15 April 2010

How Hard Can it Be? DIY OCW

One of the miracles of free software is that it always begins with one or two people saying: “hey, how hard can it be?” The miracle is that they say that even when “it” is an operating system like GNU, or a kernel like Linux, or a graphic image manipulation package like the GIMP. Despite the manifest impossibility of one person writing something that usually requires vast, hierarchical teams, and months of planning, they just start and the miracle continues: others join in and the thing grows until one day, with the help of a few hundred friends, they achieve that impossibility.

I was told this story dozens of times when I was writing Rebel Code, and I'm always heartened when I hear it today in other contexts. Like this one - the Khan Academy, which is:

a 2009 Tech Award winning site with 12+ million views and 1200+ 10-minute "videos on YouTube covering everything from basic arithmetic and algebra to differential equations, physics, chemistry, biology and finance".

The interview linked to above probes how Sal Khan managed to create an entire open courseware site on his own, without worrying about the basic impossibility of doing so. One reason for his success, he believes, is the following:

The simple answer is to put stuff out there and iterate, and not have a bureaucratic team that are better at shooting down each other's ideas and constraining teachers. I understand the need to constrain teachers, because you want to have quality control and make sure everyone is being reached. But the negative side is that you're also constraining very good teachers, and you're taking a lot of the humanity out of the lesson.

This happens at the textbook level as well, and the state standards. I think to some degree there are so many cooks in the kitchen that the final product that the student gets is extremely diluted. There's something to be said for fewer cooks in the kitchen - and if they're good cooks, the food will be a lot more fun to eat. (laughter)

That's my best answer. Several states apparently have had efforts along the same lines. The idea isn't mind-blowing: get your best teachers in the state, or in the country, and put a camera in the room - I don't use a camera, but you could put a camera in the room, or use a format like me - and have them teach. And put those videos online, and make them free for the world.

The expense is almost ridiculously low to do something like that. But time and time again, some of these states have contacted me and said "well, you know, it's getting stuck in meetings..." - and they really haven't produced any videos.

The best way to think about it is that it becomes very corporate. There is this view that it has to be very polished, and have computer graphics, and that the teacher has to have a script so that they don't say "um" or make any mistakes. And I think what that does is it takes all of the humanity out of it, and the humanity is what people connect with.

In other words, release early, and don't worry too much about the quality provided it's good enough to be useful.

The interview is quite long, but it's well-worth reading. I predict that this could turn into a very important project, because it's doing everything right - just as those other people who said
"how hard can it be?" did.

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