Thoughts Prompted by Bekir

Lately I’ve been talking a lot with Bekir Gur (one of my absolutely excellent PhD students) about open education in the context of his dissertation writing. For his dissertation he’s taking a critical view of the field of instructional technology and, in the context of several reviews that range from the dominance of psychologism in the field to the the field’s obsession with objectification (remember the IEEE LOM documents saying people are learning objects?), he is arriving at an interesting conclusion: open education, thoughtfully practiced, is one solution to many of the ills currently plaguing the field of instructional technology. Reading his drafts and talking with him has prompted a few interesting thoughts…

One is that information theory is an interesting view to take of education historically. In the extremely simplified case, we can consider a sender, a channel, and a receiver. Information flows from the sender through the channel to the receiver, and the channel is a source of noise that inevitably distorts and corrupts the information to some degree. If we travelled back in time 15 years to view education from this perspective, we would (not surprisingly) see teachers as the senders, the classroom space as the channel, and students as receivers. Literal noise, note-passing, unruly students, and other classroom goings on frequently interfere with a student’s ability to really grasp the information the teacher is trying to deliver: there’s noise in the channel.

However, if we look in an American public school classroom today, we may see that in fact legislatures (with their state or national standards) and publishing companies (with their “teacher proof” materials) have become the senders, teachers have been exiled into the channel, and students are still the receivers. Curriculum materials now often provide every reading assignment, exercise, and test item that students ever encounter, and teachers are encouraged to follow “proven” scripts in which they ask canned questions to which students (are supposed to) provide predicted responses. In other words, teachers are no longer seen as the source of instructional messages – they are simply part of the channel or delivery system. As such, and apparently without any expertise at all, we can only expect them to introduce “noise” into the system, and distort and otherwise pervert the “effective information” that should be flowing from publisher to student. The very existence of the phrase “teacher proof” materials, sometimes rephrased as “idiot proof” materials, reveals how we feel about teachers deep down – they are unpredictable, unreliable, and a source of noise, and should therefore be engineered around with materials so clearly specified that “not even a teacher can mess it up.” Needless to say, Bekir finds this deskilling of teachers, and erosion of confidence in them, completely disturbing.

This made me think about a continuum of mechanisms for teaching:

1. Relying exclusively on resources
2. Relying primarily on resources, augmenting these resources with a relationship
3. Relying primarily on a relationship, augmenting the relationship with resources
4. Relying exclusively on a relationship

Examples of each of these would be:

1. An intelligent tutoring system (or even a traditional correspondence course), where the learner interacts exclusively with previously prepared resources and never develops a relationship with a human being.
2. A traditional online class or traditional campus-based undergraduate course, where the learner interacts mostly with resources (taking a “talk at you” lecture as just another a resource) but occasionally interacts with a faculty member or TA during office hours or in an online forum.
3. A doctoral program or apprenticeship, in which the learner spends significant amounts of time interacting directly with a mentor, and those interactions are supplemented by readings and other resources.
4. A grandmother, who loves and cares and teaches without explicit reference to journal articles, textbooks, or other resources.

It would be easy, perhaps even natural, to assume that the movement from 4 to 3 to 2 to 1 represents “progress.” After all, the story is one of the gradual replacement of people with technology. People are expensive and don’t scale well. A grandmother or a PhD advisor can only develop relationships with so many people, whereas an ITS can service a mind-boggling number of learners.

I, as much as anyone, am passionate about providing educational opportunities to larger numbers of people. However, as much as I respect the goal or reaching larger numbers I am opposed to methods that deprive people of relationships. And as I recently said in a conference talk, intelligent tutoring systems (resource-only systems) are one way of dealing with having more people than you can handle in the system. Killing babies is another way of dealing with having too many people in the system. These methods are both efficient and effective in terms of achieving the desired outcome – dealing with overpopulation of the system. However, they both come with a human cost that might not be considered because it is not a part of the “effectiveness and efficiency” discourse.

Effectiveness and efficiency are the only metrics ever really considered in traditional instructional design circles. Reigeluth added “appeal” to this list, but you hardly ever hear it mentioned in practice. What Bekir is trying to do, and what I hope we will all join him in doing, is trying to expand the discourse about instructional design to include ethical considerations. The implications of considering the ethical in our approaches to open education are very large indeed.

