Open but Counted: A Model for Open Classes

There has been a debate for some time, likely since even before the Connectivism Massively Open Online Course (CCK08) offered by George Siemens and Stephen Downes in 2008, about the “worth” of open online classes. The current analysis by Dave Cormier, who has also co-taught such classes, is valuable in setting up some of these issues, which he did in response to a critic named Ken (whom, if I recall correctly, was also part of CCK08).

The issue of how to rate the value of an open online class is, it is acknowledged, ultimately up to the individual participant. I participated fully in CCK08, and I did it for graduate course credit. That credit was important to me. A number of open learners like to brag that they are just in it for their own learning, not in order to move ahead in their careers or get a degree. But professional development in a career (particularly a career like mine) is too often neglected and should be heartily appreciated by employers, be them public or private educational institutions. Course credit, particularly graduate credit, is the currency in that transaction, just as a degree is the currency for getting a job.

open sign
CC Flicker by loonyhiker

Yes, I do learn for learning’s sake, and I do it all over the web. But a class is seen by most people as more than a collection of resources with a social network attached. Most people want it to somehow be led by experts. If we are using that model anyway, and such experts are connected to institutions of higher education, why should learners not be able to get official credit? CCK08 combined a small group of officially enrolled students with hundreds of looky-loos, learning-for-learning’s-sake learners, trend spotters, and other interested people. The brunt of the conversation was carried by the instructors, the officially enrolled learners and a small group of strong open participants. The enrolled students had “buy-in” and made a more sustained contribution — hundreds of others might have learned a lot from the class but they didn’t add to it.

In examining why people sign up and then leave such courses, it is a mistake to dismiss the lack of official credit as a reason. There are numerous courses on the web that are fully enrolled because they offer, if nothing else, continuing education credits that people can use in their careers. Some of these classes are lousy. Why take a great class and make it exclusive to those who don’t need credit?

The best model that has emerged thus far is the credit/non-credit open course exhibited in Alec Couros’s graduate classes and CCK08. In both, a small group of students is enrolled officially through a university, with required assignments, assessment and a grade. But the content and social interaction (the heart of the course) is open to all to participate. This provides vast participation without “managing” hundreds of students, and allows many different types of learners to participate.

This type of class is not at all new — optional credit courses have been offered for many years. It is still the best model in the internet age, in fact even more so because the online environment allows the outsiders to be insiders and truly contribute. It makes a better experience for both teachers and students, socially authorizes the activity, and forces the university to participate in new learning methods. Sounds like win-win-win to me.

Visioning the Future of the LMS

Here is what I wanted to hear when I virtually attended the LMS panel at Sloan-C’s Emerging Technologies for Online Learning:

  1. Commercial LMSs will allow the disaggregation of the parts of their systems, so that faculty can mix, match, combine and remove any element easily.
  2. They will provide options of open or closed for any of these elements (so that, for example, student blogs can be open on the web but assignments closed).
  3. LMSs will standardize code (XML? HTML5?) to provide seamless import, export and integration among systems and outside of a system, for example to create a separate e-portfolio.
  4. LMSs will have the ability to integrate any app on the open web.
  5. They will be programmed properly to work on a wide variety of mobile devices and platforms.

What I heard instead:

  1. LMSs are enterprise systems, period.
  2. Their best use is for student tracking, content aggregation, outcomes assessment, and systemization.
  3. They are and should be used in order to provide accessibility, FERPA and other legal compliance for the institution.
  4. They should get better at tracking and using their own internal data.
  5. Faculty aren’t that innovative and so they need an LMS.
  6. Students get upset when the LMS is changed.
  7. Faculty shouldn’t use Web 2.0 apps to cobble together their own LMS because it’s too hard to support and doesn’t have the tracking, aggregation, outcomes assessment, legal protections, etc. (Nor do we have any of this for classroom teaching, but that seemed to not be recognized as a disconnect.)

Suffice it to say I was very disappointed. Didn’t sound very emergent to me.

Let’s try this:

  1. Envision a world where the LMS is a collection of detachable, useful, independent tools that can be open or closed.
  2. Envision instructors selecting on an opt-in basis which of these elements they would like to use.
  3. Envision students being exposed to many different tools, learning experiences, and web elements as appropriate to their various classes, which would increase the skills of sorting, aggregating and evaluating information they will need in their future careers.
  4. Envision choice and academic freedom as the two great values in distant education decision making.

I’m sure there’s more. Add your own.

Texas and the Goodness of Paleopedagogy

I am still thinking about the Texas State Board of Education decision to rewrite the history textbooks for their schools. The idea is apparently to emphasize white Christianity (including creationism) as a guiding force of the nation. At the time, a lot of people asked me what I thought because I’m a historian. History has always been used to further the ends of politics, and what was interesting to me was that people were actually talking about the issue and being concerned. Debate and inquiry (or even better, the other way around) was happening. I liked that.

Then I began thinking about what effect that sort of right-field history book will have on children, and I’ve decided it won’t have much, because in my experience college students do not remember any of the history they learned in the lower grades anyway.

Thus it can be a good thing that students don’t listen in school. The battle over textbooks may seem to be a war for the minds of children, but children see textbook content as crap to be put on a test. If, however, the educational reformers have their way and the teaching of material becomes more active and collaborative, two things may happen:

1. the active, collaborative, discovery method will make it impossible to ignore alternatives to the textbook’s viewpoint (thank goodness for the internet), or

2. the active method will be resisted by conservatives, and thus children will zone out and not learn the crap.

So a textbook like the one they plan in Texas might not work the way they think it will. This may be the best argument for retaining instructivist pedagogy, rote memorization, and boring educational methods I’ve ever considered.

Robots, Man and the Future of Education

Discover Magazine in May had a wonderful “article” (I use quotation marks because it read much more like an editorial) about robots. “The Body Shop” by Bruno Maddox launched immediately into a discussion of “robo-fear”, how we used to be afraid of “War of the Worlds” and “Terminator” robots, but now we don’t seem so afraid. I thought of one of my favorite bad movies, “Runaway“, where the robots, programmed by a demonic Gene Simmons, killed people as good cop Tom Selleck tried to figure out the mystery.

This is a trail that reaches back at least to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” — I would argue that Shelley’s monster is just the start of a pattern of “manufactured people” continuing into characters from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (“Klaatu barada nikto“, for goodness sake) to “Westworld” to R2D2.

Maddox claims we aren’t afraid anymore, and I want to have him explain why. Unfortunately, the May issue is not yet on the open web, and even though I subscribe the online version I’m allowed to access won’t let me copy anything. Luckily for me, I don’t keyboard, I type, so we’re good.

I’d argue that the revolution of the last 20 years has quenched our robo-fear, not so much by giving us a taste for change as by taking the gleam off that spark of humanity that we used to be so proud of. What is Man? people used to wonder. Is consciousness divine in origin? Or is it a mere accident of nature that we alone, of all the matter in this Great Universe, adrift upon this marbled speck, have the power to dignify and enoble our condition by understanding it, or at least attempting to?

Then along came the Internet, and now we know what Man is. He enjoys porn and photographs of cats on top of things. He spells definitely with an a, for the most part, and the possessive its with an apostrophe. On questions of great import or questions of scant import, he chooses sides based on what, and whom, choosing that particular side makes him feel like, and he argues passionately for his cause, all the more so after facts emerge to prove him a fool, a liar, and a hypocrite. If a joke or a turn of phrase amuses him, he repeats it, as if he thought of it, to others who then do the same. If something scares him, he acts bored and sarcastic.

That’s pretty much it for Man, it turns out after all the fuss. And so our robo-fear has become a robo-hope. Our dreams for ourselves are pretty much over, having been ended by the recent and vivid reiteration of the news that we really are just grubby and axcitable apes, incapable by our nature of even agreeing on a set of facts, let along working together to tray and change them….It’s already clear that we’re not building robots in our own image. We’re building them in the image of the people we wish we were….

You know I never quote extensively, but this seemed to speak to me. Then it turns out, this week in the Education Futures online MOOC, a free massive online class being led by Dave Cormier and George Siemens, the topic for this week is How Do People Decide? I would no longer answer this with a glib “Badly.”

While I understand the desire to do research and create formulas in order to enlighten us on this issue (see the assigned readings), I’m not sure it’s helpful in predicting the future. This is partly because, as a historian, I know the future is not really predicted anyway. Rather it is dreamed. Parts of the dream become reality as persistent, and often manic or obsessive, individuals, make it happen. Other parts are stored or forgotten (or both).

We do not get the future we expect, and many people have different and competing visions. For education, there is a dream of openness which reminds me of the Progressives pushing for mandatory public education from the 1880s to the 1920s. I thought of John Dewey, of whom I know little. When I looked him up on Wikipedia, I found a quotation of his that seems to be the same argument about pedagogy we have now:

The older type of instruction tended to treat the teacher as a dictatorial ruler. The newer type sometimes treats the teacher as a negligible factor, almost as an evil, though a necessary one. In reality, the teacher is the intellectual leader of a social group, He is a leader, not in virtue of official position, but because of wider and deeper knowledge and matured experience. The supposition that the teacher must abdicate its leadership is merely silly.

Elsewhere, I see the progressives who created public schools that allowed children to learn instead of work in factories referred to as both fascists (with reference to the KKK’s support of mandatory education) and socialists.

All education reformers have a vision of the future. The visions of those who would like to see Greek-style tutoring revived as an ideal form will be in conflict with those wanting free-form internet-based personal learning environments based on connectivist ideas. If history tells us anything, the “result” (assuming perhaps 25-50 years hence) will be neither, but some combination.

The industrial education model, with too many students and too many underpaid teachers and instructivist pedagogy, will likely continue to hold sway regardless. Why? Because we do not always represent, as Lincoln put it, the “better angels of our nature”. We foolishly regard convenience and the acquisition of personal property in the short term more highly than long-term sustainable goals that provide justice and comfort for all people. Perhaps the robots made in our better image of ourselves will create a better future, but as they too are manufactured by the obsessive Dr. Frankensteins of our age (and I mean that in a good way), I doubt they’ll replace our visions of what could be. Instead, the visions will guide small steps, incremental reform, a betterment so slow it may be hard for one generation to see. And that, I think, will have to do.