OpenEd: More Week 1 Thoughts

Week one comes to an end and I’m already blown away by the quality of the contributions to the class and the effort required just to keep up with everything everyone is writing. Please don’t let down! This is an amazing collection of material…

Brian captures the spirit of my own feelings about open education:

The tragedy of untapped human potential and the urgency of struggling against ignorance in its many forms works powerfully on me.

It’s not unusual for Brian to be more elegant than I am. But this one-liner really sums up the emotions that tend to rise up in my middle-parts when I think about what we’re discussing and trying to do.

Thieme considers the question, and says no to mandatory education:

…as long as there are people able to sustain their living and pursuit of happiness without recourse to education, I don’t think it should be considered as something every individual on this planet should have. It is just not comparable to right to live in freedom, without hunger, able to speak freely etc… We should not forget that billions of people have lived normal lives forever, without education. Well yes, the education in hunting, building houses, growing crops, taking care of animals, etc… Motivation is the key to learning, and is not reached through imposition, but through support and stimulation. And listening. Mandating education to me sounds wrong. It is old-fashioned thinking.

Eric takes a more economic view of the question, but still says no:

there were many good points involved with requiring children to gain an education, but none of them mean anything unless gaining an education can lead to a higher living standard… I agree that mandating education through a set age is important for teaching fundamental skills that will be used later to improve the economic state of the nation. In order for children to lead the future they need to be educated… Throughout the readings the question was raised as to whether there should be a set curriculum. In many ways I feel that the only way to guarantee that students are not being trained for war through prejudice is to mandate a set curriculum. However, I feel that it would be very difficult to set a specific curriculum for all nations. In every nation the job market is different, and as such I feel that the curriculum taught to students should contain universal elements but must also be catered to local economies.

And Heather see choice as the key:

Of course I think that all people deserve the opportunity to learn about as much as possible and have access to this education as a choice, to me that’s the key. I do believe education opens the way for freedom.

Mario, on the other hand, gives a resounding yes – but points to the importance of the local:

I have no doubt: the right to education is a basic human right… Amartya Sen, cited by K. Tomasevski, criticizes “…the improvement of human beings seen as a resource for further development.”, then he urges “…a broader conception of development that concentrates on the enhancement of human lives and freedoms, no matter whether that enhancement is – or is not – intermediated through an expansion of commodity production.” In Sen’s perspective “Human beings are not only the most important means of social achievement, they are also its profoundest end.” Now, what a challenge for educators! And how inaccurate our goals and indicators are. In this scenario I’m not sure that mandating education is intrinsically a good answer. In how many cases does compulsory education represent a violence rather than an opportunity? Is it really possible to establish, at a centralized level, what skills and knowledge are needed to be successful (and happy) in every context (geographical, social, familiar, productive)?

Unsurprisingly, there is only a weak consensus (at best) among our group. Many but not believe that education is a right, but some do not. Many believe that mandating education would be inappropriate, while some do not. As is usually the case with such complex things, we read compelling arguments on both sides of the argument. This can only lead us to conclude that the statements “education is a basic human right” and “education should be mandatory” are both true and false. Perhaps they are false globally but true locally, wholly dependent on local conditions. Perhaps a more sophisticated belief system is called for, and these statements are simultaneously true and false, in a kind of logical or moral superposition.

Rob has his eyes opened somewhat:

Education means so many different things to different people. Tomasevski’s articles really made me stop and think about how different our situation here in the US is compared to other countries. We’re debating here about NCLB, charter schools vs traditional public schools, and vouchers for helping students attend private schools, but rarely if ever do I hear an argument that schooling should go away all together. That is, culturally here in the US (although there are portions of the country that do not value education) it is generally a given that education will make us better, and we simply argue about the manner in which to implement it. I really hadn’t given much thought before to how to handle young boys that herd sheep in the mountains far away from any sign of civilization. Who am I to say what education, if any, will help that boy? Or will it hurt him? Will he be outcast in his society because a Westerner came in and told him that he needs a Western education? Is his education, being out in nature, surviving on the land, communicating with his animals, learning to read the sky and the water, worth any more or less than the PhD I’m working on?

Reading writing like this, of course, is what makes being a faculty member worth it. And while we tend to think that assumptions move from the developed world to the developing world (for example, it’s always the technology and opportunity-rich whose assumptions are completely out of line with the “realities” of developing and emerging nations), the problems of understanding flow the other direction as well, only further highlighting how dependent everything is on a thorough knowledge of the local environment.

