Can Enlightenment Scale?

I had the pleasure of listening to Jim Groom give a keynote speech at the Open Education conference this morning. I generally find listening to Jim equal parts inspiring and frustrating. Inspiring because he has a direct tap into the moral wellspring of passion for education that drew me into education in the first place. Frustrating because Jim (and Gardner Campbell, and other prominent thinkers in the school of thought formerly known as edupunk) and I haven’t seem to be able to find common ground on the meaning or value of the word “scale.” For Jim, I get the sense that scale is synonymous with industrialization. And I can guess why that might be so. If you believe that the essence of education starts with people discovering their own personal dignity, passion, and talents, it seems almost oxymoronic to talk about scaling that. You can’t mass produce personal journeys. I buy that. But I also am painfully aware of the fact that we, the human race, have so far failed to either catalyze that personal journey or provide the basic skills and practical education necessary for material comfort and basic dignity for the substantial majority of people alive on earth today. Heck, we’re failing a very substantial percentage of people alive in the United States today, despite the great wealth of this country. For me, it’s all about Archimedes. I’m looking for a large enough lever to move the world. I want to believe in scale. I need to believe in it.

And so I came to think of Jim and his friends as gadflies. Irritants, in the best possible sense of the term. Good people who are doing good work and can remind me of important things on occasion, but not the kind of folks who are going to help me find that lever.

I was wrong. And I should have known better. I had the opportunity to learn this lesson a long time ago.

The Education of Michael Feldstein

In early October of 1989, I walked into my first day of teaching, in an eighth grade science class. The teacher I was replacing had quit after a month, and I was a little nervous about what kind of shape the class might be in. I did the usual thing—wrote my name on the board, told the class my name, told them how I would teach and what I expected of them, and then asked if there were any questions. I was aware that there had been a low-level commotion brewing in the back row, among the boys, as I was talking. There was whispering. When I asked for questions, a hand shot up from that back row like a cork out of a champagne bottle. I called on the pasty-faced stick of a kid who was attached to that hand.

He asked me, “What are your credentials to teach this class?”

My mind raced. My first thought was, “My credentials are that I’m going to kick your ass.” My second thought was, “Wait. What are my credentials to teach this class?” Only after a few long and excruciatingly uncomfortable seconds did it occur to me that he was asking a perfectly legitimate question. So I answered it as best as I could and moved on. After class, I pulled the kid aside on his way out the door. “Trevor,” I said, “I have no problem with the question you asked, but I think you know that it was a little provocative to ask that of your teacher right off the bat. Why did you feel it was important to ask your question at that time in that way?” He shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Our last teacher was a dental assistant.”

So here’s the thing. Trevor wanted to learn. He wanted to be taught. And, after a painful month of not getting the education he was hungry for, he wanted to know whether I was going to waste his time. In other words, Trevor was a teacher’s dream come true. Nor was he unique at that school. During my five years teaching eighth through twelfth grades there, I found that many of my students were intellectually voracious, creatively restless, and relentlessly hard on me as their teacher. They demanded to learn. It wasn’t just that the kids happened to show up that way. There was something in the water. Something was happening at that school that was reliably—not inevitably, but reliably—transforming those kids. I saw it happen over and over again.

How did it work? In a hundred different ways. I saw my first glimpse of it a few weeks after my encounter with Trevor, when I had the opportunity to observe a master math teacher by the name of Ed Holt. At one point in his class, he asked a student how to solve a particular problem. “I don’t know how,” said the student. Without missing a beat or cracking a smile, Ed replied, “OK, but if you did know, how would you do it?” I swear, the kid got right up from his chair, walked over to the blackboard, and solved the problem. He literally did not know what he was capable of. And fortunately for us, that’s the root of the problem. We are learning animals. Learning is natural to us. Even better, learning is addictive. Once we’ve had a taste of it, we are biologically wired to hunger for more. How remarkable it is, then, that we have managed to create societies in which we manage to suppress that natural urge for so many people. It’s surprisingly easy, really. A little bit of fear and self-doubt is all it takes. But only in the beginning. Once we get our first good hit of enlightenment, that hunger becomes irrepressible. Those kids at my school, they got addicted. The hit that hooked them was different for each one of them. It might have been a math problem. It might have been a science fair or a school play. It might have been a side conversation with a teacher about something they noticed in the park. It could have been anything. But the results were reliable.

