Reflections of a Prairie Teacher

It's better to burn out than it is to rust ~ Neil Young

A Lofty(er) Goal

Riding high last week on skepticism and cynicism, I made the argument in a new blog that the open education movement would stall (specifically within higher education) because it runs counter to capitalism and the lucrative business of university degree programs.  Given this week’s readings (Friesen (2009): Open Educational Resources: New Possibilities for Change and Sustainability and Conole and Brown (2018): Reflecting on the Impact of the Open Education Movement), I only feel emboldened to rant on, buoyed by research that supports my suspicion. This is not the position of positivity I assumed I was going to see when I entered this master’s program in Ed-Tech.  While there has been plenty of positive talk, it has consistently been neutralized by negative talk regarding privacy concerns, “big data,”, ownership, digital citizenship, arrested progress, tech saturation, and of course, big business.  I feel like this week’s blog is just an extension of last week’s blog; but we must play the cards we are dealt.

My first thoughts focused on the broadness of the term open.  It appears that the specifics of this term are still being debated, with Conole and Brown (as well as my own readings into open) noting that it currently encompasses an absurdly wide spectrum from open universities, to open sources and initiatives, all the way to any practice associated with newer web technology (deemed “Web 2.0”).  The authors also note that the open educational movement is 16 years in the making.  As a person who relishes absolutes, I find the vagueness around terminology disconcerting – after 16 years how is this still being debated?  From an outsider perspective, I imagine that academics thrive on this ambiguity as it is certain to create a need for more research and funding; but maybe I’m just allowing my cynicism to bubble up again.  I also posit, given our readings last week, that Conole and Brown are incorrect is their assertion that this movement is 16 years old – as Peter and Deimann (On the role of openness in education: A historical reconstruction) have outlined an arguably much longer history of the open education movement.

Blurred timeline and hazy terminology aside, the humanitarian goal of the open education movement cannot be derided.  Creating a well-educated civilization, through free and freely-accessible educational resources is a lofty and worthy goal – ideas that Friesen notes were defined and adopted at the 2002 UNESCO Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries.  Although it would have been interesting had Friesen paralleled his discussion on the impacts of the open movement with a comparison on the historical use and impact of the vast public library systems.

According to the Canadian Library Association, approximately 40% of Canadians are “active” library cardholders, at a cost of about $3.5 billion. While I understand that well-stocked library systems are not ubiquitous in impoverished countries, neither are robust cellular networks, and at the risk of oversimplifying – what is open courseware if not for a digital library with content-specific videos and resources?  I wonder how many citizens currently use the freely available resources to improve their educational situation? And more to the point – what IS the goal of having freely accessible educational content?  I ask this as I am not sure of the answer myself. I can’t imagine the goal is as simple as allowing those who desire the chance to learn. The goal must be loftier: to provide freely, to anyone, the education required to improve their current life situation. The problem I see currently is that having open resources won’t ensure anything will come of this potential.  And that is doubly certain if nothing CAN come from that potential – I point I will describe later.

Getting into the specifics of OER, I appreciated Conole and Brown stating that OER “are not inherently good in themselves but more so with how they are appropriated.”  This is a perfect beginning to any open debate, as we have had previous discussions on the positivity surrounding concepts of open-ed and technology usage, but tempered it with the acknowledgement that these same resources are often not used to full potential (for various reasons).  Even in higher education the authors note that educators rarely make use of the more open tools they have at their disposal – open communication and collaboration, a fact that certainly puts university educators in the same grouping as K12 educators who attempt to incorporate ed-tech but toil away on the bottom rungs of the SAMR model.

Conole and Brown also acknowledge research that bemoans the unrealized potential of e-textbooks but fail in the moment to discuss with any explicitness the economic reasoning behind a publishing company’s reluctance to move to fully open e-textbooks – the guise of flexible learning being used to mask true corporate intentions.  And this gets to the crux of the whole problem, the elephant in the room if you will, addressed near the end of the article:  “the openness movement inhabits and traverses the contested terrain of globalisation, fast capitalism and neo-liberalism.”

When Friesen laments the lack of sustainability of open-content repositories – stating the average lifetime is less than three year – he connects it to a lack of sustained government or parent institution funding.  This isn’t surprising as online open repositories were likely not seeing enough traffic to make them economically justifiable as a publicly-funded resource (if that was the point of creation), and certainly not as a revenue stream.  More frustratingly, the shining star of the open education movement – MIT’s Open Courseware succeeds simply because MIT is too big to fail – or as Friesen states, “MIT is able to leverage an already existing global reputation.”  Translation: students from all over the world want to go to MIT, so providing free resources online for informal learning will have no effect on enrollment and revenue.  It could also be argued that MIT’s superficial commitment to open helps to draw donations and funding from philanthropic sources.  Any successful and reputable higher education setting could likely follow suit.

Which brings me back to libraries – our current open education repositories for informal learning.  Citizens don’t go to the library to improve their life situation – to do that they must enroll in a formal learning setting. On its website, MIT informs interested parties: Knowledge is your reward. We don’t offer credit or certificates for using OCW. Instead, use OCW to guide your own life-long learning, or use OCW to teach others.”  This is the real problem with OER and the open education movement: the education is free, but it comes with fine print *diploma and resume not included. 

Interviewer:     “Hello.  Please explain why you are qualified for this position as                                    lead Accountant.”

Applicant:     “Hi! Thank you for this opportunity.  I have completed all the                                         graduate level coursework through MIT’s Open Courseware.”

Interviewer:     “So…you don’t have a degree?”

Applicant:     “Uh, no. Is that a problem?”

Conole and Brown ask (perhaps rhetorically) “whether open practices will replace traditional educational offerings.” While Friesen plays in niceties, mentioning open education has “incompatibilities with existing institutional cultures.”  To the first quote, uh…hard no.  To the second quote: that is putting it mildly. Why would we expect citizens to take advantage of these resources if there are no tangible benefits? To fully embrace the open education movement requires governments and agencies to fully fund OER and ensure that assessment and credit is possible.  This requires free post-secondary education, full stop. 


PHOTO: “person wearing red graduation dress” @honeyyanibel – Free from Unsplash


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