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'The World Is Open'

August 25, 2009

Technology is changing higher education in more ways than can be counted. Distance education has become common. Leading universities are putting course materials or even entire courses online -- free. The Obama plan for community colleges envisions free online courses that could be used nationwide. Curtis J. Bonk, a professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University, surveys this landscape in The World Is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education (Jossey-Bass). Bonk responded to questions about the book in an e-mail interview.

Q: How do you define "open" with regard to educational movements? Free? Open to all? Should it also include the ability to earn credit?

A: When I compare my life as a learner in the 20th century to that of today, there are more ways to learn, vastly more people to learn with, and entirely new organizations and institutions from which to learn. This new learning world it is open at all points of the day. It is just as open for 5 a.m. learners as it is for those coming home from work at 5 or 6 p.m.

When I was in primary school in the 1960s and 1970s, I had to walk next door to borrow the Compton Encyclopedia volume that I needed. They were free for me to use when the neighbors were home. Today, Yahoo! Education provides free access to the Roget’s II Thesaurus (260,000 synonyms and cross references), Colombia Encyclopedia (more than 50,000 entries and 84,000 hypertext cross-references between the content), and American Heritage Dictionary (definitions, word spellings, and word suggestions as well as more than 200,000 entries, 70,000 audio word pronunciations, and 900 full-page color illustrations). If that is not enough, there is the Encyclopedia Britannica, and yes, that trusty Wikipedia that is now the seventh most accessed Web site in the United States.

These are just learning portals. One education opener. There are nine more openers that I document in my book. When combined, they spell the acronym, “WE-ALL-LEARN.”

Open means that there are opportunities to learn. As with all learning, there hopefully comes the chance to use it in some way to contribute back to society. And for those who question the extensiveness and applicability of such learning openings for those caught on the less fortunate side of the digital divide, the reality is that you do not need direct access to the Internet or even computing technology to be impacted by it. All you need is to live in a community which has an educational agency, learning center, or organization that has Internet access. As with programs like 1kg, Twinbooks, and Room to Read, people can sign up online to visit your community or school or send needed resources such as books, technology, or curriculum materials.

So this opening up of education might be viewed from a personal angle as a learner or from the standpoint of an entire community or region of the world as with mobile access to learning in Africa and Latin America. With educational programming stored on a mobile phone, MP4 player, or some other mobile device, a teacher can be in one’s pocket. My colleague Paul Kim at Stanford has implemented the Pocket School project that does just that; the teacher is in the pockets of migrant worker children offering them literacy training when and where needed. I suggest that is a rather powerful learning mechanism that has not previously existed.

Such learning is open to all learners but in different shades or degrees of openness. I do not argue that the ten openers guarantee equal access to learning. That would be quite foolhardy. They simply provide more access for nearly everyone throughout the lifespan, rich or poor, young or old, male or female. Teenagers and young adults in Pakistan and Afghanistan are accessing MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) and learning from it at their own pace. As they do, they become more confident that they can succeed in higher education. Adults in the workplace such as those at IBM, Cisco, or General Motors can simultaneously be learning from the exact same contents without impeding the progress of each other.

Scientists like Wendy Ermold are studying Arctic water circulation and the mechanisms controlling it. Others like Cassandra Brooks are researching the Antarctic toothfish (also known as the Chilean sea bass). They have no colleges or universities close by for their professional development when in the field. Wendy tells me that she recently relied on downloaded lectures and course notes from MIT, Stanford, Seattle Pacific University, and Missouri State University for her learning needs. When online, she can hop from one to another as she feels the need or interest. No meaningless homework. Instead, she replays each lecture over and over until she understands it. It is her choice. It is her learning destination.

Should they get credit for exploring a few of physics demonstrations from award-winning MIT Professor Walter Lewin? What if someone listened to hundreds of podcasts, watched dozens of online lectures, explored countless online resources related to Introduction to Auditing, Astronomy 101, or Ancient Rome, and then discussed them with friends and family or reflected on many of them in an online forum or series of blog posts? Perhaps there is a need to adopt the approach of Western Governors University and certify or grant credit to individuals based on skills that they have obtained. Or perhaps there is a need for facilitators or guides to walk one through this free and open content when and where needed. Peer-to-Peer University and the University of the People have sprung up in 2009 to apparently address this very issue. The world community will be curious to see the results.

Will credit eventually happen? Undoubtedly so. But the way one acquires and uses such credits may be vastly different today than it might have been in the past. Time will tell. The primary thing to realize is that it is informal learning which is skyrocketing. Informal learning has rarely had credits attached to it. The main words with this openness are opportunities, choice, flexibility, empowerment, and, ultimately, freedom to learn.

