Edupunk, Free, and Openness

I attended a session this morning on free and freedom moderated by My ESL Friend’s George Machlan.  George has spent countless hours online helping a number of English language learners better their proficiency, and for that, I applaud him!  However, we do tend to disagree from time to time and after this morning’s session, I feel compelled to share a different perspective.  Let’s begin with his.

George begins his discussion on free and freedom (at 31:26) where he states the following:

Is freedom free?

Internet expectations – free…value…advertising…sustainable

Motivation – students…[entrepreneurs]…teachers

freedom – where, when, how, who

healthy community

What does freedom do?

  • cheapens product
  • dependency
  • devalues teacher
  • creates/maintains power structure
  • sets up a false paradigm
  • slows creativity
  • ensures mediocrity – the best move on
  • Is anything free?  At what cost?

Today’s session is part of an ongoing series dedicated to what he frames as an “Edupunk movement”, and his purpose is to support the notion of You get what you pay for. If you do not pay for it, then it must be of lesser value.  If anyone offers free classes to English language learners, for example, the classes will be less creative, mediocre, and learners will be less participative than if learners paid for classes.  Also, the perception will be that if teachers are offering free classes that they will be viewed as being devalued yet still maintain a power structure that puts students at a disadvantage.  This is my understanding of George’s perspective and from where I plan to base my argument.

For the purpose of my argument, I will define the term free as 1) gratis and 2) open.   Regarding the latter, I think George and I agree on the value of using open educational resources that allow users to reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute content as long as attribution is given.  But regarding the former, it’s difficult to be open when one has to pay for that openness.  Edupunk (i.e., a do-it-yourself education) is based on the premise that learners take responsibility for their own learning and look for ways to incorporate both formal and informal learning opportunities to best suit personal needs, wants, and learning preferences.  I have never associated the Edupunk “movement” with the notion that one must pay money to have a quality learning experience with an instructor who is seen as more valuable simply because a fee exchange has taken place.

I equate the idea of since it’s free, it must be of lesser value similarly to those who feel that Wikieducator must be useless because 1) it’s free and 2) anyone can edit the content.  Let’s consider the following questions:

  1. Is anyone really benefiting from Wikieducator? I would argue, yes!  I would dare say that if it weren’t for Wikieducator, we would still be paying tons of money for printed encyclopedias that would be outdated the day of being published.  Consider the people around the world who have access and who benefit from this free (gratis and open) information.  Having access to open information that promotes learning has to make them less dependent and more powerful at the end of the day.
  2. All things being equal, let’s assume that Wikieducator suddenly started charging users to access information.  Would this automatically make the content more valuable? I don’t think so.  This would mean less people contributing and less people viewing the content, both of which would actually devalue the content in my view.
  3. But if anyone can edit Wikipedia, doesn’t this mean that some content could be inaccurate? Well, yes it does.  But this also means that 1) people need to be more critical of what they read (regardless if it’s an online source, book, article, etc.) and 2) if the content is of poor quality, anyone can theoretically make it better.  There are other aspects of openness other than reuse that promote cooperation and collaboration of content, namely revision, remix, and redistribution.  Learning to be critical of all content (even peer-reviewed) and playing an active role in content development are two skills that will serve the learner well in the future.

The misconception is that because one pays for something, it must be valuable.  You don’t always get what you pay for.  And if a learner has to pay for a class, there is much more power among those who have money than with those who do not – 80%-20% power law.  Additionally, promoting creativity and dependency of the learner towards someone else relate more to how participants (i.e., teacher, educator, coach, instructor, etc. and learners) interact with each other and the content, less about how much one pays for a course.

What does freedom do?

Freedom affords individuals to a do-it-yourself (DIY) education that requires a level of creativity, criticality, and caring when placing value judgments on one’s education.  These value judgments are independent of whether a monetary transaction happens to take place or not.

Freedom in general may be defined as the absence of obstacles to the realization of desiresBertrand Russell

Many learners are still faced with two obstacles that reduce their freedom to learn: 1) money and 2) being confined to one teacher or class (e.g., being obligated to finish a paid course delivered in isolation).

How can we eliminate obstacles that interfere with the freedom to learn?