Discussions on Innovation, Risk and Opportunity in Open Learning

Recently a New York Times article, “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores,” was circulated and discussed on the School of Information’s open listserv. The email list is a conversation space for current faculty, staff and students as well as alumni (like me! and most of the other Open.Michigan team) and community members. It’s a space for smart and thoughtful folks to discuss and debate the trends, perspectives, opportunities and challenges we face as thoughtful information professionals.

In the course of the conversations about the article (that explores issues of technology use in the classroom and its potential impact, or not, on learning outcomes) some great questions were posed that brought up learning issues and opportunities we consider every day at Open.Michigan. The conversations in this thread represent the “fundamental tension between [the School of Information’s] love of new innovation and its parallel, long-standing belief that patrons deserve diverse perspectives” (Kristen Fontichiaro) and this thread specifically touched on issues of open learning and OER.

What follows are the highlights of the conversation (with permission from the authors) that provide some insight into the culture of openness at the University of Michigan and the perspectives and challenges of Open.Michigan.  I received a few requests to capture this conversation because of its salient points and what follows are full transcripts from some of the major contributors. I think this conversation is particularly significant considering recent conversations about the disruptive opportunity open learning can leverage in today’s networked and resource-constrained education system. Dr. Cable Green recently discussed some of these same issues in an ELI webinar.

Clinical Assistant Professor Kristen Fontichiaro initiated the larger open learning-themed conversation with some provoking questions specifically addressing the recent press and mainstream support Khan Academy has received:

  1. Can one person teach anything to everybody? Do we want a single instructional voice in public education? Is that the intent of public education in a democracy? And does it matter if that voice is for good or ill (I am thinking, on the extreme, of “single voice” curricula during Soviet times or in dictatorships)
  2. Should one foundation have the power to leverage national curriculum?My hunch is that both Gates and Khan are acting in goodwill with this funding.
  3. Do we feel differently if someone were crafting national curriculum materials who, perhaps, has a subjective political or social bias? or is just plain weak at fact-finding (Obama’s birth certificate)?
  4. How do we determine authority beyond popularity?

Dr. Charles Severance (Dr. Chuck) followed up with a great response and the rest of this post is the full transcript of the conversation Dr. Chuck and I shared on the SI open listserv.

from: Charles Severance

Thu, Sep 8, 2011 at 5:53 PM


Thanks for the nice setup / question.   Warning that this is a bit cynical and exaggerated to make the point.

First off, Khan Academy is flawed for all the reasons you cite.  I think it is effective in middle-school through high school math but little else.   He/they is/are trying in other areas but I doubt it will see anywhere near the impact of his core math curriculum.

The saddest part of Khan Academy is that even with its flaws, it probably has had more actual educational impact than all of the other open educational resource efforts *in the world* put together for the past 10 years.  Khan Academy is not the “right answer” – it is just the “significantly less wrong answer” than all those that came before it.

Just as an example, imagine you were a 9-th grade teacher who had a student who had fallen behind and was stuck and not understanding the “distributive property”.   Go to the following sites and see if you can find *anything* that could help your student:


Those sites represent hundreds of millions of dollars of public and private funding and years of coordinated volunteer efforts.

And then try


This is a dude with a Wacom tablet, a microphone and YouTube.

Khan Academy started with a very different goal than virtually every other OER effort on the planet.   He was solving the problem of actually teaching people things they needed to know.  Given that there was no other coherent / organized / open / free / approachable / useful information, Khan is now the darling of the space.

It is sad that MIT’s OCW was such a marketing and fundraising success 10 years ago that everyone assumed that it was the right model for OER and imitated the model for the past 10 years.

