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Keeping Educational Content Truly Open in an Information Age

Non-linear, Hyperconnected & Diverse​

As I write this post, COVID19 is spreading across the world and many schools are closing to protect the health of their communities. 

As EduChange continues work remotely (we’ve been a virtual company for over twenty years, to lessen our carbon footprint and to reduce unnecessary overhead), we see an opportunity in the uncertainty. 

Our program is about to face an enormous test, and it will be better for it. 

I have written about how we design for range. That range includes plans for students with extended hospital stays or involvement with the juvenile justice system, working remotely yet in contact with the teacher. Not quite the real deal, but almost. And certainly not a lost month, or two, or six.  

We can make incremental change as needed for teachers—without making the change untenable, without replacing modules in their entirety, and without lengthening them. I know we will build the novel coronavirus narrative seamlessly into our learning experiences without destabilizing the overall program, and we won’t need to write a new module. The perfect place(s) for it already exist.

In fact, our designs hold us accountable for making changes. 

A decade ago we decided that to prepare students to negotiate the Information Age, we must ensconce our content designs within it.

Previously I have explained the power of breaking down disciplinary silos for teen learners.

Since the power of the Information Age is largely inaccessible in silos, integration fuels our Sustainable Open Education Resources (SOER) model.

For people new to OER, they differ from traditional educational resources because they are designed to be repurposed and reused by others. Some games, animations and sims are free, but not truly open, because users cannot modify their features. Lessons are generally more open, but most authors don’t update their creations post-release, leaving maintenance to users.

I am wary of the various OER platforms that have cropped up recently, because a set of resources does not a coherent curriculum make. At present, OER are just digital versions of large teacher resource packages, with the curricular design work still falling on the shoulders of teachers.

If we say we want to truly develop student competencies and support deeper learning, coherence is a must.

The work needed to build original designs for coherent, high-quality learning experiences, and their ongoing maintenance, constitute at least one full-time job per course. I’m not sure how designing coherent curricula with OER turns out to be “free.”

I advise schools to consider this point carefully since teachers are not currently compensated for this level of design expertise, and should be if you want in-house designs.

Some curriculum designers resist the need to update by creating lessons based on hypothetical scenarios or abstract examples. And textbook authors can write “real-world connection” sidebars that are vague enough to hold up until the next edition. 

These are clever tricks, but not nearly as effective as driving content organization with global issues, the kind that gets diverse classrooms excited and interested. 

To make our educational content a living, breathing part of the Information Age, we design it:

  • in a non-linear fashion, allowing STEM stories and themes to thread over multiple years;
  • to intentionally forge conceptual connections and intersections over time;
  • for disciplinary integration, in order to reflect the way information is usually produced;
  • by curating resources with diverse authors, styles and points of origin; and
  • to filter noise, thereby eliminating unnecessary data and information on an ongoing basis.

Content designs that do these things resist obsolescence. In fact, they get better in the face of uncertainty.

I’ve read most of Nassim Taleb’s books as they were published, including The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, which explains the nature of inevitable, massively important events such as the COVID19 pandemic (a white swan). 

But Taleb’s Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder was a game changer for me. Taleb helped me characterize what we were designing, how we were designing it, and why it had been steadily improving for nearly twenty years (hint: it wasn’t just hard work).

Taleb explains that under stress, the fragile will break and the robust will persist, to a point. However, a robust collection of information, such as a science textbook, will never improve because of that stress.

Taleb might argue that scientific theories within the textbooks are fragile, while scientific laws that manifest reliably and empirically time and again are more robust.

What is antifragile actually gets better in the face of disruption or stress—the very kind of stress that the Information Age pours out relentlessly.

To me, truly open educational resources must blend the robust and the antifragile as much as possible.

Another feature of an antifragile design is that small errors, due to obsolescence or disproven facts, are easy to correct.

By employing atomic design principles that engage “layering, units, hierarchies, fractal structure (p. 72),” we ensured that a small error could be separated and removed without disturbing the sum total.

Interestingly, this same approach maps to circular economy design principles, which will be the subject of an upcoming post.

We can tinker like artisans without fear of compounded error and, in so doing, learn from our mistakes. Even the removal of an entire multi-year thread is possible, almost surgically, in a way that keeps the rest of the learning systems intact.

Small, retractable errors help you learn while preventing system failure.

"We can tinker like artisans without fear of compounded error and, in so doing, learn from our mistakes. Even the removal of an entire multi-year thread is possible, almost surgically, in a way that keeps the rest of the learning systems intact. "

Taleb explains: “There are hundreds of plane flights every year, and a crash in one plane does not involve others, so errors remain confined and highly epistemic—whereas globalized economic systems operate as one: errors spread and compound (p. 72).”

Aviation is antifragile and the global markets are fragile, as exemplified by the March 2020 crash and others before it.

