OpenEd: Week 13

November 27, 2007, [MD]

The OpenCourseWars (Wiley, 13 pages)**

QUESTIONS: What will the future of higher education look like? What impact will the open education movement have? How will we get there from here? What will be the effects of open education movement upon K-12 education? (alessandro giorni) What will be the effects of open education movement upon high school education? (emanuela z.) What role can OERs play in developing countries? (Stian Haklev)

Lot’s of interesting questions that I have been thinking about for a long time, not the least throughout this course.

Unpacking the university

One of the key ideas that I tried to bring across to my students during the lecture I recently gave was that the concept of a university as it exists at a given time in for example Canada is the product of historical, economical, political and structural factors (and probably some randomness), and that it is not “God-given”, that there are other ways of gaining higher knowledge than sitting in lecture theaters in old brick buildings doing four year degrees. Many things that determined the physical structure of a university are changing - it used to be that you needed a huge research library to be a world class university, and to be able to sustain that, you needed a certain enrollment size. With the gradual digitalization of resources, that is no longer so true, and might soon be wholly irrelevant. There is a lot of debris in the current model, and I think we need to go back to the roots and look at what we really want university to do for us, and how that can best be accomplished.

The degree structure

So on one hand you have the physical properties, everyone knows what a university is “supposed to look like”. On the other hand you have the structure of the programs, courses, regulations etc. In a similar vein to what I stated above, there is nothing “written in stone” about four year undegraduate degrees, MAs and PhDs, lectures and tutorials, five courses at a time, midterms, finals, GPAs and so on (this is written with a North American perspective on purpose, because they are the ones who tend to think the least about other systems of learning). I could write a lot about the Swedish model, which is not radically different, but just the concept of only teaching one course at a time (half a year of anthropology, a year of psychology, etc - with enough breadth, depth and credits you get your BA - no majors or minors), which usually ends with a 5-8 hour exam, that often has two or three questions on it, is quite different.

Inflation of degrees

This is a problem that has been much discussed. The idea that the bar is pushed always higher - but not because we’re a “knowledge society” or what have you, but because of competition. Apparently they need an undergrad degree to work at Wal-Mart in China now, not because it is useful, but because competition is so high that you might as well hire the ones with degrees. In most Western countries, governments are aiming to put 50% of the young population through higher education (and even community colleges are starting to look increasingly like universities), but there is no way that these societies provide that amount of jobs requiring a university degree. Even our new principal at UTSC stated that a Masters is the new BA Honors. To me, this is a huge waste of societal resources, and the drive to get higher degrees by people who couldn’t care less about what they are learning, and will not be applying it, is ruining higher ed for everyone who actually give a damn (admittedly not many).


Which brings me to a related issue, accreditation. As there are more and more ways of learning online, by distance, by alternative courses and self-chosen paths, should we institute new ways of accrediting people? I have written earlier about the idea of splitting Harvard into two independent parts, one teaching and one accrediting, and about the Indian NGO that waged a campaign against accreditation in the first place. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if universities didn’t have the role to sort people, but rather to make all students learn and improve their own skills and understanding, and the way you proved to a company that you were worth hiring as by the actual work that you had done. As the open source idea extends to ever more domains, people might be participating in Wikipedia, writing open source textbooks, composing music, shooting footages for a collectively produced documentary… All this could be part of a portfolio of skills. Or would we have certifications, like we have for certain professions now? Instead of a bar exam, would an English major have to write an English lit certification test?

Part of the problem is that there is a confusion between process and outcome. If we could define what exactly we wanted students to have gained at the end of a university period, then we could sit down and say “How do we best design a course of study that will provide these skills”, and we could presumably also measure it to a certain degree of accuracy. However, much of the thinking around higher education seems to start at the other end, with a pre-defined idea of a university (and idea that we tinker with, but never really rethink), and then asking ourselves “What can the students learn within this pre-ordained institution, and how will we measure it”. In fact, what we want is for students to be in a creative learning environment, one that forces them to think and reflect, and rub shoulders with scholars and peers, for four years. There are several studies showing that many students haven’t even significantly improved their creative thinking skills after four years, but we don’t mind, because we already know that this is the right thing for students. Colored of course by our romantization of own periods of college way back when, and the glorification of higher learning by mass culture (whether because of insights or party culture, it’s still “the place to be!”).

