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12/11/2009

Comments

Dominik Lukeš

Great presentation but there's a key element missing in the 'scarcity' model which still doesn't map onto the metaphor. The problem is that universities don't really deal in expertise or knowledge. That's just there for advertising. Universities' main 'product' is certification and that is still scarce and therefore expensive. Teaching is really only an accessory product to the assessment. Universities already realize that pedagogies are not scarce - witness the problem-based learning movement. They will eventually realize (even more than now) that content is not scarce either and release it free. However, as long as universities can convince people that they alone can certify academic (and increasingly professional) achievement, they will still control be able to control this scarcity. We need an abundance model of certification (assessment) to make the freeing up of content mean something.

Kevin McConway

I couldn't agree more with Dominik. Content is abundant now, but it's been pretty abundant ever since the invention of the printing press, and certainly since the invention of free public libraries. It's the academics who think lectures are of crucial importance, not the students, who in some cases get a perfectly good degree by using other content sources and never turning up in the lecture room. What universities actually do, that is worth something in economic terms, is the equivalent of a mint that makes coins. Coins initially were a way of certifying, by stamping the King's head on it, that a piece of metal really was the right quantity of the metal it purported to be, thus facilitating trade. Universities certify that people have the claimed quantity of knowledge and skills in the area they purport to know about and have skills in, so that the possessor of the skills knows they do not have some fool's gold of inappropriate knowledge, and the potential employer of that person doesn't have themselves to go through the tedious and expensive process of assay (i.e. of assessing the skills and knowledge). Despite the vanity of academics (I can say that because I'm one) in believing it's all about content because that's the bit they provide, it arguably never has been all about content since the middle ages. Universities don't have a monopoly on content provision and haven't had since the middle ages, which is why the movement to free content (important though it is) is missing the main point in my view, and is thus to an important extent a red herring. (At the Open University at least, it isn't the content provision that is the major element of monetary cost anyway, despite the prominence that has in most academics' thinking, it's the assessment, certification, and provision of student support that is really expensive.) Universities do have an effective monopoly on certification (of a particular sort, at least). It's not just that we need an abundance /model/ of certification, we need an entire /concept/ of abundance of certification, and that has to work in a context where a major reason for wanting certification is the scarcity value of certification to the certified person. (Also where employers use certification not just to be able to employ people with the skills they need without the expense of having to test the skills themselves, but also to be able to have recruitment procedures that limit the number of acceptable applicants.)

Finally we might think about whether the analogy of minting coins might be pushed further. Money long ago moved from stamping bits of metal to certify their intrinsic value, to means of exchange like banknotes where the intrinsic value is negligible and the currency works only because it it trusted. What's the educational analogue? Maybe that we certify someone as being exchangeable for the requisite skills and knowledge, which could mean they have the skills themselves, but might also mean that they know someone else who does, and on demand can deliver those skills to an employer or whatever by subcontracting the other person. The mind begins to boggle.

mweller

Hi Dominik and Kevin - while I agree with you about the significance of accreditation (I've made similar arguments about it being the crown jewels or the thing that allows HE to have a monopoly), I think that's a slightly different argument to the one I was proposing here. I wasn't setting out new business models for HE or the role of the university (although I have done that before), but rather talking about how learning (and teaching) takes place in a world of abundance. You could argue that a pedagogy of abundance is relevant whether a university exists or not.
@Kevin - I'd have to disagree that we've had abundance since medieval times. Content has been limited by publishers acting as a filter. We have undergone a fundamental change in the nature of content, and more significantly, the way we behave towards it. You would have had to have come to a lecture to hear me give this talk previously, or I may have published it somewhere, but you wouldn't have been able to hear it, find it so easily and then have discussion around it with this level of ease. This may be an extension of what we have done before but there has been such a dramatic shift in quantity, type and access of material that to view it as merely more of what we've always had is to miss what a revolution it is (I think anyway). So while I accept your points about certification, I think there is something about the nature of content (and the technology of interaction around it) that is fundamentally different from a pedagogic perspective now.

