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What’s the point of open education?

August 28, 2010

Dave Cormier describes being faced with ‘a sea of faces who didn’t really get (it),’ when trying to ‘explain the value of working in the open to people who are not ideologically aligned to the idea’. In the OTTER project at the University of Leicester, we worked with academics to help them transform selected teaching materials into open educational resources (OERs), and we found that different contributors had different motivations for their involvement – and that they fell into basically two camps.

For some people, it was all about providing ‘taster’ courses as a showcase of the institution, and their department, to demonstrate the fine quality of the courses on offer, and thereby to recruit paying students. These authors were totally against the idea of publishing whole courses online, feeling that they would be ‘giving away the family silver’ by doing so.

For others, it was all about knowledge sharing in a global community, with particular satisfaction being derived from the idea of making good quality materials available to people who wouldn’t normally have access to such resources. Organisations like OERAfrica demonstrate the value of such an approach, by supporting institutions in Africa to identify suitable OERs online, so that pressured academics can turn their attention to teaching and student support rather than developing course content. Stephen Downes puts it very well: ‘… it comes down to access. Traditional university courses simply help people who already have an advantage increase their lead. They help the rich get richer, as they are restricted to people who have qualified to be admitted to university and who can afford to pay the tuition fees. I would much rather spend my time helping people who do not have all those advantages. They have much more to gain, and ultimately, I believe, will have much more to give.’

I think each of these attitudes implies a certain business model: the ‘family silver’ group believes that course content is valuable currency and that ‘free samples’ will help attract paying customers. The more altruistic, ‘knowledge-sharing’ group believe either that they have a strong enough case to obtain funding for their efforts (and some of the most successful OER projects have been heavily funded, with the Hewlett Foundation being probably the best-known sponsor), or  that they can generate an income through services related to course content, such as teaching/ training, assessment and accreditation.

So when people say, ‘What’s the point of open education?’ (or when they look at you with blank faces when you talk about the subject), it’s difficult to answer that question without talking about the various business models that enable open education to be sustainable. I can’t speak about open education in general, but when it comes to OERs, I suspect that those in the ‘family silver’ camp are going to find it more and more difficult to persuade customers to pay for their content, as the culture of openness becomes more widespread on the Web. And that the competitive edge in the global education market will begin to depend more and more on services (particularly, the quality of teaching), as free, high-quality OERs become more widely available.

This two-pronged drive towards increase in the quality of both teaching/ student support, and course content (through OERs) will be to the benefit of both fee-paying students and informal, non-fee paying learners. And if more institutions are finding sustainable ways to offer not only open content, but also open courses (including the teaching), that can only up the stakes even further for fee-paying institutions to make sure students get their money’s worth – while at the same time enabling access to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to such opportunities. Who can argue with that?

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