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What is open education? (learning tomorrow 3)

Friday, July 8th, 2011

In my first learning tomorrow post I spoke about the importance of open educational resources (OER’s) in the shaping of learning in the future. I was able to offer a definition of OER’s from the Cape Town Declaration as resources that are “freely shared through open licences which facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone” and “published in formats that facilitate both use and editing, and that accommodate a diversity of technical platforms”.

But the term “open education” is increasingly being used. Some salient recent uses in 2011;

  • in April 2011 UNU Merit published a book on the How and Why of Open Education (free download),
  • in a recent blogpost Cathi Davidson of HASTAC asks ow can we make education as open as the open web,
  • last week the Open Knowledge Conference in Berlin hosted a workshop on the How and Why of Open Education ,
  • the Open Education 2011 Conference to be held in Utah in October will be the the 8th “Open Education” Conference.
  • Each of these associate open education resources with open education.

    So what is “open education”? There doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory answer to this question. Wikipedia’s brief claims to distinguish the term from open educational resources: the entry begins “Not to be confused with Open educational resources”. The entry goes on to claim: “Open education is a collective term that refers to educational organizations that seek to eliminate barriers to entry. Such institutions, for example, would not have academic admission requirements.” While quaintly anachronistic the insistence on one of the meanings ascribed to the term in the 1970’s meaning of the term, doesn’t seem historically accurate since in the same era the terms was contrasted to “Traditional” education, as a process “founded upon contingency and uniqueness; each student, teacher and event is suie generis”.*

    Graham Atwell argues for a radical definition of open education, without actually offering a definition but suggesting that the starting place should be the claim made by Ivan Illich:

    “A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.”

    The preface of the Cape Town Declaration on Open Education offers a useful way of thinking about the relationship between open educational resources:

    “Open education is a living idea. As the movement grows, this idea will continue to evolve. There will be other visions initiatives and declarations beyond Cape Town. This is exactly the point. The Cape Town signatories have committed to developing further strategies, especially around open technology and teaching practices.”

    Perhaps the Wikipedia entry is useful after all in the suggestion that what is important is the elimination of barriers to education. Open educational resources eliminate one eliminates one barrier to education: highly priced learning materials. Thinking about open education in this way draws our attention to the second concept in the term “education”. When something is considered extraneous to education but nevertheless limits education in some way it can appropriately be described as a barrier. Eliminating a barrier to education makes education more open. That doesn’t provide a definition of open education but it does provide some practical guidance; when in doubt eliminate barriers.

    Different pictures of education will necessarily yield different answers about what constitute extraneous barriers and what constitutes inherent features of education. It will make dialogue clearer when we recognise arguments about these differences not as arguments about openness but arguments about education. For some education may necessarily involve some kind of formal assessment, while other pictures of education would regard that as extraneous.

    But opening educational resources has never been only about 0 cost, it has been about increasing freedom, freedom to remix and not just copy, freedom of teachers but also of learners. What is valued is freedom but also the kinds of co-operation enabled by freedom. The Cape Town Declaration refers to this as “planting the seeds of a new pedagogy where educators and learners create, shape and evolve knowledge together, deepening their skills and understanding as they go.”

    One of the first seeds to sprout is Peer to Peer University (P2PU), a volunteer driven project to create a peer to peer driven learning community**. P2PU bills itself as the “social wrapper around open educational resources.”

    Peer learning may well be the key innovation that helps resolve the crisis which tertiary education is experiencing worldwide. It may enable a education vibrant with free co-operation.But each new development in open education is only possible because of the development before it; peer learning is only possible with open educational resources; open educational resources are only possible with open licenses such as the Creative Commons licenses used for OER’s. Effective use of open licenses requires open protocols, open formats and the Internet. The Internet relies on layers of openness, including HTML, the URL system, and TCP/IP. Connection to the Internet often uses wifi, which uses a protocol; 802.11. that in turn relies on using unlicensed spectrum. Each layer relies on the continuing openness of the layers which it builds on.

