Nov 13, 2007

OpenEd week 13 - The OpenCourseWars

The OpenCourseWars (13 pages) is a short story depicting a possible future for open education from a historical perspective. Written by David Wiley, it is both highly entertaining and informative. It not only has given me more insight in some problematic issues of open licensing and consequences, but also shows interesting and appealing futures of learning with in an open education landscape. After an overview of the most important issues, and some personal reactions, I describe my personal ideas about the future of open education, from a slightly different persective than David's.

2005 – 2012: The OpenCourseWars

The initial beauty of open education quite rapidly turns grey with problems of the NC license again, with public opinion turning against OCW. Problems with defining Non-Commercial quickly becomes not only a theoretical problem, but a real problem indeed:

Creative Commons’ own publicly posted discussion draft of Proposed Best Practice Guidelines to Clarify the Meaning of Non-Commercial in the Creative Commons Licenses suggested we approach the meaning of the term noncommercial from the “Nature of the User”. To put it simply, the guidelines asked if the would-be user of the noncommercially-licensed material was an individual or non-profit institution. If so, everything was kosher. If not (if the would-be user was a for-profit company), then they were not permitted to use materials. Seems very straightforward, right? MIT OCW, however, saw things in a very different way. They provided their own definition of Noncommercial, in which they said, “Determination of commercial vs. non-commercial purpose is based on the use, not the user”, and that as long as you’re not trying to make money off of their materials, they were cool with whatever else you did.

So on the one hand you had Creative Commons suggesting that Noncommercial should be determined by the nature of the user, and on the other hand you had MIT OCW defining the very same clause of the very same license in the completely opposite way. I had known about this problem for years, and had email discussions with a number of people at both Creative Commons and MIT hoping to get it fixed. But the problem was extremely thorny politically, and nothing had happened yet.

The publishers, clearly not very happy with the whole open education movement, follow with a brilliant strategy attacking the NC clause, and win in court: the NC clause is struck down, and all the content that used to be licensed only for non-commercial use, suddenly became available for commercial use. After this apparent success by the publishers, they could now use and commercially distribute the OCW content, which they did. Still, they would be obliged to mention the Creative Commons license, and share the (now commercial) content under the same open license (Share-Alike). Surprisingly, they even ignored this clause, and they did not Share-Alike, because the publishers thought they could attack and bring down the SA clause as well... but to no avail, and to their own demise.

This lack of judgment started a great new movement in open education, led by students, who happily participated in creating a vast infrastructure of open content. But... another licensing war mounted the surface: CC versus GFDL. This was settled as well, finally, and then there was the dawn of a beautiful period in open education: power to the people, in this case students. David uses the following quote to explain that younger university faculty started to ignore the standard opencoursewares altogether in favor of working:
Putting professors’ lecture notes and things on an university website where students can’t trib test questions and photos and things makes about as much sense as using email. It’s for old people who just don’t get it. I mean, even this eBook reader thing I just got from my sister (who finally graduated, by the way) is pointless. Why would anyone use a device that won’t let you trib
Tribbing is contributing, as you might expect. On the other hand, the opencoursewares are R/O, or read-only, and is "associated with the kind of “authority” young folks want to rebel against, and embodies an entire generation’s frustration with top-down, un-democratic, un-participatory approaches generally."

Following the pandemonium concerning licensing, opencoursewares, and learner participation, a new kind of university emerged: the competency-based university, where students only had to pass a test or exam to be accredited. One of the first universities adopting this model, a traditional online university, started an IBM/Linux like collaboration with the largest site for open content educational materials, creating an enormous synergy; increasing the quality of learning materials, and cost savings for the university itself. A spin-off of the university provided an additional service, where students could approach experts worldwide through Skype for personalized support, paying a certain fee. This service initiated a kind of e-lance economy in itself, because anyone could be an expert. These experts, most of them students, were not inclined to give bad service, because they would be rated by the user, and bad ratings lowered their future chance on flexible employment.

