Opening up education

Openness is everywhere in education at the moment: at the back end of 2011 a free course in Artificial Intelligence had over 160,000 learners enrolled; in 2012 in the UK the Government followed other national bodies in the US and Canada by announcing a policy mandating that all articles resulting from publicly funded research should be made freely available in open access publications; downloads from Apple’s iTunes U site which gives away free educational content passed 1 billion in 2013; British Columbia announced a policy in 2012 to provide open, free textbooks for the 40 most popular courses; the G8 leaders signed a treaty on open data in June 2013, stating that all government data will be released openly by default.

After years being a specialist or peripheral interest the open approach in education has moved into the mainstream over the past decade. For example, the Finch Report in the UK mandates that the outputs of all publicly funded research should be made openly available. The argument is that the public has paid for this research (through taxes for the funding councils), and so the outputs, in the form of publications, should be openly available. This is the open access movement, and a similar approach applies to the data that is the output of such research.

Organisations such as the Open Knowledge Foundation also advocate for the release of open data relating to Government and commerce, seeing openness as the key to accountability and engaged citizenship. They see openness as a right, stating “We want to see open knowledge being a mainstream concept, and as natural and important to our everyday lives and organisations as green is today.”

Extending openness beyond these remits is a dangerous idea. The same arguments that apply to research might also be said to apply to education. Just as universities are mandated to release research outputs, so they might be mandated to release teaching content. There is already a global movement for releasing such content, known as open educational resources (OERs). Universities such as The Open University and MIT have made the release of content part of their standard practice. But such projects are often externally funded, and are voluntary. A dangerous idea would be to make it mandatory. Universities would be compelled to release syllabuses, notes, presentations and videos under an open licence.

The benefits for doing so are similar to those proposed for open access. They enable the general population access to a wide range of resources, and because that material is openly licensed, it can be repackaged, mixed, adapted and reversioned in unexpected ways. The openness gives rise to a new type of knowledge economy.

The difficulty in applying the open access mandate to teaching content is that it might fundamentally undermine the business model of universities. This is by no means certain, as this content is unsupported and lacks the university experience associated with full study. Indeed, some projects have found that releasing content increases uptake on formal study. It would also be costly, so universities would need to be compensated. However, it shifts the perception of universities from being ‘ivory towers’ to public, knowledge generating institutions, benefitting all of society and not just those who attend directly and pay fees.