Since I have made a commitment to take the umbrella concept of open education more seriously, this will be the first post in an occasional series in which I express my concerns about open education as a way of working through the issues. It is also part of an occasional series of posts about or inspired by the book . In this case, I would say “inspired by” is the correct phrase, because although the concern I want to talk about was triggered by the chapter ”A Harvest Too Large? A Framework for Educational Abundance”, the authors are clearly aware of the concern I raise here (as are a number of the other chapter authors in the book). My issue is more with the naive formulations of open education that I often see floating around in the blogosphere.
Specifically, I’m afraid that the popularization of “open education” will further reduce our already stunted notion of what the verb “to educate” means until its meaning disappears altogether.
Let me start with a few stories. When I was in my early twenties, I made a little money on the side teaching adults who thought they were tone deaf how to sing. (I somehow got it in my head that this would be a good way to meet women. It wasn’t.) I never did meet anyone who was actually tone deaf. However, I did meet a number of people who had never learned to hear pitch. Hearing pitch—whether one note is higher or lower in relation to another—is something that comes instinctively to most people. But some people just don’t naturally notice whether a pitch is higher or lower. There’s nothing wrong with them biologically; they are physically capable of registering the distinctions. They just never make the connection on their own. Invariably, I could teach them how to focus their attention, hear pitch, and then sing in tune. What struck me as odd, though, was how many people went through their lives believing they had a permanent disability (albeit a minor one) when they were just missing one piece that was entirely learnable.
I went through a similar experience with a college buddy that wanted me to help him write his philosophy paper. Actually, he wanted me to rewrite for him a paper written for an American Cinema class by one of his fraternity brothers so he could turn it in for his aesthetics of film class. I agreed to help him, but only if we did it my way. My friend was a clever guy, and I was confident he could learn to write a decent paper on his own if I could just help him find the missing link in his process. I started by making him tell me in his own words how the topic of the paper he was…remixing related to the essay question his professor had asked. As he explained it to me, I had him write it down. That was his topic paragraph. We then went on to the first example. I asked him how that example proved that his idea was true. He explained it to me. I made him write it down. We had our second paragraph. At which point, the training wheels came off. I told him he would have to repeat this process with the other examples, and that he could do this without me. He looked at me like I had just invented anti-gravity. “You mean, all I have to do is say how the examples relate to my idea and I’m done? Who knew it was that easy!” He got a B- on the paper. Obviously, my friend’s problem wasn’t as difficult to diagnose or fix as those of the “tone deaf” singers. In fact, somebody clearly should have helped him solve this problem some time in the 15 years of schooling he had before he approached me. But the point remains that there was a gap that could be closed through an educational intervention—once it was correctly identified.
There are probably lots of people who have these sorts of blind spots. One of mine is visual awareness. I don’t notice things even when they are right in front of my face. I have no fashion sense, and little consciousness of what clothes I put on my body in the morning (never mind fashion sense). But I have been surprised to discover that I can take decent pictures and even make decent movies when I focus my attention. There’s nothing wrong with my visual faculties. I just don’t naturally know when or how to use them.
Unfortunately, some people’s limitations fall right into the critical path of academic progress. Not just progress in a particular discipline or skill, but any academic progress. I recently spoke with a relative who had gone through four majors at six different colleges before she was able to graduate. What finally made the difference was a teacher who helped her see that she was going to run into tough spots in any academic program and she wouldn’t pass until she developed a set of skills including (but not limited to) help-seeking behavior. It never occurred to her that there was a productive way to engage her teachers—that she could learn her way through the tough spots. It took until her mid-forties before somebody finally told her. I have written before about Purdue University’s use of academic analytics to help teach students exactly this lesson (or, at least, to teach them that they need to learn this lesson). Their success demonstrates that there is a high correlation between the lack of this very teachable skill and students just barely fail school. It also demonstrates that good diagnostics are a key part of ensuring a successful education.
This brings me to Open Education and the chapter in question. Authors Batson, Pharia, and Kumar start out by making a great point about how we need to make a mental transition from thinking about education in terms of the economics of scarcity to the economics of abundance:
The manifesting nature of learning via the Internet, open education, starts with abundance—abundance that will only multiply over time. Philip Slater, an anthropologist and author of In Pursuit of Loneliness, saw the post-war abundance in America as a root cause for the “revolution” of the 1960s, when baby-boomers, enjoying the wealth of their parents, who had grown up during the depression, could not understand their scarcity-based beliefs….Their poverty assumptions—lie low, hide your wealth lest it be stolen, do not display emotions, life is full of danger—enraged their Dionysian offspring. “Let’s celebrate life, not suspiciously guard our riches” was translated into “don’t trust anyone over 30,” to paraphrase Slater. We now appear to be facing the same cultural fissure 40 years later: Open educational resources (OER) are so abundant that the scarcity-based assumptions of educators are challenged.
It’s the enraging part that worries me. Open education is often expressed as something along the lines of “we don’t need no stinkin’ teachers.” With all that great content freely available online, we’ll just teach ourselves (and maybe each other). Forget those fuddy-duddy pedants; they just get in the way. Indeed, even the chapter authors themselves postulate a hypothetical “Peer-to-Peer University” in which cohorts of students “come together and learn the material for a course” built around open educational resources. The peer-to-peer model, when it is not couched very carefully, invites the assumption that “learning the material” is a straightforward, Gradgrindian process of information transmission. In fact, knowledge transmission is always mediated by perceptual and cognitive processes that are not straightforward and tend to be ideosyncratic.
Open educational resources will not, by themselves, obviate the need for a teacher as diagnostician. This is a skilled job. You wouldn’t know it from the kind of training most teachers get in the U.S. at our schools of education, or for professors who don’t get any pedagogical training at all, but it is. Furthermore, this is a skill that is not needed in just rare educational cases but rather every day in the classroom, because the vast majority of learners need this diagnostic help at some point or other and the ones most at risk need it in a serious way. Some of this can be done by untrained peers, but a lot of it can’t (at least, not reliably so). My worry is that popularization of open education will move us from the widespread neglect of this critical pedagogical skill set to the outright abandonment of it.
At the moment, teaching skills are still essential and scarce resources. I won’t have a high comfort level with open education as anything more than a supplement around the edges of traditional channels for formal education until that issue is addressed head-on.