Can the Internet solve the world’s education imbalances? It’s an open-ended question which has consumed those within the e-learning world. ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN attendee Shane McMillan talks us through the makings of a crowdsourced curriculum for a virtual school that will cater to the world’s poor.
What is Allversity?
It’s our way of fighting poverty on a global scale, with education leading the way. We believe that everyone is entitled to a decent education and a chance in life, and so we’re collaborating with people around the world to create what one might describe as a free online academy-cum-digital textbook. An overview of the project is provided here.
Why can’t people just turn to Wikipedia?
Wikipedia has tremendous value, but the information is not structured according to a curriculum that a pupil could follow. Using an interactive learning management system, we are curating our own material that is easily navigable and organised into cumulative courses. It’s a Year 1-12 curriculum covering the same material that is found in a K-12 syllabus. Ultimately, students will be able to use it on their own, and teachers could also incorporate some of the modules into their classroom routines.
When did you launch the project?
Having spent a semester in Ghana during my undergraduate studies back in 2007, I saw the pressing need for free educational resources that are of the same high standard as people anywhere else have access to. So it was a stroke of luck that when I moved to Berlin in the summer of 2010, I met Christian Kroll my partner on the project. Independently, he had been thinking of doing something similar – creating a free online school. The work began in earnest last autumn, so we were pleased to be able to attend ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN a few months into the project.
How did attending ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN help you move ahead with the project?
I enjoyed the conference immensely and made dozens of contacts with e-learning experts who will be instrumental in the execution of the plan. There were some UNESCO representatives whose guidance has been immeasurable. Attending the conference helped us determine a few realities on the ground and opened us up to some new possibilities and new limits. I recall attending the “E-Learning for Change and Scalability in Africa” session and having to readjust my thinking after learning of the disastrous outcomes of a number of otherwise well-intentioned one-to-one computing projects across Africa. One of the speakers, Jens Schneider, runs the Africa eLearning Service Network in Namibia and was able to give me some frank advice.
The poorest of the poor don’t have ready access to smartphones or the high speed Internet access that is required for one to sit through the video tutorials we are planning to incorporate into our virtual school. So as far as software goes, we have to ensure that as much content as possible is downloadable and available for offline use. In the past six months, we’ve created a mountain of content and have designed the school so that Allversity can be used as an app or a website.
You’re using the crowdsourcing model and appealing for contributors around the world. How do you ensure quality with such a large team where members have disparate backgrounds and, perhaps, dubious intentions?
The quality of the crowd is something anyone working within this model has to factor in, but you’d be surprised at how swiftly the judicious ones stand out thus making our job of eliminating unsuitable contributors easier. The good ones stay on, stay true and are helping us make some very exciting courses that we can’t wait to present. So far, we have 150 people putting courses together via Google Drive. Brazil, Germany, Guatemala, Kenya, India and the US are just a few of the countries represented. Most of those participating by designing course material and lessons are young academics or postgraduate students, and like me, they are still in their twenties. We do a lot of reading, research and planning that informs our ideas and practices. Because it’s voluntary — we are a not-for-profit organisation — the chancers and the undedicated soon give up when they see that they can’t meet the deadlines and the targets. We of course have a number of academic advisors, most of them tenured university lecturers or professors in the US. So we have some pedagogical quality control measures in place.
The theme of ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2012 is “Reaching Beyond Tomorrow”. What do you envisage for Allversity long-term?
The school will open its virtual doors in the autumn. We’ve designed the curriculum to ensure that we aren’t focused on teaching just the classic subjects – English, Maths, Geography and so forth. We have some “Priority Courses” – practical units to help people with day-to-day concerns, for example Maternal, Personal and Community Health courses; courses on Human Rights, Finance, Agriculture and Development – all information that people in struggling communities need. You have to think about sustainability. We ultimately want this to be a school that anyone without access to traditional schooling can turn to, so matters of accreditation in light of our crowdsourcing approach will have to be ironed out. But we’re learning too, and perhaps we’ll be able to get more sound ideas at this year’s conference!