The designs of early learning management systems (LMS) burned many educators due to their fragility. Blackboard’s LMS is being retired as I write this post.

EdTech companies made big bets on certain features or functions, which was shocking considering how little in-house educational expertise most of them had.

If you build a system with parts that are overreliant on a single feature, inextricably dependent, or fragile within a school’s tech environment, one glitch—or hack—can create a cascade of errors that shuts down a whole LMS.

I hope that OER initiatives can learn from the past decade of EdTech debacles but sadly, OER platforms and repositories are emerging with no real vision for classroom execution or the improvement of instructional practice.

We have a plan to sustain OER for schools --

Textbooks Are Not Truly Open

Open science textbooks are modifiable, but they are not—by design—non-linear, hyperconnected or divergent. They represent the best available scientific and technical explanations of natural phenomena and current theory.

I’m glad textbooks are now free online, just as dictionaries, thesauri and calculators are. But while they are useful references, textbooks cannot and should not replace well-crafted learning experiences, much like dictionaries don’t teach students how to write.

Educators have been providing free textbooks to high school students for years. They don’t read them, often because they don’t know how. Teachers resort to digesting the text in PowerPoint lectures to cover the content.

For many high school students, the textbook and the teacher represent the ‘authors’ to which students are exposed, and whose expressions and illustrations they memorize.

Students can memorize the layout and color scheme of a given textbook diagram and respond to questions successfully on the classroom test. However, when these same students encounter a different rendering from a different author, such as on a standardized exam, they answer incorrectly. Deep understanding of the underlying concepts—actual learning—probably has not occurred.

Memorizing lecture notes or textbook diagrams takes time away from learning experiences that mimic the real world, and from accessing a much richer, more diverse and provocative set of texts. Taleb shares this epiphany from his own student experience:

“There was such a difference between the shelves of the library and the narrow school material; so I realized that school was a plot designed to deprive people of erudition by squeezing their knowledge into a narrow set of authors (p. 246).”

Our goal is to broaden the array of authors, genres, and origins of the resources inside our program’s content, such that students are exposed to different perspectives, styles and layouts.

The content we write provides cohesion and sequence, but it is enriched with hundreds of hand-curated resources that we maintain and update for teachers.

We know that multiple voices should help explain a complex issue.

And we strategically offer rabbit holes for students to wander down if the topic compels them. These are optional detours, yet teachers report that different students pursue the additional content at different moments, which is exactly the intention.

Tapping into these off-path experiences, as well as expertise students gain beyond school walls, enlivens classroom discussions and permits different students a moment to shine. This is more likely to happen when the content is relevant and culturally diverse to begin with, and feels quite unlike textbook-driven, lecture-based courses where only a handful of students participate—or succeed.

As the Information Age spins its web, many free, authentic and worthy STEM resources emerge.

These are not included in K12 OER platforms, but in fact they are some of the best free teaching resources around.

When the State of Global Air database (SOGA) came online in 2018, we were excited to build a performance task where students choose how to query the data and build their own visualizations.

SOGA is a terrific resource on its own, but SOGA also fits well with prior experiences our students have with similar Information-Age-resources, further strengthening a ‘thread’ of learning experiences building up to that rich, complex performance task.

Our Sustainable Open Education Resources (SOER) model works because we first built a comprehensive learning architecture in which to situate the resources, and because we use 10-20 design filters for our OER selection process.

Topic and grade level simply don’t cut it.

The choice of texts, construed broadly, deserves a more sophisticated process.

OER may look sexy inside the repository, but looks are deceiving. What matters most is that the downloads make their way into intentional, well-constructed designs for learning.

"OER may look sexy inside the repository, but looks are deceiving. What matters most is that the downloads make their way into intentional, well-constructed designs for learning."

Open Designs and Disciplinary Literacy

Our SOER and Literacy systems intersect and enhance each other. I’ll write additional posts on literacy, but I want to seed some ideas about how curricula fueled by OER, and tied to the Information Age, help students produce their own knowledge.

This kind of teaching is at the core of disciplinary literacy.

Elizabeth Moje is an expert in the field, and I love her words below:

“…knowing how to produce knowledge—and thereby how to critique its production—is where power in the disciplines lies….In other words, some of the power of knowledge comes from being an active part of its production rather than from merely possessing it.”

Elizabeth Moje, University of Michigan Tweet

Students create ~one third of their ‘textbook’ in our program.

They make observations, analyze data, render diagrams, write captions and evaluate the bias of resources they consume. They connect the personal, local and global to everything they learn.

To support lifelong learning and active citizenship, we must teach students how knowledge is produced.

I am quite convinced that resources are not truly open unless they are designed with disciplinary literacy in mind.

Thanks for reading,

We’ll let you know when the next post is ready for you!

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