Openness is a slippery concept. It has different meanings for different people in different contexts. When it comes to education, openness usually refers to the extent to which knowledge is accessible.
When we first started talking about sharing and openness, I immediately thought about Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs). MOOCs are online courses that are typically offered by educational institutions, free of charge, to anyone who wants to take part, regardless of whether they are registered or fee-paying students at the institution. While some MOOCs are now monetised in a variety of ways, many are offered still for free as a way to raise the profile of an institution, to attract students to register for further, fee-paying courses, or simply to share knowledge.
MOOCs are a good example of openness towards the end users of knowledge–learners. Knowledge is provided to learners openly via the MOOC platform instead of being locked away inside institutions where they must pay to access it. But what about openness earlier along the value chain of education?
In their webinar on openness in education, Kiruthika Ragupathi and Alastair Creelman talked about the extent to which teachers share knowledge and educational material with one another. Sharing knowledge within the academy feels very natural to me, even if I have some colleagues who are more strategic with guarding their ideas and innovations, at least until they have published and trademarked them, so to speak. I have always felt that ideas get bigger and better when we share them openly with others but, unfortunately, academic reward systems do not always encourage this behaviour. We are not as explicitly rewarded for presenting, for sharing and for helping others as we are for guarding an idea and publishing it behind a paywall.
When it comes to educational resources, I think things are even worse. There can’t be many of us that teach completely novel ideas to our students. But most of us seem to write our own unique course plans, lectures, slides, quizzes, etc.? The potential benefits of sharing this content are obvious. We could save a good deal of time by not reinventing and recreating teaching material that already exists. And we could spend that time engaging with students in more interesting ways. Why, then, are we apparently so unwilling to share content with other teachers and to reuse their content in our own teaching?
I think, again, that part of the reason has to do with how we are evaluated and rewarded within the academy. It is very hard to measure interaction with students and to objectively evaluate the ephemeral concept of being a good teacher (although there are metrics that purport to do this). Course plans, lectures and so on are something much more tangible. When we hand in tens of pages of plans to our department heads or when we distribute hundreds of printed slides to students, it is clear that we have been working. If we use other people’s content, we lose this method of signaling our worth.
This kind of thinking does not only occur on an individual (teacher) level but also at an institutional level. Most, if not all, educational institutions now have fee-paying students and, in neo-liberal democracies, even students who don’t pay directly for their education are encouraged to think of themselves as customers–choosing between competing offers from rival educators. If an educational institution uses open educational resources as part of their offering, the insitution also loses one of it more tangible ways of signaling its worth. Learners may wonder what they are they paying for if it is not the educational materials. Convincing them that it is worth paying for something as ephemeral as good pedagogy could be a challenge.
I believe that this kind of thinking is part of what holds us back from realising the many advantages of open educational resources. It will take a cultural shift to change this. But we can actively choose to be part of this cultural shift by sharing resources. By emphasising that the value in our teaching is not in recreating the wheel but in offering quality pedagogy, I believe that we can change things at an institutional level too.
Here are some open educational resources to help you start the cultural shift: