At the end of a talk by David Wiley yesterday at the Open Education conference, he mentioned that you could decompose education services into three components: the content, learning support, and certification/degrees. And he gave three exemplars of each. For content you have repositories like MIT OCW, and as an example of learning support and interaction he mentioned Yahoo Answers. I’m actually a fan of Yahoo Answers, and it is the 2nd most popular reference site on the web next to Wikipedia. Lastly, for certification he mentioned that Western Governors University apparently can give you a degree or certify that you know something even if you learned it on your own. If you can pass the tests, you can get the degree. David argued that this is the direction education may head, a disaggregation of education services.
I would argue though some cautions. First, this disaggregation has already occurred and been in place for many years. Look at programming and technology training, for example. Sun offers a Java certification, Red Hat offers Linux server administration certifications, and Microsoft offers .NET certifications, for example. And while most folks don’t use Yahoo Answers to get programming support, there are plenty of mailing groups, web forums, news groups, and IRC channels to get support (where they love noobies). And of course, the content is all available online, too.
The cautions are the drawbacks that we see in these existing disaggregated services. A Java certification or a .NET certification isn’t really worth much. It means you have had a class or read a book about programming, but doesn’t indicate that you are a good software designer, or that you know how to talk to other people on a team. And we complain about “teaching to the test” in K-12 schools, but in the world of programming and technology certificates, they take it to a whole new level. Some students do nothing but memorize hundreds of previous test questions. The test IS the teaching, or teacher.
This is where one might talk about getting a “well-rounded” education, and learning social skills from a traditional education, and yes there are drawbacks to that, too. Sometimes in college and high school, “social skills” might be about ALL that you learn in school. But are we going to disaggregate that? Are we going to have a “social skills” certificate or test? It’d probably be a fun test I imagine (especially if conducted in a bar or club with some drinks), but I don’t see that ever happening. Another option: can you gain employable social skills in online environments, web or 3d-based? I don’t see that, either, but who knows 5, 10, 20 years from now. And already today online socialization is an important skill to have, and we don’t teach online netiquette in the classroom.
On the whole though, we need to go beyond imitating other fields. When I was in psychology, we had “physics envy”, and now in ed tech, we sometimes have an “engineering envy” or “programming envy” (or an envy of medical research with its randomized trials). Open education itself is mainly derived from the same concepts in the programming world. Neither physicists or programmers or doctors though tend to know much about learning and instruction. If anything they should be imitating us more and reading up about how people learn and how to design effective learning environments and communicate information to non-experts, because otherwise you are just stuck with a tabula rasa model of the mind and think that passive exposure to information is all that is required for learning and understanding.