If current trends continue, we may well see the day quite soon when most, if not all, digital 'content' will be open and free to use for educational purposes. If that trend develops further, and is combined with online learning, there will be major consequences for teaching, learning and, above all, our post-secondary institutions.
The move towards more open content is clear and the speed in this direction is quickening. It is important to note that we are talking about much more than open educational resources (OER), defined as digital material deliberately created to be open and free for educational purposes, although that is going to be an increasingly important component of open content.
The significance is that the move to more open content is a change in mindset about the ownership of knowledge and access to knowledge, especially knowledge funded, curated and transmitted through the public purse.
Intellectual policy issues, and particularly the desire of faculty and instructors to exercise ownership of knowledge they created, will slow the pace of change, but these issues will be addressed through law, contracts and collective agreements that in the end reflect the public good.
Faculty and instructors and their colleges and universities then have the choice of resisting this trend or deciding how best this development can offer advantages.
HOW IS CONTENT BECOMING OPEN AND FREE?
What do we call content?
Think of it as books, papers, reports, journal articles, graphics, videos, recorded lectures, simulations, recorded messages, and data. Increasingly these are available in digital format and can be accessed over the Internet, currently either with or without cost. So we are not talking about all content, just content that has been digitized and made available for access via the Internet.
This content is 'stand-alone', like books in a library. It may, at the moment, be hidden behind 'virtual' closed doors, needing a password or license to access it, or it may be freely available. It may be scattered all over the Internet or collected together in some sort of repository where it has something in common with the other collected content, for example, a bank of cystology slides. As such, it does not necessarily constitute an organized module, program or course. It may be deliberately created for educational purposes, such as a recorded lecture or a segment of self-study material, or it may be something created for other purposes (e.g. news, medical practice, or entertainment), but which with imagination might be incorporated into a valid educational experience. In other words, it can be re-purposed.
The important thing to note is that we are talking about much more than open educational resources, defined as digital material deliberately created to be open and free for educational purposes, although that is going to be an increasingly important component of open content.
To be clear, we are also talking about material that faculty and instructors have historically considered 'their property', such as lecture slides, recorded lectures, or online course material. However, once this material goes on to the Internet, faculty and instructors will be increasingly in the position of musicians who send their music out into the digital world. It does not mean that faculty and instructors will give up copyright to such material, but it will be increasingly difficult to stop its use by third parties or to secure payment for such use. Indeed, it will be argued later in this piece that the future mindset of many faculty and instructors will be to encourage such use, but under certain conditions that can be managed.
What is driving the move to open content?
There are several 'drivers':
- Open research. Basically, this means that all publicly-funded research must be published (following a peer review process) in an open access journal and/or be available through an open website. Research data from publicly-funded research must also be deposited into a publicly-accessible data repository approved by national research council(s). The USA and the United Kingdom have already passed legislation to this effect; a similar policy was drafted by Canada's three national research councils in December 2013, and full implementation is targeted for September 2014.
- Open publishing. The most significant area of open publishing is open textbooks. The governments of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan signed a memorandum of agreement on March 13, 2014 to collaborate on open textbooks for lower-division university and college courses, following similar initiatives in some US states, such as Washington and California. Faculty and instructors in these jurisdictions select or develop these textbooks, which students can download free of charge, or for a nominal fee (e.g. $5 per book).
- Changes to the law on intellectual property. Both changes in Canadian legislation and recent Supreme Court rulings clarified the use of copyrighted material for research and private study. In essence, these changes have made it easier to incorporate copyright materials, including digital copyright materials, for purposes of research or private study, although the interpretation of these changes is still under challenge (see Access Copyright vs York University). In practice, anything freely available over the Internet may be used for study purposes without fear of breach of copyright, at least in Canada, as long as its use is 'reasonable', which the Supreme Court has defined pretty broadly.
- Open educational resources. These are digital resources deliberately created for educational purposes that can be freely used by all or any students and faculty and instructors alike. Such resources include recorded lectures (MIT's Open Courseware and Apple iTunesU), online study materials (e.g. OpenLearn from the U.K. Open University and the Open Learning Initiative from Carnegie Mellon University), simulations in science, podcasts, and a wide range of other educational material. Some MOOCs (edX's for example) are also open for re-use or re-purposing, while others are not (Coursera and Udacity. However, all MOOCs are freely open to end-users, i.e. learners.
What about copyright?
Authors of materials still own the copyright, whether it is open or not. Most open access comes with some restrictions. For instance the Creative Commons provides a range of licenses for open use, and an author can choose what range of restrictions to impose on the material (e.g. free to use with acknowledgement of the source; for non-commercial use only; etc.)
Authors, of course, still keep the right to publish commercially and to protect their copyright for such purposes, and this will likely continue, particularly for original, creative or commercial work, such as novels, movies or theatrical plays.
With regard to educational publishing, though, it will be increasingly difficult in a digital world to assess:
- How much of a work is original;
- Who actually owns the work, if the author is paid to produce such work, or if others also contribute to the material (such as graphic designers or instructional designers);
- What value should be ascribed to that which is original in the work; and
- Who should have access to it and under what conditions.
In the end, if academics want their work to be seen, and when all content is accessed digitally, difficult compromises will need to be made about rights and royalties. The pressure to publish digitally and, more importantly, to publish openly, is certainly going to increase rather than decrease, to the point where most materials used for education are likely to be open and free to the end user, namely students. As with other industries affected by the Internet, academic authors or creators of materials will need to find different ways to be recompensed than in the past.
If this trend continues and deepens, there are major implications at three levels: students, faculty and instructors, and colleges and universities.
