Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ What Is Democracy In Education

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 22, 2010

Posted to the UNESCO OER discussion, October 26, 2010.

On Tue, 26 Oct 2010 15:01:28 +0200, "Kizito, Rita"

Dear Anuradha, I love your quote " Learning should be democratised in practice, there should be openness in the field of education!" The question is how do we begin getting to this point pragmatically without theorising too much around what needs to be done ?

Democracy is typically represented as a system of voting and representation, or as instantiated through a set of rights, such as 'freedom of speech', etc. To my mind, though, these represent an emphasis on process rather than underlying principle.

At it's core, democracy represents a fair and equitable distribution of power in society. A society is more democratic when a person has more power to govern his or her own life as he or she sees fit. Or as I say on my home page:

"a system of society and learning where each person is able to rise to his or her fullest potential without social or financial encumberance, where they may express themselves fully and without reservation through art, writing, athletics, invention, or even through their avocations or lifestyle.

"Where they are able to form networks of meaningful and rewarding relationships with their peers, with people who share the same interests or hobbies, the same political or religious affiliations - or different interests or affiliations, as the case may be."

The answer to the practical question, "how do we begin getting to this point pragmatically," leads to a need to enumerate the principles and practices that will lead to this result. To my find, there are four such principles, each with wide-ranging and practical implications.

- Autonomy - the system of education and educational resources should be structured so as to maximize autonomy. Wherever possible, learners should be guided, and able to guide themselves, according to their own goals, purposes, objectives or values. It is a recognition that, insofar as a person shares values with other members of a community, and associates with those members, it is a sharing freely undertaken, of their own volition, based on the evidence, reason and beliefs they find appropriate.

- Diversity - the system of education and educational resources should be structured so as to maximize autonomy. The intent and design of such a system should not be to in some way make everybody the same, but rather to foster creativity and diversity among its members, so that each person in a society instantiates, and represents, a unique perspective, based on personal experience and insight, constituting a valuable contribution to the whole.

- Openness - the system of education and educational resources should be structured so as to maximize openness. People should be able to freely enter and leave the system, and there ought to be a free flow of ideas and artifacts within the system. This is not to preclude the possibility of privacy, not to preclude the possibility that groups may wish to set themselves apart from the whole; openness works both ways, and one ought to be able to opt out as well as in. But it is rather to say that the structure of the system does not impede openness, and that people are not by some barrier shut out from the system as a whole.

- Interactivity - the system of education and educational resources should be structured so as to maximize interactivity. This is a recognition both that learning results from a process of immersion in a community or society, and second that the knowledge of that community or society, even that resulting from individual insight, is a product of the cumulative interactions of the society as a whole. Jut as a language represents the collective wisdom of a society, so also an insight represented in that language is based on that collective insight.

These four principles, in my mind, constitute a concrete guide to action. When faced with, for example, a software selection decision, these four principles enable a mechanism for deciding: does the software support individual autonomy, or must the individual 'see'; the world a certain way to use it; does the software foster diversity, or must the person use standardized operating systems, applications, or data formats; does the software foster openness, or is access locked down behind a series of logins and other restrictions; does the software promote interactivity, or do users work alone or depend on centralized facilities for communication?

In a similar manner, a consideration of pedagogies and educational strategies is also informed by these criteria. Comparing the lecture with a cooperative activity, for example, we see that the lecture tends to foster less autonomy (everyone must attend) and less diversity (everyone must watch and listen). But a lecture, under certain circumstances, may offer increased interactivity, and an open lecture (which people can leave!) enables autonomy. So we have a guide, not only as to whether to offer a lecture, but also how to improve lectures.

I hope these considerations are useful.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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