The Re-Education of Michael Feldstein

That was a long time ago. Since then, I have been on a long journey, searching for scale. Mostly not finding it. So I kept looking. When I saw Jim’s open and online class in digital storytelling class start up, I thought it was interesting and important, but not the thing I was looking for. Here’s some of what I wrote about it:

One of the most exciting things about the course, really the spark that animates it and separates it from so much university teaching, is that it presents critique as a creative act rather than a bloodless dissection. I turned away from graduate school ambitions—twice—because the smell of formaldehyde makes me retch. And I’m a relatively academically inclined individual. For students who don’t have that tweed gene, having courses that enable them to experience the inherent creativity, humanism, and joy in intellectual exploration and clear communication is absolutely essential.

The trouble is, we have relatively few teachers who know how to teach this way and even fewer who know how to do so with digital tools. The two are intertwined, I think. We’ve managed to beat academic prose into submission. It can be a more engaging experience to read your car’s owner’s manual than to read a typical academic paper on a subject that genuinely interests you. But digital media have not yet been tamed by academia. They feel like art. And in our culture, art is ineffable. It’s a gift from God. It’s a light that either shines upon you or doesn’t. Above all, it’s impolite. Public displays of creativity are about as socially accepted of Public Displays of Affection, and for the same reason. It’s not polite to rub people’s noses in something that you have and they may never have.

So great, wonderful. Beautiful. But sadly, that’s all it is. Aaaand, we’re walking, we’re walking….

Ironically, I myself came to be irritated over time by the public displays of creativity coming out of Jim’s course. The people in it seemed just so pleased with themselves. I was happy that it was good for them and all, but come on, it’s just one course. It doesn’t scale. Keep your enlightenment in your pants, please.

When hearing Jim talk about the course today, though, two details really brought me up short. First, Jim talked about “drive-by assignments” in which people who weren’t really participating in the whole course saw an assignment they liked, did it, and then moved on. Second, he talked about students creating their own assignments—and then having fifty other students decide that they want to do those assignments too. Maybe one of those students was Trevor. The point is, the hunger was there. The beast had been awakened.

It’s true that Jim’s course has a high drop-out rate. It’s true that it doesn’t reliably get the students to achieve any particular set of competencies. It’s true that there are technological skills prerequisites that many students in desperate need of better education don’t have. And it’s true that it’s a lot easier to teach digital storytelling the way Jim does than it would be to teach, say, developmental math. All of that is true. And all of it is beside the point. We need to offer many opportunities for people to become addicted to learning. No one opportunity will work for everybody. But if we can create a broad range of these opportunities cheaply, then we can get a lot of people hooked on enlightenment. Will it give them job skills they need to feed their families? Not by itself, no. Will it give them the skills to even learn whatever they want or need to learn? Probably not, in most cases. But if we can create a world in which the average community college student asks her professors what their credentials are to teach their classes, then all else becomes possible in educational reform.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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27 Responses to Can Enlightenment Scale?

  1. Boone Gorges says:

    Thanks for this post, Michael. I’m friends with Jim and with a lot of the more active members of the ds106 community, but the bug never bit me, for some of the reasons you mention here. Reading your post gives me a bit better sense why the project is exciting.

  2. Scott Leslie says:

    Michael, first off, it was great to finally meet you f2f. I have always appreciated the thoughtfulness of your posts, and this one is no different. I especially appreciate your willingness to re-examine yourself and your own assumptions. It is exemplary.

    On this issue of “scale” here’s my take: what I (and I think others, but I don’t pretend to speak for them) object to is an idea of “scaling” that works through what I call “massification,” e.g. find something that works and that either make that single instance bigger, or simply replicate that model holus bolus. I take this to be the industrial model of growth. The objections are multifold (it doesn’t actually work – we’re are living in the aftereffects of this industrialized process, it promulgates architectures of control, doesn’t respect diversity, removes autonomy, etc.) But I don’t simply object; we trying to point to (and exemplify) a different model of “growth” that we experience in the network which I refer variously to as virulent, emergent or rhizomatic. That growth occurs organically, inspired by (and sometimes connected to) an individual intervention but independently of it too. And in this model, while we can do things that help catalyze the reactions (acting OPENLY being a key one) we give up illusions of being able to control or taking responsibility for ALL of the scaling required. Because that IS an illusion.

