OpenFiction [Blog]

Downes on the purpose of education

Posted in education, open education, Open Educational Resources, OpenCourseWare by scarsonmsm on February 7, 2011

Stephen Downes recently posted this contribution to Purpos/ed, which resonates deeply. Just out of grad school, I worked and taught in Emerson’s Division of Continuing Education, working with adult populations of few means, often with little preparation for higher education, but with burning passions to learn and to do (Emerson is a communications college with great media programs). It was really humbling to see how hard they worked in the face of family responsibilities, illnesses, financial crises—in short, the effects of living life without a net. And they were, to quote Stephen, capable of the most extraordinary things:

…In the right meter, and in combination with the right experiences, an education is sufficient to lift a person into a life of self-awareness and reflection. It is the great liberator, and even should an educated person never rise out of poverty, that person will never again be poor.

John Stuart Mill said that the principle of liberty is the right of each person to pursue their own good, in their own way. …He understood that the highest principle of liberty was in fact both the right and capacity to actually define one’s good, to freely chose one’s ambition and purpose in life, and to enact the means and mechanisms to carry it out. Freedom is not merely the absence of restraint, but the right to live meaningfully.

An educated population is probably the least governable, the most likely to rebel, the most stubborn and the most critical. But it is a population capable of the most extraordinary things, because each person strides purposefully forward, and of their own volition, together, they seek a common destiny.


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.

Bill Gates on open education

Posted in education, Open Educational Resources, sustainability by scarsonmsm on January 27, 2010

I try not to get caught up in reading the tea leaves on foundation intents, but certainly sounds like the Gates Foundation is getting involved in the OER space.  Exhibit A from the Gates Foundation letter.

The foundation has made a few grants to drive online learning, but we are just at the start of this work. So far technology has hardly changed formal education at all. But a lot of people, including me, think this is the next place where the Internet will surprise people in how it can improve things—especially in combination with face-to-face learning. With the escalating costs of education, an advance here would be very timely.

Most of us have had a teacher whose lectures made a subject seem fascinating even though we didn’t expect that it would be. If you are going to take the time to listen to a lecture, you should hear it from the very best. Now that finding and watching videos is a standard part of the Internet experience, we can put great teachers’ lectures online.

A number of universities are already putting lectures online for free. You can find a lot of these courses at sites like . I particularly like the physics courses by Walter Lewin and the solid-state chemistry course by Donald Sadoway, both from MIT. When I want to learn a new concept like the Carnot limit on getting usable energy out of heat, I often will watch lectures from different courses to see how it is explained and test my understanding.

But online learning can be more than lectures. Another element involves presenting information in an interactive form, which can be used to find out what a student knows and doesn’t know. This makes it possible to tailor the learning session to the individual student. Think about what happens to students who get into community college but are told to take remedial math because their test scores are below a cutoff level. The students have to spend time on the things they already know and don’t get to focus on the areas they are confused about. They get very little positive reinforcement from sitting in lectures. Most kids who are put into remedial math drop out before they ever get a degree because it is such a discouraging experience for them. On the other hand, the online system can quickly diagnose what the students know, provide positive feedback, and make sure their time is spent really improving the conceptual areas where they are weak.

Exhibit B, from the Daily Show:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Bill Gates
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis

What’s a brother got to do to stay cutting-edge?

Posted in education, open education, Open Educational Resources by scarsonmsm on December 18, 2009

My good friends over at P2PU are looking for a convener for a P2P course using MIT OpenCourseWare Physics materials, which they refer to as “traditional OCW.”  While it makes us seem like the dottering old uncle of the OCW world, I nonetheless applaud the effort and encourage anyone who is interested to check out the opportunity.  These young whippersnappers are doing really interesting stuff in the open ed space.

LINC 2010 – University Leadership: Bringing Technology-Enabled Education to Learners of All Ages

Posted in education, OpenCourseWare by scarsonmsm on December 16, 2009

I’m happy to share that MIT President Emeritus Charles Vest, who was MIT’s president at the inception of MIT OpenCourseWare, will be the keynote speaker at the upcoming LINC 2010 conference on MIT’s campus this May. This conference promises to be a great opportunity for global discussion of OCW and other technology-enabled education projects. Details included below.


The Fifth International Conference of
MIT Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC)

May 23-26, 2010
University Leadership: Bringing
Technology-Enabled Education to Learners of All Ages
On the campus of MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA

MIT LINC is an international community of individuals and organizations that focuses on higher education in emerging countries and the role that technology can play in expanding educational reach. It is a collaboration of educators from around the world whose purpose is to share best practices and to learn from each other’s mistakes, in order to move forward with successful e-learning projects in their home countries.

With the 2010 theme, “University Leadership: Bringing Technology-Enabled Education to Learners of All Ages”, the consortium intends to showcase examples where universities are increasing usage of e-learning by reaching down to K-12 education or reaching up to lifelong learners. If technology-enabled education is to contribute to the social and economic development of emerging nations, it must move beyond the university to improve K-12 schooling and to create a culture of lifelong learning.

Plenary speakers include rectors of the leading virtual universities in Latin America, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The keynote plenary speaker is Dr. Charles M. Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering and President-Emeritus of MIT. Other plenary speakers include educational leaders from business and government.

LINC 2010 participants will travel from all parts of the world as representatives of universities, government, corporations, foundations, K-12 education and lifelong learning initiatives. Each will come to share an international forum with others who understand the challenges faced by emerging nations in achieving the transformational potential of technology-enabled teaching and learning. Innovative technologies and content will be presented and explored, along with the policies and pedagogies that make them successful. In the end, as with previous LINC conferences, valuable contacts will be made, strategic relationships developed and exciting educational collaborations begun.

More information available here.

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