Open Education in Italy or, an Introduction to the Introduction

I’ll be blogging from behind for the next week or so, but let me start by sharing some good news for Italian colleague and friend, Fabio Nascimbeni, who published his freely available book on Open Education in Italian. It’s an excellent overview of the recent history of Open Education, MOOCs and all. Fabio uses the book to frame the cultural, political, and policy-driven moves towards open education in the US, Canada, and the UK in an attempt highlight lessons learned and hopefully helping to avert the re-packaging of learning object repositories as the disruption Italy needs in the brave new world of Open Education.

Fabio asked me to write an introduction to the book back in April, and if you are keeping score that coincides with the moment Italy was in full lockdown, so my introduction is in many ways a time capsule of a moment. I was feeling rather raw, and the prospect of Italy (or any country, really) avoiding some of the glaring mistakes the Anglo-centric open education world made seemed not only useful, but quite pressing given schools went online en masse in a country that has yet to fully invest in online learning for K12 and higher education.  There is no question part of the massive COVID-19 aid package the European Union will provide significant funds to invest in online education, and I think the argument Nascimbeni makes quite astutely is that some of that money should be invested in an open ecosystem of resources that can be freely shared not only within Italy and the EU, but globally. And, guess what, there is this little technology platform called the world wide web that may just make that possible and fairly affordable 🙂

I have to give special thanks to my special lady friend, Antonella, for translating the book for me so I could write a cogent introduction, and also to Fabio for providing me the space to rant and then translating it into Italian. I’m ashamed to say my Italian is arguably worse than when I arrived here 5 years ago, but maybe I can blame that on the virus as well? For posterity, I am including my untranslated introduction to Open Education: Oer, mooc e pratiche didattiche aperte verso l’inclusione digitale educativa below, but be kind given I was writing this under the duress of a 3 month lockdown or, even better, learn Italian and read Fabio’s book!

As I write this foreword I’m looking out the window of my office onto the verdant hills of Trento. That’s remarkable because for the last three months that was the only view I had of the outside world. From my medieval perch I would hear the daily rounds of the local authorities reminding us that we were not to leave our homes for all but three reasons: groceries, medicine, and last and worst of all: a trip to the hospital. The woman’s voice coming over the loudspeaker admonishing Trentini to stay inside was oddly reminiscent of Jamie Lee Curtis’s introduction to the post-apocalyptic plot line of John Carpenter’s film Escape from New York. In that 1982 cult classic Manhattan island is transformed into a maximum security penitentiary wherein all prisoners who went in would be left to fend for themselves within this fortressed, police-patrolled island for the rest of their lives; the ultimate criminal battle royale. Who knew that a few short weeks after first hearing the Italian rendition of Jamie Lee, COVID-19 would no longer be seen as that cultural anomaly that happened to the Chinese or the Italians, but would cascade across the continent and then the Atlantic Ocean to become a truly Global clusterf**k. Soon enough the actual Manhattan island (much like Wuhan, Milano, and Brescia before it) would become the site of the post-apocalyptic plotline of the Corona Virus. 

And while I sat in my office wondering if there would still be food in the local Conad* tomorrow, I could hear my children logging on to their now entirely remote school life to do their often improvised lessons. It took a few weeks to find a rhythm, but schools went online and learning happened in the unlikeliest of places, much like plants find their way through the concrete cracks. It’s as if the whole world woke up to online learning in an instant and professors everywhere were tasked with figuring it all out and making sense of this brave new space for teaching and learning. Surely mistakes were made and ultimately the pundits will discount the online school experience, but at the same time much was learned from the last three months of being forced online. And despite the fact that local school systems were caught in a battle of comparing apples and oranges that they could never win, a seed of possibility was planted that even without time for preparation and the lack of adequate resources school did continue in this online form. 

Already, as Italy begins to emerge from the social and economic ravages of COVID-19, the question of returning to the face-to-face classroom are front and center. Yet, as I write these words, both North America and the United Kingdom find themselves ever deeper in the clutches of the deadly virus with no end in sight. While the outbreak in those countries came just a few short weeks after Milano was announced “ground zero” in Europe, the devastation has been exponentially greater in the Anglo-Saxon speaking world. In the UK and the USA the pandemic has been transformed into a social experiment wherein the country’s elected officials are breathing death. Those incompetent sociopaths continue to insist on privileging the market over humanity at all costs: which in the United States of America at the point of writing this is 130,000 souls. What a devastating cost to remain open for business at all costs. 

Several in Italy have lamented the country was too strict; the general lockdown too draconian. Yet, when I look to friends and family back in the States I appreciate more and more those regular, disembodied visits from the local authorities reminding us of our house arrest—a sacrifice the US leadership was (and still is) not willing to make and as a result the human and financial losses were even more deeply compounded. 

