sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

the sleeping alone review of books: Teaching the New Writing

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 16, 2009

Summary: Awesomeness reigns at the house of NWP

I’m only giving you the first three paragraphs, and then you have to read the rest at the real live journal that published it online. brb turning into pile of graduate student joy confetti

ok back

the link is here. The journal is THEN (the name stands for [t]echnology, [h]umanities, [e]ducation and [n]arrative). The review begins below.

The National Writing Project is perhaps the most enduring teacher development network in the country. Started in 1974 as the Bay Area Writing Project, based at the University of California, Berkeley, the project quickly grew, both in funding and popularity, and today the NWP has nearly 200 sites nationwide.

Many have argued that a significant reason for the ongoing success of this program is its decision to host NWP sites at local universities. According to NWP supporters, this pairing allows for stability, ongoing professional development opportunities, and a higher degree of buy-in from faculty at local schools and at the university. One wonders if this model limits access to NWP involvement to the teachers who work in and around colleges; these are the teachers who already have the most access to research and university resources, and traditionally underserved rural or geographically isolated teachers and their students are, prevented access to this resource.

Still, it’s hard to argue with success, and the NWP is nothing if not successful. The pairing of K-12 teachers with higher ed faculty makes for an interesting and fruitful partnership, as evidenced by the NWP’s new book, Teaching the New Writing: Technology, Change, and Assessment in the 21st-Century Classroom.

The editors of the book represent … [to read the rest of this review, go to http://thenjournal.org.]

Posted in assessment, book review, education, new media, public schools, schools, social revolution, teaching | 1 Comment »

the sleeping alone review of books: Opening Up Education (Part 2)

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 15, 2009

In a recent post, I reviewed parts of an important new book called Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge (2008, Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar, eds.). In that review, I focused mainly on a broad overview of the book and on the final chapter, which considered the future of the open knowledge movement. Today I want to focus on a chapter in “Open Educational Technology,” the first section of the book. This section, the first of three (technology, content, and knowledge), offers a consideration of various approaches to designing open learning environments. In the introduction to the section, Owen McGrath writes that “the term ‘open educational technology’ has broad meaning that extends well beyond any lowest-common-denominator definition such as ‘open source software for education’.” Key thematic questions McGrath presents include the following:

  • How should open educational technology be built, extended, and maintained in the large cross-institutional and international efforts?
  • How can the teaching and learning activities supported by the technology be evaluated in an open way?
  • How do the perspectives of teachers and learners inform these projects?

In “A Harvest Too Large? A Framework for Educational Abundance,” Trent Bastson, Neeru Paharia, and M.S. Vijay Kumar consider potential applications of open knowledge to higher education, emphasizing the value of sharing and remixing of pedagogical content, which they argue will dissolve the silos that traditionally separate content areas in higher education. They work from an assumption that open knowledge does not feel to all like a panacea; they readily acknowledge that it will feel deeply threatening to many members of our society. They offer the example of baby boomers coming of age under the shadow of parents grew up during the Great Depression. For these “Dionysian offspring,” the authors explain, their parents’ “poverty assumptions–lie low, hide your wealth lest it be stolen, do not display emotions, life is full of danger–” were more than silly or nonsensical; they directly opposed the youths’ approach to life. As the authors of this chapter write,

We now appear to be facing the same cultural fissure 40 years later: Open educational resources (OER) are so abundant that the scarcity-based assumptions of educators are challenged…. In short, we are moving toward a knowledge ecology characterized by unfettered access to educational resources, choice, and change in the context and clientele of higher education.

Interestingly, the authors see learners themselves as presenting a significant obstacle in the progress toward open education–perhaps even more so than faculty. As they explain:

[W]hile some faculty members may boldly go where open education leads them, some students, despite their expertise in some uses of the Internet and IT tools, can be very conservative in their expectations in the classroom. They may come to college expecting that regardless of the IT toys on campus, in the classroom itself, their teachers will still tell them what to know and then test them on what they have been told.

This is only one of many potential and existing barriers, of course; and the authors briefly consider many obstacles. They imagine “a vibrant Web community of learners at something called Peer-To-Peer University, or ‘P2PU.’ P2PU would not be a ‘real’ university, but rather, a group of self-learners and tutors who work together to emulate some of the functions an academic institution would carry out, in a peer-to-peer fashion.” They then consider the obstacles to realizing this dream: How can a “vibrant” eLearning community be fostered when passive learning is so much more likely? How will people react to the decentralized authority of an open knowledge learning system? And, perhaps most importantly for them, “[I]f the remixing process is speeded up and a million eyes replace ‘gatekeepers,’ then is knowledge enriched or watered down?”

