OpenEd Class Comments

Here’s are some highlights of the first batch of writing people following the Open Education class have done, with my thoughts sprinkled throughout.

Andreas Formiconi:

This makes me think also of Don Milani’s case. A priest active in Tuscany, next to Florence, in the sixties. He was in the church against the church, his basic point being (synthetically and in my floundering English 🙁 , partly result of poor education 😉 ): “We tell people that we want to explain them the Gospel but if people are illiterate they cannot grasp the meaning of what we are trying to say. Therefore, to begin with we must give them an education, and a lay education, not a religious one. If we don’t care about people’s lay education first, then we are hypocritical.”

Don Milani was sourly accused and prosecuted by the church. Therefore, he was placed in a very small village, Barbiana, at the top of a mountain (Monte Giovi), inhabited by a handful of peasants. He did not give up. He created the “school of Barbiana” were he taught the peasants’ kids. The school became incredibly famous. Teachers, professors, journalists, politicians, intellectuals form all Italy went to visit his school. Don Milani put all of them among their young students and all these relevant people were not allowed to talk from a cattedra (chair) as they were used to do but they could only participate in the lessons together with the students.

In order to understand the work of Don Milani it is worthwhile to have a look to a book written by eight students of him, Letter to a Teacher, which became very famous. Incidentally and interestingly, I found this English translation in an Indian site, called Shikshantar, devoted to education and development in India. This book is a sharp accusation of a public compulsory school system conceived for rich people against poor people.

Already this class is proving its value for me personally! What an incredible story, one I don’t believe is very well known here in the US.

Andreas (again):

Existing education is so often biased, so often conceived for passive being instead of human beings, that I’m quite afraid to make it compulsory. Let us make education available everywhere first, and let us improve the quality of education all over the world. Instead of making education mandatory I would make it available, free and accurately fitted to local social realities.

The idea that education should be accurately fitted to local social realities is completely accurate, and perhaps the primary challenge for instructional designers or educational technologists working in this century: it takes a firm understanding of local conditions to create materials that the locals will experience as being “high quality.” Two thoughts follow.

First, quality is *not* a characteristic of educational materials, rather it is an absolutely local property emerging from an interaction of materials and people. To take the most obvious example, materials that a US student finds very high quality may be completely worthless to a Nepali student who doesn’t read English. Language is not the only example, but is the simplest understand.

Second, an instructional designer or educational technologist is not capable of designing universally effective instruction – they can only create effective materials for the context they know. This is why *open* educational resource are so critically important: so that existing materials can be adapted and remixed by locals so as to be locally appropriate. This is also why open educational resources are only the most basic infrastructure and not the end game – equally (or perhaps more) important is the development of instructional design and educational technology capacity in local areas, without which no effective adaptation can happen.

Greg Francom:

Another issue is the right to education balanced with the right to refuse it… The tribes in Bolivia may contain members who would not want to go to school even if there were no prejudice against them. Is their right to education more important than their personal right to refuse it? I don’t think so. if we go too far saying that we know what is best for someone else, where will it end?

Greg finds an excellent angle on the question here. If there is a right to education, is there a symmetrical right to refuse education? The personal right to refuse sounds good initially, sounds like “freedom,” but how should a government respond if an overwhelming majority of its school-aged children choose to refuse? What would be the future consequence of such widespread illiteracy and innumeracy? Would the government have an obligation to step in and “do what’s best” for the future of the people and the country?

Greg (again):

When talking about education for all, we must first talk about what education should be and what it should not be. Mandating an education that is not beneficial for its students is naïve and harmful.

Excellent on the face of it. The sticky wicket is, of course, who gets to decide what education should and shouldn’t be? The US has shown that giving this responsibility to the federal government can be hugely problematic. It comes back to the relationship between local knowledge and the ability to effectively design educational materials, technologies, and policies. But while it may initially seem tempting to just turn things over to the local school boards, there are compelling arguments in favor of higher-level coordination. Take the Bologna Process for example. Here is an attempt to make it easier for students to transfer credits from one European Union (EU) college to another by aligning courses and course expectations. Obviously a huge benefit to be had here, but at what cost? How can we appropriately balance these tensions?

Catia Harriman:

Before I start answering the questions for this week, I want to make a few comments. It was interesting to me that the Tomasevski’s 2001 work “Removing obstacles in the way of the right to education” makes reference to a report about Brazil which was already outdated in 2001. Sadek and Borges’ report was published in 1985, but in 1988 Brazil had a constitutional reform. In the new Constitution, illiterates are no longer precluded from the right to vote. Voting is still mandatory in Brazil, but illiterate people can vote if they want. It has become optional for them. As it is optional for those who are more than 70 years old. It is also an option for those who are older than 16 but younger than 18. For all other people it is an obligation. In my case, for instance, since I am living abroad now, I have to justify to the Brazilian government why I cannot participate in the voting process. This involves filling out some forms. It is an obligation for me. Well, I do not necessaraly agree with this, but just wanted to clarify what the situation really is in Brazil now. I will mention that this exercise gave me an opportunity to read parts of the Constitution. 🙂 I have not done this in a while.

How wonderful to have someone from Brazil in the course! Again, have I mentioned what amazing value there is in diversifying this class and extending it to the world?

Catia (again):

Yes, in my opinion education is a basic human right. And I think that it should read “good education”. Just to mention Brazil again, the access to basic education is guaranteed in the Constitution. But not all children are in the schools. Some are forced to work in order to help their families (or for other reasons) and the government does not have the power to force parents to send their children to school. But the federal government has implemented some measures to give some financial support for poor families that keep their children in school. Well, the situation is too complex. It involves many social, economical and political issues.

This reminds me of a movie recently popular in the US, Shrek 2. In the movie the always-talking character Donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy in the US version) complains loudly that his basic rights were violated when he was arrested. “What about my right to remain silent!?!” he demands. “Nobody told me I have the right to remain silent!!!” Shrek responds, “You have the right to remain silent, Donkey. What you lack is the capacity.” Catia rightly points out that even in cases where a right to education exists, the capacity to exercise the right doesn’t always exist. How meaningful is a right when there is no corresponding capacity to exercise it?


My first thought on this topic is that the right to education should be a basic human right. Having said this, though, I quickly find myself thinking about what a “basic human right” is. It seems to me that human rights are ones extended by governmental or other societal groups. So the discussion is really whether it “should” or “should not” be a basic right… In the U.S., our Constitution enumerates the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. More broadly, the United Nations has set forth a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Interestingly, while the US Constitution does not guarantee a right to education, the UN declaration does. (See Article 26.)

Karen takes us into the meat of the rights versus capacity question. But to adjust her phrasing somewhat, the question isn’t whether education “should” or “should not” be a basic right. She already shows that for those of us who live in UN members states (which I believe covers everyone currently in the class), we have already agreed that education is a basic human right. What is the question really, then?

Karen (again):

Does a basic human right, like education, imply that someone (e.g. a government) has the obligation to provide for that right? Who is responsible for the cost? (This is an interesting debate that is currently being held in the context of the right to health care in the U.S.)

In places where there isn’t sufficient capacity to allow everyone to exercise their right to education, who is obligated to develop that capacity? (If you’ve ever wondered what the NGO phrase “capacity building” means, now you know.)