creative commons forecasting meta open content open education sustainability

Reflections on Open Education and the Path Forward

There’s been a lot of discussion about open textbooks, efficacy research, and student cost savings in the wake of this year’s #OpenEd15. The general theme of the conversation has been a concern that a focus on open textbooks confuses the means of open education with the end of open education. I’m compiling a Storify of examples of this really engaging writing – you should definitely take the time to read through it. I’m not responding directly to many of the points made in those posts here, but will in later follow-up posts.

The overall criticism about ends / means confusion may or may not be true – it depends entirely on what you think the end or goal of open education should be. This is a conversation we almost never have in the field of open education. What is our long-term goal? What are we actually trying to accomplish? What kind of change are we trying to create in the world? The recently published OER strategy document, as informative as it is, reads more like a list of issues and opportunities than what Michael Feldstein describes as “rungs on a ladder of ambition.” Answering these questions leads to additional, more proximate concerns, like what specific steps do we need to take to get from here to there? In his #OpenEd15 keynote, Michael pushed our thinking with some additional questions, like “Who are we willing to let win?”

As I have reflected on the post-conference conversation, and these larger questions about goals and purpose, I’ve decided to share some of my current best answers to these questions. (Disclaimer: my answers are guaranteed to evolve over time.) Your answers will almost certainly be different than mine – and that’s a good thing. I’m not sharing my answers as a way of claiming that they reflect the One True Answer. I’m sharing them in the hope that they will prompt you to think more deeply about your own answers. I find that nothing helps me clarify my thinking quite like reading others’ thinking I disagree with. As we all take the opportunity to ask and answer these important questions for ourselves, and to do that thinking publicly, out loud, who knows what might happen?

forecasting mooc open content politics

MOOCs and Digital Diploma Mills: Forgetting Our History

When David Noble first published his groundbreaking critique of online education in 1998, Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education, I thought to myself “he couldn’t be more wrong.” As it turns out he might not have been wrong – maybe Noble was simply so miraculously prescient that I couldn’t see what he saw. Fifteen – count them, fifteen – years later, Digital Diploma Mills reads as if it were researched and written about the current phenomenon called “MOOCs.” Entire paragraphs from the essay can be read unaltered and applied precisely to the state of things today:

What is driving this headlong rush to implement new technology with so little regard for deliberation of the pedagogical and economic costs and at the risk of student and faculty alienation and opposition? A short answer might be the fear of getting left behind, the incessant pressures of “progress”. But there is more to it. For the universities are not simply undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education. For here as elsewhere technology is but a vehicle and a disarming disguise.

. . .

The foremost promoters of this transformation are rather the vendors of the network hardware, software, and “content”… who view education as a market for their wares, a market estimated by the Lehman Brothers investment firm potentially to be worth several hundred billion dollars. “Investment opportunity in the education industry has never been better,” one of their reports proclaimed, indicating that this will be “the focus industry” for lucrative investment in the future, replacing the health care industry… It is important to emphasize that, for all the democratic rhetoric about extending educational access to those unable to get to the campus, the campus remains the real market for these products.

. . .

The third major promoters of this transformation are the university administrators, who see it as a way of giving their institutions a fashionably forward–looking image. More importantly, they view computer–based instruction as a means of reducing their direct labor and plant maintenance costs — fewer teachers and classrooms — while at the same time undermining the autonomy and independence of faculty. At the same time, they are hoping to get a piece of the commercial action for their institutions or themselves, as vendors in their own right of software and content.

. . .

Most important, once the faculty converts its courses to courseware, their services are in the long run no longer required. They become redundant, and when they leave, their work remains behind. In Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel Player Piano the ace machinist Rudy Hertz is flattered by the automation engineers who tell him his genius will be immortalized. They buy him a beer. They capture his skills on tape. Then they fire him. Today faculty are falling for the same tired line, that their brilliance will be broadcast online to millions. Perhaps, but without their further participation. Some skeptical faculty insist that what they do cannot possibly be automated, and they are right. But it will be automated anyway, whatever the loss in educational quality. Because education, again, is not what all this is about; it’s about making money.

If MOOCs (or xMOOCs more precisely, for those of you who know the inside baseball) do not represent “the automation of higher education,” what does? And even today we read again about universities rushing to become “one of the elite” schools offering MOOCs in partnership with Coursera or edX, and the pathways to diplomas these organizations are working hard to create.

The whole xMOOC phenomenon reads like the history of the Internet played backwards (or the history of the Reformation read backwards, if you prefer). Remember when the internet was largely a walled garden to the average user of AOL, Prodigy, or Compuserve? Remember how hard those companies resisted letting their users loose into the big wide world of the internet on their own? Remember their justifications and reasons why? Remember how amazing it was when people finally made their way onto the open internet?

