Networked Study

I was hoping to jump into this fray, and I will only tangentially to say how much I liked Stephen Downes’s post in response to Michael Feldstein’s post here. I particularly enjoyed this following bit that contends that aping the OER as a kind of online lecture that works for the elite 15% of the world’s university students that have succeeded because they know how to study, marginalizes a whole different part of the population of learners that may want another approach.  A different, engaged, and creative lens on the act of learning.

So long as we depict open learning as some form of ‘independent study, then yeah, it will appeal only to the fifteen percent of people that likes to study.

In my mind he nails it entirely with this quote, herein lies the danger of aping the Ivy “study” model, where students become power tools for studying what’s been said and repeating it back. As David Wiley points out, so many other colleges are wrongheadedly trying to emulate such a model, despite the fact that their students’ desires and strengths may vary dramatically from the Ivy model. Downes’s vision of a different model of education—which is not the same as getting rid of education by any means—speaks volumes to a push we need to be thinking about in terms of the production of these resources by the community members themselves. Why does this happen with technologists? —as Michael Feldstein asks. Well, I would argue because many technologists have become a part of creative and cooperative online communities that are willing to share, think, experiment, and in many ways live these new approaches—and these same practices may very well become models. Which is my biggest issue with Feldstein argument in this post, he sounds like he desparately needs to hang onto the idea of LMS—and given how much he blogs and how connected he is through various media I just can’t help but think why?

What is the argument for the LMS again? Those quizzes can’t find another home? Those grades won’t survive a different spreadsheet? Students way too confused without single sign-on? What amorphous mass of students and faculty does we represent? We are nothing if not thinkers—let the LMS die its own violent death, there is too much good work to be done elsewhere. I do not believe, as a technologist, I should be trying to save education, no less an LMS, but rather I am quite simply trying to practice the act of learning collaboratively though this media in new ways. That is my job, and when I use these tools, when I write this post, tweet an insult, or upload a video, I am doing my job. None of it happens in an LMS, it all happens as a series of fascinating and important—at least to me—networked conversations that are often laced with fun.

Which reminds me, I have a dog to neuter don’t I….

What Downes is advocating for here is not the independent study model, but the networked study model. A very different idea of school that hits home for me given I wasted many an independent study trying to do what today I freely can in my learning. Educational institutions are one, rather limited way at all this as they stand now, and their apotheosis as always already necessary and good does no one any good.

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35 Responses to Networked Study

  1. I was sort of with you until you got to the “desperately hanging on to the LMS” part. There’s an old joke about a guy who goes the psychologist and is shown a series of (appropriately enough, for this blog) Rorschach pictures. When the psychologist asks him what he thinks they are, he describes progressively more graphic and perverse sexual scenes. The psychologist tells him that he has an obsession with sex, to which the patient replies, “Me?! Doc, you’re the one drawing the pictures!”

    The LMS was the furthest thing from my mind when I wrote that post. What *was* on my mind? The stories that my wife tells me every day about the students she teaches in her community college.

    I would like to believe that you and Stephen are right, and that the open education movement has an educational approach that will reach these students. But if so, I have yet to see it articulated in a concrete and testable way. Where is your data?

    Contrary to Stephen’s paranoid fantasy, the students I am thinking about are not straining to burst their creative shackles, restrained only by a steady stream of propaganda spoon fed to them by tools of the capitalist system. (That would be the teachers, I guess.) Lots of teachers I know (especially in English, which is what my wife teaches) don’t even use textbooks. They do everything they know how to do to get these students to be creators and agents in their own education. So what if they use paper journals and art sketchpads instead of blogs and wikis and Flickr and Frapper and Froopadoop and Frwhatever to do it? It’s not like student-centered education was created by the edupunks. And yet, students fail to learn in these classes all the time. The high drop-out rate in community colleges reflects a lot of different factors, but on major one is surely that many students who go there do not have the skills to take charge of their own education, no matter how much you try to empower them. I have no been given reason to believe that the digital version of this approach will be wildly more successful than the analog version.

    As for the LMS, it is clearly not the prison that is holding these students’ young minds hostage either. I know this because most of them don’t use it. You start your post by heartily confirming that the movement is all about the educational philosophy, and yet halfway through your post you veer right into tool talk again. I confess I am mystified.

  2. > Lots of teachers I know (especially in English, which is what my wife teaches) don’t even use textbooks. They do everything they know how to do to get these students to be creators and agents in their own education.

    That’s not evidence that students aren’t creative, it’s evidence that traditional education is a failure.

    From what I’ve seen of English classes in community colleges, it’s the last place any of them want to be. They would must rather actually be *creating* rather than following teachers grade-five style instructions and doing some pretend-creating.

  3. Wow, Stephen, that comment is breathtakingly arrogant. You think you know better than every veteran teacher out there who is working around the clock to serve the students? You can dismiss every teacher as an incompetent babysitter with a casual wave of your hand? You think you know more about teaching than every one of them?

