Technology & Learning
Open Education: a Learning Conversation
Information technology provides higher ed institutions with the opportunity to access, share, and create new knowledge, resulting in more organic, natural, experiential, and authentic learning
THE TERM ‘OPEN EDUCATION’ HAS BEEN IN
use at least since the 1920s, when it emerged as an educational experiment of the
Soviet Union. But since the wildfire spread of the internet in the late 20th century, open
education has come to be inextricably associated with information technology. The
William and Flora Hewlett Foundation Open Educational Resources initiative calls this
“the simple and powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that
technology, in general, and the Worldwide Web, in particular, provide an extraordinary
opportunity for everyone to share, use, and reuse knowledge.”
CT spoke with two ed tech pioneers to gain their insights on the relationship between
technology and open education, how open education changes the learning conversation,
and what needs to happen at the institutional level to ensure that educational practices
evolve along with open technology and learning.
Trent Batson has served as an English professor and director of academic computing,
and has been an IT leader since the mid-1980s. He is executive director of the Association
for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning, a new professional
association for the ePortfolio community. He is the former chair of the board of the Open
Source Portfolio Initiative (an open source ePortfolio software development project) and
senior contributing editor for CT’s Web 2.0 eNewsletter.
Gerry Hanley is the executive director of MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource
for Learning and Online Teaching) and senior director for academic technology services
for the California State University Office of the Chancellor. At MERLOT, he directs
the development and sustainability of MERLOT’s innovative services as well as its consortium
of higher ed systems and institutions, professional societies, corporations, and
other digital libraries. At CSU, he oversees the development and implementation of
academic technology, library, and accessible technology initiatives supporting the
system’s 23 campuses.
CT: We’ve heard a lot about open
source. Now, we’re hearing more about
open education as well. What is open
Trent Batson: Open education can
sound like hype. Or like something free,
as in free, open source. Well, it’s not
either of those. And it’s not that education
used to be closed and now it’s open—it’s
not black and white like that. But it is concrete:
specific changes that have occurred
because of information technology. And
we might simply call it education that’s
“more open than it used to be.”
Gerry Hanley: Actually, open education
is a broad concept that covers a
whole range of both content and services.
You need both the open education content
that is freely available on the web with the
appropriate usage conditions that allow
people to utilize it, and open education
services—the tools, the online forums,
the open classroom space where people
can gather and communicate, the services
that allow people to publish openly, and a
variety of services that allow people to
have an open identity on the web.
CT: Can you give some examples of
the types of services you refer to when
you talk about an “open identity”?
Hanley: Google, or Google Mail, and
Yahoo! are examples of services that
freely allow people to have the type of
online identity that’s essential to open
education. And then there are all the
social networking tools that provide the
communication and the dialog that are
necessary for an educational process to
occur—for example, Twitter or MERLOT
Voices, an open education forum
derived from Ning. And, there are tools
that allow you to publish on the web,
where you can author and distribute
content—an example is the KEEP
Toolkit from the Carnegie Foundation
for the Advancement of Teaching
[which has now migrated to MERLOT].
CT: Are there any other important
open education tech tools beyond some
of these Web 2.0 apps?
Batson: For one thing, databases that
used to be only for experts that now can be
understood by undergraduate students. Or
data that can be visualized, making it not
only understandable but more vivid and
memorable. I should also explain that a
key part of open education is really opening
up sources of knowledge that simply
weren’t accessible before. This aspect of
open education just happened because
people are curious and need to know. No
one set out with an “open education” banner
and decided to create better user
interfaces so students could understand
previously inaccessible data (inaccessible
because it was too far away or too complicated).
But it’s still a great result.
Hanley: Yes, and hopefully this all
gives you a sense that open education is
not only about content and services, but
also about the open community of people
who use the content with the services to
execute teaching and learning processes.
The content and the services that are
coming together for open education have
been emerging from different organizations
with vastly different purposes—
Google Mail wasn’t set up specifically for
an open education purpose, but it certainly
has functioned to allow anyone, anywhere
to participate in an online
community, and open education to grow.
Evolving the Learning Conversation
CT: What’s the real impact, though, as
we find these elements coming together
and creating the inroads to a “more
Batson: For one thing, access is more
open. Having access to knowledge is one
meaning of “open.” Print [resources]
were and are expensive and, in comparison
to today’s flood of information,
they were pretty rare as well.
But “open” can be seen in another
way, too. Open can mean staying
engaged in a conversation more continually
so that the ideas stay open to you.
CT: Do you mean a teaching-andlearning
Batson: The conversation I’m talking
about is among teachers, students, teaching
assistants, and others who might join
a learning conversation. There’s a big
difference between an ongoing conversation
and a class discussion. A conversation
is a natural human discourse form
that people choose to do—it’s fun, and
good conversations can go on for hours.
A class discussion is not a natural human
discourse form, but a contrived one
based on the scarcity model of all education,
when we really did have scarcity
of educational resources, up until about
10 years ago.
