Open is as open does

Openness: everyone’s at it.  All of a sudden higher education is a hive of managed promiscuity, and it’s only a matter of time before we’re all throwing our keys into the fruitbowl.

First Pearson announce (and, at last, demonstrate) their new “free, open, easy, amazing” OpenClass. Now Blackboard have announced a more open approach to content developed by academics and hosted on Blackboard sites.  As Audrey Watters points out quietly, the game-changing technology here is … a ‘share’ button.  What this seems to mean is that it will be easier to push content outwards from an otherwise closed site into public cloud social media, and there are obvious attractions here for universities (and celebrity academics) looking to enhance their ranking at the epicentre of global intellectual capital. All this, plus the feelgood counter-cultural hum of the Creative Commons.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a bit less clear how this educational trade liberalisation agenda will benefit smaller cultural economies like Australia’s, but we are certainly being sold the vision of a leveled playing field for content producers. Now anyone can lay out their wares in the same marketplace of ideas as MIT—even if the institution most likely to do this in a way that attracts the punters will still be MIT, reputation being the currency that it is.

As a secondary benefit, all this openness might make it slightly easier than it has been to teach classes and courses across institutional and even national boundaries. This isn’t quite the same as pushing content, and there are actually already plenty of ways to do it.  I’ve done it with Blackboard and I’ve done it with Ning, and I’m right at the moment looking for the best ideas for a free, easy, simple, and socially engaging bundle of things that I can pull together to enable an American and an Australian class to work together for ten weeks early in 2012.  (On this one, please do write in.)

Working across borders to open up curriculum owned by one institution to students enrolled at another has taught me that the technical impediments to openness are set at the institutional level, and are driven by internal policies in relation to risk and security.  They’re not inherent in any of the platforms, all of which offer guest access, even if there have been licensing constraints on some.  The critical issue is the security protocols established by the internal business owners of the LMS, and these are straightforwardly aligned to the overall business plan that calibrates resourcing costs to income generation via student enrolment.

For traditional universities, teaching other people’s students online is a bit like feeding someone else’s cat: it’s a practice of hospitality that depends largely on goodwill, collegiality, curiosity, and some prospect of reciprocity.  Where it works, it can be genuinely exhilarating precisely because it allows academics to remember what it feels like to do something for good reasons, and internationalising the learning experience of students who lack the resources to participate in overseas exchange programs or study tours is still way up there on the list of socially transformative initiatives available to higher education.

But after a while the hospitality can become strained as universities place themselves under increasing pressure to undertake only the tasks that relate to their primary resourcing. The standard model for access to educational resources is that of the university library or the campus email system: we undertake to provide facilities only to those who have undertaken in return to engage in a formal relationship with us, which we can sometimes extend via the considerable complexity of co-badged degrees, articulated pathways and formal partnerships whereby other people’s students show up on our systems, in a kind of corporeal double dipping that’s administratively intensive and works best for relatively small numbers.  It’s not a starting point for the curious edupunk who’s simply interested in the short-term educational gain that international collaboration represents, sometimes in a one off “hey, why don’t we try this?”

(And for me, the best model for this is still this startlingly early collaboration in philosophy taught by Mark Taylor and Esa Saarinen using only email between Finland and the US, written up in their edupunk manifesto Imagologies in 1994.  Even taking this book down from the bookshelf makes me feel good.)

But we’re not in 1994 any more, Toto, and we’re now only likely to support open education if we can tally it to one or other of our performance indicators. The strongest potential here is within institutions that have some metric for valuing community engagement, and that are interested in supporting informal education in the communities that matter to them. But as the pressure is piled on individual academics to do more with less time, it’s realistic and important to say that participating in open and community-facing educational projects will often be a career-limiting move.

This means that the new technical affordances of openness that Blackboard and Pearson are spruiking will need to be matched by much stronger, smarter articulation to institutional strategic planning, if they’re to result in sustainable practices of open education. So, as ever, this is why we need to work more closely with edtech to ensure that we’re developing the capacity and political will in our sector to take align their new openness with the educational values that define our true business.

Otherwise, we’ll be forever on the hop in response to the latest free, easy, amazing thing that’s been driven by the internal competition in theirs.

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