Tapping into the Power of Open Education to Improve Teaching and Learning

Aristotle was wrong. He thought that knowledge was passed from person to person like water is transferred between vessels. Aristotle believed in education through reading great texts and listening to great teachers, with the knowledge filling the learner’s mind.

But we now know that knowledge is not like that at all. The mind is not filled with knowledge, but rather builds it on the periphery of what it already knows by connecting it with prior knowledge. Knowledge-building is an activity, not a passivity. It turns out that Socrates got it right. Remember the Allegory of the Cave, where people in darkness (a metaphor for ignorance) come to light (knowledge) by simply being turned toward the sun. In other words, we are not filled with knowledge, but come to it on our own when pointed in the right direction.

Teaching with Technology column

This is important because higher education followed Aristotle rather than Socrates. Before the advent of universities, education came through an apprentice system whereby a person (usually male) learned his trade by apprenticing with a master. In other words, a person learned by doing, and in doing steadily gained the skills of his profession.

Higher education came along and pulled the student out of that hands-on experience in order to sequester him or her in a self-contained university to gain knowledge. The result, of course, is that students come into their field ill prepared for the professional environment and need of training in the real world.

Etienne Wenge points out that entering a profession requires learning the communities of practice of that profession—putting on the dressing of the practitioner in order to see the world as the practitioner sees it. He uses the example of a wine aficionado who might speak of a particular wine as having an excellent “nose.” Nobody outside of the profession knows what this means—it is a perception that is learned through years of immersion on the practices of the profession. Unfortunately, in moving from the apprentice model of learning higher education lost the element of communities of practice.

But the Open Education movement is challenging the dominant educational paradigm by re-engaging students with the world outside of the classroom. Since the Learning Management System puts the student into the same closed box as the physical classroom, the Open Education gurus use social media systems such as blogs, wikis, Voicethread, YouTube, and others to connect students to the outside world. For instance, students might post their written work to a blog in order to gather commentary from fellow students and professionals in the field.

In one interesting example, Barbara Ganley an American-born student of Indian heritage who decided to tour India and document her observations in a blog during the tour. Natives started following her blog and reacting to her comments, providing an ongoing commentary with the locals about India and how it appears to an outsider.

This is an exciting time to be a teacher, as social media revolutionizes education and provides opportunities for learning that are not possible in the closed education model. Below are some excellent resources that will give you ideas on how you can harness the power of open education in your teaching.

As usual, I welcome your comments, criticisms, and cries of outrage in the comments section of the blog.

Amazing Stories of Openness: Wonderful compilation of stories documenting the benefits of openness. Barbara Ganley’s story is among the examples. Take a look »

Digital Habitats and Communities of Practice: A Social Aspect of Learning: Keynote by Etienne Wenger at the Madison Distance Learning Conference in 2010 that explains the communities of practice theory. View »

Open Education Defined: By one of the big names in the Open Education movement, Dave Cormier. Read now »

Introduction to Open and Networked Learning: Excellent slideshow introduction to the topic. View »

John Orlando, PhD, is the program director for the online Master of Science in Business Continuity Management and Master of Science in Information Assurance programs at Norwich University. John develops faculty training in online education and is available for consulting at jorlando@norwich.edu.