Transcript of my talk at the UBC/SFU Open Access week forum on October 22, 2015
My perspective on the question is influenced by my work in open educational resources, especially the work I’ve been doing for the past 3 years as the Manager of Open Education at BCcampus, and working on the BC Open Textbook project; a multiyear project funded by the BC Ministry of Advanced Education to promote the use of Open Textbooks in the BC post-secondary system.
Open textbooks are a subset of Open Educational Resources.OER’s are openly licensed teaching resources, like videos, courses, textbooks and lesson plans. Most often these are licensed with Creative Commons licenses, which allow the resource to be freely copied, shared, modified and reused by educators without having to ask for permission from the original creators. The permission to copy and reuse is given ahead of time by the creator of the resource when they choose to license with a Creative Commons license.
So my perspective on the question “Is it time for Canada to implement a unified open strategy for Higher Education” emerges from this field of OER and the work I have done over the past number of years. And the fact that I am framing my response as coming from a very specific open perspective tells me that, yes, having a unified national strategy on all things open is likely a good idea for the simple fact that it gets all the various strands of open – open access, open education, open source software, open pedagogy, open data – in the same room. And any reason to bring people together to talk about their commonalities is a good thing.
However, we can’t assume that open is always a good thing. Facebook, for example, would like us to all to be open and share everything about us. But this desire by Facebook for us to be open is motivated by their business model. The more open we are, the more we share, the more Facebook can better target advertising at us. For Facebook, open is their business model. Is that a good thing?
We also cannot assume that there is a common understanding of what open means in education… as MOOC’s have shown us. Many Massively Open Online Courses use the word “open” to mean “open registration”. However, to open educators involved in OER, Open also means openly licensed. And for those of you who have worked with, or taken course by a commercial MOOC provider like Coursera or Udacity know that these courses are not openly licensed for other educators to take the content and reuse.
But these are not arguments against a unified strategy. Indeed, a unified strategy for higher education could help to address these issues. To develop a collective voice to help define what it is that we mean by open, and call out openwashing when we see it. Rather than a multitude of diffused voices crying out, a single unified voice can carry weight. So, +1 for a unified approach.
On the other hand, perhaps there is more power in supporting a multitude of smaller voices. After all, the world we live is increasingly built on network models, and the nodes are full of a diversity of opinions, voices, and ways of being and doing that could get lost in a unified strategy approach. A unified approach is not alway an egalitarian approach, and a unified strategy would need to both acknowledge and respect the diversity of voices inherent in an increasingly network oriented world.
A unified open strategy would also have to tread carefully so that it isn’t viewed as a “top-down” approach to open. We have all likely experienced initiatives that have been perceived, correctly and incorrectly, as “top-down” and have likely failed for that very reason. So, the best unified strategy approach is one that acknowledges that real substantive change often comes from both directions, and rarely from one alone.
I know I am coming across a bit down on the idea of a unified open strategy, which I am not. A unified open strategy for higher ed is an admirable goal and one that would have great benefits, like providing a clear and purposeful focus, a single vision often needed to help coalesce support and make projects happen. And in many parts of the world, having a unified open strategy has given open educational resources a boost in profile and credibility.
For example, according to the 2014 State of the Commons report from Creative Commons, 14 countries around the world have made national commitments to open education and open educational resources. These commitments often originate with government in the form of policies driven by the simple rationale that publicly funded resources should be openly licensed resources. If we, the public, pay for something, then we should put into place measures that make that something as widely usable as possible and provide the maximum benefit to the public.
When it comes to higher education, many countries have it easier than Canada enacting unified strategies because in other countries post-secondary education is often a national responsibility. In Canada, the responsibility for post-secondary lies with the provinces, not the federal government.
Not that a federal government is the only place where unified strategies can happen. Provinces can work together on unified open strategies, as was the case in 2013 when the premiers of BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan signed the tri-provincial Memorandum of Understanding on Open Educational Resources. This three year agreement signed under the New West partnership agreement, has provided projects like the Alberta OER project and the BC Open Textbook Project a collaborative framework to work together on open education initiatives. Recently, the province of Manitoba has launched an open textbook initiative, and we have worked closely with them to set up an open textbook repository and textbook review process with Manitoba faculty. These collaborative initiatives may not have happened if there was not a unified western Canadian framework to enable them.
So, despite opening my talk with some cautious concerns about developing a pan-Canadian unified open strategy, I ultimately agree that the time had come. Open education has been bubbling along for the past 20 years, slowly and consistently building a movement and momentum that is showing some real tangible benefits. The potentials are being realized. Open textbooks, for example, have saved students in British Columbia over a million dollars in textbook costs, and research into the learning outcomes of students using open textbooks vs publishers resources are showing encouraging results that students using open educational resources are doing, at least as well if not better in some cases, than students who use publishers resources in the class. We now need to build on the successes of the past 20 years and push to make open education the default, not the exception. A unified open strategy can help make that happen.