Free Learning Rules: The Downsides (pt.5) - Dubious Track Record, Prospects

Free Learning Rules: The Downsides (pt.5) - Dubious Track Record, Prospects


The fifth and final downside to the Free Learning Rules scenario is a dubious track record and iffy prospects.

Just as past Free Learning movements in the 1970s and earlier failed to have much widespread impact, the track record of current efforts thus far is sketchy, and the prospects for a radical transformation of education appear unlikely at present, as even many Free Learning advocates recognize.

In some cases, this lack of track record is accompanied by a disconnect between hype, results, and need. For instance, UoP bills itself as “the world’s first tuition-free online university.” But as Stephen Downes noted when UoP first announced its opening, "The term 'tuition-free' is just a nicety; students will still have to pay to register and take tests. The term 'university' is also a misnomer; it still seeks accreditation. None of this means that the venture won't work. It's just you don't get to call yourself "'first' until you've actually done what you say you've done."

Since that announcement, the University of the People venture has started slowly -- enrollment was 179 students in two fields (computer science and business administration) as of November 2009, and students had completed an initial orientation course. I've heard through the grapevine that their current enrollments are considerably higher. However, its current shortcomings (pedagogical limitations, inability to grant degrees, lack of accreditation, lack of viable business/operational model) do not bode well for its long-term prospects for delivering on its stated aspirations.

Similarly, OERs do not appear to be anywhere close to attaining sustainability or critical mass . As OER leader David Porter noted in August 2010 on his blog Convivality: “Regrettably, it feels like we are no closer to critical mass and sustainability on the OER front than we were this time last year.” Commenters to his posting tended to agree with him.

The many Free Learning tools touted in Curt Bonk's book The World Is Open appear to be having at best a marginal effect on education.

The picture is mixed. Clearly many OERs such as MIT's OpenCourseware have garnered much usage and acclaim. Carnegie-Mellon's Open Learning Initiative promises to move the quality ball forward, although its overall impact on education remains unclear. An interesting angle which suggests brightening prospects was suggested by iNACOL Executive Director Susan Patrick during a keynote speech at the recent NUTN Summit. She described how OERs and a reasonable operational definition of them are being inserted into the language of various major upcoming legislative bills in the US Congress. It will be interesting to see what effect this has.

Overall, however, none of the initiatives associated with Free Learning have made much of an impact on education to date, in particular relative to the avowed aims of their supporters. And while a future Black Swan or two can never be ruled out, the prospects of change are certainly not clearly visible on the horizon, which again is dissonant relative to the hopes, promises, and some claims.

That's a lot of downsides -- no free lunch, confusing education and learning, romantic anarchism, uneven quality, and dubious track record/prospects. Fortunately, there are also a lot of upsides to the Free Learning Rules scenario as well. More on that in the next posts...

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