10.10.1 Open and free Image: © Tony Bates 2015 CC BY-NC
12.5.1 An open and free beach, Pie de la Cuesta, Mexico
Image: © Tony Bates 2015 CC BY-NC

Although in recent years MOOCs, emerging technologies and artificial intelligence have been receiving all the media attention, I believe that developments in open educational resources, open textbooks, open research and open data will be far more important and far more revolutionary. Here are some reasons why.

12.5.1 Nearly all educational content will be free and open

Eventually most academic content will be easily accessible and freely available through the Internet – for anyone. This could well mean a shift in power from teachers and instructors to students. Students will no longer be dependent on ‘live’ instructors as their primary source of content. Already some students are skipping lectures at their local institution because the teaching of the topic is better and clearer on OpenCourseWare, MOOCs or the Khan Academy. If students can access the best lectures or learning materials for free from anywhere in the world, including the leading Ivy League universities, why would they want to get content from a middling lecturer at Midwest State University? What is the added value that this lecturer is providing for the students?

There are good answers to this question, but it means considering very carefully how content will be presented and shaped by a teacher or instructor that makes it uniquely different from what students can access elsewhere. For research professors this may include access to their latest, as yet unpublished, research; for other instructors, it may be their unique perspective on a particular topic, and for others, a unique mix of topics to provide an integrated, inter-disciplinary approach. What will not be acceptable to most students is repackaging of ‘standard’ content that can easily be found elsewhere on the Internet and at a higher quality.

Furthermore, if we look at knowledge management as one of the key skills needed in a digital age, it may be better to enable students to find, analyze, evaluate and apply content than for instructors to do it for them. If most content is available elsewhere, what students will look for increasingly from their local institutions is support with their learning, rather than the delivery of content. This means directing them to appropriate sources of content, helping when students are struggling with concepts, and providing opportunities for students to apply their knowledge and to develop and practice skills. It means giving prompt and relevant feedback as and when students need it. Above all, it means creating a rich learning environment in which students can study (see Chapter 6). It means moving teaching from information transmission to knowledge management, from selecting, structuring and delivering content to learner support.

Thus for most students within their university or college (with the possible exception of the most advanced research universities) the quality of the learning support will eventually matter more than the quality of content delivery, which they can get from anywhere. This is a major challenge for instructors who see themselves primarily as content experts and deliverers.

12.5.2 Modularisation

Figure 10.10.2 Four-sided pyramid, by Sol LeWitt, 1999 Image: Cliff, Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0
Figure 12.5.2 Four-sided pyramid, by Sol LeWitt, 1999
Image: Cliff, Flickr, © CC Attribution 2.0

The creation of open educational resources, either as small learning objects but increasingly as short ‘modules’ of teaching, from anywhere between five minutes to one hour of material, and the increasing diversification of markets, is beginning to result in two of the key principles of OER being applied, re-use and re-mix. In other words, the same content, available in an openly accessible digital form, may be integrated into a range of different applications, and/or combined with other OER to create a single teaching module, course or program, as in Scenario G.

Between 2015 to 2018, the Ontario government, through its online course development fund, encouraged institutions to create OER. As a result, several universities brought together faculty within their own institution but working in different departments that teach the same area of content (for example, statistics) to develop ‘core’ OER that can be shared between departments. The logical next step would be for statistics faculty across the Ontario system to get together and develop an integrated set of OER modules on statistics that would cover substantial parts of the statistics curriculum. Working together would have the following benefits:

  • higher quality by pooling resources (two subject expert heads are better than one, combined with support from instructional designers and web producers);
  • more OER than one instructor or institution could produce;
  • subject coherence and lack of duplication;
  • more likelihood of faculty in one institution using materials created in another if they have had input to the selection and design of the OER from other institutions.

As the range and quality of OER increases, instructors (and students) will be able to build curriculum through a set of OER ‘building blocks’. The aim would be to reduce instructor time in creating materials and using their time more in supporting student learning than in delivering content. When they do create original material, it can then be shared with other instructors.