    And yet…

    But I also am painfully aware of the fact that we, the human race, have so far failed to either catalyze that personal journey or provide the basic skills and practical education necessary for material comfort and basic dignity for the substantial majority of people alive on earth today. Heck, we’re failing a very substantial percentage of people alive in the United States today, despite the great wealth of this country.

    This is why it is significant that Jim started his talk “occupying” Open Ed, in part to resist the above, this statement that increasing educational access (which undoubtedly is not a _bad_ thing) is all that’s needed to address the above, when in fact a lot of what you describe above has been actively and consciously created not through a lack of initiative or education but by historical realities of colonization, unfettered financial speculation and the exploitation of labour by capital. And these will not be rectified by methods that reproduce those historical relations, which to me is what growth through massifying does.

    Sorry if this comes off as a rant. It’s not meant to, and indeed your conclusions seem to at least recognize some validity in this approach and the need for a multiplicity of such interventions. As to how to catalyze those, how to get more teachers to step up and inspire their learners “to become addicted to learning” I don’t have all the answers. I do know part of it involves practicing in the open, so that people can see (and transform and interpret into their own contexts) how one does ignite this elightenment. I think, in various peer-to-peer and community models for open courses we heard about this week we are seeing others.

  3. It was great to meet you in person too, Scott. It was great, fun, enlightening week.

    That said….

    To be completely honest, there is much about your reply that sets my teeth on edge. Some of my reaction may be no more thoughtful on my part than the gag reflex of a recovering academic. When I see phrases like “architecture of control” and “rhizomatic,” I find myself tuning out already. But more to the point, I worry that you are looking at people who are starving and, rather than giving them bread that might have been tainted because it was sold by Walmart, you offer them poetry instead. I know, this is harsh. And likely unfair. But if we’re ranting, let’s rant. You can’t argue that our system of mass education only hurts the people who need it most. It is incontrovertible fact that academic progress is highly correlated with material comfort, and until your rhizomatic watchamacallit can help people who have no income, no health insurance, and no prospects for advancement, I am not willing to throw it out in favor of the promise of a networked anarchic utopia. (c.f. Maslow, Abraham.) Do I think we need to provide people with personal, meaningful experiences that inspire them to demand better than they are getting? Yes, I do. Do I think that our current system of education often works at cross purposes with this vital goal? Again, yes. But I am only interested in liberalism (or any other kind of ism) when it delivers on improving actual people’s actual, lived dignity, which entails physical and material security for them and their families. In my old age, I have come to the conclusion that I can no longer afford to be a purist.

  4. Michael, I agree with you, but I don’t actually disagree with Scott, so to try to work my way backwards out of this apparent bit of indecision, here’s my thought:

    You and Phil have brought a lot of attention to the question of scale that big publishing, and other corporate interests, have introduced to education. Theirs are such dizzying figures in investment terms that the average educator in public education having to make a business case for $45 worth of batteries for clickers (this is a real case involving a colleague of mine) can’t begin to imagine how they’re actually connected to the stratospheric dealings of the larger education market. It’s a major disconnect between corporate strategic thinking and everyday teaching practice. Somewhere in the middle, educational institutions are also deep in the mud of strategic business and investment planning, but are also ramping up their public-sector modes of accountability. Everyone’s trying to guess what this blizzard of competitive thinking will mean for education in the future.

    I think this is why many individual educators are quietly turning to the seemingly more human scaled environments of personal social cloud media, which also happens to be where their students are. It’s a social movement, more or less, trying to preserve some sense of educational craft. In this way open and edupunk have become entangled with structural issues internal to the business of education: curriculum, tenure, adjunctification, preparedness, access. These pressures are mostly emerging in response to changes in the restless economy of churning and precarious employment which means that more and more people will find learning online a sensible way to try to hedge education against employment.

