Ashley Thorne

Education is like water, free for all who are intellectually thirsty. Academic credit is like bottled water. You have to pay for it but you can keep the evidence of your purchase and use it for refills. 

Today the free and open education fountains gush plentifully, cascading through the internet and submerging old ideas about college-level learning. Google Books has by now digitized over seven million books. Texts like Aristotle’s Metaphysics are fully viewable and searchable on a computer screen. iTunes U, YouTube EDU, and Academic Earth offer free podcasts and videos of classroom lectures.

iTunes U’s current top download is an intro to philosophy lecture at Oxford: “A romp through the history of philosophy from the pre-Socratics to the present day.” YouTube EDU (“an education hub” for “lifelong learners”) and Academic Earth (“like Hulu, but for nerds”) are both new, born in 2009. The YouTube channel seems to consist mainly of colleges’ promotional videos, interviews with visiting experts, and graphic footage of dentistry procedures—whereas Academic Earth provides actual lectures from Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale on topics like “Stellar Mass Black Holes.” The rise of academic video databases such as these naturally creates an audience biased toward the most attractive and entertaining professors. But that’s not a new phenomenon, as we recall from Indiana Jones’ archeology classroom.

The open education movement belongs to this decade. One key trailblazer was David Wiley, who as a Brigham Young graduate student in 1999 wrote an article in MIT Technology Review on “A New Openness.” Wiley dedicated his life to making education freely available to all who want to learn, and his writings and work over the last ten years have been crucial in framing the movement. He recently founded the Open High School of Utah, an online charter high school which will open this fall. Wiley is also the Chief Openness Officer (the name was his idea) of Flat World Knowledge, a free online database that allows instructors to modify textbooks for their own courses. Perhaps the Openness Chief is working on making the Flat World 3-D.

Besides Wiley there were other players who helped set the open education hydraulics in motion. MIT pioneered free course publication when it launched OpenCourseWare in 2001. Creative Commons, a non-profit organization that helps creators license their work to be used in the public domain, was founded in 2002. That same year, UNESCO held a “Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries” in Paris, where the term “open educational resources” was coined.

In 2007, the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the Shuttleworth Foundation created the Cape Town Declaration. Today the Declaration has 2064 signatories who pledge to encourage teachers, schools, colleges and universities to use open resources, release their own resources to the public domain, and make open education a policy priority. The original signers of the Cape Town Declaration saw themselves as banding together to overcome barriers to the “global revolution in teaching and learning.”

Note: we have come across the Open Society Institute before when looking at an organization called Free Exchange on Campus, which insists that NAS and our friends are simply spouting manufactured controversy when we claim to observe politicization on campus. We noted in June that Free Exchange on Campus is sponsored by the Open Society Institute, which is founded and chaired by George Soros, the billionaire who funds multiple projects of the Democratic Party, called removing President George W. Bush from office “a matter of life and death,” and was convicted of insider trading in 2002. The Cape Town Declaration’s connection with Soros may or may not indicate political bias for the open education revolution.

But the revolution has attracted political attention anyway. As part of his American Graduation Initiative (AGI) President Obama has proposed a $500 million plan for new online education systems which will make many college courses free to the public. Learners who want academic credit for completing the material can choose to pay for it.

This model is patterned after Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative, which uses “intelligent tutoring systems, virtual laboratories, simulations, and frequent opportunities for assessment and feedback” to track individual learners’ needs.

OLI exemplifies its own philosophy. At the bottom of the webpage is a line that notes OLI’s Creative Commons “Share Alike” license. On the other side at the bottom is an icon showing that OLI is funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Interestingly, Hewlett also funds Creative Commons and OpenCourseWare for MIT and seems to be the financial driver of the movement as a whole.  

Carnegie Mellon’s program has grown in worldwide popularity and appears to be the prototype for what President Obama has in mind. Last week the Chronicle of Higher Education came out with an article entitled “Obama’s Great Course Giveaway” (subscription required). The article explains that “The government would pay to develop these ‘open’ classes, taking up the mantle of a movement that has unlocked lecture halls at universities nationwide in recent years.” It’s expensive to give away college courses en masse. The government just wants to help out.  

Marc Parry, the article’s author, also notes that “The plan coincides with Mr. Obama's goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.” NAS has frequently discussed in our articles why we believe this ambition is misguided. But the White House, of course, is excited about the goal and thinks the open education movement could be the ticket to motivating students to go to college. The Chronicle quotes Mike Smith, senior counselor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, expressing his enthusiasm for student-fishing. Smith said that if Americans have access to “a bunch of really good courses that they could work on in the evenings,” they can “try out the idea of getting course credit for them—and get hooked.” 

On Monday the Chronicle published another article (subscription required) by the same author, this time conveying concerns about the course giveaway that were raised at a recent conference on distance learning. Do we really need new online courses? Do we really want the government to spend money on this? Do students really want to be tracked by “intelligent tutoring” on how long they take to complete certain math problems?

These are valid concerns for this major presidential initiative. Yet all in all, we see open education as a more or less beneficial trend, similar to Wikipedia. It may not possess the scholarly qualities of the original but it is helpful when you need it. And while most of our members prefer the traditional classroom setting, we do think education should be accessible to every curious person who wants to learn. We will be watching the progress of the great course giveaway to see how our nation will quench its thirst.

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