What is open education?

What is open education?

Open education in the widest sense should enable students to choose their own educational settings, experiences and materials. The philosophy of openness started to specifically apply to technology in the late 1990’s with the open source software community passionately sharing their computer code and allowing the creation of derivative works. Today we have notable brands such as OpenOffice.org competing against Microsoft Office, and open source versions of probably all propriety software.

In 2002 the open phenomenon spread to educational resources with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) deciding to release their course materials for free on the internet in the form of the OpenCourseWare initiative. Also in 2002 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) first coined the phrase open educational resources (OER), and defined it as “a strategic opportunity to improve the quality of education as well as facilitate policy dialogue, knowledge sharing and capacity building”. Alongside these initiatives open licences have been developed including Creative Commons which provides a simple set of clauses to facilitate the sharing and borrowing of materials.

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Have open education initiatives achieved their goals?
There certainly has not been a shortage of individuals and institutions willing to share their images, modules and even entire courses on the internet. In the UK, since the repository JorumOpen was launched in 2008 there have been over 10,000 deposits from over 800 institutions and individual authors. What is more difficult to ascertain is the extent to which materials have been used, repurposed and re-deposited, therefore has knowledge been genuinely shared and had an impact, or are the resources gathering dust?

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in the US support social and environmental projects around the world and champion open education in order to “equalize access to knowledge for teachers and students”. One example is OER Africa which already boasts a tremendous catalogue of OERs and more importantly whose mission is to connect like-minded educators and academics and build collaborative networks.

A challenge that open education faces to achieve its goals is discoverability. Currently OER programmes support the building of separate repositories to house resources offering users multiple places to search and a confusing choice of where to deposit material. It would be far more effective to think from the user’s perspective and make OER discoverable from search engines, and to develop a common procedure for tagging and cataloguing to provide a consistent approach as we’ve seen with licensing.

SCOOTER open education project in the UK.

The SCOOTER project run by the School of Allied Health Sciences at De Montfort University in the UK aims to release OER on the subject of sickle cell and thalassemia, depositing all materials on JorumOpen and providing a searchable database or OER. Resource pages will be discoverable via the search engines. The SCOOTER team are passionate about building a vibrant community of users. Within a week of being launched, the SCOOTER website attracted unique visitors including a sickle cell patient and a researcher looking at natural ingredients as a potential therapy. Through the project forum and social network the team aim to grow the community and involve them in resource production, peer review, use and reuse content.

New challenges will surely emerge as economic factors change the face of Higher Education in the UK and wider a field, and Open Education may hold the key to the future as students choose their own educational settings and tailor-make their own experiences.

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