    I had no idea that you had such contempt for hard-working educators.

    And while we are talking about evidence, where’s yours? What proof do you have that the students I am talking about will somehow blossom into creative geniuses if only they would stop going to school?

  4. Oh don’t be ridiculous. I’m sure it is far from the case that “every veteran teacher” agrees with you and disagrees with me.

  5. That’s not what I said, Stephen.

    First you claim that, if students are failing out of community college, it is proof that community colleges are failing to do their job. Then you generalize that community college teachers have their students follow “grade-five style instructions and doing some pretend-creating.”

    You studied logic, Stephen. Follow your own premises to their conclusion. The logical inference from your argument is that students fail community college because teachers are incompetent babysitters. That is contempt for educators if I ever heard it–not because they all must agree with me, but because, for your worldview to make sense, they must be incompetent.

    And you still haven’t offered up a shred of evidence that students will do better out of school than in. It’s not like we’re short on empirical data. Many of these students are in and out of school all the time. If there is a better way for them, why haven’t they found it? What haven’t they found it in large numbers? Why aren’t they telling each other about it? If you are right, then why does anybody go to community college anymore?

    Oh, that’s right, they’ve all been hypnotized by the evil corporations and bureaucrats. So, in your worldview, the companies are evil, the administrators are evil, the teachers are incompetent, and the students are stupified cows that are led by the nose to their own slaughter. Who do you *not* think is either evil or a moron?

  6. Reverend says:


    I have to begin with apologies, I don’t know why I harped on the LMS model and framed you as desparately holding on to it, you post doesn’t suggest that at all, and I took this one sentence

    But it’s not the “evil” LMS companies, or the “evil” textbook companies, or the “evil” administrators and bureaucrats that are failing these students.

    To be an indirect defense of the proprietary LMS companies, textbooks publishers, etc. An attempt to re-situate the blame on anyone looking for other options, or even worse, everyone—which makes the idea of thinking through solutions always already a losing, guilt-ridden process. Which is a jump, and not one you necessarily made.

    But, I find this particularly important, because I don’t feel guilty for doing what I do, and I also don’t pity the high school or community college drop-out, quite the opposite I think they may be the ones who actually have a clearer sense of the larger, damning issues that plague institutional education. It’s interesting how your original post frames the idea of community college students as abject:

    They see many students who have not been taught how to read, think critically, or even follow directions. Increasing numbers of them are autism spectrum, mentally challenged, or mentally ill. I’m talking about people who tend to subsist on the fringes of the economy. Many are marginally employable in good times and unemployable during serious economic downturns like the one that we are in now.

    And my immediate thought is, will education at a community college necessarily help their autism spectrum disorder or some unnamed mental illness? Will it bring them out of their marginal financial status? Will education cure ills that are far deeper and more complex that how we frame the process of education at a school? Seems to me that education has become the salvo for many things, and I agree with you that simply having open content available may not make the difference that everyone will educate themselves. But, I do believe that challenging some of the assumptions of what these educational institutions are and what they are meant to accomplish may be a far more generative exercise. When did technologists necessarily become missionaries? By this very idea, it puts us all in the light of knowing and having something necessarily to bestow on another, less fortunate figure. It frames a dynamic of power that is assumed within the educational process as it plays out from k-12 through the Ph.D. A constant act of submission and acceptance that as students we are necessarily understood and must understand ourselves as inferior. And the more one trains and moves through the schooling system the more their position of power is both assumed and rewarded. And while the few that do make it through may be able to jump ranks, how many others remain depicted as the abject, poor souls that we are expected to help, as missionaries of knowledge and light?

    The new religion of education as a means to self-fulfillment becomes the club to beat those who refuse to accept this logic over the head with. Does everyone need a college education? Does everyone need a high school education? Have we assumed these things as necessary in order to explain away the systematic privileging of those who are better educated? I don’t know, but I do know that we take many things for granted when we talk about education as a means to help deal with issues as diverse as mental illness to poverty. It has become the one-stop-shop for fixing all of societies ills. And the question begged from this may be how many of those ills might our educational system in its current form compound?

    I am accused of being part of the problem in your post (not directly mind you, but I enjoy working through the argument) and in many ways I could care less. The idea that a refusal to engage the system as it stands right now may allow for one worse to takes its place always remains a possibility, but the idea of guilting someone in to accepting their place within a system in order to bemoan how little one can do within it is far worse in my mind. It is, in fact, the engine that has been keeping our moribund system alive. And while I do believe in anecdotal stories from teachers who are fighting the fight against all odds as encouraging, I don’t see it as data, and frankly, I could care less about data as well.

    I’m not interested in making a case for institutional learning and managed systems for students, but rather to imagine alternatives. And no one gave me this job, I decided to take it on for myself to have fun. I like doing it, and I don’t see it as a mission from God to make the world better, but rather a way to move away from the moral imperative of education. I don’t think systematic education is a moral imperative, but quite the opposite, a depraved response to garner control. And I don’t think education needs to necessarily happen within a system, and the more we experiment with that, the more we will see just if this makes any sense. Although I think the very idea of divorcing education from any kind of practice is what has made the case for the exorbitant prices and invidious distinctions that education is increasingly becoming synonymous with—add to this the industrial logic of most of our system currently that speaks not at all to the changing mediascape, and we might argue education is the biggest sham going. The only thing it has left going for it is the fact that you get a piece of paper that, coupled with luck, may get you a little more than you have now. A token for some sense of economic stability that is increasingly being stripped of its value as our economy continues to devalue labor in all its forms.

    In short 🙂 I don’t think we do disagree with one another all that much, Michael, I just don’t feel guilt in the face of our “affirmative responsibility” being disregarded when it comes to institutions because I think it’s an easy way of re-centering the conversation around an infrastructure that was designed for a few, and which as a result systematically alienates the many, and by extension consistently reproduces the talented tenth that exercise the same logic of power and control—how can they not, they were made from the mold.

    This all reminds me of a talk from 1988 that Leigh Blackall pointed me to by Ivan Illich titled “The Educational enterprise in the Light of the Gospel.”

    It actually deals directly with what we are talking about here, and I love his approach. It is time to stop blaming the dropouts and the teachers, and start rethinking the system we have all helped to create. But his is not a reformist vision, or one suited to incremental improvements, but rather a radical rethinking of how we have framed education as a means to solve so many of the social issues it has helped create. He doesn’t preach engagement with, but rather withdrawal from the institutional logic.

    …withdrawal from the school and detachment from the educational model of mediation ought to be welcomed as signs of social health. In the schoolbred and now almost unavoidable twotier society and a world of increasing unemployment, the option for such a withdrawal could be more readily available for those of the labeled majority than for those of the certified and busy few. But hardly anybody is seriously reflecting on the conditions which could favor this route. Educational research in the US swallows more money than biology and chemistry taken together. Yet none of it is focused on the transformation of the status of the dropout from that of an escapee who must be caught and brought back into the fold into that of the world wise, reasonable person. I do not plead for some new form of institutionalized haven. I think of niches, free spaces, squatters arrangements, spiritual tents which some of us might be capable to offer, not for “the dropout in general” but each of us for a small “list” of others who, through the experience of mutual obedience have become able to renounce integration in the “system.”

    That last sentence is magic, pure and utter magic, and that is where my moral imperative lives, in free zones apart from the rhetoric of institutional missionaries. You can’t be a bandit without two swords.

    As for data, who cares about data? Who said anything about data, especially when your generalizable argument is premised on anecdotal experience of college teachers? And therein lies the problem, we talk about education as if there is one thing, one way, one idea, when we all know there isn’t. The way we fall back into the massification of the educational ideal as a social salvo for all our ills is deeply problematic. One of the major issues in my mind is that university/college has become the hammer with which we beat everyone into submission when it comes to getting a job or preparing for the “real world.” And that model is rather limited in both its approach and scope, yet it has become the standard by which we measure, and anyone who fails out is necessarily a victim of that logic. I wonder if that isn’t the problem, the idea that highered, and k-12 for that matter, is some kind of great equalizer. The rhetoric around education is fraught with ideals of a missionary logic of equality, democracy, and freedom that it seems to become a space that is always already going to fail the majority of people that enter the system because it is rarely honest about the inequalities it’s based on: whether they be economic, social, racial, religious, etc. Perhaps some social scientists have some data about that, but I prefer the anecdotes, and would much rather work from the margins, because I believe that you can liberate yourself from some of the assumptions about what is an is not the point of systematic education. And I see the emerging networks as a interesting place to experiment with this, and I don’t have to carry around the beast on my back that says I am responsible for the solving of all societies ills, but rather that I am comfortable playing hopscotch between the crocodile tears of others.

  7. Michael, you’re simply not reading what I wrote.

    First. Look at your first charge: “you claim that, if students are failing out of community college, it is proof that community colleges are failing to do their job.”

    I said no such thing. Please go back to my original comment and reread it. Please note that, first I quote from the article the statement that “They do everything they know how to do to get these students to be creators and agents” and then respond “That’s not evidence that students aren’t creative, it’s evidence that traditional education is a failure.”

    I said not a word about them failing out of college. I responded to them not being creative. The fact that college teachers cannot make students in college class be creative demonstrates the failure of college education. I would be saying this whether or not they dropped out of class or passed with flying colours.

    Second, you argue “The logical inference from your argument is that students fail community college because teachers are incompetent babysitters.” This because, by your own words, “you generalize that community college teachers have their students follow ‘grade-five style instructions and doing some pretend-creating.'”

    Well, I know you’re able to deduce the missing premise of a sorite, and in this case the missing premise is something like “grade five teachers are incompetent babysitters.” But where do I make any statement like that? Nowhere, which means that your inference is a most uncharitable reading, having nothing to do with what I actually said.

    A much more charitable reading would be the one that I actually intended, viz. that the educational methods used by the college teacher (specifically “paper journals and art sketchpads”) are the same as those used by a grade five teacher.

    Yes, there is some subtext. The implication is that college students are rather more able to take their own education into hand, but that the techniques being employed are inappropriate. Students in a class being led by an instructor, to be ‘creative’ using paper journals and art sketchpads, seemed, to me, to not represent the best of what we can do to encourage creativity in college students.

    But that subtext is a long long way away from “dismiss[ing] every teacher as an incompetent babysitter”.

    Third, you suggest that “for your worldview to make sense, they must be incompetent.”

    I have made no statements about their competence one way or another, and having made no statements about their competence, cannot be accused of making statements that would entail that they must be incompetent.

    Are they doing the wrong thing, in my view? Yes. Unquestionably. They are applying traditional teaching methods – the same methods that follow students every day of their academic lives from grade five through to college. This results in students having no idea, no capacity, of how to be creative and take their own learning in their own hands.

    But it does not follow from the fact that a person is doing the wrong thing to the conclusion that a person is incompetent. A very competent person can do the wrong thing. This is especially the case if they are embedded in a system that does not allow them to do the correct thing.

    In this case, the correct thing is to not require that college students take English classes. Like I said, none of them want to be there. That’s not what they signed up for. But this isn’t a decision that was made by the teacher. The teacher is doing her very best, competently, to do the wrong thing. I don’t blame her incompetence for the outcome, because it was a misdirected effort in the first place.

    Fourth, you write, “And you still haven’t offered up a shred of evidence that students will do better out of school than in.”

    We can leave aside the vagueness inherent in a statement like “do better” and turn instead to the third-last paragraph of my ‘We Learn’ post, where I write: “It is the world of mashups, of deviant art, of self-help discussion groups, of environmental activism and pirates, of self-managed learning, of hobbyists, of hackers, of open source programmers, and on and more and more.”

    True, I didn’t repeat the phrase here, but it is factually incorrect to say I haven’t “offered up a shred of evidence.”

    Any fair-minded reading of OLDaily will find that this is a theme I return to over and over nd over again. Even today, I ran a link about the five-year old and the iPad. I run stuff like that on a regular basis.

    Indeed, I am to the point, as I remarked elsewhere, of asking where the evidence is that people need school in order to ‘do better’ according to my own criteria, which is to say, to learn, to succeed in life (note that this is distinct from test results).

    This is *especially* the case when we look at artifacts of the standard education system like required English classes.

    Fifth, you misrepresent my argument regarding corporations. Never once have I said anything like “they’ve all been hypnotized by the evil corporations and bureaucrats.”

    For one thing, I don’t attack bureaucrats at all, as a matter of course. That code-word belongs to an entirely different political movement, which I am not a part of.

    I have indeed had a lot to say about corporations over the years, and in my ‘We Learn’ article summarized exactly what it is I think they do:

    – throw FUD into open content and open learning

    – co-opt production through directed funding of open materials into a producer-consumer model

    – commoditize these materials and incorporate them into their own business models

    Now you may or may not agree with my assessments of corporate practice, but what you can’t say is that I accuse them of “hypnotizing” anyone. This is an artifact of another debate that other people have with other activists, and does not involve me in any way.


    I’ve read you long enough to know you can do far better than this.

    If you want to get off calling me arrogant, fine, but if you’re going to do it, do it in a fact-based reality-based way, having something to do with what I actually argued, rather than some imagined caricature version of what I say.

  8. You’re right, Jim. You and I are not far apart.

    I was trying to make a relatively narrow argument, that goes like this:

    1. Regardless of how good a thing it may be to break down the crusty, congealed, and Byzantine system that we call formal higher education, there will be negative side effects during the transition. In all revolutions, people get hurt. That doesn’t mean I think that making the change is wrong, but it does mean I think we have a special responsibility to do everything we can for those who are most vulnerable in the transition.

    2. While community college is most certainly *not* a panacea for the students who are struggling to stay in it, for many of them it is better than no help at all. Many fail, but many succeed too, and succeed in ways that they could not have done on their own or in a networked environment of self-directed study. In particular, the students I am talking about do not respond well to unstructured environments. Yes, many people can learn just fine in a networked environment. Many of these students cannot. Some of them can learn to with a lot (years) of help, while others will never be capable. I’m not talking about all students or even all community college students. I am sure, by the way, that there are plenty of students in even elite institutions who would struggle with this. There is a reason why Hampshire College’s six-year graduation rate is about thirty points lower than Amherst’s. It is an open question how many of these students can learn to be self-directed (which students must be in a networked learning environment), but it is not an open question whether they are not self-directed now. I agree that we should all be working toward a world in which each person is as much a self-directed learner as she can possibly be.

