Free Learning Rules: The Upsides

Free Learning Rules: The Upsides


Free Learning Rules would be disastrous for formal education in its extreme; in moderation -- Free Learning Influences -- have a lot of upsides to them.

First, a caveat: I've had a lot more to say for now about the downsides of the Free Learning Rules than I probably will about the upside. I don't think that the ratio of my 'downsides to upsides' comments necessarily reflects the relative worth of Free Learning influences -- it's more that my comments are meant to counterbalance the generally glowing, and often uncritical, treatment which OERs, web-based tools, and other Free Learning initiatives tend to get.

Having said that, as with the Free Market Rules scenario, the full realization of a Free Learning Rules scenario would be a losing outcome for formal education - but fortunately an unlikely one. Free Learning Rules advocates run the risk of making themselves irrelevant if they insist on imagining that an Aquarian dawn of free learning will rise to take the place of formal education institutions anytime soon.

At the same time, OER and other Free Learning initiatives have the potential to have considerable, positive influence on the cyberization of education. Most of this influence will happen in terms of providing learning and education resources rather than as a direct influence on teaching and learning itself. For example, OERs can be valuable for:

  • College students who are taking a similar course at other institutions and are seeking additional insight or another perspective on the subject;
  • Faculty teaching a comparable course who seek other ideas or alternative approaches to the material;
  • High school students who are studying the related subject;
  • Any learners who are purusing a documentable learning experience to submit for prior learning assessment to gain formal credit;
  • Adult learners who are looking for non-credit enrichment or self-improvement learning experiences.

These resources can be used by autodidacts and anyone else who can find a way to learn from them. Some of the resources have lecture transcripts, reading assignments, problem sets and other supporting materials to aid in this process. In other words, to a large extent Free Learning initiatives will not become education, but they will provide learning resources to support education.

Free Learning resources will also positively influence formal education in several other important ways:

By increasing student readiness for formal education, including online education. Using OERs is a form of practicing for the real thing. In some cases there may be a remedial component to the process; more importantly, using OERs appears to help some prospective students find a way to believe in themselves, that they can do it: sort of like training wheels. There is an element of dangerous self-delusion in this -- education is more than just watching lectures and doing homework, and being a successful student requires a larger skill set. But the evidence indicates that many students’ initial school experience taught them that they were not “college material.” The notion that college was beyond them was reinforced by their lack of success in grokking with lectures. So if now they can handle the lectures, maybe they can handle the rest of it. Especially if those lectures allow anyone to listen to distinguished professors whom they otherwise would not hear, and to experience a type of lecture which goes beyond the acquisition of facts and concepts and toward cultivating “skills and habits of rigorous, independent thought: the ability to analyze, to ask the next question, and to begin the search for an answer,”, as the Open Yale Courses web site describes it.

Reducing the costs of education -- Textbooks and other commercially-produced educational materials has become a substantial expense, particularly for community college students. Flat World Knowledge offers one response by making "remixable" textbooks written by expert authors available online affordably, sometimes free. Co-founder Eric Frank reports that “We’ll save college students and their families nearly $3 million in textbook expenses this semester.” Flat World projects that it will have conservatively saved 200,000 students over $15 million by the end of 2010.

By increasing acceptance of online education. If MIT, Yale, and Carnegie Mellon are putting stuff online, how bad can online education be? Never mind the actual quality, which is limited and uneven as we’ve seen. In the end, reputation may be all that matters. All of these ventures have gotten considerable positive press, so that their sterling reputations have rubbed off onto online education itself. If they are putting content online and offering it to the world, online content must be OK.

Free learning initiatives clearly get a number of people excited about the possibilities of improving education, and they have a lot to offer in helping make the transition to cyberized education an agreeable one...

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