OpenFiction [Blog]

A matter of emphasis, I suppose

Posted in education, MIT OpenCourseWare, OpenCourseWare by scarsonmsm on November 5, 2009

One passage in the CED report that felt like a bit of a flat note from the OCW perspective was the following:

No one would likely argue with the proposition that the financial services sector has been continuously revolutionized by the introduction of new technologies to deal with financial information, from the invention of the telegraph to today’s electronic-banking networks. The music, video, and movie industries are being transformed as information once encoded on vinyl, 8-track tapes, CDs, or DVDs becomes detached from a physical medium and takes on the special characteristics of intangible digital data, capable of being copied and freely distributed to 6 or 60 million of one’s closest friends via peer-to-peer networks.

Information is also at the core of higher education. Institutions of higher education create knowledge and disseminate it. They pass it on generation to generation, and put it in a social context. They help students structure, organize, navigate, and produce it. How has higher education been affected by the forces that are transforming these other sectors?

Well, yes, I suppose.  The financial services example is probably closer to teaching and learning in my mind than the music/movie example.  In movies and music, the whole of the product is digitized as information.  In the financial services the products were not actually digital information, but were supported by information flows.  The the innovations (if you want to call them that) that have had the big impacts were mostly conceptual, at least as I understand them and clearly IANAE.*  The mortgage-backed derivatives were not information per se, but a new concept enabled by information technologies (sadly).

Now research is clearly about the creation and dissemination of information/knowledge, but education seems to me less so.  I’d agree that with respect to knowledge, education is about  how to “put it in a social context,” to “structure, organize, navigate, and produce it.”  But the emphasis as I understand education is very much on the social context, structuring, organizing, and navigating and less on the “it” (i.e. information).  If this were not the case, MIT would have undercut its model by releasing the information from its classes via OCW.

Some of the tacit skills for understanding social context, structuring, organizing, and navigating information are imbedded in the courseware, and this makes them a unique and valuable resource resource, but many of the tacit skills are not, or at least not accessibly so.  Virtually every conversation I’ve had with people responsible for improving educational systems who want to use OCW comes down to a discussion of how to use the materials to get students thinking critically—developing these tacit skills—rather than how do we get information to the students.  The information itself in most cases is not that hard to find.

So while I agree that information is maybe core to research, and crucial for education, I’d suggest it is the set of skills required to make information useful that are at the core of education, and they are really difficult to digitize.  Some day I expect we’ll have computers subtle enough to teach these skills (maybe sooner than we think) and it will be a boon for global education.  Information by itself, even as well contextualized as OCW is, doesn’t do this.  That’s one of the reasons we’ve never presented OCW as distance learning, but rather as educational resources.

* I am not an economist


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  1. Copyright treaty « OpenFiction [Blog] said, on November 6, 2009 at 9:36 am

    […] in addition to not being an economist, I am also not a lawyer, but as this is being reported, it ranges from confusing to very […]

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