A similar critique could be said about teaching and learning software like Blackboard or Sakai.  These represent a many billion-dollar marketplace and yet the software curricular structure and dynamic pathing through the material in Khan Academy puts these LMS systems to shame.   Khan has the advantage that it is solving one space whilst Sakai / Blackboard are general purpose – but even so, the UI for Khan works for independent learners – and no LMS on the planet can help independent learners as well as Khan.   Again Kahn is not *great* nor it is particularly general purpose.  But it is far less worse that Sakai or Blackboard in supporting independent learning.

And how about Pearson MyMathLab – part of Pearson’s billions of dollars of revenue every year.   It is useful in some places, but in many ways its target market is the teachers and administrators who need to be convinced to pay for it so its feature set is tuned to making the folks with the money happy rather than making the ideal student experience.

In my experience watching my own children work both with Khan Academy and Pearson MyMathLab, this is what I have observed. Pearson is not too bad as a homework supplement tool when there is a classroom lecture and the teacher is pretty good.  MyMathLab is virtually useless when a student is trying to self-study.  But Khan Academy *can* and regularly does work in self-study/independent learner mode as well as act as an excellent support tool for class-room style.   Again Khan academy wins but I am sure MyMathLab has a lot more depth and detail.

So for me, I bristle at any notion that Khan Academy is “the one true magic sauce”.  I think that the fact that it finally got education to be featured in a TED talk is pretty cool.

The cynical view is that it shows us sadly how little we have accomplished in the OER and Educational Technology space since the mid-90’s.  The optimistic view is that it is a window that gives us a glimpse as to part of some future solution that might emerge when we finally figure out what we educational technology builders (myself included) should have been doing all along.



From: Emily Puckett Rodgers

Fri, Sep 9, 2011

Hi all,

This is a really interesting conversation that brings up several good points about education, participation and authority. I work with Open.Michigan and we mull over some of the issues that both Kirstin and Dr. Chuck bring up every day. As we’ve grown from a small faculty-led group piloting an OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative to a (somewhat) larger but still grassroots initiative interested in fostering sharing and open learning and innovation across campus, we think about how to connect with our community in our every day practices. How do we make our resources useful to folks (in terms of organization, adaptability, accessibility) and relevant? What tools or features are needed to facilitate participatory, distributed learning?

The OCW/OER movement came out of many top down, all encompassing project concepts and Dr Chuck makes a good point about LMS’s that I think also relate to many OER projects:  “Khan has the advantage that it is solving one space whilst Sakai / Blackboard are general purpose – but even so, the UI for Khan works for independent learners – and no LMS on the planet can help independent learners as well as Khan.   Again Kahn is not *great* nor it is particularly general purpose.  But it is far less worse that Sakai or Blackboard in supporting independent learning.” Khan academy solves specific needs with lightweight modular tools and we (academia, open learning initiatives) can and should learn from this. I don’t know that this will scale and maybe it doesn’t need to.

We recently put a little thought into this question of “What problem is OER supposed to solve?” Overall, initiatives like Open.Michigan and Khan Academy need to be reflective and adaptive and try to understand what people want and what they use. Khan discovered a great utility when he created his initial tutoring materials for his family.

However, the beauty of the Khan material is that it *is* OER: it’s licensed so that others are able to adapt it as long as they give Khan credit, they don’t make money off of it and they license their derivative work in the same way (CC: BY-NC-SA). So while Khan is putting his materials up on the web and it is the current darling of the internet, he isn’t being nearly as proprietary about his work as many have historically been (and still are). So he offers the opportunity for others to teach and build on his work. OER and open source offers the opportunity for folks to participate in creating learning materials/tools/systems together or in new contexts, which helps to decentralize control over knowledge and tools.

I don’t think that one foundation should have this power, but when the Gates Foundation (and Hewlett  and UNESCO among other large entities) promote openly licensed content and open source activities they are acknowledging the opportunity to share this power through distribution of knowledge and the support of creativity. I think (hope) we will increasingly see fewer “all encompassing” collections of material and more initiatives like P2PUMozilla’s Open Badging Infrastructure and lighter weight mashup tools like OER Glue to allow customization, distributed, participatory certification and lifelong learning.

