If my experiences in open courses like 'Facilitating Online Communities' and 'Connectivism and Connective Knowledge' are anything to go by, I could be forgiven for saying that online open access education had well and truly arrived. Indeed, educators such as Graham Attwell, who has talked about the 'explosion of open learning' in his latest blog post, appear to agree. And my own boss, Phil Ker has recently announced that my institution, Otago Polytechnic, will be anchoring an International Centre for Open Access Educational Resources.
But I am wondering if we are deluding ourselves about open access in the formal education context?
Concerns about open access courses
Over the last few weeks I have heard a number of comments about open access courses.
There are what I considered to be superficial concerns like students being overloaded with information if the course gets too big eg too many emails. That is an issue that can be managed, which in itself is part of the learning experience. Another concern is about the extra work that having an increased number of students, formal or otherwise, may place on the teacher. Certainly I don't want to take on extra 'work' that I am not being 'paid' for. And we may need to re-think what we consider to be 'work' and 'teaching', and that will have to be debated at an institution level.
More significant are the concerns about privacy and confidentiality in health education. I have talked a number of times on this blog about the issues we face as health professionals, and how the legal and professional requirements for confidentiality between practitioner and patient reduces what we can do in an open environment. For example, how safe would our undergraduate midwifery students feel to explore their beliefs and attitudes, knowledge and experiences if they knew they were exposing themselves to people other than their classmates? Those very personal learning experiences that student midwives have in the clinical setting are miles apart from the undergraduate English student who is exploring his understanding of a written text. At the same time, being open to completely different perspectives could be a hugely beneficial in terms of learning and reflection.
Impact on fee-paying students
A large concern about open access courses is the impact on fee-paying students. I think the concern is that fee-paying students will feel disadvantaged compared to the people who are receiving the education, but not paying for it. The implication being that if you are a paying student, you somehow own the knowledge or at least, you own access to it. But the problem is, if you refuse to 'share' and network, you limit your opportunities to connect and learn. And if you refuse to be a node in the network you will be bypassed, to your detriment.
What are students paying for?
What I suggest we need to do to do is change how we see the provision of education. What students are paying for in open access courses is the provision of assessment and accreditation; they are not paying for the knowledge. Knowledge does not belong to any one person - it is freely available to everyone. Indeed, the course I am currently teaching is about reflective practice, and anyone can freely access the material on the Internet that I am using, in books and journals.
The other thing the student is paying for is the name and reputation of the institution they receive their qualification from.
Working with the challenge
I have benefited hugely from open access education. I joined an open access course last year and eventually ended up enrolling in the course, completing the assessments and receiving the qualification. I cannot see open access courses becoming main stream until attitudes have changed about knowledge being something that is bought.
But I am convinced that networking, and in particular online networking is vital for health professionals to keep up to date so that they can provide evidence-based practice and provide support to each other. And that should be modeled in our education programs, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
Feedback from students and educators
I would really appreciate hearing from students who have been fee-paying students in open access courses. How have you felt about being in the same course as non-paying students? What were the advantages and disadvantages.
As for teachers, what feedback have you received from students? How have you felt as a teacher in an open access course. Has it been extra work for you? Any other comments?