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Meedan at World Innovation Summit for Education WISE 2011

I have just returned from this year’s World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Doha, where I had the honor to Chair a panel on ‘Online Platforms for Global Collaboration’.

Doha is a bit surreal – a sort of heritage zone for brilliant modern architecture put to the purpose of transitioning this tiny Gulf emirate to a knowledge economy by 2030.

WISE 2011 was, not surprisingly, framed with a nod to the Arab Spring – ‘Changing Societies, Changing Education’.  However, coming to Doha, as I was, from a Cairo where Alaa Abd El Fattah sits in a jail cell, and in the shadow of rising daily body counts in Syria, the intended hopeful referent certainly does not fit. However, I would argue that the stalling of the Arab revolutions provides even more justification for WISE and its goals to improve global education.

When these emerging democracies arrive to a world whose markets, economies, and conflicts are global – we should really consider the educational challenge for the 21st century to be building global competencies and literacies.  Which recommends that the systems and solutions for addressing these challenges be network driven. Which recommends that we look at means to connect learners, teachers, and classrooms – with access to open materials (OERs) and access to each other.

My three panelists at WISE 2011 were: "Ilkka Tuomi, the founder of Meaning Processing Ltd., known, among other things as one of the pioneers of Internet in Finland and for his research on open source innovation models; Catherine Ngugi, Project Director of OER Africa, an initiative of Saide, the South African Institute for Distance Education; and, Richard Baraniuk, Founder and Director of Connexions, distinguished professor of computer science at Rice University.

The text below is excerpted from the prepared notes for the panel by Myself, Ilkka, Catherine, and Richard – if you don’t have time to watch the full video – which I do recommend to get a sense for the massive positive response from the overflow crowd – then this should give you a fair sense for the conversation which arced from Ilkka’s theory to Catherine’s practice to Rich’s call for the critical challenges he sees for the coming ‘second phase’ of OER platforms.

Ed Bice

The framing of this year’s WISE ‘Changing Societies, Changing Education’ raises the question of how revolutions transition to constructive improvements in societies – how revolution contributes to societal evolution.  This consideration is at the heart of any innovation process – be it social or educational. As we consider today how to innovate in educational technologies and practices, we must consider how our revolutionary proclamations are going to ‘play’ in the classrooms of the world – how they can meaningfully evolve existing educational systems and practices.

With revolutions in the world and in our educational practices the dance between stability and change is imprecise and ad hoc. However, I will assert the following as imperatives:

1. We must innovate the very form of the text – the idea that knowledge is contextual should not remain merely a philosophical observation- rather, we must innovate technologies that allow OERs to be deeply contextual, we must allow knowledge to be accessed and written in the thousand tellings of a place or an event or a movement. The wiki is a profound and important technology, and it will remain so for many years, however, as we consider innovating on this form we should begin with recognizing that the critical learning in global literacy is the semantic humility that comes when we recognize history and knowledge as acted, written, and read in thin slices of a larger ‘truth’. A vision for global education happening via networked teaching-learners and learning-teachers opens the door to ‘con-texts’. The ability to remix and annotate educational materials is simply what students of the read/write generation expect of their world. As they are authoring social change we need to encourage them to author their educations.

  1. Language is a primary access to knowledge issue – localization and translation workflow must be front and center as a priority for global education. Language may be the most obvious lens through which we frame knowledge – as we work to globalize OER we must think about access and authoring tools that support multi-lingual OERs. This is a particular interest of our team at Meedan.

Ilkka Tuomi

“While moving towards the future, it is important to ask who should be on the focus of learning. When the educational system performs poorly, the focus often needs to be on teachers. Teacher-oriented collaboration platforms that provide standards, guidelines, and high-quality resources for teaching can then have a high impact. For educational systems that already perform well, collaboration platforms can focus more on student interaction and social learning, and diffusion of educational innovations among teachers and other stakeholders. Then the capability to freely modify and re-use existing content and resources becomes increasingly important.

Open educational resources are the way of the future because they allow those types of learning processes that are increasingly dominant in the future. Learning will be increasingly peer-based, social, interactive, distributed, continuous, and contextual, and its focus will shift from the upstream knowledge sources towards downstream pools of meaning

The OER movement, however, is simultaneously both ahead of its time and stuck in the past. The problem is not really about improving the quality of content that is distributed freely using collaboration platforms. Instead of optimizing current content and educational systems we need to change education and rethink what quality means after the Industrial Age. To get useful outcomes from OER and to make it productive, the focus needs to be on transforming educational institutions, teacher training, and incentive systems, and aligning them with the logic of the emerging networked and innovation-intensive world.

Indeed, OER is a revolutionary force. But it also needs a revolution to become real. Innovation and creative destruction require a careful balance between stability and change. This can only be accomplished by visionary leadership and broad engagement by all the stakeholders.”

Catherine Ngugi

“Neither the technological quality of an online platform nor its ability to facilitate collaboration, is dependent on whether the source coding is openly shared as would be the case with an Open Source Platform, or if that source coding is inaccessible, as is usually the norm with a platform built using commercial software. Thus the openness – or not – of the software used to build an online platform is only one, in a range of criteria, that will result in whether or not that platform is a useful tool for collaboration between networks of educators.

