The Open Education Movement is Gaining Speed, but Potential Roadblocks Lie Ahead

By Richard G. Baraniuk

A grassroots movement is on the verge of sweeping through the academic world. The open-education movement is based on a set of intuitions that are shared by a remarkably wide range of academics: that knowledge should be free and open to use and re-use; that collaboration should be easier, not harder; that people should receive credit and kudos for contributing to education and research; and that concepts and ideas are linked in unusual and surprising ways and not the simple linear forms that textbooks present. Open education promises to fundamentally change the way authors, instructors, and students interact worldwide.

The open-education movement takes the inspiration of the open-source software movement (Linux, for example). It mixes in the powerful communication abilities of the Internet and applies the result to teaching and learning materials like course notes and textbooks. Open educational materials include text, images, audio, video, interactive simulations, and games that are free to be used and also re-used in new ways by anyone around the world.

Participants in open-education are working toward a broad set of timely goals, including:

  • To bring people back into the educational equation – particularly those who have been “shut out” of the traditional publishing world, like talented K-12 teachers, scientists and engineers out in industry, and people who don’t read and write English.
  • To reduce the high cost of teaching materials. The average community college student in the U.S. spends more money on textbooks than tuition. Something is out of balance there.
  • To reduce the time lag between producing course materials and textbooks and getting them into the hands of students. By the time many books are printed, they’re out of date. This is particularly problematic in fast-moving areas of science, technology, and medicine.
  • To enable re-use and re-contextualization such as translation and localization of course materials into myriad different languages and cultures. This is critical if we are to reach the entire world’s population, where clearly “one size d'es not fit all.”

Several open-education projects are already attracting millions of users per month. Some, like the MIT OpenCourseWare project and its OCW Consortium, are top-down organized institutional repositories that showcase their institutions’ courses. Others, like Connexions, are grassroots organized and encourage contributions from all comers.

While the open-education movement is gaining speed rapidly, its current trajectory could take it toward several roadblocks that will have to be navigated for it to prosper, including:

  • The challenge of re-use : Unfortunately, widely used content formats like PDF yield materials that are open in theory but closed in practice to editing and reuse. This renders them often merely “reference” materials that are to be seen and not touched. As a result, both innovation on the materials and community participation could be stifled.
  • Fragmentation : To date, many large open-education projects have been institution-based repositories. However, intellectual ties are often much stronger between colleagues who are in the same teaching/research domain, but at different institutions. Institutional repositories could potentially fragment a field’s knowledge base into distinct repositories and hinder inter-institutional collaborations.
  • Infrastructure costs : Those who have been able to develop new open-educational materials or innovate on existing ones often have nowhere to put them to make them accessible to a broader public. In the developing world, for example, it is a real challenge for governments and institutions, let alone individual instructors, to deploy and maintain indefinitely the hardware, software, and connectivity for their own repositories.
  • Intellectual property : There is a debate in the open-education world regarding whether open materials should or should not be commercially usable. A licensing clause that renders open materials non-commercially useable promises to protect contributors from potentially unfair commercial exploitation. However, a non-commercial license not only limits the spread of knowledge by virtually precluding the production of paper books and CD-ROMs, it also cuts off potential future revenues that might sustain non-profit open-education enterprises into the future. Interestingly an anti-commercial view is contrary to that of the more established open-source software world, which greatly benefits from commercial involvement.

As we have developed the vision and infrastructure of Connexions over the past six and a half years, we have scanned the horizon carefully for upcoming roadblocks. While we do not claim to have all of the answers, we do believe that there exist plausible approaches to many of the current and near-future challenges. For instance, to address the reuse challenge above and make open materials easy to re-use, all Connexions’ content is in a common and open XML format that is easily customized and even converted to PDF for printing. We have also developed free and open-source editing tools like an MS Word to XML converter and a WYSIWYG XML document editor (Etna).

To address the fragmentation and infrastructure issues, we house all of the materials produced by authors from around the globe in a single globally accessible repository. And to address the intellectual property issues, we use the Creative Commons “attribution” license on all Connexions content. This ensures attribution and academic credit for the author and also enables printing paper books and burning CD-ROMs (at a fraction of the current price). In the end, of course, real progress with open education will probably require a blend of both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

The open education movement has real potential to enable a revolutionary advance in the world’s standard of education. While many challenges lie ahead on the road to this goal, we’ll get there faster if you become an active participant in an open-education project as an author, instructor, student, or software developer. Together we can change the way the world develops, disseminates, and uses knowledge.

Richard G. Baraniuk is the Victor E. Cameron Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University and the founder of Connexions. Contact him at richb@cnx.org.

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