Sunday, September 23, 2018

Open learning - back to basics

CC0 Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash
The term open in education can mean almost anything today and should always be taken with at least a pinch of salt. Some MOOCs are now disappearing behind paywalls as described for example in Class Central's post First Look at edX’s Paywall Experiments. Many commercial platforms thrive on selling our data to advertisers and most online tools depend on the freemium model and if they cannot convert enough free users into paying customers they may go bust or ditch the free option completely. Many resources and courses have become dependent on commercial platforms that can quickly change their business model with very little advance warning or use the data they collect to earn money. I wonder therefore if it is time for a renaissance for the open non-commercial platforms and communities run by educators that have fallen by the wayside in recent years.

Stephen Downes wrote an excellent defense of the principles of open education a few months ago:  The Fabrication that is OER. The post is an answer to critics who claim that the OER movement has not been able to find a viable platform or business model and has not become mainstream. The counter claim is that it's all about educators who want to share their work, form communities and create a culture of sharing using whatever tools and platforms that best serve their purpose. It's not about creating an all-embracing platform for the world or to trying to institutionalise openness.

I'm not interested in collecting, institutionalizing, and marketing educational content as a product. Maybe there are some people in OER who are really interested in this aspect of it (and they tend to collect together, write manifestos, work with institutions, and collect all the funding). But I'm not, nor are, I think, the vast majority of people who actually produce and share free and open learning content.

I'm rather comforted by this since I have spent many years arguing for government initiatives, open education strategies including the creation of national and international repositories. This is happening in some places but is mostly a painfully slow process. Should we be trying to change the world or simply focus on building reliable and non-commercial arenas for those who want to share and collaborate?

In recent years the spotlight has been on high-profile and increasingly commercial platforms such as Coursera, EdX, FutureLearn, Khan Academy, iTunes U and so on. However many of the open communities and platforms that we used to use are still running, though very much under the radar of the media and most educators. I mean spaces like Wikiversity and WikiEducator as well as more focused platforms like the World Health Organisation's OpenWHO or the open courses hosted by the Commonwealth of Learning, to name but a few. I admit that I have not paid much attention to these spaces in recent years but I wonder if it's time to return to platforms that we have more control over and are run by open educators for open educators. They may not have the attractive features and intuitive feel of the commercial platforms but they are ideal places for collaborative projects and are not driven by advertising. 

I wonder if we really should be aiming at converting the skeptics and trying to win government approval and instead focus on helping those who do want to share, developing truly open platforms and communities. It's not a battle against traditional practices; it's about open educators "doing what they do" (to paraphrase Downes again). 

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