At a first glance universal access to education was for centuries limited for privileged people such as the nobleman, rich or religious representatives. Today the situation might look somehow better because theoretically everybody has the right to visit a school or university. Theoretically! Different reports show that there is still a gap to fill since children from families with a low educational background are likely to score lower in educational achievements [1] [2]. Open education can theoretically help to minimize this gap today as it did in the past.

Over centuries legends and fairy tales where reported from mouth to mouth. The stories included a good portion of imaginary content, today we would call it “fake news”, but also some truth which not seldom were wrapped into a form of moral question or outcome. These stories were open for everyone and were spread within the families, countries and sometimes all over the world. And today? We human still like to listen to all types of stories (news, books, movies) and still must distinguish what part in the story we hear or read is imaginary/fake and what is real/true.   

The charter Gollum as it is presented in the movie series Lord of the Rings. Image by Vicki Lynn from Pixabay

But, can we learn something out of modern fairy tales? Let’s look to one very successful novel and movie called The Lord of the Rings written by J. R. R. Tolkien and filmed by Peter Jackson. The epic fantasy adventure tells the story about a young Hobbit, called Frodo, who has been thrown on an adventure with an appointed task of destroying a ring which was created by a dark lord. The ring plays the central element in the story and is a most powerful artifact forged by the dark lord to gain domination of the wills of their users. One of the most famous ring-bearers is the character Gollum which carried the ring for 500 years and slowly developed a form of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) caused by the corrupting effects of the ring. One part of Gollum’s personality is friendly, lovely and helpful while the bad part would kill anyone who tried to take his “precious”: the ring.

Watching the film not long ago again I realized that Gollum exists in real and that there is not only one but thousands of Gollums out there. Looking to myself in the mirror I see one of them. A typical teacher at a typical university. Ok, we might look a bit better than the character in the story but many of us protect a “ring” and probably have over the years developed a light form of DID when it comes to open research and Open Educational Resources (OER). The ring in the story is in the real academic world our “precious” knowledge and data materialized and forged in papers, books, and teaching material which must be under all circumstances be protected behind licenses, passwords, and encrypted files. And our character? The most of us have probably quite ambivalent feelings about OER as I have. On the one hand we love open access papers, books and teaching material since they help us producing better researcher and save us valuable preparation time of classes. But to open our research and teaching material for others? That’s a no-go! The one who want to access our “ring” must pay at least a price in form of attention, honor, power, or money to ensure future research and teaching. Or as Aaron Swartz once nicely summarized it “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves”.

So, what can we do to get more “Open” and less “Gollum”? The most difficult think probably is a clear mind change on the matter. We have to see in open access and open education a chance rather than a problem. To enable this change, universities must start to promote OERs within and outside their schools working together with their governments on frameworks and agreements to minimize educational competition on national and international levels and acknowledged teachers and schools which publish openly and produce OERs. University teachers on the other hand have to leave their comfort zone, overcome their anxieties and use chances, such the current ongoing corona pandemic as a possibility too not only digitalis their material but to make it open accessible for everybody.   Competition is without question a driving factor to the better, but in this matter our democracy, health, budgets and society as a whole have more to win with an open educational approach than to lose.

[1] Poor Students With Poorly Educated Parents More Disadvantaged In U.S. Than Other Countries, Huffpost, Dec 06, 2017, Link: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/poor-students-with-poorly_n_1101728

[2] Anna J. Egalite, How Family Background Influences Student Achievement, Education Next, Spring 2016, Vol. 16, No. 2, Link: https://www.educationnext.org/how-family-background-influences-student-achievement/

My Precious – Universities and Open Learning