Tuesday, January 11, 2011

2011: The Year of "Open"

Amidst the landscape of the most popular topics, one likely in danger of reaching the top 10 overused words of 2010, is the word “open.” With every page turn, web click, Twitter snippet, blog feed and hash tag, the word seemed inexplicably inescapable. Open content, last year’s phenomena, is now this year’s reality and for all intent and purposes, it looks like it has legs. The concept of open content has been interpreted by many as an evolution from the rapid expansion of open-source learning management movement in higher education that shares many of the same concepts and values of openness and distribution of knowledge.

An open content environment offers freely accessible materials for teaching, learning and reference, standards for digital publishing of open resources and software tools that support it. By definition open content is a foundational element, the bricks and mortar, of open courseware, a growing movement centered on participatory engagement that is more like a multi-dimensional learning event. What has historically been designed as a traditional “straight line” online course, in the world of open, becomes a web of interrelated syllabi, learning materials, blog and video posts, discussions articles, tweet and tags digitally stitched together in a structured way. The open course, by design, is participatory at the core where a student makes connections between ideas, course participants and their work, not necessarily found in a central learning management system, but rather found all over the net, structured in organized pockets and clusters.

The open courseware movement is one of the few applications in online learning that knits together people who have a noted reputation for interesting skills and innovative thinking on a wide variety of topics who collaborate in a networked course. The open environment is an always-on application persistently available in the cloud, the result of which becomes more difficult to support the notion of static one-off standalone education resource contained in closed proprietary systems. The open education resource movement becomes an open “app store” only free and available for reconstitution and re-contextualization.

Perhaps one of the most interesting developments in the open courseware movement is the impact on the economics of the cost structure of formal institutional learning. The open movement gives participants access to a wide range of educational content offering a potential alternative to traditionally published material such as textbooks. Since the open courseware movement is highly customizable and cost-effective, leveraging a community of contributors creating and releasing rights to high-quality educational content at little to no cost, the balance of power now turns to consumers of learning not suppliers of information. A prime example is the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges System’s Open Course Library project. The Board seeks treasure-troves of content funded and developed with foundation grants which offer free courses in addition to lecture notes, virtual laboratories, and online "cognitive tutors" that guide students through complex problem-solving exercises. The Open Course Library connects teams of instructors, librarians, and web designers from around the state who are creating ready-to-use digital course modules for the 81 highest-enrolled courses in the system.

It’s unclear how the open course movement will impact our evolving world of formal online education. What is abundantly clear, however, is that faculty and administration will continually need to adapt to the impact of social education and the participatory web. Concurrently, next generation learning management system design will need to adapt to this sea change of networked learning. In the traditional model, courses are based on modular content management and a one-way provision of information instead of social interaction between individuals and organized collections of networked materials created in real time. In seeking learning management alternatives, it will be important to give strong consideration to systems designed for the future of eLearning where the student is at the center.