Realizing the power of ‘open’ to transform higher education

Are we really at a turning point in the creation of truly crowd-sourced knowledge?

As the concept of open source has evolved and expanded over the past two decades from difficult-to-manage productivity and organizational tools to a vast, friendly, and rapidly growing bank of interactive open content, the possibility for grassroots innovation that can transform higher education is more viable than ever.

Beyond the open-source learning management system (LMS), for instance, which has become a cornerstone for many higher-education institutions, open education resources (OER) are disrupting traditional teaching and learning processes by radically altering the “supply and demand” balance of courseware creation and deployment to place learners front and center in the process.

Read more about open source in higher education…

Open source advocates: Academia, industry must play nice

Open courseware 2.0: The next steps in the OER movement

Today, this OER-supported participatory model is playing a central role in the increasingly ubiquitous blended and eLearning environments, which bring to the table the affordability, flexibility, and immediacy that critics say is becoming crucial to higher education’s position of relevance in the digital century and beyond. But there are still many barriers standing in the way.

In this article, I’ll explain what these are and propose solutions for overcoming them.

The power of open education resources

The theory of “open” is that when content and derivative works are shared openly and contributed to by a large number of people, the resulting crowd-sourced knowledge affords a greater diversity and social exchange that enriches both the learning experience and the material. 

Moreover, the OER community promotes an environment where large networks of contributors draw upon and feed into collective repositories of content.

Ideally, OER digital content—such as blogs, videos, wikis, tweets, podcasts, curriculum websites, and other resources—can be “stitched together” to create deeply engaging multidimensional learning events that comprise the kind of open courseware whose participatory nature fosters personalization, higher-order thinking, and authentic problem solving.

When mediated by faculty in blended learning and eLearning environments, such ongoing knowledge creation can become integral to a vital, collaborative 21st-century learning experience that truly prepares students to take active roles in shaping an unknown future.

Obstacles to OER implementation

Though a tidal wave of possibilities exist for transformative learning experiences in the world of OER, we nevertheless pose the question: Are we really at a turning point in the creation of truly crowd-sourced knowledge?

Not surprisingly, the same entrenched attitudes and practices that have led to a “culture clash” between traditional and digital methods of research, publishing, and communications in higher education also apply to the implementation of open education resources for teaching and learning. If OER is to realize its full disruptive potential in higher education, a host of obstacles must be overcome.

A primary challenge to OER implementation is the lack of organization of the wealth of resources residing online.

The disorganized, “Wild West” nature of available content makes it impractical for all but the most tapped-in faculty to identify and use it in any practical way. Efficiently harnessing these resources requires making connections across people, groups, and communities of interest to provide a shared context. To ensure scale and sustainability, the future of OER must combine elements of intelligent content repositories enriched with organized social communities in order for effective eLearning or blended learning to occur.

Assessment and evaluation of OER materials remains another obstacle. In its current design, analysis of OER content usage and performance is a challenge. No significant research on the availability, usage, and impact of OER materials exists in the world of public education.

We consistently hear that faculty are pleased, where and when allowed, to release their treasured creations to a sea of global peer contributors, but they are reluctant to harvest and integrate valuable open resources crafted by colleagues from institutions within this growing network.

This reluctance may be owing in part to a lack of vetting from higher-education mechanisms that exist for traditional curriculum content.

Even when faculty find applications effective for learning, avenues for communication about them can be limited. OER resources are still often void of the systems for peer review and accurate evaluation rubrics commonly placed by colleague-authors in published articles, open institutional web sites, course download destination sites, or open learning object repositories (LORs).

Content silos and closed education environments also work against such analyses. The OER community believes that creating and sustaining consistent student performance in any given subject of an online or blended learning course is difficult to achieve in the closed environment of a single faculty member.

Content delivered only in individual courses makes it difficult to perform roll-up analyses across departments and institutions or to share data across a network of OER participants. If the goal of OER is to impact student learning, developing formal ways of assessing student knowledge in the open world is vital.

Lack of professional training for teaching in an OER world remains another impediment. Familiarity of OER is low among most faculties, as is an understanding of the practical applications and benefits of open materials for coursework.

The inability for mainstream faculty to easily search and find high-quality OER content is exacerbated by a lack of training in new methods for teaching course subject matter enriched with crowd-sourced materials.

Policy and perspective can be additional hurdles to a lack of progress in implementing OER. A clear institutional perspective and strategic policy towards openness and the use of OER materials is often elusive in higher-education environments, sometimes despite continued investments in the creation and use of open content with the potential to provide deep benefits.

The future: Overcoming OER challenges

Despite its challenges, OER implementation in higher education is by no means an unachievable goal. Collaboration, “smart” technology, and clear, strategic planning can help faculty institute new practices to help them maximize the use of OER.

An institutional push for and commitment to the advanced technology that can efficiently organize OER content is key.

To realize this vision, the OER community will need to embrace new technology and systems that provide robust mechanisms to support the creation of effective sharing, repurposing, socializing, and securely distributing crowd-sourced learning materials in ways that drive effective student engagement and success.

The future of OER must be less about relying on creating, integrating, and distributing content “cartridge” learning modules, and more about content clouds (that provide a broad range of context-grouped materials) and the creation, sharing, and easy access to targeted intervention materials for student outcomes improvement.

The new OER world will require cloud-based, platform-neutral, intelligent content management capabilities that make current LMS software and other learning systems “smarter.”

These new systems will better serve faculty with the means of searching and finding relevance in OER resources that adapt to multi-variant teaching methods and learning modalities.

Future data-rich OER environments also will feature the ability to track, analyze, and report learner connections and behavior pathways as valuable data when mixed and matched with learners across the OER networked environment. Integrated assessment mechanisms must allow for the seamless collection of data on student interaction with content and create valuable feedback for faculty and course content developers.

OER content-cloud intelligent networked technologies could facilitate such tracking to examine both explicit and implicit behaviors to provide a vital fact base and collective sense of knowledge.

The future of OER professional development for faculty will derive from the increased ability to analyze and assess OER materials and to become more deeply involved in OER communities of practice that will naturally narrow the gap between student and instructor learning experiences and illuminate the benefits offered by open teaching and OER.

Most importantly, educators will need to be directly in control of innovation in the advancement of OER to provide sustainable growth in the open community.

In a blog post last year, 2011: The Year of “Open,” I posited that the OER movement has the potential to transform how faculty approach eLearning and blended learning in ways that can produce new knowledge to solve real problems by fostering deep engagement and innovation in teaching. In that post, I challenged faculty to take a first step toward that innovation by adopting an open attitude toward participatory web resources that enrich teaching and learning.

If an open attitude is step one, then step two is an action item: What can you do to drive institutional advocacy of OER on your campus, and perhaps a broader policy that rewards innovative programs and faculty?

We’d be very interested in hearing about the steps you’re taking and what the results have been.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Lou Pugliese (, chairman and CEO of Moodlerooms, is a veteran entrepreneurial business strategist and open-source expert. He was founding CEO of Blackboard and has a successful history of driving growth and development in major brands such as ETS, Telecommunications Inc., Scholastic Inc., and Turner Broadcasting. He is also a noted international speaker on technology innovation in education and has addressed a wide range of issues in education and education policy.

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