Q: How significant, in your opinion, is MIT's OpenCourseWare project in pushing this movement?

A: Highly so. It got everyone else aware of open education. It provided a reference point for open education. If you try to explain the field to someone, all you need to say is, “Have you heard that MIT is placing all their courses online for free? What do you think about that?” Most people have heard and those who have not will have perked up their ears.

Leadership from MIT as well as Tufts, Johns Hopkins, Yale, Utah State University, and hundreds of other institutions of higher learning lends immediate credibility to the field. It has forced many institutions to abandon notions of trying to monetize everything they place online. And in effect, there is a shift in thinking from how much can we make to how much can we share. Storage of educational content on the Web is at ridiculously low prices. Consequently, many previous arguments against such sharing are no longer relevant.

Leadership from MIT takes many forms. They have allowed their OCW to be translated to other languages such as Chinese, Spanish, and Portuguese. They also have mirror sites for their online course content running on servers in Africa so as to reduce access costs there. For those still doubting the impact, in their Highlights for High School project, MIT officials have also taken their courses and repackaged them for high school advanced placement course study in such areas as physics, calculus, and biology. With that, their leadership widens as does the impact of OCW. Now those in K-12 school settings can readily see that the learning world has opened up as do those in corporate or military settings who might personally use open access courses for their professional development.

Q: How do you see the availability of educational materials from established universities changing the way education is provided in developing nations? How crucial is it to have someone directly connected to students who is also involved as a guide to the materials?

A: There are many paths to learning. The plethora of online content today might arouse interest in a particular subject matter area or a unique awareness of the intersection of two or more fields. Those in developing countries might find that a few courses from different areas serve their needs better than depth in one area. With OCW and open educational resources (OER), this awareness can form more quickly and according to one’s own schedule and personal interests.

Those in developing countries might explore emerging topics that their institution is not offering and request that they be offered. They might contact instructors or experts whose courses are offered online with questions, advice, and insights. Institutions in developing worlds might use those open contents to fashion new courses or course activities. These might be viewed as benchmarks or standards for any courses that they produce. We all need such goals, targets, and examples.

The jury is still out on the need for a guide or facilitator in open education. As co-editor of a handbook of blended learning, I can say that I personally believe that blended is best. Recent research seems to suggest that this is true. I have read a few reports lately from those in the open education movement who also highlight the importance of a human learning guide or coach.

That makes sense on many levels. First, a guide can foster reflection on the contents that might be chosen to explore as well as reflection after the course experience has been completed. In this way, learning targets can be selected and evaluated. Of course, a human touch, at the right moments in the learning process, can offer encouragement and scaffolds that lead to course success. While many people can cruise through online courses in a self-paced or self-selected fashion, the vast majority cannot. Human tutors or moderators can question, provide feedback, assess progress, lend encouragement when times get tough, and generally nudge one further into the content. Open content just tilts the balance of learning power toward the learner. In most instances, instructors remain critical to learning success.

There will be many questions during the coming decade about just who will provide such supports. Others will ask just who ultimately needs such assistance and when. And there will be various ideas about how such individuals will be certified or trained. An entire new industry will spring up to offer certification for online moderators and facilitators. In the United Kingdom, it already is happening.

Q: Some traditionalists in higher education equate online and free with a lack of quality and an erosion of standards. How would you respond?

A: There is no one response. First I would point out the 12 problems with the open education movement that are detailed in the final chapter of my The World is Open book. I label these the deadly dozen. Issues of Internet access, quality, plagiarism, copyright, access for the disabled, adequate training of students as well as instructors, English dominance of Web content, and several other issues are highlighted. These are each discussion stoppers. Perhaps they belong up-front-and-center in the book introduction.

In a book I recently edited on e-learning in Asia, my colleague, Tom Reeves from the University of Georgia, argues that we should not be content when online courses are just as good as face-to-face ones; instead, they should be better. They should excite people into this age of learning. Online courses should offer interactive elements such as animations and contextually rich simulations, extended video and audio resources, engaging discussion forums with peers and experts, and multiple learning format options. They should not simply be pages of digital content to click through. We do not need to be offering degrees in electronic page turning.

Accreditation is one answer. Another is to have online courses and programs evaluated for their degrees of interactivity and engagement. In the meantime, sticking with branded names for your online courses and degrees will likely be the strategy for most who can afford it; at this time, there is more trust placed there.

While I say that, many of these same quality issues surfaced for correspondence, radio, and television courses. I am a product of TV and correspondence courses. I knew at the time that face-to-face was likely better for me but I was working fulltime. I needed a few psychology courses to get into graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. As an enormously bored accountant, these nontraditional learning venues were my only real hope. When I got into graduate school at Madison, I helped create similar nontraditional courses for others. That was twenty years ago. Much more is possible today.

And if a free online course that lacks interactive elements is my only choice, then that is indeed my choice. It may lack a caring instructor, but I may still need to learn that content for a job promotion or skill retooling. There may not be embedded discussion forums with peers and experts, but that does not stop me from discussing the content with whomever I want to. The rich video or audio resources may be inaccessible to me since I am hearing or visually impaired, but I can use specialized software tools to assist in my learning with the learning contents that are, in fact, accessible to me. We need to stop thinking about what is not possible and replace such thinking with ideas and optimism of what is now possible! And sure, along the way we should admit to the myriad limitations of open education and make genuine attempts to address each of them and open up education even more. If we only offer questions and not think of solutions, we are not benefiting the open learning world nor will we benefit from it.

Keep in mind that your original question, in many ways, assumes formal learning goals. My friend, Jay Cross, argues in his 2007 book, Informal Learning: Rediscovering Natural Pathways That Inspire Innovation and Performance, that perhaps 80 percent of learning is informal. And much more is on the way! I think that Jay would readily admit that open education has enabled all of us the chance to examine and enjoy previously inaccessible MIT and other courses in higher education. However, OCW and OER also take us on a wide range of more casual learning pursuits.

Academics need to step back when thinking about the open learning world and reflect on all their learning experiences and activities. Yes, they went through primary and secondary school, college, graduate school, and perhaps postdoctoral study. Those extended formal learning experiences color our perceptions of any new form of education that arises. Today we have the potential for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of new learners who might not be seeking a formally accredited degree. They can play in a global educational sandbox with anyone at any time. In fact, the premise of my World Is Open book is that with the emergence of the Web, anyone can now learn anything from anyone else at any time.

So my response to this question is erosion of what standards? For whom are they eroding and by what measures? I actually have seen course standards elevated when instructors post course task examples to the Web. Each semester, the best work can be posted in an online gallery of student work. The cream rises to the top. The bar for student work is raised higher and higher each term.

OER and OCW can do just that — they can showcase the best of the best from each school, college, university, and corporate and non-profit training center. When one’s work is on display to the world community, instructors are often forced to rethink their teaching and perhaps come up with even more innovative ways to deliver their content. For my money, that is a pretty decent result. And that is not all. In online and blended learning classes, often students from previous semesters will volunteer to come back to explain their final projects and other course tasks to the course newbies and help them overcome their course fears and trepidations.

The same can happen with free courses. But now instead of a class of 20 or 30 students, there might be thousands of such learners around the world discussing their free courses in introductory psychology, sociology, telecommunications, algebra, or technical writing. You can encounter any of these people by chance at any moment you are accessing or reflecting upon the free course content.

Q: Movements like Wikipedia involve sharing knowledge, but without the traditional vetting that is found in higher education. Academics seem to be evolving from anger at Wikis to either acceptance or some embracing of the concept. What do you make of it?

A: All emerging technologies move through developmental sequences from awareness to rejection to acceptance to use to some type of advocacy and then modification and transformation. Wikis serve many purposes. As an encyclopedia of knowledge to be cited on research or term papers they can be suspect. But learning involves both accessing and coming to understand established or expert resources well beyond encyclopedias as well as making sense of these sources through your own projects, products, and papers. So instructors can use wikis in the classroom as places for students to do their team projects such as creating a class glossary or a final report. That is acceptable for instructors and can be a productivity enhancer for everyone.

But like most class projects, the final product is typically not published in a refereed journal or book. There is no pretension that such class projects will replace expert knowledge. When used in this way, wikis are more acceptable to the professoriate. Wikis are simply another form of learning collaboration and task completion. They are collaborative documents that can be quickly created and modified. So most instructors are fine with wikis and stop there.

Some might go a step further and contend that a place like Wikiquote is appropriate since the quotes can be verified. The same with Wikisource, which contains documents you can read or download of great scientific, literary, religious, and political figures. Unlike Wikipedia or Wikinews, there is no real crowdsourcing of the content; the crowd only helped find the original works and posted them there. So one wiki resource might be acceptable and another might not.

