Making connections

Dr Wayne Mackintosh is taking education to the world. Photo by Peter McIntosh/Getty Images.
Dr Wayne Mackintosh is taking education to the world. Photo by Peter McIntosh/Getty Images.
A revolutionary education system is sweeping the world and the blackboard is right here, in Dunedin. Nigel Benson learns new stuff.

"This is the most rewarding thing I have done in my whole career," Dr Wayne Mackintosh muses in the sun outside Otago Polytechnic.

It's one of the last things he says during our interview.

And it's also, perhaps, the most revealing.

Dr Mackintosh (46) has good reason to feel satisfied.

More than nine million of them, in fact.

His brainchild, WikiEducator, has become an educational phenomenon taking the world by storm, linking learners with free learning materials through the medium of the internet.

"It's a return to the core values of education, the sharing of knowledge and learning materials.

"It's about sharing knowledge and the sustainability of education.

"We want to build a community and offer free training to any warm-blooded mammal on the planet to acquire," Dr Mackintosh says.

Home base for this global and borderless, boundless utopian vision is Dunedin's Otago Polytechnic campus, which Dr Mackintosh says is an exemplar of his brave new world of education.

Indeed, the polytechnic has embraced the WikiEducator philosophy of sharing knowledge.

Sharing it freely, willingly and globally.

While WikiEducator may be relatively little known outside education circles to date, most will have come across its internet cousin, Wikipedia, that growing interactive repository of wisdom with an answer for almost any internet search.

"What Wikipedia has done for knowledge it is now doing for educating systems. [WikiEducator's] an amazing project in which New Zealand is taking the lead," Dr Mackintosh says.

It is still a young project but has grown quickly.

Dr Mackintosh set up the prototype of WikiEducator on a desktop machine in February, 2006, and registered the WikiEducator domain name the same month.

WikiEducator is now being used by more than 110 countries and receiving more than nine million hits a month.

It became an independent entity on July 1, headquartered at the new International Centre for Open Education at Otago Polytechnic.

"This global interaction is centred here.

"It's headquartered here in Dunedin," Dr Mackintosh says.

This is, though, a genuinely international enterprise, so the WikiEducator website (WikiEducator.org) - powered by open source (i.e. free) software, naturally - is hosted by the Athabasca University, in Alberta, Canada, and it also has the backing of the Canada-based Commonwealth of Learning.

Through the website, educators anywhere in the world can share classroom resources, lecture notes, textbooks and planning and policy documents.

Users make donations to a virtual honesty box, with the money used to commission more resources and to train more people to use the site.

The ability of the Otago institution to become involved has been aided by its approach to intellectual property.

"Otago Polytechnic is the first tertiary institution in the world to adopt a creative commons open content intellectual property policy," Dr Mackintosh says.

The policy allows others to copy, distribute and transmit and adapt materials generated there, as long as credit is given.

"For example, midwifery training materials developed on WikiEducator at Otago Polytechnic can help deliver babies in Bangladesh, because the materials can be customised and adapted for local contexts and cultures," Dr Mackintosh says.

"The issue here is life skills for the future.

"It should be possible, technologically, to develop free digital resources for every subject on the planet."

Dr Mackintosh intends to develop free digital resources in support of all national curricula by 2015.

He has previously worked as an education specialist at the Commonwealth of Learning, University of South Africa and University of Auckland, where he founded the Centre for Flexible and Distance Learning.

"It's an obsession for me.

"My passion is education.

"I'm a teacher by training and teachers want to collaborate.

"Give them space to do this and it comes naturally," he says.

"We believe that we can achieve far more working together than working alone.

"With the advent of digital technology, there are possibilities today that simply weren't possible before the digital worldThat is where WikiEducator comes in.

Dr Mackintosh says it is being embraced by countries around the world.

"Education never sleeps," he says.

Indeed his monitoring of the system shows it is being constantly accessed by people all over world.

