Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ A Series of Questions

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 18, 2010

Originally posted on Half an Hour, June 18, 2010.

The second installment in my contribution to the iDC discussion.

My call to arms of the previous week didn't really attract the attention of this list. Whether that be because it was either trivial or implausible I cannot judge. But it seems to me that "a society built, not on the basis of a propagation of ideas, but rather, on the basis of a gathering of them" captures something important in the changes that are happing in our culture.

The concept of the course is one point where this can be seen. What has happened to the course over the years has also happened to other parts of our culture, and the current concept of the course has become so entrenched that we cannot conceive of it being something else, but rather, only more of what it has currently become.

Let me explain. The 'course' was originally a series of lectures given by a professor at a university, sometimes at the invitation of a student or academic society, and sometimes on his own initiative. The actual academic work being undertaken by a student, understood as a person who was "reading in such-and-such", typically under the direction of one of these professors, was completely separate. Courses were resources, rather like books, that could be used to extend their knowledge and suggest new ways of thinking, not a body of content intended to be learned and remembered.

Even at the lower grades, the idea of the course had little meaning. Read texts such as the autobiography of John Stuart Mill and we see that while there was a certain body of material - classical languages, rhetoric and logic, history, geography, science and mathematics - that was expected to be learned, an education was a continuous and fluid process of teaching and learning, not an assemblage of 'courses', much less 'credits' (or that atrocity, the 'credit-hour'). These are inventions that came into being only with the industrialization of education, with the division of the labour of teaching, the devolution from an individual tutor who specialized in the student, to a series of tutors who specialized in the subject.

But as the use of the course expanded, the infrastructure and way of talking about an education gradually grew to be centered on the course itself. With individual courses came individual textbooks designed for specific courses, and with distance education came complete course packages with textbooks and designed learning packages describing sequences of activities and interactions. The practice of the lecture, once an almost spontaneous act of creativity, became one of delivering a standard set of learning materials, conformant with a course outline, and congruent with learning outcomes that would be measured in a summative student evaluation at regular intervals.

Thus, when we think of the future of the course, it is tempting to think of an acceleration of this model, where the 'deliver' becomes more and more efficient, where 'textbooks' and 'course packages' are combined into easily packaged multimedia entities, and where the concept of 'talking a course', far from being an interesting and engaging set of genuinely academic work, has become nothing more than the demonstration of mastery of a set of competences known, defined, and well-described far in advance of any actual learning experience.

And so we get exactly this prediction of what the concept a course will become: "“Do you really think in 20 years somebody’s going to put on their backpack drive a half hour to the University of Minnesota from the suburbs, hault their keester across campus and listen to some boring person drone on about Spanish 101 or Econ 101? . . . Is there another way to deliver the service other than a one size fits all monopoly provided that says show up at nine o’clock on Wednesday morning for Econ 101, can’t I just pull that down on my iPhone or iPad whenever the heck I feel like it from wherever I feel like, and instead of paying thousands of dollars can I pay 199 for iCollege instead of 99 cents for iTunes, you know?" As posted by Trebor Scholz

And a lot of stuff in our world has become like that. Books, once originally hand-written (and not so long ago either) are now dictated off the cuff to some secretary, or are assembled using some link-catching software (cf Steven Johnson ) or some other industrial-age process that involves only a small amount of actual authorship and a great deal of assembling, packaging and marketing (I think also of Jaron Lanier observing that creativity today is being replaced by assembly of many small bits of not-so-creative content ). Music is based on synthed voices, drum machines, and packaging and distribution contracts.

It is not enough to say these things are hard. It is not enough to say "Quality online courses are in fact neither cheap nor easy to teach." Because this just reifies the original idea, that what we are producing is some sort of packaged and marketed version of something that was once earlier a much more continuous and much more human process. Saying that "music is hard to create" is neither true nor useful. The same criticism applies to courses. It's not true because, with good technology, things that were really hard are now very accessible to people. I can, in a matter of seconds, lay down a really good and creative backing beat with Roc. Putting together a 'course', for anyone with some degree of subject matter expertise, is no more difficult. There's nothing wrong with Hubert Dreyfus's lectures in iTunes University.  They are perfectly good 'courses' and a great many people have already learned a great deal from them.

What is wrong with the idea of "instead of paying thousands of dollars can I pay 199 for iCollege" is not that you can't get a course for that kind of money - you can - but rather the concurrent acceptance of a model that has been developing for decades to the effect that one's education, one's self, is something that is consumed, passively, rather than created actively. And even that's not quite it, because people who are listening to Dreyfus every morning on their iPod are actually actively engaged in supporting their own learning.

What is missing here is the answer to the question, "Is this all there is?" Is 'getting existentialism' now equivalent to listening to Dreyfus on tape? Well, no - but that's not because creating a course is hard. Rather, it has everything to do with the learner's investment and contribution to the act of learning. Sitting in the lecture hall, listening to one of the greats hold forth on a series of questions that you helped articulate and pose, engaged in a series of lectures that you helped organize, because they fed into a research programme that you created and implemented, is very different than listening to Hubert Dreyfus on tape, not because it's hard for Hubert Dreyfus to do his part, but because it's hard for you to do your part. We don't (as we all know, right?) consume an education, but our education system has become based on the model of consumption, so much so that even the critics of it can articulate only about how hard it is to create the consumable.

