What is open source education?

Dr. Terri Bays, Dr. Audrey Curnock, and Dr. Andy Lane explain.

It’s no longer just the privilege of a small group of people to attend classes at the top universities of the world, as education becomes 'free' and 'open.'

The Mathematical Institute, Oxford University, UK, joined leading educational institutions around the world, including MIT and Open University UK, in releasing its course material online, for free.

The universities have adopted an 'open content' model in education. This means audio and video versions of lectures, course material, assignments and test papers with answers are easily available to use, share, distribute and modify.

Although open content need not always be free in terms of cost, the open education initiative is.

“Opening knowledge is growing knowledge,” says Dr. Terri Bays, Interim Executive director with the OpenCourseWare Consortium, a collaborative organisation of institutions offering open education.

Since September 2002, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made 50 of its courses freely available online through its OpenCourseWare initiative, over 200 universities and affiliated organisations in 32 countries around the world have adopted open content in education, according to information on the OpenCourseWare Consortium website.

“Social Glue”

According to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, knowledge may either be seen as a commodity that can be protected by copyright and exchanged for financial benefit, or as a “social glue” that “gives society a sense of cohesion.” It is this second function that the OCW movement claims to serve.

The material is licensed under Creative Commons licences, allowing learners and educators to not only download the material, but also modify it, build upon it and innovate.

“We’ve had quite a few people changing our material, uploading their own material,” says Prof. Andy Lane, Director of Open Learn at the Open University, UK.

“It’s this way in which you can get individuals and groups collaborating, cooperating on the development of materials, and in terms of innovation, this opens up greater possibilities for learners, across countries, across nationalities, and across boundaries.”

However, this possibility has been one of the main concerns for potential adopters and critics of the project. Educators are worried that their work might be changed in ways that compromise the validity and quality of the research, while still retaining their name on it.

“The open license doesn’t invite someone to come in and change your results,” says Dr. Bays. “What we try to put out is that fraud is still fraud.”

Dr. Audrey Curnock, Director of Undergraduate Studies at the Mathematical Institute, Oxford University says that copyright and intellectual property was a concern for the Institute before it joined the Consortium, especially when there was potential for publication for profit.

“If the material was going to be published, sometimes publishers would not want the draft forms to be published,” she says.

Value to traditional education

The effectiveness of OCW has been questioned, as it only provides access to materials and not to tutors or feedback. Besides, the courses available online are quite often incomplete.

Universities are quick to argue that contrary to what might be suggested, free and open publishing of the courses is enhancing the value of those courses when the students do come.

“It’s a way of spreading the reputation, increasing the value of the teaching and helping students make better choices about education on offer,” Dr. Bays says.

“At a moment when people are more likely to question whether they’re getting what they paid for, the potential student or whoever is going to pay the bill, can look and see what the student is going to be getting.”

The project is funded through donations and private grants. Participating institutions are keen that their free material will encourage further enrolments to their courses.

Dr. Curnock admits, “We’re hoping it will have an impact on graduate recruitment, graduate students coming here because they’ve used our undergraduate courses.”

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