open learning and language

An interesting (old) quote from geolinguist and sociolinguist extraordinaire, William Mackey.  I’m parking it here because it’s related to discussions on open learning, and in line with my last post on language and the open access movement.

“The combined impact of this accelerating mobility, globalization of instant information and uniformization of mass media has lessened the contact between neighbours while increasing the impact of dominant cultures whose massive loudspeakers silence the small voices of local speech and minority cultures.  In sum, the far erodes the near and eventually drives it out.”

Mackey, W.F.  (1992).  Mother tongues, other tongues and link languages: What they mean in a changing world.  Prospects, 22, 81.

Higher ed hacks–the other elephant in the room

Metapizza kindly pointed to the second option that I offered up as a higher ed hack, noting that it was more of a distributed learning system than a truly open system. I think the point is that distributed learning systems can, and perhaps should be open.  The models I put out there in my last post are really addressing the accreditation problem by working within existing (and seemingly impenetrable) higher ed structures – they are essentially parasitic models, although I would argue that all parties benefit. So maybe they are actually complementary.  

There was obviously an international bent to the second model, which was an attempt to address 2 things that seem to be happening in higher ed (in Canada at least).  First, there appears to be an increased emphasis on an internationalization agenda at Canadian higher education institutions (AUCC 2006) resulting in the development of jointly offered programs, partnerships, and study abroad exchanges. However, current university models have not addressed how international participation can occur in these institutions and programs without barriers of entrance requirements, including academic English literacy,  tuition fees, and the financial ability to travel and stay at  the host institution.  Second, there seems to be some recognition that nobody “owns” knowledge (not a new idea, obviously), therefore there should be some effort to engage with ideas outside of one’s own ivory tower.  Since both of these issues have already been discussed to some extent in relation to OERs, the model we used at UBC seemed to be feasible option.

I do think there is potentially yet another elephant in the room, one that is continually being contested in academic publishing, internet culture, and life in general–that of the predominance of English as the lingua franca of just about everything these days.  This is obviously not going to be a problem if there is a balanced effort to ensure that OERs are available in languages of anybody who needs to access them.  But geolinguistic history tells us that this is difficult to achieve, regardless of a national language policies. 

I know there has been some discussion about OERs being translated into other languages, building on a practice that is already taking place with opencourseware.  This is obviously a valid option, however there are a couple of challenges to this.  First,  translation is hardly neutral, and this may or may not matter when ideas/knowledge/concepts are being translated.  Secondly, translation is resource heavy (just ask any Canadian federal civil servant) and I expect it’s not a feasible option for those working in less resource privileged contexts.  I think that if OERs are going to be discussed in relation to benefits to developing countries, this should continue to be acknowledged.

Some facts:

1.  There are more EOLs (English as and Other Language) speakers in the world than there are native speakers.

2. While some countries are known for their highly functional in EOL population (eg. India), it must be remembered that the proportion of the population for whom this is the case may be relatively small.

After living for a time in Asia and Mexico, and working at a large Canadian university, I have observed that for international students an education in English from a “Western” university represents considerable cultural capital that students can leverage when they return to their home countries, or in their efforts to stay in the host country when they seek employment.  I wish I had something more tangible to reference this statement, but for now it’s simply an observation.

This can be viewed in a couple of ways.  First, if the majority of OERs end up being in English it could be seen as a vehicle for acquiring academic literacy in English.  On the other hand, OERs in English could be seen as a threat to local languages in the same way that it has played out in the academic publishing world (c.f. Hamel’s thorough analysis–abstract available here, but full article is unfortunately locked down. Plus, lots of related discussions in the entire issue, if you can get your hands on it). Regardless, it is recognized that academic literacy remains a  recalcitrant barrier for EOL students and faculty globally (Flowerdew, 2007, also locked down).  It will be interesting to see how this can be accounted for in the open models that continue to emerge.

Higher Ed hacks #1–open models

I’ll borrow the phrase from David Wiley’s recent post and offer my own hack on addressing the accreditation conundrum with OERs.  I’m fairly new to the interesting conversations around open learning, open teaching, open content and open courseware, but as a instructional developer with two feet firmly planted in the distance education world I see these worlds as colliding quite nicely, especially since distance education in Canada has traditionally been driven by a social agenda that sought to provide access to non-traditional learners (of course, it’s up for argument whether this is still the case…).  

