More on MOOCs and Being Awesome Instead

I’m grateful for your responses to my recent post Be Awesome Instead. In reading your comments, tweets, and other blog posts responding to the post, I was a bit concerned that some readers may have gotten the impression that I was saying it was ok to “Be Awesome Instead” of being open. That was absolutely not the point I was making. Being open – truly open – is absolutely critical for reasons I will describe below. The point I was trying to make in my post is that we should be awesome instead of being whiny; we should be contributors rather than naysayers.

At the end of that post I said I would share some thoughts on how the popularity of MOOCs can be used to move the open agenda forward, and this post makes good on that promise. In order to do that, I’ll have to briefly outline the open agenda as I believe it pertains to open educational resources (others are far better positioned than I to consider the open agenda in other contexts like open data, open governments, etc.). That will require a brief definition of OER. Rather than beginning each sentence in the next several paragraphs with “I believe,” “To my mind,” and “In my opinion,” I’ll just caveat all these here and now by saying this is my own personal view of the agenda for OER. Yours may vary.

Defining Open Educational Resources. There are two defining characteristics of an open educational resource. Any creative work with these two properties can be considered an OER:

  1. Access to the resource is free and unfettered. That is, the resource can be accessed without the user being required to pay, provide personal information, or jump through any other hoops as a prerequisite to access.
  2. All users have free 4R permissions with regard to the resource. That is, either by virtue of open licenses or the work being in the public domain, anyone and everyone has the legal permissions necessary to reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute the resource.

Some Preliminary Context on the OER Agenda. Universal access to free, high quality education is important for reasons so grandiose that to mention them risks trivializing them. These reasons include nothing less than the happiness and prosperity of individuals and families, and the possibility of civilized society. OER have an important part to play in the “universal,” “free,” and “high quality” aspects of this aspiration. This relationship is the driving motivation underlying my personal commitment to OER.

For a number of years I have felt that the overwhelming majority of educational researchers are focused on the “high quality” problem, to the virtual exclusion of the “universal” and “free” problem from the discourse. This is another factor in my decision to focus my professional work on OER.

The OER Agenda in the Short Term – “Universal” and “Free”. This relationship is very simple – because the adoption of OER can drastically reduce the cost of education, the adoption of OER can drastically expand access to education. Deployed effectively, OER move us (perhaps asymptotally for extra-educational reasons) toward universal and free. The “universal” and “free” problem has been the primary concern of the open education movement during the first 15 years of its existence, and I feel like we are making reasonable progress on this problem.

The Open Agenda in the Medium Term – “High Quality”. The idea of “high quality” only has meaning locally – it does not have meaning globally. If educational materials are expressed in a language I don’t speak, or use examples that are foreign to me, then regardless of the “accuracy” of their expression they will be low quality to me. By definition, high quality means personalized for me.

There is simply no way to scale the centralized creation of educational materials personalized for everyone in the world (cf. the 15 years of learning objects hype and investment, which feels very similar to the current MOOC mania). Perhaps the only way to accomplish the amount of personalization necessary to achieve high quality at scale is to enable decentralized personalization to be performed locally by peers, teachers, parents, and others. And given the absolute madness of international copyright law there is no rights and royalties regime under which this personalization could possibly happen. The only practicable solution is to provide free, universal access to content, assessments, and other resources that includes free 4Rs permissions that empower local actors to engage in localization and redistribution.

The Open Agenda in the Long Term – Infrastructure and the Unexpected. My two favorite saying with regard to OER continue to be “openness facilitates the unexpected” and “content is infrastructure,” both of which I have been saying for almost a decade. Once there is a high quality content infrastructure freely and universally available, there is absolutely no way to predict the incredible advances that will occur. To quote Linus Torvalds, “don’t ever make the mistake that you can design something better than what you get from ruthless massively parallel trial-and-error with a feedback cycle. That’s giving your intelligence much too much credit.” Who could have predicted what would happen as a high quality communications infrastructure (the internet) became increasingly universally and freely available?

I don’t work on OER because I believe I can see the endgame. I work on OER because I want to enable an endgame beyond imagining. I work on OER to create the infrastructure which people will leverage to – somehow – achieve universal access to free, high quality education.

Where Do MOOCs Fit In?

For a complex tangle of political reasons, “the people in power” are currently paying a tremendous amount of attention to issues relating to access to education, and the role of the cost of education in regulating that access. MOOCs have popularized and significantly advanced the conversation regarding both universal and free. The general public is beginning to believe that technology may have the near-term potential to provide a genuine solution to the problem of making education both universal and free. We can take advantage of the space MOOCs have created in the public conversation to introduce and advance the idea of truly open educational resources to people who are unfamiliar with it.

The comparison I made above between MOOCs and learning objects was a carefully chosen one. I believe that MOOCs will run – are already running – up against the reusability paradox. I believe people will eventually come to realize the pedagogical restrictions that are inseparably connected with the copyright and Terms of Use restrictions of MOOCs. As with the learning object mania of yesteryear, diehards will stick around but the rest of the world will move on as the experiment fails. If we message correctly before that happens, we can create a general understanding that much of what is frustrating about MOOCs to faculty, students, and others would be solved by the simple application of an open license (the same way an open license can resolve the reusability paradox).

MOOCs have carried the ball a significant way down the field toward universal access to free, high quality education. We should be grateful for the work they’ve done on behalf of that goal. The primary risk we have to guard against now is someone hanging out the “Mission Accomplished” banner. MOOCs are not openly licensed, and consequently will struggle with issues of quality and will never become part of the educational infrastructure that enables truly breakthrough advances. MOOCs get us one step closer to the goal, but we need to continue advocating for true openness in order to create the space in which those advances can happen.

It’s almost as if we’re actually, slowly, iterating toward openness.

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