Open access to content could weaken the link between instructor and student, if the focus of the teaching is primarily on the transmission of information, since students are no longer dependent on the instructor for that information. For example, if a faculty or instructor is not an effective lecturer, students can find alternative presentations on the same content from better instructors on the Internet - or students can find a better online structure of the same content. Students have always been able to do this through journals and books in libraries, etc., but quick and easy access via the Internet at any time and any place makes student control over content selection much more powerful.
Where students are only interested in understanding a particular topic, but don't want a whole program or course, it becomes increasingly easier to find that content online, through MOOCs, or just a general Internet search.
More importantly, students can bring a wider range of resources to their learning than an instructor can provide through a lecture or even a recommended set of readings (although students in most cases will still need guidance on what content to cover and how to assess its value).
The core implication, though, for students is that open content shifts their needs within a formal study program from delivery of content to support in their learning.
Faculty and Instructors
Open content raises a key question: what is the role of faculty and instructors in university or college teaching? If students can now easily find most content online, how can faculty and instructors best support students?
This requires a re-examination of lectures in particular. What do faculty and instructors provide to students through lectures that students cannot get through other means? There are many answers to this question, some of which include:
- Newly created knowledge, e.g. the latest research (especially if it has not been published yet), that faculty and instructors have unique access to in the form of their own and related research;
- Faculty and instructor’s personal 'spin' or framing of a topic: a set of values or a particular analysis that is unique or special to the faculty or instructor, including challenging accepted wisdom;
- Selecting and framing information in such a way that students can understand the topic more easily, more quickly and in greater depth;
- Enabling students to raise questions and discuss issues with the lecturer; and
Inspiring or motivating students within the area of study.
Whatever answers are given though, they need to be tested against the question: could my students get this in a better form, or more easily, online? If the answer is no, then a lecture (whether live or recorded) can be justified. What will become increasingly difficult to justify is using lectures as the main form of information transmission. This, in nearly all cases, is best done online, where students have continuous and immediate access to the information in multiple formats (journal papers, video lectures, real-life examples) and from multiple perspectives.
Also in answering this question, faculty and instructors need to examine how much of their lecture is unique to them, and how much is dependent on prior knowledge. As Isaac Newton said, “We stand on the shoulders of giants”. Particularly at undergraduate level or one- and two-year college, much of what is taught is prior knowledge. Students can now quite easily access a great deal of that prior knowledge in its original form as open content.
The real challenge, then, for teaching and learning is no longer providing access to content, but managing that access to knowledge. It is impossible to teach someone all they need to know about engineering or medicine in even eight years. It is becoming increasingly important to teach students then how to find, select, analyse, evaluate and apply information, and also how to create new knowledge, within a given field. This then shifts the role of faculty and instructors from deliverers of information to helping students become managers of information, since this is a lifelong learning skill that will enable them to keep current as their field of knowledge grows and develops.
To simplify the argument, as content becomes more open, students will increasingly look to faculty and instructors to help manage their learning rather than to deliver content. That has implications for pedagogy, moving away from information transmission (with some exceptions), to providing rich learning environments that enable students to develop skills in managing knowledge. This suggests that in the future, lectures will be special occasions for very specific purposes, and no longer the default model for post-secondary education. The key 'service' that students will seek from faculty and instructors is support in their learning, which means a greater emphasis on pedagogical skills, as well as subject expertise. In particular, what students will look to faculty and instructors for include:
- Pointing them in the right direction to obtain the content they need;
- Helping them to manage their learning;
- Enabling them to develop a range of intellectual and social skills, such as evidence-based analysis, critical thinking, problem solving, design and synthesis;
- Challenging students to go deeper in their understanding and helping them to do this;
- Applying their knowledge to real world situations; and
- Assessing and validating their learning.
Colleges and Universities
If students can increasingly access both content and learner support from faculty and instructors and administrative staff online, why do they need to get on the bus or commute by car to the campus? How do colleges and universities best exploit their campuses, not just for direct teaching, but for providing cultural and social support for learning and for students?
The research literature indicates that many students desire social engagement while learning, the chance to meet and discuss with faculty and instructors and peers in a friendly, informal and relaxed atmosphere. This will mean looking carefully at not only future use of space on campus, but also how existing spaces can be modified and adapted to support this kind of learning. On the other hand, many lecture halls and classrooms will become increasingly redundant as students access content elsewhere.
Above all, much more thought will need to be given to providing and supporting activities on campus that add value to what students can do online, both within the context of a program or course, and more generally with respect to student life on campus. In short, open content in particular and online learning in general will challenge colleges and universities to transform the use of their campuses to justify their existence.
Secondly, new knowledge creation will continue to be important, but access to that new knowledge will increasingly be available to anyone, not just those attending elite colleges and universities. If open access to content shifts the focus onto learner support, most post-secondary institutions will best compete for students on the excellence of their teaching and the wider cognitive, social and cultural context they can provide for students. This may eventually help to correct the imbalance between research and teaching in judging the prestige of a college or university and the quality of faculty and instructors.
Such developments will also present massive challenges for faculty and instructor development and training, to enable faculty and instructors to not only understand the changes taking place, but also to help them develop new ways of thinking about content, learning, and their roles as researchers and teachers.
Although it may never be the case that all content is open and free, this is the direction in which we are moving. The critical point is that underlying this trend is a major change in mindset, a paradigm shift in how we understand content, ownership and intellectual property within an educational context. Many will resist this change, but in the end, the big winners are likely to be students, and for that reason, faculty and instructors will do well to consider how best they can protect their interests while accommodating to or even embracing such changes.