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I declare 2020 as the decade of open learning! And you can quote me on that.

My rationale is not to seek any kind of fame, but instead, invite a discussion that I hope leads to some clarity. Namely, what exactly is open learning in 2019? I was drawn to this question by the following statement:

“When it comes to the availability of open course content, we may be retreating from where we were even a few years ago… which seems really surprising.”

I heard the above, which surprised me, made during a panel presentation at the LINC 2019 conference held at MIT last week. The event brings together educators focused the “technological, social, and cultural challenges we face in the new learning society, especially in developing nations and emerging markets.”

Another panelist, who presented about an effort to create learning opportunities for displaced populations (i.e. refugees), went further.

To paraphrase: “Open courses (and MOOCs) have become too complicated and confusing. When and how something is available is often unclear. Or you can only access some content, but not all of it. Verified certificates, subscription pricing, all support the traditional gated version of higher ed and one designed for wealthier Western nations. That there is not developing world / educator pricing is crazy in this day and age.”

The very next day, however, the director of MIT’s Open Courseware (OCW), announced that they had reached 2 million YouTube subscribers. Huzzah! Keep in mind, while OCW is truly a free, open access resource of educational materials, the materials are not necessarily packaged as integrated, interactive course experiences. That withstanding, perhaps the state of open learning was in better shape than the two panelists suggested.

And yet… this past week, Dhawal Shah published a piece on Coursera’s journey from $0 to $100M in revenue, which it achieved by locking up a lot of its content, offering new kinds of fee-based degree programs, licensing content to businesses, and serving as a light OPM for universities.

Shah writes that by 2016… “the original MOOC model (involving free courses, large numbers of people who would take a course at the same time, and free certificates) had practically disappeared. Over the past several years, Coursera had removed free certificates, put graded assignments behind paywalls, adopted a subscription model for payment, switched to an on-demand model for course delivery, and increased the monetizable content on the platform by soliciting bids from universities.”

Granted, students can still audit Coursera courses, but in surfing the site, I honestly could not figure out how to do so after several minutes of trying.

An open (pun intended) question: What exactly does open learning even mean anymore? It’s likely that there is more (and more kinds of) open content then there was several years ago. I suspect, however, that accessing it has become more confusing and complicated, for learners and educators alike.

What was once unbundled has now been re-bundled and packaged as nano- or micro-degrees, full online degrees, or subscription-based content. I’m not suggesting this is good or bad, or that monetization is not necessary, but rather than open learning has become overwhelming and ill defined.

I also suspect this is what the two panelists I quoted above were actually talking about. What they really want is the ability to use online and open courses (or even short- and full-degree programs) when and how they want to; adapt them for various kinds of students, regions, and situations; and spend their precious resources more on teachers, training, and outreach than on content.

To borrow a tactic from blogger Josh Kim, what does everyone else think? What have you experienced when it comes to the evolving world of open course content and open courses? (Be sure to note what my colleague Rebecca Petersen told me: there’s a difference between course content and a course experience and there’s also the “uncomfortable truth that content is a commodity. It’s intellectual property”.)

Keeping that in mind, here are some related questions to consider. Where do you think things should go from here? What do you really want in the coming years (as a producer or a consumer of educational course content)?

My co-blogger Steve Mintz suggests what might amount to a do-over for the MOOC movement: What if a group of leading institutions created a higher ed compact (i.e., not a consortium)? That compact would be based upon three ideas:

  • make campus developed tools openly available to non-profits;
  • disaggregate some instructional content; and
  • work with Mellon, Howard Hughes, etc. to create a new JSTOR or ARTSTOR for pedagogy. 

He dubs it: One for all. All for one. 

I understand where Steve is going. I suspect the panelists (and many others) at the LINC conference would applaud such an effort. Carnegie Mellon’s Simon Initiative has already made a bold move in this direction when it comes to tools for educational research. 

It is good to remember that the first MOOCs, those developed by pioneers like David Wiley, George Siemens, and Stephen Downes in 2007-8, were about building communities of learning and of learners. They were a means to vibrant conversations about heady topics and, at their best, they elevated the art and science of teaching.

The current MOOCs, those focused on scale and the integration of machine learning and AI, may still be committed to access (they are free to join), but they are decidedly more if not completely closed in every sense.

With this evolution, coupled with the explosion of online learning and ed tech, I think something got lost. The surest indicator of this loss is the confusion and frustration the speakers I quoted at the start of this essay conveyed.

Maybe now is the perfect moment to find our way back, and to be open to having a battle of hearts and minds about the future of open learning.  

Michael Patrick Rutter is Senior Advisor for Communications in the Office of the Vice Chancellor at MIT. 

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