    Under these circumstances, one thing that might happen isn’t so much rhizomatic as plain leaky: the disintermediation of education means more free, open content there, and you no longer need to be a paid up student anywhere to learn what you need to learn.

    This really is shifting the culture of education away from teaching towards accreditation, and educators can feel it, and worry about the quality of the learning experience that will result. But I think your example is showing that we can build ethical partnerships to figure out how to take education forward in a way that works for the people who most need it to work: students.

  5. I have learned an important lesson tonight: Never start a rant 10 minutes before your connecting flight starts to board after sitting in an airport for three hours unless you want to write stupid things. My comment was ill considered, unfair, and does not reflect what I really think of Scott’s work or his intentions. I am sorry.

    Let me try this again, only this time with a little respect.

    This much I believe: I believe that the only way we will achieve radical improvements in education is if students demand it. I believe humans naturally love to learn and, once they have experienced the joy of authentic learning, will demand it. I believe that, while any person can be turned on to learning by something, there is no one thing and no system that will turn on everyone. And I came to believe this week that informal networked learning experiences like MOOCs can help catalyze that hunger for learning at scale not because they are systematic but precisely because they are unsystematic.

    But that’s the limit of what I think I know. We live in a complex system and I don’t believe anybody can really understand or predict all the consequences when we start tinkering with it in a serious way. We still have a moral obligation to act, but it should be a leap of faith in fear and trembling. I get deeply nervous when we try to wrap that up in a larger theory of ideology because I worry it gives us a sense of false confidence. The last thing I want to be when I mess with the education system is confident, because it really matters and I could screw up. When I start sleeping well at night, I know that I’ve gotten off track.

    So Scott, I applaud what you do and have come to believe more than ever that it is critical to achieving real reform. And I agree with MFDC that the important and achievable thing is building those ethical partnerships. All I ask is that, when we do whatever it is that we think needs to be done, we maintain an appropriate sense of dread. I know you are coming at this from the right place and am genuinely sorry for failing to make that clear in my previous comment.

  6. Alan Levine says:

    I most liked here Michael, your own stories of teaching and what Trevor meant to you.

    As one of the dismissed gadflies, my comments may come pre-ignored. But among the fleet of look-alike lecture oriented MOOCs, ds106 stands out as being the most “un-course-ish”.

    I’d quibble with your assertion “It’s true that Jim’s course has a high drop-out rate.” where is the source of that data? What Jim does not talk about much is that among the enrolled students at UMW, none drop out, going back to the rounds it was taught not in the open too. It is an astounding feat for any class. I do not even think the concept of “drop out” has true meaning in an open course, where you have the option to drop in or out. I fail to see a criticism there.

    I’d also question this assertion “It’s true that it doesn’t reliably get the students to achieve any particular set of competencies.” If learning how to set up domains, web sites, management, creating original and mashup graphics, recording/broadcasting audio, video editing, blogging their experiences, criticizing other student work via comments, working in groups are not competencies, I don’t know what are. Maybe I do not.

    Maybe it is worth noting that at least 3 past students learned enough to get jobs doing this kind of work at their university.

    What scales here is excitement and passion. I think you said that.

    Perhaps this does not count as your kind of scale, but currently 2 other classes at other institutions are running their own course off of the platform.

    From the Gadlfy department

  7. Alan, regarding the dropout rate, the data was Jim’s. During his talk, he mentioned that a lot of folks dropped out of the online portion of the course, which is the part that I’m talking about in my post. I say that it doesn’t “reliably” teach people skills because, in the online portion, you don’t have to do anything. Jim didn’t talk about the F2F, for-credit portion, but I assume there were requirements and grades and stuff, which give the course different characteristics for those people. I would never argue that people in the MOOC portion of the class didn’t learn valuable skills. Clearly, many of them did. It is in an interesting though probably unanswerable question as to the percentage of people who walk away from the class with those skills in the completely open, online course versus a more traditional graded one.

    But again, I think that question misses the point. If the students leave the class motivated to pursue a path they are passionate about (including but not limited to getting a job in educational technology), and if they experienced some success learning something meaningful to them in the class, then I don’t worry about whether they got the skills in the class because I have some faith that they will do whatever it takes to acquire that skill.

