In a blog post in 2003, George Siemens wondered whether OER, at that stage, was not just (yet another) cute kitten. It is almost incomprehensible that one would find someone who does not love cute kittens, and therefore, by the time of the writing his blog, it was almost unthinkable that the notion of OER would not be supported by educational institutions, educators and students. In this blog Siemens expresses “a huge appreciation for OERs and hold out for the prospect that OERs will truly make a difference to people who most need them”, but he also expresses a number of concerns regarding OER such as questioning the rationale behind the move towards OER, the reality of the possibility that institutions would window dress while the basic underlying systems and structures of education would not change. Siemens (2003) also reflects on the impact of the (mostly) hidden ideologies, pedagogies and worldviews embedded in OER.
After reading Siemens’ (2003) blog, I wondered whether OER is still (just) a ‘cute kitten’ ? Is the open education movement still a nice-to-have public relations exercise or has the kitten grown up? Has the open education movement become a formidable tiger that we cannot (and should not) ignore? Almost nine years since Siemens’ (2003) blog, we need to reflect on whether the concerns he raised have been addressed, and more tentatively, what the future holds for open education.
The first issue Siemens (2003) raises is questioning the rationale behind the adoption of OER. Since 2003 the opening of education has become even more en vogue with major institutions opening educational opportunities, often with accreditation. How should we understand this? There is no doubt in my mind that many of the original reasons for supporting OER are still valid. For example the need to broaden access to education and specifically to higher education has become even more important, and OER has continued to grow as a branding and marketing exercise. There is currently a flurry of higher education institutions joining these initiatives or starting their own. One of these days we may even see a new ranking system on openness with institutions trying to outdo one another on degrees of openness…
Siemens (2003) also wonders whether the open education movement would be able to change the basic underlying systems and structures of education such as our pedagogies, our admission requirements, and our accreditation and validation systems. I suspect it has. However, if we consider that education throughout the ages flowed from, served and perpetuated dominant power-relations and epistemologies, the important question to consider is whether the open education movement impacted on and changed this ideological basis of education?The answer is not straightforward.
Let me start with the dark side. I don’t think the open education movement has made a significant or lasting difference in addressing the ideological basis of education as serving the interests of the powerful or impacted on the huge inequalities in the world – on the contrary. Never before in the history of humankind have there been so many permanently disenfranchised and dislocated individuals and whole populations. This is not to lay the blame on the open education movement for not changing all of this. We should however never overestimate the potential of the open education movement to address and change deep-seated inter-generational geopolitical and socio-economic disparities. Call me cynical but I cannot foresee education, and open education for that matter, to make a difference to the embedded gender, caste, cultural, and economic injustices characterizing many (most?) societies. I can simply not foresee that open education will make a difference to the increasing religious and national fundamentalisms resulting in millions of people being uprooted and housed in refugee camps and/or caught in geopolitical and religious claims and counter-claims.
The above stands in stark contrast to the claims by, for example, Steven Pinker in his latest book “The better angels of our nature. Why violence has declined”(2011) – that “Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.” Even if these claims were not disputed by, for example by Steven Aoun and by Peter Singer in the New York Times (October 6, 2011), I cannot help but look at Pinker’s claims from a developing world context in the Global South with increasing concerns I share with Zygmunt Bauman in his works “Globalization. The human consequences” (1998) and “Wasted lives. Modernity and its outcasts” (2004).
In this respect, I would say that we should not overestimate the potential of the open education movement to make a lasting and significance difference to the injustices in the world. Having said that, there is also the reality of the cute kitten that has grown up to be a formidable creature in the field of higher and distance education. While cautioning against overestimating the impact of the open education movement on changing engrained intergenerational disparities, there is no doubt that the open education movement is, currently, a game changer in the field of higher and distance education.
Some of the signs that the cute kitten has indeed become a formidable creature are as follows:
- Open content is changing the way we develop curricula. Whether those with vested interests in academic publishing will ever let go of their power-bases is something to be seen. Open content has the potential to seriously disrupt what we prescribe for our students, and what we read ourselves.
- Open (and free) admission to the courses offered by Coursera, EdX, Udacity and the Khan Academy is making learning accessible for thousands who were previously excluded from education and higher education.
- Open assessment and accreditation has the potential to disrupt some of the foundations of education and higher education as elitist practice. While the ‘badges’ movement must still claim a space in the contested worlds of quality assurance and accreditation, the move to offering decentralised proctored examination opportunities have huge potential to dramatically alter the higher education landscape.
- Open scholarship is increasingly becoming the preferred choice of many scholars and publishing entities.
- OER as counter-narrative is addressing concerns by many in developing world contexts by which scholars in the developing world can claim legitimate spaces in the production and dissemination of knowledge and ways-of-knowing.
In conclusion: The ‘cute kitten’ Siemens referred to in 2003 has indeed grown up to disrupt the higher and distance education landscape. The OER movement has changed some of the basic underlying systems and structures of education such as our pedagogies, our admission requirements, and our accreditation and validation systems. In 2008 John Steely Brown, in the Foreword to “Opening up education” wrote that we are facing an “unrelenting velocity of change” (p.xi). Though the open education movement has, indeed, changed higher and distance education, the potential of the open education movement to make a dent in inter-generational geopolitical and socio-economic disparities must still be seen. I, for one, don’t hold my breath…