Category Archives: science in education

OERs shining light, new textbook model, or harbinger of a new imperialism.

Ok. So I’ve been backchanneling all over the place trying to get my mind around what I’ve been trying to get my mind around this week (really… for the past year). I have a couple of questions that I’d like to explore…

What are OERs good for?
When are they a good thing?
Could they be a bad thing?
Whom do they serve?

Sacrilege? Perhaps… so lets take our time and develop out this idea properly. First we’ll talk a bit about different kinds of knowledge and which ones are well suited to prescripted ideas of content, then we’ll move on to a consideration of how OERs can be imperialistic and, finally, on to some considerations of OERs and scale.

Knowledge

straight knowledge
For those of you who’ve ever heard George siemens and I at the same event, our discussions inevitably descend into the same area… about ‘truth’ and more recently the ‘advancement of knowledge’. (This is an eluminate discussion of same) I’ve been particularly concerned that George’s examples of what he calls knowledge are often in the STEM realm (science, technology, engineering and math) and involve people building planes that don’t fall out of the sky. I am a very, very strong proponent of very stringent approaches to building airplanes, and, while I accept that people can have ‘airplane building communities’ I have no interest in the teaching of airplane building being a choose your own adventure. There are, in much of the STEM realm, clearly identifyable things that are WRONG. Airplane falls out of sky. Hadron collider heating up. Bridge falling down. (seems to be alot of falling here) But you see what I mean… these are things that we can all pull out a finger and point at and go BAD. Let’s call this straight knowledge. Straight knowledge, in George’s sense can ‘advance’. Stronger bridges, faster airplanes.

curvy knowledge
This is not true for what most of us call learning. (i have no research to support this, this is an intuition, that’s why I’m writing it in my blog… if you have this research, I would be very grateful) The vast majority of the things we learn are more subtle than this, have multiple possible solutions and no real ‘wrong ways’ of turning. They involve people’s feelings, their histories, their individual goals, the different ways their brains might work… all things that no group of experts would ever actually agree on. It is for this realm of ideas that ‘rhizomatic education’ was intended. A group of staff members trying to learn new ways to make their company more efficient. A group of 12 year olds trying to connect to history. A community of educators trying to come to grips with how new technologies can and have changed their profession and how they can make the best of it. These are the kinds of situations where I’ve used the idea of a community coming together to create it’s own knowledge. They can’t be ‘WRONG’ in the sense that a bridge falling down is wrong. Some of the content can be wrong, they might have misunderstood what someone in their office does, they might have gotten the date of the Boston Massacre wrong (I know you’re out there John Mullaney) or used a fake email address when they registered for delicious and then forgot their password… but their goals – better working environment – connecting to history – empowerement with the technology – were still achieved. These things are the knowledge, the jobs, dates and passwords are simply the content… things that could be jotted down, or googled for when needed but not really the thing they are there to learn. For these people the community, the feeling of using a community to learn… this was the real curriculum. Let’s call this curvy knowledge. Curvy knowledge does not ‘advance’, it changes… there is no ‘linear existance’ for it to follow.

Hold on a second… I thought you were talking about OERs… do you even know what one is?
I know what Seth Gurrell thinks one is, and I’ll take his definition. He works for COSL (the Center for Open and Sustainable learning) and it is this username (and presumably person) that wrote the definition of OERs used on the Wikieducator site.

The term “Open Educational Resource(s)” (OER) refers to educational resources (lesson plans, quizzes, syllabi, instructional modules, simulations, etc.) that are freely available for use, reuse, adaptation, and sharing… included in the many initiatives are

  • developing royalty free textbooks for primary and secondary schools;
  • simplifying licensing of resources for authors and educators;
  • packaging and indexing educational materials so they are easier to find and use;
  • nurturing online communities for teachers and authors; and
  • growing open education as a field and a movement.

Other definitions could be found, and hairs could be split, but essentially we have three big words. Open. Educational. Resources. There are some things implicit in these words that are will bear a couple of words. By Open we mean available with or without copyrights (there seems to be some disagreement about this…) lets call it viewable by anyone to dodge that bullet. Educational means that whatever knowledge may or may not be lurking in the content it has been processed by someone – a professor, an instructional designer, a teacher, a friend – to make it easier for someone else to learn. That educationalizing process is an interesting one… that content is almost always contextualized to the context of the person who has done that. (an important point for imperialism later) And, of course, it is a resource… something in a big old pile that we can draw from when we need something.

OERs and straight knowledge.
Any OER that gives knowledge on how to do something (like build a well) to someone who otherwise would never have access to this knowledge is a wonderful thing. If it helps people build safer cars, earthquake resistent houses, more environmentally friendly office spaces… anything I can point to and go ‘that thing’ I support it. This does not, I don’t think, extend to things like k-12 textbooks. The k12 sphere is not ‘pushing the limits of the advancement of our STEM knowledge’. They might, and that’d be really great, developing new kinds of curvy knowledge, but access to other people’s exclusive knowledge is not necessary for this. If really good free textbooks are needed, any number of organizations could get a bunch of teachers together to write one (and, indeed, this has been done) and then ‘MAKE IT FREE’. tahdah.

