The impact of open education on higher education: a reflection

Has open education truly disrupted higher education?

My initial response this question was a resounding no! I thought that open education was simply a means for hobby enthusiasts like me to access the information required to learn more. I suppose I developed this frame of mind for two reasons. The first was simply because this was the means by which I came to enroll in my open course. The second reason is not so simple and in fact quite serious. It seems that initially I could not see past my privileged position as an able-bodied, middle-class Australian living in a city with three fantastic universities which unquestionably grant me a student loan of close to $100,000 to see that many rely on open education to learn. It only took one page of reading Belawati’s 2014 paper to come across the following quotes which immediately opened my eyes:

  • [Open education] is based on the belief that education and knowledge are public goods and that everyone has the right to access quality education
  • [Open education minimizes] hindrances of access due to aspects related to place, time, economy, geography and age

Open education appears to be the only way forward for without it equality could never be a reality. Certainly, this fact is enough to disrupt higher education. Yet, unfortunately, I could still not shake two realities that stand in the way of open education truly disrupting higher education.

Firstly, education of this nature costs money. Even the MIT course that I have enrolled in did not come free. Firstly, consider that the teaching and administrative staff that enabled this course to be online for free most likely did so within their usual salaries; it was simply a matter of then copying and pasting the course for users like me. Further to this, d’Oliveria et al. (2010)  states that the facilitation of the entire project costs some $3.7 million each year. Although this reference comes from Science magazine, it is worth noting the credentials of the authors. MIT pays for half of this and uses grant reserves for the other half (d’Oliveria et al. 2010). Interestingly, d’Oliveria et al. (2010) are concerned about the rapidly depleting grant reserves and states that they will have to reach out to obtain funds though corporate gifts, visitor donations and additional grants, to name a few. Reflect also upon the Open Universities of Australia which embraces the concepts of open education to provide accredited courses yet still charges its students the same amount of money as those who attend the classes physically (Open Universities Australia, n.d). At the moment, it appears that only the University of the People offers accredited courses for free (except for a small examination fee of $100 per course) (Belwati, 2014, p. 8). Belwati (2014, p.8) states that the university is run voluntarily by expert staff. It would be interesting to know the private finances of these experts. The concept of free higher education is, sadly, so eccentric to me that I truly cannot even imagine a way that it may come to be except through tax. That is not to say that it won’t come to be, rather, I simply cannot imagine how yet.  I believe that the act of making higher education free to students would require a complete shift in the status quo of all counties. Higher education cannot be isolated from the rest of society. (I have not researched this but I would like to). Without this financial support, it is difficult to believe that open education could truly disrupt higher education.

Secondly, open education, generally, does not provide official qualifications (Yuan and Powell, 2014, p.14). In this way, open education can hardly be considered competition enough to be disruptive (Yuan and Powell, 2014, p.14). Yuan and Powell (2014, p.14) state that it is only when this changes that higher education could truly be disrupted. For the meantime, higher education is the only path to gain these qualifications.

Despite all of this, I can’t help but believe that the simple acknowledgment of the idea of open education has already disrupted higher education beyond repair. Yuan and Powell (2014) reveal that the seed has been planted, some fruits have already started to grow. These fruits can even be seen within IFN612 through the employment of remote and asynchronous learning, as well as the Open Universities of Australia and the University of the People, as mentioned earlier (Belwati, 2014, p. 8; Open Universities Australia, n.d). Although Yuan and Powell (2010, p.18) state that open education is not yet a threat to higher education, they state:

The potential of MOOCs to open up higher education to the masses has challenged the traditional way of thinking about delivering higher education

I believe that the verb ‘challenge’ is very optimistic; ‘disrupted’ would be more appropriate. How these course are funded or accredited will follow in time, although, as I have stated, I am yet to imagine how. Within time (and perhaps this will be a very long time) higher education will be completely disrupted.

Watch out NASA! Or, how I came to enroll in a MIT open course in physics

Have you ever had one of those afternoons where you go to YouTube for the very specific purpose of, say, watching the newest Doctor Who trailer, and then, 4 hours later, you realise you are watching a documentary on the migration patterns of humpback whales? Well, once I went to YouTube to watch an interview with the hosts of my absolute favourite daytime television show, Pointless, and ended up enrolling in MIT’s Physics open course. You see the host of Pointless, Alexander Armstrong, is in a comedy duo with Ben Miller. Ben Miller also happened to undertake a PhD in Physics at Cambridge and recently wrote a book called ‘It’s not Rocket Science’ that discusses the fun bits of science for people like me. I ordered this online, read it and then felt inspired to learn more! (I should state that this happened over four months rather than four hours). I simply googled ‘free university courses online’ and happened to stumble across MIT’s open course website. Now, weeks later, it is my task to write about this course!

I chose to enroll in an introductory physics course (although I had my eye on the astrophysics course!). This course is studied individually without a teacher. Enrollment and commencement is ongoing. I plan to undertake the course during the winter holidays. The truth is I desired to enroll in an introductory chemistry course but found all of the course profiles so bland! The physics profile oozes excitement and enthusiasm for the subject. I suppose that this comes down to the fact that these courses are the same as those that are offered to MIT’s students (Belawati, 2014, p.4). If the teachers of the course are excited and enthusiastic then this will show. I find that this course is easily accessible and structured in a way that is easy to follow. I wonder, though, if someone who has no experience in a university setting would think the same.

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Further, I also find it interesting that it seems the course is just copied and pasted from Blackboard. This means that information about assessment and public holidays etc. are included throughout the course.

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It is peculiar that the university which essentially began and leads the MOOC movement does not yet edit courses appropriately for students like me (Belawati, 2014, p.4).