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Welcome to the Education Renaissance

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post, Education, March 27, 2012

Today’s disruptive changes in education – from the proliferation of digital devices to the availability of open educational resources, online universities, and badge-based certification – have the field abuzz like never before. Recently I had the opportunity to give a talk at WNET’s Celebration of Teaching and Learning on creating the conditions for innovation in education. When I began to prepare my talk, I wasn’t sure if it were just my perception that we are on the verge of something extraordinary, or if something really is afoot. In the search for a way to test my perceptions about education today, with its emergence from policy changes such as No Child Left Behind and sobering statistics such as increases in college costs and deeply disturbing high school drop-out rates, I began to play with the notion that we might be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel similar to what happened after the Dark Ages.

Perhaps what we are witnessing is the 21st century’s version of the Renaissance: the education renaissance. The education renaissance that took off at the beginning of the 21st century bears a close resemblance to its 16th century counterpart, during which a blossoming in arts and the sciences swept Europe for the next 300 years and led to scientific discoveries as well as significant developments in the arts. What we are experiencing today in education has been spurred by six forces, all remarkably similar to developments that led to the Renaissance. A look at these forces might give us insights into what lies ahead, if not in the next three centuries, then at least in the next three decades.

First, is the invention of new technology. In the 15th century, the invention of the printing press allowed access to books and greater literacy, which in turn led to the establishment of universities. In the same way, the creation of the Internet and its widespread adoption through inexpensive digital devices, including mobile phones and tablets, has empowered billions of people with the ability to achieve literacy and access information, including learning resources.

Second, is the infusion of large amounts of cash into the arts and sciences. During the Renaissance, patrons in Italy who profited from trading and banking sponsored artists and scientists, from Leonardo da Vinci to Galileo. During the past 25 years, billionaire philanthropists across the U.S. and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley who have profited from business have invested vast amounts of cash into high-tech businesses, which have in turned fueled the development of inexpensive digital devices and thousands of applications, including educational programs. In addition, foundations established through the funds of successful entrepreneurs have sponsored many for-profit and non-profit breakthrough initiatives in education and learning.

Third, is the emphasis on humanism, or the unique and extraordinary ability of the human mind. For the first time, during the Renaissance, ordinary people, rather than biblical figures or wealthy patrons, became the subjects of artists. Today, educators, parents, and students place a priority on the personalization of learning, and programs are being tailored with an emphasis on the individual learner’s style of acquiring knowledge. For example, Daniel Hillis, one of the pioneers of parallel computing, is developing a learning map from the vast database of human knowledge so that individuals can access knowledge in a way that best suits their needs.

Fourth, is the emergence of a vibrant artistic culture with a focus on realism and advances in architectural design. One of the hallmarks of today’s digital culture is the emergence of a vibrant, highly interactive environment, where everyone is given the chance to participate. Digital architecture includes blogs, videos, tweets, Facebook and other social networking platforms that encourage the exchange of information and opinion about virtually everything.

Fifth, is the democratization of learning. Through the invention of the printing press, which made books affordable, and the rediscovery of ancient texts on science and mathematics, knowledge became more accessible to people living in Europe during the Renaissance. In a similar fashion, the invention of the Internet and accessibility through the affordability of digital hardware and connectivity, has allowed more people to get on the Internet, and to participate in social learning. In addition, the emphasis on freely sharing knowledge, through OER Commons and programs like Udacity, CK-12 FlexBooks, and courses by universities like MIT, has created a dramatic cultural shift in the way learning is distributed, open, and collaborative.

Last, is the creation of a process for discovery. In the Renaissance, inventors and scientists developed a process for discovery, which eventually led to the scientific method. Today, new collaborative techniques, such as crowdsourcing, collective brainstorming, and the open publication of scientific discoveries, has led to such creations as Wikipedia, PLoS, and astronomy sites in which millions of people with only a connection to the Internet can contribute to the discovery of a new star, planet, or galaxy. From Galileo to the millions of potential new scientists on our planet today, the new education renaissance holds as great a promise for the future as did its counterpart.

While some are quick to dismiss the disruptive changes in education today, I think we should welcome the highly collaborative, personalized, and affordable opportunities new digital technologies offer learners throughout the world. Although these same technologies create problems, they offer more people the chance to learn, create, and share knowledge. And like the Renaissance, the education renaissance can also lead to a more humanistic and connected world.

You Say You Want a Virtual Revolution?