Accreditation is undeniably the big problem remaining to be solved if open learning is going to secure a place in higher education (in agreement with the “elephant in the room” comment from D’arcy here).  And while it’s hardly debateable that learning need not inhabit formal academic structures, accreditation is predominently the currency of choice, whether it’s economic or cultural capital that is being sought.   I look forward to seeing the efforts and the open models that evolve from the creative hacking.  I expect that some of these models might sit in structures that bypass universities altogether, some might sit in a university, and some might involve a combination of the two.  

The way I’m understanding it, the current OER-inspired models range from self-directed-access-on-your-own type learning to open-course-with-open teaching (with credits for some). Personally, while I applaud the open teaching efforts of David Wiley’s course, Alec Couros’ course, and George and Stephen’s Connectivism course, it might not be attractive to late adopters, once the novelty of this type of model has worn off, since would appear to potentially require a good deal of unpaid effort on the part of the instructor.   

So, this leads me to two possibilities that I’m putting out there as models for a happy marriage between OERs, accreditation, and teaching:

Option 1.  Accredited self-access centres

Self-access centres have existed since at least the 1970s (which I suspect evolved out of language education’s own Edupunk movement that saw the emergence of some very *creative* methods–look up suggestopedia if you’re interested) and offer several models of independent or self-directed learning with a range of instructor/expert support, while providing accreditation.   It’s not hard to see how this could be translated into a model for OER  

The upside:  

1.  Centres are associated with a bricks and mortar university, therefore presumably the student learning plan negotiated with and agreed to by the centre would provide credits from the university. 

The downside: 

1.  Institutional bureaucracy.  I suspect that the facility of this model would be impeded by concerns about quality of content, and how the open content measures against the institution.    

Option 2.  Inter-Institutionally Shared  Course Components

This is a model that we’ve actually tested and used multiple times since 2000 at the department of language and literacy education at UBC. It evolved out of a desire to add a more global perspective to a course by engaging with students at international institutions.  However, institutional bureaucracies and policies make it very challenging to enroll international students not associated with the university into courses and programs for accreditation.  

The model works on the assumption that university courses are generally composed of three central components—content, interactions, and assessed activities. It also works on the (social-constructivist) assumption that while content is important, the value of a course largely comes from the instructor-student and/or student-student interactions.

This is how it works, via an example of a 2001 iteration that we implemented with students located in Canada, Russia, and Mexico:

1. Course A (Canada) decided that the course content in a course on global issues and language could benefit from engagement with international partners.  The course was being delivered f2f.

2.  A Russian professor/acquaintance teaching an English course to business students was contacted  to see whether a component of her course (Course B) could benefit from an international discussion.  This course was being delivered f2f.

3.  An instructor in Mexico teaching an Advanced English course on Popular culture and media (course C) was contacted to see whether her course could benefit from an international discussion.  This course was being delivered f2f.

Being circa 2001, the 3 sites decided to include a graded 6 week online discussion forum activity (hosted by UBC) around topics that benefitted their own course objectives.  Each site allocated different percentages to the activity, and different criteria for assessment and participation.  Each instructor was responsible for grading their own students.  Students received credits for their course activity from their own institution.  Although this example did not require the use of OERs, it could, with the added benefit of introducing a more glocalised perspective by including international partners.  We also considered how this model might be applied to other disciplines where global perspectives are of particular importance (eg. business, ecology, medicine). 

The upside:

1. students received credit

2. students had access to 3 professors, not 1.

3.  departmental and institutional approvals weren’t required

4.  course content and discussions were greatly enriched (and validated) through exposure to the perspectives of the international partners

5.  students gained considerable academic literacy in English (English was not a first language for any of the students)

The downside:

1.  there were varying levels of internet access among the 3 partners

2. some challenges in coordinating the participation of the 3 instructors

We visualised the model like this, with a Pediatric Dentistry course as an example: