Monday, April 6, 2009

the sleeping alone review of books: Opening Up Education

Good book on the open education movement: 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.). You can purchase the book through the MIT Press, though an electronic version is available for download under a Creative Commons license here.

What makes this book so useful is that it offers up a framework, from inside of the world of open education, for analyzing--and, if I may be so bold, at times criticizing--the early fruits of its own movement.

Below, I summarize and review one chapter from the book, followed by a critique of MIT's OpenCourseWare, one of the flagship projects of the Hewlett Foundation's Open Educational Resource Initiative; if you want, you can skip the review and jump down to the meaty stuff down near the bottom.


The Review

The book is divided into three sections: Technology, content, and knowledge. As the authors explain, this division is intended "largely as a convenient and easily understood framework. Naturally, the three categories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, their natural interrelationships become evident from the very beginning."

I want to skip ahead to the very last chapter of the book, "What's Next for Open Knowledge?" by Mary Taylor Huber and Pat Hutchings. The authors point out that the vision of open education--"dramatically expanded educational access, more widely effective teaching models and materials, and ongoing, systematic improvement in teaching and learning as educators generate and share new pedagogical knowledge and know-how"--is more than just a vision. In fact, many educational institutions have embraced and joined in on a shift toward open educational resources (OER's), and have assisted in the building of what Huber and Hutchings label, borrowing from their own earlier work, "teaching commons: an emergent conceptual space for exchange and community among faculty, students, administrators, and all others committed to learning as an essential activity of life in contemporary democratic society."

How, then, the authors ask, do we continue to expand and preserve the ethos of open education and the teaching commons? "It is well and good," they write, "to make as many educational resources as possible accessible to as many teachers and learners as possible. But, to borrow a line from the movie Field of Dreams, if we build it, will they come?"

Promise, Tool, Bargain
The Field of Dreams question is one echoed by Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody, only for him, the question aligns with entrepreneurial impulses to build and market the next killer app. The question, then, is something closer to "What can we build to make people come?"

Shirky's answer is simple: "Promise, tool, bargain." These three elements, properly aligned, he argues, will lead to success of a group relying on a social tool; improperly fused, they lead to failure. (For an example of how this does or does not work, take a look at my blogpost on the promise, tool, and bargain of Facebook here.)
Given that there are really only three things to worry about, then, why do so many new groups or movements fail? Two reasons, according to Shirky:
First, because getting each of these elements right is actually quite challenging, while getting all of them right is essential. Second, as with groups themselves, the complexity comes not just from the elements but from their interactions.


The application of promise, tool, and bargain of open education: Promise

Though Huber and Hutchings use different language, choosing to focus their efforts on two distinct categories--"Knowledge that Matters" and "Inviting and Maintaining Openness"--they are essentially considering the categories Shirky identifies. (Know that aligning Huber and Hutchings with Shirky is a somewhat arbitrary move; I might just as well have said that Shirky essentially considers the categories identified by Huber and Hutchings.) The promise, Shirky writes, is the "why"--why a person would want to join a group or use a tool. For Huber and Hutchins, the "why" is more aptly described as "knowledge that matters"; in considering this point, they explore the promise of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL), a program that
seeks to support the development of a scholarship of teaching and learning that: fosters significant, long-lasting learning for all students; enhances the practice and profession of teaching, and; brings to faculty members' work as teachers the recognition and reward afforded to other forms of scholarly work.


To Huber and Hutchings, "knowledge that matters" is collaboration and sharing of scholarship and research around contributing to the improvement of teaching and learning both within individual classrooms and on a larger scale. This knowledge is built and shared around situated approach to teaching, a presumption that context matters. "In short," the authors write, the momentum that the scholarship of teaching and learning has established over the past decade clearly points to the value of pedagogical knowledgte that is deeply contextual and closely tied ot the particulars of classroom settings.

We might say, then, that the promise of joining a program like CASTL--the "why"--is that it offers teachers the opportunity to draw on a bunch of lesson plans, assessment strategies, and so on to the immediate benefit of their own teaching practices, and at the same time offers a feedback loop whereby teachers can share classroom successes with other teachers. They give back to the community of educators and in so doing have an opportunity to influence teaching beyond their local environment.

Tool: the "how"
The tool, Shirky explains, is the "how," and in open education this becomes a question of how to develop resources that invite and maintain openness without standardizing or allowing for decreased quality of the content. As Huber and Hutchings explain,
Where traditional views of educational reform tend to assume a small number of approaches that can be "scaled up" and widely adopted, open knowledge (and, more broadly, open education) offers a different path to improvement, eschewing the "fat head" for the "long tail" (to use Chris Anderson's now well-traveled metaphor) in which many approaches find smaller groups of adopters and champions.


Often, the authors write, the "how" is ensured in development of tools that allow for "close-to-the-classrom knowledge" to be captured in ways that will travel to other settings." The authors offer the exampe of the KEEP Toolkit, which they argue provides a useful model that combines user-friendly features with readable and usable templates.

The bargain: What we expect from one another
The bargain, Shirky writes, is where things get tricky, "in part because it is the least explicit aspect and in part because it is the one the users have the biggest hand in creating, which means it can't be completely determined in advance." The bargain is the--ideally shared--agreement between users about community expectations.

For Huber and Hutchings, the bargain of open educational resources is, put simply, openness. Openness, in this case, means both access and the spirit of collaboration and community. As they explain,

The "stuff" of open knowledge for teaching and learning is on the rise, happily, both in supply and in the variety of materials and representations of teaching and learning.... But having good stuff is not enough. Those committed to this work must also push for policies and practices to ensure that what is open stays open in the fullest, most vital way. This means maintaining access, certainly, but it also means creating a culture in which people want that access, both as contributors to and users of knowledge in the teaching commons.


