Free Learning Rules: The Downsides (pt.2) - Education Is Not the Same as Learning

Free Learning Rules: The Downsides (pt.2) - Education Is Not the Same as Learning


Free Learning Rules advocates oversimplify education by equating it with learning, resulting in naive, ineffective, sometimes damaging, and ultimately disappointing prescriptions for educational change.

The previous post discussed one downside of the Free Learning Rules scenario: free learning is not as free as it appears to be. [The starting point is not "open" or "free," but "how open?" "how much less expensive?", etc.]

Another downside of the Free Learning Rules scenario and its advocates is the frequent conflation and confusion between education and learning. This may seem like quibbling to some, but education is different from learning:

  • Education is society’s means of organizing, transmitting, preserving, and renewing its core knowledge to its members. Education has an individual dimension, but the social/societal dimension is more prominent, since this institution is essentially society’s creation to benefit its individual members, not the other way around.
  • Learning is an individual’s means of making sense of one’s life, experience, society, and the universe. The individual dimension is more prominent, although all learning has a social dimension.

Carnegie Mellon’s highly touted Open Learning Initiative resources illustrate the distinction: Independent learners can use OLI’s Open & Free Courses which include self-guiding materials and activities, but Carnegie-Mellon does not provide course credit, certification, or verification of completion; that’s “learning.” Students who want these features, i.e. turn their learning into education, need to make their own arrangements. At the same time, many institutions use this same course content in their for-credit courses; these “academic” courses include access to an instructor, graded exams, tracking of student learning, verification of course completion, and course credit. That’s “education.” Structurally, OLI and many other open courseware initatives maintain this clear distinction between using open courseware for education purposes and using them as learning resources.

The problems start when the terms "open learning resources" and "open education resources" are used interchangeably. For example, the US Department of Education lauds OLI's role in advancing "our understanding of how to design good OER." The problem in this case is that OLI's resources are not open education resources per se, because they cannot be readily applied to education credit. As far as I can tell, you have to be enrolled in a course at a particular institution which happens to be using OLI resources to get educational credit for them. The process of trying to use these resources for educational credit is opaque at best. Great for learning; not at all open or great for "open education".

This is a common pattern, unfortunately: while Free Learning Rules advocates have much to offer in relation to learning, they often have relatively little to offer in relation to education.

The support for ventures such as the University of the People also reflect this inability to distinguish learning from education. For example, the University of the People initiative currently suffers from three glaring shortcomings: the limitations of the peer learning model, the inability to grant degrees, and the lack of creditable accreditation. Peer learning has many benefits as a learning stategy, but it is not an education model, particularly for learning complex subjects. Given UofP’s heavy reliance on peer learning leavened with participation from volunteer faculty advisors, it is hard to see how it will receive accreditation or the ability to grant degrees. And yet, some advocates simply think that their model represents a “new reality” to which the education world will just have to adjust. There is no evidence to date that UoPeople has created a sustainable educational model, however much one would like to believe.

If this criticism sounds a bit mean-spirited, it's because I don't have any tolerance for ventures that promise good works but breed cynicism when they fail to deliver. Following Thoreau's wise advice, I look not just for fine castles in the air but signs of solid foundations. When practitioners conflate education and learning, they're cutting corners on the foundation and building structures which are doomed to fail -- which to some extent is what happened last time people got this giddy about the prospects of changing education. More on that in the next post...

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