It’s an interesting thought exercise to imagine this Peer-To-Peer University–and it brings to mind an important issue that’s only glanced at in this chapter: An ongoing shift in how we both think about credibility, both in assessing others’ and establishing our own in a variety of online, offline, and hybrid social spaces. I wrote about this some in a recent blogpost on the online university phenomenon, where I argued that

While web 2.0 technologies increasingly allow us to offer expertise in a variety of areas, with or without educational credentials, the desire for evidence of expertise lingers in our collective psyches. Ultimately, we still believe that when our cat’s kidneys start to fail, the single veterinarian who spent 8 years in school followed by years of field experience can provide better advice than the two thousand cat owners on a devoted forum.

And we’re not necessarily wrong to think this way, at least in some situations–after all, as I explained in that post, if my cat needs surgery, I’m taking him to the board-certified veterinarian, rabid pet owners be damned.

But at the same time, those rabid pet owners may provide valuable advice that helps me decide when it’s appropriate to go to the credentialed veterinarian. And here’s where educational technology people like the authors of this chapter could learn a thing or two from people who participate, in various ways, in a participatory culture: They exist, happily and without too much turmoil, in the space between online and offline cultures, easily crossing the membrane and increasingly failing to agree to consider that there even is a membrane. Many people–and most young people–would agree that there’s little functional distinction between friends they make in face-to-face interactions and those who communicate primarily or solely via virtual tools.

In principle, it seems, the authors of this chapter agree; writing about ccMixter, a “community music site featuring remixes licensed under Creative Commons where you can listen to, sample, mash-up, or interact with music in whatever way you want”, they explain that the ccMixter community often rewards its most talented participants with CDs or even recording contracts “so they could receive more exposure and social credit for their efforts.” In this example, the virtual community is the real community, regardless of its physicality.


A visualization of the network of authors in the ccMixter community

The authors seem willing to bestow this gift on virtual communities that extend their reach into the physical world; but when considering physical learning environments, they seem less eager to consider a blurred line between classroom and engaged learning community. Take a look at how they describe the “typical lecture hall”:

the teacher is up front and the students sit in chairs that are fixed to the floor. Such physical inflexibility restricts (italics mine) how the teacher can interact with students and students can interact with each other. Software design has followed a similar pattern, favoring tools that support faculty, rather than student, management in digital space.

It’s that word “restricts” that hits a sour note. We might just as easily consider affordances of a typical lecture hall: It affords a certain kind of learning which has value in certain context, and it only becomes “restrictive” when people try to use it to achieve some purpose for which it was not intended or to which it cannot be applied. Even then, it’s not the fault of the physical space that people are trying to bend it to their will. As Clay Shirky writes, “There is no such thing as a generically good tool; there are only tools good for particular jobs.”

Followers of this blog know that I’m no fan of traditional or conservative approaches to schooling, but I do also see the value of considering what is afforded by a traditional learning space like the lecture hall or, more broadly, the brick-and-mortar university. And the authors of this chapter aren’t necessarily averse to this approach; indeed, they grant that

existing academic institutions do help to navigate through the human sea of knowledge. They organize it into majors and requirements to make the decision process much easier and more goal oriented. They provide a teacher and classmates to both guide and motivate. They provide a structure and a social context to help bridge students from beginning stages of learning toward maturity. They help students address issues of finalizing work by providing a schedule of “deliverables” (assignment sets), of matching the learner with the job market, of certifying the value of students’ learning, and the general issues of being a young person at home.

If it’s true that the traditional university has served and continues, and will continue, to serve important cultural purposes, then we would do well to consider what types of learning experiences it can afford learners who are preparing for careers that may not even exist yet. Given that P2PU is a kind of pipe dream, and a more hybrid learning environment much more realistic, we need to think of ways to not only consider what purposes the university is good for but also how to speak to key stakeholders. In times of cultural revolution, those who believe most ardently in the need for it are also often the ones whose language is the most shrill, the most strident, and most difficult to hear.

This is not to say, of course, that the affordances of traditional universities should or could not also be considered constraints. In the end, though, the constraints are more on our ability to envision new words and worlds wherein authentic learning experiences can happen and less on our ability to leverage traditional learning spaces to make these visions real.

Posted in academia, academics, book review, Clay Shirky, education, intellectual property, open education, open source, participatory culture, schools, social justice, social media, teaching | 2 Comments »

the sleeping alone review of books: Opening Up Education

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 6, 2009

Good book on the open education movement: Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge (2008, Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar, eds.). You can purchase the book through the MIT Press, though an electronic version is available for download under a Creative Commons license here.

What makes this book so useful is that it offers up a framework, from inside of the world of open education, for analyzing–and, if I may be so bold, at times criticizing–the early fruits of its own movement.

Below, I summarize and review one chapter from the book, followed by a critique of MIT’s OpenCourseWare, one of the flagship projects of the Hewlett Foundation’s Open Educational Resource Initiative; if you want, you can skip the review and jump down to the meaty stuff down near the bottom.