Kevin McConway

Of course I couldn't deny that there's been both a quantitative and a qualitative change in the availability of content. I just think that it's a mistake, in pedagogic terms, to think of this largely in terms of a move from scarcity to abundance, not from the point of the learner at any rate. I'd characterise it (admittedly crudely) more as there having been real scarcity in the Middle Ages, then a gradual process of moving from scarcity to relative abundance going right through till now (and continuing). I never said there was abundance of content since mediaeval times, only that availability of content hasn't been the main issue since then. From the learner's point of view, the limitation of content by publishers may be on the way out, but the limitations of opportunity to engage with content, by time constraints, social exclusions of all kinds, and so on are still all there, albeit sometimes operating in different ways than they did a century ago. In addition, I'd argue that it has long been regarded as an important aspect of pedagogy to suggest limitations on the content a learner engages with, as well as proposing expansions. Course syllabuses, lists of learning outcomes, reading lists, all attempt to draw boundaries between areas of content a learner is supposed to engage with and (explicitly, or more often implicitly by omission), areas the learner is not expected to engage with. This may sound patronising and repressively limiting, and indeed sometimes it is, but it's also a way to help the learner to engage with the learning in a way he or she can manage, given constraints on time and given the need for the learner to tread a path of development that makes sense in terms of their values (it can be hard to run before you can walk). Open University courses are, I sometimes feel, more abundant in this sort of thing than some other pedagogical experiences --- all those study guides telling you read this article and these pages of the book, don't read those pages, it's not necessary to go further than the article by X (which is interpreted, given the real scarcity of time of most students, as "don't waste your time reading past here", so most of them don't). In a situation of scarcity, given that content isn't rationed individually (if I read the book or watch the TV programme, it doesn't mean that you can't read or watch it too) one doesn't have to make such an effort to restrict access, because the scarcity does the restriction for you. We do have to consider moving to /different/ ways of doing the restriction, which can now (potentially anyway) be socially based rather than dictated by the few, but that's not moving from scarcity to abundance, it's moving from one sort of abundance to another sort.

Dominik Lukeš

Martin, I understand your point about the focus on content (and I couldn't be a bigger proponent of open content and open source myself) but I must agree with Kevin. I think the notion of abundance is a bit of an illusion. (We've had similar claims before with telegraph, telephone, and TV - but all of these failed to transform learning.) As Kevin points out, the real limitation (bottleneck) is the student's (and teacher's) time and mental capacity. I can now fill up my MP3 player with a hundred thousand tracks but can still only listen to so many with the same level of focus. What the digital abundance has made easier is casual engagement. I might hear a snippet of a song, look it up on YouTube, read about it on Wikipedia and then possibly buy it. Before, I might have gone about this in a different way. Bought an encyclopedia of jazz, read the liner notes, etc. and followed up on it. But to truly cover one area still takes about the same amount of time and effort. I can quickly dip in into Britney Spears' output if I want, but it won't make me an expert on modern pop. That's why 'all you can eat' buffets work. The average person can only eat so much.

Which is why the role of the educational institution is also one of curator of content and the educator is to a certain extent like a DJ.

This applies to this posting, as well. I've come across it because I've made an effort to follow educational blogs. In the past, I might have subscribed to a journal or gone to conferences (I still do those, as well) and while it may seem as more of an effort, a conference aggregates the individual experiences. I follow a many blogs but don't follow even more. The average number of content interactions in my life has remained about constant since the early 90s while the availability of content has skyrocketed.

Why, then, is free and open content important? In my mind, it is a question of equality of access. While for me, this is now mostly a matter of convenience (I can get to closed content through other means). There are many (and I used to be one of them) whose access to information is severely curtailed. Plus I believe that freedom and openness are better than their supposedly more profitable alternatives. But I do not believe that this abundance is going to radically transform students' learning. Just look at the progression from 'Boys in White' through 'Coming of Age in New Jersey' to 'My Freshman Year'. The structures of social organization remain constant through four decades of research. Students seem to converge their their efforts around achieving the institutional milestones of assessment. (Just look at the essay sharing and rate my professor websites.) That's why you can't easily apply the abundance model to the pedagogy while the current certification paradigm remains. But I would say we can certainly apply it to the economics of content provision and even more definitely to the politics.

Martin

@Dominik and Kevin - I'm enjoying this discussion, thanks for your very thoughtful input. I think there are two points I'd come back with: the first is that maybe I'm just be semantically lazy, and I'm using 'abundance' as a shorthand for a whole host of other stuff (the sort of things that I list in the assumptions). I believe these do require at least a recasting of pedagogic theory to make best use of. The second is that we are only at the beginning of this, so sure learning hasn't changed much, but I think that ease of access to a vast range of stuff is a quantitative change. And it changes our relationship to content and to interactions with others, and (if true) my feeling is that _has_ to have some educational impact.

Andy Lane

@Martin - I also found this a useful exchange but also want there to be a distinction made between pedagogic theory and learning theory in the debate. How we teach and how we learn do not necessarily join up very well and shift in some practices in either area may be driven by context in which they operate as much as any notion of theory. I think the issue you are getting at is more to do with the realationships between practices and theories - the praxis - and how abundance or new technologies impact (or not) on all of that.

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