Update: If I had watched the class lecture video before writing this, I would have known exactly what role open source played in early thinking about open educational resources. My bad.
This is the first assignment post for the Introduction to Open Education (ITOE) class that I’m sitting in on. I’m tagging all assignment posts with “ITOE”. The assignment is as follows:
Carefully review at least 50 pages of historical information on the open education movement. Write a brief summary post on the history of the movement.
- Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources (OECD, 147 pages)
- Open Educational Resources- Opportunities and Challenges for Higher Education (JISC CETIS, 34 pages)
- Open Educational Practices and Resources: OLCOS Roadmap 2012 (OLCOS, 149 pages)
- A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement: Achievements, Challenges, and New Opportunities (Atkins, Brown, and Hammond, 80 pages)
- JISC Good Intentions Final Report (JISC, 48 pages)
- OER Handbook for Educators (a printed version is also available; 284 pages)
I dipped into a few of the resources, particularly the JISC CETIS report and the Atkins, Brown and Hammond piece for Hewlett. And the thing is, I didn’t really find any history of open education. At most, there’s a pre-history of open education, because I don’t think the umbrella concept has coalesced into a coherent idea with a widely accepted meaning yet. It’s easier to talk about the history of open educational resources. So that’s what I’ll do.
I was joking with Scott Leslie on Twitter today that the history of open educational resources probably goes back to Hammurabi’s Code or earlier. Probably the Library at Alexandria would have been a better example, but whatever. The point is that the creation of publicly available content with educational value is hardly new. What is new is the economics enabled by digital reproduction in general and the internet in particular, which change the economics of sharing content by turning it into a “nonrivalrous” good. One could argue that the world-wide web was created for this purpose explicitly. The web was created by scientist TimBerners Lee with the idea of sharing scientific research and first went online in December of 1990. I’m sure that the majority of content that was produced for the web during those early years could be considered open educational resources, but the oldest OER that I had some personal awareness of is Phil and Alex’s Guide to Web Publishing, published in September 1998. The author, Philip Greenspun, who was a lecturer at MIT at the time, writes about his explicit decision to publish the book on the web—and his negotiation with his publisher to get explicit permission to do so—here. Greenspun may be the first author to have arranged such a book contract, which has come into vogue in the past few years. (You could argue that open source is a form of open educational resource, and I think there’s some substantial truth to that, but since it’s not clear to me how much open source influenced early consciousness of OER as an idea versus how much we are reading into it in retrospect, I’m largely leaving it out of this narrative).
The idea of OER as a coherent and institutional or inter-institutional effort seems to have begun forming around the same time that Greenspun published his guide. MERLOT saw its genesis in 1997 and became realized as what we would recognize today in 2000. Consistent with what you would think would happen in a first effort for something like this, MERLOT isn’t a repository so much as it is a catalog and community around the resources being created here, there, and everywhere. Meanwhile, at Utah State University, a young professor named David Wiley (who happens to teach the ITOE class) founded the Open Content Project, thus putting a name to this stuff for the first time. In 1999 Richard Baraniuk and his colleagues at Rice University begin working on Connexions, an OER site based in Rice University. What’s interesting about Connexions is that it really begins to focus on software for authoring the content and weaving it together into larger curricular units. (There’s some of this in MERLOT, but it’s relatively larval compared to Connexions.) There’s lots more that pops up in this time period; for example, I haven’t had time to look into what was going on in Canada during the late ’90’s, but I know that the Canadians were early entrants into the educational content repository biz.
Probably the single biggest event that put OER into popular awareness was MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative, which was first announced in The New York Times in 2001. The big deal here was that MIT committed to putting all the content—lecture notes, syllabi, even videos of the lectures themselves—for all of its courses on the web. This enormous, multi-million-dollar effort has made large quantities of high quality educational materials from one of the world’s most elite technical institutes avaliable to anyone with a web browser. Ironically, by doing so MIT made clear the distinction between OER and open education. They could afford to make all course content available for free, they argued, because the MIT course materials (even the lectures themselves!) are not the same thing as an MIT education. The locus of value from an MIT education comes from gathering smart people, teachers and students, to discuss those materials. It is in the free exchange of ideas in the classroom. That’s the bit that’s worth $50K a year (and rising).
This is where we can finally begin to ask, “What would open education look like and how could we create it?” There are bits and pieces of ideas along these lines in the documents I read for this assignment, but more about the future than about real history. So I leave it here, having come nowhere near to drawing a complete history but hopefully at least fulfilling the assignment to write a “brief summary post”.