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The Social Impact of Open Education

Tuesday, 09 June 2015


The Internet opened up knowledge like no other medium had ever done before. And if knowledge did open up, education as an organised discipline had no other choice but to follow suit. After all, organised education or academia used to have a dominant control over the dissemination of knowledge. However, the role of education is not just about the dissemination of knowledge. In its most radical form, education is about inviting local communities from across the globe to participate in challenging established knowledge, creating new knowledge and interacting with diverse groups of learners.

 

Education is essentially dialogic in nature, a constant engagement with general and specialised disciplines and with researchers, practitioners and amateurs. That said, open education as we know it today is still largely about access to quality resources, which is only the first step but a crucial first step in reaching these resources to millions in underdeveloped parts of the world.

 

Today, we are witnessing a further opening up of open education itself. For example, the massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered by prestigious universities like Stanford, MIT and the University of Edinburgh on platforms such as Coursera, EdX and Future Learn are distinctly different from our own certified open courses offered by the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) and Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). MOOCs allow anyone from any part of the world to register for any course free of charge. These are undergraduate level short modular courses, typically in the range of six to twelve weeks. Although there is a paid option for those who are interested in certification through a closely monitored process, what makes these courses different is their invitation to anyone who is passionate about learning anything—no prior qualification, no age barrier, no geographical barrier, no class barrier.

 

But what is so radical about open education if the Internet had already managed to reach quality content across the world? Well, because a chaotic world of multiple knowledge resources is not the same as knowledge organised by subject experts and educationists. Where you start from the simple and move towards the complex. Where you break down complex information into logical chunks, with examples, stories and multimedia representations. Where you pose a question and allow learners to reflect on what they learned. Where you relate what you learn to how they matter in life, practically or aesthetically.

 

So, as learners, we now have the opportunity to engage with real experts and multicultural peer groups as opposed to interacting with static unverified content—an opportunity that is open to both the privileged and the less privileged. Not just that. It allows us to bring in more questions to the table, challenge assumptions about geographical or cultural stereotypes and provide feedback to the course designers and experts to further sharpen their perspectives. In this sense, open education is a great equaliser. It stands in opposition to the idea of charity in education, which reinforces the perception of free education as an act of benevolence. Open education reaffirms the universal right to education regardless of one’s status based on the accident of one’s birth.

 

The other advantage of modular open courses (that do not demand any prior qualifications from learners) is that they help break the barriers between academic silos. They allow us to move from an eight-week course in programming to a six-week course in poetry appreciation. This is not to denigrate depth and specialisation that demand rigorous study in a certain discipline but is about promoting breadth of understanding. It is about encouraging amateur enquiries into diverse fields of knowledge— especially the humanities (philosophy, literature, history, anthropology, etc.), which are generally considered non-utilitarian. However, in our obsession with relating education to creating skilled employees for the job market, we need to bear in mind that without a proper understanding of the humanities, there can be no engaged citizenry. It is the values that we derive from humanities that compel us to become involved participants in a democracy, critically examine the hierarchies of society and humanise the dehumanised.

 

The opening up of quality education certainly has the potential to raise the critical consciousness of people at large—a critical consciousness that helps us see that the poor are not destined to be poor and that one of the sharpest weapons for eradicating poverty is the power of literacy.

 

However, there are several barriers that stand in the way of widening access to open education. The first of course is inadequate access to technology devices (such as laptops, tablets and smart phones) for those who can’t afford them. Then there is lack of quality courses in local languages and a certain American and Euro-centric slant in course design. Also, since participating in open learning is highly dependent on self-motivation, learners, especially first generation learners, need lots of encouragement from their family and peer groups to actively participate in these courses till the very end. In fact, shorter duration courses might work well for such learners and increase completion rates, provided there is a certain balance in the complexity of content and the evaluation framework. Perhaps, the courses should focus more on demanding meaningful discussions and the creation of digital artefacts from the learner community than on traditional quizzes and assessments. The idea is to treat curriculum content as a stimulus and real learning as active engagement around it.

 

Open courses today are mostly limited to higher education content. So is it time to shift its focus to school curriculum and vocational courses? Or is there a contradiction in making a demand to classify open learning into school, vocational and higher education curricula? Maybe we should start perceiving open education as critical dialogues around multiple fields of academic disciplines. And governments, employers and the public need to start recognising those who engage with open learning and provide them the right opportunities to become active social and economic agents.

 

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