    3. I fear the possibility that the collapse of the university system could happen more rapidly and violently than people expect, and I worry that I see relatively little conversation about how to help people through the transition and what to do with those students who do need more structure.

    4. Therefore, I called on all people engaged in the process of change not to stop or reconsider, but to be aware of the potential for collateral damage and to put time and effort into thinking of ways to mitigate it where we can.

    I’m not asking anybody to feel guilty, but I am asking everybody to feel responsible. I am responsible for the woman in my wife’s class who is in danger of having to move into a homeless shelter with her daughter and yet is still paying for textbooks and tuition and fees. If she drops out, maybe you could say that she has “a clearer sense of the larger, damning issues that plague institutional education,” but saying that won’t help her. I won’t blame myself if she and her family falls of an economic cliff, but I do feel responsible for her plight and will feel that I, as part of the society that we both live in, have participated in our collective failure to make what is happening to her impossible.

    I know that you are trying to help her. I know you are also trying to help the carpenter who lost his livelihood because of an injury and now, in his mid-forties, has to learn to make a living with his mind if he is going to support *his* daughter. I know you are trying to help the severely autistic kid who can’t read facial expressions and doesn’t know how to interact in a group but desperately wants to feel like a full, intelligent, and fulfilled person. I know that you are trying to help the average bright kid in the back of the room who was taught that all he had to do was show up every day in order to pass and now doesn’t even *know* that he’s not thinking and can’t write a complete sentence.

    I know that you are trying to help all of these people, and I believe that advocating for the end of the industrialized education model will help many of these people. Or people like them. Eventually. But I feel responsible for these people *now*. Today. I care about what happens to the mother and daughter in the homeless shelter if the mother loses the only access to education that she knows how to take and doesn’t have the skills to go find it on her own. I worry about all of these people. I hear their stories every single day, and it keeps me up at night. If you want to call my reaction “crocodile tears,” you can. As you say, I am comfortable with that. I do not believe that the things that I worry about, the people that I feel responsible for, are meaningless to you.

    I once wrote that I am not an edupunk not because I disrespect the movement but because it does not suit my own personal style for fomenting revolution. I meant that. I probably would have been considered an edupunk 20 years ago if the term had existed then. Now, in my old age, I am less apt to make leaps of faith in fear and trembling. I think the world needs both the leapers and the measurers. I believe that positive change happens when a good balance occurs between those uncompromising souls pushing from the outside (like your Rorschach/Reverend persona) and those more cautious souls working from the inside to ease the transition. My post was a call from the inside to the outside. Sometimes we do have to work together from both sides.

    My beef with Stephen is specific to his particular brand of crude nihilism. But my intention toward the larger edupunk movement was not to belittle or delegitimize. To the contrary, it was a call for engagement. If it came across otherwise, then I apologize.

  9. Stephen, I’m not going to co-opt Jim’s blog any more to further this flame war. I stand by my interpretation of your comments and my assertion that you have not provided evidence–including your “We Learn” post–that *these* students will do better learning what they came to learn by leaving school.

    I’ll leave it at that.

  10. Reverend says:


    I have to say it, you’re good. I don’t know how to balance all those stories, which are the realest thing to me rather than data and empirical evidence. Your post and the subsequent conversation around it is important. I’m not nearly as smart as Stephen, and his arguments tend to convince me there is another way on a regular basis—but at the same time the collateral damage you speak of haunts me regularly. I recently read this response to the idea of EDUPUNk that had me more than frightened:

    I can only imagine that the greatest supporters of this idea are those conservatives who wish to tear down public education.

    Now they have useful idiots carrying their water.

    The idea that I may be a useful idiot for a neocon movement that wants to dismantle public education further is a frightening one for me, and one I can’t shake at times (and the “I” here is generalizable, I don’t pretend I invented EDUPUNK nor can I speak to or for it). I agree with you that the disinvestment in education may come sooner than we think, and I also agree that we have not thought through the implications of that thoroughly (but I do believe that is what we are doing now to some degree). And while my post stutter steps in regards to the LMS, I was truly taken by your comment. So much so that I spent all day thinking and reading around it.

    I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know here this is going or what I am doing. And I by no means take criticism of EDUPUNK personally, as I said above it is not mine but rather a zeitgeist term that will frame ideas for some, and may be fleshed out intelligently by others, but for me it is a sense of both possibility and loss. And I have yet to see a “larger movement of edupunks”….I’m already nostalgic for it, and I won’t read DIY U for that very reason. I want these conversations and ideas we exchange to be real, to be a kind of touch, to be more than talking at one another.

    Like everyone you mention so eloquently above, we crave connection and it is what keeps me coming back. I want to think we can change things by connecting and thinking around them, by willing it through a brute force of unbridled thought. It is the worst kind of philosophy, and it is premised on that odd sense of hopeless faith that we can afford to lose.

