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Case Study of an e-Learning Ecology

Project Overview

Project Description

Explore and document a case study of an e-learning innovation—something in which you have been involved, or which you have observed in a place where you have studied or worked, or an interesting intervention somewhere else that you would like to study in more detail. A practice may be a piece of software or hardware; a teaching and learning activity that uses technology; or a case study of a class, a school or person using technologies in learning in an innovative way. Use the 'seven affordances' framework to analyze the dynamics of the e-learning ecology that you are investigating.

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Opening Up Pedagogy

Shifting the Traditional Paradigm

The world's first Universities developed in France and Italy during the medieval period and were initially steeped in the classical dialectical tradition; the principal pedagogy involved discourse aimed at uncovering logical fallacies and exposing the truth. However, this "discourse-knowledge" approach would not survive pressures from the emerging modern world. In the fifteenth century, Johannes Gutenberg's printing press made it possible to mass produce books that included text and images. As a result, oral discourse would soon be supplanted by the printed word as the leading source of knowledge of the world. French humanist Petrus Ramus accelerated this process when he created what is considered the world's first textbook. Ramus believed that the discourse method produced too many logical inconsistencies. In Dialecticae partitiones, he recommended systematizing knowledge in textbooks that incorporated "summaries, headings, citations and examples." ("Petrus Ramus") In addition, Ramus helped create disciplinary boundaries that remain familiar in most formal educational institutions today. While Ramus was attempting to bring clarity to academia through development of textbooks, he didn't fully understand the impact that his approach had upon learning. In effect, Ramus "largely reduced the oral component (of teaching and learning) by converting it into his own classroom monologue." ("Ong") Thus, an "observation-knowledge" pedagogy dominated by textbooks would become dominant in formal educational institutions. This approach literally lasted well into the 20th century.

Textbok Title Page: The Way to Geometry by Petrus Ramus

The "characteristic modern architecture" of textbook driven curriculum served the needs of states seeking to centralize their power and authority. ("e-learning") In particular, states would use an "observation-knowledge" pedagogy to push habits and values that serve its political, economic, and social interests. The use of a textbook driven curriculum also "registered a major shift in consciousness marking the transit from the ancient and medieval world into the modern." ("Ong") Rather than seeking to imitate the practices of the present, modern scholars sought to use a more scientific method of categorization. While the textbook served the needs of the emerging modern world in fifteenth century, there is ample reason to question whether such an architecture serves the social, political, and economic needs in the 21st century. In particular, textbook driven curriculum contributes to a number of significant problems, including:

  1. The high costs of textbooks make the latest learning unaffordable for many learners around the world thereby contributing to inequity and increasing socioeconomic divides.
  2. The intellectual copyright used by textbook publishers limits the distribution of a "public good," thereby denying learners access to valuable knowledge.
  3. The intellectual copyright used by textbook publishers also prevents the remixing and revision of textbook content, thereby making differentiated instruction more difficult in a diverse world that is increasingly interdependent and interconnected.
  4. The "observation-knowledge" paradigm perpetuated by textbooks reflects a pedagogical model poorly suited to a "knowledge society" that demands learners who actively generate, process, and share knowledge in a collaborative way, rather than simply imitate or copy established authorities.

Fortunately, there is reason to believe that developments in technology-mediated learning environments are causing the undoing of textbook driven curriculum just as earlier developments gave rise to the textbook in the first place. In particular, the Internet provides unprecedented access to knowledge outside textbooks, and cloud-based platforms allow for high levels of collaboration among users. These technologies have led an increasing number of people to question the philosophical and pedagogical rationale for the textbook that Ramus developed. To that end, a movement for "open pedagogy" that takes advantage of Open Educational Resources (OER) has been a significant impetus for much-needed change. Nonetheless there are many legal and mental obstacles that need to be overcome in order to realize the potential of a more open pedagogy.

