Open to question

OERs are touted as the answer to all manner of global ills, but much work is needed before they fulfil the promise, writes Jeremy Knox

November 1, 2012

Credit: Paulo Buchinho

Open educational resources are huge news in the world of higher education, and are at the helm of a burgeoning open education movement.

First emerging from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare project in 2001, open educational resources have risen in prominence to shape major international policy initiatives and to draw significant research funding. The European Commission, for example, is running a public consultation on “Opening Up Education” that will explore the need for European Union action to promote the use of OERs in education. In the UK, The Open University was recently awarded a $1.5 million (£939,000) grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to examine the impact of OERs on learning and teaching. Meanwhile, numerous OER repositories and OER producers are appearing on the web, and their models for sharing content are influencing the strategies of educational institutions worldwide.

But despite their growing importance, there is a notable lack of critical studies on OERs and the open education movement in general.

Developments have been driven by a rhetoric of “openness” and change. The underlying focus of the OER movement has been to bypass or diminish economic and geographical barriers to educational content; it has been about sidestepping institutional dominance and connecting potential learners with reliable sources of information. The internet is advanced as the ultimate vehicle for this cause, providing a relatively free and straightforward way to access useful educational content.

But the overarching emphasis on access prompts some serious questions about what kind of education is being advanced.

OERs are often perceived simply as a way of sharing content among teachers and existing faculty. Influential groups within the movement, however, go further and posit the idea of institutions that exist exclusively to assess and accredit OER-based learning. Under this model, the role of teaching becomes apparently non-existent (apart from vague references to “academic volunteers”). This vision is often justified by the argument that demand for higher education exceeds provision: OERs, it is said, will fulfil the universal right to education. Providing access to materials and resources becomes the principal task at hand.

The OER movement often adopts uncritical notions of self-directed learning, predicated largely on assumptions about the ability of learners to govern themselves as rational and autonomous individuals. This not only pushes teaching into the background, it also brands pedagogic expertise as costly, inefficient and unnecessary in the educational process.

If the role of the educator is simply one of designing or providing content, the point at which resources are accessed by the autonomous learner becomes the end of the educational transaction rather than the beginning.

Despite the apparent lack of centralised direction or supervision students would receive under this model, prominent voices in the OER movement frequently predict that it could lead to identical or superior educational attainment, improvements in participants’ quality of life and global economic growth. OERs will “substantially improve the quality of life of learners around the world”, argues a 2008 paper by Tom Caswell and others from Utah State University’s Center for Open and Sustainable Learning; they will “expand people’s substantive freedoms through the removal of ‘unfreedoms’: poverty, limited economic opportunity, inadequate education and access to knowledge, deficient health care, and oppression”, says a 2007 report for the Hewlett Foundation. Once access to content is achieved, it is assumed that OER learners will teach themselves, increase human capital and become happy in the process. Responsibility for learning shifts away from a central institution and towards self-directing learners, who must govern their own educational experiences and emancipate themselves from ignorance and poverty.

OERs have also been linked to calls for the increasing alignment of education with the needs of the global economy. Sir John Daniel, former president and chief executive of the Commonwealth of Learning, and David Killion, US permanent representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation, recently suggested that OERs could help to train the world’s population on an unprecedented scale, a scenario under which businesses would directly influence OER curricula and content. In an online article for The Guardian in July, they wrote that “as policymakers struggle to apply traditional fiscal and monetary tools to mend world markets restrained by weak purchasing power, accelerated learning based on OERs could do more to stimulate global economic demand and growth than all the world’s tax holidays combined - then multiplied tenfold”. The best new OER programmes, they wrote, “are working closely with industry to create credentials earned from OER that are linked to specific occupations or job openings”. Such arguments appear to naturalise the role of education as subservient to the needs of capital and to reduce the desire for learning to an interest in gainful employment. This vision for the future of OERs is unmistakably aimed at those unable to access current institutional provision and seems to establish a two-tier system in which elite campus-based education is further privileged and open education is surrendered to market forces.

OERs are not inherently virtuous. Critical work is required to ensure that they become something of real value to educators and learners alike.

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