    Your point about two other institutions running their own courses of the ds106 platform is part of why I was so excited about Jim’s talk. Yes, that scales. We can get many people into free MOOCs that offer exciting experiences that will hook some of them, teach some of them, put some of them on the right path. If many of these courses are available on different subjects with different approaches, then it doesn’t much matter if a person drops out of one. Maybe the next one will be the one in which she catches fire. That does scale.

    I am not yet ready to abandon the traditional education infrastructure. That’s where the movement loses me, and that’s part of what triggered my unfortunate overreaction to Scott’s comment. The stakes are too high for me to walk away from a structure thathas done good for over a thousand years unless I have a great deal of confidence that what we’re replacing it with will be as likely or more likely to help the least fortunate among us. But if MOOCs and other massively open methods achieve a kind of pervasive success, if they start to move the needle on enlightenment at scale—particularly for people with low incomes and low education—at that point I think we may have enough clarity for me to be more confident of what taking the next step might yield us.

  8. Let me add one more bit of context here which relates both to MFDC’s comments and a conversation that we had F2F and OpenEd. Formal systems of education exist not only to provide opportunities to earn skills but also to provide some form of assurance to people—prospective employers, prospective partners, prospective customers, prospective students, prospective whatever—that you know what you claim to know. This became necessary as soon as people began to travel outside of their villages where people knew them or knew the masters that they studied with. The network has not yet solved this problem, and it is a real one that has real impact on people’s economic well-being. It is entirely possible or even likely that the network will develop trust mechanisms that are both reliable and reliably shorthand enough to replace traditional forms of certification, but for now, that final course grade is the proxy that we have, and the lack of it is problematic for certain purposes that are highly relevant to people’s lives and futures. That is not a problem that the MOOCs I have seen (including Jim’s) are trying to solve, although there’s no reason why they couldn’t.

  9. Alan Levine says:

    Thanks Michael, as usual you take a strong balanced view. I still think that “dropout” is a meaningless baggage heavy term for the people who enroll on the open course. We dont know their reasons for taking the course nor for leaving, and even “leaving” is wrong.

    ds106 is somewhat different that the others in that what people do in the open part does not try to fully replicate what the enrolled on the ground students can do.

    And total agreement that no MOOC is a replacement for programs, etc. It’s an augmentation.

    I’d like to see you take on doing an animated GIF 😉

  10. Scott Leslie says:

    I appreciate the attempt at a second reply Michael, as the first certainly did feel a bit harsh, but that said, it is a pretty common reaction and needs to be engaged with.

    If I gave the impression that I would not feed a starving person in front of me because of the source of the food, I apologize, as there is nothing compassionate or skillful in that stance.

    I really get the urgency and severity of the problems that need to be addressed. Global poverty, social injustice and environmental collapse (to name but a few) are alarming and cause immense suffering. And I also get that there is lots of “learning” that looks just like “information transmission” and “skill transfer” and that in many cases the simple act of sharing content openly may be enough, and may in some (many?) cases help those effected by these problems change their situations, alleviate their suffering. (cf. the discussion between Wiley, Siemens and Downes starting with this initial post and the following few posts on this gap (and attempted bridges) between “it’s all mooc” and “it’s all knowledge transfer.”)

    You write ‘When I see phrases like “architecture of control” and “rhizomatic,” I find myself tuning out already’ – ok, apologies if you felt this was jargon. They are part of many of the conversations I’m involved with (and thought you were too) and weren’t meant to exclude, but like any shorthand, do. But I seek new language to describe what *we are already witnessing happening* because it is not the same as what has come before, and part of wanting to distinguish from these earlier models and methods is this inability to acknowledge that THEY ACTUALLY PRODUCED A LOT OF THESE PROBLEMS they now purport to solve. So am I arguing that “our system of mass education only hurts the people who need it most”? No. But I argue that you cannot (maybe “should not” is better) simply divorce the methods of education from the content of that education, from the society in which it was developed, from the historical effects that the development of that society had on other societies and the natural environment around it, from the economic model it supports and supports it, and from the historical effects of all those things on the resulting inequities both within and outside of that society.

