First, the world was flat. Now, the world is open, at least in education circles.
An increasing number of leading academic institutions — the University of California, Berkeley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) among them — are offering free online access to professors’ lectures and course content. It’s all part of the open educational resource (OER) movement that encourages educational institutions to make valuable content free and accessible to all.
“The OER movement is the most important thing that’s happened in the field of education since I left the business world to get into academia,” said Curtis J. Bonk, former accountant and CPA and now professor of education at Indiana University. “In many ways, it represents a cultural shift or change unrepresented in history.”
Bonk is the author of The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education, slated for publication in July. In the new open world, Bonk said, education is available to all, including groups who previously lacked the resources for traditional schooling.
Groups such as the OpenCourseWare Consortium and OER Commons have sprung up, providing free access to educational resources on the Web. More than 170 schools now offer free content through Apple’s iTunes U, and earlier this year, YouTube launched an education channel, YouTube Edu. MIT, for example, has been a pioneer in the open-courseware movement, publishing course materials and lectures online since 2001.
“OER is the first dent or wedge in a reform of the entire education system,” Bonk said. “I see this as a basic, fundamental statement that MIT is making that says education should be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.”
While the value proposition of online access for prospective students and end users is obvious, the reasons for institutions and professors is less clear. Bonk highlighted several reasons for both groups in his blog, TravelinEdMan.blogspot.com, including marketing to prospective students; keeping alumni connected; and encouraging innovation, experimentation and risk that may lead to new partnerships and opportunities.
From a business standpoint, OER also can serve as a model for organizations looking for a way to thrive in an increasingly competitive environment where strategy, not content, is the source of advantage.
“It sets an example for what corporations might do with their training environments — to put the resources up that are shareable and reusable, at least on an intranet basis if not an Internet basis,” Bonk said. “What’s to stop a corporation from making their trainings available for organizations around the world?”
While some argue open access lessens an organization’s competitive advantage, in education and business, Bonk said the value received in return can outweigh the risk.
“What kind of goodwill could be formed, what kind of customer relations might be created by having some of your customer relations trainings or your IT training available on a worldwide basis?” Bonk said. “It might attract employees [and] be a retention tool, for instance.”