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Bonnie Sutton

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schools Bricks not clicks open educational resources Free Public access

started by Bonnie Sutton on 26 Apr 12
  • Bonnie Sutton
    Building Schools Out of Clicks, Not Bricks
    Published: April 22, 2012

    CAMBRIDGE, ENGLAND - This past year has been a time of signs and wonders for the open educational resources movement, which pushes for free public access to educational materials.

    Warrick Page for the International Herald Tribune
    Sir John Daniel spoke at the Open Educational Resources conference in Cambridge, England, last week.

    The first sign came from California, where a Stanford professor, Sebastian Thrun , decided to offer his introductory course in artificial intelligence for free online. Thanks in part to an article in The New York Times, enrollment for the class topped 160,000. And suddenly a movement that had spent a decade struggling to get the world's attention found itself at the top of policy agendas.

    Unesco began its own open resources platform in November. In the United States, support is building for moves to require the recipients of public funds to make their research freely available.

    Governments around the world began to realize that it was cheaper to invest in "clicks instead of bricks." The phrase was coined by John Daniel, a keynote speaker at the movement's annual conference at Queens College Cambridge last week, in an atmosphere that at times seemed more like a revival meeting than a sober gathering of academics from 21 countries.

    Eko Indrajit from Indonesia explained that in a country with 19 million people of college age but where the universities can only accommodate 5 million - and where there are only 3,000 Ph.D.'s in the entire country - putting the best courses on the Internet was the quickest way to expand capacity without sacrificing quality.

    "We don't believe in invisible hands," Dr. Indrajit said. "We believe that success can be designed."

    One theme heard repeatedly during the three-day meeting was the opportunity created by the world financial crisis. Cable Green, director of global learning at Creative Commons , said that policy at the state level in the United States was swinging decisively in favor of open access partly because of the skyrocketing cost of textbooks. "Textbooks cost more than tuition in many community colleges," he said. "That can't be right."

    "Digital technology makes sharing a lot easier and cheaper," said Nick Pearce of Durham University in Britain. Dr. Pearce, who teaches an anthropology course he described as "Sex, Death and Monkeys," cited the rapid growth of the Pinterest Web site as an example of "the way social media allows you to treat ideas as objects." Although initially favored by young women for sharing photos and fashion ideas, the site, which now ranks third in popularity behind Facebook and Twitter, is starting to be used in education, he said.

    A decade ago there were only a handful of courses available online - all of them from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Today there are more than 21,000, with more being added every week, according to Anka Mulder, president of the Open Course Ware Consortium , which hosted the conference along with Open University in Britain. "We are now on every continent except Antarctica," she said, adding that students everywhere now live in a digital world. "My kids meet their friends online just as easily as their friends around the corner. But it has to become a lot easier, and more interesting, for students to meet online."

    "At first a lot of professors didn't trust virtual education," said Sergio Martinez, from the University of Cantabria . With 120 courses now online, the university, though one of the smallest in Spain, gets more than 96,000 visitors a month to its Web site from all over the Spanish-speaking world.

    The international reach of the movement was underlined by Dr. Daniel, who said that initial concerns that the traffic would all be from richer countries to poorer ones have not been borne out. "Instead we see a course on tropical medicine from Nkrumah University in Ghana being adapted by the University of Michigan," he said in an interview after his speech.

    Bakary Diallo, rector of the African Virtual University , based in Nairobi, said that when his institution began in 1997 "we hoped that African countries would take up our material." That has indeed happened, but of the 197 countries where his students live, "Brazil is the first country, and the U.S.A. is the second."

    The university, which offers a blend of online and face-to-face teaching, produces courses in English, French and Portuguese, and recently received a $15.6 million grant from the African Development Bank to expand its operations. Yet its education foundation course for teachers "is incredibly popular in Brazil. We don't understand why," Dr. Diallo said.

    Although the delegates were united in their enthusiasm for the future of online learning, there were sharp divisions around issues like the future of teaching, copyright, private education providers and the importance of credentials and university credits in motivating and rewarding students.

    "You don't need a teacher for learning," said Rory McGreal from Athabasca, the Canadian open university, arguing that most teachers "learn a lot on their own."

    Rebecca Kahn from Peer2Peer University , which "organizes learning outside of institutional walls," said her organization was "never going to have a school of medicine. We're never going to have a school of engineering. But we can do some things better than a traditional university. We can adapt faster."

    The role of open resources in enabling universities to adapt was the message of Steve Carson from M.I.T. Traditionally, universities performed three functions, he said: "providing content to students, learning activities, and assessment and certification." The Internet's ability to provide more and better content faster and more cheaply meant these functions "have become disaggregated," Mr. Carson said. But he suggested they may be about to come back together in a different form.

    The issue of credentials, which was hardly on the agenda a few years ago, now surfaced in numerous discussions.

    Peer2Peer offers what it calls "digital badges" for completed work, while M.I.T.'s MITx Web site awards online "certificates"; but neither give out credit or degrees. However, credits can be earned through the online OER University , while the State University of New York's Empire State College offers credit for prior learning.

    "It's nice to talk about education for everyone, but the need for degrees still exists," said Ellen Murphy of the State University of New York .

    The lack of agreement did not bother Mary Lou Forward, executive director of the Open Course Ware Consortium. "This is a very collaborative movement," she said. "Open means open. There's room at the table for all players."

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