1. Giving up on Utopia - The Need for Searchers
William Easterly is firmly convinced that part of the reason why international aid has failed to a large extent to date (small bang for big bucks) is because aid agencies have been macro-planners, with too large ideals (like ending poverty) fit into World Bank and IMF blueprints, instead of tailored interventions that try to improve specific things in peoples lives. He simplistically divides the world into "Planners" and "Searchers" (which for his purposes works well), stating we need more of the latter and less of the former.
I think this idea - that we should focus on Searching for specific answers, instead of Planning the big plan - is a particularly important concept for the Open Ed movement. Flooding the world with generic blueprint OERs will not necessarily bring prosperity or learning to all. However, targeting the needs of certain groups of learners (the needs of learners, not of the educators) might result in several really great OERs. One size does not fit all.
Searchers are not the be all...
My one concern with relying on Searchers is that Searchers often have better social capital, or are connected to people with better social capital. Easterly doesn't really bring this up, but for example, in the aid there are lots of NGOs in Tanzania doing great work, but they are predominantly concentrated in the Northern and Eastern parts of the country, which are the comparatively richer parts of the country. There simply AREN'T many NGOs in the central and southern regions - which are the poorer regions (email me for my thesis, Haggerty 2007, if you want to know more). So, if we're relying on Searchers, they likely would miss these central and southern groups. Another example - we used to concentrate funding on tertiary education - by giving Tanzanians scholarships to study overseas - however, only those Tanzanians who could afford to make it through school fees and boarding of secondary school - which usually was the upper class - were eligible for these scholarships. Of course, one of the reasons we did this was because Northern countries benefited, as Northern universities received the money from the scholarships (a nice circle). All of this begs the question: How does the focus on Searchers affect the equity of aid?
This same idea can apply to Open Education. Although I strongly think that Open Ed should be set to help targeted groups/problems (and who ever else benefits is an added bonus), it is important to take into consideration that in order to truly revolutionize people's access to knowledge through OER, we need to make sure they have access to computers. Again, there are computers in rural Tanzania, but when the power keeps going out... (I love the $100 laptops for this reason).
2. Buzz-word of the Day "Accountability"
The main reason why the Planners haven't be that successful is because they haven't paid sufficient attention to:
- the wants and needs of those on the ground - i.e. the poor
- the purse-holders - i.e. voters in richer countries who want to do "good", as well as richer governments who have strategic interests (however benevolent) of being in poorer countries.
- shared utopian goals like the 2000 UN Millennium Development Goals or the 2005 Paris Declaration on aid-effectiveness
- quick tangible fixes - like buying textbooks - instead of slow or intangible fixes like investing in teacher training, PD days, and raising teachers wages.
- Sexy issues - like focusing on free universal primary education - while ignoring education after Gr. 6 (although this is slowly being addressed due to parents demands in Southern countries) or adult literacy (which is still being ignored, and has huge consequences given that most are women, and that the education of women correlates so closely to the health and education of their children).
If the utopian goal distracted attention away from holding aid agencies accountable for tangible outcomes, then step one is to give up the utopian goal. The utopian agenda has led to collective responsibility for multiple goals for each agency one of the worst incentive systems invented since mankind started walking upright. There has also been the incentive bias towards observability, which has led to unproductive efforts at producing things that made a big splash. (Easterly, 2006, p. 368)I think that Open Education can learn a lot from his perspective - by being ACCOUNTABLE TO LEARNERS. At the moment, a lot of OER discussion deals with its applicability and ease of the creators and teachers of knowledge. In the first few weeks of the Open Ed class, several of my colleagues repeatedly brought the fact that the LEARNERS were largely overlooked. Other biases in the Open Ed discussion seems to be towards copyright and financial issues - again taking the focus away from the needs of the end-user or new creator.
On the other hand, the Open Ed circles have been speaking about the importance of the public good - which is not a very observable phenomenon (in fact, it is often ignored by economists b/c it is hard to measure). We've also been speaking about the numerous volunteer hours put in by thousands of people for open content resources - again, this is not very accurately quantifiable. But Open Ed advocates have been trying to keep the momentum on these two things - the public good and the volunteer hours. This focus on the less observable allows us to think broadly of the cumulative benefits of Open Education. In this regard, compared to the aid industry, OER is ahead of the game.
3. The most bang for your buck
I stated in last week's blog that I thought governments should be in the business of funding open education. It is from Easterly that I get the rationale as to why:
A well established public health principle is that you should save lives that are cheap to save before you save lives that are more expensive to save. (p. 253)I think this is the path that should be taken by the governments in funding OER. For example, if we could help the most learners by concentrating on the K-12 Education system - improving textbooks and alternative learning media online - then perhaps the government should fund this, and not OERs in higher education. Or, if they are funding higher or adult education OERs, maybe they should focus on areas that are most likely to help the general population - such as health information, home accounting and budgeting, basic math and statistics, computers, in-depth critical political analysis and promoting/preserving national culture. Or perhaps focus on OERs to help immigrants adjust to life in their new country. I'm not sure if I agree with governments spending money first on developing a higher level specialized physics course that only a few people would access (besides, MIT already gives us this).
Public policy is the science of doing the best you can with limited resources. (p. 256)
Comments are most welcome.