Is open education really open?

Sharmila Govande

For over 20 years, Manish Jain has been a crusader of the ‘unschooling movement”, a firm believer in free and natural learning, founder of Shikshantar, Swaraj University, Creative Adda, Learning Societies Unconference, Walkouts-Walkon network and the recent Global Ecoversities Network. But for me he is a sensitive person who spreads warmth and love through his hugs. A person I am intrigued about and a person who played a pivotal role in changing my perspective on learning, enabling me to take the brave step of unschooling my children.

Sharmila: This issue of Teacher Plus is about open education. I understand open education as a free learning space where various knowledge and information sources are easily accessible for interested people to use. What do you think?
Manish: I did a lot of work on open education when I was working for UNESCO about 22 years ago. Open education was then tied up to ‘Distance Education’ approaches. It offered greater flexibility of time and space than mainstream formal schooling. People denied with an opportunity of education, now had greater access to it through different channels. It was an alternative accrediting service.

However, thinking a bit deeper, it was often times based on a pedagogy of ‘drill and skill’ where a learner does something a hundred times. Whether the learner actually understood and internalized things or whether they were just repeating things was immaterial. Based on the ‘Banking model’ of Paulo Fraire – the Brazilian educator, the assumption was that ‘the learner is like an empty vessel that needs to be filled and the job of the educator is to fill it.’ All instruction was pre-determined and was called ‘programmed instruction’. The human being was treated like a robot, which was to be programmed and fed with information. Though the learners could learn at their own pace and there was a bit more flexibility, someone else pre-configured the selection. The subject information was also mostly irrelevant to our lives and local context. The highly touted Khan Academy is a good example of this.

Open education was also closely tied to technology salesmen – initially it was the radio, then television and now the Internet. It promised to revolutionize humanity, liberate people, bring greater equality and provide access to learning for all. But those things did not really happen. All we ended up with was companies making a lot of money. We also gave these companies the power to decide what good education is and soon we were addicted and dependent on their technology.

My impression so far was that open education provides the learner freedom and the choice to select what he wants to learn and from which resource. Therefore isn’t it free learning?
This is partially true. There are two categories in open education. One is the DIY material (Youtube variety) where you can select what you want to watch and learn from. This category is more in the spirit of openness. The second category is still situated in the paradigm of certification and control. Many online courses offer badges, or certificates on completion of a course. The focus here shifts to commodification of knowledge where knowledge is bought and sold. There are a lot of universities and companies in the West who want to recycle their courses and re-sell them to the global South.

The larger challenge is that of digitalizing our lives. The open courses drive us to spend more of our time online, away from ourselves and our local realities. It also makes us arrogantly believe that we ‘know’ something after watching a fifteen minute video. In my article ‘TedX-itis: the Disease of the TedX’, I talk about how an illusion of ‘knowing’ is created after watching a short video online. Most people remain passive observers. They keep watching videos after videos and accumulate more and more information without really taking action and experimenting in the real world. I believe real open education should be expanding our range of real-life experiments outside of plastic screens and concrete classrooms. Many kids are already suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder. More digitalization will only add to this.

Secondly, the system of surveillance connected to digitizing learning collects all kinds of information – your preferences, your clicks. This information is used to influence your choices and your mind. It is processed and used for advertisements and also to influence your thinking on important issues such as voting. The American elections were also influenced by this Big Data. Our thoughts and selections can be manipulated without our awareness. Technology analysts, political analysts, business analysts are looking at this phenomenon, but educators are totally blank. They are still only concerned with what happens in the box of schooling and the formal syllabus. But social media platforms have really changed the game.

Is open education really free? I ask because I use the Internet to browse for teaching resources and often find that I have to pay to get more. A few resources are free, but if I want to access more, I need to pay.
The free software movement wants to create free access of information and learning resources. But the mainstream open education push is situated in capitalism. It is ultimately in the hands of rich and powerful companies such as Google and Facebook. So while you do feel that you are getting free access, it eventually takes you into the paradigm of paid content and advertising. Nowadays open education offers ‘badges’ as a new gimmick for taking on more courses which are similar to the shampoo satchets. The learner collects badges through smaller courses which they pay for as and when they take them rather than paying for a whole degree program.