OERs and curvy knowledge
This is where i jump ship. I took a cruise through a bunch of courses at one of the flagshipes of the OER movement MIT OpenCourseware (yes, i know some people don’t think this is really ‘open’) I found one in particular that I thought served as a nice example of what I’m talking about “Technologies for Creative Learning. I would call that course curvy knowledge, and no amount of brain research is going to convince me that ‘creative learning’ is a STEM subject… it’s curvy. I would challenge anyone (anyone really… if you’re there :) ) to take a look at that syllabus and ask yourself if you would choose those particular articles… You might. I might not. It’s kinda neat to see what other people use in their courses… I’ve sent some of my own work to other colleagues and have really enjoyed reading their’s… this is a good thing. But. Is it important that this particular list came from MIT? Should it affect the choices that we make when we teach our own courses? How much of an affect will the prestige of the university have over other people’s approaches to curvy knowledge.

Scale and the new textbook
One of my concerns, going forward, is the scale of the process. If, lets say, everyone published their syllabi publicly, along with all of their teaching resources… what happens then? Well, in one sense, we just have the internet all over again. There is no guarantee that because a course is being taught at a institution of higher learnign that the content is going to be good or even correct. More likely maybe, but no guarantee… you’ll find yourself wading in a see of content. This will, inevitably, lead to a number of folks offering to ‘guide people through the sea of content’ some will be free, some will charge and then you’ll have a new economy of people who are collating existing bits of content and/or knowledge into a compendium of things based on themes or categories… LETS CALL THEM TEXTBOOKS.

The new imperialism
The Myoops issue. MITs OER translated in Chinese. The five years I spent living in Asia gave me no end of examples of the reverance with which the American Uber Schools are seen. I have had students for whom the words ‘Harvard and MIT’ (and i do say word… em-ai-tee is a word, not an acronym) are the easiest to pronounce and use in a sentence like – “i want to go to Harvard”. In the places where ‘straight’ knowledge is actually straight, electrical engineering for instance, this is a really cool distribution of knowledge (At least, as far as I know, not being an electrical engineer). In the STEM subjects this offers any number of current and uptodate sources of knowledge that might otherwise be hidden or not there at all. But once things get curvy, the conversation gets more complicated. If the MIT edtech curriculum started being the default curriculum taught in even 10% of chinese universities this gives whatever professor is teaching that course ENORMOUS control over the direction of the industry… and not just in China. Image a course in ethics or social justice. You could argue, and some do, that this is the reason more people need to open their curriculum. I ask you… how will the majority of people be able to choose between the curriculum of a small town Nova Scotia university and Berkely. Easy. They’ll either choose the most famous or the one that they were already in agreement with. This does change the paradigm… I just wonder in what way.

Final thoughts
Freeing knowledge is a good thing. Freeing content, on the other hand, is a bit sketchier. When something is ‘packaged’ into an ‘educational resource’ we’ve left the straight path (however straight you might think that is) of the research process and enter the realm of contextualization. When you design a particular course, you need an audience in mind, a skill set, a number of literacies, goals… you make any number of decisions about how to frame and scaffold that knowledge so that a particular group will assimilate it in whatever way you see fit. If we turn these into tradeable cultural capital, we will, in a sense, not be changing anything at all. The major institution of learning currently do influence a great deal of our public policy. Clever translators of that knowledge (think Gladwell or Friedmann) already make a gazillion dollars oversimplifying the work that has taken others years to painstakingly put together. And we are left to our wits, our time schedules and our demands to judge how deeply we’re going to be able to assess the knoweldge coming in to figure out if there is something in it worth passing on…

All curvy knowledge ends up being like this. For me the last of those list of five goals is of particular intersest. “growing open education as a field and a movement.” This is the part that I really care about… and particular ‘open education around curvy knowledge’. Getting people together to talk about the stuff they need to know… and come out with their own version of it. OERs might be important to this… and they might not… but i just can’t help but think that they will just end up being ‘the internet’ all over again. Who exactly will they serve I wonder?

Thanks
Thanks to Alec Couros, Jen Jones, George Siemens and Jennifer Maddrell (and others) for pushing my thinking on this subject. (note: by this, of course, i don’t mean to imply that they in any way ‘agree’ with me, but rather, they were kind enough to talk to me which helped me hammer out what i was thinking)

Notes on ‘Scientific’ research in education and NCLB

While doing any research, I get incredibly distracted by side ideas that pop up. I’ve decided to use my blog as a place to take some of those notes for ideas that may be the start of future research, or may prompt someone else to go down that road. Today we started with an article called “School Reform 2007: Transforming Education into a Scientific Enterprise” by Barbara L. Schneider and ­Venessa A. Keesler College of Education and Department of Sociology, Michigan State University. Annual Review of Sociology Vol. 33: 197-217 (Volume publication date August 2007)
On scientific research and NCLB
It’s a very compelling review of how we got to a Scientific view of educational research and how “random assignment field trials” are de rigueur inside the educational field right now. I was particularly interested in how the US Federal educational people have released a report detailing how they like this to be done. (p. 3586) It goes on to say that one of the effects of this has been that
NCLB (No Child Left Behind) places two key ideas at the center of school reform: performance and scientific evidence.”

