Why should the best schools share?

Posted: June 7, 2011 in Uncategorized

This is another viewpoint from Mark Honer.

We recently did a little travelling around South Africa (Durban/Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg) running events where we raise awareness of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, the shared resources that are available, the tools that can be used and the communities that develop and support them. We are often asked why people should share. My intention was to spend a lot of time composing the perfect blog post about why sharing is a brilliant idea for everyone and why everyone benefits.

Circumstances haven’t played along so I’m putting some thoughts down and, in the spirit of openness, I hope there will be some discussion and even better arguments forthcoming from the broader community.

In this blog I would like to answer the question: why should the very best schools share their resources?

First, My Conclusion

For a school to continue to compete to be the best it is essential that they participate openly in the global education movement. In fact, the top private/public schools can benefit more from the open educational resources movement than the under-resourced schools because they have strong educators with excellent content and pedagogical knowledge who have the resources and technology around which to innovate.

How do I get to this conclusion?

A Little Context

I happen to have a background in science so I’m going to have a significant bias towards mathematics and science examples. I promise to spend some time looking for the Arts equivalents but they’re out there I just haven’t filtered them effectively yet.

Now to the schools, normally, in South Africa, our team is faced with schools struggling for resources. For them the benefits of the OER movement, primarily openly shared resources, are quite straightforward:

  • increased content availability (Connexions,MindsetCK12Curriki etc.);
  • a multitude of formats print, online, PDF, ePub, and mobile are all available for the same book;
  • content can be adapted, contextualised and enhanced (yes because these aren’t the typical audience for which resources are created);
  • massive cost savings (~ 1/5 price of publisher’s alternatives) ; and
  • a massive reduction in workload for educators.

In our recent travels we’ve also encountered some schools that are the best resourced in South Africa (probably Africa) and would do pretty well by any global metric. Hence, the need to answer the question addressed in this blog. These schools aren’t particularly swayed by:

  • the fact that they’ll have a textbook as they already have many;
  • the increased content as they can buy rich-media supplements, assessment banks etc.;
  • the variety of formats as they can deliver whichever format suits them without accessibility concerns;
  • the adaptability of someone else’s content as they typically use their own notes anyway as their departments are strong in content knowledge and pedagogy;
  • the cost saving as, let’s face it, they can afford the most expensive premium content; and
  • the massive reduction in workload as they are well managed and their departments already collaborate quite well.

So why should these perfectly functioning institutions participate in the OER movement (I’m being serious not sarcastic). Let me be very clear that this isn’t about one school we encountered, there are a few and they’re in very much the same boat.

Consider the School’s Mission

Firstly, any reason I give should be aligned with the schools’ mission statement. For reference here are a number of schools linked to their mission statement. There are two sets of schools listed: those government schools chosen by the Sunday Times in a recent study to be the best in the country and those ranked in a Serve Africa 2011 ranking. I don’t give any particular weight to these metrics, I just needed some way of showing a list of schools where I could blame the bias on someone else!

Rank Sunday Times Top 10 Public Schools 2009 Serve Africa 2011 Rankings
1 Westerford High School Grey College
2 Westville Girls High Afrikaans High School for Boys
3 Afrikaans Hoer Meisieskool Bishops Diocesan College
4 Westville Boys High Hilton College
5 Rustenburg Girls High Paarl Gimnasium
6 SACHS Paul Roos Gimnasium
7 Raucall Secondary (couldn’t find a link to an online mission statement) Selborne College
8 Mbilwi Secondary Wynberg Boys High
9 Rondebosch Boys High Pretoria Boys High
10 Durban Girls High Stellenberg High School

I won’t analyse these in detail but I challenge you to randomly pick a few and read them. None of these mission statements states a primary objective of getting their learners to pass a matric exam with 50% (or even the minimum which is, sadly, lower). These mission statements talk about providing the best education, supporting the development of responsible, well-rounded, individuals who can participate meaningfully and effectively in society and striving to ensure they fulfil their potential.

The World is Changing (Fast!)

The world is a rapidly changing place, for any school to be providing the best possible education the educators must be up to date. The rate of change has been accelerating because of the internet and rapid advances in technology. This is the world for which learners need to be prepared.

