Thoughts on the first day of the OpenLearn 2007 conference

October 30, 2007

So let me just shortly sum up my impressions of the first day of the OpenLearn conference.

IMO John Seely Brown gave a very good introduction on OER and he shared some visions on future educational scenarios.

The message he passed was similar to other recent talks I heard and largely goes along with what one might conclude himself if watching how ‘things’ develop out there at the web.

One of his final notes was about an ‘open participatory learning ecosystem’, which also seemed to be partly inspired by the open source movement and certainly the participatory web in general. And indeed one can find those ecosystems already for quite some years out there at the web – though by now they are not integrated into or part of the ‘formal’ educational systems. Yes, ok – the participants are partly the same and you will find educators and students among all the other participants out there too, but not as a part of a structured ‘open participatory learning ecosystem’.

He also provided an overview on the emergence of (educational) niche markets and learning on demand – again this is something one can observe for already quite some time at the web, it’s just not linked to formal education.

Like John’s introduction the closing session went partly into the same direction, but only partly. For me it seemed that some views still echoed the traditional paradigms and classifications of education, ignoring what’s going on out there. I felt that the talks on OER and associated movements were – to a large degree – based on the traditional top-down model, separation between educators and (formal) learners and production models. Aspects like user (learner) contributions and content creation, taking advantage of visualised and recorded learning processes and interactions that could become a valuable content resource itself, or peer support systems did not really play a role.

Right, you could say that some presentations exactly referred to the problem of ‘top-down’ and encouraged ‘collaboration, participation and peers’ – but IMO they mainly referred to the educator level as the bottom line. So what’s with users, be it students or free learners, and what’s with committed ‘old foxes’ that just like to contribute, what’s with all of the informal just out there? And what’s with the power of the collective mind, peer to peer support or communities as a driving force of creation, innovation and improvement?

Though already valid for the post digital area, we today can see at the web that learners can be knowledge creators, knowledge brokers and peer to peer support providers. However, even within the OER movement the ‘resources’ or ‘content’ still seems to be largely seen as materials that are developed by educators only – where e.g. students’ and free learner discourses, course works and contributions do not become part of the ‘product’ nor the support system. Also we still see a clear divide between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ settings. We today have something that might be titled a parallel world of education separated by the terms ‘formal’ and ‘informal’. The actors of those two worlds are partly the same: educators and formal students that are forced to act in both worlds.

These are aspects that are currently not systematically addressed at the OER and open education movement, though they are some of the key drivers of web success cases, with open source the pre-dominant one.

Jumping a bit I would like to pick up on one of the closing session questions that was: “why should we doing all of this OER and open education stuff? We did something similar in the 60th and already failed.”.

I can’t say much about the 60th movement, but I am confident to say that we need to do this today because the so called ‘net-generation’ will expect us to have such environments in place, PLUS we need citizens that have the skills of the net-generation within knowledge and information societies. This means simplified: if we educate to meet future needs, we need to follow up on this line. And unlike in the 60th we anyway need to face this change as we don’t control evolvements at the web, but certainly need the brilliant brains that are ‘hanging out’ there.

Let me put this into perspective using a case I recently learnt about. It is the K12 school system in Extremadura – Spain. The region of Extremadura runs 185.000 Linux PCs in K12 education with a ratio of 2 students per PC (so we talk about app. 390.000 students). All PCs are linked to the internet and also an intranet with a common data centre. Learning materials are created by the teachers together with their students and than submitted to the data centre to be peer reviewed regarding their quality. If the content is considered to be of a sufficient quality the materials are published in a common repository so other teachers can pick them up again. All content is released under a creative commons license.

Let’s just follow briefly up on this case: students and teachers are used to use open source applications, are used to the concept of openness, are used to the concept of open AND user generated contend and DO have a high speed internet access. This likely means that they are also used to take advantage of the web as a lifelong learning support tool, including the different information and collaboration spaces, and what they can do at and get out from the web.

Just taking this case (though it admittedly sounds too good to be true) a reasonable question that emerges out of this case might be what would be those students’ expectations once entering the next educational stage? Would they accept it to be ‘downgraded’ again to passive listeners and consumers? Would they accept it if we tell them: Well, that’s how our education system is designed?

So what than happens if higher education doesn’t meet their demands as it still did not adapted to the new environments and demands? Well, maybe the same that partly happens today: Students have the double workload: the formal educational one to obtain their degrees and the informal one once being out there to learn and get the things (state of the art content and insights) they want to.

So do we really know what is the vision of students today and how to respond to it?

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