As we discussed in class on Wednesday, the last decade has seen an international push for open access to research and educational information. The Budapest Open Access Initiative, launched out of an internationally attended meeting in 2001, outlined a collaborative strategy to make research articles free on the Internet. Then, six years later, the Cape Town Open Education Declaration put forth a tall order to make educational resources open and free on the Web. Now in 2012, we have an increasingly visible OpenCourseWare movement and open access policies that are beginning to be legislatively backed and progressively researcher-supported.
But the road from those early wouldn’t-it-be-great initiatives to the reality of a more open access-aware society has been a bumpy one. So it is not surprising that as we celebrate the inaugural Open Education Week this week (March 5-10, 2012), many are asking if such openness can be realistically sustained? And, perhaps of more immediate importance, is it doing what it should – bringing educational resources to the disadvantaged and closing the digital divide?
Here in the U.S., the question of sustainability remains the most prominent. As I outlined in my earlier short blog post, U.S.-based legislation – in particular the 2008 NIH Open Access Policy – that requires a subset of taxpayer-supported research to be made publically available, is constantly threatened and more expansive policies remain in perpetual Congressional debate. The threat of such open-access policies to the current publishing business models has made them a hard sell to the larger, and thus influential, publishers.
But while OpenCourseWare hasn’t faced such openly staunch and vocal opposition, it too has emerged from its initial development phase a costly venture with not easily quantifiable results.
Born from their core and outwardly simplistic mission to “advance knowledge and educate students,” MIT has been the leader in the OpenCourseWare movement, launching a pilot program of 50 courses in 2002 that has grown to now include over 2,000 courses and more than 225 mirror sites around the world. Now part of a worldwide OpenCourseWare Consortium, MIT shares the OpenCourseWare stage with Tufts University, Yale, Stanford, and hundreds more higher education institutions worldwide. Yet even MIT who has made this initiative a high priority is facing the real burden of cost of its OpenCourseWare program. According to their Web site (and as a lead in to its page inviting donations), MIT OpenCourseWare states that each course costs about $10,000 to $15,000 to compile and publish. With over 200 courses published each year that is more than a $2 million investment for a service that is offered completely free to the public. While MIT has been able to maintain this cost, other universities not as well endowed may find it more difficult to justify such an expense.
It is the justification of these programs in relation to their great costs that has many people now looking critically at the overall OpenCourseWare model. While little opposition has emerged as to the overall concept of OpenCourseWare, debate on its value has manifested around three points.
1. Visitation doesn’t equate to education. Since OpenCourseWare launched, many have speculated that such courses would be rarely digested in their entirety, lowering the value of posting such an extensive amount of material when consumers are only truly looking for a sampling. With the release of MIT’s OpenCourseWare World impact report in 2006, this argument gained some weight. As Mark Guzdial, a professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, broke it down, 50% of all the visits to that institution’s OpenCourseWare site were single-page views and 70% of visitors only visited the site once. This hardly equates to in-depth consumption, which was, and still is, the desire of the MIT flagship program.
2. Does OpenCourseWare just give the already privileged additional opportunities to leap ahead? Perhaps more devastating in the MIT report, according to Guzdial in his 2010 assessment, was the lack of visitors from the developing world. Those visitors that did log on from the Middle East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa were again in-and-out visitors, utilizing the resources like they would Wikipedia to look up specific answers. Here the goal of closing the digital divide through OpenCourseWare seemed to be missing its mark.
Berkman Center Fellow and Harvard Graduate School of Education Ph.D. candidate, Justin Reich, takes this thought to the next level, basing three years of research thus far on answering the question of whether open education resources (OER) such as OpenCourseWare do in fact “disproportionately benefit disadvantaged students” as they have set out to do. His initial findings suggest that his “great fear” that already affluent students are in a better position to take advantage of these resources and thus will enlarge that gap between them and the less advantaged students is a valid concern. Digitally disadvantaged students, in his view, may end up perpetually playing catch up. See this video for a brief overview of his work in digital equity.
Reich’s fear, when you consider the popularity of OERs among the societally privileged, gains even more momentum. And it also raises the question of does OpenCourseWare make the traditional academic institution obsolete?
3. What matters: the instructor or the institution? The rise of the “edupunks”. Take the example of a handful of Stanford University professors, not acting under the formal Stanford OpenCourseWare offerings, that took the concept of OpenCourseWare to a new level this fall when they offered a trio of computer science courses that not only allowed participants to view lectures and course materials, but actually take quizzes, submit homework, and meet in virtual office hours. An astonishing 23,000 students took one of the course’s midterm exams via proctored satellite locations throughout the world. While none of these students will receive college credit, they are part of a growing group collectively called “edupunks”, those seeking coveted courses through the back door rather than through the gates of Ivy-league institutions. In an Inside Higher Ed blog post in January, Steve Kolowich posed the logical next question of who adds credibility to your education: an instructor well-respected in the field or the institution from which he happens to collect a paycheck? In this case, participants are betting on the instructors.
These questions, particularly around the digital divide and institution devaluation had me reassessing my own take on OpenCourseWare and university education in the digital age. My own higher education has spanned lectures on overhead transparencies to the emergence of PowerPoint to now course books and lectures delivered entirely online. When I first learned of MIT’s OpenCourseWare (~2003), it seemed like a wonderful offering for the disadvantaged (albeit still Internet-connected). OpenCourseWare was a skeleton of materials, hardly a fleshed out course. But now, with my own educational resources looking striking similar to the OpenCourseWare materials, I am now wondering what makes my paid-for education different than that of the freely offered OpenCourseWare options?
The answer is very little. But that means that OpenCourseWare now also has a certain expectation of prior educational experience in a format that may be familiar to those of us who have worked towards a degree or two, but it would be insurmountably foreign to the disadvantaged would-be participants. In this, I agree with Reich in his justifiable fear of an increased digital divide.
The U.S. Department of Education, however, does not share this pessimistic view of OpenCourseWare. They, like the OpenCourseWare Consortium, still see the potential in these open education initiatives to fill a gap that traditional mechanisms have been unable to address. They see the biggest hurdle as recruiting participants and have not yet considered the implications of the current model regarding the digital divide.
And that brings us to this week, Open Education Week, a co-sponsored event with the OpenCourseWare Initiative that aims to raise awareness about the good aspects of what OERs have to offer. It also signals the launch of the “Why Open Education Matters” video competition that invites submissions of videos that “explains the benefits and promise of Open Educational Resources for teachers, students and schools everywhere” and offers cash prizes. As we learned from an earlier post, the current administration has been working hard to promote transparency of information across multiple levels (from its own intelligence gathering to now this more benign push for open and accessible education).
While I do not dismiss such efforts – I continue to support information accessibility wholeheartedly – I think it is important to critically assess any method’s degree of success often and with the willingness to accept when things need to be adjusted. With a solid decade of OpenCourseWare behind us, now is the time to collect and study the data (Who has really used it? What tangible benefits can be observed? Where do these products fall short?) lest our technology once again leads us to incite separation rather than inclusion.