of education and support for research, for example) are superseded by the need to protect and expand the increasingly expensive and entrenched management structures and administrative personal. Branding, marketing, and advertising become central concerns and require increasing resources. Words (mission statements, slogans, and tag lines) replace, and are often at odds with, action. The image of the institution in the media becomes more important than the reality on the ground. Diversity and criticism is suppressed by the requirement that the organization speaks with one voice. Top-down management structures and increasing job specialization hinder innovation and discourage a sense of personal responsibility. By rewarding institutional loyalty, the process accelerates and becomes self perpetuating. In the education sector, these problems are exacerbated by the incredibly damaging idea that education is just another business selling commodities to consumers in a “free” and competitive market. Education is a human right, a public good, and a community project.

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  12. Thanks so much Stephen for your courageous big picture bs detector. It is remarkable to vision the solutions and simultaneously to dig deeply into the problems and maintain your stamina, breadth and passion without getting stuck in the pooh. Thank you.

    I think I am understanding more closely the challenges of what I perceive is an incredible peoples learning movement and the resistance it is up against.

    Yes Mark McGuire the distance between the decision makers from those really affected by the decisions is a divisive chasm. I have experienced it directly, I am horrified to realise how hugely segregationist government education is, yet it was designed for my middle class self which is why I'm still connected to it, but totally disempowering for others out with that narrow value system.

    Imposing middle class values on others and rewarding and punishing them for it is devastating, creating an insider/outsider paradigm.

    In my mind commodifying learning, results in commodifying the learners themselves resulting in less connection, less learning and ultimately less 'productivity'=poverty.

    Poverty=huge welfare, prison and health bills, but it is the appalling emotional cost to individuals and whole communities that is so unnecessary and I wonder how that is accounted for in the 'hard data'?

    I wonder about this buzz word 'empathy' do they mean living in government housing enclaves, in order to really understand the lives of those 3 generations unemployed? That's what opened my eyes, nothing like solo motherdom and teaching in public education to get a sense of perspective, I empathise, I truly 'get' that these people are not catered for that there is a complete lack of empathy and that it is not their fault. It is not ok either. In Tasmania 30% of our population lives on the poverty line. The social implications are enormous.

    And I recognise my own dependency on this model, as you point out Stephen I am currently in post grad again. (I truly loved my schooling and adored my teachers, else I would not have chosen it as a profession). I' ve learned how to be a good student, but not how to be financially independent. One of the flock who return seeking solution, but is education the problem? Well I've experienced both the incredible blessings (4 years passionately tethered to a design degree) and the challenges (unemployment, student debt) of higher education. I really loved my learning experiences in primary and higher education.

    I experience education as unhealthily self referencing and self perpetuating and so I anticipate many of the answers will come from beyond education itself?

    It's the independence. That is the critical piece. How to manage my own pathways to work and career fulfilment and how to model that for others. I am doing my child/students a disservice to model anything else.

    Edupunk and Open Education give me hope for independence from the current dependency paradigm of education both for myself, my child and my students (read poverty). The leaders such as yourself are modelling the type of thinking, collaboration, digital and networking skills necessary.

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  13. Great conversation and thinking, and I just want to add an observation. In this thread and others at Michael's and Jim Groom's there is this interesting undercurrent of "you can't just send people out with OERs and tell them to learn" and I guess I just keep saying well, "der." I think the promise of OERs and edupunk or whatever you want to call it will only be realized when education becomes something that specifically teaches kids to take advantage of what's out there, focuses on how to learn, not know. More and more, I think the real pressure right now is on the elementary school teachers who are going to have to somehow drive changes in the curriculum away from content and more toward self-directed learning and reflection and creation/collaboration. Sure, there are lots of remixers and masher uppers and pirates right now, but imagine a world where kids are actually taught to do that.

    I guess the question for me at least comes down to can we nurture self-direction and passion for learning instead of drive it out of kids by assessing for content knowledge coming out of a proscribed one-size-fits-all curriculum that does everything it can (as Stephen suggests) to create compliance. Compliance makes life easy, doesn't it? And if we can't, what's the option?

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