Despite attention and dollars, existing social media won’t fix online learning

October 18, 2010 at 11:35 am 6 comments

For many of the same reasons articulated in the discussion with Dave Patterson and Alan Kay, there is growing interest in making online learning work better — and now there are dollars backing up that interest.  The new funding from the Gates Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation will focus first on post-secondary (which is exciting to me, for trying to teach high school CS teachers in-service), then later on secondary.

The education gap facing the nation’s work force is evident in the numbers. Most new jobs will require more than a high school education, yet fewer than half of Americans under 30 have a postsecondary degree of any kind. Recent state budget cuts, education experts agree, promise to make closing that gap even more difficult.

Bill Gates, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is giving an initial $20 million for postsecondary online courses.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and four nonprofit education organizations are beginning an ambitious initiative to address that challenge by accelerating the development and use of online learning tools.

via Gates and Hewlett Foundations Focus on Online Learning –

But how do we do it?  How do we make these online learning tools, and even larger challenge, all the content and curricula with those tools?  I argued in a previous post that open source, multi-author, free books will likely not innovate nor have high enough quality.  There’s some support for that argument in a recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell writes, in an article titled “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted” that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media efforts (including Wikipedia) are only good for some kinds of change, and not for others.  He argues that the “Twitter Revolution” has not existed, nor will it.  (Good clue: If all those tweets that were supposedly from Iranian dissidents were actually organizing protests inside of Iran, why were they in English and not Farsi?)  Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia are networks, which are good for keeping updated on information, but not for generating new ideas or taking on a well-organized establisment, as the civil rights effort did.  Facebook and other current social media generate participation, not motivation.

Related to the point about design of new kinds of online learning tools, Gladwell writes:

This structure makes networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations. Wikipedia is a perfect example. It doesn’t have an editor, sitting in New York, who directs and corrects each entry. The effort of putting together each entry is self-organized. If every entry in Wikipedia were to be erased tomorrow, the content would swiftly be restored, because that’s what happens when a network of thousands spontaneously devote their time to a task.

There are many things, though, that networks don’t do well. Car companies sensibly use a network to organize their hundreds of suppliers, but not to design their cars. No one believes that the articulation of a coherent design philosophy is best handled by a sprawling, leaderless organizational system. Because networks don’t have a centralized leadership structure and clear lines of authority, they have real difficulty reaching consensus and setting goals. They can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?

Gladwell’s article actually gave me some insight into how to build online content successfully — don’t do it as a network.  Create roles.  Create specialization of author’s contributions.  Create hierarchy.  Not everything should be a flat article, as it is now in Wikipedia.  To be successful, we need structure, real pedagogical structure. Chapters, lectures, and tutorials are boundaries of time-space, not pedagogical structures.  They separate chunks, as opposed to defining how the chunks help learning.

The Gates and Hewlett Foundation are sounding the call, rallying the troops to improve online learning.  Great!  Malcolm Gladwell is saying that it won’t work if it looks like existing social media, and I think his ideas give us insight into how to make it work.


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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tom Hoffman  |  October 18, 2010 at 11:48 am

    The fact that they’re spending $20 million dollars suggests that experts will be paid to design and write the materials which will then be freely licensed.

    Or maybe they need $20 million for wiki hosting.

  • 2. Alan Kay  |  October 18, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Hi Mark,

    Even Eric Raymond’s semi-religious tract about open source notices that the way things work is that a small dedicated group does the initial design and implementation of a kernel, and this allows many more more loosely connected people to add increments (for good or ill).

    And, of course, professional designers long before Raymond were working this way in computing since the 50s.

    So I don’t think we need to pay much attention to Gladwell on these matters.

    But I wonder what is actually needed as a kernel here? The larger target teacher population in high school and first few years of university may mainly want materials that lower the amount of work and thinking they need to do, rather than a great curriculum framework for computer science that would truly benefit the learners.

    I can imagine a few public spirited computing superstars doing the latter for free, but not the former. If it’s really about homework, sample tests, etc, then what teachers want will probably not be for free (unless some philanthropist actually pays for it — in which case it occupies some middle ground).

    As far as the Gates Foundation goes, what they are doing will probably be of some use, but they are missing that the real problems get started (and most will have to solved) in K-8.



    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  October 18, 2010 at 5:15 pm

      Hi Alan,
      I agree with your description of how open source software projects really work. Do you know of any education efforts that are organized that way? I don’t know of any. Most that I’ve seen are just flat (e.g., educational digital libraries) or merely segmented (e.g., contributing chapters or sections to a book). Software is easier to structure in the way you describe. It would be interesting to see educational projects structured in this way.


      • 4. Alan Kay  |  October 18, 2010 at 5:28 pm

        Hi Mark,

        I think education projects that have a bit of an orbit around a software environment have some of these characteristics. For example, the LOGO, StarLogo, Etoys, Scratch, Alice and IAEP projects all have the kernel group plus outside volunteers making curriculum and documentation, curricula, etc.

        But I’m guessing that just such a group does exist around at least one of the free open source high school physics texts that are online. I don’t think there are too many authors that want their actual words messed with, but hyperlinking and other forms of annotation were made so that content and commentary can be added to something already written.

        I haven’t seen much if any of this style online, but there must be one or two examples. Anybody seen any?





  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mick Morrison, RoyalRoadsUniversity. RoyalRoadsUniversity said: Despite attention & $, existing social media won’t fix #onlinelearning – Computing #Education blog post […]

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