Walled Gardens of Technology

Entrance to Walled Garden at Farmleigh

The term "walled garden" once only meant a literal garden that was enclosed by walls.  Though I tagged this post as "tech" and "Open Everything," this topic is not about things being open at all - which of course is a topic of those who discuss openness.

There are literal walled gardens in the world. These gardens are surrounded by walls to keep out animals, unwanted human visitors and in some places, the walls shelter the garden from wind and frost. They can also be decorative and there may be smaller walls within the walled perimeter. These days if you hear the term there is a good chance that it is a figurative walled garden which is a closed platform or closed technology ecosystem. Since we borrowed the term "ecosystem" from nature and have since created manmade ecosystems (or damaged natural ones), it makes sense that we turn botanical garden ecosystems into technology ecosystems.

A tech walled garden is a closed platform or closed technology ecosystem which is a software system wherein the carrier or service provider has control over applications, content, and/or media.With that control, they can restrict convenient access to non-approved applicants or content.

We contrast this with an open platform, wherein consumers generally have unrestricted access to applications and content.

Whether on the broader Internet or a smaller network, a walled garden is a restricted section that only approved users can access. I first encountered this in the earliest days of the Internet with the walled garden of the school nework where I taught. Their server granted access only to students and staff and even that larger walled garden had smaller walled sections withing delegated only to faculty or administration.

It all sounds like something safe - maybe even comfortingly safe. A walled garden can also refer to a closed or exclusive set of information services where a user is unable to leave the closed environment without the owner giving limited points of entry. One example of this comes from Apple’s hardware, software and services work. They work well together as long as you use Apple's devices and services. (see this Wall Street Journal video report)

The Apple walled garden is so closed that it has been targeted for antitrust scrutiny. The recent Epic vs. Apple case is an example of that. The Fortnite video game developer made the case that Apple's walled garden is a monopoly that forces developers to use Apple's in-app purchase system, which gives Apple a 30% cut of all sales.

Walled gardens - literal and figuartive, botanical and technological - have their purposes and will continue to exist, but it is very nice to see gardens and tech ecosystems that are open too.

Schoolhouse World

The organization schoolhouse.house hits a lot of things that I am interested in wth education. It is a free, peer-to-peer tutoring platform on which anyone, anywhere can receive live help. It is no surprise that Sal Khan of Khan Academy is working with them (CEO) since the share similar goals.

The thing that sets schoolhouse.world apart from other free services (such as MOOCs) is that you can earn shareable certifications in the topics you learn about. You also have the option to become a tutor in the topics that you have mastered.

Their current focus is on high school math and SAT prep, with plans to expand to other areas soon. All the small-group tutoring sessions happen over Zoom. During the pandemic and learning from home by choice or necessity, this is surely something many of us felt there was a need for in the K-12 world.

But there is also a higher education connection. The University of Chicago is one institution supporting schoolhouse.world in their effort to connect high-quality peer tutors with students around the world. Those tutors also have the opportunity to showcase their contributions on their college applications.

Jim Nondorf, Dean of Admissions at the University, and Sal Khan joined a group of schoolhouse.world tutors on Zoom to discuss the new program and what it means for the future.

Says Khan, "It was wonderful to hear the stories of these amazing young people admitted to one of the top universities in the world based on their ability to certify their knowledge and tutor others! I suspect more colleges like University of Chicago will value this type of evidence soon."

I hope Sal's suspicion will be confirmed.

Redefining Open Access

Open Access logo PLoS transparent.svg
Open access logo, originally designed by Public Library of Science, CC0, Link

My wife and I have co-authored an article on online education and how it has changed/developed in response to current crises and how we might look at the pandemic as a stress test for online learning. It will be in a special issue of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology on crises and possible solutions in higher education that will be published in January 2021, and it will be the one “open access” issue that Wiley allows AJES each year.

So, when I saw that Goldie Blumenstyk, senior writer at The Chronicle, was writing in her newsletter about "What It Means to Be ‘Open Access’ Now" I was interested and thinking about how many of my colleagues don't know anything about Open Access unless they are publishing in journals.

