Why Open Education Matters – The competition and my take

I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about a new project being launched by the US government to support open education. Certainly the recent work being done by Cable Green is a clear indication that government support for the obvious financial advantages and more subtle curricular advantages of #OER are coming around. I think of the content provided by #OER as the foundation of learning. It has the possibility of being nothing less than the ‘dictionary’ of our times. The thing that allows everyone access to the basic bits of information that make up the fabric of our world.

Is it everything that education is? I certainly hope not. It’s the foundation. The bowl, rather than the icecream 🙂

The competition
In an attempt to create a message that will help covert others (i presume) Arne Duncan (Secretary of Education) has launched a competition for people to submit their videos explaining why open education matters. An attempt to create a short (hopefully) awesome (certainly) video that will help convert people to the idea that things that are open can still be good. http://whyopenedmatters.org/blog/2012/03/05/kicking-off-the-video-competition/ They want you to create your own high quality video to help convince teachers, students and schools that #OER is the way forward.

Issue 1. They left parents out of their list. I’m going to take a huge leap of faith and believe that that was an editorial mistake. Parents are the wildcard in all these decisions. Oh… and government. As they make alot of the decisions. Lets not forget the parents and the lobbyists… i mean… government.

The competing part
There are any number of existing projects out there that have been made in an attempt to spread this message. One of the nice things about the #OER community is that it allows for people to live alongside each other. Of course, recent comments by #OER luminary David Wiley do signal a move towards a more professional approach to dealing with #OER.

Issue 2 – OER hasn’t entirely been about competition so far, but people have certainly been competing for funding, so maybe this isn’t very different.

The judging
This is where i start to get my dander up… as it were. I have no doubt that each of these seven folks are fine professionals. I am familiar with the work of most of them, and Liz Dwyer in particular has certainly been involved in a number of massive educational projects. So lets dig in a little more

  1. Davis Guggenheim is an Academy Award-winning American film director and producer.
  2. Nina Paley is the creator of the animated musical feature film Sita Sings the Blues (update: Nina Paley is a strong copyleft proponent. http://questioncopyright.com/mimi-book-ip.html Thanks @hjarche)
  3. Liz Dwyer is the education editor at GOOD magazine (plus a bunch of other education stuff)
  4. Anya Kamenetz is a staff writer for Fast Company magazine and a columnist for Tribune Media
  5. James Franco is an actor, artist, and filmmaker
  6. Angela Lin oversees all things education at YouTube
  7. Mark Surman is the Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation
  8. http://whyopenedmatters.org/judging/

In this list we have 5 of 7 people who have made part/most/all of their careers working behind the copyright firewall. Angela Lin works for youtube… which allows lots and lots of creative commons stuff. Mark Suman is an excellent choice as a judge obviously.

I’m not even saying that a few of the others might not make interesting choices, or offer insight or star power. Many of them have a profound understanding of how to get a message out or how to craft video. Those are necessary things in communicating any messaging. What I can’t understand is how on a website that acknowledges that #OER has been around for 10 years they have not been able to find a SINGLE one of the people who has been carrying that banner the whole time.

Issue 3. why are there no open education experts on the open education judging panel?

What this means for OER
Well. Here it is then. I posted my first open website (before i’d heard of openness) in 2003… and it sucked. But I made it and I offered it up. I shared my work and handed it out to the world. Since then I’ve met lots of other people who have done the same, who share their work, and make it public for everyone. I think OER is great for dealing with introductory concepts, for getting people on board, for giving them a sense of what you are doing.

But openness, where it’s really powerful, is about connections. It’s about really talking to the kids in that other country about what its like to live there. It’s about having 20 slightly different points of view on the same subject so we can see the complexity of the world around us. It’s about sharing.

Do these guys understand that? Or is this where the OER movement becomes about trying to convince people that we’re right? We’ve always been a hundred factions, a thousand factions… that’s the nature of it, we don’t need to agree with each other. This project feels different. Maybe, like in Wiley’s case, it’s just openness growing up. Maybe the use of the word in public is going to become something i don’t recognize.

Issue 4 – is this project about openness as I understand it or is the word soon going to mean the same as ‘at no cost’?

I hope that’s not true.

Seeing rhizomatic learning and MOOCs through the lens of the Cynefin framework

The Change11 course has brought me many realizations, but none so useful as the Cynefin framework. As i suggested in my last post, i’ve been working on bringing it into my decision making at my day job. In the last four weeks it’s occurred to me that it is also an excellent way to help clarify some of my thinking around learning as well. In trying to describe rhizomatic learning, there are two critical challenges that I’ve not been able to voice properly.

1. How is this not simply anarchy?
2. How are people supposed to understand the basics?

I certainly don’t see my classrooms as anarchic, though they sometimes slide off in that direction. In a very real sense, my job is to keep the classroom from descending into random patters of behaviour, and keep it to the topic that we are supposed to be covering. That’s the difference between having a class and simply hosting a party.

I also am not particularly interested in ‘teaching’ the basics. It’s a troubling word that… basics. I often find myself thinking that things like ‘definitions’ are basic concepts, whereas experience tells me that knowing enough about a concept to describe it is actually a pretty profound statement of understanding. By basic here i mean ‘turn on the computer’ rather than define a computer.