Now play that record backwards, as the first generation of MOOCs (cMOOCs) – that allowed anyone from anywhere to participate however they liked in experiences built from openly licensed course materials – gives way to a new generation of walled gardens that call themselves “open” but require registration, use copyrighted materials, and take investment capital. They even prohibit students from using their services in the most useful ways: “You may not take any Online Course offered by Coursera or use any Statement of Accomplishment as part of any tuition-based or for-credit certification or program for any college, university, or other academic institution without the express written permission from Coursera” (Coursera Terms of Use). David Noble saw something like this coming. I’m not sure he was wrong.

But he doesn’t have to be right, either. Since the very beginning, open education has been about enabling and empowering. Including empowering faculty – not replacing them. Free and legal access for faculty, their students, and everyone around the world to high quality educational materials that can be legally adapted and customized specifically for your particular circumstances, and then shared broadly, openly, and freely. Ultimate flexibility. Zero cost. Increased dependance on faculty as curators, customizers, and contextualizers – real people who have relationships with students and understand what they need. Unlocking the potential of faculty and unlocking access for students. Allowing for any and all uses of educational materials a learner sees as valuable. That’s the vision of open education the wider world apparently has not yet seen. Unfortunately, much of the world seems to have seen the more limited xMOOC vision and accepted it as the state of the art regarding what is possible.

There was a positive sign from one of the xMOOCs today – edX announced its first MOOC to release its content under a Creative Commons license today. If this were to become a trend, and xMOOCs were to rejoin the open education movement, David Noble would have come frighteningly close – but would still be wrong.

Where do you think things are going? Better yet, what are you doing to influence where they will end up?

forecasting mooc open content politics textbooks

The No Textbook Degree

I’ve been thinking about what’s next for OER… With the current set of MOOCs – which aren’t even open – grabbing attention away from the real movement, we need an exciting idea to get behind. Something that can inspire another decade of work across the nation and around the world. (When was the last time you heard about a new OpenCourseWare initiative launching in the US? When was the last time you personally thought of OCW as being really innovative?) We need something that can capture the imagination, something that can inspire both faculty and institutional leaders, something that will bring another 100 US post-secondary schools into the open education movement. Most of all, we need something that will significantly bless the lives of millions of students, providing them access to educational opportunities that can radically transform their lives for good.

A recent Forbes article said, “in the case of low-tuition institutions (particularly community colleges), the cost of textbooks can even be in excess of the tuition and fees students pay.” Pondering the magnitude of this content tax on students, digging around in some community college program descriptions, and thinking about relevant, high-quality OER collections like those at Saylor, the Open Course Library, Project Kaleidoscope, and Flat World Knowledge, something has become very clear to me. There is currently a sufficient amount of high quality OER in the general education, business, and computer science areas that a community college could assemble a fully OER-based Associates Degree in either Business or CS from these materials if it had the institutional will and leadership to do so.

Consequently, the Fall 2014 semester will be the first one for which community colleges market “no textbook degrees.”

The “no textbook degree” – a degree where the materials formally listed on course syllabi are OER instead of traditional textbooks – cuts the cost of a community college degree in half. Imagine the competitive advantage for a school that can market a degree at 50% the cost of neighboring programs. Imagine the ease with which neighboring programs can make the same move, since it’s all based on OER.

By 2019, every community college in the country will have moved to no textbook degrees in business and computer science out of sheer competitive necessity. Other degree programs will follow. If Christensen’s model of disruptive innovation is to be believed, these OER will work their way up from the community colleges into the classrooms at public and eventually private universities.

An entire marketplace will spring up out of nowhere – in the same way that RedHat, IBM, and others provide services and support around open source software, new entities will provide service and support for institutions adopting OER and the “no textbook degree” model. Of course, the technically savvy will continue to adopt OER on their own, support themselves, and run Linux on their desktops.*

And finally, commercial textbook publishers will, for the first time, actually and acutely feel the impact of OER on their finances. By 2020, US students alone will have saved well over $1B.

Alan Kay famously said “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” I think that means it’s up to me and you to make the “no textbook degree” happen. Let’s stop allowing the big name schools who cater to the wealthiest and brightest students to dictate the terms of the open education discourse in the public mind and public media (e.g., students who already have the academic preparation necessary to succeed in a course on Artificial Intelligence at Udacity). Let’s reclaim the open education discourse and make it about saving normal people money and increasing the academic success, graduation rates, and employment potential of normal people. We can do this.

* (Parenthetically, because of the continued uncertainty around the meaning of NC, the support marketplace will refuse to support NC licensed content. Thus, adoption and use of NC-licensed content will be confined to the DIY-ers among faculty, unless the creator of the NC licensed content is also a support provider. By 2017 the overwhelming majority of “casual creators” of OER that previously used the NC term will drop it from their licenses as they realize that NC condemns their content to obscurity due to lack of support.)