An Open University

What will the university of the future look like?

March 15, 2011

What will the university of the future look like? If we are to believe Bill Gates, it will be open, worldwide, and free. “Five years from now [Aug. 2010] on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.” Are Open Educational Resources (OER) a threat to traditional higher education? Or are they the key to the very survival of universities in the digital era?

According to a report from the Hewlett Foundation, a major sponsor of research in this area, OER are those: “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others.” (p. 4)

OER may be the carriers of a paradigmatic change in the way we approach knowledge. Knowledge is a public good. Access to knowledge should not be restricted as access to clean air and water should not. Knowledge is as necessary to our fulfillment as human beings as water and air are for our physical survival.

However, the differences in wealth distribution around the world to a large extent co-variate with the education gap. This is where OER can play a significant role.

Two major questions can be raised:

1. How can Open Educational Resources be produced and shared?

The major actors in this field are universities. Some of the most prestigious ones have already opened part of their chest of academic treasures. MIT has its own site where courses, individual lectures and other resources are gathered under the name Open Courseware. Carnegie Mellon shares some free courses on its site Open Learning Initiative, and under the same label the Harvard Extension School offers today eight courses for free. These courses and many others can also be accessed via conglomerate sites, like Open Culture or iTunes U. Moreover, besides the material produced and managed by universities themselves we also have the Creative Commons license system, the very popular TED lectures, and of course Wikipedia.

This brief enumeration shows that OER exist today in plentiful quantity, covering pretty much any subject.

The question is one of access. OER have the most powerful impact on spreading knowledge to marginalized people all over the world. It is in particular to them that OER can make a difference. But can they enjoy the benefits of free educational resources? For the most part no, because of the digital gap that separates the rich and the poor. Yes, one could study elbow to elbow with MIT students, but only if one has a computer connected to the internet. In other words, it is not enough to produce these OER. In order to reach their most critical target, the focus should be on their distribution. This is such a large issue, connected to the general level of development in any given region, as it builds upon the existence of suitable telecommunication infrastructure, as well as upon the availability of computers. It is so large that very few organisations can tackle it, even though of course there are small steps taken every day (for example the Open University has a special African initiative, OU in Africa).

2. Are Open Educational Resources challenging the traditional university?

The student of tomorrow may very well be a self-learner, someone who can find information via the OER and accumulate information. But will this knowledge be recognized? If one trains to become a civil engineer by following the entire course work via free learning resources, open lectures and exercises, will this person find a job as a civil engineer? No. The answer is self-evident, because this person’s knowledge cannot be ascertained.

The role of the university in the future will be to validate the quality of knowledge accumulated by the students. This is why universities will not become redundant, but on the contrary, will hold a key position: they will remain the gatekeepers to the academic universe.

The future university will not necessarily be free, while it may very well be online and global. Its presence will be justified because it will not provide information (this will be increasingly transformed into an OER type) but it will double check the quality of the knowledge. University resources will be focused on giving enrolled students feedback and communicating a way of knowing, rather than the facts themselves.

In this way, OER do challenge the traditional forms of higher education, but this is a most welcome challenge.

Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

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