Dental Hygiene Dilemma

These are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a creative commons CC-BY license.

So David Wiley (@opencontent) has built up an extended riff about OER supporting learning being like giving away free toothbrushes to promote teeth cleaning. Brilliant. I love metaphors and analogy around the open education field, I suspect we simply don’t have the mental models and patterns that we need to get a feel from the opportunities and threats around open education – and stories or images are a really useful way of providing these, assuming that they describe situations that are analogous to the debate.

Imagine a programme to promote dental hygiene that involved giving away free toothbrushes. How could you measure the impact of the free toothbrushes on dental hygiene, as opposed to, say, toothbrush ownership? Don’t people need toothpaste, running water and a patient parental figure to remind them to do their edges? Therefore you can’t measure the impact and the impact is unlikely to be total or anything close to total, so giving away toothbrushes is a waste of time.

But what’s a better way to promote dental hygiene? A awareness-raising mass marketing campaign? Expensive, and less likely to work than giving away the toothbrushes (of course, giving away the toothbrushes is a mass marketing campaign, just one that actually gives people something useful rather than some glossy bits of paper.). Paying a dental nurse to stand next to everyone’s sink and explain how to brush your teeth properly? Prohibitively expensive.  Compulsory dental inspections for all? Maybe a little bit nanny-state, even for a committed state-interventionist like me. Free toothbrush, toothpaste, indoor plumbing MOT, instructional video and a 1 in 1000 chance to tongue-kiss Jessica Alba? May be more effective than giving away toothbrushes, but pushes the expense up to unsustainable levels and still will not reach mass effectiveness. Or maybe you could release an OER

With the toothbrush model people get something actually useful (the toothbrush) which is reasonably cheap and also has a marketing and awareness raising function (if someone gave me a toothbrush I might think I may have bad teeth and need to brush more). It’s not going to improve dental hygiene in every case – but what will?

It’s like that with OER release – sure it’s not a perfect way to promote learning, but it’s pretty good, pretty cheap and even if it doesn’t work for everyone at least you’ve put something out there that someone can use. If David Wiley or anyone else has come up with a better way to promote learning at a higher level pretty well without a great deal of expense or effort and with significant additional benefits I’d love to help design a programme to implement it.

But more fundamentally I’m concerned with a growing confusion around the efficiency of innovation. Anya Kamenetz  has been looking for a Moore’s law corollary for higher education: computers and systems are getting faster and more effective, so therefore education should be getting cheaper. If education is not getting cheaper, we are using the wrong innovations so we should stop.

We know, as people actually putting innovation into practice, that this isn’t the case. There are countless studies that show that technology enhanced learning is more expensive than traditional models. But it can often be more effective in promoting learning. And can effectiveness lead to enhanced efficiency. Sometimes. Maybe. I don’t know, let’s test it.

Innovation is, essentially, a shot in the dark. We have a hypothesis, we may even have a model. But until we start doing stuff we don’t know what is actually going to happen. It’s easy to think “OK, this didn’t do what we expected, let’s bin it”, but that also throws away a lot of unexpected benefits. And the unexpected benefits are the interesting ones.

As a professional manager of programmes of innovation in eduction (stop sniggering, colleagues!) I’m actually more interested in stuff that doesn’t do what we expected but does do something else interesting. That’s where we learn about new ideas, and develop new hypotheses to test. If I just commissioned stuff that did exactly what I expected it would I’d be wasting everyone’s time. 

But sometimes, most of the time, we have ideas that mostly work. They do demonstrative good, but they don’t chance the world like we’d hoped. They’re good for some people, but not everyone. So we build up, gradually, a flexible, varied set of tools and practices, with those annoying, non-standardised differences. The tools and processes start getting out there, start becoming a part of mainstream practice. Learners start expecting them.

And one day, it’s a whole new world outside. Explore it, but don’t forget your toothbrush.

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