Why Open Education: The Technical Argument

Education is about sharing. Teachers share knowledge, skills, feedback, criticism and encouragement with students. Students share questions, understanding, and answers with teachers. Thus, sharing is at the very center of education; it is the soul of the educational endeavor. In other words, “If there is no sharing, there is no education.

Sharing itself is a fascinating concept. Most of the things teachers share with students are somewhat magical in that they can “be given without being given away.” When a teacher imparts her knowledge to a student, the teacher does not lose possession of her knowledge. In fact, some would argue that knowledge can even be deepened through the very act of sharing it with others. Yet, some things teachers share with students, like textbooks, must be physically given away. If I have a textbook and then I give it to you, I lose possession of the book and you assume it.

In recent educational history, textbooks have become the central modicum of the knowledge sharing process. As valuable as these resources can be to students (and to teachers), the rising costs in textbooks have begun to seriously impact the overall cost of education at all levels. Researchers and others are just now exploring the true impact of these costs, especially in terms of how they affect student persistence and completion rates in college and how they affect K-12 school budgets.

With the advent of the digital age, a breakthrough in the knowledge sharing process has occurred. For the first time in human history, knowledge and the physical expressions of knowledge (textbooks and other educational resources) can both be “given without being given away.” For example, the Internet allows for all of the content in a newspaper to be distributed to millions of subscribers without a single physical transfer of paper. In the physical world, the cost of copy and delivery per object is quite high. For example, the cost to copy one 250-page book by hand is roughly $1,000. The cost to copy the same book by print-on-demand services is about $4.50. But the cost to copy the book digitally is only $0.00084! And this isn’t all. The cost to distribute the same 250-page book by mail is about $5.20. The cost to distribute it online: $0.00072.

There is more to the educational sharing process than just copying and distributing knowledge, however. Once in possession of physical expressions of knowledge, the real craft of teaching is in sense-making and meaning-making. Teachers do this by reconnecting new knowledge with prior knowledge and/or relating it to past experience. In a word, teachers are master editors of content. Because of the high cost of editing physical expressions of knowledge like textbooks, teachers accomplish their sense-making through verbal communication or digital summaries. But in this brave new world of digital content, editing physical expressions of knowledge has also become essentially free.

With the removal of the economic constraints on copying, distributing, and editing content, we are able to share (and educate) like never before. Except we can’t, because copyright laws prohibit and otherwise restrict the copying, distributing, and editing of content. In essence, what the Internet enables, copyright forbids.

To solve this problem and truly open up education in the digital world, some very innovative movers and shakers envisioned a way to use existing copyright law to enforce sharing. Inspired by the open source movement in software development, in 1999 David Wiley and others started thinking of educators as publishers and created the first open publication license – a copyright license designed to legally certify that a particular piece of digital (or even analog) content could be reused, redistributed, remixed, or revised. David et al. were not, however, legal experts, and the validity of their license was questionable. Thankfully, a few years after the initial inception of open educational licenses, Larry Lessig (a certified legal genius) and Creative Commons developed a legally valid way to “minimize legal, technical, and social barriers to [the] sharing and reuse of educational materials.” Creative Commons licenses allow individuals and institutions to develop educational materials that can be legally copied, distributed, and edited.

The open in “open education” and “open educational resources” is the free permission to reuse, redistribute, remix, and revise educational materials (now commonly called “the 4 Rs”). Openness is the means whereby we can overcome the restrictions of copyright law and use digital content to its full educative potential. What the Internet enables, OER now allows. And what the Internet enables and OER allows is sharing and educating at an unprecedented scale.

This post presents an introduction and a technical argument for open education. It can also be found on a permanent page here. Future posts will address the political, financial, serendipity, quality, innovation, and moral arguments of openness in education.

Note: Many of the ideas, as well as the framework, for this post came from a single presentation and myriad personal conversations with David Wiley.


One thought on “Why Open Education: The Technical Argument

  1. You are a mad crazy genius. My friend and I were just talking about this very subject and wondering how long it would be before all textbooks were available on line! Thanks for answering my questions

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