The place of ‘the teacher’ in relation to open content

Change Mooc, Week 18: Richard DeMillo, Ashwin Ram, Preetha Ram, and Hua Ali

Social Networks, Learning Communities, and Web Science –

See also

Web Concepts: Change in Education and the Laws of the Web 
Updated pdf available for download from Rich DeMillo, Mike McCracken and Ashwin Ram’s first #change11 session for week 20.

Social Capital: PDF available for download from Preetha Ram and Hua Ai’s #change11 session for week 20.


I haven’t had the time this week to do these two presentations justice – but am recording the links here for future reference.

However, a point made by Rich deMillo early in his presentation really caught my attention and I have found myself thinking about it off and on all week. It was the startling fact that India (where more than half the population is under the age of 20) needs 37000 new universities within the next 10 years (as of today, 4 new universities a week) if it is going to meet the education demands of it’s growing population. China is in a similar position.

Evidently Sir John Daniel  as long ago as 1996 warned that traditional universities cannot create enough supply.  So the question that was raised is, how do we scale up teaching without simply throwing content at people. Open courseware is increasing and the uptake had been high (e.g. sites such as MITOpencourseware ,  Khan Academy , the Open University’s Openlearn site, DaveConservatoire’s music site , OpenStudy and there must be many more).

The question that I can’t get my head round is who is the teacher in all this. It’s easy to see that some very talented people, with expertise can provide high quality content. It is also possible through opensource software to facilitate connections between people, so that we can learn from each other, but I am struck by Myininaya’s story – that it wasn’t open content that turned her from a remedial maths learner to someone who could support others in their learning of mathematics – it was her ‘awesome maths teacher’.

So where will the ‘awesome teachers’ feature in relation to the increasing provision of open content.  Just how will ‘teaching’ be scaled up to meet the needs of tomorrow’s learners in India, China and the world?

16 thoughts on “The place of ‘the teacher’ in relation to open content

  1. Scott Johnson January 30, 2012 / 6:03 am

    Hi Jenny,

    Good observation. Where Will the awesome teachers come from?

    At one time I thought abundance of content would be the limiting point in our system. Too much content to sift, or too little of relevance. An unedited fire hose or a trickle of poorly selected junk. We often seem to be sinking under too much choice and too many strategies for selecting from so much that could be useful.

    In an abstract way I love the notion of a world where no one is “in charge” and learning emerges like particles in the vacuum of space. All the learner needs to do is tune in and just absorb it all. But there is a peculiar sense of loneliness in being so self-sufficient. How do I know what I learn “matters”? Who will hear what I say and affirm my presence? Learning is inescapably social.

    To my mind, the content is secondary to presentation and the presence of others, and is meaningless of itself.

    Thanks for the posting and the link to Myininaya’s story! Our office just began a big course project that has flattened us with its enormous content. Placing a person in the midst of that content may allow us to focus on how to assemble the bit. How will a teacher present this? How will a student process and use it?


  2. Ken Anderson January 30, 2012 / 2:29 pm

    “Schools are increasingly set up to maximize group interaction. Studies show that the majority of teachers believe the ideal student is an extrovert, even though introverts tend to get better grades.

    In the workplace, the trend is toward open-plan offices with everyone together and no sense of personal space. There’s the belief that creativity and productivity come from group interaction. Introverts are often passed over for leadership in favour of extroverts. There’s new research, however, that shows introverted leaders often deliver better outcomes.”


    Scott notes that “Learning is inescably social”. I wonder to what degree? Are there persons (perhaps those who identify as introverts) who prefer a lesser amount of social learning?

  3. Steve Mackenzie January 30, 2012 / 3:01 pm

    Jenny – I believe in the course teacher/facilitator and the important role that they play, but to answer your question – for the large numbers that you have mentioned a thoughtfully constructed MOOC has to be developed so that ‘knowledgeable other learners’ become the teachers.

    in an informal way, learner teachers teach and learn, learners learn and then teach. validation of knowledge comes with cross referencing with other learners and other learner teachers. As you know the feedback and guidance are essential and the cross referencing and expression of knowledge through teaching helps to cement the learning and understanding.

    You recognised all this in your initial post – May i suggest the awesome teacher could evolve with that special connection of helping to solve others problems which leads to more chance of engagement and bonding, on the other hand maybe there is no guarantee of that.

    I think Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development will come into play and the notion of ‘content as a conduit of conversation’ as highlighted by George and exemplified by the Khan Academy approach but with the conversation amongst the learners.

    I believe that a good example of this sort of approach is the language learning community where we (i’m a member, teach ourselves and each other). Whether this can be applied for all topics, not sure – I think the that network development will be at the heart of the solution.

    Is it too far fetched to think an awesome teacher may emerge in this way?

  4. jennymackness January 30, 2012 / 6:55 pm

    Scott – thanks for your interesting and thought-provoking comments. Open space brings with it so many tensions; learner autonomy : constraints; social connections : solitude; content presentation : knowledge creation; learner-led : teacher controlled and so on.

    Having spent the most years of my life to date teaching, it’s a bit difficult to let go of the idea that a teacher’s role, at least for some learners, some has significance. I don’t equate this with control, but rather with helping others to learn things that they might not have done without a teacher

    Even with the impossibility of scaling up teaching as it exists now in traditional education, and recognizing the need for open content and enabling anyone anywhere to have access to an education, I can’t quite let go of the idea that a gifted teacher can play a very significant role in a student’s learning, such as for Socrates and Plato, Don Juan and Carlos Castaneda, Dr Frank Bryan and Rita White (Educating Rita ☺), and many of us will remember gifted teachers who have changed the course of our learning.