The problem with this is that projects like this

emphasize incentives for outputs (student achievement) rather than the inputs that we know matter, such as raising teacher educational expectations, helping students spend more time on task, engaging students in challenging material, providing students with frequent and positive feedback, and helping students learn to be strategic in reaching their goals.

This is a critical difference for me. Focusing on the results of an activity sort of leave aside the process by which those results were achieved. I always think of the way calculus was taught to me. We never saw hide nor hair of a practical real world example of what made calculus so integral a part of the sciences. The work by which i ‘understood’ it, that is, could prove my mastery by doing problems had little or nothing to do with the way that those things might be achieved in an ‘applied’ way. Nor did I learn very much about how to learn something ‘like’ calculus for myself. I learned to remember a basic set of values, that did not really represent the base set that professional mathematicians would use, nor did it really make any contextualized sense to me. It was, in effect, an alienating activity.

Research Results from NCLB and possible explanations

The Harvard University Civil Rights Project also sponsored an extensive study on test score gains during the first years of NCLB. Comparing fourth and eighth graders’ National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading and mathematics achievement test results prior to NCLB (1990–2001) to its initiation through 2005, Lee (2006) finds that achievement did not significantly improve. Moreover, racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps between advantaged whites and disadvantaged students have not changed significantly. State tests, however, appear to show greater gains, which suggest several alternative hypotheses: The states may be setting the bar on their tests too low; NAEP may not be as good an instrument as state tests for assessing year-to-year progress; or students may have no incentive to do well on NAEP tests so that trying to equate the tests, even if one could make the test items comparable, would be biased in favor of exams that are incentive based (Loveless 2006).

I particularly like the way this quote lays out some of the possible explanations for the results. It could be that they learned more, could be that the State reps have changed the rules to make the results look better.

As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows… i’m not super fond of this kind of research. I think that it has its place among the strata that represent the work done in education. I think that a drastic increase in test scores related to class size would be significant. (Interestingly, this article sites research that shows it has little to no effect) It should not, however, carry the day on anything. Any test, or any research, no matter how ‘randomized’ is immediately ‘framed’ by the person who has defined the research questions. The common response to this is that there are ‘rules’ governing the framing of research questions that reduce the risk of this. I agree, some research questions are awful. Some less so. Some very interesting.

The underlying assumption that truth is sitting there, waiting to be discovered, however, informs this kind of research. It assumes that THERE IS A PERFECT education system out there to be discovered. That there will be a solution if we look hard enough. This is highly unlikely. The unified educational theory that will support all students is a windmill, nothing more. It is an artifice that looks like universal education, and is mostly normative. It is designed by those in power, designed to serve the skills that those people value. This is not a statement about their intentions… just a necessary result of the way we are socialized. I think the things I think are important are important. You, likely, do the same. It is difficult, in a multicultural society, for that to work for everyone.

Any time that you use money as an ‘encouragement’ for schools to ‘perform’ you are running the risk of simply having the rules of the game change from under you. To quote the old expression… “teaching to the test creates great test takers”

Three things to remember when thinking about educational reform

1. Most educational reforms are about political grandstanding
2. Scale is important… what works on a small scale may not transfer to a larger scale
3. Few reforms receive continual support.

Hess (1999), in a study of school reform and school politics in a stratified random sample of 57 urban U.S. school districts from 1992–1995, offers another perspective on the failure of reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. First, most reforms, he contends, are not serious attempts to change teaching and learning but are more about political grandstanding, especially for those in high-level school decision-making positions. Second, some small-scale reforms fail when placed in larger settings, suggesting either that they work only in certain situations or that the requirements to bring specific interventions to scale remains unknown. Third, few reforms receive continual support. Those who engage in reforms are quickly churned in the process. Principals and teachers may invest in reforms that quickly fall out of fashion, and they are then left feeling defeated after having committed resources, time, and personal psychic energy to a wasted effort. Or some veteran teachers simply wait out the latest proposals, sticking to their own methods until the reform efforts fade. These teachers can become a source of inertia for change, leaving reforms to inexperienced professionals who often lack institutional memory on why certain interventions have or have not worked. Hess (1999) concludes that the professional and political interests of urban school leaders need to be linked to the long-term performance of their schools, a diagnosis that is consistent with the prescriptions offered in NCLB. Article quoted from Hess F. 1999. Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform. Washington, DC: Brookings Inst. Press