There are some concrete examples that show that society will be different in future just look at the recent events(12) in the Arab world, look at how transparency and open governance are taking hold, how the movement for open data is getting stronger, how governments aren’t able to keep secrets in the same way, how municipalities are being more effective by opening up their data (12) and allowing the public to provide innovative solutions and uses of the data.

My only point here is that the world that educators need to be preparing learners for is changing so rapidly that it absolutely dictates education evolve so you can’t possibly rely on what you did 5 years ago, the world has changed too much.

Openness in Science

Thanks to Francois Grey for a nice sketch of this content.
The increase in connections amongst people provided by the internet has led to many opportunities, most importantly an increase in participatory culture and openness with incredible results.

Grid computing, as it is now called, can best be explained by a famous project, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI@home). Volunteers download a simple computer program which analyses bits of radio data collected by a giant radio-telescope and sends back a short summary of the result to a central server in California. The biggest surprise of this project was not that they discovered a message from outer space. In fact, after over a decade of searching, no sign of extraterrestrial life has been found, although there are still vast regions of space that have not been looked at. The biggest surprise was the number of people willing to help such an endeavour. Over a million people have downloaded the software, making the total computing power of SETI@home rival that of even the biggest supercomputers in the world.

A software platform was built so that this model could be used to solve many other problems. You can read more about this platform, called BOINC, and the many different kinds of volunteer computing projects it supports today, at http://boinc.berkeley.edu/ . There’s something for everyone, from searching for new prime numbers (PrimeGrid) to simulating the future of the Earth’s climate (ClimatePrediction.net). One of the projects, MalariaControl.net, involved researchers from University of Cape Town as well as from universities in Mali and Senegal.

But in recent years, a new trend has emerged in citizen cyberscience that is best described as volunteer thinking. Here the computers are replaced by brains, connected via the Web through an interface called eyes. Because for some complex problems – especially those that involve recognizing complex patterns or three-dimensional objects – the human brain is still a lot quicker and more accurate than a computer.
Volunteer thinking projects come in many shapes and sizes. For example, you can help to classify millions of images of distant galaxies (GalaxyZoo), or digitize hand-written information associated with museum archive data of various plant species (Herbaria@home). This is laborious work, which if left to experts would take years or decades to complete. But thanks to the Web, it’s possible to distribute images so that hundreds of thousands of people can contribute to the search.

Not only is there strength in numbers, there is accuracy, too. Because by using a technique called validation it is possible to practically eliminate the effects of human error. This is true even though each volunteer may make quite a few mistakes. So projects like Planet Hunters have already helped astronomers pinpoint new planets circling distant stars. The game FoldIt invites people to compete in folding protein molecules via a simple mouse-driven interface. By finding the most likely way a protein will fold, volunteers can help understand illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease that depend on how proteins fold.

Volunteer thinking is exciting. But perhaps even more ambitious is the emerging idea of volunteer sensing: using your laptop or even your mobile phone to collect data – sounds, images, text you type in – from any point on the planet, helping scientists to create global networks of sensors that can pick up the first signs of an outbreak of a new disease (EpiCollect), or the initial tremors associated with an earthquake (QuakeCatcher.net), or the noise levels around a new airport (NoiseTube).

Open science is really taking off, just watch the video in this article to really open your eyes.

My point here is that if you happen to be a science educator and you don’t know about these opportunities then are you not only not up to date but you are missing incredible opportunities to expose your learners to real science and you are missing the opportunity to let them actually PARTICIPATE in real science – I can’t stress this enough, as an educator you must be using these tools to give your learners a real world perspective of how science is changing if your goal is the best possible education.

Open Educational Resources

There is an ever increasing community of educators sharing content openly, not just freely, but under copyright licences (written by Creative CommonsFree Software Foundation etc.) that let you use it, change it, distribute it and remix it.

In South Africa, Mindset has created a lot of content and I don’t think most people appreciate that it is under an open copyright licence. Add to all their content the fact that our little team at Siyavula has managed to write and edit 6 textbooks (9-12 Mathematics and Physical Science), rally volunteers around translating them plus we’ve made workbooks for all learning areas in R-9 (K-9) available in English and Afrikaans. I think there may be a greater percentage of the curriculum covered by open content in South Africa than anywhere else in the world.

