The moral of the story might be that there is no such thing as “open education”

I will admit that it is at a minimum ironic that The Chronicle of Higher Education has the article, “Online, Bigger Class May Be Better Classes,” parked behind a firewall.  And I have some sympathy/some level of agreement with this post from Alan “CogDog” Levine about how this is bad, along with the complaints of one of the main sources in this article, George “elearnspace” Siemens.

But here’s the thing:  perhaps this is evidence that at the end of there is no such thing as “open learning education,” for two basic reasons.  First, perhaps what we’re getting at is the age-old difference between “learning” and “education.” Here’s a quote from the article (from behind the firewall, btw, which I get access to because of my connection with Eastern Michigan University):

“We have to get away from this whole idea that universities own learning,” says Alec V. Couros, who teaches his own open class as an associate professor of education at Regina, in Saskatchewan. “They own education in some sense. But they don’t own learning.”

Of course.  People can “learn” about all sorts of things without any connection with any sort of institution, and with college classes taking place in the open– in organized ways, as they discuss in the article, or less organized/visible ways, as I’ve been doing with my classes for years– and all the other “stuff” that is out there on the internets, it seems to me that someone self-motivated enough could literally learn damn near anything nowadays.

But if you want an education, something that is tied to some sort of institution, that involves a program of study/curriculum, where you have (in theory) reliable and trained instructors, and– and this is critical– where you get some sort of degree or certification that is recognized by others, if you want these things, it ain’t free.

Now, in some fields, it used to be there was no difference between learning and an education.  Someone can correct me if I’m wrong about this, but I believe that it used to be possible for someone to become a lawyer/member of the bar simply by “reading” the law– that is, literally going to a law library, reading on one’s own, and then taking a test.  But I’m pretty sure that has not been the case in the U.S. for quite a while.  And while someone could sit at home, in libraries, and/or in various online forums and do all the reading required to earn a PhD, I guarantee you that no university in the world– even one promoting “open learning/education”– would hire someone who claimed to have earned their education by participating in “open learning/education.”

Second, open learning isn’t really “free” and isn’t really completely “open” since it depends on “non-free” and “closed” institutions. As far as I know, everyone who has anything to do with the open learning movement is somehow tied to a “real” university.  In other words, the folks who are engaged in open learning/education really couldn’t do it without the financial support, resources, and credibility that comes about from being associated with a distinctly not open, traditional university.

Don’t get me wrong– I think that the idea and theory behind open learning is great, and it’s one of the reasons why I advocate moving classes from behind the firewall of CMS like Blackboard.  Education should be a public experience, and I think these folks– Dave Cormier, Stephen Downes, George Siemens, many many others– are doing great things.  But I also think that open learning is not going to transform education until we get to the point where we don’t think a college degree as a credential for a particular occupation.  And I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon ever.

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