I have been a longtime advocate of what I call "Open Everything" which is my umbrella term for many open efforts such as open textbooks, open-source software, MOOCs, etc. A typical definition of open access (OA) refers to free, unrestricted online access to research outputs such as journal articles and books. OA content is open to all, with no access fees. 

Why should a journal offer OA? A good example is OA in science. It addresses a basic value of science: to help advance and improve society by providing immediate and unrestricted access to the latest research. That can accelerate discovery and create a more equitable system of knowledge that is open to all.

Blumenstyk writes about keeping access to education open which has been an issue getting more attention during the pandemic.

"To be an open-access institution used to be pretty straightforward, if not easy: Keep tuition low and set admissions requirements forgiving enough to let students prove themselves even if they don’t seem — or aren’t — academically ready. In recent years, consciousness of students’ basic needs, including food and housing, has also grown. The pandemic has not only accelerated that, but also added new dimensions to the definition of “open access.” Now it means a lot more outreach, time on the telephone (yes, the telephone), and a willingness to bend some established academic and financial rules. That’s some of what I heard during a Chronicle virtual forum a few weeks ago on what’s needed for higher ed to be truly open access in this moment. Here are highlights and other insights that stuck with me from that discussion, as well as my takeaways from another panel on complex universities working together while operating remotely."

What struck Blumenstyk in the forum was that "supporting students’ basic needs has become fundamental to how colleges see their responsibilities" and that "'Right now, students’ economic worries outweigh their academic concerns, said Anthony Munroe, BMCC’s president. And as he put it, 'We have a moral obligation to meet the needs of our students.'”

It is great to see conversations about open access education. That is also an umbrella term in that the use of open textbooks, journals, and software is often the way to lower student costs and allow access to learners who are not traditional, enrolled learners.

As you have probably discovered from clicking links to articles in journals and publications (including The Chronicle) not all of them are free and open, even in some partially OQ publications. But there are some. All articles in open access journals that are published by Elsevier, for example, have undergone peer review and upon acceptance are immediately and permanently free for everyone to read and download.  

Twenty years ago when I started in higher education and brought up open access to faculty, the most common question was "Why would I give away my [writing, software, courseware intellectual property] for free?" As with science, I could reply that "it's the right thing to do." But Open Access publications reduce permission requirements and eliminate price barriers for readers. In fact, many studies demonstrate that OA literature receives more citations than subscription publications and so get your name and ideas out into the world. 

Conversations about the traits of a resilient college and society before, during, and after this pandemic should include a lot of talk about open access. If this pandemic is truly a black swan event for higher education, then any successes in agility, flexibility, and resilience are critical to students, faculty, and institutions.

Online Learning Has Its Advantages

learning online in cafe
    Image: pxhere

It is unfortunate that the emergency move to online classes in March 2020 is often being seen as the definition of online learning. This is especially true for administrators, faculty, students. parents and the general public who had no experience with it previously. I would say that what is being offered this fall should be of a higher quality if schools used the spring experience and a summer of planning to prepare for the possibility of being fully online again. perhaps the perceptions of spring will be improved.

In a journal article that I am working on now, I say something that may not be supported by research but is supported by every faculty member I have talked to for the article: It is easier to move a good online course to a face-to-face (F2F) format than it is is to take a good F2F course and put it online. Many articles have appeared this year saying that the elements of a good online course are essentially the same as a good F2F course.

For example, if I am designing a brand new online course, I will be including all the "handouts" I would use in-person but also ones I wouldn't have included in creating a new F2F course. For example, in-person I might take 15 minutes to explain to students an upcoming assignment. For the online version, I will need that explanation in a document or as an audio/video file. If my online course is ever used to teach F2F having that explanatory document or video available for students who want to review it again after class and especially for students who missed the class session would be very useful. For the online version, I will need to create "lectures" that are chunked into smaller segments. For he F2F class, I might use those mini-lectures to flip the classroom as before class "reading" assignments. For the online course, might even rethink my entire approach to lectures.

One thing we learned from the rise of MOOCs was that there were a lot of people who wanted to learn but had no interest in credits or a degree. They took courses to learn what they wanted to learn and most of the time were not even interested in using all of the course or "finishing" the course as we would expect in traditional courses or training. This was initially the biggest criticism of MOOCs - students did not complete the course - but we came to see that completion was not an objective for most of these learners.