    It won’t have escaped the well caffeinated reader that I don’t offer a definition of open education either. I’ve (re)raised the question because it is an important question. The Cape Town Declaration specifically and the Open Education movement more generally seems to point to an emerging answer, a picture of education characterised by free co-operation.

    * Open Education: An Operational Definition and Validation in Great Britain and United States Herbert J. Walberg and Susan Christie Thomas, American Educational Research Journal Spring 1972 Vol 9 No.2.

    ** Full disclosure: I am one of the volunteers.

    learning tomorrow

    Friday, May 27th, 2011

    Or why I think that open educational resources matter to everyone.

    Education is in ferment. A slew of books talk up a ‘crisis’ in the university, specifically universities in the United States. A sample of typical titles includes; Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University and Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities .

    But which crisis? There seem to be a number of factors bearing on the current model of higher education. Each factor has distinct origins, and each has been causing change in education, especially higher education in the developed world, on different time scales. It seems better to speak about a number of crises.

    These are:
    * the funding crisis,
    * the crisis in the humanities and the related identity crisis of universities,
    * a pedagogical crisis
    * demographic shifts,
    * global competition,
    * the impact of information and communications technologies.

    In this post I am going to speak about just one aspect of the last item listed, it is questionable whether this is a crisis so much as an opportunity.

    It is simple but momentous; as soon as learning material such as a textbook is reproduced digitally and loaded onto an Internet server it is available to everyone in the world who can access the Internet, at no more cost than accessing the Internet.(1)

    This will affect almost every educational institution and almost every educational practice. Since we don’t know entirely how it will affect institutions and practices let me go ahead and make myself guilty of understatement and say that it’s going to be huge.

    Any description of this change has to sit uncomfortably between late 90’s technology hype and understatement. That there isn’t quite the language to talk about shows how little we (and I guess that by we I mean most of human society) still haven’t fully understood the potential of this phenomenon that we take for granted, that we call the Internet.

    In the midst of growing anxiety about the rising costs of education one competent of education could be free: learning materials. That should mean that education would be cheaper and more widely available than ever.

    If learning materials can be free why aren’t they?

    Learning materials are subject to copyright. Copyright applies automatically as soon as an original intellectual creation is recorded in a tangible format. Remember that in lawyerspeak ‘tangible’ includes information represented as a series of 1’s and 0’s recorded as electronic charges on a distant server. That means that reproducing learning materials, except under exceptions such as fair use, is prohibited by law. The creator of leaning materials must make the effort of an affirmative legal act to allow others to share learning materials. Until open licenses became widely available there was no way for a creator to share her work without hiring a lawyer.

    The default rule of copyright forbids copying. The default rules of copyright are applied to all kinds of disparate phenomena, such as punk rock, computer programs and sex education materials (the rules are also applied to epi-phenomena such as songs sung by Britney Spears).

    The theory behind the default setting of copyright is that these things require time and effort (which economists and lawyers think can approximate money) to make. The law gives a (theoretically) temporary monopoly to the maker to compensate him or her for the time and effort of making it. It’s obviously a crude scheme, the Pulitzer Prize winner gets the same exclusivity and terms as the writer of advertising copy.

    But most learning materials are either subsidized by government, such as school textbooks in South Africa and most of the United States, or purchased by students subsidized by government through student loans. Most are written by people whose salaries are paid directly or indirectly with tax money. Since tax money pays for the creation of these resources anyway then the most efficient use of them would be to let them be freely available, for copying and remixing.

    (1) Whether you think that’s momentous or mundane one inescapable consequence is that anyone who doesn’t have access to the Internet doesn’t get to participate. Someone from a wealthy culture may think that there is no-one who doesn’t have Internet access, or least, no-one important. But as an African I am acutely conscious that the vast majority of Africans do not have Internet access, and that for those that do it’s inadequate. But it’s not as if there are any good off-line alternatives. Its not as if Africans generally already have functioning off-line systems that provide plentiful, customizable high quality learning materials or in too many cases any learning materials. I’ve never heard of a viable proposal for providing plentiful, high quality, customizable learning materials offline. If anyone has heard of one please tell us about it in a comment.