In this blog, I have been asked to reflect on my experience of open education and as a University Lecturer at the Open University for six years, a tutor with the same university for 14 years and an OU graduate, I have often consider what it is meant to have an open education.I think the easiest place to start is with standalone open educational resources, like Open Learn, various MOOCS and the Khan Academy. These resources are excellent and freely available to anyone with internet access and basic computing skills (so not completely accessible then but open). To me there are two main challenges in creating these materials. Firstly, there is need to create something in bite-size chunks for those who want to dip in and out whilst also allowing a coherent whole for the learner who wants a little more. That challenge is not insurmountable and many resources do it brilliantly - taking advantage of the Web 2.0 design features and the ability to link many different sections. The second challenge is a bigger one and that is perceived quality. In market research and related fields there is a test that can be done called the 'Willingness to pay' test. In this test participants are asked how much they would be willing to pay for a product. This test relies on the premise that how much you want something and its quality determines how much you will pay - a mindset common in today's society. This mindset creates a problem from open educational resources because if they are free there is a question of where is the catch? On the one hand people may be less committed to it (wanting it less) or perceive it as lesser quality because they do not have to pay. My experience of the OU is that 'lesser quality' is not something it has ever really had to worry about.
So now moving on the open educational resources to an Open Education per se. Again drawing on my OU experience - this must be the closest we have to an open educational offering in the UK at degree level with typical undergraduate courses having no formal entry requirements and any one being able to apply and join OU student body to study a qualification. To me, this is exactly what education should be but in reality there is something very un-open about even this offering. Firstly, it is not free - unsurprising in this day and age and, of course, well beyond the control of the university which worked hard to try to offer competitive fees in a very hostile financial environment - but the £5k + a year does not feel too open. Secondly, assuming fees can be paid either personally of with financial support, there is still the issue of accessibility versus open. Even where education is open it still requires internet access, digital literacy skills and a variety of study skills to get you through the qualification. This is, of course, true of brick universities as well, which are often decidedly less open, but they do have more face to face support available for these things so once there it is easier to support accessibility.
I think the crux in both cases is that open does not equate to accessible and vice versa, and in my mind it is an accessible education that is most critical. Open could simply mean available (not necessarily completely free as we see with the OU) but accessible allows people to actually use it or gain from it in a meaningful way. None of this is to say that the OER or the OU are not excellent things - to offer something completely free and truly accessible is unsustainable in the current economic climate and perceptions of low quality would likely be an issue. I suspect that OER and the OU are in fact the best that we can have in this climate. Furthermore, accessibility can be supported - through tutors, support teams and MOOC guides but this is a constant process.
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