Reflecting on the Importance of Open Education

This post is the sixth in a series of blog posts for Open Education Week.

By Martin Tasker, former Open Content Curation Intern and University of Edinburgh graduate.

Having just left university, I have recently been subject to an ungodly number of job interviews. Each one would go similarly: we would sit down, exchange pleasantries and meander through my job history, before getting to the summer of 2016.

“Says here you completed an internship in ‘open education’. What’s that?”

And each time I would have to explain to them that this concept that they had never heard of was the reason I was sitting in front of them at all.

My journey with open education began way back in secondary school. I was extremely – perhaps overly – keen on maths and physics, and was desperate to learn all I could. School couldn’t quite satisfy my curiosity, and neither could the limited number of books on the subject I owned. This changed the moment I discovered that MIT and Yale had published dozens of fully documented maths and physics lecture courses, entirely for free. I was hooked, and these propelled me into studying Mathematical Physics at the University of Edinburgh.

Even once at University, with access to entire libraries of books and more lecture courses than I could handle, I didn’t stop making use of open education. Freely released work from other institutions, or simply from kind souls on the internet, provided valuable alternative perspectives on increasingly difficult work. And when it came to my final project, I could cite dozens of sources courtesy of these resources.

And now, after four gruelling years, I am working in software development – an industry built on openness and freedom of information. The software development community is perhaps the platonic ideal of open education. Central community instructional resources like the Microsoft Developers Network, editable by anyone and maintained by dedicated volunteers, provide an accessible and coherent entry point to topics, while forums and blogs such as Stack Exchange answer individual questions, no matter how vague or specific. All of this is free to access, modify and redistribute, with authors rarely asking for much more than attribution. Without these resources, not only would I not be in my current job, but neither would swathes of people currently in the industry, taking with them countless advances we have made in the last twenty years.

And yet despite the wealth of evidence for its efficacy, there remains a great deal of ignorance about and resistance to open education, not only within education but the wider public. Employers will pay thousands to send workers on substandard training courses, schools will continue using long outdated textbooks and people will continue to believe that education is out of reach for them, despite open education offering easy solutions to these problems. And while open education will never totally replace traditional institution based learning, it is being prevented from fulfilling its true potential by this lack of awareness and lack of trust.

It’s for this reason that the work the Open Education teams, both in Edinburgh and around the world, is so important. In an age where where the world is both more connected and less trusting than ever, the onus is on institutions such as universities to use their reputations and resources to promote open education. As well as benefiting the public, it benefits the institutions themselves – there’s little better in the way of marketing than having potential applicants having already experienced some learning at your institution.

This being said, events like Open Education Week make me deeply hopeful for the future. It was an honour to be involved with Edinburgh’s Open Education team three years ago, and since then they have gone on to even bigger and better things. For open education to succeed, it must be a natural part of people’s learning, a tool they reach for as readily as a textbook or lecture notes. And thanks to the dedication of people both at Edinburgh and all over the world, that goal is perhaps within reach.

Martin Tasker, working as Open Content Curation Intern in 2016, CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell

About the author

Martin Tasker worked as as the OER Services’ first Open Content Curation Intern in 2016.  He is a Mathematical Physics graduate of the University of Edinburgh and now works in software development.

[Header image: Open/Closed, CC BY Antti T. Nissinen on Flickr]