Skills and career advancement are the primary motives for many nontraditional learners, and online courses allowed that with a number of advantages. While in some jobs an additional degree or a certificate can mean advancement in salary and position, you can also "move up" by acquiring new skills. Online courses, degrees and certificates allow learners to continue working while they study.

Pre-pandemic, Santa Clara University surveyed hundreds of distance learners about how online learning impacted them and more than 50% of respondents recognized and appreciated the benefits of online classes.

Traditional and non-traditional learners can take online classes and the advantages apply to all. Some of the most often mentioned advantages are:
- flexibility in scheduling (most of my online graduate students have been working full- or part-time)
- lower costs
- options for preferred learning spaces
- options to take courses from other campuses or institutions
- self-paced learning
- technology and other skills learned by being an online learner

Flexibilty includes MOOCs and other offerings that allow those seeking a degree, credit, a certificate or skills advancement to start a course immediately. Even traditional programs with a 16-week structure might also offer accelerated eight-week courses. This accelerated course should have the same academic requirements and only works well for learners with no significant work or family obligations. They are sometimes offered in "intersessions" between semesters when students may be taking only one or two courses.

Some terms that have become much more familiar this year in the online learning experience are asynchronous, synchronous, hybrid, and HyFlex. Asynchronous refers to a fully-online course that does not hold scheduled meetings and students complete work at convenient times but must still have assignment deadlines. Synchronous courses, like on-campus courses, have set meeting times where the instructor conduct classes using a video conferencing service. Hybrid courses offer a combination. A course might meet once a week synchronously (on-campus or online) and the rest of the time asynchronously online. A fully HyFlex course (AKA converged learning) offers the option of F2F attendance as well as a synchronous offering of that live class session and a recorded version that can be used asynchronously. 

Although most online courses run asynchronously in order to provide maximum scheduling flexibility, some also offer or require learners to participate synchronously at set times or meet with an instructor during virtual office hours. This year, I am seeing more schools offer the options of hybrid or HyFlex courses that combine online and F2F which can increase or decrease the flexibility of being fully online.

There can be cost advantages with taking online classes. The caveat to this is that in most of higher education, online learners pay the same per-credit tuition rate as on-campus learners. There are exceptions with MOOCs, certificates, and a few fully-online degree programs. An overlooked cost advantage is that the fully online student saves on not needing campus housing or meal plans and on commuting and parking costs.

Students can also save money by using cheaper digital textbooks. But the real saving there occurs when faculty embrace using Open Textbooks (generally available for free) and other open resources. I have found that faculty in designing online courses are much more likely to consider those resources than F2F instructors.

The learning space for the online student can be their dining room table, home office, work office during lunch, a local library, a coffee shop, or a park on a nice day. "Learning styles" may have fallen out of favor but clearly each of us have ways of learning and settings where we learn best. I write notes, drafts, and final versions directly on my laptop. My wife likes to spread out paper notes and references on a big table and work on her tablet.

One of the big attractions to MOOCs was that it allowed you to take courses from anywhere in the world. A student at a small community college could take a course in artificial intelligence offered by Stanford - an opportunity never available before. I took about a dozen free courses online back in 2012 when the MOOC was a hot topic even though I have no need or desire to acquire additional certifications or degrees. I took them from elite universities in the U.S. and beyond that I never had the opportunity to even consider for my own degrees.

Not having to be restricted by geographic location means attending an elite school or finding the best professor for a subject doesn't require relocating and possibly (in the MOOC option) not paying any tuition.

Anyone who has taught or learned online has probably discovered that they have learned technical skills that were not part of the formal course curriculum. Many of these skills will be needed in jobs, such as learning new software suites, doing research online, communicating by using discussion boards, and teleconferencing. 

The advantages of online learning are real. They are best appreciated when the instructor learner has made the choice to learn online. That was not the situation in March of this year, but hopefully, it has led schools, faculty, and students to learn by necessity how to learn more effectively in the online world.

Will education after 2020 be "forever changed"? I doubt it. The pandemic may have been a seismic event, but moving the tectonic plates of education is very difficult.