The AppStore vision of (not so) Open Education

by P

The open web is under threat and it’s a big deal for learning and education (among other things).

Last week a meeting on “Learning, Freedom & the Web” hosted by the Carnegie Foundation brought together a mix of learning experts and web industry geeks to keep the web open for learning. One of the topics that bubbled up naturally was the rising popularity of gated digital communities such as Facebook and closed content delivery mechanisms like the iPad-iTunes-Appstore combination, and their implications for the future of open learning ecosystems.

Mike Hanson from Mozilla Labs sketched out what education could look like if redesigned by Steve Jobs. A vertically integrated content hosting and delivery solution built on Apple Server software and it’s iPhone, iPod and iPad line of consumer devices (of which over 100,000,000 have been sold). Textbooks are stored in the iTextbook store – and organized in appropriate collections for students who automatically download all the content they need to the range of IProducts. If you are an educator or administrator this new world of iEducation sounds pretty slick and compelling. And even if you are an open web activist like  Mike Hanson it is hard to resist – in fact, it was his own brand new iPad on the table that got us started on this  trajectory.

And because curation and integration are so compelling when designed well, we need to carefully think through the implications now. If a personal computing experience built on open standards is the crib, then learning and freedom might be about to go out the window.

As we know already there won’t be any porn in Steve Jobs iEducation ecosystem, but there also won’t be much messiness and tinkering and the kind of practices that characterize constructivist learning processes. There is value in a curated and integrated entertainment experience – I myself have marveled at the ease of purchasing and downloading a digital album directly onto my phone and then syncing it into a music library stored on my computer. However, I am a music consumer – and in meaningful learning systems there are designers, builders, players and doers – but no consumers.

Connie Yowell from the MacArthur Foundation made the connection back to the education system. Half thinking-out-loud, half predicting the trouble to come she suggested that the vertically integrated learning ecology that devices like the iPad enable are perfectly in line with the way the current education system is structured – and will therefore be happily embraced by it.

That’s why we need to understand the long-term implications, push the closed model to at least offer open interfaces and transparency, and put in place open alternatives that offer value in ways that closed approaches can’t.

What could have turned into a pretty gloomy afternoon, was saved by the same innovation process that the open web is so good at: identify the pieces that are in place, see how they can be connected, and start designing and building. We came up with 8 concrete project ideas that are made possible by combining an open source attitude with a deep passion and concern for equitable learning.

I won’t list them all here, but there are a few that are most relevant to P2PU and which we volunteered to play a part in.

  • The P2PU School of Webcraft – our partnership with Mozilla to radically innovate how web developers get trained and find jobs – fits within a broader bucket for linking community assessment, badges (think boy scouts), and employment opportunities. It raises questions about ownership and control of the individual’s education data – the obvious answer coming from the open web community is that it should be the individual who is in charge of her learning data, but the reality today is that lots of different pieces are stuck in different institutions. Thinking beyond web developers, we’d like to find a few other areas where this would work.
  • Does open increase equity? - Mimi Ito reminded us that for open learning to become more than just another opportunity entrenching inequality in education, it needs to increase equity and access. She suggested we needed empirical research to identify areas within the closed certification system that are truly broken and investigate how new open approaches like the one described above could help fix them. I believe web development is one such area, where employers find that existing university degrees or private training certification have little to say about an applicant’s abilities as a web developer – the truly relevant things are not assessed – but Mimi is right that we need more robust research to go from anecdotal evidence to validation of these claims.

Other projects included formal university courses where students engage with Wikipedia content, a look at opportunities around Google Apps (which raises interesting questions about which aspects of an open ecosystem need to be open), and concrete ideas for working with particular programs and partners, for example Road Trip Nation.

The small event at Carnegie was just the beginning of new collaborations between the open web world and learning. Those projects that can demonstrate they are moving forward will meet again to plan the next stage of implementation in September, and hopefully have first prototypes to share with the world in November – where the Mozilla Drumbeat festival in Barcelona offers an opportunity to showcase our work, and reach out to more collaborators.