What does “Open” Mean?

I've been intrigued by the idea of open educational resources for a while now. Since I'll likely be switching to an open-access textbook as part of this process, I'd like to learn more about the open educational movement in general. I've enrolled in the Becoming an Open Educator course created by Open Educational Practices in Scotland (OEPS). 

The first unit of the course asks us to define "open education," and the first part of doing so is generally defining "open" by discussion and defining transparency, the word free, access and sharing. Below are my ​reflections on this section of the course. 

Do these characteristics (sharing, free, transparency and access) resonate with you? Which of these do you feel are particularly relevant in your context and why?

Yes. Yes, they do. Thoughts below on how these concepts are relevant to my work.

Access

When I think about open access, the ability to access research publications without going through a paywall is the first thing that springs to mind. Clearly, access to this research is an integral part of academia and scientific progress overall. I rely on research publications to inform my own work, and I want my students to be able to access this information as well. It’s a shame that publicly-funded research – or any research, really – is so often hidden behind a paywall and therefore inaccessible to many.

I’ve also been thinking about access as it relates to how and even whether our students can access course materials. Financial or structural barriers can prevent or impair access to core pieces of a course. For example, in my field, textbooks are expensive. It’s not uncommon for a solid physiology textbook to cost $200-300. Cost is, or should be, an important consideration in choosing resources.

Another concern is the practice of digital redlining (which is a new term for me – see Chris Giliard’s article here and/or his podcast interview here). Digital redlining is essentially the practice of preventing or inhibiting access to certain groups. Examples Gilliard provided include students who have limited internet, are phone-only and/or who pay per GB of data and therefore may not be able to access video-based content; students and faculty at some institutions may have limited access to databases (and may not know that this is true) and/or may be working in spaces where some parts of the internet are filtered or blocked by the institution. These are not conversations I’ve seen happening in most higher ed circles.

On a broader level, how do colleges and universities limit or open access to content? Tuition rates certainly throw up a barrier and inhibit access to material and training in ways that aren’t necessarily just. As institutions of higher education, are we controlling and selling content or are we offering/selling the process of guiding people through content, pointing them in the right direction, and assessing their progress? If we are not controlling content, then what’s up with proprietary materials?

Ideas for change:
  • Moving to an open textbook and/or provide choice in textbook use
  • Review courses for access issues; are there pathways through each course that would work for those with limited access to data? Those who are using phones? Those who rely on video/audio due to difficulty reading?
open doors looking into a room

Free

This section of the course highlighted the various meanings of “free.” On the one hand, “free” can mean gratis – no cost. This clearly helps with access as mentioned above. “Free” can also mean libre – liberated. This relates to the idea of transparency and openness of use and – to me - individual freedom as both instructor and as student. In a truly free course, there are no limitations on the way you can use the material.

I see “free” as relating to open content – material that I can use and remix as an instructor to create lessons and illustrate concepts (shout out to the National Center for Case Study Teaching in the Sciences and OpenStax for being incredibly valuable free resources in this category). I also see it as relating to the way students use the material I provide and the way they move through a course. When the course is liberated, the students will have room to take the concepts presented and build on those ideas in ways that are meaningful in their lives right now. When the course is liberated, students have the freedom to learn material in a way that works for them and to access the material even after the course has ended.

Transparency

Transparency in practices and data allows us to learn from our mistakes and is a central piece of freeing our work. If these things are not transparent, then the course (or data, or process…) is necessarily constrained. I am particularly interested in the idea of transparent practices after attending the DPLI last summer, where I was witness to many discussions around student agency, privacy and the somewhat terrifying data collection and application practices that riddle higher ed.

I feel compelled to be transparent about my teaching practices, tools that we are using, etc. However, I also don’t want to overwhelm students with the whys and hows of my pedagogy and course design. I am continually learning the lesson that most people want to know why they are being asked to do something; perhaps it may be helpful to include why this instead of that?

To step back even more, I think we also need transparency at institutional level. What data are we collecting about students/faculty and how is it being used? Who can access our online courses and why? I came across the following article last week, which gave me pause. Certainly, I don’t think there is clarity at MUIH regarding who in administration has access to online courses. (Another topic for a different post!)

Ideas for change:
  • Add more transparency about how & why my courses were developed (link to blog post(s) on this topic in into materials?)
  • Include transparency about tools used & data collected as part of the course (e.g. letting students know we can see the time they have been online; linking to user agreements for tech tools, Canvas, etc)
  • Provide a link to my teaching philosophy in the course welcome materials
  • Open discussion with admin about the teaching materials that I create being open access for student use after the course ends (and for others to use as well)
  • Add transparency to the peer review process for faculty & my role as a course leader (topic for another blog post)

Sharing

A key component of sharing discussed in the OERS course is that shared resources have the [ability] “to go beyond the original contexts and boundaries intended by their creator.” To me, this relates to education in that our teaching materials and our pedagogy, our courses should allow for the material to go beyond what we have expected. If an online course is locked down from day 1, if all assessments are firmly set and all content is within the LMS, what opportunities exist for sharing and going beyond the boundaries?

If there is only one pathway to move through a course or one ideal outcome (or a short list of outcomes and only one pathway to reach them), then where is the openness? Maybe containment is necessary or ideal in some cases. I’m not sure. In general, though, I see sharing in this context as fundamentally related to choice (student choice, instructor choice).

Ideas for change:
  • Continue to create structured assignments that are open, in that there are numerous ways to “correctly” answer them. Students can go beyond the boundaries of the assignment.
  • Structure courses so that there is choice/openness in the way that students’ progress through them; again, can students go beyond the boundaries set by the teacher or is everyone expected to do/show the same things?
  • Students have control of, access to, and freedom to use their own work – in that it’s not locked up in the LMS. It is not something they must necessarily abandon after 14 weeks. Can they work on, share, iterate the course material itself? Or their own works?

How would you characterise openness?

To me, the act (art?) of being open necessarily implies iteration. What good are transparency and openness, sharing and freedom if we aren’t planning to improve upon what’s present? Openness is an invitation not just to readily access information but to collaborate with and/or build upon the work of others.

Camille

Hi there. I'm Camille. I'm an associate professor at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology and pathophysiology. I'm also a licensed nutritionist, specializing in fertility and reproductive health. (I'm not taking any new clients!) Lastly but not leastly, I'm a mom, a gardener and a really horrible housekeeper.

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