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post, September 17, 2009

In a provocative commentary published in Sunday’s Washington Post, frequent Huffington Post blogger Zephyr Teachout predicts that “a virtual revolution is brewing for colleges.” What digital technology has done to the newspaper business, it will soon do to higher education, she argues.

Increasingly, notes Teachout, college students are assembling courses and credits in much the same way that they assemble the news, stitching together bits and pieces from around the Web. Just as The New York Times and The Economist will have their niche subscribers, a handful of elite schools will continue to attract young people who want the traditional, four-year campus experience, complete with dorm rooms, dining halls, and 8:00 AM seminars. Sooner or later, though—within a generation, Teachout predicts—consumer demand will force the majority of colleges to replace live classroom instruction with videotaped lectures, self-guided Web sites, and on-line chats moderated by adjuncts.

For the most part, Teachout gets the story right. When it comes to providing students with low-cost courses, credits, and credentials, virtual institutions have a tremendous advantage. Traditional colleges can’t hope to compete with them unless they become more like them, cutting back on facilities and tenured faculty and taking other major steps to reduce and reallocate expenses.

But there are a couple of important caveats to add to Teachout’s argument.

While it’s true that the Web-based economy poses tough new challenges for higher education, we shouldn’t let ourselves get too sentimental about the way things were in the old days.

For example, Teachout concludes her piece by lamenting that if tenured faculty go the way of the dinosaurs, so too will “academic freedom, unpressured research and intellectual risk-taking,” and all of us will “lose a precious academic tradition that is not easily replaced.” Let’s remember, though, that this is the same precious tradition that has given us canned lectures that remain unchanged year after year, delivered to 800 students at a time, with discussion sections led by untrained graduate students. It has also given us inflexible class schedules that make it difficult for parents and people with full-time jobs to attend. It has given us nonsensical policies on credit transfer, incoherent curricular requirements, and student advising and support services unaligned with academic needs. It has rewarded faculty for publishing in seldom read journals but not for their teaching and service. And it has prized institutional rankings, departmental reputations, and athletic victories over and above public needs.

In short, let’s not assume that the University of Phoenix and other for-profit and virtual institutions are putting the screws on a grand academic tradition. Colleges and universities did that all on their own, long before the Internet came along.

On-line higher education isn’t replacing good academic practices with bad ones. It’s just providing certain kinds of cookie-cutter instruction more efficiently, offering students more convenient and affordable ways to pursue specific kinds of training, certificates, and degrees.

My takeaway from Teachout’s article isn’t that we should be saddened and alarmed by the impending decline of higher education. Rather, I think that the moment is a hopeful one for the type of learning that could take place in academe.

Teachout assumes that if virtual institutions seize the market for delivering particular sorts of courses and credentials, then traditional colleges will have no choice but to become more like them. However, they do in fact have another choice—they can cede that part of the market to the competition, and they can make it a priority to differentiate themselves by investing in the kind of high-quality undergraduate education that should have been their focus all along.

Moreover, if colleges make that choice, they’ll find digital technology to be more friend than foe. On-line, videotaped lectures don’t have to replace faculty—they can free up those faculty to do more valuable work, such as providing students with individualized instruction, personally engaging them in discussion, and giving them intensive help with their writing, research projects, and lab work.

Likewise, open-source curricular materials don’t have to undermine professors’ autonomy—they can save them the time and energy they used to spend re-inventing courses, re-designing assignments and exams, and tracking down materials. And electronic record-keeping doesn’t have to become yet another means of squeezing profit out of students—rather, it can be used to measure their progress and improve their advising and support services.

In discussions about the intersection of technology and education, it’s always tempting to imagine that technology has the upper hand, deciding the fate of the teachers and students who use it. But in truth, the conflict is not between the Web and academic tradition. Today, as always, it’s real people who must figure out which sorts of teaching and learning they value, who should provide what kinds of higher education to whom, and how education can be made relevant by using the best technology at hand.

Photo CC BY NC Lars Kristian Flem


Open Educational Resources: The Education Ecosystem Comes to Life

This post originally appeared in Opensource.com, January 29, 2010

I was asked to explain why the introduction of open educational resources into the education ecosystem might in fact be one of the most important things that has happened to education in the last 100 years. I guess in centuries before we might have said that it was the Socratic Method, or the advent of public schooling, or teaching to the agrarian calendar. Each of these has certainly contributed to moving some part of learning more visibly into the public sphere. Similarly, open educational resources (broadly defined as educational content that is made free to use or share, with the intention of being able to modify content and reshare it back out to the commons), has in many ways taken education by storm (and surprise in some cases). Why?

