Open Education I: Why is open access to education important?

Are classrooms outdated? (image by Flickr user frwl)

I have blogged before about why I feel that open access to research and educational materials is an important step forward for society.  This promotes the learning of those who struggle to access conventional learning modalities (e.g. lower socioeconomic groups who are traditionally excluded from universities) and those who are simply casually interested in learning something new without the need to commit to long-term and expensive courses.  The release of data also helps to facilitate the verification of findings in the scientific sphere to avoid the problems associated with scientific publishing.

Why am I writing about open education?

I have recently started teaching at a university, and I have immediately become embroiled in the politics surrounding “blended learning” and the integration of technology and teaching.  These posts will serve as reflections and reviews of research on some of the more common sticking points that hold back this integration.  For now, I have a series planned that will tackle the following questions which I see as the main barriers to the uptake of blended learning:

  1. Posting online lectures/notes reduces student attendance/performance!
  2. Posting online lectures/notes contravenes copyright laws!
  3. Posting online lectures/notes is too complicated!

If anybody has an important question that I haven’t covered then I can certainly look into expanding the series.  I’ll admit that most of the answers will relate mostly to the UK situation, but I will try to cover other regions as well.  I realise that there are fascinating and important topics to cover with access to education in the developing world, and perhaps I will cover some of those issues later on.

Why isn’t education open already?

Education has never been “open”.  Schooling was always the preserve of the wealthy and, while that has changed substantially over the years (in the West, at least) there are still barriers to participation.  In the past, this was traditionally because of the need for unskilled labourers rather than literate, numerate workers, which changed with the mechanisation of Western society.  It is useful to consider two types of training to understand why education is in the state that it is in today.

Japanese macaque
Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata), image by Ltshears

The first is what I would call “specific” training, which is so universal that it is also found elsewhere in the animal kingdom.  Japanese macaques, for example, learn very quickly when one member of their troop develops a new method of performing a task.  One notable individual, a female called Imo, would clean sweet potatoes in a river to wash sand from them rather than simply trying to brush off that sand.  This particular behaviour spread very quickly through the group until all but the oldest individuals adopted the behaviour.  Qualitatively the same process occurs in the apprenticeships that have been around in human civilisation for centuries (probably millennia in less formal ways).  Clearly we still have this kind of education today, although it is mostly confined to the “trades”: plumbers, carpenters, electricians…

The second type of teaching is of the more general sort – “non-specific” training.  Rather than being educated for a particular role, the student or pupil is educated with the aim of acquiring a range of skills that either (i) develop the individual personally, or (ii) permit the application of that wide range of skills to a range of potential problems.  In the UK (and around the world), this form of education has evolved over time and become increasingly protracted:

  • 1870 – (“Forster”) Elementary Educational Act, mandatory school from 5-10 years old
  • 1893 – Elementary Education (Attendance) Act, school leaving age: 11 and later 13 years
  • 1918 – (“Fisher”) Education Act, school leaving age 14 years
  • 1944 – (“Butler”) Education Act, school leaving age 15 years
  • 1973 – School leaving age 16 years
  • 2013 – School leaving age 18 years

The UK almost reached 50% of school leavers applying for university places before the tuition fees hike (fees are now at £9,000 or US$14,400 per year from 2012).  However, numbers have now stabilised.  This enormous expansion of the market has meant that universities are being run simultaneously as charities and businesses, and they are loath to give away education that they could otherwise sell.  Where the introduction and extension of mandatory schooling in the UK that were intended to maximise access to education for as many people as possible have now reached their reasonable limits, we are seeing a constriction of educational opportunities at higher education as market forces kick in.  This isn’t limited to universities, either, as school league tables also promote a selfish attitude towards teachers and resources in schools.

How open is education right now?

There have been great steps forward in the introduction of free teaching.  While teachers (both school and university) still generate their own teaching materials, there are a vast number of resources out there to help.  A few quick examples:




We are doing reasonably well, then, but there is much left to do.  I am going to focus for the rest of this series on the middle ground between online courses that are still very much in the pioneer phase, and the conventional courses that are still taught predominantly in bricks-and-mortar universities.  This middle ground is the controversial area of “blended learning”, where universities publish and integrate online materials into conventional teaching.  In particular, I will look at whether this is a model that all universities should be embracing and some of the reasons why some universities are adamantly opposed to the idea of open or blended learning.


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