My two cents on a Friday afternoon,



from: Charles Severance

Sat, Sept 10, 2011


I really like Pieter’s Blog open.michigan post – it completely resonates with my thinking,


The reason that we end up with too many “me-too”solutions is that those with the money (UM Administration, Private Foundations like Hewlett or Gates, or even the National Science Foundation) is that they like to see *plans* and the people who hold the purse strings need to *understand* the plans.   That means that the only fundable plans are those plans that (a) can be written down and (b) are simple enough to be understood by the people with the money.

This naturally leads to a funding pattern of rather unimaginative but well-defined plans.  Imagine the following two “elevator pitches” and how they might be received by someone in administration:

(a) We are starting an initiative that will be very much like MIT’s highly successful OCW effort except that we will use open technologies like Drupal which will allow for greater flexibility in adding new capabilities once we get the basic capabilities up and running.

(b) Give Joseph Hardin a dedicated budget line item of a million dollars per year.  He won’t give you a plan except “lets kick some ass” and once you give him the budget line item, don’t ask too many questions.  Oh yeah and if things work out, we will need to add a few more millions in years 4-10 to solidify our leadership position in the newly created space.

Pitch (a) is in inherently fundable and understandable to the folks with money.  No sane administrator would even listen to pitch (b).

Pitch (a) results in a competent imitation with a few innovations around the edges, and pitch (b) changes the world forever.  Thankfully we had some people in 2003 (thanks John [King], James [Duderstadt], and others) that understood that when you are really intent on innovating and really doing something transformative, it is more important to bet on the right team of talented people than to bet on the people who can write their plan down in advance and give you a Microsoft Project document with a lot of detail.  As a matter of fact, the people who have a three-year plan are the absolute *worst* people to fund if you are interested in innovation and transformation.

What is sad is that organizations that purport to be interested in making transformative investments (like Gates), are inexorably drawn to spending their money on teams who want to re-do a previous breakthrough with a little tweak.

For example, we could go to the university administration and make the following pitch next week:

Hey – we need to evolve our OER efforts to the next level – lets start a project called academy.umich.edu where we have our faculty do Kahn-like 12 minute videos on their topic areas and then we build software to link them together with learning outcome marking so they can be assembled into navigable units and made easily searchable.  It will be so awesome.  Oh yeah and we will use Drupal because it has built in capability to add rating stars to any content item!  And we know how important rating stars are to this whole Amazon recommendation / rating / social thing.

That is a *completely fundable pitch* and in 3-4 years and 3-4 million dollars, in 2016 we will have a weak imitation of what Khan Academy had in 2009.  And then we can write the above blog post again asking the question (again) as to whether or not we solved the right question.  Khan’s moment is *already past* – taking three years to replicate an already obsolete idea is a waste of effort.  Khan’s innovation is to be considered when thinking about what the world should look like in 3-5 years as it informs us about one path to partial success.   But it is not *the answer* for the ages.

Here is an alternate pitch:  “Give Chuck Severance $500K dollars per year for three years, don’t ask for any kind of plan at all, and don’t ask too many questions.”.  The problem is that this second pitch will either be (a) amazing, surprising, and transformative, (b) or a total and complete failure and completely major and unjustifiable waste of money.   How would you like to face the taxpayers of the state of Michigan and say, “Uh we gave this guy 1.5 million dollars who had no plan and it *almost* worked out.  I assure you that he tried really hard.”

The second pitch is how Venture capitalists think.  They understand that innovation and invention is not linear and there can be no plan other than a vague general direction that is likely to change every 4-6 months during the life of the quest.   Real venture capitalists realize that investments in failures are sometimes more informative than investments in successes.  Real Venture capitalists know that the only mistake is sitting on the sidelines

The problem is that the “venture capitalists” of higher education (University Administrations, Private Foundations, and Government Grants) are far too risk averse to ever invest in anything that does not have a plan.  So we are doomed to forever limit ourselves to producing to those innovations that have a highly detailed three-year plan.  And doomed to producing a reflective blog post similar to the above after five years.


