Martin Weller's new book The battle for open provides an excellent overview of the role of openness in higher education today. It charts the development of the main strands of openness (open access, MOOCs, open educational resources and open scholarship) and suggests that although the MOOC boom has made people more aware of the opportunities of open online education it is a false dawn. Interpretations of openness vary greatly and most MOOCs choose to only focus on free access but maintain full copyright on the material. Major investments of venture capital underpin the mainstream MOOC movement and many academics are concerned about the commercialisation of higher education.
One might therefore expect this to be a time of celebration for the advocates of openness. Having fought so long for their message to be heard, they are now being actively courted by senior management for their experience and views on various open strategies. Open approaches are featured in the mainstream media. Millions of people are enhancing their learning through open resources and open courses. Put bluntly, it looks as though openness has won. And yet you would be hard pushed to find any signs of celebration amongst those original advocates. They are despondent about the reinterpretation of openness to mean ‘free’ or ‘online’ without some of the reuse liberties they had envisaged. Concerns are expressed about the commercial interests that are now using openness as a marketing tool. Doubts are raised regarding the benefits of some open models for developing nations or learners who require support. At this very moment of victory it seems that the narrative around openness is being usurped by others, and the consequences of this may not be very open at all.
Weller points to the Silicon Valley narrative that education is broken and that commercial solutions will reinvent the sector. It's an attractive and media-friendly argument that has won many supporters and I'll admit that I've been won over by many of the articles and videos that have gone viral in recent years. The image of a hopelessly outdated system based on dull lectures and exam halls and failing to exploit digital technology may have some truth in it but is still a sweeping generalisation that fails to acknowledge the advances made in online higher education in the past 15 years. The MOOC concept was after all developed by university faculty and researchers as pedagogical innovation, Silicon Valley latched on and adapted the idea several years later.
So with the spotlight still focused on mainstream MOOCs some of the really interesting develoments have been taking place in the shade. If we are at a crossroads in the development of openness with one road leading to commercialisation we also need to see an alternative route where resources and tools are shared openly with permission to reuse and remix. One possible avenue could be the new initiative Unizin which is a consortium of American universities whose aim is to take control of their own infrastructure, resources and tools and offer a non-commercial cloud-based platform for higher education, outside the influence of commercial actors. Many fear that by linking up with major corporations and venture capital sponsored MOOC consortia higher education may be selling its soul to big business. Unizin wants to create a common cloud repository for educational resources that can be freely shared. The main driving force behind this is the potential of learning analytics and if student data is kept within the educational domain then it can be analysed for educational purposes.
Our goals and purpose in endorsing Unizin are simple: As professors and members of the academy, we want to support faculty and universities by ensuring that universities and their faculty stay in control of the content, data, relationships, and reputations that we create. As we look at the rapidly emerging infrastructure that enables digital learning, we want to bias things in the direction of open standards, interoperability, and scale. Unizin is about tipping the table in favor of the academy by collectively owning (buying, developing, and connecting) the essential infrastructure that enables digital learning on our campuses and beyond.
In a similar vein the Finnish government has announced plans for a national cloud-based educational platform called EduCloud (information in Finnish only at present) which aims to house a national repository of open educational resources as well as common tools and services. There is no doubt that commercial actors will continue to offer innovative solutions for education but the path to true openness lies in the educational sector taking charge of their resources and services. But this path is not about each institution building its own solution but in national and international cooperation. Maybe this will be a major theme for 2015.