Going open – some reflections on the implications of ‘open content’

This reflection was prompted by an essay by David Wiley in change.mooc.ca (#change11).

I cannot and do not want to claim that what I am about to share is ‘true’ for all open, distance and e-learning institutions. I do furthermore not claim that my views are a true reflection for all academics in these institutions. 

Despite these two disclaimers, allow me to share some reflections on the notion of ‘open content’ and its implications for open, distance, and e-learning institutions.

Firstly, what I find interesting is that the notion of ‘openness’ referred for many decades only to admission requirements, broadening access, strategies to specifically include previously excluded populations, genders, classes, etc. While some ODL institutions have started to embrace ‘open content’ as an integral part of their ‘openness’; open content is not necessarily a welcome visitor in ODL institutions; albeit for a number of reasons. The use and production of open content by lecturers in ODL institutions expose a multidimensional and complex interrelated grid of interests.

The discourses on the use of and contribution to open content in ODL institutions are permeated with concerns about ‘quality’, ‘intellectual property rights’, the ‘dumbing down of higher education’ and a range of other claims. Although there are some real issues with regard to quality, etc – I suspect that ‘going open ‘questions some of the most basic assumptions and beliefs in the educational project.

For many years, lecturers were appointed in distance education institutions and their main focus and ‘claim to fame’ was the production of contained study packages through learners as autonomous and self-directed learners (…) could work, at their own pace, no matter where they were. Not only did these self-contained packages included lecturers’ collage of subject content; but also some carefully designed activities to guide learners through the package.  The amount of personal formative feedback on assignments dependent on, amongst other things, the student: lecturer ratio; the number of assignments, etc. The experience of teaching, in contrast to content development, was most probably limited to the moments of telephonic student enquiries, or meeting groups of students.

With the advent of the Internet and the growth of institutional management systems and personal learning environments, lecturers’ roles (at least in ODL institutions) changed from ‘content-producers’, to include the role of being a teacher.  It is not as if they did not teach before the Internet – but they taught through the provision and compilation of ‘content’.

As institutions (and students) embraced online learning environments, lecturers were suddenly faced with increased workloads and schizophrenic feelings of being content providers and teachers. In many ODL institutions, the ‘status’ of lecturers (whether amongst students or their peers) is still dependent on their ability to write and collate content.

To try to ‘sell’ the use of open content to these lecturers is to question their whole reason for being. If lecturers can’t claim ‘content’ as their main reason for being; what is left for them to do? Teach? What? Not that many of these same lecturers have never prescribed the published work of other colleagues to their students …, but that is a different question.

The other side of the coin, namely the production of open content; brings to the fore another dimension of being a lecturer in an ODL institution.  There is the notion that if you as lecturer ‘let go’ of your content, that your intellectual property is not really valued, often in monetary terms. Except for the impact of institutional regimes regarding intellectual property; lecturers still see their ‘knowledge’ as their unique value proposition. In many cases this may be true where lecturers find themselves at the forefront of their disciplines and through their research produce new knowledge. But how many of them are there, really?

Most lecturers in ODL institutions, especially on undergraduate level, are rather in the business of bricolage, of reproducing and collating knowledge others have produced. Many study packages in ODL institutions are ‘simply’ collections or bricolages of ‘found’ knowledges – albeit with different emphases and structures.

Maybe the notion of going ‘open’ scares many of these lecturers as it will expose the liberty and possible recklessness with which they re-used, compiled and regurgitated what others have produced?

A second possible reason why lecturers in ODL institutions do not want to produce and share content in open environments is the fact that they would rather rise in the ranks as seen through the eyes of their ‘older’ colleagues who have embraced the lucrative trade in knowledge as they prescribe one another’s texts to their students. Younger lecturers often aspire to be included in those ranks of academics whose works are prescribed to students of other universities. The production of prescribed texts has become not only lucrative but has also become a rite of passage as young academics rise through the ranks of academic esteem. Once you are invited to become part of a panel of authors who will write the text for a specific course, you may well have arrived.

To ask academics to break out of these ranks and produce open content; is to question a huge part of the esteem and financial benefit of participating in the production of closed content.

‘Going open’ touches on some of the basic assumptions and beliefs of being and becoming academics in ODL institutions. ‘Going open’ is, in many cases, a counter-narrative to hegemonic beliefs regard being and becoming an academic. Only in realizing the nature and power of these meta-narratives, will we be able to break through and make inroads into some of these entrenched values.


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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2 Responses to Going open – some reflections on the implications of ‘open content’

  1. Laura Kapp says:

    Hi Paul, another blog that raises some (uncomfortable) good points! You did however make a mistake that is very common – many people equate multiple personality disorder with schizophrenia, however schizophrenia is a condition mainly characterised by delusions and hallucinations, often paired with manic episodes and/or paranoia and completely distinct from multiple personality disorder.

    • Thanks for the correction Laura – much appreciated. But I could not help to notice that even though my use of schizophrenia as metaphor was wrong, that in a certain sense your description of schizophrenia as “a condition mainly characterised by delusions and hallucinations, often paired with manic episodes and/or paranoia” does describe some academics I know 🙂

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