Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Open Educational Resources are not Open Education.

There always seems to be chatter on the web about Open Educational Resources, Patent Wars, Copyright wars and so forth. I don't really get it, to be frank. It feels like rearranging the deck chairs on the Queen Mary. Open Educational Resources are only small step in a journey that began long ago.

The marginal cost of reproducing  knowledge has been in a long downward trend since the invention of writing, and with it the cost of accessing and creating knowledge. Gutenberg, Pamphlets, Penny Dreadfuls and Penguin paperbacks each marked a step along the path as knowledge became more widely and cheaply available. From time to time, a hero pushes things on (Carnegie of the Libraries and Berners Lee of the web come to mind) or pulls things back (The Catholic Church's rearguard action against the reformation, or corporate media's 'War on Piracy'). Neutral figures (Steve Jobs comes to mind) attract unreasonable levels attention as both sides wonder if they are truly friend or foe.

Each drop in the cost of reproduction brings new providers into the market and by improving the range and quality of available knowledge. Printing allowed Johann Carolus and Thomas Archer to create the first newspapers. The Web brought us Wikipedia and Youtube, but it also brought you and me. Each step onwards drives existing monopoly providers into extinction, be they Monasteries or Murdoch.

Each step down in cost makes knowledge accessible to more and more people. In the age of the monasteries, access to knowledge meant being able to afford some years in the monastery. Now it means the cost of a broadband connection and a computer, or a local library with the same, for the poor and determined. The pool of people who can be self taught, and take sole ownership of their learning expands a little each time as it become cheaper and easier to do so. Significantly, the current expansion makes it open to people outside the comfortable first world Universities which house most of the commentators on Open Educational Resources. The greatest benefit of the web will be to the billions of humans accessing them on scrounged hardware from the vast favelas of the emerging world. They are a lot more motivated than we are, and they don't have a lot of other educational options. They want to know how to speak English and do double entry bookeeping, grow hydroponic khat and make IEDs. Our debates about the relative virtues of Learning Object Repositary models and what Blackboard is up to are about as relevant to them as the Council of Trent.

But free content isn't Free Education. Formal Education as most people imagine it typically involves material (he textbook, notes and so on) a Guide figure (teacher, head abbot, whatever) and a peer group (the class). It's getting cheaper, but it isn't free.

The web has dropped the marginal cost of a peer group to near zero. In the enlightenment era, access to an educational peer group meant having the time and money to hang around in coffee shops in London or Amsterdam. Now it's 4chan and Facebook. If you get stuck, there is always a discussion thread somewhere you can ask on, once you have a web connection.

but the marginal cost of the Guide figure hasn't dropped a penny since Aristotle taught Alexander. Guiding doesn't scale - it's a one to one.  Teachers usually confound creating or presenting content (lecturing, which scales very well) with Guiding. Many teachers don't guide at all. Guides are supposed to know how students are doing, assess (as in the old latin root 'To Sit Beside") and help and direct. Our technology can't scale that up.

Historically, each leap forward in technology makes Guides look more and more expensive compared to content and peers, and better access to content and peers makes more and more people able to do without mentors and guides to learning.  Printed bibles made Priests look out of touch and unnecessary:
 "Perhaps we can learn it just by reading the book" wondered the Lutherans. 
"No Way!" said the Catholic Church, knowledge monopolist of the day.
 The resulting pedagogical debate on the relevance of guides vs learning out of the book consumed millions of lives and lasted centuries. One hopes the struggle between the Universities and Edupunks will not involve quite so much blood.

There will always be people who need Guides to give formal structure to learning, and so long as that doesn't scale, there will be place for them. They will bunch together into Universities or guilds or whatever organisation works best in the economic and technological climate of the day. One day, technology will move to allow Guiding to scale, then, and only then, will we see a real change in how formal education works, and truly Open Education.

1 comment:

  1. We have seen that more affordable education is just one part of the package, open education also encourages curriculum development and enhanced student-centered learning.