I am part of the generation that fully experimented the transition into the Web era: from the primordial telephone-line based connections towards more and more bandwidth capable connections, until nowadays data connections available even on mobile devices. Since the beginning, the Web was perceived as a place of freedom, mainly because of the free-of-charge sharing of contents. However, this virtual business model started to be unsustainable as soon as it impacted the real world business (just take as example all the entertainment market, i.e. tv, music, and movies). As a consequence, content providers had to find a way to charge virtual consumers when these ones became the majority of all the customers.

Image taken somewhere on the Web

I wanted to start my reflections on openness in education with the previous historical premise since I see a lot of similarities between them, and indeed a lot of reflections about openness in education are inspired to what happened/happens with the Web.

The Good

Openness in education is a great principle: especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, now all courses have a distance version. Therefore, it would be possible to make available all the material online, notably lectures, exercises, assignments, literature, etc. This wider access enhances “freedom” in education in different ways: students could decide to build up their own curricula, or to learn specific subjects in a deeper way, without necessarily requiring credits; students with limited accessibility could benefit of more convenient learning alternatives, regardless of their location, economical situation, availability time for studies. Even for more “regular” students, openness is an opportunity to access a broader set of resources than what a single teacher will never be able to provide/prepare.

The Bad

Unfortunately, as for the historical premise mentioned at the beginning, in the long run openness is not an affordable business model for education institutions, at least not with the current rules set in many European countries. In fact, institutions are payed by the central governments per “produced” student, and in some countries teaching positions are supported by the government based on the number of students. It is evident then that virtual and even invisible students are a threat for institutions, since they do not get a return-of-investment for those students (practically, the salary for their employees). To make a parallel, researchers can publish their works as open access, but in most of the cases this means that the researchers themselves pay to publish their own work as freely available.

The Ugly

Another subtle aspect of openness in education, and especially in making freely available the teaching material, is the loss of traceability. Here, for traceability I mean any possible use that is made of the available material without proper authorisation by the author(s). In this period we have observed several times how scientific documents have been misused to support conspiracy theories: in general, parts of different documents are cherry-picked and assembled to create meanings that are not representative of the same contents when taken as a whole. Even without reaching those situations, teaching material could be re-used in inopportune ways, notably to give interpretations of the contents that were not intended by the original author(s), to cheat in examinations, and so forth.   

Openness in Education: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly