30 November 2009

Harnessing Openness in Higher Education

Surprisingly, perhaps, education was one of the late-comers to the openness party (couldn't be all those fiercely protective academic egos, could it?) Happily, ground is rapidly being made up in areas like open access, open courseware and open educational resources (OER), with a steady stream of important studies looking at how openness can be applied to make education better.

I've not come across the Committee for Economic Development before, but I like their thinking in this new report "Harnessing Openness to Improve Research, Teaching and Learning in Higher Education". Here's a sample from the summary:

We do not expect OER to simply replace more closed, proprietary educational materials which themselves are increasingly becoming digital. And there are many issues that must be addressed if OER is to live up to its potential. OER has been supply driven, with creators posting whatever interests them regardless of how or even whether it is used; to be successful OER must meet the needs of users. We need to know how OER is actually being used, how effective it is, particularly in comparison with existing materials, and what impact it has on learners. We need to rethink our copyright rules to allow increased non-commercial educational uses of copyrighted materials beyond the traditional classroom in order to facilitate the further development of OER. Just as new approaches to sustainability are being developed to support open-source software and open-access scientific journals, we will need to see if there are ways to sustain the development and distribution of free high-quality, academically rigorous, and pedagogically sound OER that take full advantage of its digital nature.

It also shows a good appreciation of one of the key obstacles to openness in education - and elsewhere:

The intellectual property arguments that have been invoked to oppose public-access mandates for government-funded research and the digitization and partial display of the world’s books suggest to us the need to recalibrate our intellectual property rules for the digital age. Intellectual property rules should serve not only those who first create a work (and subsequent rights holders) but should also recognize the needs of users who often are follow-on creators. When the application of existing intellectual property rules appear to regularly have perverse effects — electronic books having text-to-speech capabilities turned off to the detriment of the visually impaired, or university presses, created to increase the accessibility of scholarly materials, invoking copyright protections to have their material removed from the globally accessible Web — it is time to step back and revisit not only the specific applications of the rules but the rules themselves. Given the complexity of these issues, universities should be forceful proponents for greater openness in legislative debates about IP, and should be educating their faculties about their intellectual property rights.

That's truly remarkable given the background of the Committee for Economic Development that is behind the report:

CED is a Trustee-directed organization. CED's Trustees are chairmen, presidents, and senior executives of major American corporations and university presidents. Trustees alone set CED's research agenda, develop policy recommendations, and speak out for their adoption. Unique among U.S. business organizations, CED offers senior executives a nonpolitical forum for exploring critical long-term issues and making an impact on U.S. policy decisions.

CED is proud of its reputation as a group of business and education leaders committed to improving the growth and productivity of the U.S. economy, a freer global trading system, and greater opportunity for all Americans. CED's Trustees understand that business, government, and individuals are jointly responsible for our mutual security and prosperity.

These are clearly not a bunch of sandal-wearing hippies, but a bunch of hard-headed business people who can see the economic case for more openness in education.

The rest of report offers useful potted histories of openness in education, and even broadens out to include transparency - an interesting indication of this rising meme. Overall, well worth reading for those interested in this area.

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Stephen M said...

Very interesting point, though the history of higher education shows that prior to the 1980s there was much more openness in research. It was the legislation that allowed higher education to gain intellectual rights to research conducted on their campus that brought about the Technology Transfer offices and left the public domanin as a practice instead of mandatory to research done in the academy. The only difference being that any military research was protected by national security and not patents. Glad to see movement, but really it's only been 30 years since schools held patents in the first place. It's sad it's taken technology to reverse profit interests of schools to cover the diminished federal monies. Anyhow good post, felt come added background might help.

Glyn Moody said...

@Stephen: yes, I think you're absolutely right - it was that move to turn research into a potential product that was owned by the universities, rather than shared with the world when the rot set in...