12.5.3 Disaggregation of services

Open education and digitisation enable what has tended to be offered by institutions as a complete bundle of services to be split out and offered separately, depending on the market for education and the unique needs of individual learners. These different services could be as follows:

  • academic guidance (assessment of learning needs; admission counselling)
  • choice of educational goals/outcomes/competencies
  • access to ‘open’ digital content in the form of OER or MOOCs
  • learner support, including a choice of
    • topic guidance (build a curriculum)
    • tutoring on demand (for example, when students are ‘stuck’)
    • different learning activities (tests, projects, etc.)
    • feedback on learning activities
    • assessment preparation
  • assessment on demand

Learners would select and use those modules or services that best fit their needs. This is likely to be the pattern for lifelong learners in particular. Although most of the really significant changes are yet to come, some early indications of this process are already occurring. Some examples are given below.

Figure 10.3 Disaggregation Image: © Aaron 'tango' Tan, Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0
Figure 12.5.3 Disaggregation
Image: © Aaron ‘tango’ Tan, Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0 Admission and career counselling

This is a service already offered by Empire State University, a part of the State University of New York, through its pre-enrollment advisers. Adult learners considering a return to study or a career change can receive mentoring about what courses and combinations they can take from within the college that fit with their previous life and their future wishes. In essence, within boundaries, potential students are able to design their own degree. In the future, some institutions might specialise in this kind of service at a system level. Build a curriculum

Students could be advised on an appropriate curriculum that can be built to fit their needs. For instance, Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Computer Sciences has built a tool called Daedalus which basically enables the construction of a map showing the inter-relatedness between specific learning outcomes and course content, including course sequencing (see Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation for more details).

Once such a map of a degree program or other qualification or curriculum has been built, students can then navigate their own choice of courses or route through a curriculum – and perhaps negotiate what is needed for a degree. This could just as easily be based on OER as classroom teaching.

Figure 12.5.4 Daedalus. This shows the relationship between the pre-requisite courses for CSCI 2110 (second level up) and the courses for which CSCI 2110 is a preparation (top two levels). By clicking on each of the courses listed, students can see the learning outcomes both needed before studying and what they should achieve after studying each course. Learner support

Students may have already determined what they want to study through the Internet, such as a MOOC. What they are looking for is help with their studies: how to write assignments, where to look for information, feedback on their work and thinking. They are not necessarily looking for a credit, degree or other qualification, but if they are, they will pay for assessment separately. Currently, students pay private tutors for this service. However, it is feasible that institutions could also provide this service, provided that a suitable business model can be built. Assessment

Learners may feel that through prior study and work, they are able to take a challenge exam for credit. Alternatively, a learner may wish to present a portfolio of work to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. All they require from the institution is a chance to be assessed. Institutions such as Western Governors’ University or the Open Learning division of Thompson Rivers University are already offering this service, and this would be a logical next step for the many other universities or colleges with some form of prior learning assessment or PLAR. ‘Assembled’ qualifications

Learners may have acquired a range of credits, badges or certificates (microcredentials) from a range of different institutions. The institution assesses these qualifications and experiences and helps the learner to take any further studies that are necessary, then awards a higher or more extensive qualification, such as a degree. Prior learning assessment or PLAR is one step in this direction, but not the only one. A discount on fully online courses and programs

For learners who cannot or do not want to attend campus, the course fees would be lower for online courses than for students receiving a full campus experience. Open access to content

In this case, the learner is not looking for any qualification, but wants access to content, particularly new and emerging knowledge. MOOCs are one example, but other examples include OpenLearn and open textbooks. The full campus experience

This would be the ‘traditional’ integrated package that full-time, campus-based students now receive. This would, though, be fully costed and much more expensive than any of the other single disaggregated services. Funding models

Note that I have been careful not to link any of these services to a specific funding model. This is deliberate, because it could be:

  • covered through privatisation, where each service is separately priced and the user pays for that service (but not for others not used);
  • financed through a voucher system, whereby everyone at the age 18 is entitled to a notional amount of financial support from the state for post-secondary education, and can pay for a range of service from that voucher until their individual fund is exhausted;
  • all or some services would be available for free as part of a publicly funded open education system;
  • a mix of the above.

Whatever the funding model, institutions disaggregating services will need to be able to price different services accurately. The argument against disaggregation

There are also strong arguments against the disaggregation of services. Gallagher (2019) argues that the successful colleges and universities of the future will be integrated: coherently and cohesively designed to help students achieve a learning experience that is more than the sum of its parts and lasts for life.

