Why I Advocate For Open Education

I asked my extremely intelligent wife to read my previous post before I published it to the world. She said she thought it was well-written (thanks, hun), but also said it sounded like a simple regurgitation of a bunch of things I’ve learned about open education and OER. She explained that based on the title, she was sort of expecting something along the lines of an opinion piece that explains why I think open education is important and why I spend so much time doing what I do. My wife was spot on. I did not intend to opine about the virtues of openness in that post. Instead, my intention was to provide a cogent technical argument for why and how open education, and OER specifically, can increase access to education. But the editorial conversation with my sweetheart got me thinking, and in between my pushing the publish button and her giving birth to our fourth child (good job, dear, you were awesome!), I decided to face the critical questions head-on: Why do I think open education is important and what drives me to study OER?

The short answer to both of these questions can be found in a single quote from an at-risk community college student: “I have no expendable income. Without this free OER textbook, I would not be able to take this course.” This student was considered “at-risk” of dropping out of college for primarily economic reasons.

Of course, there is a longer answer to why I advocate for open education.

First of all, I realize that education costs money. Teachers, in order to devote their lives to teaching, have to make a living. Research that generates new knowledge cannot be conducted in a vacuum (well, some types of chemical and astrophysical research require a vacuum, but that’s beyond the point). Technologies to assist in the contextualization and sense-making of new knowledge are not cheap to develop or to implement. The very important, but often overlooked, curators of knowledge (like librarians) cannot be expected to do their critical work pro bono. Valid assessments that show that sense has been made do not write themselves (trust me on this one; sometimes I moonlight as a psychometrician.)

In fact, I don’t know of many people who are trying to make an argument for completely free education. Sure, there are excellent opportunities now for individuals to gain access to content (and even pedagogical sense-making) at little cost to them personally. But, as argued above, the generation, distribution, and meaning-making of content all cost money at some time and in some way.

The real advantage of open education and OER, especially, is that they allow for a redistribution of the costs of education toward better ways to improve student success. For instance, money saved on textbooks through the adoption of open educational resources (like the nearly $25 million in estimated savings in Utah this year) could be used to hire more (and better) teachers, make the teaching profession more competitive, or promote the reality that teachers are, in fact, professionals (as well as help teachers improve their profession through advanced PD). As an aside, some may argue that perception of teacher professionalism is not an important educational factor. A recent report from OECD, however, would counter this by arguing that all of the top performing countries on the PISA have high public regard for teachers as professionals. The United States, on the other hand, does not (just ask any teacher you might know).

These are just a few examples of how OER could positively impact education. Other possibilities include redistribution of funds toward more educational research, improving teacher education programs, developing and implementing new educational technologies, and so forth. I haven’t included any direct student benefits of OER here, but they are very important as well and will certainly be discussed in future posts.

The main point is this: Education is not free. Those who want a credential should probably always be expected to pay something for it. But why should they continue to spend money on components of the educational enterprise that no longer cost much at all, like the copying and distribution of educational content? The at-risk community college student I quoted above was willing to invest in a formal, credentialed education. However, the significant – and now mostly unnecessary – costs of educational content threatened to become a barrier to her success.

Another point is this: Some education can be (essentially) free. Individuals who are not interested in, or cannot afford the base price, for a credential, now have access to massive amounts of educational content. These people can access the inherent benefits of knowledge without working toward a formal degree. And millions are doing so on a daily basis, thanks to generous and forward-thinking people who realize that they don’t need to keep the content (or even the sense-making) secure, just the credentialing process. MIT’s OpenCourseWare is a model example of this type of openness in education. And there are many others.

So there you have it. I advocate for open education because I see how it can break down potential barriers to student success and create opportunities for learning at every level of society in nearly every society on the planet.

I would love to know why you advocate for open education as well. Or, if you see holes in my argument, please engage and tell me where I’ve missed the boat…or even the train.