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Can education ever be open?

Back in the late nineties, as I was about to get my engineering degree from the University of Sv. Kiril i Metodij in Skopje, Macedonia, education on distance was promising to change the higher-level education forever. Over a decade later, we’re still to see truly revolutionary results — I guess Sir Ken Robinson‘s constant jet-lag as he’s touring the world in an attempt to transform the education systems is to attest to this 😦

Macedonia is a small country and at that time was still full of “youthful” aspirations for joining the economically far better off Western European cousins after the departure from Yugoslavia and the transition from socialism to democracy. The economic crisis in this period was not showing any signs of reaching its peak yet and this was fueling a great desire to find a quick way to steer the country on  a steady path to economic growth.

Unsurprisingly for such an environment, the idea of a virtual university looked very promising for attracting a wider audience of students, professionals, hobbyist and the like to improve their knowledge and contribute to the goal to catch up with the West. After all, the country had very high pool of people with high-school level of education, undergraduate dropouts, or professionals looking for a secondary degree in a new area that could benefit from the concept.

Many other education centers across Europe were already on the virtual education bandwagon or jumping on at the time — as I could personally experience by visiting few traditional centers in Germany, France and UK during my post-graduate studies that had a growing virtual offspring too. Though their motivation might have been different from the one Macedonia had, nevertheless everyone seemed to be hoping to expand their student base to people who would not have had an opportunity to get higher education otherwise.

After all, one could earn a degree from a prestige University in Western Europe or North America without having to leave their country of residence — quite attractive indeed and I would be wrong to claim no results of this type were seen!

If the trend was clear a decade ago, the question we should all be asking is why did the distance education not deliver on the promise to transform the way we see at and run education? My personal answer is that the distance education was addressing one problem, but overlooking another.

Before looking further let me stress something. I am a great fan of Sir Ken Robinson. He’s trying to point to us all what is wrong with the current education system and the assumptions and historical legacy it is based on. At the same time he’s actively engaging with various organizations and people around the world to start making changes that will trigger more institutions to join and spark a true education revolution.

At the same time, I am following various attempts to offer different education models, especially in the early ages (which interests me personally from the perspective of my daughters’ future), like Blue SchoolMontessori, even home-schooling. These are all moves in the right direction, though none of them individually would probably make a big difference to the life on Earth in the, say, 2030s, when the current generation of kids will enter the workforce and take on jobs that do not exist today.

The problem that distance education was trying to resolve was one of accessibility — good education required students with lots of free time on their hands and loads of money to join a top quality University campus and survive there for 5 or more years. Distance education brought a new opportunity for people of all ages and walks of life to still get good education from home and at a pace and time of their choosing for, presumably, a much smaller cost to the student. Unfortunately, distance education still struggles with one of the big problems I think need to be overcome for a truly revolutionized education — teaching materials, i.e. content that is at the same time dynamic as well as easily shareable, reusable and accessible, e.g. free under a fairly non-restrictive license like Creative Commons.

The problem that Sir Ken is pointing to and Blue School and alike are trying to address is one of rigidness — today’s education system still follows the principles set forth in the early ages of the Industrialization when “blue-collar” jobs were in demand. As Sir Ken argues, the recent focus on standardized testing pushed this problem to new heights as both teachers and students are grappling at reaching the high standards set by many institutions using those tests, overlooking the question of “softer” knowledge and skills like critical thinking, social and emotional intelligence, art inclination, generation of innovative ideas and novel approaches to problem solving, etc.

These are all super important skills for the new generations inheriting an over-consumed Earth whose systems are running under stress, so they can continue our path of innovation and fix some of our old mistakes along the way. However, like with distance education, the problem of proprietary content is still lurking in the few attempts I am aware of for creating a creative environment in which kids can acquire those skill.

Therefore, the first problem that should be addressed is one of openness!  As you can conclude so far, I think that free teaching materials, i.e. shared education content is important for the education revolution to succeed. The solution than is easy, just use technology to allow education institutions to share content, right? Maybe, but again, I don’t think this is enough.

The education content has to be highly dynamic so one doesn’t pay a lot of cost to update it as new knowledge becomes available or scientific theories get disproved and replaced by new ones. Granted, technological improvements will likely help to address this.

But having dynamic content shared between education institutions won’t let one personalize the education for the environment in which the education is applied. Therefore, the second problem is one of contextualization — a context-sensitive content and curriculum is needed. This would allow for education in which the community can shape and reshape the courses, involving equally the students and their families, as well as all interested organizations in the community surrounding those students to provide feedback, rate, vote and even modify the course program and teaching materials.

I’ve been thinking lately about the differences between services and platforms, — the former being a standardized solution for a generic or contained problem delivering immediate value to the users for little cost, — the later allowing the users themselves (or partner organizations) with some effort to implement a very specific solution that satisfies their precise needs in a personalized, i.e. context-sensitive way.

Platforms are clearly useful as they don’t limit the applicability to a certain problem (or a predefined set of problems). Unfortunately, in the past, they have been prohibitively complex and costly for end users or smaller groups of people to implement solutions with them.

However, the technological advances are overcoming many of those problems and the platforms are entering the everyday life — just think of YouTube, it’s not just a simple video sharing service, it can be used as a media outlet, portfolio site, recruiting base, performing stage, even educational tool!

On Twitter, Sir Ken recently stated “Revolutions come from new questions” and I can’t agree more!

My question is, can we start building an open education platform that would let educators, students, parents and the community to come together and create, reuse, reshape, adapt, adjust and ultimately share back the education materials and course programs used by the schools and other education institutions?

It will be hard! There will be many problems to resolve! There will be lots of noise to weed out the positive feedback and keep pulling in the right direction! But any other attempt that doesn’t address the problems of openness and contextualization will still lead to a rigid education controlled by various organizations with vested interest in the chosen education system, instead of those directly impacted by it, the students, the parents, the community.

I believe the new way is the way of open! It is the way where the recipients are involved in the decision making! It is the way of community-maintained as opposed to centrally-governed systems!

Our kids will inherit the future, we should let them learn from the past, not carry it over!

Categories: Education Tags: , ,
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  1. July 22, 2010 at 1:18 am

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