The Great Conversation Meets the Digital Age

Since I am not heading a school this year, I am devoting time and energy to research and writing in between consulting jobs that will also help complete the last requirements for a Doctor of Education. The project is directly relevant to The Headmaster.

The central educational issue this project intends to illuminate is how to conflate high school education in the western intellectual tradition and Open Educational Resources (OER) to make such an education available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. An education in the western tradition abounds with timeless ideas, old books, and scholars, and by nature it is slow to adopt a new influence especially if it seems hypermodern. This longstanding mistrust regarding the use of digital technology to educate youth in great ideas can and should be overcome for great advantage while assuring achievement of the intended ends of a classical education. Recent advances in digital education publishing promise fresh solutions but need philosophical freight to channel its products toward the most meaningful educational ends. Blending the best of these two streams into one would advance the great conversation and help channel digital publishing for long-term success.

Some definitions are in order. A high school education in the western intellectual tradition is a liberal arts inquiry into the great books, and ideas of the western world such as that described in The Great Conversation , and often referred to as a classical education. “Open Educational Resources (OER) are digital materials that can be re-used for teaching, learning, research and more, made available free through open licenses, which allow uses of the materials that would not be easily permitted under copyright alone.” Conflating these two streams is achieved by blending the great conversation into well-designed digital courseware and resources that blends digital great books, discussion materials, and media rich coursework with on site teaching. This approach must be accomplished consistent with emerging intellectual property law regarding the use of OER in educational publishing. This process is intended to then enable a classical education to be made accessible to individuals and institutions anywhere at anytime through a contribution to the open space.

This project in the digital humanities is an excellent way to solve the problem of blending traditional western education with OER because the timing is right. The project will take advantage of enthusiasm for traditional liberal arts education before it is overwhelmed by the digital tide of less weighty alternatives. It will leverage and contribute to the rapidly growing body of OER just as this movement is achieving momentum. Many of the authors’ works contained in the Great Books of the Western World are now available online enabling them to be repurposed into digital courseware. Research will clarify the intellectual property issues regarding use of OER through a legal opinion just as such definition is becoming possible. And, the project will show instructors and course designers how to confidently develop their own courses just as state-of-the-art courseware has become available as an OER. The project’s intention is to take advantage of this opportune time to propose the preservation and proliferation of high school education in the western tradition through a blend with OER.

The recent emergence of OER repositories, inexpensive digital devices, and open source courseware design software present a remarkable opportunity to proliferate liberal arts education. The educators that cross the digital divide will need to do so while retaining non-negotiable aspects of their intellectual and pedagogical tradition. The rapidly growing body of Open Educational Resources and repositories of courses include MIT OpenCourseWare, The Saylor Foundation, Khan Academy, CK-12 Foundation, Curriki, Connexions, Bloomsbury Academic, Flat World Knowledge, the National Repository of Online Courses and many more sources. Inexpensive digital devices enabling interaction with these resources by instructors, course designers and students include mobile hand helds, e-readers, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers all with multimedia capability. Open source software for courseware design is now emerging. For example the Penn State ELMS (Electronic Learning Management System) developed by course designers for course designers is written over the popular DRUPAL open source software platform that can be downloaded free. The availability of OER, inexpensive devices and courseware design software will enable any educator to develop online courses. Classical educators should seize this opportunity to develop rich courseware consistent with the western intellectual tradition for their own students and as a contribution for the common good.

This project is not just an academic exercise. Since it really does matter what and how American youth think, therefore it matters how and about what they are educated. The rise of the digital age in education provides a plethora of new curricular options and rich multimedia means. It also places the fledgling renaissance in classical liberal arts education at risk of falling into obscurity through inaction or through misapplication of OER, which could lose its distinctive features. Liberal arts educators ought not to reject digital resources as threats, nor should they become enthralled by technology as the answer in and of itself. To the extent that digital means can help reach traditional ends, they should be adopted and adapted for beneficial use. The means should facilitate the ends not redefine it. A way to describe the end of a high school education in the western intellectual tradition is that of a student well versed in all the liberal arts who learns to become wise in judgment, persuasive in communication and resolute in action for the good. The means to that end can and should enjoy the benefit of emerging digital resources.

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