Open education: possible future or utopian idea?

June 2014


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JUDE BARBACK considers the debates around open access and open educational resources.

I support the open access, open education movement. In principle, anyway.

Once upon a time, in another decade, in another hemisphere, I worked for a large publishing house, managing the publication of medical journals.

It was a good time to be in publishing. Print subscriptions to the journals were beginning to diminish slightly, but not enough to frighten the powers signing off decadent travel and expenses claims. Online subscriptions to the journals were on the rise, and the big pharmaceutical companies (which certainly didn’t have any t&e qualms) continued to dish out the big dollars for advertising in the journals and reprinting any articles that made their product look good. It was an exciting industry to be in, travelling to editorial meetings in far-flung corners of the globe, eating at fancy restaurants, staying in opulent hotels.

But in the background, an open access revolution was beginning to build momentum. People started questioning why scientific information wasn’t free and readily available for everyone. They started questioning the profits and motives of the big corporate publishers: were they really in the business of disseminating information widely or more interested in making money from the process?

The question marks over open access, coupled with the global recession, brought the golden years of publishing to an abrupt halt; editorial meetings via scratchy teleconference calls began to take the place of fine dining experiences.

It is a difficult place to find yourself – in a job that you love and that pays the bills but that you also suspect might be on the wrong side of an argument.


The pros and cons of open access

Open access proponents support the UK Wellcome Trust’s stance, that “the benefits of research are derived principally from access to research results”, and therefore that “society as a whole is made worse off if access to scientific research results is restricted”.

Publishers argue that the vast majority of potential readers can access the vast majority of content through libraries, thanks to consortia agreements between publishers and libraries.

Open access advocates counter that open access is a solution to the “serials crisis”, a situation where many libraries have been forced to cut journal subscriptions because of price increases.

Others counter that inadequate library budgets, typically around two per cent of a university’s budget, are equally to blame.

Publishers maintain the value added via the peer review, editing and production processes along with the journals’ reputations is enough to warrant maintaining a commercial model, even one that incorporates open access in some guise. Meanwhile, the open access brigade believes a robust peer review system can be achieved without a publisher’s costly administration of the process.

And so the to-and-fro arguments continued. Something had to give. Publishers began to promote more fiercely their long-standing initiatives to grant free online access to developing countries. Embargo periods came into play, whereby journals allowed all content to be free after 18, 12 or even six months.

Publishers came up with open access initiatives in an attempt to both satisfy the cries for open access, and to remain profitable. Open access journals were launched. Hybrid models emerged; such models kept the existing subscription revenue channels open, but allowed authors the option of publishing their article via the ‘gold’ open access route at considerable expense to the author or their funder – usually between US$1000 and US$3000. The industry soon became peppered with brands like Wiley OnlineOpen, Taylor & Francis Open Select, Sage Choice, Springer Open Choice, Oxford Open and so on.

Publishers had to somehow assert their position as gatekeepers of the definitive versions of articles, as well as satisfy the requirements of the increasing number of institutions that encouraged or mandated academics to deposit their articles into research repositories.

Accordingly, publishers established policies that allowed authors to post versions of the final papers on their personal or their institution’s websites with the stipulation that they must clearly cite the publisher’s version as the definitive, formal, final version.


New Zealand’s burgeoning support for open access

The University of Waikato recently became New Zealand’s first university to approve an open access mandate, whereby researchers are encouraged to deposit the full text of their peer-reviewed academic publications into the University’s digital repository, Research Commons.

Matt McGregor, from Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand based at the Royal Society of New Zealand, says the University of Waikato is leading the way for the New Zealand tertiary sector.

However, Waikato isn’t the only New Zealand institution to commit to open access initiatives. The Media Text Hack Group, a group of academics from across Australia and New Zealand, led by faculty at the University of Otago, has successfully produced an open textbook. The group got together for a weekend in November last year to collaboratively write – or ‘hack’ – the open textbook for undergraduate students in Communication and Media Studies around Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. The textbook, which was released in its first version in February this year, includes nearly 50 entries on a range of topics and issues common to curricula across the region.

The project was spearheaded by Otago’s Dr Erika Pearson, who thinks textbooks are often too expensive.

“Textbooks currently available for New Zealand first-year students are often produced overseas, usually the US, and can have a cripplingly high price tag. Open texts are not only more affordable for students, they also are more flexible for teachers, who can pull apart open textbooks to find the more relevant and useful materials for their classes.”

The word ‘textbook’ seems an outdated noun for such a resource. The text can be read linearly, like a book, and the online format also means that readers can also dive in and out of sections as they wish, following hypertext links across the material and out to useful information across the web.

The real beauty of the ‘book’ is that it is a resource that can be developed and expanded in its future versions.

The open textbook uses a Creative Commons Attribution licence, enabling anyone to share, adapt and rewrite the textbook, as long as credit is given to the original creators. The project was partially funded by Creative Commons International, through a grant to Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand.

University of Otago copyright officer

Richard White describes the Creative Commons licensing as “the perfect vehicle”.

“It ensures our rights as creators are preserved while at the same time enabling others to share our work as widely as possible.”

White describes it as “a real 21st century textbook”, one that “harnesses the power of the web to break out of the print model we’ve had for the last several hundred years”.

White sees the open textbook projects as a return to the “core principles of academia: sharing knowledge, learning from and building on the work of others”.

Pearson says another project is on the cards, a “cookbook” that “will hopefully guide and inspire others to produce their own open educational resources”.

“Open textbooks ensure that educational resources are accessible, affordable and reusable, helping communities to realise the goal of enabling universal access to education.”


Open education – possible future or utopian idea?

The open educational resources movement is certainly gaining traction; however, a growing number of projects and supporters does not necessarily mean a systemic change in education is imminent.

The barriers remain. Authors and publishers tend to be wary of open licences for fear of losing quality, control, profits, brand strength, website traffic and so on.

Yet with each passing year, new models emerge allowing more flexibility in the way open educational resources can be produced and distributed.

There is some question over the expectations placed on learners. An open education advocates unstructured and unrestricted use of learning resources, and therefore requires vastly more autonomy and self-managed learning.

The humble textbook, with its publisher’s logo, offers the promise and reassurance that the pages within its covers contain the wisdom of experts, paid to write balanced and high quality content. But is this a false security blanket? Who is to deem one source of knowledge superior to another? This is surely the very essence of academia – filtering through the vast pool of knowledge and information to determine what is relevant and why.

Back in my university days, I quickly learned to bypass the shiny new textbooks for their more worn, dog-eared predecessors in the second-hand book shop, as these were likely to come with the text highlighted and invaluable notes scribbled in margins from students gone before me. The added notes may not have been relevant or even factual – it was up to me to evaluate their worth, but even so, it was a risk I was willing to take; I would still rather have the choice of considering someone else’s ideas, than not.

Open education is about giving people more choice, more options. There are a number of valid arguments that are yet to be fully addressed and taken into account when forging ahead with open educational resources, but as the Media Text Hack Group and others are demonstrating, it is certainly within the realms of possibility. 


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