Bobbe continues on this same theme, as she says culture is inextricably embedded in education:

I have given much thought to the design of courses and how to make them culturally sensitive to the audience. One cannot strip culture from a course. The person designing it is immersed in culture, to the point of blindness. And the designer cannot be expected to know or understand every culture that it might reach and thus design accordingly. I am aware of the prejudices and cruelties laced in teaching that Tomasevski speaks about. We react in horror to hear how people are maligned in a language course, or that a math class can also teach genocide. Education has been used to indoctrinate or beat students into submission. I abhor any such use of teaching. But I have reservations about a general definition of education that is not sensitive to the culture. Too often our need to help is not help at all, but pushing our own beliefs into places where they don’t belong.

Jim goes Foucault in questioning the questions for the week, taking the theme of cultural concerns up one level:

In my mind, the phrase a “basic human right” needs to be qualified with quotes because it is very specific in its geographic, political, and historical context. Such a statement “basic human rights,” or rights inherent to all people, implies a whole host of very specific intellectual and political movements in Western thought during the eighteenth century. This moment, often characterized by writers such as Thomas Paine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson (amongst many others), we begin to see such defining statements of humanity’s basic rights come into a wider circulation. Such a statement takes on a tremendous amount of importance and power in swaying the means though which the social and political revolutions of democracy would unfold during the Colonial uprising throughout North and South America as well as the French Revolution on the continent. The statement “basic human rights” undergirds a key conceptual component for creating an understanding of what is commonly shared amongst all people, what helped to define during that moment “the human condition.” What we see in the question above is the unacknowledged trace of one of the most powerful discursive statements for framing the understanding our own moment, the Age of Reason often enshrined as the Enlightenment. At the very heart of this statement there is immediately a host of archaeological artefacts of Western intellectual history and its continued reliance upon the core concepts of the Enlightenment. “Basic human rights,” as a statement in the above question cannot be divorced from the very violent context of its popular inception and circulation during the 18th century…

For example, how do we define this notion of education, given the overwhelming dependence our culture (and I speak here specifically of the US) focuses this concept upon shaping a responsible citizen. The basic premise of an education in the US is defined by a notion of citizenship, and idea of responsibility to the state. How do we measure this as a basic human right? Is it our right to be a responsible citizen? Is it compulsory? Is it our right to be an informed citizen? Who do such things benefit the individual or the state? … To what degree is education an extension of state power?

The very first day of the very first class of my PhD program I made the comment that ‘the (US) public schools are simply a propaganda arm of the federal government’ and almost got myself thrown out of the class. The state can believe that many things are good for its citizens (e.g., access to health care) without feeling the need to actually provide these services. So when we think about the amount of money government spends on education, we may rightly ask ourselves, ‘what is the government’s expected return on this investment?’ The expected return is likely a direct benefit back to the state (e.g., responsible citizens), rather than the idealistic facilitation of capacity to exercise rights.

m5 coins the ‘Italian Paradox’ in thinking through issues of compulsory and voluntary education in Italy:

One thing which has always puzzled me is that until the end of last century (my Italian collegues can confirm?) due to unemployment, people coming from the South of Italy were ‘forced’ to go to university in the hope that, once graduated, they could get a job. Instead, in the North, where there were industries and it was much easier to get a job after compulsory education, only a few people coming from rich families or very gifted students would go to University. Isn’t this a paradox? Which are the consequences?

/me shakes his head.

And Jessie tells us about the “left kids” of her home country, China:

For instance, in China, legally mandated length of compulsory education is nine years; in other words, the compulsory education goes into effect until about end of middle school. Most of the elementary schools abolish both official and unofficial school fees which often result in the exclusion of girls from education. Students from poor families can apply some financial aid from schools to waive all the educational charges from higher levels. There are still some situations that students have to quit schooling. Recently, a large group of children called “left kids” which means those kids parents are both gone for drudgeries in another cities those is far from home; their kids have to stay at home to take care of themselves and their siblings. What the Chinese governments do for those “left kids”? As far as I know, the governments usually send some educated people such as school teachers to those kids family; talk with their parents or relatives if parents not at home about the right of free and compulsory education; try to convince the kids back to school. If turn up with a financial problem, the persuader will report the situation to the local government; most of the time, they should find a way to get the kids back to schools; in addition, some students quit going to school because they can’t get good grades; and more, some students may attend the military when they are about 13 t0 14 years old. Those situations attest to Tomasevski’s idea that children should have the right to education; but they often can’t get educated.

