Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Open Education: The Newest Tool for Dialectics?

The birth of what was to become the Western world's first university, occurred under the breezy shade of an olive grove dedicated to the goddess Athena. Thirty-year old Plato, the first professor, lectured sparsely, but posed humanity's greatest questions before his students for discussion. The teacher served as a discussion guide, a moderator. The brilliant students, hand picked by Plato, sought to discover truths as a collaborative community. Eventually this method of intellectual growth came to be called dialectic.

Fast-forward 2,300 years and this original method of academic discussion, at least in the United States, which boasts more than 5,000 universities, is reserved for only the creme-de-la-creme. The brightest students at the most elite universities seek to discover truths through collaboration with teachers, advisers and each other. Those whose paths have lead them to more mediocre centers of learning, though nor necessarily less expensive, sit and listen. And sit and listen some more. And after some more sitting and listening regurgitate facts on tests and quizzes and sometimes in shallow essays. No one expects these students to solve humanity's greatest questions.

This linking of passive acquisition of information to a University education is oppressive and demeaning to students, many of whom could be capable of tackling humanity's greatest questions, if given a proper university experience that includes dialectic.

The grassroots Open Education Movement (OEM), pioneered by Richard Baraniuk of Rice University, may be the impetus to never-seen-before human intellectual progress, and a very modern form of dialectics. The OEM aims to open up education in the tradition of the open-source software movement, such as Linux.
Using 21st century tools, this OEM collaboration on speed will grow exponentially as students from around the world gain access to real-time tackling of humanity's questions, from the most basic processes we still don't fully comprehend to universe-sized cosmological ideas.

Open educational materials include text, images, audio, video, interactive simulations, and games that are free to be used and also re-used in new ways by anyone around the world. Participants in open-education are working toward a broad set of goals, that democratize education and include intellectuals of all ages, disciplines and nations, reduce the cost of teaching materials (throw out those $120.00 textbooks), reduce the time lag between the production of course materials so they remain crisp and relevant in our fast-paced world.

Imagine the dialectical possibilities when ordinary university students are equipped with an entire collaborative intellectual universe.

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