OpenFiction [Blog]

Failure to define success, part 2

I’ve had my share of existential moments, but this is one I didn’t realize I was having. Or rather my profession was having. I like Taylor’s book for the most part, and think it serves as a useful examination of the field, but I do think it does miss on a couple of fronts, which I will discuss in later posts.

But for now, the soundbite: Ira Fuchs quote “If you take away OCW completely, I’m not sure that higher education would be noticeably different.” Sure, especially US higher education. The same could be said of Wikipedia. And once again I am filled with the sense that as a movement, we are failing to adequately define success and so leaving ourselves open to having others define it for us.

When OCW was announced, I think there were many out there who hoped it would provide the leverage to break away from the artisan model of teaching to something that was more scalable. There seem to be two varieties of this hope: One that, faculty around the world would just pick up and use MIT’s curriculum, saving time and improving quality in one fell swoop (the “dirty underwear” model); two, that OCW would repeat Wikipedia’s success and that teachers around the world would collaborate on one “killer app” curriculum. A third variety that emerges in Taylor’s book is that online resources might supplant live teachers entirely-the OLI model.

All three I think grow from a view of education that holds it is essentially knowledge transfer, and that there ought to be one “best” way to do it, measurable and precise. Education, at least for me, is intensely local and personal, learning how to learn. I won’t dwell, and plenty of people have spoken more intelligently and articulately on the issue. Comments like Ira’s I think express the frustration of revolutionaries expecting a revolution.

OCW by its nature, though, reinforces the artisanal model of education by providing an example of one of the best artisanal communities of educators in the world hard at work. When we were first going to faculty and encouraging OCW participation, one of the constant refrains we heard was that MIT’s materials were designed for MIT students, and likely weren’t going to be appropriate for most people out there. Not that they were necessarily too high level, just that they were created for a specific community working with in specific conditions.

However, OCW materials do provide educators a window into how the MIT faculty community operates, how they craft educational experiences, and other craftsmen and women around the world can draw inspiration and resources from OCW as they create their own educational experiences. But this is not the kind of activity you see writ large on the face of institutions. Nor does it change the fundamental model.

Large parts of the OCW story also take place outside the walls of institutions as well, offering educational opportunity to people who previously had none, and Ira’s comment completely ignores this issue. OCW has the potential of impacting a great many lives, and appears at some level to have already done so for hundreds of thousands. But this is a difficult story to document and tell, not measured in pre-tests and post-tests.

Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing it, it just means we have a lot of hard work ahead of us. This again is not a post about Ira Fuch’s comment, it’s a post about our own failures to make the case. To define success. To share what we know about the ways OCW is making a difference around the world. Ira’s right, we haven’t noticeably changed higher education. But we have noticeably changed lives all around the world, and we need to be getting that message out there.

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  1. […] as promised, a few thoughts on Unlocking the Gates, Taylor Walsh’s examination of online courseware (to […]


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