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)

Why we do assignments – Generative Art at UNCSA and introduction to emerging tech

I’m always a bit torn when I’m in a position where I’m designing a course and looking towards creating specific assignments that students must complete. There is a sense in which creating a fully delineated, constructed course denies much of the work I’ve done and my own experience. I think that

  • Learning and knowledge building are contextual
  • Different people come to their knowledge constructing differently
  • No two communities ever go at the same pace
  • No one assignment or list of assignments will ever produce the same results (except by accident)

So when I look at the assignments that we included in the Intro to emerging tech course at the UofM I’m always thinking ‘maybe we could have done more of this or that’ and… while the syllabus is in a wiki, I kinda think that we should probably keep the one we started with, as we stated that we would do that. The biggest reason that I can be comfortable with it, is the REASON why I assign assignments in my courses.

In the long history of education I think we’ve lost our initial reasons for doing some of the things we do. The assignment and the essay have reified themselves into ends in their own right and have lost many of the initial reasoning for them. An essay, for instance, has become a proving ground, a place where a professor/educator can ‘verify’ whether or not a given student has correctly understood the work that they are covering in a course. They are correcting the ‘works cited page’ and the ‘thesis’ in order to ensure that those are being done correctly, but often broken down too far and never united in a vision of academic motion. If we should be doing essay’s at all, it should be to prepare for the practical application of the essay to life. Whether that ‘practical’ explanation is the publication of papers in academic journals or the submission to a creative writing magazine… they can be practical… but I’ve yet to meet a first year university student that understands this. We teach things in pieces, without recognizing the whole. The other reason, of course, is to develop the literacies that are necessary for the writing of that essay.

When i assign any assignment, I’m hoping to do a couple of things. I’m offering, first and foremost, a practical application for the exploration that we are doing in any given course. I want students to explore literacies, for instance, by trying to do something they have never done before. The product of that exploration, the actual, say, podcast, is not nearly as important as the exploration of their own strengths and challenges that goes on during that assignment. In order to capture this, I like to offering challenging assignments and heartily encourage my students to work together to try and come up with solutions… and especially encourage them to post their challenges and learning to some kind of sharing space (forum, blog etc…) so that others can see their learning happening. If twenty different people expose their learning process, people get the sense of the variety of challenges that people run into, the variety of strategies and then, if like me you often teach teachers, have a better sense of the challenges that their own students will face.

I’m fortunate in the course, in having a ‘pass/fail’ system for grading. I can, hopefully, give students a sense of the responsibility they have for both their own learning and for exposing that learnign process to their peers without having to track each individual step and judge them against a rubric that I’ve made up. This is the heart of the kind of teaching that I try to do. The challenge, and the comming together that can happen at points of challenge, are on of the key strategies that I use to try to create a community of learning in my ‘courses’. The challenge, as one of my colleagues suggested to me a few months ago, is that doing this online with people who don’t feel the same transparency to the internet that I do, can be a bit challenging.

One of the great f2f examples of how I would love to be able to teach all the time came across my screen this week when I ran into Dean Wilcox and Bob King’s excellent generative art course at the University of North Carolina School or the Arts. I sent those folks and email and they sent me a link to their course website. I’m sure that teaching this kind of art presents it’s own struggles, but man, that course looks compelling. Their blog and their wiki show the same struggles that I was talking about in this post… and their solution is quite a nice one. This is what the next few weeks entail

Thursday, Feb 10: Discuss: Third Project.
Tuesday, Feb 12: Readings: To be determined.
Thursday, Feb 17: Discussion: Readings and Parameters for the forth project.
Tuesday, Feb 19: Present: Forth Project.
Thursday, Feb 24: Discuss: Forth Project.
Tuesday, Feb. 26: Readings: To be determined.
Thursday, March 3: Discussion: Readings and Parameters for the fifth project.
Tuesday March 5: Present: Fifth Project.
Thursday March 10: Present: Fifth Project.
Final Exam: Thursday, March 12 – 9:00 am-11:00 am.
Note: Syllabus subject to change.

I particularly like the ‘note’ at the bottom of the page. If you are looking at this thinking that ‘oh, they’re just doing art stuff’ I challenge you to do the reading that were ‘determined’ for the week of the blog post i read.

With the five readings for today, for example, (non-dualism, Taoism, chaos theory, ‘Pataphysics, and rhizome – which amounted to Eastern spirituality, science, avant-garde, and post-structuralism)

They are trying to make the reading relevant to the groups of students they are working with, making a curriculum as contextual as they can, and working their way to actually responding to the needs of their students. I encourage you to wander over and watch the videos of the student projects. It is far more difficult to teach this way, but, i think, it is the future of really good teaching. You really do need to be what George Siemens would call an expert (a person who has had ’10 years’ of direct experience in a subject) in order to teach this way. It requires experience as an educator, and experience in the field. It may, actually, be the future of university learning as a whole.

There’s a prediction for ya 😛