    I don’t know, as always I’m confused, but reading your ideas helps it seem less lonely a state of being—I want a perpetual moment of possibility.

  11. > I can only imagine that the greatest supporters of this idea are those conservatives who wish to tear down public education. Now they have useful idiots carrying their water.

    I too am concerned by this. The last thing I want is to be a part of the destruction of public education.

    The problem is, I think that if we continue with ‘business as usual’, *that* will result in the death of public education. because ‘business as usual’ is unsustainable.

  12. Reverend says:


    It definitely is a concern, and I don’t always know how to think through the complexities of it. And I’ll be honest here, this is why I find your work so invaluable. You are unrelenting in your pursuit of an idea of open education that is as pure as possible, and it is a brutal go, and the possibility that it explodes in everyone’s face is all too real, but the ‘business as usual’ model seems to be taking care of that disinvestment all by itself. Things have only gotten worse in this regard over the last 20 years.

    I was talking with Tom Woodward the other day via IM, and one of the ideas that came up is given the state of education, I don’t think we are being nearly radical enough, so it seems as if this is only the beginning of those real feelings of doubt and fear. The very tactics used to staunch any such ideas. As Tom said, it’s as if now would be the most important time to redouble those radical efforts to push the limits of what is possible. And I believe that now is the same now Michael refers to, I have to think together we can push forward with something real—but I’m not always sure what that means.

  13. Right. We all agree on this much. This is hard. Nobody knows how it’s going to turn out. We know that way we’re going is definitely unhealthy and probably unsustainable, and we know we need to change, but the system we are changing is so complex that we can’t possibly figure all the angles. That’s all fair, and it is no reason to stop calling for change. If the ship is sinking, the ship is sinking. I don’t fault anybody for calling attention to the fact that it is sinking. The fact that we don’t know if the life boats are sound, or if everybody will fit in them, doesn’t mean we don’t have to get off the ship.

    But if we are going to make a leap of faith, let it be in fear and trembling. Let us not assume that we will always know what we are doing is right, and let us keep a wary eye out for unintended consequences. Let us all (and I admonish myself in this) try to remember that we are all manning the buckets and bailing as fast as we can. And above all, let us never forget that we are doing this because real people are in danger of drowning every single day.

    That is all I am asking for.

  14. Reverend says:


    Very well said. I think the part where real people are drowning is exactly right, and part of the fear and trembling because it means what happens in a moment like these has potentially devastating reprecussions, but the other side of that is true too…which means we all can;t go on. As Beckett says, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

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  16. Tom says:

    This may be my k12 inferiority complex speaking but I think it might be worth mentioning that higher ed, in the scheme of things, is the small piece of public education* and its place is at the end of 12 years of education.

    Organized education starts to go bad, or good, for most people relatively quickly and it stays that way for a long time. Even if something magical and transformative happens to the structure of higher ed we still have a large population who are lost long before that possibility is considered.

    The idea of “freeing learning” has to be a much bigger conversation. Consider the impact of 12 years of increasingly standardized multiple choice driven education on your future students. What skills will they have? What conceptions will they have about organized education and “learning?” The students most in need of what k12 could offer are the ones most poorly served by it.

    I recently interviewed some high school students at a high performing high school. One young lady commented that she’s told exactly what to do all day virtually every day. On the rare occasion that she is given the chance to do something creative she freezes and doesn’t know what to do. She hates it. She mentioned that she thought it was good for her but that it was in such opposition to what she did on a daily basis that she had no skills or experience to draw on.

    If you want to change what’s possible in higher ed start looking at k12 and how to make substantial changes there. It seems those actions would have echos across all aspects and sides of this conversation. I’d love to have Jim Groom at my school board meeting, instead I’ve got people who claim the Internet is responsible for the collapse of American morals. Seriously.

    This a long winded way of begging smart people like yourselves to get involved with local k12 education in a serious way. It may very well be that you already are. If so, wonderful. If not, it’s not too late.

    *Stephen, I’m not sure about Canadian stats but I’m betting they’re similar.

  17. Wow. Just read this post and all of the comments. I have to say I think @Alan probably summed it it up best.

    More seriously, while I did get a bit lost on the role of Community Colleges, I guess from, my point of view, we aren’t currently enabling the best learning opportunities for self motivated students or for those who require more support and structure in their learning. This would be the case at most of our higher education institutions. In fact the only group of students that may be currently satisfied are highly self motivated students at the top ranked universities. But there are probably other reasons for that.

    Michael is right in his observation that the “system we are changing is so complex that we can’t figure out all of the angles”. This has always been the problem with arguments about the future death of the university. The fact is higher education insitutions are hugely variable in the types of students they enrol, the types of qualifications they grant, the way they have taught students and a host of different factors including funding source. It really isn’t possible to categorise them all in the same way and say that they will react to a changing knowledge distribution system in the same way.