The Need for Open Pedagogy

Open Educational Resources (OER) can be understood in many ways. The term was first used in 2002 at a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) forum on Open Courseware. ("Open") According to UNESCO, OER is defined as "digitised materials offered freely and openly for educators, students, and self-learners to use and reuse for teaching, learning, and research ... [it provides] learning content, software tools to develop, use, and distribute content, and implementation resources such as open licences." ("2012") Since UNESCO's declaration many other organizations have added to the understanding of OER. In the broadest sense, these organizations suggest that OER requires open copyright licenses; non-discrminatory rights of access, adaptation, and republication; and the absence of noncommercial delimitations. ("What") UNESCO supports OER primarily because it helps promote basic education for all children, youth, and adults which the United Nations considers a fundamental human right. ("2012") Many other governmental and non-governmental organizations believe that OER should support open pedagogy "that leverages the re-use, revise, remix, redistribute permissions to extend and improve the official instructional materials required for a course." (Wiley)

OER global logo adopted by UNESCO

Proponents of open pedagogy work for reform on two levels. On the institutional, political and legal level, supporters seek the creation of OER that allow individuals to use and share each other's work without violating intellectual copyright laws. On the instructional level, supporters work to show that traditional pedagogical practices dependent on textbooks must be abandoned.

Institutional, Political, and Legal Reformers

OER has many sponsors on the institutional level who have led the creation of common spaces for sharing work and are pressuring states to support reforms of intellectual copyright laws. The MIT OpenCourseWare project led the way by using funds from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to put MIT's entire course catalog online in 2002. ("Open") MIT's initiative has since been copied by institutions throughout the world. OER Commons is a nonprofit educational research that has created tools for "creating, sharing, and discovering" resources and provides training to "broaden curriculum and strengthen collaboration." ("Your") Curriki has also created similar tools for K-20 education. Perhaps the most well-known initiative is from Creative Commons. In addition to providing tools for creating, sharing, and discovering resources, Creative Commons has developed "free, easy-to-use copyright licenses that provide a simple, standardized way to give the public permission to share and use your creative work — on conditions of your choice." ("About") Further, these licenses allow creators to easily modify copyright terms.

The OER initiatives frequently take place along side concerted efforts to pressure states to reform global copyright. In its 2014 Annual Report, Creative Commons took a public stance supporting copyright reform and created an Open Policy Network for political activism. Despite the prevalence of OER advocacy groups around the world, state support around the world has been generally limited. (Hoosen) Of course, this represents a considerable barrier to realization of open pedagogy.

Pedagogical Reformers

OER empowers educational organizations, schools, and teachers who want to shift pedagogy from "observation knowledge" where the textbook and teacher is the source of authoritative knowledge to an open pedagogy. This shift is nicely summarized by Hybrid Pedagogy's Kris Shaffer who argues that open pedagogy can offer:

  • "a corrective in the way scholars and pedagogues view their identity and work ... not merely consumers ... or creators ... [but] creators/consumers, developer/users ... hackers" who are involved in the "manipulation, re-creation, breaking, rebuilding ... of existing models and theories, repurposing a tool from one discipline for use in another, supplementing a poor textbook reading with a lecture of better examples, revamping course materials" etc.
  • "a new publication model" that enters intellectual work into the public domain, rather than placing "restrictions on the public use of material in order to funnel financial profit to a single individual or corporation." (Shaffer)

The implementation of open pedagogy is aided by numerous groups that have produced open-source textbooks. Boundless "pulls out material from public sites, such as Wikipedia or government Web sites, performs a 'human curation and vetting,' aligns the resulting content with big-selling college textbooks, and delivers the package in digital textbook format. The full book includes just key points, terms, and examples. The content can be highlighted and searched." (Schaffhauser) The California Learning Resource Network, College Open Textbook Collaborative, The Global Text Project, and OpenStax also provide open-source textbooks. (Schaffhauser) Many educators have seized upon the opportunities created by advocates of pedagogical reform.