Now I don’t want to be disparaging of
class discussion. My point is only that
we can, thanks to new communication
technologies and almost universal
access, have a natural human conversation
that includes teachers and learners.
CT: Certainly “natural human conversation”
can take place in traditional
educational settings. Explain more
about what you mean.
Batson: A traditional class discussion
is aimed mainly at helping students
remember and understand what the
teacher already knows. It’s about what
has already happened. It’s about knowledge
that has already been built. Finished.
Closed. Not open. A conversation
is open. Nobody knows for sure where
it’s going. It’s not repeating what was
already said; it is not looking back at
finished knowledge and picking over
the bones. Instead, it’s an organic
process of engaging everyone’s mind to
help the learning process stay interesting.
Good teachers can stand back and
let a good conversation develop, online
or in person.
Contributions in a natural conversation
are interesting if they add new perspectives,
or rephrase in a new way what
was said, or if they integrate comments
with what someone else said. Natural
turn-taking kicks in. Conversations can
happen now because students and faculty
can stay in touch between times that
they meet. There is not as much losing
the thread as before because there are so
many online reminders of the learning
So, in this context, the learning conversation
means the knowledge in the
class can evolve more naturally, so that
learners have a more open connection to
Evolving Institutional Practices
CT: Is higher education as an institution
evolving as naturally—or as fast—as
knowledge is within these open education
Hanley: It’s clear that institutional
practices will have to evolve and in some cases, be transformed, so content
and services can move to the next level of
CT: Give some examples of practices that
may need to evolve.
Hanley: Here’s a big one: We have a
growing amount of content, and we are on
a trajectory for producing more. But when
you have an institution going through an accreditation
process, and it has to evaluate the content of the curriculum,
it’s the traditional textbooks that already have an acceptance
of quality, of currency, of breadth. Therefore, when you have
an accreditation, people don’t really question whether the content
of established textbooks is good enough to meet accreditation
requirements. Not so with OER [open education
resources]. Once you bring in open education resources, people
are going to say, “Is this accurate, comprehensive, up-todate,
reliably available?” They begin to ask these questions
because, in a sense, there is not an acceptance of OER as a
real substitute for textbooks.
CT: So the need for institutional accreditation practices and
OER to evolve together seems pretty clear. Are there other
things relevant to institutional practices that you think will
need to change in support of open education?
Hanley: Yes, there are a lot of institutional/cultural practices
that make that evolution I’m talking about truly necessary.
Take as one further, related example: When you have
transfer of courses for credit across institutions, what do institutions
do? They look at the textbook and say, “Well, they’ve
covered that content, and it’s similar to ours.” But if you give
someone a list of OER websites, how do articulation agreements
and the adoption of someone else’s courses happen if
there’s not an institutional practice of identifying open education
resources as high-quality, reliable content?
Issues of tenure and promotion fit in here, too. Faculty get
evaluated on whether they are using recent editions of textbooks,
so what happens when we get into OER? Can we even
reliably determine the date the resource was published?
Again, we have some institutional practices that need to
evolve along with OER.
CT: This all seems related to quality assurance.
Hanley: What OER has to move to is quality assurance for
content. With MERLOT, that’s been job one since we began
the peer-review process back in 2000—assuring the quality of
content. OER won’t be accepted if we can’t show how we can
meet quality-assurance levels, for example, with metadata. So
it’s important to address all this if we expect to see open education
CT: Trent, what challenges do you see for open education?
Batson: Education cannot continue to be so planned and
controlled in its process. That is no longer necessary. We can
all agree on outcomes and learning goals, but we must be open
to various ways of arriving at those outcomes and goals. We
now live in an age of abundant educational resources; the
scarcities of the age of print no longer apply. With such abundance,
we can sustain variations and choices. There are many
paths to the top.
The challenge to educators in this open education century
is to take advantage of the open opportunities that our new
robust, plentiful, and universal technologies offer us. Open, in
teaching and learning, can mean more organic, more natural,
more experiential, and authentic. Primarily, this is an open
education century because more opportunities are open to us.
The big question: Are we educators open to them?
The challenge to educators is to take
advantage of the open opportunities
our new robust, plentiful, and
universal technologies offer us.
Open Education Resources
The Association for Authentic, Experiential
and Evidence-Based Learning (www.aaeebl.org):
A global academic association
of 80 educational institutions working
toward new designs in learning and assessment,
increasing connections among the portfolio
community, and building the new
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
The foundation’s Open
Educational Resources initiative has been the
leading grant-maker in the field of high-quality
digitized educational materials offered freely to
anyone with access to the internet.
An online community
with peer-reviewed online teaching and
learning materials. MERLOT Voices (voices.
merlot.org) is its discussion-forum site.
MIT OpenCourseWare (ocw.mit.edu):
publication of virtually all MIT course
content, open and available to the world.