The Open Education Infrastructure, and Why We Must Build It

Despite thoughtful disagreement about the term “infrastructure” from people I greatly respect, I continue to find the term extraordinarily useful in my own thinking about how we improve education. As interest in competency-based education continues to grow, we have an incredible opportunity to expand and to open the core pieces of the education infrastructure. But before I go further, a few words about “infrastructure” to make sure we’re all on the same page.

The Wikipedia entry on infrastructure begins:

Infrastructure refers to the basic physical and organizational structures needed for the operation of a society or enterprise, or the services and facilities necessary for an economy to function. It can be generally defined as the set of interconnected structural elements that provide a framework supporting an entire structure of development…

The term typically refers to the technical structures that support a society, such as roads, bridges, water supply, sewers, electrical grids, telecommunications, and so forth, and can be defined as “the physical components of interrelated systems providing commodities and services essential to enable, sustain, or enhance societal living conditions.” Viewed functionally, infrastructure facilitates the production of goods and services.

What would constitute an education infrastructure? What types of components are included in the set of interconnected structural elements that provide the framework supporting education?

I can’t imagine a way to conduct a program of education without all four of the following components: competencies or learning outcomes, educational resources that support the achievement of those outcomes, assessments by which learners can demonstrate their achievement of those outcomes, and credentials that certify their mastery of those outcomes to third parties. Certainly there are more components to the core education infrastructure than these four, but I would argue that these four clearly qualify as interconnected structural elements that provide the framework underlying every program of formal education.

Why Bother With an Open Education Infrastructure?

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to spend time thinking about practical ways of spreading the influence of openness across the entire education infrastructure. But why continue focusing on infrastructure at all? I want to make it as simple, fast, and inexpensive as possible for people and institutions to experiment with new models of education – much in the same way the Reclaim Hosting folks are deploying open educational technology infrastructure to make it fast, cheap, and easy for folks to experiment with the technologies underlying new models. Not everyone has the time, resources, talent, or inclination to completely recreate competency maps, textbooks, assessments, and credentialing models for every course they teach. Similarly on the technology side, not everyone has the time or inclination to code up a new blogging platform from scratch every time they want to post an article online. It simply makes things faster, easier, cheaper, and better for everyone when their is high quality, openly available infrastructure already deployed that we can remix and build upon.

Opening the Education Infrastructure

Historically, we have only applied the principle of openness to one of the four components of the education infrastructure I listed above: educational resources. If you’re not familiar with the 5Rs model of thinking about open educational resources (OER), give that summary a quick read. I have been arguing that “content is infrastructure” for about a decade now. More recently, Mozilla has created and shared an open credentialing infrastructure through their open badges work. But little has done to promote the cause of openness in the areas of competencies and assessments.

Open Competencies

I think one of the primary reasons competency-based education (CBE) programs have been so slow to develop in the US – even after the Department of Education made its federal financial aid policies friendlier to CBE programs – is the terrific amount of work necessary to develop a solid set of competencies. Again, not everyone has the time or expertise to do this work. It’s really hard. And because it’s so hard, many institutions with CBE programs treat their competencies like a secret family recipe, hoarding them away and keeping them fully copyrighted (apparently without experiencing any cognitive dissonance while they promote the use of OER among their students). This behavior has seriously stymied growth and innovation in CBE in my view.

If an institution would openly license a complete set of competencies, that would give other institutions a foundation on which to build new programs, models, and other experiments. The open competencies could be revised and remixed according to the needs of local programs, and they can be added to, or subtracted from, to meet those needs as well. This act of sharing would also give the institution of origin an opportunity to benefit from remixes, revisions, and new competencies added to their original set by others.

Furthermore, openly licensing more sophisticated sets of competencies, like the quantitative domain maps I wrote about a few weeks ago, provides a public, transparent, and concrete foundation around which to marshall empirical evidence and build supported arguments about the scoping and sequencing of what students should learn.

Open competencies are the core of the open education infrastructure because they provide the context that imbues resources, assessments, and credentials with meaning – from the perspective of the instructional designer, teacher, or program planner. (They are imbued with meaning for students through additional means as well.) You don’t know if a given resource is the “right” resource to use, or if an assessment is giving students an opportunity to demonstrate the “right” kind of mastery, without the competency as a referent. (For example, an extremely high quality, high fidelity, interactive chemistry lab simulation is the “wrong” content if students are supposed to be learning world history.) Likewise, a credential is essentially meaningless if a third party like an employer cannot refer to the skill or set of skills its possession supposedly certifies.

Open Assessments

For years, creators of open educational resources have declined to share their assessments in order to “keep them secure” so that students won’t cheat on exams, quizzes, and homework. This security mindset has prevented sharing of assessments.

In CBE programs, students often demonstrate their mastery of competencies through “performance assessments.” Unlike some traditional multiple choice assessments, performance assessments require students to demonstrate mastery by performing a skill or producing something. Consequently, performance assessments are very difficult to cheat on. For example, even if you find out a week ahead of time that the end of unit exam will require you to make 8 out of 10 free throws, there’s really no way to cheat on the assessment. Either you will master the skill and be able to demonstrate that mastery or you won’t.

Because performance assessments are so difficult to cheat on, keeping them secure should not be a concern, making it possible for performance assessments to be openly licensed and publicly shared. Once they are openly licensed, these assessments can be retained, revised, remixed, reused, and redistributed.

Another way of alleviating concerns around the security of assessment items is to create openly licensed assessment banks that contain hundreds or thousands of assessments – so many assessments that cheating becomes more difficult and time consuming than simply learning.

An Open Infrastructure Stack for Education

Open Credentials
Open Assessments
Open Educational Resources
Open Competencies

This interconnected set of components provides a foundation which will greatly decrease the time, cost, and complexity of the search for innovative and effective new models of education. (It will provide related benefits for informal learning, as well). From the bottom up, open competencies provide the overall blueprint and foundation, open educational resources provide a pathway to mastering the competencies, open assessments provide the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of the competencies, and open credentials which point to both the competency statements and results of performance assessments certify to third parties that learners have in fact mastered the competency in question.

When open licenses are applied up and down the entire stack – creating truly open credentials, open assessments, open educational resources, and open competencies, resulting in an open education infrastructure – each part of the stack can be altered, adapted, improved, customized, and otherwise made to fit local needs without the need to ask for permission or pay licensing fees. Local actors with local expertise are empowered to build on top of the infrastructure to solve local problems. Freely.

And that’s why I keep talking about infrastructure. We can’t solve other people’s problems for them, but we can make it infinitely easier for them to solve their own problems. Providing an open education infrastructure unleashes the talent and passion of people who want to solve education problems but don’t have time to reinvent the wheel and rediscover fire in the process.

I am strongly committed to developing and deploying this infrastructure and being one of the actors who builds on top of it. I’m ecstatic to be working with institutional partners who understand the power of open and share the vision and commitment to making the open education infrastructure a reality. Of course we won’t build out the missing pieces of the entire infrastructure during one project, but we are going to move the ball significantly down the field.

Always remember, “openness facilitates the unexpected.” We can’t possibly imagine all the incredible ways people and institutions will use the open education infrastructure to incrementally improve or completely reinvent themselves. And that’s exactly why we need to build it.

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