Open Pedagogy in Practice

It is possible to "do ordinary things with instructional technology." ("What's") However, many individuals and groups are doing extraordinary things by embracing the concepts of "hacking" education. In 2011, a group of four science teachers from four separate states gathered in Keystone, Colorado to discuss bringing an interdisciplinary approach back to the classroom. During the subsequent sessions the group "decided to use web 2.0 technologies and Open Educational Resources to network their classrooms and develop a collaborative unit requiring their students to utilize 21st century skills." ("Evolution") This project developed by the group which called itself "The Evolution of Yesterday's Classroom" invovled "a multi-state collaborative effort involving students working cooperatively to solve an environmental mystery involving a band whose members suffer an illness while on an East Coast concert tour." ("Evolution") The teachers developed a website for the band as well fictional news releases. During the lesson, students used cloud-based instructions develop by the teachers to complete cooperative hands-on classroom investigations into the mystery. Students posted videos about their findings on YouTube and shared with one another. Edistorm (now StormBoard) provided another avenue for the students to share their ideas and offer one another feedback. Some classes even hooked up via Skype to further exchange their hypotheses. Unlike traditional practices based on the observation model, this open pedagogy activity demanded that students use and develop a set of competencies far beyond long-term memorization.

Evolution of Yesterday's Classroom: Students using Skype to share their hypotheses across state lines

The Underlying Learning Theory

In a textbook driven classroom, discourse retreats into the background and students become "receptacles to be filled by the teacher." (Freire) The "teacher [can] afford to be a voice" and "too many voices [can] result in chaos." ("Ong") In open pedagogy, discourse retakes center stage and "the learner has access to peers and elders ... outside of his immediate horizon." ("Ivan") Further, students are able to connect with learning in a more authentic way. As a result, teachers and students are released from the "tyranny of content" that involves "skills and drill schoolwork for a society of low-paying jobs." (Gee) In the process, the teachers and students regain "a sense of control, meaningfulness, even expertise in the face of risk and complexity." (Gee)

The pedagogical shift that results from the effective implementation of open pedagogy can be understood in the framework of "Seven Affordences" developed by Drs. Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope at the University of Illinois. According to Kalantzis and Cope, "the seven affordences are actually old things. Technology makes these things easier." ("From") While this characterization is no doubt accurate is many cases, open pedagogy actually represents an approach to learning that was mostly inconceivable prior to the explosion of the Internet in the early 1990s. 

The Seven Affordences
Affordence Open Pedagogy
Active Knowledge Making Teachers and students can be creators/consumers of content, rather than copiers. In the words of James Gee, teachers and students are part of the "production maker movement."
Collaborative Intelligence Teachers and students can work cooperatively to reuse, redistribute, revise, and remix content to meet their own needs. In the words of James Gee, average people are connected people and allowing them to share unique knowledge.
Differentiated Instruction Teachers and students can participate in authentic learning activities that are not artificially confined by the textbook. In the words of James Gee, students have the opportunity to learn skills in "affinity spaces" 
Recursive Feedback Teachers and students can use OER to give and receive feedback that helps achieve desired learning outcomes.
Ubiquitous Learning Teachers and students can access OER anytime and anywhere, rather than relying on physical possession of the textbook or access to the teacher.
Multimodal Meaning Teachers and students can incorporate media that is not necessarily dominated by text and images as are textbooks.
Metacognition Students become actively engaged in the production of knowledge rather than simply receptacles of knowledge. In the words of James Gee, students are more likely to know something because of "situated embodied learning."

Solving the Textbook Problem

Open pedagogy has the potential to address some of the fundamental problems with textbook driven pedagogy.