Globally we’re seeing huge repositories of content become available like WikipediaYouTube and Slideshare which are more general tools but also more school specific ones like the Khan Academy videos, TeacherTubeVeritasium Science Videos, the PhET Simulations, CK12 Flexbooks, Curriki and of course Connexions.

So far all I’ve done is make a case for getting connected to the internet and consuming what is available!

Finally, Benefits of Sharing

The quality of this content is increasing all the time as well, especially in the cases where communities are forming. Consider the huge amount of content for Mathematics teaching Dan Meyer (algebra and geometry) has made available. The best part is that Dan releases many of his lessons on his blog where people discuss, debate and even improve them. I find the comments on Dan’s blog one of the most interesting mathematics teaching resources around (for educators at least). Consider this lesson idea posted by Dan and look at comments like thisthis or even this. Thats just a random sampling. No, I’m not on a retainer from Dan, the reason I like to point at his stuff is because he made a nice 88s video explaining what it is all about for him – take a look here.

Is there only one Dan? Well yes, but there is more than one educator participating in a vibrant virtual community, sharing their content and benefiting from peer-review and an ever expanding community of practice. Not convinced, try following the any of the Blogroll links on Dan’s blog, if you’re a science educator start with Rhett Allain for some physics ideas and discussion. Each of those blogs will link to more blogs, browse around till you find the people you think are worth following.

Why is this happening? The answer is simple, peer-review in a real community works incredibly well!

But, to really benefit from a community of practice, to really harness that community to innovate around the challenges and context in which you work, you have to put your best material out there for them to see, to review and to improve and innovate around. You can’t passively watch their discussions and benefit from the full power of a community of practice. The best thing to do is to play a leading role in the community by participating and sharing on a large scale. Then the content you’re producing and the challenges you’re facing will benefit from the innovative power of the community.

You really need to be participating in a community of practice that is large and diverse enough to keep up with the rapid developments in all spheres of life so that you can provide the relevant education to your learners.

Keeping Ahead – Teaching vs. Content

Will you lose your edge? Absolutely not! In fact, this is the only way to keep your edge. Schools not participating in this process will be overtaken, firstly by the quality content that is becoming available and secondly by the rapidly changing environment for which they need to prepare learners.

The strong communities of educators have a much better chance of making sense of all the opportunities and changing technology and are too effective, too open and too innovative for the isolated schools to keep pace. Even if the schools buy the latest products from commercial publishers they’ll fall behind because of the slower pace at which publishers develop resources and the length of time they have to spend selling the content to cover their costs. Large, effective, open communities will beat them hands down.

Furthermore, I think the education you receive at one of those top schools is not defined by the content on the desk and neither is the teacher who puts it there. Those teachers identify and empathize with their students, guide them to make sense of the vast world of content, not just by acting as filters but by harnessing critical thinking and discourse. Those teachers need to fine tune, adapt and contextualise the learning experience for the needs of their specific learners. That is what will make them great educators and no matter how much content and how many ideas their community comes up with, the person who needs to take it the “last mile” is still the in-classroom educator.

A Couple of Additional Benefits

Firstly, there are, in our context, many schools where better content would still make a remarkable difference. By sharing quality resources openly, learners at those schools have opportunities to access better resources. They will never have the experience of going to a top school but everyone in the world benefits when more people have a better schooling. Doing anything to raise the bar for everyone is a worthwhile exercise.

Secondly, sharing quality resources actually increases the profile of a school. It certainly didn’t undermine MIT‘s reputation when they put up hundreds of their lectures for free online in their OpenCourseWare project.

Conclusion (Again!)

If you want to be the best you need to be up to date on all fronts and I believe that it is impossible to remain at the forefront of education if you remain in a silo, you just won’t be able to keep up.

Maybe we should be doing things radically differently anyway, if you’re bored or not at all convinced then try watching Sir Ken Robinson’s two TED talks, Do Schools Kill Creativity and Bring on the Learning Revolution.

read original post on Mark Horner’s Site


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