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Beyond Access

What's behind quality education? According to MIT's Vijay Kumar: openness.

Vijay Kumar

KUMAR: 'Open education goes far beyond just making educational opportunity more accessible.'

In the book Opening Up Education (The MIT Press, 2008), Vijay Kumar, his co-editor Toru Iiyoshi, and contributors explore the realm of open knowledge. Here, Kumar, MIT's senior associate dean and director of the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology, tells CT how open education reveals and shares pedagogy along with content resources, taking us beyond access, to educational transformation.

We've heard about open content, but how does open education or open knowledge differ from that? At times we have talked about opening the doors to education, or making educational resources more accessible. We have talked about open content or open resources, and about open standards. But open education, or an open knowledge ecology, is the open sharing of not just educational resources, but also of practices and pedagogies that underlie the content and resources.

This kind of sharing leads to a very participatory and generative form of education where people actually coproduce educational resources, actively reviewing and giving feedback to improve educational practices-- revealing what is usually kept tacit, that which lies underneath the content and materials. It's a scholarship around teaching and learning that's about putting up everything that leads to the production of educational resources. So, it goes far beyond just making educational opportunity more accessible, to making what's behind quality education much more visible. That is really important if we want to make productive and sustainable change in education.

What are some examples of institutions pursuing this? Being at MIT, I like to point to OpenCourseWare as a very significant movement in bringing the world's attention to all this, because what we put out there is a snapshot of basically all the courses at MIT. But still, what you see is the content and structure, rather than the thinking behind the courses-- so we really have only begun to share the pedagogy that led to the production and delivery of the courses.

And it's not just MIT anymore, but several other institutions as well that are beginning to share similar information. In the OpenCourseWare Consortium there are now about 200 institutions. Other examples of open resources and practices that have been widely shared include content repositories like MERLOT, or in K-12, Curriki.

These are all initiatives tending toward open education, but there is much more that has to be done to find ways to share more of the pedagogy along with the content. One clear example is a tool kit that the Carnegie Foundation has developed in its Knowledge Media Lab, called the KEEP Toolkit. It allows people to share the motivation and pedagogy that goes into educational innovation. It's an important step toward the goal of open knowledge.

Connexions is another interesting project that's been underway for years at Rice University [TX], where there's a corpus of materials and a community of scholars in specific disciplines who are creating, selecting, and annotating materials. And OpenLearn at the Open University in the UK provides access to open education resources, around which is an environment for discussion, sharing, and re-use of those resources. These are both examples of what open education might start to look like.

"The force of this distributed, connected global and mobile world will drive open education."

You talked about an open knowledge ecology. Is this coming about organically in a sense, or is it something that will require a lot of top-down development? The world today is highly distributed, very localized, and very participatory. Many things happen despite organizations and governments, but we do have schools, institutions, and governmental agencies which, in our current world, have roles and responsibilities such as creating capacity to meet the needs of a growing knowledge economy, making sure that industry is well-served by employable graduates, or ensuring that individuals' needs for education are being met. All these agencies need to understand a world where there is extremely decentralized production of information; the amount of globalization and "flat-worldness" that we hear about is significantly on the increase, and there is much greater mobility. I think that the development of open education is going to be neither strictly top-down nor completely distributed. But it's the force of this very distributed, connected global and mobile world that will be a very important factor in driving open education.

How does open education take advantage of Web 2.0 technologies, and how does it fit in with established programs like distance learning? When we talk about distance education, we typically consider standard mechanisms like delivering education via video. Often, we take the education that we are delivering in traditional forms on campus and just broadcast it with some degree of interactivity. But if you really want to deliver excellent quality, you have to start to think about a combination of open resources and network-based delivery. You use Web 2.0 functionality, and this becomes the central modality by which you deliver quality education at scale. There is no way that you are going to meet the demands of quality at scale any other way, particularly in the context of developing countries.

Would you say there is a nexus of open knowledge and Web 2.0? Yes, indeed. In fact, a lot of what we refer to as Web 2.0 becomes a very important part of this: the tools and facilitators of the intent of open knowledge. When we talk about sharing, we are talking about communities of practice and learning. It is all that Web 2.0 points to; it's about collectivity. People are collectively viewing, reviewing, critiquing, and constructing knowledge based on Web 2.0 resources and tools.

This is about the whole educational service, using open technologies and architectures to create localized communities, communities of knowledge sharing, and communities of learning. That's the open knowledge vision.

How would you think globally about open education trends? Sometimes we talk about open education transformations at the micro level-- how disciplines can change with blended practices; how learning in physics can improve by sharing good practices through open courseware and other open education practices. But then you move to a global conversation and context, and the considerations change. I can speak particularly about India as I have served as an honorary adviser to India's National Knowledge Commission. India is a country with a booming economy and a need for knowledge workers in practically every sector. How do you address the needs for education at that mammoth scale?

This is where you can take advantage of the open education movement by not just looking at all the content and best practices available, but also by leveraging the participation of experts and communities of learning so we can move toward an ecology that allows you to scale excellence. When we think about countries that are growing in a hurry and trying to participate in the global economy-- usually we refer to them as developing countries-- they have tremendous needs for skilled human resources. And for them, what open education brings is the ability to address new knowledge and continuous knowledge updates, while simultaneously providing general education at a scale we in the US can't even imagine.

Do you think it would be helpful for colleges and universities to include an open education component in their formal strategic plans? Absolutely. I think it is the most vital thing institutions have to consider. Today's economic realities press institutions to look urgently beyond what has been business as usual. We're facing a climate that requires a re-orientation of practices and a rethinking of operational models, to deliver relevant education. Still, it is not simply that this has the potential to change the economics of education; it has to do with quality. By sharing pedagogy, critically reviewing it, and making that work much more visible, we can bring the practice of research into education and move collectively toward better practices and educational transformation.

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