However, this is not a question of either/or and should be driven to some extent by the needs of learners at different points in their learning cycle. Most younger students coming from high school probably will need an integrated college experience. However, working adults or students who have graduated may not want, need, nor can afford the full package. Disaggregation will provide the flexibility needed for lifelong learning. The need for more flexibility in services

In any case, there is now an increasing diversity of learners’ needs, from high school students wanting full-time education, graduate students wanting to do research, and lifelong learners, most of whom will have already passed through a publicly funded higher education system, wanting to keep learning either for vocational or personal reasons.  This increasing diversity of needs requires a more flexible approach to providing educational opportunities in a digital age. Disaggregation of services and new models of funding, combined with increased accessibility to free, open content, are some ways in which this flexibility can be provided. For alternative views on this issue, see Carey, 2015; Large, 2015.

12.5.4 Conclusions

Despite all the hoopla around MOOCs, they are essentially a dead end with regard to providing learners who do not have adequate access to education with what they want: high quality qualifications. The main barrier to education is not lack of cheap content but lack of access to programs leading to credentials, either because such programs are too expensive, or because there are not enough qualified teachers, or both. Making content free is not a waste of time (if it is properly designed for secondary use), but it still needs a lot of time and effort to integrate it properly within a learning framework.

Open educational resources do have an important role to play in online education, but they need to be properly designed, and developed within a broader learning context that includes the critical activities needed to support learning, such as opportunities for student-instructor and peer interaction, and within a culture of sharing, such as consortia of equal partners and other frameworks that provide a context that encourages and supports sharing. In other words, OER need skill and hard work to make them useful, and selling them as a panacea for education does more harm than good.

Although open and flexible learning and distance education and online learning mean different things, the one thing they all have in common is an attempt to provide alternative means of high quality education or training for those who either cannot take conventional, campus-based programs, or choose not to.

Lastly, there are no insurmountable legal or technical barriers now to making educational material free. The successful use of OER does though require a particular mindset among both copyright holders – the creators of materials – and users – teachers and instructors who could use this material in their teaching. Thus the main challenge is one of cultural change.

In the end, a well-funded public higher education system remains the best way to assure access to higher education for the majority of the population. Having said that, there is enormous scope for improvements within that system. Open education and its tools offer a most promising way to bring about some much needed improvements.

12.5.5 The future is yours

This is just my interpretation of how approaches to ‘open’ content and resources could radically change the way we teach and how students will learn in the future. At the beginning of this chapter there is a scenario I created which suggests how this might play out in one particular program.

More importantly, there is not just one future scenario, but many. The future will be determined by a host of factors, many outside the control of teachers and instructors. But the strongest weapon we have as teachers is our own imagination and vision. Open content and open learning reflect a particular philosophy of equality and opportunity created through education. There are many different ways in which we as teachers, and even more our learners, can decide to apply that philosophy. However, the technology now offers us many more choices in making these decisions. Thus there is scope for many more scenarios that aim to extend access and educational opportunities.

References and further reading

Carey, K. (2015) The End of College New York: Riverhead Books

Gallagher, C. (2019) Integrative Learning for a Divided World Baltimore ML: John Hopkins Press

Large, L. (2015) Rebundling College Inside Higher Ed, April 7

12.5 Building a course that  is open in practice and in theory

1. Re-read Scenario G Could you build a future scenario for your own courses and programs, that exploit fully the use of OER and different delivery modes?

(This will be easier and more effective if you could do this with a range of other faculty, instructional designers and web producers, through, for instance, a faculty development workshop).

Key Takeaways

1. Open educational resources offer many benefits but they need to be well designed and embedded within a rich learning environment to be effective.

2. The increasing availability of OER, open textbooks, open research and open data means that in future, almost all academic content will be open and freely accessible over the Internet.

3. As a result, students will increasingly look to institutions for learning support and help with the development of skills needed in a digital age rather than with the delivery of content. This will have major consequences for the role of teachers/instructors and the design of courses.

4. OER and other forms of open education will lead to increased modularization and disaggregation of learning services, which are needed to respond to the increasing diversity of learner needs in a digital age.

5. MOOCs are essentially a dead end with regard to providing learners who do not have adequate access to education with high quality qualifications. The main value of MOOCs is in providing opportunities for non-formal education and supporting communities of practice.

6. OER, MOOCs, open textbooks and other digital forms of open-ness are important in helping to widen access to learning opportunities, but ultimately these are enhancements rather than a replacement for a well-funded public education system, which remains the core foundation for enabling equal access to educational opportunities.


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Teaching in a Digital Age: Third Edition - General Copyright © 2022 by Anthony William (Tony) Bates is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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