Open Source for Open Minds: Crowd-Sourced Platforms for Teachers and Learners
This month, CWIT hosted a panel to discuss the diverse ways in which the web is changing how students of all ages study and learn.
Let’s meet our panelists:
Caner Uguz is a web developer at the Center for Open Science with a PhD in Instructional Technology from the Curry School of Education at UVA. He worked with and built education websites and apps for over 10 years and followed the development of open and commercial resources. His area of focus is on user interaction and user analytics in educational online environments.
Kim Wilkens is the Computer Science Initiative Coordinator for K-8 at St. Anne’s-Belfield School and the founder of Tech-Girls. She is passionate about transforming technology users into technology creators, collaborators and activists. She just returned from MozFest, the epicenter of open. Her take away from the event – “We’ve got serious challenges facing our world and the way we engage with technology can be part of the problem or part of the solution. It’s on us as educators, as schools and as communities to engage our learners with these problems and empower them to address issues through digital literacy on a web that is open and inclusive.”
Christianna Andrews is currently working on her doctorate in Education and Instructional Technology at the University of Virginia. Prior to her tenure with the University of Virginia, she worked as an academic counselor with Johns Hopkins University, and as an educational researcher with the University of Maryland.
Jessica Otey, CWIT’s Vice-President, and former Italian professor, moderated the discussion.
Good data, better teachers
Jessica opened the panel by with a brief example about the benefits and caveats of new tech tools. Duolingo, an online tool for learning new languages, takes a scientific approach to finding out the best way to teach a certain concept. However, while the the tool can be used to gather valuable pedagogical information, it also lacks the basic ability to gauge, for example, how repetitive it is, or how bored the learner is—things human beings are naturally better at.
Given these possibilities and limitations, Jessica turned to the panel to get their views on how digital tools are changing the traditional role of the teacher as a planner and provider of a curriculum.
For Kim, tools represent the possibility of students following their passions, enabling them to learn about subjects that are not part of their school curriculum. In this new context, educators can serve as guides and encouragers, but the model of teachers as experts transferring their personal knowledge is fading now that such information—and the tools to learn it—are readily available online.
Caner observes that one way in which tech tools can enhance the act of teaching is through user tracking. For example, Coursera tracks all of the things users entered into an answer box and analyzes that data. If a lot of people choose the same wrong answer, they can use that information to clarify the material.
Of course, Caner acknowledges, user tracking is useful, but there are immense technical challenges. There are also ethical challenges of what information to collect. But by far the largest challenge is cultural: too often, Silicon Valley thinks that programmers know better than educators how to design appropriate tools, and often their goal is to replace student-educator interaction rather than facilitating it.
Christianna adds that it should be the goal of educators to fill in the gaps that imperfect technology. Sometimes, there are too many variations in the data to usefully analyze what students are getting wrong and why.
Open source, open possibilities
Next, Jessica asked the panel about the platforms (open and closed-source) that they have used, and their impressions about their advantages and disadvantages.
Kim uses practically everything that’s open so that students can have access to the tools even when they are away from school. Previously, St. Anne’s-Belfield was teaching “professional tools” (such as Adobe Photoshop), despite the fact that they required expensive licences. In addition to being free and accessible, the benefits of using an open source tool include the community and resources that come along with it. Students can even contribute to those resources by writing guides or tutorial. However, there are frustrations, as often times free tools are not as developed as their paid counterparts.
For Christianna, most of the tools she was exposed to in her various teaching/advisory roles were not open source. It was only on her own that she began to explore alternatives, such as LibreOffice.
Caner notes that on some fronts, there are already education-friendly versions of software (such as Ubuntu) that are designed to be more readable and easier to navigate. But in the field of education in general, there is a large gap between software developers and users. Not only do developers usually build what is interesting to them (that’s why there are so many open-source tools focus on computing itself), but they also may lack the relevant knowledge to design the most-appropriate tool for educational purposes.
Teachers for the future
Finally, Jessica asked how the panelists about their views on the roles of teachers in the age of the Internet. Is a teacher’s role now fundamentally different? In what ways do teachers still matter?
Caner replied that teaching isn’t organic and to some extent there needs to be a plan (e.g., you can’t tell kids to just learn “history”). Educators provide the human connection and pedagogical frame that technologies currently lack.
Kim notes that students are now learning computational thinking in kindergarten, and with the age of the Internet, it is not uncommon for students’ skills to exceed the level of education that their school can provide. In this case, rigid school curriculums can become problematic if they cannot accommodate those students.
In summary, it seems that even if the function of teachers changes, their role remains as critical as before. While there will remain questions whose answers are not googleable, the role of the teacher is no longer merely to answer such questions. In large part, the role of the teacher is to remain a life-long learner herself and be thus able to guide her students in the direction their individual learning paths take them.