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Using & Teaching Educational Technology

Are we living in an insane world?
By Terry Freedman
Created on Thu, 3 Nov 2005, 00:34

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The reason I ask this question relates to education-related news items I read, concerning collaborative textbooks and the death of curriculum, and people's likely reaction to them, in the blogosphere. But first, as Max Bygraves (an English entertainer) used to say, I want to tell you a story....

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom which was ruled by a very wise king. One day, someone poisoned all of the kingdom's water supply with something that made everyone go mad overnight. Everyone, that is, except the king, because he hadn't drunk any water. When the king awoke in the morning, everyone was worried about the king's mental health, and so, being a wise man, he did the only thing he reasonably could: he drank the water, and became as mad as the rest of them. Then everyone rejoiced because the king, in their eyes, had regained his sanity.

Now, I use this story just to make a point: I'm not so immodest as to claim that I am the only sane person in an insane world (a claim which would, in most people's opinion, testify to my insanity!). However, what I would like to know, is where is the critical judgement of those who believe that a textbook resulting from a wikipedia-type collaboration is a good thing?

I mean, I don't wish to be a naysayer, but one of the strengths of traditional textbooks is that they go through a pretty stringent critical process. That is a big disadvantage if you have a pet new theory to propound, but it's a definite advantage all round in most cases.

Also, on the subject of curriculum, the National Curriculum in the UK has, rightly, come in for a lot of criticism since its inception in the late 1980s. It was too prescriptive, and on the whole too descriptive, and in fact was pretty much to do with learning facts or discrete chunks of knowledge rather than to do with helping children to think and to develop learning acquisition and collaboration skills. That is a rather broad generalisation, of course, but the point is that it wasn't as process-oriented as it might have been.

However, it did -- and still does, to a large extent -- mean that everyone, at least in theory, is on a level playing field. At least once a year I go to a conference where someone stands up and says we should disband the National Curriculum, and what all of those people have in common is that they are all highly educated with great, well-paying jobs. Their kids have probably gone to great schools and done really well. In other words, any tampering with the National Curriculum will not affect them in the slightest. My feeling about the National Curriculum, in fact, is much like the famous quotation about democracy: the worst system of government apart from the alternatives.

I mentioned earlier the process which takes place when a non-fiction book is published, and think it's worth elaborating upon how it works. At least, this is my experience of how it works in the UK.

1. You make a pitch to a publisher. What I usually do, to save time, is phone them up or drop them an email to see if they're interested in general terms, as I don't see the point of waiting weeks or even months for a reply to say "We're not interested in this stuff, thanks."

2. If the publisher likes the idea, you send them a kind of pack consisting of the proposed chapter headings, a sample chapter or two, plus details of the intended audience, what other books are available on the subject, and why anyone should prefer your book to the others. Oh yes, and your qualifications for writing the book.

3. If the publisher is confident, from your "pack", that (a) the idea has merit, (b) you could well be the right person to write the book and (c) you can actually write, the proposal and sample chapters will be sent out to people called "readers". Their role is to read such proposals and then comment on them. Bear in mind that the editor with whom you have been dealing so far is unlikely to be an expert in your area; these readers are. They know the landscape, and have a pretty good idea of what's needed and what isn't.

4. Once their comments are returned to the editor, you'll either be told that the project won't be taken any further, in which case you start over again with another publisher, or you'll be asked to make certain changes which, if you agree to them, will result in a contract being offered. The changes will be partly a result of the readers' comments, and partly an outcome of the publisher's requirements at that time. For example, your proposal may be a 10 volume encyclopaedia of educational technology, while the publisher is looking for a pocket-sized handbook of 150 pages.

Now, everyone moans about publishers, and there are often compelling reasons for an author, especially of non-fiction fiction, to go down the self-publishing route. However, you would have to admit that the process I've just described is a tad more rigorous than an open source project in which anyone can stick their oar in.

I'm sure there is some value on people collaborating in this way on textbooks, but it would be good if, were they ever to make their way into actual print, if they were clearly labelled as open source collaborative projects (and preferably with a health warning for good measure!). It would also be good if the people who contribute were to state why they think they are qualified to do so. As far as I can tell, in the UK everyone thinks they are qualified to pontificate about education: I dread to think what might emerge if we let some of them loose on open source textbooks!

I realise that in some people's minds such comments make me appear na´ve, unvisionary, reactionary, or all of them and worse. But I do worry about responses, like the one Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikimedia, the organisation behind this and Wikipedia, allegedly gave, which do not approach the issue from a specifically educational point of view. According to the news report linked to earlier, he said:

"I think that Wikibooks and projects like it will challenge licensed textbooks in the same way that Linux [the open-source computer operating system] and other free software and licensing models are challenging the software world. I don't know where it's going, but things are definitely changing."

Well, from my perspective, open source software challenges the software world because the stuff either works or it doesn't, and you can tell pretty quickly which it is. If someone is going to write a textbook in the same way as open source software is developed, where will the quality control come in? To be fair, I haven't explored this in depth, and there may well be a brilliantly thought-out means of ensuring that school children are not subjected to people's pet theories or utter rubbish posing as educational material. But so far I haven't come across anyone talking about that, apart from Wales's comment:

 "The main thing is, the availability [of Wikibooks] for open peer review means that whatever ends up going in ends up being part of a peer production process," he added. "The content is mediated by the work of the entire community. The real answer is that the proof is in the pudding."

I remain unconvinced, so at the moment, I would argue that not all change is necessarily for the better.

To achieve a Level 7 in the ICT Programme of Study in the UK, the student has to be able to "identify the advantages and limitations of different information-handling applications". To achieve a Level 8, the student has to be able to discuss the wider issues raised by the use of ICT. To be graded as being at Exceptional Performance level, they have to be able to evaluate software in terms of its appropriateness in a given set of circumstances.

You can find the same kind of requirements in the USA's NETSS (National Educational Technology Standards for Students). For example, looking at the Technology Foundation Standards for all Students, at Level 5 the student has to "evaluate and select new information resources and technological innovations based on the appropriateness for specific tasks."

If this is the sort of standard we expect from our students, shouldn't we be practising it ourselves?

Contrary to what you might think from reading this, I do actually find wikis in general exciting, and full of potential, and the idea of being able to create printed material in a similar way is fantastic in terms of its potential, especially if students themselves can be directly involved in the process. (I am heartened by te quote, in the same article: "Wikibooks offers the opportunity to collaborate in the process," Beesley said. "Learners can become teachers, as everyone is enabled thorough the wiki model to actively participate in the learning process. Learners will gain a lot from being participants rather than simple consumers of knowledge.")

It's just that I don't think we've found the "killer use" for these tools yet; or perhaps it's more accurate to say that I worry about many people's readiness to embrace such tools without apparently thinking through their wider implications.

Please prove me wrong!

Credit: Thanks to Stephen Downes's Online Daily newsletter for references to the news items discussed in this article.

What do you think? Please leave a comment.