If you read too many headlines today you might start to think education is catastrophically broken Fast company says: “We know our education system is broken. So why can’t we fix it?” Or: “America’s education system is broken, here is how to fix it.” Or, my favorite: “Broken education system to destroy everything.”
Now, I’m here today to talk about open online learning. But I’m not here to say that Open Online Learning will save education. You see, The Broken is rhetoric is often used to push quick fixes on whatever is broken. “Oh! Education is broken?” “Here’s this brand new thing that we can use to fix it. And quick.” Or to bill on Evgeny Morozov’s latest book on techno solutionism, “Education is broken? Click here to fix it.”
Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t problems in education. There are big problems in education. Problems of access, inequities, problems of quality and relevance. Those are big problems. But the rhetoric of crisis, a rhetoric of brokenness doesn’t help. As my friend Mike Cofield says, “A rhetoric of brokenness stifles important dialogue in favor of quick fixes. It ignores who needs to be at the table and brings only the powerful. But a rhetoric of opportunity opens incredible possibilities for transformation and education.” And that’s what I’m here to talk about today.
Because I believe that open online learning widely catalyzes those opportunities. Now, before we go any further I need to clarify some terms here. Because the words “open” and “online learning” are probably some of the most abused words in education right now. By “open” I mean that at its very core it should be accessible to as many people as possible. But that’s just the beginning. Because I think “accessible” can be pushed to reimaginable, editable, changeable, so that ideas can continue to grow. By “online” I mean that web technologies can connect people to information and to each other. And by learning I mean that it needs to significantly impact the way people think, what they do, what they say. I’m going to show you some examples today so we get a good idea of what I’m talking about.
And I promise you that it’s not going to be people clicking on a mouse to get rid of a speeding ticket. Because open online learning changes what we can do in the classroom. In 2010 when professor Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington decided to open up his course on digital storytelling he didn’t know what would happen. Would people contribute? And if they did, would they contribute useful things? Or useless things? Now, if you have been in a classroom before you know this is actually a pretty common concern. Because you know there’s that student in the back who is always going to derail the conversation. Right?
But when you open it up to the world you amplify that fear. Because you have no control. He knew it was a risk. But it was a risk he felt it was worth taking. So he put up his course online. And he opened it up to the world, invited people to join. And boy, did they. Before the class even started at the University of Mary Washington, over 200 blog posts had been written about the course or for the course.
People began crowdsourcing assignments for the students to complete. And they’d even complete them themselves and share the results back with the students. Even though they weren’t getting credit for it. One participant even created an internet radio station for the course. To allow people to have a voice, a connection place, associated with the course. And if you ask Jim what’s really incredible about this is that his students began to connect to each other and to the world in ways he could have never imagined, doing things, and taking their learning places that he could have never done, him alone in the classroom.
In fact, if you ask some of the participants in the class they will tell you that they are DS106 for life. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a student say that about a course that I have taught. Jim’s students became networked learners and networked learners can do amazing things. A networked learner can connect to people through her blog while she’s studying abroad. Connect to people in her host country and learn from them while she’s studying abroad. A networked learner can start a company with three people she’s never met face to face, but knows because they worked together in an open online course. A networked learner can take his learning far beyond the confines of a classroom. But that’s not all.
Because open online learning changes the way we teach. A couple of years ago, Stanford professor Jennifer Widom decided to open her course up online on introduction to databases. And she also made the materials available for you so that other professors could use her materials as well.
Now, I have to stop here and just say what Jennifer did, what Jim did, that’s really brave. We come from a society where we want to kind of protect our ideas we want to close around them Make sure we are recognized for them. And the problem with that mindset is that it’s so limiting. It limits what we can do when we build on each other’s great ideas.
What happened with Jennifer’s course? Well, as you can imagine, people flocked to it. Including professors at the University of Puerto Rico, Vanderbilt University and others. What they did is something I affectionately call “The distributed flip.” They assigned for their students Jennifer’s materials online since it was an open course and they could do that. And then they used class time for really engaging, meaningful hands-on learning experiences for their students. Pretty cool. But they didn’t stop there.