    What we can hope for is that we will end up with systems that more widely (and flexibly) support our self motivated students (and an increasing number of workplace based learning students) at the same time as we continue to faciltate more structured learning for those that need it. Ideally with goal of developing self study skills and motivation for future study.

    I don’t see why these two things can’t co-exist.

  18. Nick Sharratt says:

    Facinating topic and discussion/debate.

    I’m stuck by the sinking ship analogy however:

    Sometimes a sinking ship can be saved just by closing off a few bulkheads to contain the water until a full repair can be made. So, are we sure the ship is really doomed before we all give up on it and launch the lifeboats?

    Given the long history of positive effects on society from existing educational approaches/systems, it would seem premature to me to be jumping overboards just because we can see water sloshing on the floor. It could just be a leaking tap/faucet after all. 😉

  19. Tom, you’re right, of course. K12 is really where the problem starts. And as a former middle school teacher myself, I am particularly sympathetic to your plea. K12 is a much harder problem, though, in large part because of the politics of it. You’ve put your finger on it with your description of the school board. It’s a Catch 22 situation. It’s hard to change the culture of education without getting the kids before their thinking processes begin to ossify, but in order to do that, you have to contend with their parents who, however well-intended, didn’t have the benefit of the kind education you’re trying to provide their kids and often see it as more of a threat than an opportunity. The topic of why it is so tough to talk about K12 education in the United States is extremely complex. I almost wrote a dissertation on it. That doesn’t mean that we should give up, but it does mean that the problem needs to be solved in steps. I think higher education is the easier place to start.

    Nick, some of the most heated exchanges in this conversation have been about distinguishing the baby from the bathwater. Personally, I’m not sure how much of our current system should be thrown out; nor am I sure that its collapse is inevitable. However, I *am* sure that it is broken. Talk to any student or any teacher at any community college for five minutes, and they’ll tell you. We have a grossly underfunded system that takes an industrialized approach to education (meaning sticking 30 individuals in a room, mostly lecturing at them, and expecting them all to get adequately “educated” out of that experience) for the students who are in the most need of individualized approaches. Even many of our brightest students at elite colleges have never been taught to think for themselves. They may be good academic performers, but that does not mean that they are good thinkers. We can do better. All the back-and-forth we get into about how radical we need to be is in some ways pointlessly abstract right now. We need to try some things and see what works. Then we’ll have a better idea of how radical we need to be.

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  22. Jason Green says:

    I almost posted a comment to Stephen’s OLDaily post but was too worked up at the time Now I’ve had a day to think and will hopefully be calmer.

    I think Tom and Will Richardson are right that K-12 is where students’ expectations of how learning works are set. Although experimentation in higher ed is easier to do, it’s less likely to be fruitful.

    I’ve spent the last nine years in community colleges as an instructor, technologist, and administrator. Before that I taught high school and was a grad assistant at a research university. My students at Research U. arrived knowing how to play the game of formal education. Many of the students I’ve taught in community colleges don’t function well in the formal environment, but are so used to it that they are very lost when asked to do tasks requiring even small amounts of initiative (find an article on subject X and critique it) In order for less structured learning to work for more students, we have to acclimate them to that way of doing things much sooner than when they sign up for one of the Reverend’s classes.

    The OP, Alec Couros, George Siemens and many of those who suggest a new way are free to advocate/experiment ( was going to put pontificate, but of course only the Reverend is allowed to do that) because they get paychecks from the kind of institutions for whose demise they are preparing. I rely on the present system to pay my mortgage and put food on my table. In all the discussion of what comes next, not only must we ask how students will survive the transition, but we must also consider what happens to current educators?

    My personal fear is that OER will create the kind of consolidation that we saw in the radio industry in the USA. A few big providers will be all the choice that most learners want and what will happen to the rest of us?

    I’m sure I sound horribly self serving, but I have children to feed. The present system does give many people who want a career not driven primarily by profit accumulation and have skill sets (like philosophy) which most of the job market sees as not useful a place to land. In a networked learning world, where do the philosophers and classical studies experts go? Or does a redesign of the system mean that those specialties go away?

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  26. Jenny says:

    I’m jumping in really late to this and it is possible this ship has sailed and should be let go.

    That said, I have to wonder about your own experiences in school. I would guess it is safe to say that your years of school were not significantly different from what students are getting now. If that is true it doesn’t seem to have hurt your ability to think and be creative. Why must we assume school is doing so for children now?

    I have many issues with our current educational system and agree with much of what has been said here. However, every time I read these arguments for blowing up the system because of the immense damage it is doing to students I have to wonder how we all survived it.

