An alternative perspective on the meaning of ‘open’ in Higher Education

With the rise of MOOCs there has been much speculation about the meaning of ‘open’, particularly with respect to the Higher Education business model.  It is clear that ‘open’ can be interpreted in a number of different ways.

In relation to MOOCs the term ‘open’ relates principally to open access, i.e. anyone can attend – there are no entry requirements. This could apply to face-to-face courses, as when University lecturers welcome members of the public to attend their lectures, and to online courses, where anyone with an internet connection and the appropriate technology can attend the course.

‘Open’ is also often associated with ‘free’, as in open resources on the web which can be freely downloaded and according to the creative commons license can be ‘customised’ to suit the user’s purposes.

Perhaps most significantly for Higher Education, ‘open’ can be associated with transparency, which involves a way of ‘being’ or a ‘state of mind’. Martin Weller has raised awareness of the need for scholars to be ‘open’ in his book ‘The Digital Scholar’,  and ‘open research’ and ‘open journals’ are steadily gaining momentum as a way of working.

Open access and free courses in which all learners and teachers freely share their expertise is thought by followers of many MOOCs, particularly the original cMOOCs, as the means to democratize education (See Fred Garnett’s blog post for further thoughts about Building Democratic Learning).

Will this mean the end of Universities as we know them? From the work that I do with different Universities, not just in the UK, but also around the world, I don’t think so, at least not yet. Some institutions are still struggling to get lecturers to work online at all, never mind be ‘open’ online. It may be that we have to wait for this generation of lecturers to retire before we have an entire population of University lecturers who are ‘open’ scholars. Although technologies are developing at a speed inconceivable a few years ago, and the number of MOOCs being offered is daily increasing, things tend to move slowly in Higher Education.  The recent Horizon Report on Higher Education sees openness and MOOCs as key trends, whilst at the same time stating that ‘Most academics are not using new technologies for learning and teaching, nor for organizing their own research’.

So, if the adoption of ‘openness’ is going to be a slow process, what are the alternatives? In recent work that I have done on the development of  ‘closed’ online courses/training packages, which are paid for, it has been interesting to realize that maybe a ‘step’ towards an understanding of the meaning of openness is through collaboration across institutions and countries. Whilst this does not address ‘open’ as in ‘free’ nor ‘open access’, it does begin to address ‘open sharing’ and what it means to ‘be’ open. It’s a long step away from ‘open’ as advocated by the first MOOC in 2008 (CCK08), but it’s a beginning.  This approach also keeps the money coming in, as exemplified by the following two projects I have worked on:

  1. A government funded project to develop training materials to be delivered to schools across the country. This project used the funding to bring together 7 regional groups to collaboratively work on developing the training materials, which to date have been delivered to 9700+ people. At their most basic level these training sessions and materials are free, but schools pay for more advanced training and materials.  This project not only developed high quality training materials, and in monetary terms provided a return on investment, but through adopting a collaborative approach, developed an online network/community which would continue to share expertise.
  2. A project initiated by a publishing company to develop online courses for Higher Education, through a highly collaborative international and cross institutional approach. Purchase of the courses is required up front in return for the opportunity to influence the authoring and development process, the possibility of customizing the courses to suit the individual investing institution and implementation support from the publishing company. This collaborative approach also promotes networking and open sharing between institutions within countries and across the world.

These are just two examples of how apparently ‘closed’ developments within Higher Education are becoming more open.

So perhaps institutions that are struggling to get their heads round how to become more ‘open’ whilst at the same time preserving a viable business model, could think more in terms of increasing national and international collaboration and cooperation.

19-04-13 Postscript

Stephen Downes has responded to this post as follows:

Jenny Mackness proposes, “maybe a ‘step’ towards an understanding of the meaning of openness is through collaboration across institutions and countries. Whilst this does not address ‘open’ as in ‘free’ nor ‘open access’, it does begin to address ‘open sharing’ and what it means to ‘be’ open.” I don’t know. I’ve observed collaborations across institutions for decades, without a corresponding increase in openness. It could be that such collaborations (and the fund-seeking that preceeds them) actually distracts from openness.

I have to say that ‘I don’t know’ either – or whether such collaborations might distract from openness.

My thinking in making this post was around the question of how to reach or convince people who resist ‘openness’ of the value of and need for ‘openness’, and what a possible approach to the business model issues might be.