Because it provides a learner-centered platform that authentically marries technology with education, provides access and equity to education resources for all, and last but not least, is in some cases enabling the re-professionalism of teaching.

The concept, in some ways, is fairly simple. I create a lesson plan and activities for my class and I post it online. I license it in a way that allows others to use it for free, to share it, to adapt it to their own unique teaching needs, and then to re-post it for others to use. Teacher B comes along and says, “Hey, I like that, but I don’t think Teacher A really got that part right.” So Teacher B modifies the content, improving it in the process, adds some additional activities and reposts online. And so on. Why is this a great idea? Well, because now, not only has this material become a part of a continuous improvement cycle, it has also been made available for anyone else in the world to use. An added benefit is if you assume that Teacher A and B are paid by the state (such as a public school teacher or 2- or 4- year public college or university instructor), then we’ve even already paid for this content through our well-spent tax dollars. Either way, licensing content openly signals the start of the “commons” a place where all people, teachers and learners, can have access to the world’s knowledge. It’s free, sharable, dynamic, and remixable.

Early on in the open education movement, the case was made that free content would save the education sector millions of dollars if they didn’t have to buy expensive textbooks (perhaps there is something to be learned from the demise of the Recording Industry?). However, more affordable education is just one part of the package. But perhaps equally as important, to an educator like myself, is the potential that open education resources have to offer the professionalism of teaching. At ISKME, our research in open education and also in working with teachers and educators around the globe, we have seen that while reduced cost and ease of use have been initial drivers of use, open content also encourages new patterns of collaboration in curriculum development and in enhanced student-centered learning. It places the teacher back in the driver’s seat as the pedagogy expert. But best of all, this is no longer accomplished alone in a silo as many teachers currently practice their craft, but in an open space that encourages collaboration, improvement, access, and innovation.

One example of this is ISKME’s OER Commons, an open education network that focuses on the curation and federation of open content from over 200 content partners (such as NASA, MIT OpenCourseware, WGBH, and many others). This has evolved into the networking and professional development of teachers worldwide who collaborate on improving and creating open content. A key component of this work has been to help educate the educators about copyright and content licensing as well as to introduce social collaboration environments that serve as catalysts to encourage teachers and learners to the shift from a consumer culture of education (where teachers deliver and students buy) to one in which teachers and learners gain leadership and support to share and build expertise from within.

Now what would Socrates think of that?

Photo CC BY SA opensource.com

An Interview By Robert Scoble (in the ISKME garden)

Last year, Robert Scoble came by the ISKME office to say hi and see what we were up to. As I was giving him a tour of our community garden, he looked around and said, “Great, let’s sit here and talk.” So we pulled up a couple of chairs and I began telling him about some of the work we were doing around open source education, trying to make all education content freely available with OER Commons, how I went from being an academic refuge to a social entrepreneur, and how I thought there was never a more exciting time to be working in the field of education. He then said, “Wait a minute, I want to go grab my camera in the car.” I guess I should have known better, or at the very least combed my hair in honor of Half Moon Bay’s own resident tech celebrity. Nonetheless, we had a great chat (even though I was squinting the entire time sans sunglasses). A year later I ran into him at The Tech Awards and he introduced me to a colleague as an “education revolutionary.” He then quickly quipped, “Well, actually, you aren’t revolutionary enough yet!” If you see him around, please let him know that I’ve taken that as a personal challenge!

Here is Robert’s introduction to the video:

“Open sharing of knowledge. It’s revolutionary. Just a few years ago it would be unthinkable to be able to watch college lectures on the Internet without paying for them, but that’s exactly what’s happening. What else is happening to education? Lisa Petrides, who runs the Institute for the study of knowledge management in education, or ISKME, sits down with me for a long talk about trends in education.”

Digital Textbooks, Real Gains for Education

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post, June 16, 2009

fortune cookie that says "open textbooks are in your future"

Governor Schwarzenegger has a plan to make California the first state in the nation to provide its schools with free digital textbooks. The initiative would start this fall with online materials for high school math and science classes. The Governor explained his thinking in an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury:

California is home to software giants, bioscience research pioneers and first-class university systems known around the world. But our students still learn from instructional materials in formats made possible by Gutenberg’s printing press.
It’s nonsensical — and expensive — to look to traditional hard-bound books when information today is so readily available in electronic form. Especially now, when our school districts are strapped for cash and our state budget deficit is forcing further cuts to classrooms, we must do everything we can to untie educators’ hands and free up dollars so that schools can do more with fewer resources.

The Governor is right that this effort could easily turn out to have a significant long-term impact on public education.