  27. Reverend says:

    I think that is really fair, and I don’t disagree with the idea that many of us survived it, and actually learned something. Though I think the increased disinvestment in public education over the last twenty years may make that reality seem all the more reflective of where you went to school. For example, from 2003-2005 I taught at a public high school in Brooklyn. It was considered a fairly good public school by New York City’s standards, and by the end of almost two years it became apparent that education in this institution was the last concern, literally. The actual building was built for 1800 student, and we were pushing the 3000 mark. We had a tiered system were students came in as early as 6:30 am and classes ran as late as 6 and 7 pm. It was a factory that provided seats as obligation. By the end of my two years I was increasingly more violent and fascist. In fact, I ultimately had to quit because I started to believe it was purely for naught. Fact is, you start thinking about inner city schools around the US right now, from MYC to Chicago to Richmond to LA, etc. and I wonder how many of us would send our kids to school there—and then ask how many people have no other choice.

    I think if you look at the system more globally and think about the millions of kids run through it (in NYC alone it is 1.1 million) it’s harder to argue it is working so well. On the other hand, if you examine the issues on the specific, personal level and suggest that we all survived—the question “who are we?” might need be asked. I would say we represent a very skewed part of the population, but saying that I have to agree with you at the same time, I went to public school my whole life and I don’t hate school, I don’t, I don’t! But at the same time I can’t help but think the more we take the incremental, Arne Duncan approach that school needs to be everything to everyone approach throughout communities, all the while divesting them of their funding, increasingly treating teachers like empty vessels ready to be filled with SOLs, and refusing to recognize the fact that schools cannot be the end all be all social institutions for equality, justice and freedom. Fact is, too many of the larger social ills of our culture right now have been laid at the feet of schools, and k-12 teachers have in many ways become societal scapegoats (just one simple example, look how higher ed blames ill-prepared students on k-12—pointing to Tom’s comment above) and you begin to see that all these pressures, exigencies, and expectations are spoiling the system. In my mind, their is no way they can’t.

    And finally, because this comment is not long enough, my reading of Ivan Illich is increasingly pushing me to this perspective, so I may be a victim of my reading currently, but I’m also in the very strange situation of preparing to send my 5 year old to kindergarten for 8 hours a day. And I have one simple question—why does a five year old need to be in an institution for 8 hours a day? That seems insane to me, and it makes me wonder why no more half-day Kindergartens? Is that for the kids sake? Keeping us competitive with Japan, or is it China now? Or rather a way to cope with the current construction of the economic strain in our culture on the average family—school becoming once again the waylay for the middle class and the working poor.

    I don’t want my kid in an institution 8 hours a day. Hell, I don’t want to be in an institution 8 hours a day. Our children start working as early as 6 to 12 months in institutions of our making, a construct to support a fragile idea of progress and the modern family. Child labor has not been outlawed, it has just institutions….from the factory to the school.

    But, you know, all this said, and your point still stands as a very tough one to discount.

  28. Tom says:

    I don’t share Jim’s feeling that this is a hard point to discount.

    School has fundamentally shifted in terms of focus based on high stakes testings and everything that goes along with it. When you make education a numbers game then you devalue the human children in it in a thousand ways.

    Jim’s fairly old. His school might have allowed PE and Art even if he didn’t read all that well. If he read really poorly, they might have tutored him and worked with him even if he’d never pass the state test. His teachers had a lot of choice about what they taught. I’d be willing to bet there was no centrally mandated pacing guide telling them they’d better finish teaching the Civil War by Dec. 3rd, no matter what was happening in their class.

    I could go on all day. Let’s no pretend that school is the same.

    Even if school was exactly the same, we are in a different time and much, much more than that- what the hell kind of goal is survival? To list survival and a retention of creativity in spite of the educational system as an indication of approval is beyond appalling. Schools ought to turn out people who are better for having been a part of them, whose creativity is bolstered, who thrive because of their time in school. Survival is a poor measure for a system into which pour billions.

  29. Jenny says:

    As has been a trend in this string of comments I pretty much agree with all that you are both saying.

    It sounds to me like Tom’s biggest issue stems from what testing and all that comes with it has done to our schools. If I’m wrong, let me know. I live in hope that we are on a pendulum swing that will soon be moving back away from so much testing. I am an eternal optimist.

    Jim’s issues seem larger, although fueled by good old Ivan. I think I may be adding him to my summer (re)reading list.

    I agree that schools should turn out people who are better for having spent time there. I agree that many of the challenges and difficulties of our society are blamed on or left at the doorstep of our schools.

    Where do we go from here? Do you truly believe that students would be better served just learning on their own? How young can that begin? I teach first grade, but I spent 10 years teaching fourth and fifth. In those upper grades there were students who might have been able to direct their own learning, but even then they would still have needed someone to turn to for help.

    I think my years of early childhood work make it harder for me to see beyond our current system. I also think that working in a fabulous school, one which does a lot to allow students to follow their passions in spite of not making AYP, has also colored my view. I know, because I see it everyday, that schools don’t have to become what many have, don’t have to kill students’ creativity and free thinking. It’s possible, I believe, to make it work. Not easy, but possible.

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