Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ We Learn

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 02, 2010

Originally posted on Half an Hour, April 2, 2010.

"If we are not careful," warns Michael Feldstein, "open education may actually end up reinforcing economic divides."

He explains, "It's easy for those of us in the open education movement to see our work in opposition to proprietary technology companies, proprietary textbook companies, and the gatekeepers in the university system. But it's not the 'evil' LMS companies, or the 'evil' textbook companies, or the 'evil' administrators and bureaucrats that are failing these students. It is all of us."

Really? Even those working in the edupunk movement - the subject of this post - who are doing everything they can to throw open the gates of learning to all comers? Even the people trying to free learning from the shackles of publishers and vendors that are trying to destroy public education and lock down all learning content? I would like to have it explained to me in what way it is "all of us". What are we not doing?

Feldstein responds, "You seem to have missed the main point of my post. The millions of learners I am talking about will not magically learn just because we make resources freely available.. My point is that edupunk and OER do nothing, in and of themselves, to help these student leap the chasm that they will have to leap in order to further their education. Pretending otherwise is pernicious."

First of all (I write back to him), I did not misunderstand the point of the post. I know that this is what you're saying.

My response is predicated on what seems to be the presumption in your post that, though OER and edupunk do not provide the support these students need, corporations and institutions *are* providing that support.

So my first line of response is to reject that presumption. The reason we have so many students who are utterly unable to learn for themselves is precisely *because* of corporations and institutions.

They are not providing help. They are actively hindering it. It is in their interests to keep students dependent and unable to learn for themselves. They actively act against attempts to provide this support.

The other part of your argument, the part you stress here is the proposition that edupunk and OER do not, by themselves, provide the support students need in order to learn for themselves.

But this is to raise the same point raised by David Wiley and invites the same sort of answer I gave there.

In particular, "So long as we depict open learning as some form of 'independent study, then yeah, it will appeal only to the fifteen percent of people that likes to study.

"But mostly the people behind open education – the technologists, at least – the administrators remain institution-bound – depict it as anything _but_ ‘independent study’. It’s depicted as more like creating art and music and games and other content, activities that engage far more than some elite fifteen percent, and when sufficiently equitable, attracts something more like 85 percent than 15 percent."

If you get beyond the characterization of open education as an alternative *institutional* response, and see it in its much more true light as a set of mechanisms to encourage and allow creativity, engagement, and empowerment, then you locate in edupunk and OER the missing elements.

The problem with depicting edupunk as *only* the provision of free resources is that you ignore the forces and mechanisms put into place to put those resources there in the first place.

And while David Wiley and others talking about more traditional OER (eg. here ) the approach I and the edupunks take is that these resources are produced by the members of the community themselves.

As I said here  "the functions of production and consumption need to be collapsed, that the distinction between producers and consumers need to be collapsed. The use of a learning resource, through adaptation and repurposing, becomes the production of another resource."

Edupunk, and for that matter OER, are not and should not be thought of in the context of the traditional educational model, where students are passive recipients of 'instruction' and 'support' and 'learning resources'. Rather, it is the much more active conception where students are engages in the actual creation of those resources.

Now to return to my original point, this is exactly what corporations and institutions do *not* want edupunks and proponents of OERs to do, and they have expended a great deal of effort to ensure that this does not become the mainstream of learning, to ensure students remain passive and disempowered.

They through fear, uncertainty and doubt into potential supporters by raising the sceptre of copyright infringement, patent challenges, and dangerous content, so much so that material that is not professionally produced are deemed too dangerous to be used in education, and connections to distributed networks of resources are so risky they must be blocked in companies and educational institutions.

They redirect those people who are actually good of heart and want to contribute to OERs toward a model that emphasizes production and publication by institutions, and employ foundations and funding agencies to guide this effort, and perhaps incidentally (though not so far successfully) to flood the market with institutional OERs that would eliminate the need for community produced OERs.

They attempt to co-opt nascent OER initiatives by directing them toward commercial enterprise, arguing that resources must allow commercial licensing, and directing production toward enterprises and initiatives that must receive see funding and draw a return on that investment through the conversion of OERs into commodities.

And they foster a sense of incapacity in opinion and the media to suggest to students themselves that they are incapable of independent action without the comforting support of corporations and institutions, that they are simply not capable of learning form themselves. From the first utterance that "OCW is not an MIT education" the suggestion has been that education must need be a high-priced endeavour, available, really, only to those willing to pay the price.

In fact, what we see on the internet, and especially (albeit constrained) in web 2.0 services, a blossoming of creativity and initiative. Even if this currently represents only a minority of the population (and studies, depending on how you look at them, argue both ways) it seems clear that this is something that has taken hold and is in the process of becoming mainstream.

It is activity and work that is taking place outside educational institutions, and would, if it could (and often does), take place outside the corporate environment.

It is the world of mashups, of deviant art, of self-help discussion groups, of environmental activism and pirates, of self-managed learning, of hobbiests, of hackers, of open source programmers, and on and more and more.

Don't tell me none of this exists.

If you care to say all of this is not providing the support students need, make the point. But I think we cannot start from the presumption that edupunk and OER are doing nothing to support, motivate, scaffold and empower students. Quite the opposite. 

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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