The open education system has not taken a stand on whether it wants to grow into a copyleft or a copyright paradigm. The idea of copyrights and patents is born out of capitalism. These frameworks of private ownership have resulted in denial of access of knowledge to communities who cannot pay. For example, with the patenting of seeds, farmers will have to pay royalties to use seeds.

The unschooling movement, however, is based on the idea of copyleft and believes in gift culture. Knowledge is not the exclusive property of individuals. It is a collective property of humanity. We grow by sharing knowledge, not by hoarding it and depriving others of it. We believe that we are not here to compete against each other but to complete each other.

Does open education have the potential to aid the free learning and unschooling movement? Could both open learning and free learning benefit from each other?
Yes. Open education definitely offers more learning resources. Access to these resources will help the free learning and unschooling movement. DIY sites such as Pinterest and Youtube are a great resource which we share all the time. Some open education MOOCs are also trying to bring a balance between the digital and the local. ‘ULAB courses’ is one such example, where participants are encouraged to meet locally to build a local community alongside the digital meetings. It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. Growing urban life is destroying our sense of village and community. People living in cities are disconnected, alienated, alone and depressed. So the critical question to be asked is – is open education helping you build your local community and local ecology and not only an online world?

Another interesting example is a site called www.teachable.com. This site challenges the expert paradigm promoted in most MOOCs, by letting its participants create their own courses. Five years ago we started ‘Course Hamara’ at Swaraj University. Here the khoji-learners are encouraged to create their own courses, not just to consume them. We encourage our young course creators to ask questions such as, “what perspective are not included in the course offered? What are the live debates happening around this topic? What are your personal experiences with this topic?”

What according to you are some pitfalls of the digital world?
We are ill prepared for the digitized world. Ivan Illich (author of the famous book Deschooling Society) in his book Tools for Conviviality stated that any technology or tool can quickly grow out of your control – first to become your master and then to become your executioner. We have these powerful technologies, but we have no reflection about what they are actually doing to us: how are they re-wiring our minds, our social relations, etc.

The digital world offers gaming simulations as part of a virtual world – a fictitious world which poses challenges and problems for you to resolve. Do we need such simulations in India? Do these simulated worlds really equip us to solve our complex real life challenges? Everything is monitored and controlled in the simulated world. But real life is far more complex. It is emotional. It is messy. Such simulation exercises are useful for people whose real-life community environment is dead. But here in India, we have so many experiential opportunities happening all the time that we do not need a simulated world for learning. What we need is to invest time and energy in building healthy and safe communities.

The education system is currently embedded in a framework of technological utopianism. We are taught to believe that technology can solve our problems. Each generation is trying to bring out more technology such as artificial intelligence. What would happen if computers become more intelligent than humans? What would it lead to? What would happen to us? As educators, we need to deeply reflect on these questions with our students. Our schools are not giving us the space to do that. They are still only concerned with downloading information into ‘empty’ learners.

Today, we believe that young people need to take time to unplug in order to replug back into themselves and ask ‘who they really are?’ Wherever you go you find most people just looking at their phones all the time. The question to be asked here is what are educators, teachers doing? Do they have any meaningful response? What are we doing to build processes for awareness and reflection on the impact of the digital world? Are we just feeding kids to the world of technology? Do we want children to be bombarded with advertising – which fill up the webpages and are shown during YouTube videos? Is this really creating an open learning atmosphere? Or is it only feeding the existing insecure and narrow-minded consumer culture?

Can open education become an alternative to mass schooling?
Schools were never meant to be free spaces. They were created to provide workforce for factory life. They are modelled on the factory, prison and army system. The factory system fragments you into the assembly lines. The prison system locks you up in cages and monitors you 24 hours a day. Your thoughts, feelings and conscience do not matter in the army system. A soldier is taught to take and follow orders. The fundamental design of all these systems does not promote free learning, where people can explore themselves and get to their deeper core.

