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A NITLE Working Paper

3. Defining Open Education

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In 2012 we are in the second decade of the open education movement. Several major universities have published large amounts of open educational resources (OER) to the Web, winning media notice and academic mindshare. Even as higher education continues to produce open educational resources, we are seeing other approaches emerge, including open courses, platforms, and even universities. Although people tend to associate open education with content (OER), we embrace the broad definition given by Open Education Week:

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Open education is about sharing, reducing barriers and increasing access in education. It includes free and open access to platforms, tools and resources in education (such as learning materials, course materials, videos of lectures, assessment tools, research, study groups, textbooks, etc.). Open education seeks to create a world in which the desire to learn is fully met by the opportunity to do so, where everyone, everywhere is able to access affordable, educationally and culturally appropriate opportunities to gain whatever knowledge or training they desire.[1]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Such a broad definition enables us to emphasize the rationale for open education: enlarging access to education, as well as enabling collaboration and innovation. Aspects of open education[2] include content such as syllabi, exercises, readings, and textbooks; open learning tools such as wikis, blogging platforms, and open Learning Management Systems; open standards and protocols such as Creative Commons licenses and the IMS metadata standard; open courses such as the Open Learning Initiative and the “Change: Education, Learning, and Technology” MOOC [3]; and open universities such as OERu. By offering such an expansive definition, we hope to address the larger implications of open education: not only what students use to learn, but how they participate in learning communities, how their learning is credentialed, what underlying technical, social and organizational systems support that learning, and how educational institutions should position themselves strategically.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Open education manifests itself in a range of approaches:

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  • Open teaching brings transparency to the classroom, such as Mark Sample’s commitment to sharing syllabi, assignments, and even evaluations online.[4]
  • Open curricula[5] enable learners to participate in shaping their own learning program, as at Empire State University.
  • Open learners[6] build and share their learning online, such as the Language Learning Forum’s Language Learning Log.[7]
  • Open educational resources (OER) can be defined narrowly as educational materials explicitly licensed for zero-cost consumption and remixable use, such as animations, assignments, textbooks, images, videos, simulations, and syllabi. [8] “Licensing” usually refers to one or more Creative Commons (CC) declarations, or to material placed in the public domain. Such licenses support the “4Rs”: revising, so that the OER can be adapted; reusing, so that the content can be used in a range of contexts; remixing, so that OER can be “mashed up” or combined; and redistributing, so that one can copy and share.[9]
  • Open courseware is a subset of OER that typically includes syllabi, lecture notes, lectures, and assignments, as at MIT Open CourseWare (MIT OCW).
  • Open courses: Open courses take different forms; most offer curated content and some type of assessment, but some also feature interactive exercises and/or networked learning communities. As open textbooks provide more interactive features, such as embedded assessments, simulations, and integration into a community of learners, they become more like open courses.[10] Indeed, Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI) offers not only content, but also personalized exercises and embedded assessments designed by a team of learning scientists, content experts, and instructional designers. The Saylor Foundation[11] provides open courses in a range of disciplines, laying out learning objectives, curating a set of freely accessible (though not always explicitly open) online readings and lectures, and giving assignments and a final exam. Massive Open Online Courses such as Cormier and Siemens’ “Education Futures”[12] and Jim Groom’s “Digital Storytelling”[13] enable instructors to reach new audiences beyond the college gates; build networked learning communities that exchange ideas via social technologies such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter; and innovate in how they structure and support learning.[14] Openness in the context of open courses typically focuses more on access and transparency than re-usability.[15]
  • Open learning tools: Although open source tools used for administrative, library or scholarly functions fall outside the scope of this report, we do include software that supports learning. These tools can include learning management systems such as Moodle and Sakai, blogging platforms such as WordPress, open e-portfolio and social networking systems such as Mahara, and wikis such as MediaWiki. We also include tools that support the use and production of open educational resources, such as Creative Commons licenses, authoring tools, repositories, and search engines.
  • Open assessment: Through badges, portfolios, and other mechanisms, the open education community is developing ways to certify learning that often depends upon open educational resources and approaches. For example, Mozilla’s Open Badges program provides an infrastructure for organizations to recognize skills that people develop outside of traditional educational contexts.[16]
  • Open universities: The term “open university” initially referred to a university (first in the UK) that aimed to provide flexible higher education to those facing barriers such as poor health and disabilities. Now the term also applies to networked, online universities that expand access to higher education at a minimal or no cost to the students, often using open educational resources and leveraging peer-to-peer learning. Open universities include Peer2Peer University[17], OERu[18], and University of the People.[19]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Two related open movements should be distinguished from open education for our purposes in this paper. Open access scholarly communication refers to articles and monographs published to be publicly accessible, rather than restricted only to paid subscribers. Open educational resources share a similar mission, but are focused on teaching materials, rather than research work, notwithstanding any overlap. With open source software, which refers to programs whose code can be accessed and locally modified, we only include those applications that have been used specifically to support teaching and learning. Thus we regard open source software such as the Kuali Financial System to be outside the scope of this paper, although we do include learning management systems such as Moodle and blogging platforms such as WordPress. Some cross-fertilization occurs between these movements within academia.


Permalink for this paragraph 0 [1] “About Open Education,” Open Education Week, February 2012, http://www.openeducationweek.org/about-open-education/.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [4] Mark Sample, “Transparency, Teaching, and Taking My Evaluations Public,” Sample Reality, August 4, 2009, http://www.samplereality.com/2009/08/04/transparency-teaching-and-taking-my-evaluations-public/.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [5] Dave Cormier and George Siemens, “Through the Open Door: Open Courses as Research, Learning, and Engagement,” EDUCAUSE Review 45, no. 4 (July/August 2010).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [8] David Wiley, Cable Green, and Louis Soares, Dramatically Bringing Down the Cost of Education with OER (Center for American Progress/EDUCAUSE, February 2012), http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2012/02/open_education_resources.html.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [9] This definition echoes some applied for learning objects a decade ago. OER inherits much from that movement. Seehttp://www.opencontent.org/definition/ for one of the fullest, most stringent definitions.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [10] Gary Matkin, Open Learning: What Do Open Textbooks Tell Us About the Revolution in Education? (Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley, March 2009), http://cshe.berkeley.edu/publications/publications.php?id=332.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [14] Cormier and Siemens, “Through the Open Door: Open Courses as Research, Learning, and Engagement.”

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [16] “Badges/About,” MozillaWiki, December 2, 2011, https://wiki.mozilla.org/Badges/About.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 [19] “University of the People”, http://www.uopeople.org/.

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