The Open Education Open Debate *UPDATE*

A proponent and a vocal critic go head to head with your head in the month of September

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?

George’s opening volley:

In response to your question, both degrees and reputations are basically the same thing: a statement of competence. As long as society continues to grow in complexity, a degree will be the primary requirement of getting a job – particularly in a creative/knowledge economy.  A degree is essentially a value statement from a trusted source (the university or college granting the degree and the accreditation systems that “underwrite” that degree). As such, a degree is a higher level abstraction or statement of competence than reputation.
In a clustered setting where people know each other, the value statement of a person’s skills or talent comes from other people. In open source software, the reputation of a person is based on the quality of her code and the contributions to the community. The difficulties around accreditation arise in settings where we are not aware of an individual’s reputation in a  community. For example, if a manager at City of Edmonton is not connected to the tech community, and needs to hire a programmer, a degree from University of Alberta or Athabasca University will likely be more valuable than reputation within the programming community. Reputation matters in clustered networks or systems where informal recognition of expertise exists. Reputation doesn’t scale the way that the degree granting system does.
It is possible in the future that open accreditation models (such as poster ranking in Huffington Post or reputation on Quora) will be based on reputation rather than degrees. In the foreseeable future, however, degrees will continue their dominant role in finding employment.

Max’s reply:

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.

George’s reply:

I think we’re in agreement that reputation and accreditation are both value statements. What makes accreditation more valuable than reputation for employment seeking is that it’s easier. Let me give an example. Other than the diploma mills, most universities are answerable to some type of accrediting or quality board. It’s an easy system to trust and to maneuver within. People are surprisingly trusting in institutions that project authority. When is the last time that you’ve asked your doctor where she did her medical internship? Have you asked her for proof of her competence to practice medicine? If you’re like most people, chances are that you trust the system. I know I do. If someone says “I have a masters degree”, you may, in the spirit of polite conversation ask where he took the degree, the focus of his thesis, and so on. Chances are that you won’t ask “how was that university accredited? How has it faired in external program reviews?”.
Why is that? Why does an established system that projects authority more trustworthy than one that is personal, social, and reputation-based? Again, I think it’s primarily because it’s easier.
But easier isn’t the real concern, is it? An employer should want better, not easier. You mention that to change our accreditation system would require a “fundamental re-evaluation of our entire educational infrastructure”. I agree. I also think that it is precisely what is needed…and, to a degree it is inevitable.
In 2003, MIT announced it’s now famous OpenCourseWare initiative. As is often the case, by the time an idea is big enough to capture the attention of a large organization (such as MIT), it is generally well developed, and possibly tested, by individuals or smaller systems. In MIT’s case, OCW was launched after the success of open source software was established. Some individuals – Dave Wiley in particular – had already started playing around with open content licensing in the late 1990’s. Content was the first of the three learning pillars of the university to be questioned and challenged.
The second pillar of learning in universities – teaching – is one that we are questioning through open courses. With the technologies we have available today, it takes little extra effort for a teacher or professor to make her lectures and learning activities freely available online. Our current open course on Personal Learning Environments, Networks, and Knowledge has almost 1400 learners. The design of the course is such that the facilitator workload isn’t altered significantly between 20 learners or 1000 learners. Have a look at the Khan Academy (
Unfortunately Khan Academy is not very social, but the lectures are great learning resources and the “teacher” has taught hundreds of thousands of students. Today’s social media and social networks can help scale interaction in a similar sense to the Gutenberg press helped scale text. We’re taking advantage of social scaling in our open courses. It changes teaching…and learning.
The third pillar of learning is accreditation. I believe it is the final point of control universities have with regard to teaching and learning (research is another matter – this aspect will become increasingly important as many national governments are tying their innovation strategies and attempt to transition into the knowledge economy to universities). I don’t yet know what an open accreditation model will look like – will it be based on reputation? Will it be based on an open quality control model such as is attempted in Wikipedia? Or more along the lines of a W3C decision making process or standard?
I’m comfortable not knowing what types of accreditation models we’ll have in the future. In early 2000, when blogs and social media were still largely unknown (or nonexistent), most people couldn’t foresee their subsequent impact on journalism, information sharing, and even education. The current rudimentary quality control and reputation metrics found on many sites (Digg, Amazon, Quora) will continue to mature. Higher Education may be placed in a position where it has little choice but to fundamentally rethink its role. Like many newspapers are finding today, nothing kills like irrelevance.


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)?

To learn more about MOOC’s read this article by Emily Senger and the Open Education Primer.

Max’s opening volley:

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.

George’s reply:
First, I would ask you to define “information” and “knowledge”. I have my views, but I want to answer your declarative statement with a better understanding of how you use the terms – particularly in reference to how an participative social course would generate information, but not knowledge.
To your first paragraph: actually, education *is* an acquisitive process. Education – from the design of outcomes, to curriculum, and to assessment, strongly asserts that learners must duplicate the knowledge within a textbook or a professor’s  head. Learning, however, *is not* an acquisitive process. We learn constantly, experientially, socially. I can sit in a lecture hall for an hour and leave with a dramatically different understanding of a topic than the professor wanted me to have. A useful illustration of the disconnect between education and learning is the Private Universe study ( Basically, a group of graduates and alumni from Harvard, on graduation day, were unable to explain why we have seasons (most thought it was due to distance between the earth and the sun). The system of education is not always compatible with the desire for learning. It is precisely for this reason that we *do not* want tools that “replicate the classroom experience”. We want tools that address the weakness of education models.

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

Max’s reply:

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.

6 Responses to The Open Education Open Debate *UPDATE*

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  2. Thomas Tisue says:

    Would it not be useful to move discussion beyond the realm of subjective impressions to consideration of verifiable data on the relative effectiveness of open/online and classroom teaching?

  3. Eric Calvert says:

    Finally, and (with no insult intended to George or any other professor), I’m not sure that some degree of “marginalization” of instructors is a bad thing. At the end of the educational pipe, don’t we want our students to be able to think, learn, and make new stuff without being dependent on us? (The ethical answer is “yes,” although the institutional answer may very well be “not really.”) I think MOOCs could be a good “half way” format for learners between the highly structured, highly scaffolded traditional learning environment to a post-scholastic environment in which they really are more or less on their own to be able to find “information” and other people who can help them organize and grapple with it to convert it into useful “knowledge” — however you define it.

  4. Rory McGreal says:

    Max says: “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.”

    I guess my experience in all too many classrooms has been a hollow experience. Is he really positing that classrooms are invariably vibrant centres of intellectual discourse. Who is he kidding? Himself?

    Classrooms can be vibrant but normally are not. The same goes for online learning environments.

  5. Pingback: Open Education – What’s Next? « Literacy is Priceless

  6. Pingback: MOOC – a review « Technolust & Loathing

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