Still, the energy and creativity that can come from the unexpected and the toolkit that can come from having ‘acquired the basics’ are very handy to have when we are trying to grapple with a complex world. Therein lies the problem…

MOOCs as a structure – and rhizomatic learning as an approach – privilege a certain kind of learning and learner. The MOOC offers an ecosystem in which a person can become familiar with a particular domain. Rhizomatic learning is a way of navigating that ecosystem that empowers the student to make their own maps of knowledge, to be ‘cartographers’ inside that domain. It suggests that the interacting with a community in a given domain is learning. The community is the curriculum.

MOOCs offer a complex ecosystem in which you ‘can’ learn, not one where you ‘will learn.’ It doesn’t come with many guarantees. Rhizomatic learning is a complex way of learning, not the easiest way to learn to tie your shoes.

This is the germ of an idea that i’m getting out of the Cynefin Framework. Lets see if i can convince you… first, the framework.

Enter the Cynefin framework

This is the core of the Cynefin framework as developed by Dave Snowden. Five domains of decision making. Broadly speaking the framework offers a categorization for separating the different kinds of decisions that can be made, and the differing approaches required for each. The following is gleaned through pouring over the cognitive-edge website, reading through articles like this one, and watching the excellent videos Dave has online.

Simple issues: A relationship between cause and effect is observable. A thing can be easily categorized, and established best practice applied. See what’s coming in. Make it fit a category. Make a decision. This is ‘best practice’.

Complicated issues: There is a right answer, but it isn’t obvious. There is need to analyze. Several different ways of doing things, all of which are legitimate if you have the right expertise. This is ‘good practice’. See what’s coming. Analyze towards a solution (perhaps by contacting an expert). Make a decision.

Complex Issues: No connection between cause and effect. Safe fail experiments. If an experiment succeeds, it gets amplified. If it fails it gets dampened. Amplification and Dampening should be predetermined. Try something. See what happens. Amplify or dampen.

Chaotic Issues: Move very quickly to stabilize the situation. Any practice will be novel.

Disorder: Is the space of not knowing which of the domains we’re in. In this space people tend to fall back on their preferences for action. For the bureaucrat (simple domain) all failures are a failure of process. For the Deep expert (complicated domain), all failures are a failure of time and resources for research. For complexity workers (complex domain) all things require a large amount of resources/opinions/concepts to be brought to bear to search for a solution. For totalitarians (chaotic domain), everything is chaotic, and all decisions should be made directly by them, and immediately acted upon.

How the Cynefin framework can help people with MOOCs
If you are looking for ‘best practices’ in a given domain, the MOOC is a fantastically inefficient way of acquiring them. The simple domain described in the framework is no doubt a useful end of the educational realm… its the domain that allowed me to remember my timetables, and where to attach the wires on a light switch. ‘Best Practices’. You might find them in a MOOC, but who would know where to look.

If you are looking for ‘good practices’ a MOOC is probably a better option than for simple practices, but it’s still not exactly designed for that. Good practice decisions involved deep content experts using years of experience to offer guidance. Mentorship works like this. Working with an expert guide can be a wonderful way to learn… but it’s not how a MOOC is built. A MOOCer kinda needs to find their own way, and outside of paying for someone’s time to help guide you, it’s not built on the mentorship model.

If you are looking for a ‘chaotic experience’ MOOCs are probably a little tied tight for you. We tend to pull together materials, and have expert centred discussions that are fairly restrictive. If you’re looking for chaotic experiences where you need to put your foot in the ground and ‘do anything’ you already have the internet. You don’t need a MOOC.

The complex domain is where the MOOC really shines. If you want to try things, see how it goes, and build from that response, a MOOC is just the ecosystem you need. In it you can find people to try ideas out on, to work out the knowledge in the content domain that you’re interested in. Probe, sense, respond sounds just about right for a MOOC.

Rhizomatic Learning
And that description of how to act in a MOOC sounds just about right as a description of rhizomatic learning. The knowledge lives in the community, you engage with it by probing into the community, sensing the response and then adjust. Just like the rhizome. It is a learning approach that is full of uncertainty… not least for the educator. But its one that allows for the development of the literacies that will allow us to sharpen our ability to participate in complex decision making. Dealing with the uncertainty is what the learning is all about.

Here is an excerpt from the cognitive-edge website from a blog post written by Gary Wong

Fuzzy is better than Sharp when setting vision
Question: Which bird is a better predator? A sharp-eyed hunter that could pinpoint a specific animal 3 miles above ground or a half-blind bird that would pick up anything that moved, including rolling tumbleweed?
Answer: In a stable environment, pick the sharp-eyed bird. Hunting is easy and pickings are tasty. Ah, life is wonderful.
In a changing environment where windstorms, drought, or human intervention can drastically alter the food supply, go with the half-blind bird.

and so…
It’s that complex domain that interests me in learning. I think most of what i criticize or, at least, what concerns me about education is the movement between the complicated and simple domains. Our bureaucracies encourage simple domain learning, things that can be tracked and analyzed. Research goals seem to attempt to take things from complicated domains and shove them down into the simple one. Our world is increasingly one where complex decisions need to be made… and thats the kind of education i’m interested in being involved in.

Looking back at the worker, soldier and nomad, it seems to apply very well here. The nomad learns in the complex domain.