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Open Content's Higher Ed Calling

If the Horizon Report is on target, open content could become more mainstream in higher education this year. Such content is defined as any type of creative work or subject matter that allows for free and open copying and modifying of the information by anyone. The movement holds great potential for the higher education space where the Austin, TX-based New Media Consortium (NMC)--which publishes The Horizon Report annually in collaboration with Educause Learning Initiative--identifies it as a trend whose adoption rate will be one year or less.

According to the report, open content is a growing movement that focuses on sharing and reusability and thrives on the ready availability of a wide range of educational content. "Offering a potential alternative to traditionally published materials such as textbooks that is highly customizable and cost-effective," the report stated, "the open content movement depends on a community of contributors and users who are willing to create and release high-quality educational content in a variety of media at little to no cost."

Larry Johnson, NMC's CEO, said open content's roots in higher education can be tracked back to Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenCourseWare Initiative, a Web-based resource comprising all the university's course content. "Open content was really launched in earnest about a decade ago," said Johnson, "with early beginnings at MIT."

Johnson said the "sharing" of teaching materials, syllabi, and handouts that happens through MIT's open content system is being replicated at colleges nationwide. "More and more schools realize that these materials ought to be shared," said Johnson, "and are publishing them in a way that allows people to take the best of what they see and use it."

Calling the open content phenomena "largely unorganized," Johnson said most initiatives are launched when faculty is encouraged to "put stuff up" on Web sites, and without any other mandates or requirements attached. He said the trend is particularly relevant in developing countries, where networking between universities can lead to growth and innovation that wouldn't otherwise be accessible.

But don't expect United States institutions to start letting down their walls and sharing proprietary information with one another anytime soon. That kind of "open" environment could be years away, according to Johnson. "You don't see true sharing between schools at this point," he said. "It's definitely the vision, but it's not the actual case yet. We have yet to get there."

For now, Johnson said, the open content movement in higher education will be made up of schools that want to show the world that they have great stuff to share.

"There are plenty of individual facilities using [open content] because it's a time saver," said Johnson. "Right now it's more about putting the information out there for people, as opposed to actually having people use it. Things are a bit out of balance, but from what we're seeing, the [situation] will eventually balance out."

When higher education does embrace open content universally, Johnson said, the benefits will be significant, particularly for students and independent learners. "As a result, the role of the teacher is undergoing a slow but definite change, from the guardian and dispenser of knowledge to the guide and coach for learners faced with an overabundance of resources," the NMC said in its recent report. "Students have unparalleled access to learning materials; what they need from teachers now is help cultivating the skills of finding, assessing, interpreting and synthesizing information."

Citing the report, Johnson said part of the appeal of open content for higher education is that it is also a response to both the rising costs of traditionally published resources and the lack of educational resources in some regions, and a cost-effective alternative to textbooks and other materials. "As customizable educational content is made increasingly available for free over the Internet, students are learning not only the material, but also the skills related to finding, evaluating, interpreting, and repurposing the resources they are studying in partnership with their teachers."

Also holding open content back from widespread adoption are intellectual property and copyright issues that can be pretty confusing in the online environment, where many see information as being "free for the taking." Rich media and videos can be a particularly grey area, and one that will need to be addressed before open content can go mainstream in higher education. "A lot of work needs to be done around the notion of licensing," said Johnson, "and making it easy to tell exactly what you can (and cannot) do with that shared video clip or piece."

For open content to make its way into the nation's college classrooms, Johnson said, administrators and faculty will have to go beyond simply sharing their handouts, project descriptions, and syllabi. That could mean including recommendations on how to use the information--incorporating more rich media, for example, or making the content accessible on mobile devices.

"The information is often put out there without the relevant context that would make it easier to use," said Johnson, whose organization recently developed a list of recommendations for the advancement of open content in higher education. "At the top of the list was the idea that the use and reuse of rich media will enable a culture of sharing--that's what needs to happen for open content to realize its fullest potential."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].

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