Openness in Delivering Education and Content

In the last column we looked at openness as it relates to software. In this column we’ll veer into the area of open education and see how openness affects the delivery of education and educational materials.

To find out more about what’s happening in this area, I spoke with David Wiley, associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University, chief openness officer of Flat World Knowledge, and founder of the Open High School of Utah. David joined the open source initiative in 1998, when he was a doctoral student at BYU. That was the year the “Freeware Summit,” which later became known as the “Open Source Summit,” marked the transition from what had previously been known as “free software” to what’s now known as open source software and encouraged a movement that has stimulated a great deal of development in this area.

Since that summer of 1998, David has focused much of his attention on making education and educational materials digital and reusable. He has also worked to simplify the economics of the production, distribution, and use of learning objects.

Flat World Knowledge

Flat World Knowledge was started by two guys in the textbook industry, Jeff Shelstad and Eric Frank. David joined them early on as their “chief openness officer.” The company was founded on the notion that traditional textbooks were too costly and wasteful.

“The publication market is interesting in that the person who makes the decision about what books will be used in a class is not the person who has to lay down the money,” says David. “Our model changes the rules by giving the consumer (student) options about what level they will commit to purchasing the material. Ultimately this should help scholarship in that any student will be able to afford the necessary course materials.”

Flat World describes their model as being like any traditional publishing company up until the publication itself. “We’re not a Wiki,” explains David. “We go after brand-name authors, sign them to a contract, and demand the same standards.” At the point of publication, however, rather than printing, storing, and distributing physical books, the company’s publications go straight to the Internet, where they’re freely available to anyone.

What’s the catch? There really isn’t one. The business model is built on the notion that the online version of the books will be compelling enough to encourage users of the materials to later buy audio ($25), black-and-white paperback ($30), or full-color ($60) versions of the books. The current list of Flat World publications concentrates on business and economics, but the company plans to branch out to other topics.

Open High School of Utah

Pushing the notion of open education into the delivery of education itself, David is a founder of the Open High School of Utah. This public charter school in Utah will admit its first class in fall 2009. The school will exist entirely virtually, with everything done online. “We’ll focus on learning and outsource everything else,” David explains. As well, they’re committed to using open educational materials exclusively.

The pedagogical model is based on community learning and service, and local community involvement is a requirement for graduation. Every student will also be given a laptop. David states, “Because it’s a public school, teachers will have to satisfy the exact same standards as any other Utah public school.” The open curriculum will enable students to move at their own pace provided they keep up with a minimum standard and speed. Those students who require a higher level of teacher involvement will be able to get one-on-one help from a teacher.

Openness in College Course Delivery

As an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at BYU, David has pushed the boundaries of openness in his own teaching. In fall 2008 he taught a class offering open access to anyone in the world who wanted to participate in the class online. The class ended up having 65 people in it, only 7 of whom were at BYU earning credit. The others participated virtually and for free. People from Italy, Spain, and parts of Asia followed the course. The open participation led to an international discussion and perspective on the course material. At the course end, those who completed the course from outside BYU received a printed certificate.

David contends that experiments like this are just the beginning. “I intend to disrupt the current system (in positive ways) to the extent humanly possible,” he contends. It will be fascinating to see it unfold.