Monday, September 1, 2008

Basic Cable

If you're watching my blogroll over there in the right-hand column you might notice another new entry. After several months of reading the WA Open Education Resources blog I bumped it into heavy rotation for a couple of reasons. First, I find the topic of open source educational resources (textbooks, course materials, etc) especially intriguing and would like others to be introduced to the idea. Second, the author, Cable Green, is the eLearning Director for Washington's State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC), which means his insights count a little more than someone in Indiana or California.

In a recent post, Cable highlights a NPR piece on crowd sourcing and poses the questions of how this might work in education. In case you haven't clicked the link yet, crowd sourcing is the idea that product design, for instance, could be done by your customers instead of your own staff - better, cheaper, faster. (Oh just go listen to the NPR piece...I'll wait). Cable asks:
"if we open our courses, and textbooks, and let students design the learning materials and spaces they want… what would happen to participation and retention rates?"
I can only begin to image how hard it would be to implement this sort of cultural shift, but assuming the challenges can be overcome, I think community colleges might increase participation by a traditionally under-served audience, working professionals seeking continuous career development. Not career changers or degree seekers, but those of us needing to advance our skills within our current profession.

Let's say I'm an information technology (IT) professional in the small corporate environment trying to keep my skills relevant in a constantly shifting environment (oh wait, I am). I am faced with a number of professional development challenges:
  • Employer sponsored training focuses on what the employer needs not what I need
  • Employer sponsored training is limited in $$$ and time
  • For-profit training is pricey and favors popular topics (to fill the classes)
  • For-profit training is short-duration, so you don't get to reflect on the learning (drinking from a fire hose)
  • Colleges focus on degrees not learning (seriously, try taking one class)
  • Colleges serve a broad range of students, so the course content tends to be least common denominator (18-year old, career changers)
  • My experience, knowledge and skills aren't a factor in the course (except maybe in master's degree programs)
Colleges already try to tap into the experiences folks like I have through advisory boards, but there are challenges turning our advice into programs. What better way to do that than to let us do it as part of our learning. The development costs of text and courses could be reduced and the content made more relevant through the use of the cohorts. Further, the individuals of a diverse cohort will benefit from the varied experience of its members as would the instructional staff (who can't possibly stay as current as the cohort can). For example, an experienced database administrator learning C# could provide important knowledge about database administration to a fellow student (or instructor) in exchange for some insights on Microsoft's common language runtime (CLR). Finally, we can share our learning with others by capturing, organizing and reflecting on the information in a public forum like a wiki, blog or podcast. Is this a natural extension to the Majoring in Learning or Personal Learning Environments concepts?

If, using web 2.0 tools, I can build a cohort and we jointly develop the objectives, texts and course work, why do we need the educational system at all? Well, some people don't. I think, however, that for the majority of us colleges can add significant value to our professional development. First, they need to jump start the program with a base level of content and structure. I just don't see a group of professionals paying to start with a blank wiki. Second, they can provide access to resources that are difficult or inconvenient to access otherwise. For example, I may want to learn about web services but I may not want to learn how to configure and maintain my own web and database servers. Third, they can provide organization and structure, ranging from maintaining the computer lab to organizing the wiki where the course ware and texts are stored to enforcing the Creative Commons licensing. Finally, and perhaps most important, they can provide independent assessment of individual learning and of the program as a whole. Assessment is, after all, the point - to determine if I really learned the things I set out to learn.

Okay, so as long as we are blue skying this thing, what if the community college becomes my career health club. Instead of signing up for a class or degree I join the "club". I get access to a trainer that helps me set goals, demonstrates proper use of the equipment and checks in to make sure I'm progressing. Obviously, the club maintains the equipment and facilities so I have access to what I need when I need it. I might want to stop by at midnight to blast my abs().

The actual training is up to me. I might work completely by myself, but more than likely I will build a social network that helps me. I might have a running partner of similar capability for a weekly run. When weightlifting I may just hookup with whoever is available - sharing techniques, spotting and providing encouragement. I might also work with the club to find a swim coach to help me on my stroke and to join a cycling club to get me out on the road. Then, to demonstrate my progress, I participate in a club-sponsored triathlon.

I don't know, what do you think? Do you trust the wisdom of crowds or do think the structure of the current model will carry us into the future?

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