Buckminster Fuller and the Open Educational Resources Movement
Posted on 26 October 2010 by cjf
For the past couple of years, Jeannie and I have been engaged as students using so-called “open educational resources” (OER). We’ve “taken” a number of courses at MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW), OpenYaleCourses as well as dabbling in material from numerous other schools around the Internet.
I first read Buckminster Fuller’s short book Education Automation many years ago. I was amazed at Fuller’s foresight in advocating so much of what has now become the OER movement. Then a week ago I led a Ben Franklin Thinking Society discussion on Buckminster Fuller and the Open Educational Resources Movement. Here are my reflections on what I learned from preparing and participating in that discussion.
The Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement
The OER movement is simply an Internet-powered expansion of the time-honored practice of students and teachers sharing materials and ideas. On the Internet this sharing can include video and guided tutorials as well as traditional media such as lecture notes, homework assignments, textbooks, and exams. All of these materials were more difficult and more expensive to share before high-bandwidth Internet and modern computer systems became widespread. A group of educators has tried to define the OER movement in the 2007 CapeTown Open Education Declaration. Here is a short excerpt which gives the gist:
Unlocking the promise of open educational resources
We are on the cusp of a global revolution in teaching and learning. Educators worldwide are developing a vast pool of educational resources on the Internet, open and free for all to use. These educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge. They are also planting the seeds of a new pedagogy where educators and learners create, shape and evolve knowledge together, deepening their skills and understanding as they go.
During the discussion, I asked participants if they had used any OER materials. Many of them had not. But I was excited to learn that one of the participants studied Linear Algebra with video lectures by Gilbert Strang. Jeannie and I put more time into that excellent course (even doing all of the homework, quizzes, and two and a half final exams) than any other OER course we’ve worked through.
As a self-learner, one of the most important elements of OER courses to me is that I can choose how to use the materials (unlike in school where one is more or less told what to do). For example, there are some courses where I just want an overview or a feeling for the subject, but I may not need to master the material. Like when we studied Introductory Biology at MIT’s OCW, we watched the videos and only briefly looked at the lecture notes. We skipped the homework and the tests. We quickly ignored the parts that were not, at that moment, of interest. I think this is a big improvement over school where I frequently suffered from wanting to go into more depth than the course in some parts and less depth in others. Using OER I can get the education I want, when I want it!
It should be noted that the OER movement has been partly inspired (according to this good review article on open educational resources in Communications of the ACM) by the FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) movement. I find this fascinating since I have long been involved in the FOSS / Linux world (I’ve written about that extensively in the managing FOSS blog). Fuller’s global vision has foreseen elements of both movements.
To find out more about OER, the wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_educational_resources can get you started.
Buckminster Fuller on Education: Prescient Harbinger of the OER Movement
To prepare for the Ben Franklin Thinking Society discussion, I re-read Education Automation twice. That led to these five quotes on Bucky’s thinking on education including how he foresaw elements of the OER Movement. The quotes and my commentary expand the discussion to address some broader issues in education as well. The quotes are all from Education Automation which was published way back in 1962.
- Statement of the problem of education in its broadest context:
We know our world population is increasing incomprehendibly swiftly. There are enormous numbers to be educated. …
The big question is how are we, as educators, going to handle the enormous increase in the new life? How do we make available to these new students what we have been able to discover fairly accurately about the Universe and the way it is operating? How are we going to be able to get to them the true net value won blindly through the long tradition of ignorant dedications and hard-won lessons of all the unknown mothers and all the other invisibly heroic people who have given hopefully to the new life, such as, the fabulous heritage of men’s stoic capacity to carry on despite immense hardships?
… Unless the new life is highly appreciative of those who have gone before, it won’t be able to take advantage of its heritage.
Education is, in part, boiling down and then presenting Humanity’s cultural heritage for the benefit of the learner. Of course, there is the issue of continuing education for older life too, but the perspective of the expected addition of 3 billion more people over the next 40 years puts the scale of our educational problems into the proper perspective.
- A vision of video education:
I have taken photographs of my grandchildren looking at television. Without consideration of the “value,” the actual concentration of a child on the message which is coming to him is fabulous. They really “latch on.” Given the chance to get accurate, logical, and lucid information at the time they want and need to get it, they will go after it in a most effective manner. I am quite certain we are soon going to begin to do the following: At our universities we will take the faculty leaders in research or in teaching. We are not going to ask them to give the same lectures over and over each year from their curriculum cards … . We are going to select, instead, the people who are authorities on various subjects … . They will give their basic lecture course just once to a group of human beings, including both the experts in their own subject and bright children and adults without special training in their field. …
“What you say is very good,” his associates may comment, “but we have heard you say it a little better at other times.” The professor then dubs in a better statement. Thus begins complete reworking of the tape, cleaned up and cleaned up some more, as in the moving picture cutting, and new illustrative “footage” will be added on. The whole of a university department will work on improving the message and conceptioning of a picture for many months, sometimes for years. …
I am quite sure we are going to get research and development laboratories of education where the faculty will become producers of extraordinary moving-picture documentaries. That is going to be the big, new educational trend.
