Open Source Learning?

28 May

A lot of teachers think about education from the point of view of what needs to be changed and how we can make both the teaching and learning experience better.  In recent years paradigms of education have altered, flexed and evolved – I say recent years but I guess the big changes in language teaching at least have arisen every fifty years or so as the paradigm establishes itself, expands and then provokes a reaction against it.

You could argue a potted history of ELT has run from Grammar translation in the 1800’s to the Direct method in the 1880s, Audio-lingualism in the 1930s and the communicative approach in the 1970s.  Which isn’t to deny or omit additional theories of language teaching or learning (TBL / TPR / lexical approach (don’t say it – I know) / Dogme), but these have been the biggest paradigm shifts.

We are, I think, due for another.

Again, it’s possible to suggest that the rise of Dogme represents this but as I haven’t yet read Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury’s book “Teaching Unplugged” – I couldn’t say for sure.  My understanding of Dogme is perhaps a little dated as it relates to some of Scott’s earlier articles on the subject.

But I think the one thing that has fundamentally changed in teaching, even in the nine years or so that I’ve been doing it, is the sharing of ideas, support, materials and resources, what works and what doesn’t.  The seed for this post was planted after listening to a podcast that was discussing open source hardware – the ability for example to download open source blueprints to build yourself a house, or a boat or a replacement circuit board for your printer.  They even discussed a 3D modelling printer that could “print” replacement parts for itself (though if it needed a replacement part, how would it be able to print one?).

Anyway, it occurred to me then that as teachers we are fortunate to live and work in an open source learning environment.  it is essentially what we do anyway – we share ideas and materials and resources.  And we take them away and we make them better (at least for our situations and contexts) and we share some more.  Isn’t that what the whole open source movement is about?

And leading out from that, if the community of teachers at large is in a position to create and share language learning resources for any languge point, any vocabulary set, any aspect of any skill development – the question has to be do we really need coursebooks anymore?  And how many of us would shout a big hurrah at the thought of the ensuing bonfire?  (Now that really would create a roaring in the chimney….)

The problem with the idea of open source learning is – how do we know how good the stuff really is?  For example, if I download a lesson plan and materials and use it and my learners end up even more confused than before……  well, I don’t think too many people would disagree with the caveat emptor policy here – and how many teachers go into their lessons without having looked at the lesson plan?  But this is the nature of open source.  The bad stuff either gets deleted or upgraded.  More enlightened minds fix the bugs in the system.  Eventually, the system works…

Now I’ll confess that when I had this idea I was enthused with the fact that I might have come up with something new and inspiring….  but no.  Someone else got there before me…..

I took a look 

at the Connexions website and the first thing to say is that of course it is not aimed predominantly at language learners or teachers – possibly better for secondary / university educators.  I did try looking at the English language related content, at the time of writing, it still hasn’t finished downloading, so we’ll maybe come back to it towards the end of the post!

There is also a 2002 article by Anne H. Moore, “Lens on the Future: Open Source Learning” which looks at the background of the open source movement and initiatives in open source learning, that include the MIT OpenCourseWare project.

Again though, the criticism is that these initiatives have arisen out of the university campus and tend towards the university level course, for example it is possible to “teach algae to make fuel” or to discover the “philosophy of quantum mechanics“.  But developing learners’ ability to listen to a lecture on how to teach algae the philosophy of quantum mechanics is slightly lacking.

But I’m fairly sure that somewhere out there, between you, me and everyone else who does this English language teaching thing, it must be possible to create a set of high quality free lesson plans and materials.

This is an exploratory post – I’m really keen to get some feedback and some ideas here – so if anyone has any feel free to comment, email, facebook or tweet!

The revolution begins here?

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