    I am not so “purist” as to deny help to someone standing in front of me in whatever form I can. But when this supposed pragmatism is then used to continually pre-empt any examination (and subsequent change) to the ways in which the structuring of our relations (be they educational, economic or what have you) constantly produce the same disasterous results, I do resist, even if the appeals to expediency and Maslow would have me seem callous, which I do not believe I am.

    But to get back to the main point, I don’t believe “enlightment scales” but do believe it grows and spreads, and it is figuring out how to help do so (not at the exclusion of also feeding individuals and teaching people) that I am PERSONALLY committed to.

  11. When I was a freshman in college, I got sick on vodka and cherry coke. Couldn’t come within ten feet of vodka without feeling queasy for over a decade. The same thing happened to me in graduate school, only with Foucault and Derrida. I can’t touch the stuff anymore.

    Please ignore that earlier rant, Scott. I was exhausted from two weeks of travel, irritated by a protracted and unpleasant flight layover, and having a reflex reaction to stuff that had nothing to do with you. There should be a Google Goggles kind of thing for that. I knew it was a stupid thing to post the minute I did it and was haunted by it the whole flight home, so much so that I had to write the second reply before I could go to bed.

  12. Scott Leslie says:

    Michael, I can totally hear your apology and appreciate it. But it is still important to engage with – you are big enough to recognize it as a strong reaction and come back around for a second pass. But in truth, it’s a common reaction and I need to figure out both how to address it, but also hear it better. So no worries.

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  14. The question of vocabulary is important, I think, as it’s at the heart of the “two cultures” divide between edtech and formal education (leaving edupunk a bit to one side for the moment). I’ve had the same vodka and cherry coke reaction to “education vertical”, for example, but in the end I admit it’s just a phrase that’s emerged within the edtech conversation as a way of trying to get to grips with complexity, which is also how I take Foucault and Derrida.

    The problem in both cases is that a term or phrase that started out as quite a precise description of a phenomenon takes on a life of its own as it’s handled over and over by people who like themselves a bit better while using it, and eventually one or other of these terms catches you on a bad day.

    One of the reasons I’ve appreciated this blog so much is that it’s helped me to come to a much more respectful understanding of edtech business culture, about which I was habitually testy. But to be able to read this exchange on the ethical challenge of scale is truly a joy.

    Thanks so much.

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  17. abdu says:

    Thank you very beautiful Hama

  18. Chris Lott says:

    Perhaps part of the problem is that there are different ways to “scale” and we might object to one meaning but not another. When education folks get together and talk about scale, they most often seem to mean it in a few specific ways: growth of single events/offerings/experiences to accommodate more learners (naturally, because these concerns most often come from the institutional side of things, being a learner usually means being affiliated in some formal way with an institution), or the ability to add more such experiences in a way that is cost-effective, however that cost might be calculated.

    The former is problematic because it assumes that what can be done for 10 must be able to be done for 20 or 50 or 100 and so on.

    The latter is less problematic–in fact I would argue that this kind of scale is at the heart of edupunk or DIY or whatever we want to call today’s version of the revolution that some have been trying to start for 50+ years (at least)– as long as it doesn’t, as most unfortunately do, depend upon *replication*. Scale is, and for decidedly economic reasons that have nothing to do with learning, thought of as multiplication rather than addition.

    And this is where we end up talking about enlightenment (as you do here) or love (as Scott and I have). I suspect we are talking about the same things… and these are things that don’t scale and they are things that depend upon individual ways of thinking and creating and they are things to which “sustainability” don’t generally apply.

    Similarly, I have a fundamental problem with the idea of sustainability. It’s not not basically a bad idea, but it usually ends up being based on replication, thus making it a source of stultification, and doesn’t account well (or at all) for evolution or other forces that demand change or adaptation.

  19. Chris Lott says:

    If I could figure out a way to do it without causing you to retch and me to self-lobotomize, I’d love to talk about the meta-issue of language as it is represented here. I fall somewhere between how I understand you and Scott fall: I overdosed on theory as part of my studies, but I’ve largely gotten past that by now.