All seems fine. But along comes the Wikibooks Web site. This is a disruptive technology. At this site, you can have your students fashion final papers or chapters that can be compiled across all your student contributors as a book. Alternatively, the assignment may be for students to draft the book in using whatever route they decide upon as a class or set of classes. The Wikibooks website operates in both worlds. It is a container for student final products, in this case a book, which is acceptable to most. However, these books might be used by anyone in the world. In effect, they could eventually replace the expert knowledge of traditional textbooks. And they are not typically vetted. So up come the same concerns we hear about Wikipedia.

My own students have written wikibooks with students from China, Malaysia, Taiwan, and other parts of the United States. My colleagues, Mimi Lee from the University of Houston, Grace Lin from the University of Hawaii, and I have been researching wikibooks for more than 3 years. As our research shows, they are not easy to implement or coordinate; especially when the participants are global or cross-institutional. At the same time, students can take ownership for the knowledge contributed and gain a better understanding of the perspectives and resources of their global peers. As an example, often those in China and Taiwan struggle with writing in English, are used to more top down teaching methods, and have to use proxy servers to participate. In addition, their semesters start and end later than universities in the United States. These are all barriers to success.

Last year, Mimi Lee and I tried something new. We collaboratively taught a course on learning theories at our respective institutions. At the start of the semester, we required our students to critique chapters from an existing wikibook on learning theories. Next, we asked them to go in and actually update or edit a different wikibook on learning theories and theorists. Finally, we had them write chapters for one of their own wikibook to end the semester. Students in learning theory classes anywhere in the world can now add to that wikibook.

So, to answer your question, the reason you notice the strange mix of reactions to wikis is due to the quite varied ways in which wikis can be employed in educational settings. At the far end of the risk continuum they might be used in place of expert knowledge. More safely, they can simply accumulate knowledge and information resources for a class. As my colleagues and I found in our first semester teaching with wikis, when interesting online resources are found, students will often say, “put it in the wiki” so it can be forever shared. And that is not a bad way to start to use them. Instructors can dip their toes into the wonderful world of wikis and remain in shallow waters testing them out before they get in too deep. Later, they might try Wikibooks or perhaps creating and editing Wikipedia pages.

Q: What are a few ways you expect these movements to change higher education in another 10 or 20 years?

A: We will see a lengthening of higher education during the coming decades of about 1 year for each 10. By the end of this century, it will be quite common to attend college until one is 30. Today only a small percent do. Open education will provide continued access to learning resources before, during, or after graduation. In turn, there will be less self-doubt about whether one can succeed. The increased knowledge needs of every citizen of this planet should calm the fears of those who predict fewer educators or institutions of higher learning will be needed. Just the opposite!

The type of instructors needed in higher education will dramatically vary from today. Many will remain in traditional instructor roles. Some will be course and program developers. Others will be online facilitators. Still others will be learning guides who help students make sense of their options. What is more interesting to me is the coming rise of the super e-mentor or e-coach. Such individuals will have a discipline expertise (e.g., theater, journalism, public health, finance, etc.) as well as human development or counseling skills. Third, they will understand the learning opportunities of the Web. They will know how to guide students in their online learning quests. Some will be needed daily, some monthly, and others perhaps just annually or biannually. They will be our learning gurus, in this, what I label, “the learning century.”

Global and international education will be the buzz words of the coming decade. They already are. Student peers will increasingly be those from other institutions and regions of the world. One’s cohort groups will include many people that you will never physically meet. This will make affiliations with just one institution more difficult. More people will claim to be alums and be loyal to your institution but not to the same depth or degree as before.

Students will have more opportunities to create their own degree tracks and programs. There are no longer limits in terms of the time, place, and sequence of courses. The degrees offered will only be limited by one’s imagination. With the range of courses today, self-service learning will be the norm. It already is widely accepted in corporate training circles.

For educators, a key change is sharing. A decade ago, when I discussed freely sharing contents with others online during talks in places like Korea, Australia, or New Zealand, the refrain was that sharing was happening in the United States but not in their countries. I would hear just the opposite in the United States—“it may be taking place in New Zealand, but not here.” Today, sharing is simply part of the job. In fact, I wrote a prequel for my The World is Open (TWIO) book, which I titled, “Sharing… the Journey.” I also wrote a postscript in the form of “An Open Letter to the Learners of this Planet.” Both are available at the World is Open Web site.. In the coming months, I will post a free e-book extension to the TWIO with the same chapter sequence and overall length, just different content. I hope that it can symbolize the more open learning world for those who continue to have doubts.

 

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