Monday, April 16, 2012

Through the Open Door: Open Courses as Research, Learning, and Engagement

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 45, no. 4 (July/August 2010): 30-39 / Dave Cormier and George Siemens

Over the last decade, as educators have increasingly experimented with social technologies and interactive pedagogies, the concept of a "course" has been significantly challenged. In particular, questions have arisen as to the key value of the course in the educational system. Is the value the content — the academic journal articles, lectures, textbooks, and libraries that compose much of the teaching and learning process? Or is it the engagement and interaction that occurs through discussions? Or is it the self-organized activities of learners in the social spaces of a college or university?

The numerous high-profile open courseware initiatives from elite universities suggest that content itself is not a sufficient value point on which to build the future of higher education. Indeed, the creators of the OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative at MIT began with the realization that they were "not going to try to make money" from their content. The actions of institutions like MIT suggest that the true benefit of the academy is the interaction, the access to the debate, to the negotiation of knowledge — not to the stale cataloging of content.

We are, in effect, returning to Socratic roots. The change that so worried Socrates was the writing down of knowledge, so that a learner could imitate understanding ideas by being reminded of them, giving the learner the "appearance of wisdom," not its reality. The technologies available to Plato and Aristotle and eventually to Gutenberg (writing and the book) allowed content to be scaled and to be used as a vehicle for truth. Now, with social/network technologies, negotiation of knowledge itself can be scaled. As communications technologies allow collaboration beyond the classroom space — beyond restrictions set by fire marshals and practical limitations of face-to-face discussions — a new world of possibilities opens up.

With each budget line in higher education facing increasing scrutiny, the conditions under which innovation happens are also changing. The field of educational technology has been heavily impacted by this new reality; the promise of open source and the reverberations of open content have forced colleges and universities to reconsider the ways in which they invest in technology for education. Whereas openness is a new business model, bringing with it new fears and new opportunities, it is also a chance for faculty to take their work to a new audience. In open models of learning and education, faculty can try new things and innovate without having to call on the funding sources that have traditionally accompanied the desire to use technology to change learning.



Growing complexities in all areas of society indicate an increased need to consider networked, holistic, and integrated models of knowledge and learning. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world served by higher education. Solving complex problems is simply not possible in the solitary, "expert model" of higher education. Open courses provide educators and learners with an opportunity to develop the skills, knowledge, and mindsets needed to participate in complex, ever-shifting real-world situations in which coming to know is as important as knowing.

Open courses are not a new way to pass on knowledge from the initiated to the acolyte. Rather, they are an acknowledgment that passing knowledge from one to another is not, and has never been, the primary goal of the academy. The academy seeks to grow knowledge by engaging learners and members of society in a discussion, an exploration. Open courses permit educators and a global network of learners to participate in research, learning, and sense-making around a given topic. In opening our doors to collaborative participation, we are making a value judgment about what we want higher education to be and are also, perhaps, opening the door to new research, learning, and business models of our own.

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