Topic 2 in the ONL course focuses on „Open learning – Sharing and Openness“. Before diving into the topic in my thinking the terms „learning“ and „openness“ already were linked together.

My starting point regarding learning, openness and sharing

Learning requires openness. Unless I am open-minded and acknowledge that the current state of my being or of the world around me, is not a given but is the result of actions of individual or collective agents in response to environmental conditions, I won’t be able to learn. I won’t be able to look for, collect, process and interpret information to come up with new ways of behaving and thinking to interact with environmental conditions.

My understanding of „sharing“ in learning has not bee very much developed. To me, the concept of „sharing“ in learning has mainly meant that sharing ideas enhances individual learning by exchanging different points of view. To date, I have not been that familiar with the extension of this concept to e.g. sharing educational resources across university boundaries or to store research data in open accessible repositories. Furthermore, as through my various affiliations, I have always had the possibility to access almost any article I wanted, I have not been actually much concerned about the open access topic for research articles.

However, I recently learned that according to its „strategy for education and digitalization“, in the coming years my university strives for integrating openness and sharing more comprehensively in our teaching and research practices. That’s why – in ONL Topic 2 – I was happy to learn some basics about Open Educational Resources (OER), Open Access Policies, Creative Commons Licenses, or Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC).

Three conceptual levels to understand open education

When browsing through the booming literature on the topic of openness and sharing in education and structuring my questions, I found it helpful to distinguish three conceptual levels of open education (Zawacki-Richter & Kalz (2019):

  • The macro level or global system level at which aspects of whole education systems, internationalisation and equal and permeable access to higher education are addressed,
  • the meso-level or institutional level of education management, at which questions of organisational and personnel development, service development, innovation and quality management and institutional support systems and infrastructure are dealt with, and
  • the micro-level of learning and teaching with digital media, which concerns aspects of didactic design, and individual learning and teaching processes.

From a practical point of view the micro-level is of utmost immediate relevance for me as a lecturer. e.g. with regard to OER, Creative Commons Licences, or designing MOOC.

Openness must not only be cherished by all … but also safeguarded

However, I also felt that one should not only focus on the immediate (positive) effects of the openness movement, but should also take into account what opportunities and risks these developments encompass on the macro und meso level.

One of my facilitators (thank you, Grant!) recommended to have a look at Martin Wellers book „Battle for Open — How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory“. Weller (2014) presents a line of argumentation that resonated with a feeling and an unease I had with regard to the openness movement, which I, however, could not express explicitly.

Thus, in the remainder of my blog I would like to – based on the picture below – summarize how I understand Wellers line of argumentation.

There are many wins of openness!

Wins of openness

Overall, in recent years the openness movement seem to have won and held ever more ground in education. It seems to deliver on many promises, such as

  • increased access to educational programs for everybody (e.g. through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC))
  • increased access to research results for everybody (e.g. through open access), and
  • decreased cost of offering education (e.g. through Open educational Resources (OER)) and thus
  • lower fees for education for more people all over the world.

Thus, although it seems as openness has won, for Weller (2014) it doesn’t feel like victory, as there are still some – interlinked – battles to fight to make sure that openness does really improve higher education.

Battle for Freedom

Freedom is key to openness. However, freedom is in danger as some powerful, deep-pocketed proponents of openness seem to promote openness in education as a mere initial tactic to win users for their proprietary platforms (such as e.g. Udacity, linkedin Learning).
We have seen, that digitalization has transformed many fragmented industries with a lot of choice for consumers into oligopolistic or even „winner takes all“ industries (e.g. Amazon prime in online purchasing). Freedom of choice must not be reduced. If this development cannot be avoided in Higher Education, the openness movement in fact is instrumental not to promote but to destroy freedom and choice in Higher Education.

Battle for Value

The global education market has been estimated to be worth US$ 5-6 trillion (see Weller, 2014, citing Shapiro, 2013). Academic publishing is also a double-digit billion market. Therefore, incentives for traditional players (like publishing houses, private and public universities) to protect their current stakes are substantial. Even more important are new private players who strive for securing their new share in an industry that is shaken up. There must be rules and incentives to make sure that through openness economic value is not merely re-distributed from many traditional players to a few new private and more and more oligopolistic players. That’s why it is e.g. important to have rather a distributed mix of third-party services than a few centralized MOOC plattforms.

Battle for dominant narrative in Education

As the third battle, Weller (2014) describes the battle for narrative, which circles around the issues of openness. There are players that propose the re-current “education is broken” meme and try to define higher education as a simple content industry (as e.g. the music industry), which just need to be fixed by elegant, technological solutions as provided by new and disruptive (proprietary) plattform providers.

However, in my view higher education is more than contents and in addition encompasses e.g. critical thinking, debating and exchanging ideas with other people in order to develop a differentiated world view that enables peaceful, productive and responsible behavior. „Enlightened“ proponents of openness thus should stress and enable these more comprehensive aspects of education, e.g. through connected MOOCs (= cMOOCs, e.g. our online networked learning course!?) instead of traditional, self-paced, individualized MOOCs (=xMOOC).

Openness must be safeguarded

If these battles are not fought wisely, Weller (2014, Chapter 3) explains, that “at its most pessimistic, openness is the route to which commerce fundamentally undermines the higher education system to the point where it is weakened beyond repair”. Therefore, the openness movement should work towards rules that bring out the best of openness and avoid domination by a few as can be observed in other industries that have been digitally disrupted.

Openness is winning … but must be safeguarded