In Shadow Of MOOCs, Open Education Makes Progress

Advocates say higher education would be better served by resources that are truly open -- not just free.

David F Carr, Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

August 12, 2013

4 Min Read

Gerry Hanley, executive director of MERLOT, a peer-reviewed catalog of OER materials run by the California State University, said his work is more complementary than competitive with Connexions and OpenStax. MERLOT (the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) doesn't actually serve as a repository of OER materials, instead providing pointers to them wherever they can be found on the Web. If anything, Hanley explained, it's MERLOT's job to help promote the OpenStax books as they are released.

In his day job as senior director of CSU's Academic Technology Services, Hanley is not necessarily an OER purist. Through its Affordable Learning Solutions website, CSU is promoting OER but also low-cost commercial resources. One of the benefits of OER is that it gives him leverage to negotiate better deals with educational publishers.

As for MOOCs, Hanley sees them as just another mode of publishing educational content, not a replacement for college courses. Still, he said, "They've stirred the pot like I've never seen it in all my years."

Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois-Springfield, laid out the connection -- and the disconnect -- between OER and MOOCs. The first MOOCs that started to appear a dozen years ago were truly open in ways that the MOOCs getting so much attention today are not, he said. To define "open," he quoted Cable Green, global education director of Creative Commons: "Free is free, but open is free plus legal rights to reuse, revise, remix and redistribute the resources."

I confess I didn't understand at first -- I thought this was a criticism of the instructors in MOOCs from Coursera or edX not necessarily using open textbooks. (Some do, some don't.) But in fact, the concern is with the courses themselves -- the videos and interactive content -- which typically remain copyrighted and available only on the MOOC provider's schedule.

Schroeder himself organized what was briefly the largest MOOC on record: the EduMOOC course on online education, which attracted 2,700 participants from 70 countries during the summer of 2011. Just a month later, Google's Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig launched an online version of their Stanford artificial intelligence course that garnered more than 160,000 attendees. Thrun went on to found Udacity, a MOOC firm with a unique style, staffed primarily by former employees of Google, while Thrun continues to work on projects like Google Glass and self-driving cars.

The new generation of MOOCs got more attention but also created a backlash. In contrast, OERs are not very controversial, but they've suffered some collateral damage.

Currently on loan at the Chancellor's Office at the California Community Colleges, Illowsky worked to promote a couple of bills promoting the use of OER that became law last year. However, they were nearly sunk by controversy over a bill promoting the use of MOOCs as an alternative to college courses (which has since been shelved) because legislators thought the issues were related.

"There's tremendous confusion -- what does this word 'open' mean," Baraniuk said. "It's very important for people to realize the 'open' in MOOCs is open enrollment -- it's nothing about the content at all. It just means anybody can take that course. Most MOOCs use proprietary content. They use proprietary textbooks or proprietary lecture notes. There's nothing mandated about open access."

"Some faculty members consider MOOCs a threat to academic freedom, as in 'I'm going to lose my job because of MOOCs,'" Baraniuk said. "But OER is pro-academic freedom, giving faculty more freedom to teach the way they want to teach."

Yet Illowsky believes it's still possible for MOOCs and OER to mix. San Jacinto College, one of the other institutions in her network of community colleges, worked with Coursera to create a developmental writing class. But the college was able to negotiate terms under which it retained the right to also publish the course materials as OER -- partly because the project had received funding from the Gates foundation, an open education booster.

"I'm really happy for the Courseras and the Udacitys -- really happy for them to work out all the details," Illowsky said. Good educators ought to be able to take advantage of the results.

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

About the Author(s)

David F Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and was the social business track chair for UBM's E2 conference in 2012 and 2013. He is a frequent speaker and panel moderator at industry events. David is a former Technology Editor of Baseline Magazine and Internet World magazine and has freelanced for publications including CIO Magazine, CIO Insight, and Defense Systems. He has also worked as a web consultant and is the author of several WordPress plugins, including Facebook Tab Manager and RSVPMaker. David works from a home office in Coral Springs, Florida. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him at @davidfcarr.

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