Wikipedia, Curriculum, and “Open Source” Learning

Stephen Downes comments on Bob Reynolds’s response to Jimbo Wales’s call for a free curriculum (about which I blogged last week). I’m reacting not to Reynolds, but to Downes’s comments; I’m halfway from Collegeville to Minneapolis (here’s a question: is it still called “carsickness” if you’re on a bus?) on my way to the airport, and for some reason I can’t pick up a wireless signal (or find an electrical outlet! Imagine!).

Wales’s call, Reynolds’s response, and Downes’s comments all bear on the problem of how (and whether) to connect scholars and experts with the free-distribution model of online education. What they (and so far, everyone else) overlook is the extent to which the very mechanisms (I’m thinking of the French word “dispositifs”) of public education by experts are already at work — only they’re being operated and constrained by previous-generation models of mass communication. I’m referring to the advertising campaigns and PR deartments of major professional and public-interest groups such as the AMA, the ABA, AARP, ACLU, and so on. These organzations spend boatloads of money eliciting expertise from (presumably) reliable experts — then transmuting it into expensive 30-second TV spots, or three-panel folded panphlets that a pharmacist stuffs into your bag and you throw right away.

If a professional association really wants its members to gain mindshare, to raise the level of public discourse over the topics it addresses, that organization ought to commission educational materials from its leading exponents and distribute them online — for a tiny proportion of what mainstream-media campaigns cost.

Yes, that won’t reach every audience segment, and perhaps it won’t reach certain audiences at all (though I’m inclined to suspect that a vigorous online sphere of attention would at least stand to generate side-channel interest and awareness). Some professional association ought to give it a try, someday. (I would single out the Society of Biblical Literature and Catholic Biblical Association, but these have no PR budget at all, to the best of my knowledge. Still wouldn’t cost them much to do a world of good.)

(Later: Rob Reynolds responds to Stephen Downes here)

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