OK, so we no longer talk about “moving pictures” (but note the connection between Bucky and Gilbert Seldes as documented in an interview between Allegra Fuller Snyder and Victoria Vesna published in Leonardo). MIT OCW usually doesn’t dub in “better statements” (although I really appreciated how Walter Lewin did dub in some corrections to his excellent course on Physics I: Classical Mechanics). However, Fuller’s prognostication of subject matter experts preparing video documentaries has finally come to fruition with the advent of the OER movement!
- Education as the major world industry
As we now disemploy men as muscle and reflex machines, the one area where employment is gaining abnormally fast is the research and development area. Research and development are a part of the educational process itself. We are going to have to invest in our people and make available to them participation in the great educational process of research and development in order to learn more. When we learn more, we are able to do more with our given opportunities. …
Our education processes are in fact the upcoming major world industry. … The cost of education will be funded regeneratively right out of earnings of the technology, the industrial equation, because we can only afford to reinvest continually in humanity’s ability to go back and turn out a better job. As a result of the new educational processes our consuming costs will be progressively lower as we also gain ever higher performance per units of invested resources, which means that our wealth actually will be increasing at all times rather than “exhausted by spending.” It is the capability wealth that really counts. …
I would say, then, that you are faced with a future in which education is going to be number one amongst the great world industries, within which will flourish an educational machine technology that will provide tools such as the individually selected and articulated two-way TV and an intercontinentally networked, documentaries call-up system
First, I love the idea of education as part of the research and development (R&D) process. Wouldn’t school be so much more engaging if you didn’t have to graduate before you could start applying your knowledge to build and discover new things? If we could build new things each day as an integral part of the combined education / R&D process? Secondly, note how Bucky had already anticipated the importance of global information networks (Education Automation was transcribed from a lecture given on 22 April 1961 but the first publication on computer networks was in August 1962!). Now nearly 50 years later, Fuller’s vision is spontaneously developing using the Internet instead of two-way TV.
- The importance of unlearning
… to discover whether the capable student is able to unlearn everything he has learned, … experience has shown that that is what he is going to have to do if he is to become a front-rank scientist. The frontiers of science are such that almost every morning many of our hypotheses of yesterday are found inadequate or in error. So great is the frontier acceleration that now in a year of such events much of yesterday’s conceptioning becomes obsolete.
Why do we assume that knowledge is fixed and codifiable in textbooks? It isn’t. We often suffer
what Tom Miller once called the a “hardening of the categories” because we don’t embrace the unlearning part that is an inherent part of the learning process. If unchecked, over time, our conditioned reflexes will become so out of tune with reality that our ability to solve problems effectively will vanish. Thus the unlearning process is vital to human affairs, but too few acknowledge it or work to help people with their unlearning process so they can better adapt to our rapidly changing world.
- The future of education is Individual Education
I think … that primarily the individual is going to study at home. That is in elementary, high school, and college years. Not until graduate work will he take residence on campus. I am quite sure that the students of all ages will keep on going to “school houses” to get social experiences — to be “baby-sat.” … Real education, will be something to which individuals will discipline themselves spontaneously under the stimulus of their individually unique chromosomes … No two people have the same appetite at the same time. … Simultaneous curricula are obsolete.
This idea of individual education may be controversial. But when you really think about it, every student must formulate conceptual models (that is, learn), test their learning, unlearn whatever parts are a bit off-base, forget and re-learn continuously (while constantly bringing in new information to integrate with the old). That is, the student must work through the whole trial and error process around which learning depends. Even if a teacher or other educational resource can help short-circuit some of the process, fundamentally learning depends on individual initiative!
Overall, I love the way Bucky scoped out and defined the problem. Like most prognostications, it didn’t turn out quite the way he predicted. But reality has proven to be true to the spirit of his vision.
Solving the Education Problem
Currently, education is a hot topic in the USA. In addition to the discussion about school reform, we also need to address the bigger, global education problem. According to UNICEF, some 100 million children do not even attend primary school. Clearly we need to educate them and provide on-going re-education programs to ensure everyone has access to the knowledge they need. To that end, slowly but surely the Internet is sprouting tools to facilitate large scale global education and to make it more and more incisive and efficient. The dawning of Internet-powered “education automation” via open educational resources (OER) is becoming increasingly apparent.
The fascinating work of Sugata Mitra shows just how effectively kids can learn — even without teachers! There are many other creative solutions out there. More will need to be developed. The big picture is clear: now that the OER movement is providing educational materials for everyone on the Internet, we can all tune-in and can keep abreast of the exciting ways in which knowledge is expanding.
What are your thoughts about education? What do you need to start participating as a student or a producer of OER material? Please post a comment with your thoughts.