This is why we - George and I and David and Alec and Dave and others - are working on opening up education. Not because we think it will reduce the cost of the consumable to zero, not because we think we can package and deliver an education more cheaply and more efficiently, but because we understand that, unless an education is open, unless it's precisely *not* a consumable, it's not an education at all. And while *this* observation, that education is not a consumable, is hardly new or unique, our approach to it appears to have been (though you know if you go back into the history of education you can find a great deal about self-organizing learning communities and the pedagogies based on such models). 

We have structured our approach to openness in learning in three stages:

1. Open Content - here we refer to any material that may be of use in the purpose of education, not merely the professional materials that might be produced by educators and publishers, such as looks, learning packages, learning content, learning objects, but also the artifacts created by people generally as evidence of their own learning, blog posts, videos, music, animations, software and the like; and distributed, not in the sense that they are collected and packaged and flaked and formed and sold or distributed through advertiser-based media, but rather, exchanged peer to peer, through a network of connections, as a conversation rather than a commodity. We have all of us offered reams of learning materials online, freely available to all who wish to read them, watch them, listen to them, or to use the to create and share and create anew.

2. Open Instruction - here we refer to the 'lecture' portion of open learning, or rather, the internet analogue of the original lecture described at the top of this post, a series or sequence of activities undertaken by experts (or possibly putative experts) in a field, but conducted not merely so fully-subscribed students at Cambridge or Oxford can attend, but rather, set out into the open, taking advantage of modern streaming and conferencing technology, so that an entire community can attend, the conduct, then, of learning activities and dialogue and reflection in an open forum, engaging learners, and modeling the practice of the discipline or domain. Thus the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course conducted all its activities, including synchronous class sessions, in a free and open environment, and at its peak was attended by 2200 students, each engaged in a more or less self-determined set of individual activities.

3. Open Assessment - there we refer to the practice of obtaining and displaying credentials demonstrating what one has learned, and therefore of the process and procedures leading to the assessment of such credentials, and instead of maintaining and enforcing a monopoly on the recognition of learning. In Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, for example, we published assignment directions and questions, as well as rubrics for the assessment of these assignments, and stated that any external agency that wished to assess students (who in turn wished to be assessed) attending our course could do so. This, in a given 'course' there is not a single mode of assessment, but can be as many as there are students, and the assessment of individual accomplishment is not only separated from the presentation of course content or the conduct of course instruction, it is independent of it.

This three-fold opening of learning allows anyone with the interest and inclination (and computer connection and time - two factors that cannot be overlooked when considering the widespread applicability of this model) to benefit from the learning we offer, but not to benefit simply as a passive consumer of the learning (such would in one of our connectivist courses be a very poor learning experience indeed, as we have all been told by disgruntled (and putative) 'students'), but as an active participant in the creation of their own learning. It restores the learner's investment and contribution to the act of learning, and does so in the only way that would possibly work, by the elimination of corporate or institutional proprietorship over the instruments of learning. To the extent that learning is produced and owned and sold to the student by a provider, is the extent to which the student fails to realize the benefit of that learning, and must substitute some alternative mechanism of their own.

This is what you see in actual universities and is what is exactly not produced by prepackaged and syndicated lectures. You don't see the learning the students create for themselves, by arguing until the wee hours in pubs, by forming and reforming into clubs and associations and societies, by undertaking projects profound to mundane, from the student newspaper to student government to charitable works to engineering pranks, by forming study circles and reading circles and discussion groups and debating events and even sports and recreation and music and theatre. All these are the education proper that happens in a university system, and what are abstracted out of course packages, and none of these are 'easy' or 'hard' to deliver at greater or lesser quality because these are not delivered at all, but rather are created by the students themselves.

These, indeed, are the things we look for as products of the three degrees of open education - not a demonstration of some learned body of knowledge, not mastery of a true-false test or even the wiring of a definitive essay or passing of an oral exam, but rather, evidence that the facilitation provided - open content, instruction and assessment - have led to the development of these learning activities, in whatever shape or form, by the learners themselves, evidence that they have begun to find and form and work with their own understanding, to create their own infrastructure, to prepare themselves to become practitioners and therefore teachers in their own right. We judge the success of a course not by the grades but by the proliferation of learning activity in its wake, and by that measure, the Connectivism course was significantly successful, having spawned activities and communities that thrive two years later.

None of this, however, is relevant to a community that still sees academic and learning as having to do with the propagation of ideas, and can only view creative acts from the perspective of a publisher or aggregator. A society based on the aggregation of ideas is not one based on the idea of free labour, because the concept of labour applies only is what is produced, as though in a factory, is commoditized and sold, as though a good or a package.

And though this may be hard for anyone involved in the 'production' of knowledge or information or content or learning to understand, it doesn't matter whether the call to arms received any reaction from this list or any other list, because what was important in the call to arms wasn't the propagation of the ideas inside it, Wasn't the marketing and distribution and popularization of those ideas, but the very act of creating those ideas in the first place, a space where designations of 'trivial' or 'implausible' don't even have any meaning, much less relevance. In writing this, I create my own learning, and its meaning is determined, not by the effect it has on you, but by the impact it had on me through the act of its creation. What matters, of the work that I do, is that it help provide, and not hinder, an open space for content, instruction, and assessment.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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