Open Learning in the Future

Open Education 2016

Author: Stephen Downes, Canada

This morning Dan Colman updated his master list (OpenCulture) of free and open courses offered by top universities, a list that now includes 1,200 courses and roughly 40,000 hours of audio and video instruction. (Colman, 2016) This is actually only a small percentage of the tens of thousands of learning resources available freely and openly on the internet.

To get a sense of the depth and breadth of free and open online learning resources, look at YouTube coverage of the Stirling Engine (also known as the external combustion engine). As of today, I count 154,000 results. (YouTube) These are not advertisements or spam—they are individual contributions, ranging from ‘Jim Tangeman’s wood fired Stirling engine powered tractor’ to ‘Homemade Stirling Watts Beam Engine, Hot Air Engine’ (“This is something I’ve been working on for five months,” says the author). (Knight, 2014)

The question we face is no longer whether we will live in a world of free and open learning resources, but rather, what that world will look like. We will produce these resources; however, who will produce them, what will they look like, how will we sustain their production, and how will people find them and use them? None of these questions has a simple answer, and each offers several possibilities for a future of open learning.

Who Will Produce?

As suggested by the Dan Colman article, we might suspect that open learning resources will be produced by educational institutions. That’s part of the thinking behind the initial rollout of MOOC companies like Coursera and Udacity, and part of the plan behind technologies like lecture capture software.

But educational institutions will find their traditional role challenged. Non-educational institutions are entering the learning resources market and offering courses and programs of their own, many of them free and open. Today, “The World Bank, PwC, and Fundação Lemann offer MOOCs on Coursera. Microsoft, the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, and the Inter-American Development Bank all offer MOOCs on edX.” (Lequerica, 2016) These courses exist not to make money but to serve other business interests: to sell advertising, to promote a product, or to enhance recruitment.

Finally, individuals and communities are producing innumerable resources. As the technology for creating compelling video and multimedia becomes increasingly affordable and usable, this may be the largest area of growth in the future. A person living in Ottawa who wants to learn beekeeping, for example, can find resources created by the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association, the Toronto Beekeepers’ Collective, and Gees Bees Honey Company. (YouTube, 2016)

What Will Resources Look Like?

The traditional approach suggests that open online learning will consist of courses. While courses may well persist (there are occasions where a linear, focused, and deep study of a subject continues to be a good idea), they are occupying a smaller and smaller space in open online learning.

As the connectivist MOOCs which went live in 2008 demonstrated, even the structure of courses may change. As opposed to the traditional format of a series of lectures offered by a leading academic, contemporary online courses are clusters of short and focused learning resources. These often take the form of videos linked together with a web of narrative, interaction, activities, and assessments. In cases in which these elements are not provided by the course provider, they are created by the course-taking community.

Indeed, a lot of open online course resources will be non-digital. When we offered open online courses, participants used Meetup to create local in-person groups. Although organized digitally, community-based groups meet in person. We are seeing a proliferation of such groups, whether or not affiliated with courses. A person living in Ottawa, for example, can find any number of free and local learning activities. (Meetup, 2016)

Online discussion groups, mailing lists, and other forms of community have continued to thrive and prosper. While many of these occupy sites like Facebook and Google Groups, many others have created their own web presence. Low-cost web hosting is widely available, and free and open source software such as Drupal and WordPress make establishing a web presence accessible to the wider community.

How Will Resources Be Sustained?

Proponents of free and open learning resources are constantly challenged to produce a ‘business model’ for MOOCs and other similar technologies, for example, by Alex Usher. (Usher, 2016) This may be needed for resources that cost thousands of dollars to create. “The problem is there’s no revenue model here… 35 million users, with a 3% conversion rate, at $50 per user, and you’ve got a grand total of $52.5 million in total revenue. Over five years.”

Such a scenario presumes that the costs of open online learning would, and should, be borne entirely by the learner. But as the scenarios above suggest, other agencies will have legitimate reasons to pay for open online learning, especially in the form of inexpensive resources (as opposed to expensive formal courses). Numerous examples already exist.

Future open learning resources and opportunities will be offered by government agencies to promote positive role models, to encourage compliance with legislation, to inform citizens of rights and obligations, and to support services such as voting and registration. Companies will offer training to their own employees and potential recruits, support products with free learning, and promote literacy and other programs. Community groups will offer events, seminars, meetings, and resources related to their areas of interest.

Formal learning will be less and less focused on resources, which will be available to everyone, and much more focused on activities. Tuition will pay for materials, environmental support and equipment, and professional assistance, often on an as-needed basis.

How Will People Find Resources?

In a world with an abundance of resources, they won’t be difficult to find per se, but selecting the appropriate resource for a task may pose a considerable challenge. One of the primary learning skills will be the selection and evaluation of resources.

Learners today face a similar challenge selecting college and university programs. Of course financial constraints prevail—most people can’t choose to attend Harvard, for example—in traditional university choice. Excepting that constraint, studies seem to show that distance, as opposed to other factors such as academic rank, plays the most important role. (Drewes & Michael, 2006)

As finding learning resources becomes more and more difficult on Google, partially because of the number of resources and partially because of the proliferation of sponsored listings and search engine optimization, a similar factor will prevail online. The ‘distance’ of a resource from a potential recipient can be considered a function of the relation between that person and one of their friends of friends who has used and would recommend the resource.

The purpose of connectivist open online courses is to reduce that distance in a manageable way. The purpose of the course isn’t to create a thread of instruction, but rather to help people interested in a topic discover and recommend resources to each other, creating a local and temporary network linking events, groups and communities, and videos and activities.

How Will Resources Be Used

Traditional education is centered around the amassing of knowledge in a particular discipline in a series of courses, which culminates in the awarding of a degree or certificate. Many of the structures and discussions of open online learning are based on this model; as examples, see OERu and the Taylor ‘logic model’. (Taylor, 2007) Thus we may see people predict open credentials, open assessment, and open course articulation (for transfer of credit) focused on qualifications and competencies.

It is likely that, in the short term at least, an economy of sorts based on these credentials will be developed, possibly backed by a cryptographical framework such as blockchain. But over time, I think, this will be overtaken by a mechanism of personal reputation that is backed by evidence of achievements instead of credentials, where by ‘achievements’ we mean artifacts and accomplishments that can be inspected directly, rather than through the proxy of an educational institution.

To support their employment and other objectives, people will create open learning resources. These resources are direct evidence of their own learning. Often these resources will be produced cooperatively. An excellent example of such a model is open source software. We also see people become leading figures in their own communities by providing help and assistance. A person’s standing in their professional community will be their educational credential.

The resources will therefore be used as much by the people who create them as by the people who follow in their footsteps. These resources will continue to be of use to browsers on an occasional and informal basis, but the major educational activity supported by an open educational resource will have already taken place during their creation. What remains will have a stigmergic effect, creating a path for others to follow.

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This work by Stephen Downes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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