Monday, August 17, 2009

Edupunk and the New Ecology

On July 17, 1969, the New York Times printed a retraction to a 1920 editorial that read in part:
That Professor Goddard, with his 'chair' in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react -- to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.
Apparently the moon landing changed their minds about the way rockets work.

Failures of imagination are obvious in retrospect, and it particularly interesting to observe one's own shortcomings in creativity. The virtual ink is hardly dry on my post "Unplanned Obsolescence," where I described an idea for an eBay-like system of matching educational providers and consumers. Now I read that there's an even simpler system, and it already exists!

I remember reading sometime back about an eBay precursor, or mutant variation, perhaps--an evolutionary design that had no chance of surviving the Great Dot Com Crash. The business model for this extinct mercantile species was: buy the nation's junk, store it in great warehouses, mark it up and sell it online. This is like eBay, except that eBay only provides a place to bid. Buyers and sellers exchange money and items sold with no direct intervention from the online auction house. The idea of actually shelling out cash for all that stuff, holding it, and arranging for it to be shipped is obviously inferior. It's a case of simplifying down to the bare necessities.

The article "How Savvy Edupunks are Transforming American Higher Education" raises the question of what is this minimum delivery system in higher ed. Rather than my auction house idea, the article presents the idea of completely open education, where the resources are freely available. In order to have something concrete to talk about, let me assume the best case--that we want to deliver a computer science curriculum online. The students probably have access to the Internet and computers, and are probably comfortable with the technology. This subject, as opposed to something like learning glass-blowing, is very suitable for an open delivery system.

I see the following as the essential ingredients to effective open education. Probably in a month I'll realize how dumb I was and write another post decrying this analysis in favor of even simpler requirements. As Gauss said, to err and err but less and less...

Access to high quality learning resources. By this I mean automated or static materials: books, websites, interactive tutorials, compilers (since we're talking about computer science), editors, debuggers, and other software. This category does not include human resources, which we'll come to in a minute. Information becoming stale is always a problem, so we probably require an altruistic organizer of "best source" learning materials. Something like Wikipedia, perhaps.

A learning community. Even with do-it-yourself materials, there will be difficult patches requiring custom explanation and verification that you are on the right track. This could be provided by other students who are more advanced. If it's to be free, participation in the learning community has to be voluntary, with perhaps "soft" rewards like social networking karma. Here, status is formalized through official kudos of some sort.

Motivation to succeed. We might call this "grit" (see this post). This is the only part that cannot be provided externally, at least until pharmacology catches up. When a traditional college student is packed off to the dorms of his new ivy-bedecked home, there are social pressures that undoubtedly help motivate him to succeed. More so, at least, than if he were sitting at home and had to choose between YouTube and I-Learn, guess which one will win for most. (Take a guess where takes's surprising, and reveals something, here. Is this big web retailer getting into the ed market???).

Motivation is the weak link. I think it might be possible with the right social network apparatus to overcome the inertial tendencies of lone students at their computers. Perhaps something like (shudder) Second Life is the answer.

The new movement for open education is wildly optimistic. Self-described "edupunks" see the Internet transforming higher education for good. From the article:
The architects of education 2.0 predict that traditional universities that cling to the string-quartet model will find themselves on the wrong side of history, alongside newspaper chains and record stores. "If universities can't find the will to innovate and adapt to changes in the world around them," professor David Wiley of Brigham Young University has written, "universities will be irrelevant by 2020."
Some of the Ed 2.0 innovations available right now, cited in the article are (all quotes from the article):

Flat World Knowledge. Advertises itself as "Remixable textbooks by expert authors, free online, and affordable off." Affordable means $30 for hard copy, but downloads are free. This addresses access.

Academic Earth focuses exclusively on scholarly video lectures, and as such also addresses the content access area. Creator Richard Ludow has ambitious plans for the site: "My idea was to first, aggregate this huge critical mass of content disconnected over various sites; second, apply best practices in user interface design and Web standards to do for educational content what Hulu has done [for TV]; and third, build an educational ecosystem around the content."

Peer2Peer University. This social networking site provides an online place where "Would-be students can use the Web site to convene and schedule classes, meet online, and tutor one another; a volunteer facilitator for each course helps the process along." The home page encourages you to think of it as a sort of book club for motivated autodidacts. The seven courses currently on offer are eclectic, ranging from Neuroethics to Cyberpunk Literature.

University of the People. Describes itself as "the world’s first tuition-free, online academic institution dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education." There are two complete programs on offer, in Business Administration and Computer Science. You can see the recommended course sequence for the latter here. I haven't tried to compare it the the ACM standard, but it looks pretty solid to me. Note, however, that UoPeople is not yet accredited and does not confer degrees.

Western Governors University isn't free, but it's cheap: under $3000 for a six-month term, all online. The most interesting attribute to me is that grades and credits are gone. In President Mendenhall's words:
We said, 'Let's create a university that actually measures learning,' We do not have credit hours, we do not have grades. We simply have a series of assessments that measure competencies, and on that basis, award the degree.
And it's accredited by the Northwest Commission. I find this amazing, and will write more about how this works once I've had a chance to research it.

WGU tries to address the motivation problem:
For every 80 students, a PhD faculty member, certified in the discipline, serves as a full-time mentor. "Our faculty are there to guide, direct, counsel, coach, encourage, motivate, keep on track, and that's their whole job," Mendenhall says.
Teaching, assessment, and motivation are separate functions:
What WGU is doing is using the Internet to disaggregate the various functions of teaching: the "sage on the stage" conveyor of information, the cheerleader and helpmate, and the evaluator.
An expanding ecology of evolutionary solutions to the problem of higher education is evident in the list above. This can only grow as more innovations are tried, the successful ones surviving to create new models. Meanwhile, the traditional bricks and ivy institutions lumber along like edusaurus, oblivious to the changing climate. But that criticism is too easy, and perhaps unfair. There is value in the intense social environment of a face-to-face college experience. Moreover, there is the comfort of standardization: despite technological changes, the academy functions pretty much the same way it has for 1000 years. Ultimately the marketplace will sort out what value to place on these bonuses. For the motivated self-learners, for the lifelong learners, there will certainly be lots of options. As the WGU administration would probably agree, it's not what the diploma says that's ultimately important: it's what you can do.

1 comment:

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