Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Week 9: Easterly's White Man's Burden

What can the open education movement learn from William Easterly's "The White Man's Burden"?

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
While paying too much attention to:
  • 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.
This biases their work towards:
  • 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).
And they lack independent evaluation of their work - i.e. they can carry on with a programme for years even if it is failing. As Easterly says:
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)
Public policy is the science of doing the best you can with limited resources. (p. 256)
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).

Comments are most welcome.


houshuang said...

A great summary, and interesting points. I certainly hope the OER movement can learn from a lot of the mistakes of the aid business, and I think your focus on a lot of small targetted initiatives filling specific learner needs, rather than huge blueprints that will "revolutionize higher education in China" (I still cannot get over that one).

Perhaps I see a bit of a Jane Jacobsian parallell, in that we want a dynamic environment with lot's of small upstarts, cheap rent (low barrier to entry?), communication and synergy (busy sidewalks?), not just huge institutional mastodonts (MIT OCW/blueprints for social housing)...
maybe I took that metaphor too far.

On a different note, you mentioned that people who were interested in your MA thesis could email you for it. Have you considered putting it online at a repository? I just talked to one of the people working at UofT TSpace yesterday and she said they'd welcome MA theses, or you could find a topical one. Ideally of course making it available under a CC license.

Stian, slugging his way through Wikinomics

Nuccia Silvana Pirruccello said...

Hi, Meg
Very interesting points. It is really the end for the one-size-fit-all-model.

You wrote on my blog:"Thank you for posting a notice about your presentation on OERs on David Wiley’s site. Even though it is no longer a requirement, I will likely present something to CIDE at the UofToronto (comparative, international development education group) - and found yours a very useful resource!!"

Thanks for your appreciation of ScribaLAB 1.0 (still Beta version). The CMS has been opened to anybody who wanted to test it with a simple registration for two years (since I discussed it for my Master Degree in Digital Writing with the University of Florence) and yet I’m convinced that it is not enough in the road to a complete openness and localization of an OER.
I’ve been adding tools such as ScribaPodcast and SixThinkingHATS forum and a special section for teachers to create collaborative LO on the fly.
However, something more should be done to re-design the CMS and I still don’t know what that something could be.

Would you mind telling me more about your CIDE presentation?

Elisa - ITALY said...

I like your post and the emphasis you put on the learners' needs rather than the creators'. It's a problem of motivation and reward. People sometimes engage in volunteer initiatives not because of really idealistic or altruistic reasons but because they want to add visibility to their activities and for social recognition, so they do it just for themselves rather than for the others' sake.

Megan Haggerty said...

Thanks for your feedback!

Stian - Jane Jacobs, great suggestion! got my mind ticking...

Silvana - CIDE is a group of researchers/students at OISE/University of Toronto. Although very "worldly" - they do work everywhere! - they're missing IT opportunities, such as OER. Yours is a great resource for showing one idea of what they could actually do themselves...(in contrast to the institutions we've been looking at)

Elisa - you're absolutely right - sometimes it isn't altruism. I've been converted. Jennifer makes a great point on it here:

Catia Harriman said...

Hi, Megan!
You've done a nice inventory of the books read in the class. Good job!
You made a very nice point when you said "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."
I totally agree with you. Unfortunately, what we oberve is a number of irresponsibly developed resources that in some cases are worse than traditional ones. Quality is many times forgotten. Hopefully, this situation will change.

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