    Whilst of course we need open content, and of course we have to rethink traditional ways of teaching if we are to meet the needs of increasing populations, I can’t help but think we might lose something special that exists in the best of teacher/learner relationships.

  5. jennymackness January 30, 2012 / 6:56 pm

    Hi Ken – you have raised a question which Carmen Tschofen and I have explored in our paper which is due out – hopefully any day now – in the next issue of IRRODL – , i.e. to what extent is learning social and to what extent is it individual?

    Needless to say there are no answers to this question, but it is interesting to consider the balance between social learning and learning in solitude in open online spaces.

    Thanks for your comment. Jenny

  6. jennymackness January 30, 2012 / 6:57 pm

    Hi Steve – great to hear from you again and thanks for your comments. If I understand you correctly you are saying that ‘awesome’ teachers can emerge in open online spaces through social interaction (thanks for the link to your language learning site).

    If I have understood correctly what is happening on sites such as the KhanAcademy and OpenStudy, then ‘awesome teachers’ emerge through a voting system of appreciation from their ‘followers’, ‘learners’. I’m not sure what I think about this at the moment. I have to think about it further.

    In discussion about this with a close friend, he suggested that scaling up teaching, as needed for India and China’s increasing population, would need the development of software which would be able to respond to learners as an individual, giving them the feedback they needed appropriate to their individual needs, at the appropriate time. He argued that most learners today and in the past don’t have and haven’t had a special relationship with their teacher anyhow, so some sort of automated individual feedback might be a better option and address the scaling up problem. Can software take the place of the human teacher, whoever that teacher might be – I’m not sure.

  7. Steve Mackenzie January 30, 2012 / 10:11 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    Yes I think they can emerge. I Have not looked at khan Academy or openstudy in any great detail but i think the notion of badges of progression as a learner and badges of recognition as a helper/teacher are an important part of perpetuating the willingness of individuals to help and teach others.

    Voting systems may have their place in this, but essentially my current experience is that awards just for helping keeps it more of a grounded community/network and more likely that a wider pool of learners and learner/teachers will connect and get that awesome teacher experience rather than having top experts highlighted (who would get expert teacher status thrust upon them with additional obligations and expectations)

    In busuu there are a variety of individual tasks – reading, writing and audio pronounciation (i believe this could be adapted for other topics – codeacademy i think is trying a similar thing, i have tried a few lessons and will continue with more). You can get help by asking different friends to correct or comment on your effort. Sometimes you get random calls for help. How can you refuse to help!

    So the trick here is not developing software but devising sufficiently brilliant motivation and learning strategies that compels the humans to get involved and help.

    I would say the key elements are a loose community/network, build the learning around tasks/problems, clearly defined task progression route, notional rewards (badges, points) for learners. badges/points for helping/teaching. mini tests along the way and appropriate assessments at some point.

    I have read about khan academy being piloted in American schools. the kids work through the videos at their own pace. The teacher has a dashboard to keep track of progress and they can intervene when they think there is a problem or if the student asks for help. This sounds like the intelligent software with the human touch. I think this can be broadened out so that when the student has a problem they could request help from the learner/teacher community. Perhaps individuals dashboards, like the badges and points can be open so that this also encourages interaction.

    thanks for the post Jenny – it’s a great challenge to upscale and keep the human touch – good to think about it.

  8. Scott Johnson January 31, 2012 / 6:29 am

    There’s a number of points to be made here but I’ll stick to one. As an introvert / extrovert hybrid there are paths to learning where it suits me to actually refuse help as an “intrusion” into my private collection of notions, understandings and partly reached conclusions. Alternately, there are times when I don’t feel so damn smart and know I’m missing something that may technically have nothing to do with the problem I’m struggling with. Maybe that something is an unseen characteristic of human connection that I’m unaware of, or a need to share to affirm or complete a thought. Guess I could ask a machine but no matter how cleverly constructed the software it would never be genuinely capable of responding. It would always be a fake.

    Just because many of us have been poorly treated by human teachers, it doesn’t necessarily follow that their robotic replacements couldn’t be worse.


  9. jennymackness February 1, 2012 / 4:23 am

    Steve – thanks for sharing your experiences of the Busuu site. It sounds like it works well.

    Scott – I tend to agree, although the developments in robotics these days are amazing and who knows where they will end up. Thanks for the discussion.


  10. Scott Johnson February 1, 2012 / 4:49 am

    Thanks Jenny, Steve and Ken,

    I’ll watch for your paper Jenny. The role of teacher will endure, though the duties may change.


  11. Muvaffak GOZAYDIN February 1, 2012 / 11:10 am

    India has solved his needs of 37.000 üniversities .
    technology solved it. Great vision of MIT solved it .( One millionth of that vision belongs to me )
    As you know MIT has been reaching to 100,000,000 peopğle in the world since 2001 . I urged them continouosly that they should charge something in order to be sustainable .
    4 weeks ago MIT announced that
    1.- MIT will provide online courses to whole world FREE, under the name MITx .
    2.- MITx will award certificates to the ones who mastered the online courses/programs at a nominal fee.

    Now MIT can reach to 37,000 universities and 300,000,000 university students of China .

    The most important concern in education is ” WHO IS PROVIDING IT ? ”

    MIT has wealth of knowledge accumulated in almost 2 centuries .
    The value of that knowledge is uncomprehendable . UNQUESTIONABLE .
    Therefore I support this project with all my heart.
    I hope Stanford and Yale will follow MIT .

    Don’t you think it is the biggest revolution of the century.

    Courses will start this SPRING.

    Please support it,
    endorse it
    write to Obama and Duncan to support it
    if Obama gets 1 million letters he will support the project

    Let us do one thing good in our life .

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