Most education reformers forget that education is also connected with economy and ecology. The economic system funds our modern education system. To grow the global economy, we need people to consume all the time. But if I am sensitive, caring and creative – then would I need to consume all the time? If people are thoughtful, they will understand that drinking Pepsi and Coke is unhealthy and destructive and they would not want to give away precious water to Pepsi and Coca Cola factories. People would then start thinking about preserving their ecosystem instead of damaging it and then the entire global economic system would collapse.

The mainstream is a highly controlled effort to turn humans and nature into economic resources. However we believe in the politic of ‘many streaming and diversity’. Open education still relies on mainstream control. It dreams of and makes many promises about opening up diversity and many possibilities. Yet, for the most part it remains in the monoculture.

Open education also looks at education as a scarce commodity. However life is not a commodity. Nature and learning are not commodities. Learning is a gift and is essential for our evolution as a species. There can never be one single space for learning. We need to have a web of natural spaces. Children need to be connected to many different spaces. A friend rightly said, “In villages we grew up seeing processes. In cities we only see products.” In artificial spaces, we get ready made things, we do not see the processes. We do not see how things are made. We cannot explore through all our senses. Earlier kids would be around the house, neighbourhood, fields and forests exploring things around them. They would create and learn from each other, from their parents, uncles, aunts and their grandparents. But now they are in a factory kind of a setting, in a place where they are told what to learn and how to learn. At Shikshantar, our learning center – we have people of all different ages coming in together for inter-generational learning. Everyone can offer knowledge and not just the adults. The ‘extra-curricular’ learning is the real thing and everything ‘formal’ is the extra part.

Can you elaborate on what the unschooling movement is aiming at?
Learning for us is abundant and not scarce. There is learning in every single moment, every single thing we are doing. We don’t have to pay or go into debts to access learning and to become educated. The idea that you have to pay for your learning is a disastrous idea. This was never in our culture. In the Guru Shishya Parampara – you never paid for your learning. The idea of dakshina was there, but it was not given in the spirit of a buying and selling transaction. Learning is not dependent on external validation but on our own capacity for reflection and feedback.

We believe that each person can co-create their own syllabus for their life. A learner can take a mainstream or an online course from time to time. But he/she does not need to be dependent or defined by the course and the external certification it offers. The degree system is kind of a new caste system and is one of the worst social injustices in the world. The unschooling movement wants to break this certification system and the hierarchy and monopoly of degrees. Why is someone denied access to so many things just because they don’t have a degree? Every individual is a continuous learner with or without a degree and is still exploring and learning something every day. Thus why do we need to depend on a piece of paper that says we are qualified? We are promoting a campaign called Healing Ourselves from the Diploma Disease in which we have approached more than 1000 organizations who have agreed to remove degree requirements from their hiring criteria.

We are also interested in developing many more career opportunities for young people than just doctors, engineers, programmers, etc. Most of the careers promoted today are actually ‘deadlihoods’ as they are based on the destruction of the environment. We want to promote ‘Alivelihoods’ which are eco-careers which regenerate the environment and community life.

What would be your concluding remarks on how open education can support free learning?
We need to move out from being consumers to becoming co-creators. Our model should be able to create a billion learning systems as each person has his/her own unique capacity to self-design his/her learning and we have to stop treating them as mass produced robots. Open education needs to help people realize that one does not need schools for learning and pursuing their dreams. It has to get them back into their communities and into nature and looking seriously at the immense challenges facing humanity. Learning from real life is the alternative.

About Manish Jain: Manish has been spearheading the movement for unschooling, natural learning and self-designed learning for the past 20 years with Shikshantar Andolan. He also worked in UNESCO Learning Without Frontiers project. He loves cooking, urban farming, filmmaking, faciltating groups, clowning, cooperative games, circle dancing, trekking and cycling. He lives in Udaipur with his wife Vidhi and his unschooled 16 year-old daughter Kanku.

About Sharmila Govande: Sharmila, a mother of three, has been involved in the field of education and development for the past 18 years. She facilitates learning in an open school in Pune, is actively involved in writing, teacher training and parenting workshops and has recently joined the unschooling movement. She can be reached at sharmilagovande@gmail.com.

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