For one thing — and much like a similar effort now underway in the state’s community colleges — it could save Californians money as well as leverage the investment already paid for with tax-payer dollars. The K-12 school system now spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year on traditional textbooks, even though free or lower-cost alternatives could be easily developed and distributed online. Additionally, most teachers in California already have access to computers, so it is not as if brand new technology is needed. And, it’s not as if most of our students aren’t already tech savvy.

School districts, educators, and individual authors across the country have put a wealth of resources on the Web (including lesson plans, teaching guides, and primary source materials in history, literature, math, science, and other subject areas). Many of these resources are well-designed and offer more dynamic and current material than conventional textbooks that students currently have access to.

Perhaps even more important is the potential impact on student learning when teachers become more actively engaged in the sharing and reuse of curriculum materials. What’s truly innovative about the Governor’s plan, and what could make it a national model to support effective use of educational technology, is its support for “open-source” textbooks–i.e., online resources that have alternative copyright licensing, meaning that teachers can freely share and adapt to meet their local needs.

For example, say that a history teacher is looking for material that would supplement the textbook on the American Revolution. In an open-source world, it’s easy for the teacher to go online, find additional materials or text, and modify what they are using. Or if a unit on photosynthesis turns out to be too simple for this year’s biology class. Why not just add a few extra pages of more advanced material? Additionally, imagine that the teacher can now offer that to other teachers, so that the wheel will not need to be reinvented the next time by yet another teacher.

No doubt, some teachers will stick to the textbook as is–for example, the novice teacher might be more likely to appreciate the page-by-page structure that a static textbook provides. However, many others will revel in the opportunity to share favorite materials online, update old ones, try out new ones, and talk with colleagues about what works, what doesn’t, and why.

That’s the sort of conversation that should occur among professionals in any field, and it’s the kind of collegial exchange and professional discretion that has been missing in schools for some time.

In the case of technology, it’s true that we need to be realistic. It does cost money to support the necessary technology infrastructure for an effort like this. But now is an opportunity to leverage what we have already spent, both in terms of technology as well as in what teachers already bring to the table. Classroom instruction is difficult and sometimes unpredictable work, and teachers cannot and should not be taken out of the equation. Rather than always trying to “teacher proof” the classroom, that is, telling educators which course content to focus on when, we can improve teaching and learning by allowing teachers to have access to high-quality materials and tools and the professional leeway to exercise their pedagogical judgment.

If the Governor’s initiative delivers on its promise to provide teachers with open-source digital textbooks, that’s not to say that all will be smooth sailing from then on. For the past years, I’ve been involved with providing free-to-use education resources at the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education. We’ve experienced some of the growing pains. We know that, inevitably, some schools will be challenged to strengthen the materials of their teachers that might be poorly designed, or that need to be aligned to curriculum standards as they evolve over time. This continuous improvement is, in fact, the beauty of open source education.

It’s not as if open-source textbooks will do away with oversight, though. Administrators and school boards will still provide input, direction, and–when necessary–veto power over instructional decision that does not meet their quality criteria, for example. And in any case, that’s a small price to pay for the chance to build a more independent and intellectually rewarding culture of collaboration and sharing in California’s schools.

Given the tremendous potential to leverage costs already spent and the efforts of teachers in curriculum development, what free digital textbooks can offer the state over time is huge. And, given the flexibility they provide teachers and students, this one’s a no-brainer. The Governor’s initiative deserves to be watched closely and supported without hesitation if we are really serious about not giving up on innovation in education.

‘Superman’ Puts Spotlight on Education

This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post, September, 28, 2010

On opening night I got to see the new documentary by Davis Guggenheim, “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” a film that is bringing cognitive dissonance to educators across the country. Before that, I had read a dozen or so well-written blogs that had described in detail the movie’s “anti-teacher, union-bashing and pro-charter school stance” purportedly portrayed in the film, some by those who had seen early previews of the movie (and by several who had not). Therefore, I found myself more than a bit surprised when I walked out after seeing the movie — amidst a teacher protest that was taking place outside of the theater — feeling what I can only describe as relief. I felt relief because the film had rather skillfully named the proverbial elephant(s) in the room, raising issues that many educators find extraordinarily uncomfortable to talk about. And I thought, is there room for a new dialogue now that these problems had been expressed so publicly?

For some, the education problem in this country is one of social justice and eradicating poverty. To others it is about staying competitive in science and technology, or making sure we have an abundance of critical thinkers, global problem solvers, and creative minds. To say that the film offers evidence of the parts of the system that are broken is probably an understatement. But at the same time, to say that one film by itself can tell the story of all education in the country seems foolhardy. And to Guggenheim’s credit, he does not attempt to tell all stories about our education system.