So to the question – Can online platforms, including teacher networks dedicated to sharing best practice and promoting innovation, really provide a means for building the knowledge base – including in less developed countries – or do they simply facilitate the relatively uncoordinated exchange of ideas? – the answer is clearly that online platforms might do either. That in fact the role a platform plays in promoting either a cohesive and well co-ordinated sharing of ideas, or instead, a jumbled sharing of disconnected streams of consciousness, depends not only on the technical quality of the platform, but more so, on the extent to which those for whom the platform has been constructed are equipped and willing to use it.

In many developing countries faced with the imperative to educate a greater cadre of professionals, mid-level managers, teachers, doctors, nurses, technicians and so forth, print-based Distance Education coupled with good tutorial and assessment feedback systems, remains critical even as global improvements in technology have enabled the development of new forms of pedagogy. It is within this context that proponents argue that Open Educational Resources (OER) have the potential to revive higher education standards, make curricula once more current and contextually relevant and foster collaboration and knowledge sharing between institutions, all of which will in turn benefit the students.

“Whether or not one agrees with the OER proponents, it is worth noting that in this digital era, the free flow and sharing of educational content is already a reality. In most instances it is already too late for faculty to be asking why I should share my content – because the chances are that their students are already doing so.

We at OER Africa have found that when the process of development and adaptation of OER is guided by the real need for relevant resources, these processes have provided faculty with practical opportunities to learn or re-learn pedagogical skills; acquire new technical skills; and served the needs of students to acquire pertinent and applicable competences, where relevant resources either did not exist or were simply too expensive to acquire legally. In many instances, collaborative endeavor has been integral to these processes.

Imagine how much richer the global knowledge base would be if those involved in such innovative practices in the developing world as well as elsewhere – those who struggled as well as those who triumphed – could access an online platform to share with others how they were able, for example, to move away from an over-reliance on lectures as a means of delivering the curriculum, to a facilitator role of guiding their students and encouraging a more problem based and collaborative approach to their higher education experience – and therefore, hopefully, to the practice of those students once they leave the physical and virtual spaces of the university.”

Richard Baraniuk

“The OER movement has created a lot of excitement over the last few years, and I would like to thank the WISE organization and community for being so supportive.

As the previous speakers indicated, the basic concept of OER involves applying the community based development approach of open source software to educational materials like textbooks and other curriculum.

I think the main question posed for the panel is a great one, namely:  “can online platforms really provide a means for building the knowledge base or do they simply facilitate relatively uncoordinated exchange of ideas”.

Here I will give the opinion of someone who’s been working to make this OER a reality for the last 12 years.

The terminology I’d like to use to describe OER consists of the 2 words “free” and “open”.

A lot has been made about the nomenclature of “free” vs “open” in the software world, with many preferirng the french work “libre” for liberty.  But i would argue that the fact that the word “free” in english has 2 meanings - zero cost and liberated - is very useful to describe the two stages that I believe OER must go through before it reaches its true potential.

Right now I would argue we’re in the FREE stage, where the key attribute of OER content adopters are interested in is that there is zero cost.  In developed countries, with today’s textbook prices going up at several times the rate of inflation, this is enough to disrupt the educational publishing industry.   In developing countries, the FREE materials provide universal access to learning, something even more revolutionary.However, I would argue that in the FREE stage we not seen the explosion of community development (a la Linux) that has been promised by OER pundits. Thus, I would say that at this point I come out on the side of the latter conclusion of the statement posed by Ed, namely that OER today has facilitate free access to educational content but only an uncoordinated exchange of ideas.

Ex: In Connexions, which is one of the world’s largest and most used OER repositories, we have a significant amount of community generated content.  But the most popular content has been developed by individual authors, which is the old paradigm.

Over the next few years, as OER gains momentum and real usage thanks to its FREE attribute, we will start to see real progress on community development in a truly OPEN manner.

The roadblocks to moving beyond FREE to OPEN, in my opinion, are:

Confusing IP; even within the Creative Commons there are 6 different, largely incompatible licenses.

Incompatible technology: it is simply not possible to efficiently share (let alone even search!) across different OER repositories.

What we need is a de facto standard for both IP and technology, much like HTML provided a common substrate on which to build the WWW.  Without these, I think that the OER world will remain an archipelago of islands of innovation rather than a seething, global effort.

I am very hopeful that such a standard is doing to emerge over the next couple of years.”

I was humbled to spend 75 minutes with these three brilliant people and thank WISE for the opportunity to do so. Word of thanks to Vijay Kumar, Mike Smith, Fred Mednick, Maggie Smith, and Chris Blow for their inspiration, mentorship, partnership in Meedan’s education work.

“Kids need to learn from, rather than just about, each other.  Teachers to know, not just know about, each other.” Fred Mednick

"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. " Alvin Toffler

"What we want is the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child." – George Bernard Shaw