We’re trying something new at Unlimited this month. In the spirit of this month’s subject, open education, we’re holding an open debate on the matter.
Our two debaters are George Siemens, an author and professor who works in the field of open education and Max Fawcett, Managing Editor at our sister magazine Alberta Venture, writer of the article New School this month and all-round skeptical person.
Question: In the future, will your reputation matter more than your degree in getting a job? If so, how far in the future do you project this to be? Conversely, what jobs should not switch to open accreditation practices?
Since I agree almost entirely with George’s eminently sensible statement, I’ll take up the part of your question that he didn’t address directly. Which jobs or professions shouldn’t switch to open accreditation practices? All of them, I’d say.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a role for open accreditation in the assessment and evaluation of professional competencies. As George has indicated, we’re rapidly moving into a culture in which reputations are informed as much by the piece of paper we’ve managed to collect as the people with and for whom we’ve worked. That’s all to the good, given that it provides decision makers with a deeper pool of information about a given individual. But, as George touched on, reputations are subjective and slippery things, and they defy, for now at least, any consistent and comprehensible form of communication. Someone might have thousands of followers on Facebook and Twitter, for example, but that’s not necessarily a reliable indication of their influence in a given community or the respect that they’ve earned from its members.
Accreditation, by definition, is the process in which certification of competency, authority or credibility is presented. As such, it requires some sort of universal currency, a language that all players can both speak and understand. We have, for better or worse, settled on degrees, diplomas, and other expressions of the satisfactory completion of some standardized educational experience as that currency, that language. To change it now would require a fundamental re-evaluation of our entire educational infrastructure, and I’m not sure we’re either ready or capable of that.
The only way that our reputations, those amorphous amalgams of experiences and relationships, could properly be introduced into the accreditation process is if they were expressed in a currency of their own. I know a few companies are already working on trying to achieve that, but until they do I think we would be best served by leaving them out of the conversation when it comes to the discussion and dissemination of professional credentials.
Question: Where do you see the value in opening up classrooms to the world through the concepts of open teaching and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs)?
I think there’s value in opening up the black box of higher education, but that it’s ultimately limited in nature. There’s a huge difference between knowledge and information, and while massively open online courses (MOOCs) might satisfy the demand for the latter I’m skeptical about their ability to do much to produce more of the former.
Education, after all, isn’t an acquisitive process, an exercise in procuring and storing information. Instead, learning is a social process, one in which people get from point A – ignorance – to point B – enlightenment – through a messy combination of challenge, failure and consolidation. While there might be a few people who can (and should) take advantage of open-source learning models, there are, I suspect, far more who can’t. Information, in the absence of the ability to apply it, isn’t very valuable, as anybody who’s ever tried to fix their own car using only the supplied factory manual understands only too well.
More important, I think, is the fact that concepts of open teaching and MOOCs marginalize the role of the teacher and the importance of the act – the art – of teaching. In my experience good teachers aren’t so much conduits of information (as the MOOC model implies) as they are mediums of it, essential participants in the dynamic process of learning rather than passive instruments in transmission of information. And teaching, for better or worse, is a corporeal activity that can’t be replicated with the suite of technologies to which we have access today. Until we find the tools that allow us to replicate the classroom experience in an online environment, MOOCs will remain simulacra, hollow and atonal echoes of what the educational process is really about.
MOOCs, in contrast to traditional education, require engaged, active, and participative learners. In open courses, learners encounter fellow learners from other countries and other disciplines (in CCK08, we had dozens of countries represented). An open course requires students to comment, to create, and to engage with others. Passivity reduces the quality of learning as most learning occurs in the process of doing, creating, sharing, and dialoguing. The model is particularly effective because it utilizes social and information sharing methods that many individuals are familiar with in their personal lives. Social networked learning has a long history – information flows in social networks, parents teach their children, masters teach apprentices. Many of the technologies available today augment this natural human social capacity and MOOCs are particularly valuable in this regard. The sound bite phrase you use to conclude your statement – “hollow and atonal echoes” – is quite lovely. However, you are casting it at MOOCs when your target should be the existing university lecture and test models
George, I’m admittedly a bit out of my depth here, and my views on the subject aren’t nearly as battle-tested as yours. But from where I sit, the difference between information and knowledge lies in the ability to apply it effectively. We have all kinds of access to information today, to the point where it’s very nearly overwhelming. But when it comes to knowledge, I’m not sure that we’re any better off than our parents were a generation or two ago.
My sense of MOOCs is that they’re driven by the same if-you-build-it-they-will-come logic that is at the heart of W.P. Kinsella’s “Field of Dreams.” But while his field of dreams had a happy ending, I’m not sure I see the same attraction, the same winding highway of blinking headlights headed towards the virtual classrooms of MOOCs. I think there will be people who derive a great deal of pleasure and purpose out of them, just as there are amateur astronomers out there working outside the traditional professional boundaries of their field. For these sorts of enthusiasts, MOOCs are a wonderful resource. But they are outliers, and their enjoyment of MOOCs doesn’t change the fact that for the rest of us such a model is fundamentally unworkable.
I suppose my biggest problem with MOOCs, aside from their limited applicability, is the marginal role that they designate for the teacher or instructor. Teachers play an invaluable role in the conversion of information to knowledge, and while there are certainly problems with the education system as its currently configured – large classrooms, non-existent student-teacher relationships, degree-factory atmosphere – it’s a mistake, I think, to conflate those flaws with the system itself. The solution lies in returning the focus to teaching, and creating an environment in which they can do their jobs most effectively. I’m not sure that MOOCs are that kind of environment.