Higher education is not known for its openness–the ivy-covered gates which adorn many campuses have a long tradition of keeping people out. However, with the advent of the internet and online learning, this is changing. With such big names as MIT (through MIT OpenCourseWare), the University of Michigan (through Open.Michigan), and a variety of others opening up their course materials, colleges are either moving towards open education or are getting left behind.
Open education as a concept has its roots in open source software and copyleft licensing–they’re united by the idea that creators of content can choose to share their content for free. The end result is better content, because an entire group of interested people all over the world can work on a project rather than just a lone person typing away in an office somewhere.
In open education, things like lectures and course materials are shared for free online. Supporters of the idea believe that professors and universities don’t lose anything by making their information freely available (since most students looking at information online weren’t going to enroll at the institution anyway), and they may gain something valuable–a 16-year-old who teaches herself how to program through online computer science lectures may create the next Facebook/Twitter/Groupon superchild, for instance.
Open education is clearly appealing to people who are locked out of formal education because of cost–and, with college costs rising faster than the median income, this is an increasing portion of the population. But many universities are reluctant to embrace open education because they are holding on to the old university mentality–education is a valuable commodity, and should be shared, but only for students enrolled at the university. If students can access lectures online, what motivation do they have to actually pay tuition? It turns out, there’s a lot–students don’t go to college to learn so much as they go to receive a degree or interact with professors one-on-one. Keeping information locked up doesn’t help colleges retain paying students, but it does prevent people who want to learn from trained professors from doing so.
As a college student myself, I’ve had more than one professor bemoan the fact that any information is available online, and there’s no way to tell whether or not it’s true. The smartest of those professors realize the power that open education gives them: if their lectures are hosted on a university’s domain, and they have a doctorate, students can be sure that the information in the lecture is probably correct–and if a professor is the first to get their lecture on Voltaire/Apache/third gender societies online, they can be the one controlling the tone of the debate for people interested in those topics. Professors (and universities) who refuse to use the internet as a means of distributing content are increasingly going to become irrelevant to the discussion that is happening online.
There are certainly valid debates to be had about how open education content should be licensed–as this post does a wonderful job of proving, the existing open source licenses (the Creative Commons and GNU Public License) aren’t really equipped to handle university materials, and there are ethical and legal questions surrounding the licensing of student-produced content if it’s placed online. But we at Open Study don’t see this as an argument against open education so much as an argument for a real debate about the course that open education will take in the next 5-10 years. And if the debate plays itself out on Open Study itself, so much the better!