In a recent post, I reviewed parts of an important new book called Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge (2008, Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar, eds.). In that review, I focused mainly on a broad overview of the book and on the final chapter, which considered the future of the open knowledge movement. Today I want to focus on a chapter in “Open Educational Technology,” the first section of the book. This section, the first of three (technology, content, and knowledge), offers a consideration of various approaches to designing open learning environments. In the introduction to the section, Owen McGrath writes that “the term ‘open educational technology’ has broad meaning that extends well beyond any lowest-common-denominator definition such as ‘open source software for education’.” Key thematic questions McGrath presents include the following:
- How should open educational technology be built, extended, and maintained in the large cross-institutional and international efforts?
- How can the teaching and learning activities supported by the technology be evaluated in an open way?
- How do the perspectives of teachers and learners inform these projects?
In “A Harvest Too Large? A Framework for Educational Abundance,” Trent Bastson, Neeru Paharia, and M.S. Vijay Kumar consider potential applications of open knowledge to higher education, emphasizing the value of sharing and remixing of pedagogical content, which they argue will dissolve the silos that traditionally separate content areas in higher education. They work from an assumption that open knowledge does not feel to all like a panacea; they readily acknowledge that it will feel deeply threatening to many members of our society. They offer the example of baby boomers coming of age under the shadow of parents grew up during the Great Depression. For these “Dionysian offspring,” the authors explain, their parents’ “poverty assumptions–lie low, hide your wealth lest it be stolen, do not display emotions, life is full of danger–” were more than silly or nonsensical; they directly opposed the youths’ approach to life. As the authors of this chapter write,
We now appear to be facing the same cultural fissure 40 years later: Open educational resources (OER) are so abundant that the scarcity-based assumptions of educators are challenged…. In short, we are moving toward a knowledge ecology characterized by unfettered access to educational resources, choice, and change in the context and clientele of higher education.
Interestingly, the authors see learners themselves as presenting a significant obstacle in the progress toward open education–perhaps even more so than faculty. As they explain:
[W]hile some faculty members may boldly go where open education leads them, some students, despite their expertise in some uses of the Internet and IT tools, can be very conservative in their expectations in the classroom. They may come to college expecting that regardless of the IT toys on campus, in the classroom itself, their teachers will still tell them what to know and then test them on what they have been told.
This is only one of many potential and existing barriers, of course; and the authors briefly consider many obstacles. They imagine “a vibrant Web community of learners at something called Peer-To-Peer University, or ‘P2PU.’ P2PU would not be a ‘real’ university, but rather, a group of self-learners and tutors who work together to emulate some of the functions an academic institution would carry out, in a peer-to-peer fashion.” They then consider the obstacles to realizing this dream: How can a “vibrant” eLearning community be fostered when passive learning is so much more likely? How will people react to the decentralized authority of an open knowledge learning system? And, perhaps most importantly for them, “[I]f the remixing process is speeded up and a million eyes replace ‘gatekeepers,’ then is knowledge enriched or watered down?”
It’s an interesting thought exercise to imagine this Peer-To-Peer University–and it brings to mind an important issue that’s only glanced at in this chapter: An ongoing shift in how we both think about credibility, both in assessing others’ and establishing our own in a variety of online, offline, and hybrid social spaces. I wrote about this some in a recent blogpost on the online university phenomenon, where I argued that
While web 2.0 technologies increasingly allow us to offer expertise in a variety of areas, with or without educational credentials, the desire for evidence of expertise lingers in our collective psyches. Ultimately, we still believe that when our cat’s kidneys start to fail, the single veterinarian who spent 8 years in school followed by years of field experience can provide better advice than the two thousand cat owners on a devoted forum.
And we’re not necessarily wrong to think this way, at least in some situations–after all, as I explained in that post, if my cat needs surgery, I’m taking him to the board-certified veterinarian, rabid pet owners be damned.
But at the same time, those rabid pet owners may provide valuable advice that helps me decide when it’s appropriate to go to the credentialed veterinarian. And here’s where educational technology people like the authors of this chapter could learn a thing or two from people who participate, in various ways, in a participatory culture: They exist, happily and without too much turmoil, in the space between online and offline cultures, easily crossing the membrane and increasingly failing to agree to consider that there even is a membrane. Many people–and most young people–would agree that there’s little functional distinction between friends they make in face-to-face interactions and those who communicate primarily or solely via virtual tools.
In principle, it seems, the authors of this chapter agree; writing about ccMixter, a “community music site featuring remixes licensed under Creative Commons where you can listen to, sample, mash-up, or interact with music in whatever way you want”, they explain that the ccMixter community often rewards its most talented participants with CDs or even recording contracts “so they could receive more exposure and social credit for their efforts.” In this example, the virtual community is the real community, regardless of its physicality.
The authors seem willing to bestow this gift on virtual communities that extend their reach into the physical world; but when considering physical learning environments, they seem less eager to consider a blurred line between classroom and engaged learning community. Take a look at how they describe the “typical lecture hall”:
the teacher is up front and the students sit in chairs that are fixed to the floo
r. Such physical inflexibility restricts (italics mine) how the teacher can interact with students and students can interact with each other. Software design has followed a similar pattern, favoring tools that support faculty, rather than student, management in digital space.
It’s that word “restricts” that hits a sour note. We might just as easily consider affordances of a typical lecture hall: It affords a certain kind of learning which has value in certain context, and it only becomes “restrictive” when people try to use it to achieve some purpose for which it was not intended or to which it cannot be applied. Even then, it’s not the fault of the physical space that people are trying to bend it to their will. As Clay Shirky writes, “There is no such thing as a generically good tool; there are only tools good for particular jobs.”
Followers of this blog know that I’m no fan of traditional or conservative approaches to schooling, but I do also see the value of considering what is afforded by a traditional learning space like the lecture hall or, more broadly, the brick-and-mortar university. And the authors of this chapter aren’t necessarily averse to this approach; indeed, they grant that
existing academic institutions do help to navigate through the human sea of knowledge. They organize it into majors and requirements to make the decision process much easier and more goal oriented. They provide a teacher and classmates to both guide and motivate. They provide a structure and a social context to help bridge students from beginning stages of learning toward maturity. They help students address issues of finalizing work by providing a schedule of “deliverables” (assignment sets), of matching the learner with the job market, of certifying the value of students’ learning, and the general issues of being a young person at home.
If it’s true that the traditional university has served and continues, and will continue, to serve important cultural purposes, then we would do well to consider what types of learning experiences it can afford learners who are preparing for careers that may not even exist yet. Given that P2PU is a kind of pipe dream, and a more hybrid learning environment much more realistic, we need to think of ways to not only consider what purposes the university is good for but also how to speak to key stakeholders. In times of cultural revolution, those who believe most ardently in the need for it are also often the ones whose language is the most shrill, the most strident, and most difficult to hear.
This is not to say, of course, that the affordances of traditional universities should or could not also be considered constraints. In the end, though, the constraints are more on our ability to envision new words and worlds wherein authentic learning experiences can happen and less on our ability to leverage traditional learning spaces to make these visions real.