Monday, April 23, 2012

Open-Source Education

(This is the fifteenth in what will eventually be series of 26 posts I’ve undertaken: each post centers on a topic suggested by the next letter of the alphabet from the previous post. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.)

I've been thinking a lot over the course of this year about where schools stand in relation to the idea of education. This is not, of course, a new topic, people have been beating it to death since pretty much forever. (I remember reading Coming of Age in America nearly 50 years ago now, in which Edgar Z. Friedenberg made the case that the real purpose of schooling was not in fact to educate at all, but essentially to ensure the orderly flow of human traffic into the workplace. And Anya Kamenetz, among many others, has been banging this drum hard.) So it is not my purpose here to break any new ground conceptually but simply to attempt to articulate a couple of core ideas which feel in part like realizations and in part like forebodings.

One huge factor in what I see playing out now in terms of education is the rise of open-source education. What seemed unimaginable 30 years ago is now ubiquitous: the availability of pretty much any information you might desire to find via the internet; and the archiving, curation and distribution of that information by both free and for-profit institutions such as Google, Apple, Amazon, TED, Khan Academy, iTunes U, museums, online schools and universities, brick-and-mortar schools and universities offering selected courses in online and blended versions, online versions of virtually every American (and international) newspaper or magazines of consequence, and so on and so on and so on. Not to mention the peer-to-peer sharing and distribution of both commercial and homegrown content via Facebook and Twitter and Flickr and the like, nor what shows up on any given day on any one (or all) of a bazillion blogs.

A second huge factor is ongoing democratization of the means of production of pretty much any creative content. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, either, if you wanted to publish a book you needed to land a contract with a publisher, unless you were willing to pay through the nose for a vanity press to put out a limited edition at your own expense. (Which is what Thoreau did, leading him at one point to write in his diary "I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself.") If you wanted to put out a record, you had to get a contract from a record company, which would structure that contract in such a way that they would get theirs before you got yours, if ever. Today, that's all gone. Anyone who wants to write a book, or make a movie, or put out a single, or have a one-man art show, can do entirely on his own and make it instantly available to anyone in the world who is of a mind to view it, using technology he can carry around in a backpack. This is not news. Everybody knows this.

The third huge factor, related to the second, is that the gatekeeping agencies, the ones who got to decide what was good enough to be published, what was good enough to be recorded, what was good enough to get into the art show, have been displaced. Oh, they're still there, all right, and huffing and puffing mightily to preserve what's left of the power and influence they once held close, but the story is no longer about them. The story is about the individual writers and singers and artists and computer programmers and entrepreneurs of whatever stripe who can create whatever they please using tools available to anyone and market them immediately to whatever audience they are capable of attracting. It is, as they say, a whole new ball game.

So what does this have to do with schools? Well, everything. What we've already seen happen in the music industry and what is now happening in the publishing industry is, IMHO, merely the harbinger of what is to come—what is already happening—in education.

First question: why should students spend their time in schools learning what someone else has decided they need to know, when they could just as easily and much more more conveniently and (for those students whose parents are paying for a private school education) much less expensively learning what they want to learn on their own schedule in their own way: by taking online courses, by pursuing individual investigations, by seeking out the resources and the mentors to learn what you need to learn in order to be able to do what you need to do.

Second question: once students who have opted to go this route and have put in their 10,000 hours developing whatever highly-evolved skill set they are inclined to want to develop, what employer in his right mind is going to say, "Look, I know you have the skills I'm looking for, but you don't have a college degree (or a GED) so I'm just going to take this nice young man over here who has no demonstrable practical skills, but has proven that he is capable of enduring sixteen years of following directions in series of classrooms, so I'm going to go with him.

Third question: once the hierarchy of accreditation (the high school diplomas, the college degrees, the WASCs and the NEASCs and the College Boards and the other certifying agencies begin to lose their sway, who will get to say what quality is, what is good enough, and what is not? It's pretty straightforward. If you can get enough people to take you seriously, you're serious. If you can't, you're going to have to try again, or try something else. The flip side of the democratization of education is the crowdsourcing of educational validation.

Obviously, not everyone has the energy or individual initiative to want to go this route, or the perseverance and ingenuity to succeed at it if they do. But I think that it is not unlikely that many of what are now our best students are going to be strongly tempted to take their educations into their own hands. Especially if our schools continue to gulp down the current politically-generated Kool-aid cocktail combination of common core standards and high stakes testing, the effect of which is to drive everything that is not going to be on The Test—which is to say, everything of potential real interest to either students or teachers—right out of the classroom.

It boils down to this. Once upon a time, back in the day, students went to schools (and to libraries, and to bookstores) because that was the only path available to get to information that they needed in order to learn, and the only place to make the acquaintance of people outside of your family and friends that you might learn something from. Now that information, and those resources, are available right from where I am sitting right now as I type this at the kitchen table. In a few minutes I will hit the "publish" button and voila, there will be the evidence of this night's labors, for anyone who cares to see it. So the question we should be thinking about, the question we should be caring about and acting upon, if we care at all about schools, is "In a world where information is cheap and ubiquitous, what should schools be all about?"

I think there are good answers to that question, about which more later, maybe tomorrow. But I don't think those answers match up to very much of what I see going on in schools today.

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