Friday, May 28, 2010

DIYU v. the skepticism of the commons

My Salon post about the DIYU book got noticed, the author sent me a copy, I reviewed it, and lately I've following the progress of the book through blogville in a not at all creepy or stalkerish way.

In this post, Rortybomb (aka. Mike Konczal) seems to be arguing that "free" educational resources aren't free enough. Until they're rammed down the throat of every man, woman, and child, they will serve only to exacerbate the power inequalities between people.

Okay, that's a grossly distorted characterization of his argument. Read the whole thing. But I think he overstates his case, and offers little in the way of solutions.

Two obvious points come to mind. First, open source textbooks aren't genomic data. They're written in one or more human readable languages, with pictures and whatnot. They're much easier to digest than ATGCCAGTCTCAGATTACATCGATCAAGAABAGTCCC.* Second, even if a piece of data is useful only to a handful of genetics PhDs, that's a far broader access than if it were only useful to the subset of PhDs who happen to work for a specific biotech company.

Which leads to broader point 2b: the only thing that happens when you open source something (like a textbook, or a video lecture) is that certain restrictions that would allow for monopolizing/rent-seeking/whatever-the-cool-kids-in-econ-call-it behavior. Open sourcing isn't magic pixie dust that will usher in the hippie singularity, but I'm not understanding how opening education resources can do anything to make learning less democratic. Really, it's like objecting to a public library in a town where not everyone can read.

I believe the conclusion Rortybomb is drawing from that is that some structure will still be needed to guide the students through the material, to make it accessible. That's true, but it seems like a trivial point. Do people really think that in a DIYU model, five year olds would be handed an iPhone loaded with a hodgepodge of textbooks, reference material, and video, and told to come back when they're ready to enter the job market? Judging by some of the arguments, it seems that way.

The takeaway line seems to confirm this:

Will a self-directed educational goal primarily benefit those with stable homes and the time and capital to cultivate this? Is "DIY U" accessible according to need? This is the framework I think of as I read and explore this work.
So, even under the worst-case scenario, we end up with an education that is nearly as stratified and inaccessible as the one we have today?

I often cite the statistic that, in America, the least academically successful quarter of the children from the wealthiest quarter of families are slightly more likely to graduate from college than the most academically talented quarter of the children from the poorest quarter of families. We also live in the country with the greatest disparity between the performances of the financially best and worst-off students.

The college education we offer now is too expensive, too inflexible, and doesn't fail gracefully when confronted with students whose lives are full of the disruptions and distractions caused by poverty. Some DIY U critics write as though they skipped over the entire Part I of the book -- the part that explains how the system got so screwed up in the first place -- then apply absurd standards of perfection to proposed open education systems.

How will the poor access DIY U? How do they access education now?

Where will the money come from to create all these free textbooks and course materials? Maybe from the tiny sliver of the billions of dollars that students are now paying for overpriced textbooks. It doesn't all have to go back into beer money.

But what will they read them on? Probably an iPad-like device that now costs about as much as a semester worth of books, and will be radically cheaper and more useful in five years.

How will teachers get paid at DIY U? They'll be paid for services rendered, I suppose. Relieved of much of the burden of delivering prepared lectures, creating course materials, and administering tests to assess student progress, they'll have more time to do the sort of one-on-one coaching on areas where the students need the most help. There will always be structures designed to connect those who want to teach with those who want to learn. An educated citizenry is a clear public good, and much of today's education spending is wasted. If this radical transformation requires a bit of government spending or some money from students to get the incentives right, I think it will happen.

I do worry that the open education movement might inadvertently reduce the size of what you might call "the academic class." But given that the demand for education currently outstrips the supply, I'm betting that there will be jobs aplenty for the foreseeable future.

* I'm pretty sure that string is in my genetic makeup somewhere, and that it will kill me before I turn fifty. The 'B' has me especially worried.

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