Industrial vs. artisanal approaches to education
I’m almost through reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, which if you haven’t read, you should. It’s easily one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in the last ten years and will really alter your perceptions of what and how you eat, and how you participate in a larger system of food production and consumption. Much of what he discusses I already knew, albeit in bits and pieces: Corn products, especially high-fructose corn syrup, make up a dangerously large portion of the “food” we consume. Industrial meat production is barbaric and biologically dangerous. “Health foods” aren’t all that healthy.
But like any great nonfiction book, it moves beyond fact to paint a really profound picture of the systems that generate those facts. It really has altered my perspective in important ways. One of the most dramatic distinctions he draws in the book is between industrial food production and artisanal food production. One could go one for a long time about the failings of industrial food production: its reliance on petrochemicals, the trend toward monoculture, the relentless logic of increased yield that leads to systemic mutilation and abuse of animals. He contrasts this with an example of a farm in Virginia that uses sustainable methods to generate a wide range of agricultural products in sync with the local ecology and seasons.
This isn’t a post about food, though, or even good non-fiction. It’s a post about the application of the industrial vs. artisanal distinction to education. I’ve realized in the course of reading the book that much of my thinking about education and open educational resources is colored by my sense that education done well is essentially and artisanal and deeply local undertaking, and that successful open educational resources generally honor this.
Why artisanal? I’ve said in the past that I think education is a highly localized undertaking because cultures, academic systems, and instructional technologies vary so widely, and this explains it in part. These differences have launched the thousand ships of the localization discussions in open educational resources circles, and suggest that most educational resources can be made appropriate for a wide range of contexts, if only they are sufficiently flexible to permit enough localization. I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the concept of localization, not because I think its not true, but more because it doesn’t feel sufficient.
Education seems to me to be artisanal because the best courses I’ve taken–and the best courseware I’ve seen–are the result of a particular teacher’s personal engagement and experience with the concepts and practices of a particular field. This may be a by-product of largely studying humanities, but I don’t think so. I’ve listened to enough hacker discussions of “elegant” code to know there’s more going on in software development than just getting a program to produce the desired end result. My sense is that most expert knowledge is the accretion over time of an organic and individualistic understanding of both fact and practice, and that courseware is a way of communicating that understanding. Learning in some sense then is a process of apprenticeship. To paraphrase John Seely Brown, not learning physics, but learning how to be a phyisicist.
There are obviously better and worse ways of communicating this accrued experience. Participatory learning, ways to engaging students and helping them to internalize practice, but teaching and courseware seem to me to be intensely dependent on the personal as well as the cultural, academic and technological, which is where localization reaches its limit. There are only so many pieces of courseware out there that are congruent with my experiences as a writer and writing instructor. No amount of rejiggering of format or examples or academic level is going to make some resource appropriate for my uses. It doesn’t mean they are wrong, or low quality. Just that they don’t helpfully engage (sometimes by challenging) my understanding of the practice of fiction writing.
And some of the discussions I find less engaging about education–competencies, learning outcomes, standardized testing–seem to me the result of an industrial attempt to create a uniform end result from an inherently non-uniform process. Don’t get me wrong, there are some areas of education where a standardized end result is important, but it also tends to be reductionist. Sure, it’s desirable for everyone to share some basic competencies, but it’s also important to encourage the pursuit of individuals’ unique engagements with subjects they are passionate about, even at the primary and secondary levels. And this has always happened for me though contact with teachers and students so engaged.
How does this apply to OER? OER can definitely provide resources that can be picked up from one context and used in another, and the extent that this happens naturally it’s a good thing. But I think that OER are at their weakest when they try to be all things for all people. Educational resources are remarkably resistant to industrial models of mass replication and application, even with significant localization. OER at their best present very unique and very local engagements with academic fields, deeply rooted in culture and personal experience. They present ways of being academically engaged that are less about digital resources that can be used and more about sharing practices and unique understandings. I can learn new approaches to understanding the craft of fiction writing by studying the courseware of a photography class, even though there are no materials I can directly use in my own instruction. Rather the site provides new approaches to creating my own materials. My suspicion is that one of the reasons OpenCourseWare turns out to be an effective model is that it presents as a whole a professor’s unique engagement with his or her field, that it models what it means to be engaged in academic practice in a deeply personal and individual way. It presents an artisanal model that can be instructive when applied thoughtfully to other unique environments rather than an industrial product designed for use in all environments.