September 7th, 2009
The ubiquity of information, combined with what’s happened in the economy (an economy that, like Monty Python’s flying sheep, did not so much fly as plummet), has spurred another round of discussions around what teachers (and colleges and universities) are good for. Drew Gilpin Faust’s “Crossroads” piece in the New York Times — “The University’s Crisis of Purpose” — is an example, one that tries (strains?) to rise above utilitarian demands to articulate a higher calling for institutions of higher learning. Yes, goes the gist, a college education is important for getting a better job or income and also for keeping up with Joneses — especially the Joneses (whatever their names actually are) in Europe and Asia — but a college education is so much more than that. So it’s said. But not very well. We are so lame about saying what that “more” is. Less lame or at least time-honored attempts — notably Newman’s Idea of a University — would sagely note the effort has been going on forever (in Newman’s case, as justification for borrowing from “pagans and unbelievers” and even Protestants).
Something similar happened when open education and/or online education got a lot of supposedly smart people struggling to say what the role of the instructor is or should be. And we’re in another such cycle. One listserv I’m on has noted that the upswing in enrollments and the downturn in the economy have made online instruction the “cutest kitten on the block” right now. With everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Barak Obama touting online education, reporters are once again asking what the prospects are for some kind of turned corner. While important steps like Cape Town Open Education Declaration seem not to be on their radar, ventures like the University of the People are, and so some are asking why we need to bother with bothersome things like accreditation. Inevitably, when they hear of PLEs and the like, they ask if we even need to bother with the instructors.
I always have some dread of as well as interest in the discussions that ensue. There’s lots of talk about the importance of making sure students pass muster — the instructor-level equivalent of the utilitarian issues Drew Gilpin Faust was trying to get beyond at the institutional level. But we weary quickly of talking about instructors as enforcers — too uncool — and that’s when things get really bad. Out come the ineluctable phrases “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side” — directly connected to my gag reflex at this point — and there’s something already shopworn about the variants like ” sage on the side” and “guide on the stage.” Again, we’re struggling with things we’re not very good at articulating — often, I guess, because we’re being too generic and general.
What we too often don’t get into is how invested we are in what lies behind the notional terms “course” and “instructor” and “student”: so much cultural baggage and historical weight and institutionalized investment that we don’t have to worry about any of them going away soon. We can talk all we want about “communities of practice” and their importance to learning while forgetting that they usually don’t need to be set up. They are so vital that they are almost always already there wherever learning is going on. There are exceptions, I suppose, but I also suppose that to be a really effective autodidact you have to have an intelligence on the order of someone like George Eliot.
So what happens when you stumble into situations where you have real (social) learning going on without a “course” or “instructor” or “student” — where, moreover, there are no established alternative structures (e.g., apprenticeships) or even communities (peer/practitioner networks) because the practices are so new?
That’s a situation I think we now face in open education and online learning resources to some extent, with the great shining example (my favorite, anyway) being the CUNY Academic Commons. Still in beta, but due for general release very soon, it has to open itself up to what you might call “community formation”: groups will have to define themselves on the Commons, both practically and conceptually. Some are pre-existing communities of one kind or another, while some are groups just trying to get started. A representative of one of the latter wrote me over the weekend and asked, essentially, who would set that group up. I wrote back to say, essentially, that the Commons was a platform, not a service, but I and others would be willing to help with specific questions.
However inadequate that response might have seemed to the person I was replying to, it represented a leap of faith for me. It’s not as if I only imagine those “others”: there are people I could name right now. The problem is they are already people who have done the lion’s share of the work on the Commons, people approaching burnout. The activity they generate/bear represents an example of Clay Shirky’s power law distributions — as he puts it, “Diversity plus freedom of choice creates inequality, and the greater the diversity, the more extreme the inequality.” Those who accept more responsibility for the Commons, for instance, are going to do so much more than the larger number who want to tend their corner, or to lurk. And that’s fine.
But maybe we could broaden that A-list of people who welcome others, offer help, or share how they set up a group with a group in formation. I wouldn’t want this to be a call for more “leadership” — such a loaded term. And this would be more subterranean anyway, as befits an online resource. Here it’s not a matter of commanding the spotlight or the megaphone but of reaching out in quiet touches, individual contacts with new arrivals, correspondence across groups and areas of interest. It would have to be motivated by willingness. I guess what I’m hoping for a vast conspiracy of the willing.