March 25, 2003

A Modest Manifesto, 0.5

It is high time for instructional technologists to get serious about extending free, high quality educational opportunities to everyone. Literally. This modest manifesto lays out a context, rationale, and initial roadmap from here to there.

Why bother trying to create these opportunities at all? Isn’t the idea of extending free, high quality educational opportunity to everyone a pipedream?

If you thought this was a reasonable question to ask, you don’t need to read any further. Thanks for your time.

Why is this a task for instructional technologists?

Instructional technologists are a group of people who care about facilitating learning and believe that technologies can play an important mediational role. As people who have some understanding of both learning processes and advanced technologies, we are uniquely qualified to take up the gauntlet.

But what about digital divide issues? Won’t using technology restrict access to opportunity?

I personally believe that technology -– specifically network technologies -– must be at the center of our initial efforts at extending free, high quality educational opportunities to individuals. This is because networked technologies such as the Internet have two fundamental affordances which distinguish them from the physical world.

  1. Digital resources, assets, media, and archives which are network-accessible are nonrivalrous in nature. (This means that use of digital resources is noncompetitive. For example, if I check a book about learning objects out of the university library it is not available for you to read. However, if I read an electronic book about learning objects on a webpage, you are able to simultaneously read the electronic book. The music recording industry, motion picture industry, and commercial publishing industry have learned that not only can multiple users access a given mp3, mpg, or pdf simultaneously, but users can make zero cost perfect copies of digital media.)
  2. Many people are able to communicate with many other people synchronously and asynchronously on the network regardless of physical location. (While people can obviously communicate in the physical world, the network affords a much broader scale of communication. While we can imagine a lecturer addressing 500 people in a physical space, it is hard to imagine a physical space in which 500 people could address each other. Yet many Internet users have communicated in very large scale, many-to-many online environments such as newsgroups, listservs, and web boards. Additionally, one cannot communicate with people in the next town over, let alone a foreign country, without the technological mediation.)

I believe that these two affordances of appropriately utilized networking technology greatly reduce the difficulty of the problem of extending free, high quality educational opportunity. Focusing our initial efforts on extending free, high quality educational opportunities via network technologies means that in our initial attempts (1) resources can be created once and reused without additional cost, and (2) human expertise that supports individual learning can be located in arbitrary locations and time zones. It also allows us to take advantage of existing infrastructure in public libraries, community centers, other public access points, and individuals’ homes. Extending these opportunities to individuals would be significantly more costly and difficult if (1) instructional materials needed to be reproduced, warehoused, and shipped, (2) only the tutors available in an individual’s hometown at convenient times were available to provide support for their learning, or (3) we had to bear the cost of building out network infrastructure centrally.

I completely understand that utilizing network technologies immediately restricts the number of people we are able to serve in the first iteration of our efforts. However, if we can not arrive at ways of extending free, high quality educational opportunity in the few instances when we can assume free infrastructure, free resources, and free synchronous and asynchronous access to a broad expertise base, I certainly don’t believe we can solve the problem when these scaffolds are removed. Ideally, we will learn many important lessons as we try to use network technology to extend access that will inform a second iteration of efforts in which as many of these constraints are removed as possible.

Where are free, high quality digital educational resources supposed to come from? Don’t they cost money to create, store, manage, and deliver?

High quality digital educational resources cost large amounts of money to create. However, an increasingly large number of organizations are willing to bear the cost of such development and share the results freely with others. For example, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provided $11 million to MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, which will “make MIT course materials that are used in the teaching of almost all undergraduate and graduate subjects available on the Web, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world” (MIT). Carnegie Mellon has a project called the “Open Learning Initiative” which is similar in spirit. In the U. S., the NSF, DARPA, NASA, and a host of other agencies have put nearly $100 million into digital library projects which either create high quality digital educational resources, make the same easier to use to impact teaching and learning, or strive to broaden the research base underlying our understanding of the use of high quality digital educational resources. Other collections containing some free, high quality educational resources include Connexions, the Math Forum, the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse (ENC), the Gateway to Educational Materials (GEM), the National Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Digital Library (NSDL), SMETE.ORG, the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives (NVLM), the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE), and the list goes on. There are already literally tens of thousands of free, high quality digital educational resources. And the number will only grow larger. Because of the nonrivalrous nature of digital educational resources, these resources need only be created once (see affordance 1).

Due to the central role of free, high quality digital educational content in the effort to extend free, high quality educational opportunity to everyone, I strongly believe we need more practice and research in the area of “learning objects,” “educational components,” and reusable educational media in general.

However, if collections of high quality content made for high quality education, libraries would never have evolved into universities. For people to have truly high quality educational experiences, they need to interact with other people.

Who is going to take the time to answer questions and provide other learning support to a total stranger online for free?

Almost every Internet user has had the experience of joining an online group, seeking help, and receiving needed information, advice, or resources. Whether the problem is technical (how to fix a computer or write a program), health related (dealing with cancer or overcoming anorexia), social (locating an old friend or finding a date), or school related (researching a historical person or trying to understand differential equations), there are online groups scattered around the globe that are happy to share their expertise with others in a variety of synchronous (chat or IM) and asynchronous (news groups, listservs, or web boards) formats. Patterns of weblog use (including metablogs, aggregators, trackback, and other services) for supporting learning are still emerging, but appear to add richness and depth to the online experience of distributed learning communities. All of these interactions are enabled by the Internet’s facility for allowing distributed synchronous and asynchronous communication (see affordances 2).

Due to the central role of free learning support from humans in a free, high quality educational experience, understanding the phenomenon of seeking and receiving help from distributed sources of expertise will be crucial to facilitating access to free, high quality educational opportunities for everyone.

Why not just take a full-fledged “community system” like slash or scoop and just install lit and turn it on?

My own experiments in supporting distributed online learning communities have shown time and again, as have my sociohistorical analyses of large communities like Slashdot, that the functions of a learning-community-supporting infrastructure must evolve organically with the community itself. Granted there must be an initial set of communications tools for individuals to communicate at all, but extended features like peer review of posts, comment filtering, content syndication, etc., seem to kill communities when they are enforced in the infrastructure before the community realizes a need for the functions.

How will this kind of learning be accredited, validated, and certified?

No one knows for sure, although individuals studying informal learning in communities of practice contexts have a few ideas. Until we see what will actually emerge from the combination of free resources and free learning support, I don’t believe we want to plan too far ahead. If there is one thing that the network has shown us repeatedly, it is that amazing unexpected things can happen when innovation is not unduly stifled by forced preconceptions of the way things work “offline.”

So how can I help? What can I do? How do I contribute?

If you’ve made it to this point and still think you’d like to be involved, leave a comment below indicating your interest. There are a wide variety of ways to contribute to this effort, including releasing your own educational materials online for free (or at least free for educational uses; visit for licensing options), volunteering your time in an online support group, conducting learning objects research, conducting research into help seeking from distributed sources, and conducting research around interactions between reusable educational media and distributed support networks. Once there is a critical mass of researchers and developers interested in the effort we will establish more specific tasks and timelines.

Posted by david at March 25, 2003 07:32 AM | TrackBack
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