First, they write, it's essential to allow the commons to remain open for teachers across disciplines who want to contribute to collaborative knowledge-building, even if they contribute only infrequently. This, however, gives rise to a second concern: Questions about who can (and can't) contribute. "Open education," they write, "does not necessarily mean 'free.'"

Additionally, the bargain in education is not simply between users and makers of educational content; increasingly, teachers and learners are being held accountable by outside stakeholders. (Most significantly, we see this in the phenomenon of testing the souls right out of our young learners.) Huber and Hutchings express concern

about how to maintain a space for educational experimentation and exchange in a period that seems headed for increasingly bottom-line forms of accountability, with its concomitant calls for institutions to make evidence of student learning outcomes available to the public.... At one level, the value of evidence is something that any responsible educator would share. Faculty care about their students, and they want to know that the resources they find in the teaching commons will serve those students well. The danger comes when high stakes constrict people's ability or willingness to explore new pedagogical ideas.



Case Study: MIT's OpenCourseWare (OCW)

Promise, tool, bargain. It's a difficult combination to get right, even when you have financial backing, institutional support, and a critical mass of contributors, as MIT's OpenCourseWare project proves. Let me be clear: OCW is a success, at least in most important senses of the word. But in its efforts to succeed, it has had to sacrifice some of the most important tenets of the open education movement.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll once again make clear that I am employed at MIT, though I am not affiliated with the Hewlett Foundation, the group that funds the OCW project, and not in any way connected to OpenCourseWare.

The project is awesomely ambitious. As the OCW site explains,

MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) is a web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content. OCW is open and available to the world and is a permanent MIT activity. By November 2007, MIT completed the initial publication of virtually the entire curriculum, over 1,800 courses in 33 academic disciplines.


And that's the modest explanation. In a February 2007 report on Open Educational Resource projects funded by the Hewlett Foundation, Atkins, Brown, and Hammond exclaim:

This world-changing project emerged from MIT faculty and administrators who asked themselves the following question: "How is the Internet going to be used in education and what is our university going to do about it?"

The answer from the MIT faculty was this: "Use it to provide free access to the primary materials for virtually all our courses. We are going to make our educational material available to students, faculty, and other learners, anywhere in the world, at any time, for free.”

Fantastic premise, right? And MIT, backed by Hewlett, is putting its money where its mouth is, investing resources into the continued and ongoing development of OCW. The result is a fabulous early stab at an open education resource, one that really does offer high-quality content to the general public--absolutely free.

It turns out, though, that while OpenCourseWare is strong on promise ("You can access course content from some of the greatest minds of this generation!") and bargain ("...and it's all free!"), it's still a little light on tool ("...but genius is not included."). As I mentioned in a previous post, I read voraciously and omnivorously in my capacity as the primary blogger for sleeping alone and starting out early. One place I never, look, though, is on paid-content news sources like the Wall Street Journal. Another place I never look is OpenCourseWare. Why? It kinda...well, first, the download process is confusing, and once you successfully figure it out, you're rewarded with a file folder that looks a lot like this:




Assuming you eventually manage to extract the relevant content, all you really get is a pile of .pdfs, a syllabus, and some course notes. The brilliance, the spark, the certain something that makes a class a mind-blowing experience...that's not available for download.

And, of course, there's the cost involved: Approximately $25,000 per uploaded course, according to the Hewlett report. Add it up: 1,800 courses means $45 million. (Just FYI, that's enough to cover four years of public college for more than 6,800 students, according to stats from the College Board.)

OpenCourseWare is an admirable, but so far unsustainable, model for opening up education--especially since OCW seems to prohibit free appropriation and remixing of course materials. As the site explains under the FAQ category of intellectual property,

The intellectual property policies created for MIT OpenCourseWare are clear and consistent with other policies for scholarly materials used in education. Faculty retain ownership of most materials prepared for MIT OpenCourseWare, following the MIT policy on textbook authorship. MIT retains ownership only when significant use has been made of the Institute's resources. If student course work is placed on the MIT OpenCourseWare site, then copyright in the work remains with the student.


These are meaty issues for Hewlett, OCW, and the open education movement to keep working on. As goes OpenCourseWare, after all, so goes the movement.

3 comments:

Daniel Hickey said...

that was a tad cranky for somebody who is hoping to get money from Hewlett. There are always complex legal, financial, logistical, and unpredictable issue for these kinds of endevours. they took their best shot. What do teachers say--"two pluses and a work-on". They need to work on the interface. Actually they need to work on lots of things. I also think that there is a bit more to the promise and the bargain to be explored. I want to go back to my notes from Shirkey, or at least finish our blog posts on gift vs. commodity

Howard said...

Of course, content is only part of the equation. Look at a different trilogy: content, community, pedagogy. OER and the rest of the web provide a cornucopia of content; we have plenty of free online tools now for bringing together communities of learners; the missing element, I think, is an incentive for teachers. I don't have the brand or the accreditation power that the universities I teach for have, so I can't afford to spend too much of my time teaching online. Although I suppose you could argue that in a real sense I spend most of my time teaching online. But in a systemic sense, putting teachers and learners together online is necessary to animate the material -- mere access to content is necessary but not sufficient.

TSmith said...

I think the relevant case remains that it is the people involved in the activities with each other in concert with the information that creates the learning situations. The "stuff" doesn't do much on its own.

 

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