Free Learning Rules: The Downsides (pt.4) - Uneven Quality

Free Learning Rules: The Downsides (pt.4) - Uneven Quality

With OERs and other free learning resources, you never know what you're going to get quality-wise -- so be prepared for the sublime, the ridiculously awful, and just about anything in between...

It's important to remember that providing access to learning resources where no existed previously is de facto a vast improvement; something is infinitely better than nothing. Nevertheless, the available open resources are of very uneven quality. This issue is exacerbated by a tendency to assume that the quality of open courseware produced by prestigious colleges and universities matches the quality of their reputation, when in fact that is demonstrably not the case. As I've documented previously, some of MIT's most highly regarded OpenCourseware materials are 'hand-me-downs' which MIT has abandoned for its paying students in favor of a higher quality pedagogical approach. Other OERs are, to be blunt about it, just plain awful, for example the Open Yale video lectures I viewed a few years ago.

In some cases, the quality of available learning resources is variable and/or unknown because it has not been vetted, since the process of doing this is resource-intensive. For example, the MERLOT resources collection was developed with the intent to have all posted resources reviewed. In practice, as a 2006 paper noted, about 85 to 90 percent of the resources had been reviewed by faculty, but only about 15 percent actually had published "peer reviews" in MERLOT. (The fact that updated data on this is extremely difficult to find on the MERLOT web site suggests that these percentages haven't changed much.)

Free Learning Rules advocates also tend to wrongly equate the quality of free learning resources for learning and their quality for education. So, for example, one can get understandably excited about learning how the housing market really works from Robert Shiller’s video lecture which is freely available on Academic Earth. These are great learning resources, but woefully incomplete as educational resources.

OER advocates have been aware of this issue for some time, as illustrated by this 2006 UNESCO Virtual University report which describes some of the thorny issues involved. Recognizing the issue does not make the uneven quality issue go away, however.

So are the many web-based tools which are designed to support free learning. For example, take a few moments to peruse the offerings of TeacherTube, a free learning tool touted in Curt Bonk's book The World Is Open. Sorry, but I'm not a Mrs. Burk fan -- even a video showing a teacher writing on a blackboard would be better than the visual travesty which is her "Simplify Rap" (the highest rated TeacherTube video when I looked today) -- hand gestures are not effective visuals for conveying math concepts, and I don't see how anyone could learn anything of educational value from this video. Likewise, her Perimeter Rap (one of the most often viewed videos) may be entertaining to some, but it is badly designed and information-poor. A teacher rap with well-designed visuals to illustrate concepts? That could work quite well. But these videos do not; instead; they highlight the problems with the uneven quality of free learning resources: like the Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans in the Harry Potter series, you never know what you're going to get -- so be prepared for the sublime, and the ridiculously awful, and just about anything in between...

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