    I had a similar drinking experience with rum, which I couldn’t abide even being close to for nearly 20 years, but have come to appreciate in select circumstances where nothing else will do, such as when enjoying a Caipirinha with just the right amount of lime.

    I have to approach the theoretical language, which I believe to be truly beautiful in its own way (and in the right hands), carefully. Some part of my creative spirit dissolves every time I hear too much of it, but I also recognize how and why such language evolves, and why some of it is being appropriated to contemporary talk of education. After all, though I’m not sure I wholly understand it, what is the synonym for “rhizomatic” as it is used to represent some interesting thoughts about education?

  20. I’m generally at my least tolerant (of academic language and in general) when sitting in airport lounges, so the most important lesson is not to comment or blog for airport lounges. Beyond that, I think as a general principle it’s worth asking whether a non-latinate, two-syllable word will work just as well in place of a latinate, three-syllable word, or whether less compact language will make your prose more accessible. Jargon has its uses, but it’s best when used only as needed. To continue the alcohol analogy, you want to just wave the vermouth somewhere near the glass.

    When I talk about scale, I simply mean helping more people in whatever way they want or need to be helped. As Martin Weller has pointed out in this context, industrial-style scaling of education can and does, in fact, help more people achieve important things like material comfort and, if you’re lucky, dignity, self-esteem and self-confidence. It’s fair to argue that industrial-style scaling is high-cost (and I don’t mean in dollars, here) and ultimately unsustainable in a variety of ways. But I think where we are with open education today may be likened to where we were with photovoltaics a decade ago. We know it’s a better idea, but we’re not yet anywhere close to getting efficiencies to the point where we can replace fossil fuels with it. We know that we can get to some kinds of replacement (e.g., electricity for houses) faster than we can get to others (e.g., energy to run cars). In the meantime, if I have to burn oil to get rice to a famine site, I’ll do it.

  21. Chris Lott says:

    I can’t let a line like this rest:

    “When I talk about scale, I simply mean helping more people in whatever way they want or need to be helped.”

    I know that. We all know that. The problem is that there are a limited number of ways to do just that, and when it involves replication it indeed saves money, but at the expense of depersonalization and mediocrity in that educational experience. Is this for a relatively privileged group? Sure it is, when you consider the global situation. But it doesn’t change the stale mediocrity of the education those are receiving and I see no reason why, unless we are actually going to reduce educational efforts to those populations (which, let’s face it, isn’t going to happen) we don’t have a responsibility to make that experience richer and more productive.

    I’m also wondering why you see this as zero-sum. Traditional scaling will continue to happen. 99% of the investment in education is going that direction. Open Education is a tiny movement with the potential to allow some energy to go a different way. Those of us strongly on the “side” of scaling in a different way that does not involve replication aren’t stemming the traditional tide, we are simply trying to sail off in a somewhat different direction.

    I’m reminded of people who, when given a dose of a relatively modern or emergent learning theory or event shout out “don’t get rid of the lecture” or when people who talk about informal learning and recognition that doesn’t involve degrees start defending the utility of those formal certifications. The point being that there is no need for those arguments because they are essentially describing the state of the world and the great momentum it already carries.

    As for the language issue, I think we agree, but I suspect we don’t agree on where a substitute for that complex and compact language actually works. In my experience, it’s precisely when people say “why don’t you just say a b c d e instead of x” that it becomes apparent that we aren’t talking about the same things. I’m all for saying something instead of “rhizomatic” but I’ve yet to see less than a few paragraphs that goes any way to replacing it. Too often people assume that the less compact descriptions are synonymous when they are insufficient replacements.

  22. Chris Lott says:

    The other essentially zero-sum characteristic of these discussion is the assumption– and Martin Weller makes this mistake as well– that we are talking about the same groups of students and the same wants and needs (not to mention the assumptions that students KNOW everything about what they need). Obviously this effects quality.

    I’ve yet to see a massive offering in the way Martin describes that has the qualities I am talking about, including what I know of those coming from his institution. Martin’s post acknowledges this when he looks for what he can take away from DS 106. What I take away is that some of the things that work there, and which represent things that a large and partially new audience want and need, can’t exist with 15000 students. But that’s the education I’m interested in.

