Open Education MOOC Week 1

On October 1st, the Open Education MOOC, created by George Siemens and David Wiley started. I’d qualify it as an introductory week, with a gentle look at the history of what fits within the “open education” narrative. Given David Wiley’s presence, it’s not surprising that most of the contents are focusing on OER (Open Educational Contents) rather than on pedagogy (i’m really waiting for that discussion: what can “open pedagogy” mean?)

Week 1 (partial) mindmap

This is my partial week 1 mindmap. It’s partial because it doesn’t include the suggested readings that were linked in the course.

Open Education Week 1

(the full-sized file can be found here)

One thing struck me in this week 1: the OER discussion seems very North American centric.

While David and George acknowledge this in their conversation, it makes me realize that in Latin America (where i’ve resided for 3 decades), “OER is not even an issue here”. This is because in L-A we have photocopy machines, and we’re not afraid to use them. Every student you meet, no matter how expensive the education institution he attends, will have a bunch of photocopies in his backpack, no questions asked. In Ecuador, i actually learned that the copyright law is specifically tailored to accommodate this arrangement: As long as it’s for classroom work, copyrights are excused, thank you very much.

Should we change the value proposition of OERs?

Does this explain (part of) the difficulties that David Wiley mentions regarding OER adoption? (he says that once he managed to convince people to share their contents, he had to work on getting people to actually use those contents). In L-A there’s little incentive to adopt OER textbooks if access to the “originals” is inexpensive. It’s understood by those in the know that access to ready-to-use contents is only half the value proposition, but even in this week’s content, it really comes down to that: OERs are free (as in free beer) contents you can learn from. Should we be trying to change the narrative? Would most educators value the modify and re-mix aspects of OERs enough to make them attractive?

OER doesn’t have to be just textbooks

It was interesting to notice that OERs were mostly described as textbooks. There’s no doubt that textbooks are valuable tools for educational settings.  However, it might be interesting to consider other intervention entry points: lesson plans, in particular, are highly valued by educators (especially in K-12). They’ve proven to be so valuable that marketplaces have been created and work quite effectively (Amazon deciding to make an entry in the market recently).

An example worth studying is Klascement a site started by an educator in the late 90s, where educator freely share classroom content (including lesson plans, tests sheets, and any other resource they’ve successfully used with their students).


The restrictions under which Mass Education systems were created

Back in the second half of the 19th century, it was becoming quite clear that society was evolving and transforming itself rather quickly. As part of that evolution, the need for evolution, also seen as the right to education, for the unwashed masses was impossible to miss. It could be described as the need for skilled labor, or the necessary next step fater the Enlightenment. In any case, just as organizations were growing, and state institutions were maturing, something new needed to be invented: a machinery to deliver education.

Now, we have to look at what was available in that context: Electricity was barely showing to be practical beyond the lab, with the notable exception of the telegraph. Universities were there, with their professors and training capabilities. There was an increasingly clear sense of where industrialization would be taking us, and this translated into abandoning more and more the craftsman’s practices, and giving space to mass production. Undoubtedly, this was the bright future to hold on to. Something that was quite well established was the printing press. Book creation and distribution systems were in place.

If you were thinking about creating a mass education system in that age, you would certainly usestate-of-the-art technology (for that context):

  • train teachers with a standardized set of concepts
  • make available contents, ie. books, within the constrains of budget
  • equip classroom with visual tools such as posters (recording voice was an eccentricity at best)
  • make sure knowledge transmission would use cutting edge tools such as paper and ink

The key innovation was being able to count on robust printed -instead of hand copied- books’ distribution systems, of course, as the rest had been in use since the days of the renaissance, and even before, as described by Peter Norvig (at 0:39).

One considerable limitation of the 19th century context is that of content transmission. There were strictly 2 ways to massify knowledge distribution:

  1. Inserting knowledge into the teacher, and making him repeat it
  2. Distributing books

But, you see, books were expensive to make. And you need to teach people to read in the first place to really use them anyways.

That’s why one of the main confusions was created in the mass education systems, a confusion that has remained true to this day: The teacher as a content emitter. His mission is to deliver content to the class. Once he has emitted it, he has to make sure that content was received and can be reproduced.

This is true of the way we train teachers, and it is true in most every classroom.

It’s not the only way, Montessori and the Flipped Classroom have shown there are other ways, but almost every classroom you visit responds to that model: the teacher’s job is to emit knowledge, in the hope that the students will catch it and reproduce it flawlessly. [repoducing it is different from making it theirs, by the way]

Of course, if we think of a school that is far from an urban center, where the library was a collection of 20 books, cramming as much knowledge as possible into the teacher, and then having him repeat it was a clever strategy. It was cost-effective. And it did get us where we are.

But is it suitable to remain attached to the limitations of the 19th century to define educational processes for the 21st century? Is that what the creators of the mass education system themselves would do if they had the resources we currently have? In which field of human activity do we ignore (abhor?) innovation to the point that bringing a practitioner from 200 years ago to do his job would work? (i can easily imagine re-training a teacher from the 1800s to teach in a current day classroom in 2 weeks time)

Mass education Systems’s achievement and limitations

I’ve have been dedicating quite some time to thinking about #edtech (Educational Technology), participating in online discussions on the topic and trying to learn as much as i could about it. I am convinced that technology (computing capabilities, ie. computers, smartphones and such, plus the network of networks aka. the Internet) has the power needed to transform educational practices.

I am also convinced that said educational practices -from the way we design the learning interaction to what the student carries in her backpack- in their current iteration do not respond to the opportunities that are present, to the potentialities of those opportunities. They merely are a rote repetition of patterns that were created in the 19th century. The fact that they are rote repetition is -unfortunately- quite appropriate, considering that rote repetition was a pillar of that system.

I feel like i must start by acknowledging that Mass Education Systems, as represented by the Education Ministries of Education of most of the world, achieved something unique in the history of the world: They managed to bring reading to the masses, inverting the amount of literate people to 85%. The following graph shows eloquently the magnitude of this transformation:


(the graph was taken from: )

We owe so much to that achievement. We can build so much of humanity’s future thanks to this achievement. The scientific and technological marvels that are constantly being built and reported day after day are the result of this massive effort that was achieved in just the last 200 years.

While every citizen of the Earth should be thankful to their teachers, education administrators and knowledge providers, we are appreciative of the result more than we are attached to the methods that were used to achieve this. The mass education systems that were rolled out in the early 20th century responded -necessarily- to the restrictions and the needs of that time. It also made the best of the technological possibilities that were available. In my next post, i will describe what i perceive were those restrictions, needs, and technological possibilities, trying to explain how they framed the design of the mass education systems.

To finish this first post, a few questions i like to ask of educators:

  • Does it make sense to do things the way they were done 200 years ago?
  • In which contexts would we be want to be caught saying “This is how we’ve been doing this for one hundred years, so there’s no need to change”?
  • How could it be acceptable to say “Well, the context might have changed quite a bit (you know those pesky computers and all), but the founders of mass education systems had already foreseen all those changes, so we’re good here.”?