Open education is a philosophy about the way people should produce, share, and build on knowledge.
Proponents of open education believe everyone in the world should have access to high-quality educational experiences and resources, and they work to eliminate barriers to this goal. Such barriers might include high monetary costs, outdated or obsolete materials, and legal mechanisms that prevent collaboration among scholars and educators.
Promoting collaboration is central to open education. As the Open Education Consortium says: "sharing is probably the most basic characteristic of education: education is sharing knowledge, insights and information with others, upon which new knowledge, skills, ideas and understanding can be built."
What are open educational resources?
Open educational resources (OERs) are learning materials that can be modified and enhanced because their creators have given others permission to do so. The individuals or organizations that create OERs—which can include materials like presentation slides, podcasts, syllabi, images, lesson plans, lecture videos, maps, worksheets, and even entire textbooks—waive some (if not all) of the copyright associated with their works, typically via legal tools like Creative Commons licenses, so others can freely access, reuse, translate, and modify them.
Why are open educational resources beneficial?
Applying open licenses to educational materials allows educators to collaborate when building materials specifically differentiated for their students. For example, a mathematics teacher might acquire openly-licensed word problems for her students, but re-write the exercises to include language that is more geographically specific or demographically relevant. In turn, she can share her modified problems with others who may wish to use them.
At the same time, collaborating on OERs allows educators to work together when ensuring consistency among their materials. Public school teachers in the United States, for instance, may wish to share resources they've developed in order to adhere to government-mandated educational standards, like the Common Core State Standards.
Some educators suggest that OERs might help reduce costs associated with producing and distributing course materials in both primary and secondary educational institutions. Teachers can download these materials—often at low costs—for use in their classrooms, but they can also update these materials and share their contributions with others, keeping content timely, relevant, and accurate. In this way, they needn't wait for textbook companies to issue entirely new editions of their (traditionally copyrighted) learning materials.
Students also benefit from open educational resources when they access these materials to supplement the education they might receive in a classroom. Some students do not have access to a high-quality education, but using OERs affords them opportunities to enhance their knowledge independently—in spite of the barriers preventing them from acquiring the knowledge and skills they seek.
Open educational resources are most useful when educators distribute them in open formats, so teachers and students can use those resources regardless of the particular technical platforms their schools have adopted. Projects like the OER Commons act as repositories for high-quality open educational resources.
What are MOOCs?
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are online courses accessible to anyone with a computer and access to the Internet. People call these courses "massive" because their enrollment is open to more students than traditional educational institutions might permit—meaning that hundreds (even thousands) of students might participate in a particular MOOC. Today, many colleges and universities have joined organizations committed to providing high-quality education through MOOCs.
One example is edX, a non-profit education partnership that in 2012 grew from a collaboration between MIT and Harvard (Stanford joined the effort in 2013, and now several dozen colleges and universities from around the world have, too). edX offers students tuition-free opportunities to enroll in courses on a variety of subjects from instructors across the globe. Students register, attend, and complete their classes online. In 2013, edX released the source code for its online learning platform, so programmers could download and help improve it. Others could even use it to build their own education platforms.
Similar online educational ventures include Khan Academy and Coursera. The extent to which various MOOCs license their course materials for remixing and reusing differs from one institution to another.
How do open education principles apply to academic research?
Proponents of open education have scrutinized and criticized both the academic publishing process and the academic publishing industry.
They suggest that academic peer review—the process by which professional knowledge producers evaluate one another's work, often anonymously—become more transparent, so readers can better understand how and why, for example, scientists have deemed a certain study suitable for publication in an academic journal, or spot flaws in their methods or conclusions. Transparency in academic peer review also ensures that reviewers' motives when evaluating research are laid bare.
Open education principles are also impacting the academic publishing industry through "open access" movements. Often, researchers must relinquish the copyrights they hold on their work when they agree to let journals publish it. Journal publishers then charge individual readers and libraries fees for access to these scholarly materials. These fees are typically very high; many researchers and librarians claim they limit access to important research to people capable of paying for it. Consequently, scientists and other university researchers cannot access the materials they need—to learn about new developments in their fields, or to read, replicate, and verify others' findings.
Dissatisfaction with limitations on access to research has spurred various "open access" movements in higher education. Some institutions have adopted open access policies to grant the public access to research materials. The Public Knowledge Project maintains an open source publishing platform called Open Journal Systems, which editorial teams can use to referee and publish (largely open access) academic journals outside the traditional publishing system. In the United States, states like California have proposed legislation requiring peer-reviewed research funded by taxpayer money to be made accessible to anyone who wishes to read it. The White House has also indicated that it supports open access to academic research.
Where can I learn more about open education?
We recommend exploring resources available from the Open Education Consortium, Open Education Europa, the OER Commons, and Opensource.com.