Free Education for the Masses . . . or Not

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The Open University was founded in the United Kingdom in 1969. At that time the label “open” conjured different associations than it does now. The idea then was that The OU would help make postsecondary education accessible to those who typically had trouble either gaining entry to, or having the time or means to attend, a college or university. Conceived as a distance-learning institution, in the nearly 40 years of its existence The OU has seen its means of interacting with its students evolve from hardcopy documents sent via snail mail, to cassette audio tapes, to VHS tapes, to CD-ROM, to web-based courseware via the Internet. With over 180,000 students expected to interact with The OU online from home this year, and over 3 million educated through this system, The OU bills itself as the world’s leading e-university.

It should come as no surprise that The OU still seeks to push the envelope of distance learning and that it embraces the more current concepts of “openness” that fit so nicely with the university’s name. The OU’s OpenLearn initiative offers students the opportunity to take courses and utilize teaching materials for free. Yup, thanks to a grant from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, it’s absolutely free. That includes both the course content and the learning materials. Working from a subset of The OU’s larger course offerings, students of OpenLearn can attend virtual courses on topics in the arts, history, education, business, IT/technology, law, and many others. The learning content is available according to the terms of the Creative Commons license, meaning anyone can use it so long as they don’t make money off it or claim it as their own, and OpenLearn encourages other educators to use their materials in the classroom.

Canada has a similar initiative at Athabasca University. AU, based in Alberta, was founded in 1970 as a traditional campus-based university, but in 1972 it started a program to reach nontraditional students through distance-learning programs. Like The OU, AU followed the technology development curve from mailing materials to its students to reaching them via the Internet. Although AU is quick to point out that its approach is not based on The OU, its programs have grown in a way that makes the two look very similar today.

AU has gone one further by creating the AU Press, which calls itself “An Open Access Scholarly Press.” AU Press is the first university press dedicated to open access publishing. Users can copy, distribute, and transmit the works free of charge. AU Press already has an impressive collection of publications (written and multimedia) in English and French, and many more are on the way.

Additionally, AU has become a founding member of the Open Education Resource Foundation (OER), an organization whose goal it is to support the concepts of open education worldwide. In particular, OER seeks to facilitate access to, and distribution of, free e-learning materials that can be reused, adapted, and modified without restriction. OER is the major funder of the WikiEducator initiative, an evolving online community committed to developing education-related projects and free content.

A new political development in Canada might cause a radical change in what AU and AU Press are able to achieve and how learning content can be shared in Canada. The Canadian parliament is expected to begin discussion this fall on new copyright legislation that will limit what materials can be made freely available. According to AU Associate Vice President of Research Rory McGreal:

“The very stringent copyright laws the Canadian government is currently considering are based on a U.S. model. It would make it very difficult, particularly for open and online institutions, to make use of proprietary content. We have to look for alternatives.”

A number of the proposed restrictions are seen as counterproductive at best, and destructive to Canada’s standing in the world academic market at worst. One example is that all institutions would have to destroy online proprietary material within one week of a course’s final exam. Another is proposed penalties for anyone who keeps digital course research documents on their computer for longer than three days. Speaking on the topic of the Canadian government’s proposed new copyright legislation, AU President Frits Pannekoek said:

“Countries with wiser copyright regimes that promote educational use will catapult ahead of Canada. No longer will we be internationally competitive because of the restrictions contained in the legislation.”

(More about AU’s concerns regarding the proposed Canadian copyright law changes can be found on the Open AU site. See specifically the article posted September 15, 2009.)

Time will tell whether the Canadian legislature will take action to limit the ability of Canadian entities to make open content freely available, without restrictions, to the rest of the world. This debate will undoubtedly result in constructive discussions on the topic in other parts of the world, however. We could hope that the potential consequences would dissuade other governments from considering similar restrictive policies.