The Review
The book is divided into three sections: Technology, content, and knowledge. As the authors explain, this division is intended “largely as a convenient and easily understood framework. Naturally, the three categories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, their natural interrelationships become evident from the very beginning.”

I want to skip ahead to the very last chapter of the book, “What’s Next for Open Knowledge?” by Mary Taylor Huber and Pat Hutchings. The authors point out that the vision of open education–“dramatically expanded educational access, more widely effective teaching models and materials, and ongoing, systematic improvement in teaching and learning as educators generate and share new pedagogical knowledge and know-how”–is more than just a vision. In fact, many educational institutions have embraced and joined in on a shift toward open educational resources (OER’s), and have assisted in the building of what Huber and Hutchings label, borrowing from their own earlier work, “teaching commons: an emergent conceptual space for exchange and community among faculty, students, administrators, and all others committed to learning as an essential activity of life in contemporary democratic society.”

How, then, the authors ask, do we continue to expand and preserve the ethos of open education and the teaching commons? “It is well and good,” they write, “to make as many educational resources as possible accessible to as many teachers and learners as possible. But, to borrow a line from the movie Field of Dreams, if we build it, will they come?”

Promise, Tool, Bargain
The Field of Dreams question is one echoed by Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody, only for him, the question aligns with entrepreneurial impulses to build and market the next killer app. The question, then, is something closer to “What can we build to make people come?”

Shirky’s answer is simple: “Promise, tool, bargain.” These three elements, properly aligned, he argues, will lead to success of a group relying on a social tool; improperly fused, they lead to failure. (For an example of how this does or does not work, take a look at my blogpost on the promise, tool, and bargain of Facebook here.)
Given that there are really only three things to worry about, then, why do so many new groups or movements fail? Two reasons, according to Shirky:

First, because getting each of these elements right is actually quite challenging, while getting all of them right is essential. Second, as with groups themselves, the complexity comes not just from the elements but from their interactions.


The application of promise, tool, and bargain of open education: Promise

Though Huber and Hutchings use different language, choosing to focus their efforts on two distinct categories–“Knowledge that Matters” and “Inviting and Maintaining Openness”–they are essentially considering the categories Shirky identifies. (Know that aligning Huber and Hutchings with Shirky is a somewhat arbitrary move; I might just as well have said that Shirky essentially considers the categories identified by Huber and Hutchings.) The promise, Shirky writes, is the “why”–why a person would want to join a group or use a tool. For Huber and Hutchins, the “why” is more aptly described as “knowledge that matters”; in considering this point, they explore the promise of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL), a program that

seeks to support the development of a scholarship of teaching and learning that: fosters significant, long-lasting learning for all students; enhances the practice and profession of teaching, and; brings to faculty members’ work as teachers the recognition and reward afforded to other forms of scholarly work.

To Huber and Hutchings, “knowledge that matters” is collaboration and sharing of scholarship and research around contributing to the improvement of teaching and learning both within individual classrooms and on a larger scale. This knowledge is built and shared around situated approach to teaching, a presumption that context matters. “In short,” the authors write, the momentum that the scholarship of teaching and learning has established over the past decade clearly points to the value of pedagogical knowledgte that is deeply contextual and closely tied ot the particulars of classroom settings.

We might say, then, that the promise of joining a program like CASTL–the “why”–is that it offers teachers the opportunity to draw on a bunch of lesson plans, assessment strategies, and so on to the immediate benefit of their own teaching practices, and at the same time offers a feedback loop whereby teachers can share classroom successes with other teachers. They give back to the community of educators and in so doing have an opportunity to influence teaching beyond their local environment.

Tool: the “how”
The tool, Shirky explains, is the “how,” and in open education this becomes a question of how to develop resources that invite and maintain openness without standardizing or allowing for decreased quality of the content. As Huber and Hutchings explain,

Where traditional views of educational reform tend to assume a small number of approaches that can be “scaled up” and widely adopted, open knowledge (and, more broadly, open education) offers a different path to improvement, eschewing the “fat head” for the “long tail” (to use Chris Anderson’s now well-traveled metaphor) in which many approaches find smaller groups of adopters and champions.

Often, the authors write, the “how” is ensured in development of tools that allow for “close-to-the-classrom knowledge” to be captured in ways that will travel to other settings.” The authors offer the exampe of the KEEP Toolkit, which they argue provides a useful model that combines user-friendly features with readable and usable templates.

The bargain: What we expect from one anotherThe bargain, Shirky writes, is where things get tricky, “in part because it is the least explicit aspect and in part because it is the one the users have the biggest hand in creating, which means it can’t be completely determined in advance.” The bargain is the–ideally shared–agreement between users about community expectations.

