We hear a lot these days about the word ‘open.’ Projects can be open; resources can be open; even processes that were once shrouded in secrecy can now be called open. Despite the deluge of this buzz word, I would venture to say that many of us haven’t stopped to evaluate what being ‘open’ really means and why it is important.
I recently gave a short presentation to a group of visiting TESL teachers from China on Instructional Technology in the United States. They seemed very eager to learn about the different tools that we use, like Audience Response Systems and Interactive Whiteboards, but expressed serious interest in some of the pedagogies associated with these tools as well. When we began talking about the flipped classroom model, they asked me to describe my personal workflow when implementing these types of lessons. I outlined my process, which starts with the creation of some video content that then gets uploaded to YouTube and embedded in the Canvas LMS. They politely nodded along, allowing me to finish my long winded description, and finally one of the attentive teachers in the front raised her hand and said, “But we don’t have YouTube in China. What do you recommend?”
At first I was initially embarrassed that I had overlooked what I now consider some obvious cultural differences, but I quickly rebounded and offered some plausible alternatives for distributing this, or other, video content to students. I wrapped up the presentation, and answered some insightful questions from my foreign colleagues, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that something important had just transpired.
Most educators have heard of the ‘digital divide,’ a socio-economic barrier that inhibits many less fortunate people from accessing the technological resources that so many of us take for granted. However, leaving that presentation, I couldn’t help but feel that one divide based on monetary resources is not adequate to describe the varied educational landscape on a global level. Although the fact that Chinese citizens are denied access to YouTube may seem trivial to most, this one issue is just a symptom of a much larger and more systemic problem. Not only is YouTube the world’s second largest search engine, replete with goofy animal videos, but it also is a viable way to learn how to create a compost bin, re-tile a bathroom floor, learn how to code in Objective-C and calculate differential equations.
While I have the relative luxury of accessing this information seamlessly, others are not so lucky for a variety of different reasons that do not sum up easily into one single divide.
As controversial and farfetched as some of the initiatives coming out of Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google may seem, it is clear that the world could benefit from more access, or in another word “openness.” Whether that will come to fruition through Facebook’s atmospheric Wi-Fi drones or Google’s elaborate Project Loon Wi-Fi air balloons is still to be seen, but these goals have taken on a different significance for me in light of my interactions with these foreign teachers. International aid is certainly a boon to some of the developing countries, and by no means should this aid be terminated, but what these people really need is to be able to address these problems on their own, using ideas and initiatives that come from within. I’d like to think of this in terms of the old parable: give someone a fish and they eat for a day; teach someone to fish and they eat for a lifetime. While access the the internet and our collective brain may seem like a trivial first step, a recent YouTube search for “how to fish” just returned 6,380,000 results, so it seems like a good start.