Jennifer explores the tension between providing access to everyone while providing appropriate material for everyone:

While the achievement of a universal primary education (to meet basic learning needs) is the current (yet, postponed) commitment, I would argue that this level of education is not sufficient to achieve one’s full potential. Yet, while it is my belief that a primary education is NOT sufficient (for either the individual or society), I believe that education beyond a primary education exceeds the “human right to education” boundaries. Therefore, it is my belief that with increasing age and educational level, the responsibility for educational attainment begins to shift from society to the individual learner… If a “free and compulsory” model is to be the funded educational option, then what are the implications with regard to learner choice and diversity in curriculum? By funding (through taxation) an access-for-all education system, we are taking away available funds from (hence, limiting the choices available to) those who want to pursue alternative forms of education offered by private entities. Universal, free and compulsory education is designed to ensure access to a basic level of education for all learners, regardless of income level. By collectively funding an all-for-one / one-for-all model, we are setting aside individual choice and diversity in curriculum in favor of a model that provides universal access-for-all.

I will insert here a small hope. That being that, if the centrally funded educational sequences and materials are developed as open educational resources, they can then serve as a basis for easy / legal adaptation to local conditions. Perhaps OERs are part of the solution after all?

Antonio connects education directly to freedom and colonization:

I think, in brief, that there is no real freedom without education. This statement is not (only) related to local political conditions like Brazil (no vote right for illitterate…). In “Removing obstacles…” (pag. 8 ), Tomasevski stresses the reasons for education, including access to good jobs and higher level of salaries. But I want to add one more reason: people need education to be free. Free to understand, free to choose, free to change, free to decide of their life. Now, if the first question was “if people need to be educated,” the second one is related to how to educate people. If the first question was very easy to answer, this one is tremendously difficult! I see another issue in the background: is education to be considered a new way of colonization? This is a serious problem. We can start from the problem of language, that I consider very important. Stian raised this question, too. For instance, the level of knowledge of English, in Italy, is becoming nowadays a strong discriminant for access to better jobs and opportunities: this course is an example… This is a problem enhanced by the Internet: most of the valuable educational resources available on the Web are in English. On the other hand, as stated by Stian, it is crucial to preserve contextualization of educational content and practices.

Houshuang discusses criticisms of Tomasevski’s view and talks about the capacity pipeline:

If we first accept the idea that for children to attend an institution that is a “primary school” is generally a good thing, then there are still a number of things I wanted to comment. First of all, the matter of language of education is essential, and it is only briefly touched upon in Tomasevski. Birgit Brock-Utne has dealt extensively with this topic in her great book Whose Education for All, the recolonisation of the African mind, and in numerous articles. She is very sceptical to many of the thoughts propounded in Tomasevski’s article, and contained in the Jomtien agreement. Education is far from neutral, and when it is conducted in a foreign language, and with a curriculum that has no relation to the local people’s situation, it can be downright damaging… Brock-Utne’s argument is that you cannot just start by funding only primary schools, and then later switch to universities, because who will teach in the primary schools? Who will develop the text books in local languages, highlighting local knowledge, understandings of history, society and politics? Without all these, the primary education is not much worth. (She also comments that many of the literacy surveys of international organizations actually only measure literacy in the colonial language, whereas the rate in the local languages might be much higher).

Karen goes further than criticizing, disagreeing with Tomasevski:

There is a tension between offering of aid and the idea of “partnership” with local people. On the one hand, many say that the local people must drive the process of reform. On the other, donors are making judgments about what is “right” and “wrong.” I worry about outsiders making these decisions without always regarding local cultural values… This primer also talks about local choice in terms of curriculum content, leading into a discussion of what should be considered a high-quality education. On the one hand, there is the example of a program in which aid workers offered vocational training, which was viewed by the funding agency to be most beneficial to students. However, after many years and dollars spent, the project was a failure, because parents had an expectation of different learning objectives. (See Box 14.) This would seem to argue for local choice in curriculum content. However, Tomasevski takes the position that there should be a global agreement on what is considered “good education.” She stakes out a position that school should be certain things and not others. I think, though, that this must be a LOCAL decision. While some of us may think that school should be student-centered, exploratory, and open, other cultures may value other objectives in education, and that should be their choice.

Karen goes the extra mile with additional posts, saying, “One of Tomasevski’s lasting legacies is starting the clock ticking and creating awareness for these issues,” and expressing all of our frustrations with this week’s questions, “Well, for all of the writing I’ve done on this, I haven’t really answered the question.”

And finally, Kurt comments:

There are and will continue to be schools and school systems who, by nature of the community setting in which they exist, will battle issues of equality. Until society changes, this struggle will not change. However, individual teachers may seek equality within the walls of their classroom. The school system, administrative restrictions, and other school system issues may help or hinder an individual teacher’s quest. It cannot, however, stop the quest for equality.