Friday, November 28, 2008

Stephen Downes on the Learning Marketplace

In his comprehensive look forward into The Future of Online Learning, Stephen Downes, takes a look at where we have come over the past 10 years and looks forward another 10 years.

In 62 pages, Downes covers a lot of topics and any reading and analysis requires a lot of attention. This is the second of my comments about his review. (See Downes on "learning communities.")

One of the central challenges of online learning is how educational enterprises will make money. Downes like many others has observed that making money on selling content. He writes, "What should be understood, however, is that the bulk of educational content online will be free to access and reuse."

His idea for how the educational market will work is as follows:
"Content providers will discover there are much larger markets to be had when they help people create their own content. This will be the basis for the educational marketplace of the future. In general, helping people provide for themselves – helping them, in other words, save time and money – will provide the best opportunities. Selling people cameras instead of pictures, for example. Course content creation kits instead of courses."
I have put the emphasis on the last sentence which is his main idea. This is an interesting idea that I am not sure is quite right. Too often Downes and others seem to forget that there are a range of learners from those who are just starting to learn and those who have advanced knowledge. Novice learners are not likely to be able to create structures of content and information into any reasonable structure. They need frameworks, scaffolding, and guidance which is what teachers provide. Teachers also provide feedback and direction-- "here, take a look at this. " or "have you thought about this?" or "here is the general way that people look at these types of problems" Although there are some types of learning (match, some language learning) that are more likely to be automated, there are many areas that we are a long way from automating (natural and social science, skill-based areas-- medicine, teaching, law).

There is still a marketplace for this type of learning. This is not to say that Downes is all together wrong in pointing us towards the idea of "course content creation kits." This is an interesting idea and worth trying to imagine both how to create the "kit" and what tools this needs, but also how to create content that will be easy to assemble into such a kit.


Downes said...

> Too often Downes and others seem to forget that there are a range of learners from those who are just starting to learn and those who have advanced knowledge.

I don't "forget" this fact - that would be absurd. I don't palce as much emphasis as other do, and I don't think that a lack of skills that could be taught in fiurst grade need inform our discussion of how learning is conducted thereafter (it is as though the complaint was, "Stephen wants to teach students literature, but he forgets that there is an age at which they cannot read.").

Robert Hughes Jr, PhD said...

Let me be more forceful in my view on this matter and explain why this matters a lot. The implicit model underlying much of the work by various "online learning theorists" is a variation on "discovery learning," that is, the idea that by putting problems in front of students and giving them tools to explore information that they will arrive at both a good answer to a problem and along the way discover (construct) knowledge and understanding. In general the research evidence does not support these ideas. Providing structured learning sequences is a much more effective teaching/learning approach. (See Mayer, R. E. (2004). Should there be a three strikes rule against pure discovery? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist, 59(1), 14-19; for good summary of this evidence.)

Expert learners (like Downes) do learn through discovery methods and this is an appropriate model for developing learning models for experts. Most learning is done by people who are not experts in an area and benefit greatly from guided instruction. In contrast to Downes, I think it is very important to understand how learners develop into experts.