    I understand the desire for basic education for all. But I also understand the desire for the kind of education needed to, ahem, sustain the arts and the master craftsman and all the associated learning that takes place. That kind of education scales about as well as love, but people try, and thus the travesties of much of art education now. Does everyone need that? No. But what about those who do?

    My biggest takeaway from something like DS 106 is that it very clearly demonstrates a kind of educational experience that is needed and absolutely does not scale… and thus isn’t particularly appropriate for the goals of trying to bring education to the under privileged around the globe.

  23. Oh, I don’t see it as a zero-sum game at all. In fact, once I get through a backblog of a few posts, I’m going to come back to the subject of the MOOC with a specific suggestion on where it can do a lot of good.

    What I think is most needed is a frank and honest discussion (like the one we are having right now) of which types of approach are effective for solving which kinds of problem at the moment and which types could be effective once we learn more. We are talking past each other on this issue when I suspect that we are in violent agreement. Industrial scaling of education, particularly where scaling out to reach many poor and poorly prepared students is the main goal, is soul-deadening more often than not, both for the student and for the teacher. It is also highly inefficient, because it often deadens that capacity in students that makes them natural and effective learners. We can have great admiration for the teachers who do heroic work within this system, and great admiration for the students who find success in this system, and still believe this is true.

    I am absolutely in favor of finding ways in which open education can address this problem. I am also in favor of finding ways in which open education can solve other problems. My main concern is that we keep our eye on the ball. What kinds of problems can the techniques behind ds106 (for example) solve for which people? Who can they help in what ways? Who do we not yet know how to help using the current techniques of open education? How can we stretch what we are learning from ds1-6 and other experiments to reach other people and solve other problems? In particular, while I hear a lot of talk from open education proponents about democratization, most of the experiments around MOOCs and the like seem to take as students mostly…well…people who are blogging about how great MOOCs could be. There’s nothing wrong with that if the purpose is to learn how to do better MOOCs, or if the goal is just personal fulfillment, but it’s not clear to me how these translate into broad educational success that is “rhizomatic” for people who haven’t already gone to (conventional, industrialized) graduate school to learn what “rhizomatic” means. Yes, there are some great success stories from Jim’s class, and I’m sure, from other MOOCs, about people who didn’t come in as ed tech gurus and were lifted up by the course, inspired to better their lives. But you can tell the same kind of stories of people who come through conventional classrooms. What I want to see is that those successes aren’t accidental to the model. I want to see that the MOOC can be tuned to reach people who haven’t graduated college or even gone to college. When I say I want to see that, I’m not expressing skepticism. What I mean is that I want to see it.

  24. Chris Lott says:

    A telling (if apocryphal) Kansas appearance: An audience member stood up and recounted the scene from The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy and her friends finally meet the wizard, who is powerful and overwhelming until Toto pulls away the curtain to reveal a very small man. “Professor Derrida, are you like that?” the audience member asked. Derrida paused before replying, “You mean like the dog?”

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  26. Thank you for this fascinating conversation. Here is my side comment: I am an English teacher and a Faculty Technology Specialist at Lane CC in Eugene, Oregon. I am an online participant in DS 106, and I am pursuing a Certificate in DS from the CDS.

    I am an educated, adult learner, 61 years old, who can’t be bothered sitting in a traditional classroom or with putting up with the controlled pace of an online class.

    DS 106 has been and continues to be a face-pasted learning environment that has pushed me to learn a wide range of new digital skills.

    As a direct result, I have introduced The Soul of Lane Community College Digital Storytelling Project, which begins Fall 2012 as a ten week class/series of workshops for interested faculty as a project-based way for them to acquire a new set of digital tools while contributing to a pool of community stories about the ways Lane is an agent of change in the lives of both students and faculty.

    I will have five weeks of DS 106 assignments and five weeks of a CDS video-narrative project.

    Am I not “scaling” my MOOC?

    I heard, “I want to see that the MOOC can be tuned to reach people who haven’t graduated college or even gone to college,” and that is a great goal. But meanwhile, EVERYBODY is hungry to learn in new and exciting ways, personal ways that connect us as a community.

    I like the motto of the New Age Games back in the 80s, “Everybody plays; nobody get hurt.”

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