7 thoughts on “Thoughts Prompted by Bekir”

  1. Great thoughts. My mother is leaving the public school because of this exact reason, she feels like she is ‘noise’. She is not allowed to make decisions for her students based on her relationship with them. She is encouraged (read, forced) to use curriculum simply because that is what has been chosen.

    It seems to me the ideal is not a learning experience based on any one of these by itself, but an appropriate mixture of all four. And you can come up with that ‘appropriate mixture’ only if you have the relationship to begin with. There are times when you need to focus on the relationship, times when you focus on content, and times when you turn them loose and let them explore for themselves. But just one of these, without the others, would never lead to a good learning environment.

  2. Bekir is a smart guy. I still remember the many interesting exchanges we had when I attended your conference some years ago. Perhaps Bekir could be persuaded to put some of his work online for the rest of us to benefit from? 😉

  3. Very thoughtful posting David, sounds like you have a great grad student to work with.

    As Chair of the IEEE LOM standard I was curious though about your opening remark “(remember the IEEE LOM documents saying people are learning objects?)” and wondered if you could point me to the document you are referring to? I’d like to understand the concern.

    Perhaps this is in reference to the point that when providing metadata about content that is used for learning there is a need to have some metadata about people in relation to the content such as authors, contributors, learners, etc.? Indeed the scope of what the metadata could cover was purposely made extremely broad “any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used or referenced during technology supported learning.” I suppose one could argue that this definition could include people as “non digital objects” but that’s a stretch and not the intent. The purpose of LOM is primarily to enable the broadest and most effective sharing, reuse, discovery and management of any content that could be used for learning. The full description can be found in the original statements of Purpose and Scope for LOM at

    Thanks for the well done blog David and look forward to reading more.

    Wayne Hodgins
    Strategic Futurist,
    Autodesk Inc.
    See for blogs, podcasts, slides and much, much more!

    IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee P1484.12
    Learning Objects Metadata Group

  4. You wrote, “…intelligent tutoring systems (resource-only systems) are one way of dealing with having more people than you can handle in the system. Killing babies is another way of dealing with having too many people in the system.”

    So…”intelligent tutoring systems” = “killing babies”? Nice analogy. You’re thisfar from falling prey to Godwin’s Law.

    And wouldn’t you consider “effective” instruction to be one of the highest ethical ideals? Or do you believe it is ethical to keep learners in an environment where they don’t actually learn anything?

    Efficiency isn’t such a bad goal either, particularly where resources are constrained–i.e., everywhere.

    Or would you rather that we continue using instructional strategies that are *known* to be ineffective (like our favorite: auditory/kinesthetic/visual learning styles)?

    When people avoid evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of their instruction–or discussing it–I tend to believe it is because the instructional approaches they advocate are neither effective or efficient.

  5. I like the idea about your continuum for teaching, however, I must say I was surprised that in your examples you only talked about relationships between the teacher and student. What about peers and peer-learning; student-to-student, student-to-groups and networks of students, or other skilled people out there ready to step in?

    Isn’t that exactly why we are so keen on social networks and technologies that can support them to enhance teaching and learning? Because individuals do not scale does not mean that networks do not scale.

  6. I remember your killing babies comment. Classic.

    We missed you at PIDT. What you missed were five other people offering their way to address the issues in IDT, IP&T, ISD, ITS, and all the other acronyms. Their views and approaches were just as thought-out as yours. So which is better?

    “Effectiveness and efficiency are the only metrics ever really considered in traditional instructional design circles. Reigeluth added “appealâ€? to this list, but you hardly ever hear it mentioned in practice.”

    Sounds like Merrill’s “Effective, efficient, and *engaging*.” Why doesn’t engagement (appeal) get researched? Because we haven’t developed any measure of it (despite the work in psychology on the topic).

    In other words, you suggest a good model for new work in instructional research. But you offer no way to research it in a comparative or quantitative manner. This model (at this point) is no better or worse than the other ones out there.

    Until we, as a field, stop formulating more independent theories than we have time to fully develop and research, our progress will be limited to isolated and disjointed pockets of knowledge that are even less effective than killing babies.

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