Wednesday, March 25, 2009

why the Hewlett Foundation should toss some cash on over

A Modest Proposal: integrating Spreadable Educational Practices into Hewlett's Open Educational Resources Initiative

Because of my interest in spreadable educational practices and in the open source movement, I've been drawn lately to the work of the Hewlett Foundation's Open Educational Resource (OER) Initiative. The goal of this initiative is, as Hewlett puts it, "making high quality educational content and tools freely available on the Web."

(Now you're going to ask me why a foundation whose money is linked to Hewlett Packard, the largest technology company in the world, would fund an initiative that seems to run counter to its profit motives. Apparently, the Hewlett Foundation, though originally established by HP co-founder William Hewlett, is run completely independent of the company--which may explain why so much of its money goes to so many amazing projects.)

The Hewlett Foundation has invested a good deal of its resources into the OER initiative, funding research into three distinct categories of OER resources (these categories come from the OER movement in general, and not from Hewlett's website, though they do apply to OER grantees):
  • Learning content: full courses, course materials, content modules, learning objects, collections, and journals.
  • Tools: Software to support the creation, delivery, use and improvement of open learning content including searching and organization of content, content and learning management systems, content development tools, and on-line learning communities.
  • Implementation resources: Intellectual property licenses to promote open publishing of materials, design-principles, and localization of content.

A 2007 report, "A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement" (Atkins, Daniel E.; Brown, John Seely; & Hammond, Allen L.), discusses multiple resources made available through the OER Initiative and presents a logic model for the initiative itself:

The report identifies key projects that have emerged out of Hewlett's OER Initiative, including MIT's OpenCourseWare project, the Connexions Project at Rice University, open content work at Utah State University Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative, and Creative Commons and Internet Archives.

Significantly, while these and other resources discussed in the report point to a great deal of enthusiasm for the OER movement (which, by the way, extends far beyond the funding of this single initiative), the authors also point to challenges to the movement. Aaaand here those challenges are:

  • Sustainability
  • Curation and Preservation of Access
  • Object Granularity and Format Diversity
  • Intellectual Property Issues
  • Content Quality Assessment and Enhancement
  • Computing and Communication Infrastructure
  • Scale-up and Deepening Impact in Developing Countries

At the moment, I'm most interested in the first challenge, sustainability. As the report explains,

A challenge of any fixed-term, externally funded initiative is long-term sustainability by an entity other than the original investor, in this case the Hewlett Foundation. In the MIT project, bringing a course to the OCW costs approximately $25,000 per course plus maintenance and enhancement. The MIT OCW model involves professional staff taking course material in almost any form from faculty and bringing it into a uniform, professional format. This was appropriate for the rapid startup of a large-scale, pioneering project but it will not work for many other places.

May I suggest...a consideration of spreadable educational practices? While it's true that the above challenges are significant, they are not insurmountable--insofar as the work of open education focuses on fostering and helping to spread effective educational practices instead of disseminating effective instructional routines. MIT's OCW and the other Hewlett programs work from an assumption that porting, curating, and maintaining instructional materials to a central online resource is valuable. And don't get me wrong, it IS valuable. It's also quite expensive and, by the way, only partially hooked in to the general ethos of the open source movement. As I explained in a previous post, open source culture
is the creative practice of appropriation and free sharing of found and created content. Examples include collage, found footage film, music, and appropriation art. Open source culture is one in which fixations, works entitled to copyright protection, are made generally available. Participants in the culture can modify those products and redistribute them back into the community or other organizations.

Hewlett's work links up with the "free sharing" and "general availability of copyrighted materials" aspects, but so far it seems to be missing the link to the spirit of open source: the free, voluntary, and creative exchange of ideas and work for the purpose of helping the community. While the resources funded by Hewlett are a valuable--perhaps even essential--beginning to the work of the open education movement, the resources matter only to the extent that the practices contained within these resources can spread.

It does appear that Hewlett is headed in this direction with its current emphasis on research and development of open participatory learning environments and on teacher training. As the OER Initiative homepage argues,

The ability of users and experts to give feedback online and modify open content enables the rapid improvement, development, and adaptation of material to fit different purposes, languages, and cultures. This aspect of openness helps equalize access to high-quality and useful materials and engages users in making content changes that create efficiencies and reduce costs. Further, when students and teachers transform materials, this itself is a creative, powerful act of learning. Together, the two broad dimensions of openness give us opportunities to rethink traditional notions of where, when, and how people teach and learn, so that we can explore alternative paths to meet educational demand.

Agreed, agreed, agreed.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

I think I may have mentioned this at another time, but I am not sure. In regard to past posts and to this one as well, I would like to discuss the potential for what you propose to creating a more equal society.

If I may, let's remember the essayists and activists of old, just as John Hobbes and Mary Wollstonecraft. Let us consider the fact, first, that they are part of the canon we now teach others to draw from; secondly, let us consider that they are both, by mark, aristocrats in that they were of wealthy enough family background to obtain not only the education, but the access to common discourse that they did.

I would like to encourage people to consider this when thinking of the education of the masses, particularly in comparing the mindset of those of Wollstonecraft’s and Hobbs’s time period versus that of now. I believe it is fair to say that the prevailing point of view then and to a certain degree now that those who are of lesser economic earnings than others are as such due to the fact that they are not as capable of intellectual thought as those that are of a upper class environment. It is the classic separation of classes, and one that did wonders in justifying the separation: those that were poorer deserved to be because they were fundamentally not as good--not as smart and certainly not as moral.

But as time has passed, and let’s think now to what Ms. McWilliams discusses, this new media and participatory culture we discuss offers such a great potential for equality it is almost sinister to suggest that those in a lower class or minority are not as capable a the upper or majority in learning new things.

It is about access. And this access is certainly a revolution in action because providing such access to such quality materials means that more people can spread their intelligent thoughts--more than just the Hobbs’s and Wollstonecraft’s can speak their mind--more voices are heard and when more voices are heard, more injustices are seen, and when this happens, a more just and equal and beautiful society, as Ms. McWilliams has referenced in Jim Gee’s writings, etc, becomes possible. A certain educational utopia, indeed. And certainly one that represents that of a true and perfect democracy.

But, I suppose, it is still in the works, though that’s how all great ideas and actions and movements begin, isn’t it? With works. And then someone else pays attention and tells someone else. And then they pay attention. And then they pay attention. And isn’t that what they are talking about with spreadable educational practices? It is the valuable content that catches on because those that cannot deny its value are forced, intrinsically to pass it on to the other.


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