Asking the hard questions
I also want to circle back and note the recent post by George Siemens on the Connectivism Blog, which is asking hard questions about the OER movement. Hard questions are always in order, and George is asking some great ones. I thought I’d try and answer from my personal perspective–that is neither as a representative of MIT OpenCourseWare nor as a representative of the OpenCourseWare Consortium. That being said, I’m going to address the questions from an OCW perspective, as OER is just to broad a field to speak for sensibly (which I think is one underlying weakness in some of George’s comments, which generalize across a wide range of different projects with wildly different goals). So, the hard questions:
1) Why OERs? What are we trying to achieve? The simplest possible formulation I can give is “To provide resources that increase the quantity and quality of informal and formal learning opportunities worldwide.” I was in a meeting a while back where Tim Berners-Lee said something akin to “80% of the value of the web is in the unanticipated uses people make of the content that’s available.” Within certain limits, the advantage of the web is that I don’t have to decide if I’m serving the developed or the developing world, independent or formal learners, teachers or students, etc. OCWs provide informal learning opportunities directly (in varying levels of quality depending on user needs) and are resources that allow educators to improve formal learning opportunities. The evaluation done around MIT OpenCourseWare demonstrates both cases occurring across a wide range of global audiences.
At least within the narrow confines of a simple OCW model, the anticipated audience for the educational materials is the students taking the class for which the materials were created. The open publication comes after. There are certainly decisions that might be made about how to publish those materials openly based on the anticipated audience for the open publication, but this is a distinctly different question than who the materials were created for originally. OCW publish materials designed for very local contexts, to permit a range of anticipated and unanticipated uses of those materials in other contexts, but the materials themselves are not designed for any external context. (Some OCWs, such as UC Irvine, are the exception that proves the rule.) The big challenge is to understand the uses better, and see how the open publication might be modified to better support these uses.
2) OERs are window dressing if systems and structures of education do not change. Okay a view, not a question. I think “window dressing” is a bit harsh, but OCW at least is primarily a window into systems and structures at institutions rather than a fundamental change to those systems and structures. I’m not sure ultimately its fair to task the OER movement with changing the systems and structures of global education, though of course many within the movement hope it actually will. It’s not clear that the structures and systems have to change for OER to be on balance beneficial to learners and educators.
On the other hand, transparency has proven to be a powerfully transformative force, one that has led to the decline of many entrenched systems. The transparency provided by OCW can allow for the rapid transfer and dissemination of educational innovation already occurring within systems. If, in the context of a very localized educational experience at MIT, a professor develops an innovative approach, and then publishes it openly, it becomes instantly (or nearly so, anyway) available to anyone else who might be struggling with a similar problem. It doesn’t mean it ought to be adopted as the gold standard in all situations, just that for those who do see an advantage in the approach, they have the opportunity to benefit from it. I’d argue there are equally powerful transparency effects at work within the institutions that publish their materials.
3) OERs exhibit (are embedded with) certain ideologies/views/pedagogies, etc. Again a view not a question. George presents this as a problem, where I see opportunity. I dare you to find any educational material that doesn’t exhibit (or is not embedded with) certain ideologies/views/pedagogies. The difference between textbooks and OERs is that only the rich developed countries can produce textbooks. While access to modes of production for OERs are not completely level between developed and developing countries, they are at the very least radically more balanced. This means the ideologies/views/pedagogies of the developing world will be able to compete more equally in the marketplace of ideas than before.
Despite Geopre’s “cute kitten” analogy to describe (I’m assuming) the current interest in OER in North America, the OpenCourseWare movement has developed much more robustly outside of North America, with significant blocks of institutions beginning to share content in other developed regions including Europe, South Korea and Japan—but also in China, Latin America, Turkey, Vietnam and India. This has happened in part, I think, because these regions see the opportunity to have their voices heard, to share their knowledge. It’s only lately that North America is taking notice. The OCW Consortium members have collectively published about 6,200 courses, and it’s a fair bet that at least half are from outside North America.
I really applaud George’s call for more research, although more has been done than I think he’s aware. The evaluation report posted on the OCW site answers many of the questions he raises, at least to some extent. But there’s much more work to be done. These are hard questions, and we all should keep raising them. But I’m at least optimistic about the answers. And I too like kittens.