Mashable wrote about open education recently. This month’s Fast Company (not-quite-so-fast web edition not yet available as of this post) features an article on it. The venture capitalists have been circling for a while. Since it started opening major parts of its curriculum to open access via the Web in 2001, MIT OpenCourseWare has been joined by more than 200 other institutions with similar projects.
Is open education starting to enter the mainstream?
Based purely on user numbers, you might argue that it entered the mainstream some time ago: more than 56 million users have accessed MIT’s open courseware initiative alone. No doubt many multiples of that number have accessed the wide range of open educational resources now available across the Web.
But any dotcom entrepreneur can tell you that user numbers do not necessarily equate to sustainability – a quality that tends to be favored in the mainstream. As Geoffrey Moore argued nearly two decades ago in Crossing the Chasm, there is generally a significant gap – a chasm – between the early visionaries for an innovation and the pragmatists who take it into the mainstream. The latter most definitely seek sustainability – and more often than not, a measurable return on their investment.
Why does all of this matter from the standpoint of the lifelong learner? There are positives and negatives.
One huge positive is clear: the open education movement as a whole has been a significant force in introducing free educational content onto the Web, and arguably, helping to keep quality levels higher than might have otherwise been the case. Having institutions like MIT, Yale, and Berkeley in the game certainly raises the stakes some. More visibility for open education and its potential role in bringing down the costs of formal education could lead to more, and more strategic, investment in open educational resources that may benefit lifelong learners.
On the other hand, money always has a tendency to muddy the waters. The Fast Company article, for instance, seems to lump together such diverse efforts as the open courseware consortium (which offers conent completely free for learners), University of the People (which charges fees, albeit very reasonable ones, for participation), and Knewton (a venture-funded start-up that charges $890 for test prep courses). Each of these initiatives signals a seismic shift in the world of education, but the degree of true “openess” varies dramatically across them.
How sustainable structures are built for carrying open education forward – and whether these structures represent foundations or simply new and different walls – seems now to be the core issue. That the movement has evolved to this level – and that an array of new hands are contributing to the work – strikes me as the clearest sign that open education has crossed the chasm and is poised to become part of the mainstream educational landscape.
Wherever it all ends up, the open education movement has helped spark a broad debate about the cost of education, the value of our traditional approaches to validating and accrediting education, and the role of traditional institutions like the university (which open education leader David Wiley, quoted and pictured in the Fast Company article, has said could be “irrelevant by 2020.”) As this debate continues to gain ground, so too will open education.
What do you think – have we crossed the chasm? Is open education entering the mainstream?
Mission to Learn
P.S. 11-Aug- 09 – I did not notice until this morning (via Downes) that the Open Education Conference is using “Crossing the Chasm” as its tag line this year. A coincidence, but a serendipitous one in signaling that some of the people closest to the movement sense that a major shift is occurring. See also the Chronicle article on Obama’s Great Course Giveaway referenced by Downes.
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I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.