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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 education?

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 open” education?

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 conversation?

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 conversation.

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 knowledge.

Evolving Institutional Practices

CT: Is higher education as an institution evolving as naturally—or as fast—as knowledge is within these open education conversations?

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 open education.

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 move ahead.

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 (

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 learning enterprise.

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. is its discussion-forum site.

MIT OpenCourseWare (

A webbased publication of virtually all MIT course content, open and available to the world.

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