“But hey, wait!” you might be thinking at this point, “isn’t this supposed to be a foreword to a book about Open Education Resources in Italy, so why the hell are you talking about COVID-19?” Well, I would argue, our moment has only made Fabio Nascimbeni’s study of the Open Educational Resources movement, with its beginnings in North American and the United Kingdom, that much more vital. 

As every country is forced to rethink its relationship to online learning, whether or not face-to-face classes resume in September, the history of open education Nascimbeni so adroitly chronicles in this text should be read as an oracle for how Italy can frame its policy for open education resources and online learning. If for no other reason than to learn from the arrogance of the movement’s Anglo-Saxon beginnings. The backdrop to the narrative of open education in the US is a primary and secondary educational systems that are chronically underfunded by the government, while post-secondary higher education comes with an exorbitant price tag. The push to promote open education in Italy should be a movement to ensure education remains a public good that is well resourced and shielded from the ruthless logic of the market. The path to privatization in the US education system has converted “students into customers,” a shift that is presently wreaking havoc on this sector as COVID-19 has forced so many American universities to justify their exorbitant costs in an online world—the customer demands their money’s worth! 

As Nascimbeni points out in chapter four, historically open education in Italy has benefited from little political attention, resulting in the absence of an overarching public policy for the promotion of this approach within the higher education system (see ch 4, pg. 111). This is what we call in the US the proverbial “catbird seat,” or an enviable position that provides Italy with a unique advantage. Being first may get you fanfare, but it also means most of the mistakes and mishaps that are inevitable in a burgeoning field are readily apparent for all to see. And this is very much the case in open education, particularly in light of the global pandemic that has made remote alternatives for teaching and learning of the utmost importance. Even before COVID-19 there were numerous initiatives taking root at the local (and often individual) level, despite the lack of political attention. The shift in attention was already changing in 2019, as Nascimbeni notes, thanks to the convergence of several factors signaling an increased investment of resources and consequent adoption of policies in open education in Italy, in particular UNESCO’s recommendations regarding the adoption of supporting policies for OERs in its member states. What’s more, if this was already the case before the Corona Virus, we can be certain it will be a top priority in its wake given the role remote education has played to battle the paralyzing effects of the pandemic. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, the internet is a hero in the COVID-19 story and Italy must invest in a broad national program to train and support its students and teachers using the open web as the educational platform of the future.

Why? Well, another factor from 2019 that Nascembi discusses is the ideological fracture within the US OpenEd community which was evidenced by David Wiley’s decision to discontinue the Open Ed conference. For almost twenty years it was the lifeblood of that movement, but rifts around the increased embrace of commercial logic in a movement that was defined as a free, open alternative to corporate publishers’ wanton greed meant an increased polarization of the community. What’s more, the move from grant and public support to a growing private, commercial solution for open education left the movement rudderless. There is an important lesson to be learned from the open education movement in the US, such movements are often driven by the belief that people are helping to create an alternative to the commercial interests that everywhere prey on the field of education, and once that spirit is compromised the sense of a movement bigger than its respective leaders is lost. And as we enter the second month of protests around the world calling for social justice from systems that continue to value power and money over human life, building the open education movement in Italy on a ground of justice, equity and a true alternative to the dominant system would be well-advised. 

And finally, another sign of the times is the corporate turn of everyone’s darling open education platform, Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs), in 2019 with the Australian multinational SEEK’s investment in Coursera, arguably the premiere corporate MOOC platform. The hijacking of the spirit open education in North America and beyond is nowhere more apparent than in the story of the MOOC, which Nascimbeni recounts beautifully. What started as a Canadian vision of free, connected learning through the networked learner became the basest form of Stanford-branded techno-solutionism that replaced soul with scale and spirit with profit. The MOOCs have taken so much of the oxygen of the open educational movement over the last seven years that it’s hard to imagine it without them, but at the same time their current manifestations are so denatured from anything resembling open and accessible that it points to a larger issue in the field: what does open mean if not freely shared to make the experience that much more accessible for all? 

What open education means for Italy should be the question that should be struggled with before galvanizing a movement or making strategic partnerships with corporations who will sell you a solution and, as a result, compromise the vision before it’s even fleshed out. Italy has a unique opportunity, and Nascimbeni lays it out brilliantly in this book: there is no better time to define what open education means for its future while learning from the mistakes of those from the not so distant past.

*Conad is a chain of grocery stores throughout Italy.

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One Response to Open Education in Italy or, an Introduction to the Introduction

  1. Fabio Nascimbeni says:

    Thanks Jim, you are too kind!
    As you say, I hope the book will be able to click some button within the Italian OER and Open Education ecosystems: there is so much to do and so much to learn from past developments (including mistakes).

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