For Huber and Hutchings, the bargain of open educational resources is, put simply, openness. Openness, in this case, means both access and the spirit of collaboration and community. As they explain,

The “stuff” of open knowledge for teaching and learning is on the rise, happily, both in supply and in the variety of materials and representations of teaching and learning…. But having good stuff is not enough. Those committed to this work must also push for policies and practices to ensure that what is open stays open in the fullest, most vital way. This means maintaining access, certainly, but it also means creating a culture in which people want that access, both as contributors to and users of knowledge in the teaching commons.

First, they write, it’s essential to allow the commons to remain open for teachers across disciplines who want to contribute to collaborative knowledge-building, even if they contribute only infrequently. This, however, gives rise to a second concern: Questions about who can (and can’t) contribute. “Open education,” they write, “does not necessarily mean ‘free.'”

Additionally, the bargain in education is not simply between users and makers of educational content; increasingly, teachers and learners are being held accountable by outside stakeholders. (Most significantly, we see this in the phenomenon of testing the souls right out of our young learners.) Huber and Hutchings express concern

about how to maintain a space for educational experimentation and exchange in a period that seems headed for increasingly bottom-line forms of accountability, with its concomitant calls for institutions to make evidence of student learning outcomes available to the public…. At one level, the value of evidence is something that any responsible educator would share. Faculty care about their students, and they want to know that the resources they find in the teaching commons will serve those students well. The danger comes when high stakes constrict people’s ability or willingness to explore new pedagogical ideas.

Case Study: MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW)
Promise, tool, bargain. It’s a difficult combination to get right, even when you have financial backing, institutional support, and a critical mass of contributors, as MIT’s OpenCourseWare project proves. Let me be clear: OCW is a success, at least in most important senses of the word. But in its efforts to succeed, it has had to sacrifice some of the most important tenets of the open education movement.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll once again make clear that I am employed at MIT, though I am not affiliated with the Hewlett Foundation, the group that funds the OCW project, and not in any way connected to OpenCourseWare.

The project is awesomely ambitious. As the OCW site explains,

MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) is a web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content. OCW is open and available to the world and is a permanent MIT activity. By November 2007, MIT completed the initial publication of virtually the entire curriculum, over 1,800 courses in 33 academic disciplines.

And that’s the modest explanation. In a February 2007 report on Open Educational Resource projects funded by the Hewlett Foundation, Atkins, Brown, and Hammond exclaim:

This world-changing project emerged from MIT faculty and administrators who asked themselves the following question: “How is the Internet going to be used in education and what is our university going to do about it?”

The answer from the MIT faculty was this: “Use it to provide free access to the primary materials for virtually all our courses. We are going to make our educational material available to students, faculty, and other learners, anywhere in the world, at any time, for free.”

Fantastic premise, right? And MIT, backed by Hewlett, is putting its money where its mouth is, investing resources into the continued and ongoing development of OCW. The result is a fabulous early stab at an open education resource, one that really does offer high-quality content to the general public–absolutely free.

It turns out, though, that while OpenCourseWare is strong on promise (“You can access course content from some of the greatest minds of this generation!”) and bargain (“…and it’s all free!”), it’s still a little light on tool (“…but genius is not included.”). As I mentioned in a previous post, I read voraciously and omnivorously in my capacity as the primary blogger for sleeping alone and starting out early. One place I never, look, though, is on paid-content news sources like the Wall Street Journal. Another place I never look is OpenCourseWare. Why? It kinda…well, first, the download process is confusing, and once you successfully figure it out, you’re rewarded with a file folder that looks a lot like this:

Assuming you eventually manage to extract the relevant content, all you really get is a pile of .pdfs, a syllabus, and some course notes. The brilliance, the spark, the certain something that makes a class a mind-blowing experience…that’s not available for download.

And, of course, there’s the cost involved: Approximately $25,000 per uploaded course, according to the Hewlett report. Add it up: 1,800 courses means $45 million. (Just FYI, that’s enough to cover four years of public college for more than 6,800 students, according to stats from the College Board.)

OpenCourseWare is an admirable, but so far unsustainable, model for opening up education–especially since OCW seems to prohibit free appropriation and remixing of course materials. As the site explains under the FAQ category of intellectual property,

The intellectual property policies created for MIT OpenCourseWare are clear and consistent with other policies for scholarly materials used in education. Faculty retain ownership of most materials prepared for MIT OpenCourseWare, following the MIT policy on textbook authorship. MIT retains ownership only when significant use has been made of the Institute’s resources. If student course work is placed on the MIT OpenCourseWare site, then copyright in the work remains with the student.

These are meaty issues for Hewlett, OCW, and the open education movement to keep working on. As goes OpenCourseWare, after all, so goes the movement.

Posted in academia, assessment, book review, Clay Shirky, convergence culture, distributed cognition, education, intellectual property, MIT, new media, open education, open source, participatory culture, schools, spreadability, teaching | 3 Comments »