"It's based on principles of self-organisation.

"It's not a hierarchical system that says 'This is how to operate'.

"It's bottom up.

"As a community, we don't dictate in any way."

Proof of its bottom-up evolution is the fact that the impetus for the French version of WikiEducator came from Cameroon.

"Which is wonderful," Mr Mackintosh says.

Developing nations are likely to increasingly take the lead, he says.

"I believe that all learners and teachers should have the freedom to use the technologies of their choice.

"No learner should be denied access to an education because learning material is locked behind copyright or because people may not have the resources to pay for licensed software," he says.

"All people of the world have a fundamental right to participate in the knowledge economy."

However, Dr Mackintosh doesn't believe the new cyber classroom will replace conventional teaching.

"I don't see open education replacing traditional classrooms and teachers; it will augment them.

"It will also improve efficiencies and generate savings in other areas of the system that can be reinvested.

"For example, the amount of money being invested in textbooks is considerable."

"From an economic point of view, it's a no-brainer.

"The increase in student fees for higher education in the United States over the last two decades has been in excess of the inflation index, which is not a sustainable equation.

"What we're doing is bringing down the cost drivers," he says.

One of Dr Mackintosh's most enthusiastic supporters is Otago Polytechnic deputy chief executive Dr Robin Day.

Which isn't too surprising, really.

This year the polytechnic's Open Education Resources Foundation was awarded a $NZ287,000 grant from one of the United States' largest charitable organisations, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which was established in 1966 by Hewlett-Packard computer company founder William Hewlett to support educational, environmental, poverty eradication and arts programmes around the world.

"It's fantastic.

"We believe we are the first polytechnic in New Zealand to receive a grant from this foundation," Dr Day says.

"This [WikiEducator] is going to put us on the map in this domain; there's no doubt about it.

"This has given us a way to engage on the world stage.

"It is going to establish us as a centre of excellence," he says.

The money will be used to expand the Open Education Resources Foundation, which was officially launched at Otago Polytechnic in September.

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The OER Foundation subscribes to open philanthropy and provides leadership, networking and support for educators and educational institutions.

The polytechnic has also received a $117,500 Ministry of Education grant to commission New Zealanders to write WikiEducator resources for New Zealand secondary schools and to train teachers to use the site and develop free content for learning, through an innovative training programme called Learning4Content (or L4C).

L4C was inspired by a native North American proverb: "Tell me and I'll forget.

"Show me and I may not remember.

"Involve me and I'll understand".

"We've had people all around the world saying `How did you do this? A small polytech in Dunedin, New Zealand?'," Dr Day says.

"The ways people learn now are more intersected, with things like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

"Education has to think about that and change with them.

"It's about engaging and building commonality."

"Everything was in silos before.

"We had set textbooks.

"Then, two or three years ago, we started moving to more open content.

"We've gone from being a typical polytechnic a few years ago, where everything was locked down and we restricted access, to the complete opposite where everything's shared."

"Through sharing, we can also reduce costs for students and institutions.

"It gives us the ability to use funding more wisely and efficiently."

"The future of education is in worldwide communities.

"It's only a matter of time.

"Last century, we were geographically and technologically isolated.

"WikiEducator makes it easier to collaborate.

"People in rural areas who couldn't have achieved higher education now can."

The philosophy of open source education is being embraced around the globe.

United States President Barack Obama recently announced the launch of an open source content project, the American Graduation Initiative.

"We do not know where this kind of experiment will lead; but that is exactly why we ought to try it," President Obama said.

Dr Mackintosh believes it is only the beginning of a brave new world in education.

"Things change.

"Ice harvesting was one of America's greatest earners of GDP in the 1800s.

"Then refrigeration came along, which changed all that."

"Education has also changed.

"The next thing will be the community on mobile phones.

"A school will be able to go on an expedition to the museum and GPS phones will be downloading specific content for the children as they're walking past the exhibits."

 

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