P.S.  I am not ragging on open.umich.edu – it is great work and I have participated in it and greatly appreciated the talented and dedicated folks at open.umich.edu.   UMich needs an OER solution and open.umich.edu does a great job.

P.P.S.  Those new on si.all.open should *not* mis-interpret this as indirectly casting aspersions on the SI Administration.  They are completely awesome and *do* encourage and support individual faculty members who think outside the box.   It is why I love working for SI.  The reason for this is simple.  Jeff [MacKie-Mason], Margaret [Hedstrom], Tom [Finholt], and Doug [Van Houweling] themselves are independent-thinking innovators with long histories of innovation and they have *not* forgotten what it took for them to succeed.   So they naturally understand the nature of innovation and risk taking and understand the role of administration in supporting those endeavors.


from: Emily Puckett Rodgers

Sat, Sept 10, 2011


What a fun conversation! Agreed on many points with you Dr. Chuck.

What follows are some of my own thoughts about our initiative and how it has tried to operate in a rather risk averse setting. Sometimes I’m surprised at the services, tools, policy, research and resources we’ve been able to produce at U-M (a resource-rich, research-oriented university).

I can’t speak for those who helped Open.Michigan evolve over the past four years but I think that the folks who helped form and inform the Open.Michigan initiative (who, not coincidentally, are closely associated with SI) have tried to adapt to opportunities presented by both pitch a and pitch b strategies that you describe (“Pitch (a) results in a competent imitation with a few innovations around the edges, and pitch (b) changes the world forever”).

As we’ve worked our way from an OCW-centric model (let’s publish course-based material from U-M as adaptable, openly licensed content) we’ve consciously not wholly adopted MIT’s model of a top-down, staff-centric, production-oriented initiative (that ends up being pretty rigid and not doing much to contribute to the development of open practices in academia) and tried to develop our own processes (dScribe) for production (with mixed results). We realized early on that OER is a more encompassing and appropriate space for Open.Michigan and even now we’re seeking to address larger issues of open learning and open innovation.

Since I’ve been on board (just over a year) we’ve tried to balance our OER production with forward-looking efforts to build community around sharing and open innovation. It’s definitely hard to balance our initial mandate (publish the first two years of Medical School curriculum as OER) and our (admittedly) much more ambitious goals of creating a culture of sharing at U-M. But rather than continuing to focus on resource production, we’ve shifted a lot of our focus to fostering participatory and transparent ways of teaching and learning (doing our own badges project, consulting on local projects like student guides and engaging in open learning efforts through our Catalyst series, among our larger projects like our collaborations with the African Health OER Network). We’re definitely still trying to figure out how to navigate these opportunities and the system we’ve established for ourselves. I’m looking forward to participating in this in the coming years as we try to stay nimble and look to being proactive rather than reactive in our approaches.


3 thoughts on “Discussions on Innovation, Risk and Opportunity in Open Learning

  1. Using Venture Capitalist models is indeed fresh thinking. If that happens, the disadvantages of money-attracts-money will go away. Today, being a visionary force is not always enough. One needs to be a part of a large research institution with a track record of doing research and development right. Institutional initiatives are essential, without the information infrastructure and open technologies, Khan Academy would have never happened. Institutions have succeeded too, through the less organized, long term innovation of developing open technologies and infrastructure that reaches the likes of Salman Khan. What institutions fail to do well is organize knowledge into useful, Just-in-Time learning. The question to be asked is, are we, as an institution better off empowering the Salman Khans of the world (a choice the Gates foundation made) or should we expend efforts in creating one-stop shops for learning? A little bit of both perhaps. Thanks for the excellent and provocative discussion.


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