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Learning by Sharing: Why We Do, Sometimes Can’t, and Often Don’t (Part 1 of 6)

I’m participating this fall in a six week online edX course called “Introduction to Open Education.” It’s an effort to formalize and deepen my knowledge base on issues related to Open Education, which are central to my work developing Athena, a platform for teachers to find, share, and develop practices. The course involves a weekly written reflection, each of which I’ll be posting here. A disclaimer: I’m new to academic study of the field, and I’m representing perspectives and texts based on my relatively limited exposure. Please forgive any mischaracterizations—or better yet, in the spirit of the course, offer open and constructive feedback. Thank you!


The case: sharing is learning

In a conversation with George Siemens at the introduction to the course, David Wiley describes how the early Open Education community had to bolster its arguments with conclusive research about the value of using Open Education Resources (OER). The research was done, and it appears to have been successful. At the base of a video describing how one university uses Open Education Resources the course site writes:
“Research, commissioned by an e-textbook provider, supports a growing body of evidence that suggests the use of open and affordable course resources can positively impact student success, resulting in higher course grades and lower drop, failure, and withdrawal rates.”
The implication here--and also in the links at the targeted page above, and also in other reading I have just begun--suggests that the category of OER includes materials that are directly accessible to students (curated by instructors) and materials that instructors learn from and apply to their classrooms (e.g. lesson plans that do not require students to use online resources).  I am interested in both of these, but am specifically interested in how or whether the research above also applies to teacher learning.  Teachers can serve as curators of OER to improve student learning.  Can teacher use of OER also improve teacher teaching?  (I think there’s a difference there.)  

The beginning of an answer is apparent in many of the philosophical principles articulated in the opening videos.  First among them is George Siemens’ observation that “transparency and openness of sharing our experiences [is] essentially a teaching practice" (link)  Or, more simply: sharing our learning is teaching.  Happily, we see this more and more in education today—a cultural shift from the silo-ed classrooms of memory—and it aligns completely with what I have always felt to be the best professional development: teachers talking with teachers about teaching.

Similarly, a colleague of mine is taking another edX course (Launching Innovation in Schools), and one lesson from its first week is that administrators are not intended to be instructional experts.  Rather, their role in regards to professional development is to create more opportunities for teachers to learn from each other.

Systems and barriers: what can we do?

So what’s most important when connecting teachers around what it is that we’re teaching?  If sharing is learning, what do we need in order to share well, and what gets in the way?

In his “course participant open reflection,” Stephen Downes frames open learning in the context of networks.  He shares four principles of networks (autonomy, diversity, openness, and connectivity), and argues that “It's not about stuff.  It's not about what you do with stuff.  It’s about what you did with each other.”  There’s some Marshall McLuhan in this.  What matters is the medium: how you interacted, what you’re able to do, who else is there—how the experience of knowledge is influenced by the network. In order for teachers (and students, though again, I’m focusing on teachers)—in order for teachers to learn and share, we need effective networks.

Wiley comes at the question from a different, but (I think) not contradictory perspective.  He says, “If we learn by the things that we do… and if the function of copyright is to restrict or prescribe the things we're able to do, then that means that copyright prohibits us from learning in some ways we might otherwise be able to learn.”  The focus here is on copyright.  It’s not on the network itself, but on a particular barrier to a successful network.  Were I to read further into Downes’ model, I suspect some of this would be included in his category “openness.”

Happily, the introductory videos also touch down on the development of copyright protocols like Creative Commons.  These efforts (which Wiley folded some of his work into as it began to align) have endeavored to smooth out impediments to creating a successful network in what I perceive to be Downes’ model.

From why we can’t to why we don’t

So theories for networks and openness are growing more developed, despite the relative youth of the field, and a variety of parties appear to be putting together the necessary pieces to establish an open education ecosystem.  And as is plainly known by everyone who has glanced at the field, there are dozen/scores/hundreds of open resources out in the world wild west web.  So why don’t most educators (from this anecdotal, secondary school perspective) use them?  My hunch is that the answer lies elsewhere: design.

An element of OER that doesn’t appear to be part of the course curriculum, but which is buried in some of the reading, is the design of the OER environments.  Starting with one excellent external source provided in the course (Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources, produced by the OECD), I had joyous trip down the endnote rabbit hole.  The OECD report, when exploring business models, noted: “Dholakia (2006) also stresses that growing competition among initiatives creates a need to develop strong brands, user communities, increased site usability and improved quality of the resources offered” (p. 95).  

I leapt on the statement about “increased site usability” and followed my way to Dholakia, who, in What Makes an Open Education Program Sustainable?, wrote: “A key determinant of site adoption by authors and instructors is how easy it is to use the site (e.g., Spool, et al., 1998; Wei et al., 2005). Authors and instructors will only be interested in using the OEP [Open Education Program] site if they can upload their content and modify it effortlessly, in the format and layout of their choice. Consequently, user-friendliness is a critical driver of value for OEP users.”  What a treat it was, then, to follow the endnote line all the way back to Jared Spool’s writing from the late 90s, when he described user interfaces in the Netscape era.  Remarkably, while we no longer talk about frames in our browsers, many of the principles from Spool’s research still seem to apply.  

Perhaps we see what we want to see—it’s likely!—but this seems to me to be as significant a limiting factor in OER adoption as anything else.  It is less structural (Wiley), and it doesn’t speak to components of networks (Downes), but it does influence whether we choose to share, which then influences whether and how much we learn (Siemens).


It strikes me every day that teachers have so little easy access to each other, and I suppose the crucial word that I see in that phrase is “easy.”  To bring about change at a large scale, to improve the rate of sharing between educators, we need not only to build the infrastructure, but also to make the experience pleasurable.  Writing this, I recognize that this is my pre-conceived notion, coming from an external, surface-level understanding of the field.  I look forward to learning more about the layers that lie underneath.


Six reflections on open learning and platform technology:


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