NB.Despite the beauty of the above depicted future, I have an extra note about the accreditation-only model: it will only be valuable if the diploma itself represents value, which depends on the type of assessment: if it is personal, competency-based, and practical, I think these universities might have a chance for survival. If they don't, and assess students with normal exams and tests, I see little future in this model.

An important quote in the postlude represents the most important difficulty with current OCW initiatives:

Generally speaking, OCWs were difficult-to-sustain R/O endeavors that relied on relatively small numbers of university employees and outside funding. As important as they were, they could never scale and were unsustainable in the ways their original funders wanted them to be. On the other hand, OER projects were generally democratic remix projects that lived and died on the quality of the trib’ing.

Embracing the trib culture, David says, opens up opportunities for new business models and new ways of learning, something I totally agree with. He created a very interesting future history of open educational resources, going through different transitions, mentioning important problems in licensing, student contribution, and describing great opportunities in learning, competition, and creating value in society. In all, the end depicts a very similar look on the future as I have described earlier (and just posted on this blog), about "How I want to wake up one day...".

Criticisms and additions

I will provide some additions and criticisms to the very interesting view on the future of open education, by using the same narrating style David uses.

The shift from a teacher-centered university, with professors standing on a stage and transferring knowledge, towards a learner-centered university happened slowly but steadily, when experts are no longer able to transfer knowledge any better than high quality video and multimedia learning materials. In addition, traditional classes turned into some kind of open (and closed) discussion groups in an online virtual world, and face-to-face interaction started to happen in smaller groups for brainstorming and praxis, and large groups in conference like gatherings, organized by students.

Decentralization started to spread into all facets of the learning process, including curricula: students were more and more able to follow learning tracks personalized for them. When the point was reached that faculty and university educators were no longer able to make personalized tracks for each and every one of them, this process is finally decentralized and students were able to make their own learning profile and track, changing and adapting it along the way. Any student could make any track he or she wanted, by aggregating courses, and finding experts to help him (gain knowledge, get employed). These experts were initially paid by universities to do this, but later on another mechanism started to mount, replacing this financial incentive with another one. Lifelong learners got involved in this process, and learning networks came into existence where different facets of society are represented: industry, university, and lifelong learners (including students as we know them today).

Facing quite some opposition, the replacement of normal faculty by these learning networks (ranging from a few to thousands of people) took some time. Learning networks gradually overtook the role assumed for so long by universities: they started to accredit the people in their networks, and were responsible for creating meaningful resources for learning, including challenges and prize competitions, something that became very popular in these learning networks. Universities changed their business models, and flexibly offered hardware (rooms, technology, labs, etc.) and services (creating high-quality materials from bare content, catering, human resource management, etc.) to these learning networks.

New diplomas and certificates were popping up everywhere online, and it seemed that any group was able to give out diplomas, creating quite a disturbance and call for the past. It was not long before a standard appeared, a kind of Netiquette, applying to these diplomas. Diplomas were still given in abundance, but the information relevant to the diplomas were instantly available and linked to the diploma. A group of open source software developers, linked with the group responsible for the diploma Netiquette, created software that aggregated the information of different online diplomas and certificates, automatically scrutinizing them with a number of criteria. Their site,, became the number one portal for certification quality check. In the years to come, they developed an advanced technology that could provide anyone with advise on career and learning, based on all the aggregated information.

When trust in diplomas and certificates was restored, other facets became more important. Since any learner was putting their learner results directly on the web, data about their added value was much more consistent and valid than any diploma, which soon assumed a decorative role, a kind of achievement award, only to be given to persons really having shown something, and usually in combination with some kind of research fund. Someone's online ID, being aggregated by more and more advanced machines, took over the role of certification, and after the students, the companies and industry quickly became aware of this. For persons in a learning network, this created another incentive to add value to a network, because added value would return to you in employment opportunities, and/or access to expertise. Adding value clearly happens not just personal social networks, but merely in professional learning networks. A person's online ID, combined with the social and professional "tacit" contacts, provided everything a person needed. If someone was not inclined to help anyone in his or her learning (and, by now employment network), (s)he was probably not helped either.

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