A bunch of educators, several of whom I know and respect quite a bit, got together last month to write a "bill of rights" for online learners. Viewable and editable here.
They included the rights to access, privacy, openness, to create public knowledge, to "pedagogical transparency" (to understand the ways you are being taught and the value of any credentials offered), "financial transparency" (Where is my tuition money going? How will this “free course” be paid for?), to have great teachers, and to become teachers.
I can’t find myself disagreeing with anything much that they had to say, except for one screaming contradiction that brings the whole thing down.
"All too often, during such wrenching transitions, the voice of the learner gets muffled," this group wrote in their introduction.
The problem is, this group didn't include any learners. Of the 12 signatories, I count 8 Ph.D.s or Ph.D. equivalents. They didn’t reach out to any learners on public forums. They didn’t ask any learners what they wanted to put in the document. The voice of learners is absolutely silent.
Sure, we’re all lifelong and informal learners in some sense, but let’s draw a real distinction here. Let’s talk about people who don’t have a bachelor’s degree and need one or the equivalent to make a decent living and participate in society on an equal footing. I’m not asking why the group didn’t poll Udacity users in Pakistan or Colombia, or YouMedia high school students in Chicago, or middle schoolers around the globe making their way through Khan Academy math videos, and find out exactly what their concerns are and how they would prefer to have them represented in such a document. Although really, it wouldn’t have taken much time or many resources to do this kind of research. I’m asking why they wrote a “learners’ bill of rights” without including one actual learner in their little group of 12.
I’m not going to be tendentious and draw parallels with other bills of rights. I’m not going to ask about the advisability of men writing a feminist Bill of Rights on behalf of the women they care about so deeply. Or of the North writing a bill of rights for Southerners after the Civil War. Or of employers writing a bill of rights for their employees.
Suffice it to say that educators are in a historical position of no small authority over learners. And when one group of people with authority over another makes up the rights for the second group, they tend to get some things wrong.
The fact is, this isn’t a bill of rights for learners at all. It’s a set of principles to support the interests of a group of educators, who share concern for learners, blended with concern for their own group. They tip their hand in the eighth principle, “The right to have great teachers.”
“Students should expect -- indeed demand -- that the people arranging, mentoring and facilitating their learning online be financially, intellectually and pedagogically valued and supported by institutions of higher learning and by society. Teachers’ know-how and working conditions are students’ learning conditions.”
I am in favor of all who work with learners being fairly paid, and I am definitely in favor of great teachers. But I am not in favor of students being drafted onto the metaphorical or actual picket lines. Students in state four-year institutions are paying more and more of the salaries of their instructors and going into sometimes-extreme debt to do it. There’s an uncomfortable moment where the interests of the learners actually diverge from the interests of the career academics, and it should be discussed openly.
But enough. The authors intended this to be a living document, and I respect that there’s time to revise and collect comments from the hundreds of thousands of online learners out there. It’s not going to be that difficult.
When I first found out about this bill of rights, I posted it to OpenStudy, the online learning community. I got this response from an undergraduate computer science major within 45 minutes, which reads in part:
“you deserve education BASED ON WHAT YOU WANT TO DO IN LIFE..
Teach kids real world problems, and have them enjoy it…
Teachers/professors who care. In my time I have met a lot of wonderful professors, mentors, teachers, coaches, and a ton of HORRIBLE ones…
The job market sucks, and with students being taught the same thing, and not really learning what they wish it's hard to distinguish someone from the rest of the pack. If we want to succeed we need to produce students who enjoy learning, and have the tools to learn what THEY WANT TO LEARN."
Another wrote: "The rights I want in the ever-growing digital era are not anything different than what I would want outside of it. We have to expand these rights to be applicable into the digital world."
That’s a good start. Now there’s time to come up with a set of amendments -- a real learners’ bill of rights.