Liberate teaching materials from paywalls, urges professor

Open access champion also proposes an IB for universities, as competition gives way to collaboration  

February 14, 2022
Large group walk over a bridge in the Gold Coast, Australia to illustrate, liberate teaching materials from paywalls, urges professor
Source: Getty

The campaign for open access should not stop at research, with the equivalent of Europe’s Plan S rolled out to liberate teaching materials from behind “massive paywalls”, a book argues.

Emeritus public health professor Richard Heller has called for a “Plan E” to champion global access to learning. In a freely downloadable book, The Distributed University for Sustainable Higher Education, he says the rationale for unlocking publicly funded research also applies to educational materials.

Institutions bankrolled substantially or wholly by taxpayers produce courses and content that they make available only to their enrolled students, he argues. “Universities compete amongst themselves for these students. Is it appropriate that public money should be spent on producing and delivering education that is…used for competitive advantage?”

Professor Heller agitated for distance learning during stints at the University of Newcastle in Australia and later at the University of Manchester, developing online master’s courses in both institutions. After his retirement, he launched Peoples-uni, a UK-based educational charity offering public health courses in low- and middle-income countries.

He said the free educational resources that made such ventures feasible included Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare initiative and online courses from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health, as well as massive open online courses produced elsewhere. But such efforts were scattered, lacking organised advocacy and regulatory impetus.

In 2019, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation recommended that member states roll out policies or frameworks that encouraged open access to educational resources developed with public funds. “How’s encouraging going to lead to implementation?” asked Professor Heller, who said all government-financed universities should be given three years to put at least 10 per cent of their offerings in the public domain.

While acknowledging that his proposal could not replicate the full university education experience, he argued that open access courseware would benefit many. A study of free online professional development courses had found that participants with and without tutors achieved comparable results, he said. “Motivation is as important as the environment. Lots of autodidacts fare very well on their own.”

The proposal is one of many in the book, most of which are aimed at reducing inequities in higher education and supplanting competition with collaboration. Professor Heller, now an emeritus professor at Newcastle, said the global pivot towards online learning had generated opportunities to “think laterally” and reconsider entrenched practices.

“Online can provide all sorts of ways of underpinning these ideas,” he said. “Other things are feasible once you’ve made that leap.”

Another proposal is for a higher education equivalent of the International Baccalaureate offered by secondary schools around the world. Professor Heller said it could avoid the massive costs incurred as universities worked alone developing lookalike courses, in a futile effort to wrest competitive advantages over each other.

He acknowledged that a common higher education curriculum would face stiff opposition, as universities asserted their autonomy and bickered over content. “It’s not an easy concept in the context of the competitive model that we seem to find ourselves in, [but] I don’t see why it shouldn’t work,” he said. “It seems to work at the school level.

“People working in universities are not happy. It’s not a happy place to work any more. I think people would prefer to collaborate than compete, and their productivity might very well go up.”

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