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Digital Learning, for the Learners
12 scholars and experts on technology and education propose a "bill of rights" for those who study online -- a first draft, they quickly emphasize.
It was probably inevitable that any group of people who sought, however tentatively, to define "the rights, responsibilities, and possibilities for education in the globally connected world of the present and beyond" would find themselves accused of excluding important parties, of being "top-down," and of hubris.
But the cadre that drafted "A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age" -- which included scholars such as Cathy Davidson and Jesse Stommel, technologists such as John Seely Brown, and entrepreneurs like Udacity's Sebastian Thrun -- thought that amid all the hubbub about massive open online courses, "it would be useful to have some kind of document that describes the broader vision for where digital learning can go," and for ensuring that the needs of learners themselves, rather than of institutions or providers or instructors, are central, said one of the authors, Peer 2 Peer University's Philipp Schmidt.
And while the authors drew significant praise Wednesday in many quarters for the thoughtfulness of the document, they also absorbed the expected critiques on various fronts, especially from those noting that the group lacked obvious any representatives of individual learners themselves. In response, the authors reiterated more forcefully a point they had sought to make in initial document: that it was meant to be the fledgling starting point for something repeatedly revised and ultimately much more broadly representative.
"If the result is a big conversation that gets people engaged and involved, including self-learners, then it’s a success," said Schmidt. "This is not intended to be anything remotely like a final version."
Petra Dierkes-Thrun, a lecturer in comparative literature at Stanford University (who is also, as she puts it, "married to the MOOC," as Sebastian's wife), said that she and her husband had gathered the dozen invitees in December with the goal of crafting a "manifesto" of sorts to put into context the hysteria that has evolved around MOOCs, specifically, and online learning more generally as a result.
As they talked, the manifesto concept morphed into an attempt to initiate, for the digital age, the kinds of student bills of rights that others had created before them. The effort embraced the idea, she said, that the digital age is different, offering both possibilities -- "a powerful and potentially awe-inspiring opportunity to make new forms of learning available to all students worldwide" -- and dangers, with massification also making possible greater exploitation.
And the bill of rights they crafted acknowledges both positives and negatives. It cites the prospect that digital forms of education can broaden student access to high-quality learning ("online learning has the potential to ensure that this right is a reality for a greater percentage of the world's population than has ever been realizable before").
But it also recognizes the risk that massive amounts of data on students will be collected (and possibly misused) and that students deserve financial transparency ("the right to know how their participation supports the financial health of the online system in which they are participating," including for "free" courses) and pedagogical transparency, so they know whether a course will lead to a credential or not, and if so, what its authenticity and value are.
"Students have the right to care, diligence, commitment, honesty and innovation," the authors write. "They are not being sold a product -- nor are they the product being sold. They are not just consumers. Education is also about trust. Learning -- not corporate profit -- is the principal purpose of all education."
As Silicon Valley and venture capital money flows into the online learning market (and the MOOC space, including for Sebastian Thrun's Udacity), one might expect Thrun and other entrepreneur types to bristle at, rather than sign on to, calls for significant financial transparency. But Dierkes-Thrun said her husband fully believes in "holding providers accountable," and that the document represents the "12 of us speaking together."
Amid the cheers of "Well done, folks" and other praise for the document in blogs and on Twitter, some critiques emerged. In an e-mail message, Cable Green of Creative Commons tweaked the authors for implicitly contributing to the mania about MOOCs by failing to note that while they are "open" in the sense of who can enroll in them (by virtue of being free), many of the course materials are not openly licensed so they can be used and reused in the public domain.
And Anya Kamenetz, an advocate for truly open and do-it-yourself learning, noted that while a "bunch of educators got together to write a 'bill of rights' for online learners," the problem was "they didn't ask any learners what they wanted."
Several of its authors, in blogging about the process and its result, went out of their way to acknowledge those limitations and to make clear that they didn't intend for theirs to be the last word.
"We want lots of people with lots of different groups to remix it, edit it, make it their own," said Schmidt.
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