This week’s Open Education Conference in Barcelona will be focused on sustainability of open ed projects and OERs (open educational resources). I’m not able to be there in person this year, but I am making an effort to try to participate and learn along with the live crew. Here are my preliminary thoughts on the matters at hand. Perhaps this would be my opening keynote if I were the one to give it.
The topic of sustainability has come to the forefront of this field because the organizations that support OER publishing (like MIT and the Hewlett foundation) are often spending a great deal of money to package and distribute them for free, and as the global economic crunch tightens budgets across many sectors, it threatens programs not critical to providing services to paying customers, like the relationship some think universities have with their students. If OER is to survive, it must a way to thrive independent of large-scale charity.
As we turn our focus to sustainability in open ed this week, Stephen Downes published a blog post on HuffPo highlighting the role of OER publishing individuals as provocative forces for change. He says,
“when we look at how in fact open educational resources are being used out there, on the wider Internet, outside the realm of structured institutions and rigid teacher-student distinctions, we see that the students — or I should say ‘learners’, because there are no teachers — are themselves acting as agents provocateurs, advancing their own education by sharing their learning with others.”
His point is good, and the piece is worth a careful read. But I was most attracted to a particular point about how open education can live.
Downes says, “Supporting OERs is not simply about supporting the production of open educational resources, it’s about integrating these into the metabolism of the organization.” It was interesting to me that he chose the word metabolism instead of a more generic term like “learning process.” Instead, treating the learning institution or the distributed learning environment as a living organism automatically invokes sustainability. After all, what does a living organism do? It lives. (At least long enough to reproduce itself.) And from Wikipedia, “Metabolism is the set of chemical reactions that happen in living organisms to maintain life.” So, to sustain learning, we learners must imbue our learning with life. Open education folks like myself know that our learning process is a churn of input and output, building connections across a network. Thinking about a creature’s metabolism and open education makes me think that the metabolism process would not be complete if it only consists of learners digesting MIT’s open courses with no output and interaction. The organic residue of learning should be posts, tweets, etc. that circulate back out through your learning community. Metabolism isn’t complete without breaking down inputs and building up the compounds an organism needs. Putting open educational practices and OER production into an institution’s metabolism means making publishing a part of learning.
But the true message that I got from Downes’ post has to do with the individual learner, not the university. He says, “The vast bulk of open learning resources will be encountered outside the domain of the classroom.” They will work their way into regular life, sometimes when intentionally trying to learn, but also when trying to explore, or when using social networks to keep up on things, browsing or stumbling through your input channels. The question of systemic sustainability is not just something for the major OER producers to worry about, but for the individual learners/agents provocateurs as well. People who support open learning need to build open publishing into their learning to show the process to others, to kickstart the output phase of other learners’ metabolism. This output will inevitably show up in disparate forms, spread across social bookmarking, blogging, wiki editing, and tweeting. But each person doing it sends out tendrils that can connect with others nearby to support network growth.
The result is the creation of a community of living learners. Intentionally self-publishing learners are now but a tiny minority of people. Conversion of informal self-publishing learners to intentional ones may not be such a big leap though. Social networks have given mainstream people publishing tools on a scale never before seen, and the posting of interesting resources is a natural outgrowth of the capability. As the provocateur leaders demo metabolism publishing of learning, portfolios of their documented learning set them apart from others. To date, many employers still credit a college degree higher more easily as documentation of learning than a self-published portfolio, but this is bound to change, as I noted in my last post on “Is Accreditation Working?” at least as a method to differentiate between similarly credentialed prospects.
The output of learners who follow provocateurs into full educational metabolism is a form of OER. Even if most learning output from digesting existing OERs is just meta-OER in the form of links and descriptive information about extant formal resources, it builds a tighter web of knowledge, tying pieces together semantically in the eyes of search engines. Downes mentions Stian Haklev, who is studying OER reuse (and publishing his learning as he goes along). Haklev is among those who notes a low reuse rate for a large portion of resources. This part of the web is in need of better filtering and denser connection. OERs cry out for personal curation by those who are connected to them. Fortunately, I think personal curation of learning materials is a natural part of adapting to 2-way learning metabolism, although formalizing the process involves creating an intention to collect them. For example, I subscribed to packratius to automatically post the links in my tweets to my delicious social bookmarking profile so that resources I find interesting enough to talk about to my followers don’t get lost in the shuffle later. Probably I will be almost the sole consumer of the information embedded in my delicious account, but that resource is available to others who come across it, either through a search into a topic I like or somebody who comes because it is curated by me.
If learning is a living thing, it must sustain the processes that sustain it. The metabolism of learning is input and output, and it builds up interconnectedness. If OER projects like MIT’s Open CourseWare is to be sustained, it must become part of an ecosystem of metabolizing learners. I think this is happening. There is a wider conversation about the sustainability of higher ed business models in general, but I think both quests depend on learning with students who simultaneously and collaboratively document their learning such that it builds up a stronger web of resources. I think, like Stephen Downes, that individuals will lead the way into this potential through metabolizing their own learning. When opened education is how institutional customers learn, supporting OER will be part of the institution’s core functions and will be sustained.