Still on the theme of open educational resources (OER) I enjoyed an excellent summary of current issues in a New York Times article, An Open mind. Hundreds of universities now offer lectures and course material freely on the net as a recruitment and market strategy and it seems to be working. Open University, for example, claim to have recruited 10,500 students at least partly as a result of its OpenLearn initiative and by making lectures available on iTunes U (see ALT Newsletter 18, Jan 2010).
As more universities offer open resources the whole concept, unthinkable 10 years ago, suddenly seems logical. The university is not the content it produces but the learning process that takes place and the context provided by teacher-student interaction.
"If the mission of the university is the creation of knowledge (via research) and the dissemination of knowledge (via teaching and publishing), then it stands to reason that giving that knowledge away fits neatly with that mission."
However the most interesting part of this trend is how it affects informal learning. According to the article 43% of those who use MIT's Open Course Ware and 69% of those using Open Yale are independant students, studying without formal structure and for personal development.
"M.I.T. officials like to tell about an unsolicited comment they received one day about the online course “Introduction to Solid State Chemistry. “I learned a from these lectures and the other course material,” the comment said. “Thank you for having it online.” The officials did a double take. It was from Bill Gates."
There's nothing new about informal learning. People have always read books and journals in their spare time out of pure interest. The difference today is the medium and that the universities are making formerly exclusive material freely available. Today you can listen to top professors as you sit on the train to work in the morning. The question is whether we can find ways of validating such study. Once you've gone through the OER material on a certain subject area you may be interested in submitting a paper for assessment by a university or other accredited organisation. Many would be willing to pay for this. It wouldn't be the equivalent of the full campus experience but for people with jobs and families it may well be good enough.Will universities be interested in providing this service or will it be seen as undermining the "core business?"
Another essential 21st century skill for schools and universities to encourage is the ability to select and learn from the best resources and how to build personal learning networks. If no teacher is available you can still learn a lot by working collaboratively. You can't always attend a formal course when you need to learn something and the ability to link up with others interested in the same subject and studying together will be invaluable in the future.