In this regard, I kind of like the Swedish model. In the beginning of the year they give you the curriculum, perhaps 3000 pages or so that you’ll need to read and understand well over the next four months. They give you the date for the final exam, and that’s it. There are lectures of course, to help you understand the readings, but no attendance is taken. You are assumed to be an adult, and if you believe going to Bali and spending four months there reading the material and thinking about it will let you understand Descartes or the history of England better, then be my guest. You are taking the same (8 hours, two questions) exam in the end, and the university is confident that it is able to separate who has learnt something from who hasn’t. Indeed, I did just this, I did all the credits for my second year of Chinese (full time) while in China learning Chinese. I certainly learnt a lot more than had I been in class in Sweden - is there any reason I should not have gotten those marks, just because I was not present in class?

(I used the analogy of the TOEFL to my students - what if the University of Toronto said that the only way they could ensure that you had a good understanding of English was if you had spent one year at a certain specific school… Instead, the TOEFL allows you to learn English any way you want, through any number of institutions, self-learning, getting a foreign girlfriend, watching Hollywood movies, working as a maid in England - and in the end, it’s wholly irrelevant. You don’t even put down on paper where you learnt English, because they trust that the test accurately shows your command of English. (How accurate it is, is another matter). I obviously understand that testing knowledge in history is a lot more complicated than the TOEFL, but it would be a strange thing indeed if we just gave up on it…

Improved teaching

I have been mostly very disappointed by the pedagogics (or andragogics) of university teaching. Earlier in history, university was for the absolute elite, who wanted to fill a few positions, including becoming academics. It was a kind of apprenticeship to be a professor, and thus professors didn’t really have to be experts at pedagogics. Right now, we are putting millions of people through first year courses in economics and history, with professors who have never learnt anything about pedagogics. I would love more peer-review in teaching, teachers sitting in on each other’s classes, giving each other feedback. While this might be difficult to do in the real world (although I don’t know why), filming of lectures and putting them online can actually help this process - you are exposed to a number of teaching styles and can adopt one that suits you, etc.

However, in this network age, the concept of 1000 students sitting in front of a professor speaking in a mike and showing Powerpoint slides is quite outdated. I realized this summer at iCommons that there was no point in going to the big sessions. Even though the presenters were blockbuster names like Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow, I realized that I didn’t get much more out of these sessions than I got from watching their lectures online. So I instead went for the smaller group sessions on education, where we all discussed intensely in breakout groups and came up with things together. This was a much more rational use of my few days in Dubrovnik. The same holds true for education. I remember reading about a professor of physics who recorded lectures especially for them to be put online, and then used the time he was allotted with the class to do experiments with them, having groups work and then circulate to help them. I would argue that this is a much more rational way of using the very expensive face time allotted with a professor.

Distance ed / computer mediated learning\ I am very interested in hybrid models that mix online and offline lectures. Imagine having a number of students at University of Toronto sign up for a class at Tokyo University. We would do the readings, watch the online lectures, and then meet in a colloquium at University of Toronto, perhaps even with a teaching assistant to help us, and discuss questions together. I mentioned above putting “canned content” online, so that you can spend your time interacting with students. I’ve found this in my own tutorials this year, when I stop standing in front of class and going through the assignments, and I give them free time to work on their projects and ask me questions, I circulate and discuss their different projects, help by asking them questions and forcing them to think deeper about what they are doing. That was a great learning experience for them (and for me, I think), and a much better use of my time.

But distance education also has the potential to widen access to learning for people who for many different reasons do not have access today. I consciously write learning, because I don’t want distance ed to become an excuse to force 100% of the population to go through higher education. There are lot’s of exciting models currently happening in developing (and developed countries), and this course (which I showed to my students) is a great example that a distance learning course doesn’t have to be just a little professor in a black window on your screen talking for two hours, but can be highly interactive.\ Impact of open educational resources

I think OERs are going to play a huge role in all of this. To me, one of the most important OERs are actually academic articles and monographs. When they are freed up, we then need to provide the “glue” - lenses or playlists of good articles for a given topic at a given level, and perhaps background, explanation and analysis that helps students understand the articles. In addition we need the infrastructure for open learning - we need platforms where students can form learning networks, collaborate on course material, communicate with mentors (how this is financed is another chapter, whether through user fees or state sponsorship or exchange - I tutor you in something and someone else tutors me in something else) remains to be seen. All models will probably be tested.

I am not going to write anything more about OERs right now, because I believe we’ve covered it very well so far in the course, and I will not even answer my own question or write anything about K-12, but I will wait to see what others write, and come back to it next week. For now, I wanted to share the thoughts above with you.

And this afternoon I am off to Zagreb for the Open Translation Tools conference, which is very exciting, and certainly has a lot of promise for localization of OERs as well.

Stian*\ (thanks to Ozyman, jahdakine, -sel, dachalan, paprikaplain, tanakawho, kurafire, clickybd, Pandian, Darwin Bell and Shanti ॐ, all at flickr, for the pictures)***

Stian Håklev November 27, 2007 Toronto, Canada
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