  1. Costs: Open pedagogy provides "much-needed competition against an oligopoly that has worked hard at keeping prices ridiculously high for educational resources." (Masnick) Textbook publishers work hard to maintain a dominant market position. This is evident by the opposition of publishing groups to open-source textbooks. In 2012, three of the world's largest textbook companies, Pearson Education, Cengage Learning, and Bedford, Freeman, & Worth Public Group, sued Boundless for copyright infringement on what many legal observers considered questionable claims. (Masnick) (The case was eventually settled outside of course and Boundless has continued with its open-textbook project.) In the end, if the money that went into textbooks went into technology that connected students to the Internet, it could be argued that students would have a laptop with everything that they needed.
  2. Public Goods: Textbook companies play an important role in vetting materials to help ensure a quality project. At the same time, textbook publishers have arguably too much control over what is considered foundational knowledge. It can be argued that open pedagogy is more democratic because they provide a wide-range of experts and "average" people to play a role content development. In addition, such a process might be less prone to political controversies that have raged in Texas over the issue of evolution.
  3. Differentiated Instruction: Textbook publishing groups simply cananot produce a textbook that is appropriate for every student. Due to the diversity of personal identity, experience, knowledge, and skills, students have different interests and needs. Open pedagogy is far more likely to meet student needs than any textbook.
  4. 21st century Pedagogy: Textbooks have many limits: "you can't access it if it's not in your possession; you can't copy out important information and paste it with other important information; you can't share it in any meaningful way; you can't have the most up to date information about the topic; and you can't edit it."(Richardson) On the hand, a move toward open pedagogy provides tremendous opportunities for students to actively construct knowledge that has real-world value.

Making Open Pedagogy Happen

There are many skeptics who have questioned the wisdom of abandoning print textbooks in favor of an open pedagogy. Some question whether putting electronic devices into the hands of students will inevitably lead to distraction and make it harder for students to properly pay attention. Others point to the ongoing costs of purchasing up-to-date electronic devices and providing required technological support. Psychologists and neuroscientists have produced research suggesting that individuals learn to read more quickly, generate more ideas, and retain information better when they first learn to write by hand. (Konnikova) In a similar vein, some point to research suggesting that "more repetition is needed with computer reading to impart the same information" and "book readers seem to digest information more fully" than those who read e-books. (Szalavitz) Finally, advocates of a more traditional pedagogy argue that there "is a body of lasting knowledge and skills that form the core of a strong [school] curriculum" that can be best achieved using a textbook that has cumulative and content-specific knowledge which has been vetted from experts. (Why) These critiques deserve to be taken seriously even if many seem to present false choices. In reality, it is possible to move to a more open pedagogy without driving students to distraction, increasingly the financial burden on schools, de-emphasizing handwriting, or taking print books out of the hands of students. With respect to the argument that students need experts hired by publishers to vet content and skills for students, this disregards evidence that the crowdsourcing of open educational resources will produce a product that meets or exceeds the so-called experts. In short, these arguments do not make a convincing case that a textbook driven curriculum better serves the interests of students in the 21st century.

The reaction of textbook publishers to the challenge of open pedagogy is informative. Textbook publication is big business. In North America, the "combined print publishing business for the education industry is worth in the range of $12-14 billion per year." (McIlroy) Further, these markets are dominated by a few publishers. Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw Hill mostly control the textbook market for K-12 education. Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education, Cenage, and Wiley have cornered the textbook market for Universities and Colleges. (Band) Despite the skepticism of open pedagogy, it is interesting to note that leading textbook publishers seem to have accepted that change in inevitable. Thus, these publishers have begun to offer ebooks and some limited customizable tools in order to retain their dominant market position. In other words, the market has already recognized that value can be found by moving away from print textbooks and textbooks publishers have adjusted their practices accordingly.

Open pedagogy has tremendous potential. Realistically, it may be difficult to fully realize this potential in the short-term. The current institutional, political, and legal hurdles to open educational resources are considerable. Additionally, the incorporation of open pedagogy in formal academic settings depends upon a paradigm shift that must involve professional development training. Finally, there are relatively few successful examples of open pedagogy in practice that can serve as a model for school districts and teachers. The limited success of the California Learning Resource Network (CLRN) is a prime example. CLRN provides a massive amount of open-source textbooks that can be accessed by schoolteachers throughout the United States. Despite its potential, few teachers have become an active part of the process. Importantly, the highest rated textbooks on CLRN "were typically written by just one or several authors, and the one major organization that ... fully emerged embraced a Wiki approach that failed to impress CLRN reviewers." (Borrell)

Print textbooks have may well have served the needs of previous centuries, however their time is passing. Despite the obstacles, open pedagogy provides an extremely useful approach for 21st century, teaching and learning. It would be wise if educational leaders are the impetus for change.


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