He tells a story through a poignant journey of the promise of education as seen through the lives of five low-income families who are desperate to provide their children with a better life — a life which they know can only be obtained through education. It portrays failing public schools and the limited opportunities for these children to get into public charter schools that have demonstrated high levels of success. The title of the film is taken from a line by one the film’s stars who tells us the story of realizing as a young boy that Superman is not a real person, and therefore, no one is going to magically come along and save him and his community. The film shows the real heroes (not Superman) as the educators who work tirelessly to create a system in which all can succeed. At the end, you’d have to have a heart of stone to not feel the disappointment of the families who are denied that opportunity (via a lottery).

Conversations about education reform are taking place every day, at education conferences, in online forums, in teachers’ rooms across the country, etc. But it is time that public education be on everyone’s agenda, not just teachers, administrators, and education reformers. However, airing our dark secrets in a more transparent public debate is something we do infrequently. And it is uncomfortable. Because, after all, why, after decades of education reform, are these problems as prevalent as ever?

Perhaps riding on the coattails of the movie, NBC sponsored a teacher town hall on Sunday, in which teachers’ voices were heard on a nationally broadcast. That is not something we see every day. And what was surprising to outsiders (perhaps even to the host himself) was that not all teachers agreed on the solutions. For example, younger teachers in the audience were adamant that teacher tenure was keeping incompetent colleagues in place and stymied their ability to innovate. These teachers had taught both in public schools, as well as public charter schools, and had seen a difference. In what professions wouldn’t its workers be demoralized by those who do not perform?

I left the film thinking about how public education as a system is entrenched in old ways of doing things. I did not leave thinking unions were obsolete. Teachers want to create better schools. So do unions. These were tireless teachers, and hard-working administrators. The film gave us no silver bullets. The film itself notes that only one in five charters is highly successful. While we know that any large systems, unions, governments, etc., are hard to innovate within, the question raised in the film was a good one: How can we be sure that the decisions we make in education truly put the needs of the kids before the adults. Are there better ways of organizing human talent? How can we support all the young people in a city, not just the few? Are there great ideas incubating in public charter schools that can scale into traditional public schools? What about new strategies to engage students and allow them more freedom to love learning by learning what they love, more transparency, more support for risk-taking. We need new ways to think about using resources, and strategies to move us away from where we are now to achieving a vision of what a new kind of education might look like. It’s worth thinking about.

We all know that a good education should not be determined by a lottery. “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” puts that squarely in our face. Yet, my hope is that we can resist the urge to turn this film into a story about heroes and villains. We have an opportunity to bring the public into an open debate on public education. The spotlight is on education like never before. Can we use this opportunity to start meaningful dialogue and discussion? To spur a movement catalyzed by the conversation? Education can learn a great deal from the innovators in this country. Not the least of which is that innovation can be scary. It takes courage and risk-taking, and outcomes are often unknown before you start. Let us use this as an opportunity to write the storyboard for the documentary that will come out five or 10 years from now.

ISKME’s OER Commons Teacher Training Initiative Wins OPAL Award

An international jury selected The Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) as the winner of the prestigious 2011 OPAL Award for Bodies Which Influence Policy. ISKME was recognized at the OPAL Awards delivered at Online Educa Berlin on December 2, 2011, on the basis of its OER Commons Teacher Training Initiative. The Award for Bodies which Influence Policy is given to a global, regional or national organization providing the conditions or resources for open educational practices, or encouraging excellence in open educational practices.

ISKME’s OER Commons Teacher Training Initiative offers teachers a collaborative professional development model centered on engagement with Open Educational Resources (OER). Since 2009, ISKME has trained over 1,500 teachers from 25 countries in its program focused on collaborative innovation and social learning using open curriculum and open teacher-led approaches. In 2011, ISKME launched a Green OER Commons micro-site with Greek partner Agro-Know, delivering sustainability-related learning resources and interdisciplinary lesson plans, including a focus on STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Math) resources.

The OER Commons Teacher Training Initiative is rooted in the idea that equitable access to high-quality education is a global imperative. Open Educational Resources, or OER, offer opportunities for systemic change in teaching and learning through accessible content, and importantly, through embedding participatory processes and effective technologies to engage with learning for all. Partnering with key stakeholders and working with teachers globally, ISKME is addressing the central issues related to teacher roles and skills, and to the challenges related to access and customization of high-quality curriculum worldwide.

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