What is Online Communication?


The movement toward open content reflects a growing shift in the way academics in many parts of the world are conceptualizing education to a view that is more about the process of learning than the information conveyed in their courses. Information is everywhere; the challenge is to make effective use of it. Open content embraces not only the sharing of information, but the sharing of instructional practice and experiences as well. Part of the appeal of open content is that it is also a response to both the rising costs of traditionally published resources and the lack of educational resources in some regions, and a cost-effective alternative to textbooks and other materials. As customizable educational content — and insights about how to teach and learn with it — is increasingly made available for free over the Internet, students are learning not only the material, but also skills related to finding, evaluating, interpreting, and repurposing the resources they are studying in partnership with their teachers.

Open content, as described here, has its roots in a number of seminal efforts, including the Open Content Project, MIT’s Open Courseware Initiative (OCW), the Open Knowledge Foundation, and work by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and others. Many of these projects focused on creating collections of sharable resources and on devising licenses and metadata schemata. The groundswell of interest in open content described here is differentiated from early work by its primary focus on the use of open content and its place in the curriculum. The role of open content producers has evolved as well, away from the idea of authoritative repositories of content and towards the broader notion of content being both free and ubiquitous. Building on the trailblazing models of institutions like MIT, schools like Tufts University (and many others) now consider making their course materials available to the public a social responsibility.

This philosophy of open content and open education acknowledges that information is not the only useful and distributable commodity among educators. Understanding, insight, and experience can also be collected and shared. An outgrowth of that perspective is the emergence of open-content textbooks that can be “remixed” — that is, customized, modified, or combined with other materials — and the resulting new combinations can be shared in turn. A number of publishers are finding ways to support authors and consumers of such materials. The publishing company Flat World Knowledge is one that provides access to textbooks authored for open use, making it very easy for faculty to individually tailor a text for use in their own class and then share that custom text with the larger community. Flat World Knowledge operates as any publisher does, reviewing book submissions and using a traditional editing process before release; however, electronic copies of the textbooks are free. Students only pay for print copies if desired, and authors receive royalties for these purchases whether the book has been customized or not.

At the center of many discussions of open content are the challenges of sharing, repurposing, and reusing scholarly works; related to those discussions are concerns about intellectual property, copyright, and student-to-student collaboration. Solid work in this area has been done by groups such as Creative Commons and Creative Commons Australia, the Academic Commons, Science Commons, and others to address many of the concerns commonly voiced. Many believe that reward structures that support the sharing of work in progress, ongoing research, highly collaborative projects, and a broad view of what constitutes scholarly publication are key challenges that institutions need to solve. Also to be addressed are reputation systems, peer review processes, and models for citation of the new forms of content that are likely outgrowths of open content initiatives.

While a number of highly structured projects exist to provide access to open content, in general, the open content community is diffuse and distributed. Learning to find useful resources within a given discipline, assess the quality of content available, and repurpose them in support of a learning or research objective are valuable skills for any emerging scholar, and many adherents of open content list that aspect among the reasons they support the use of shareable materials. Nonetheless, broad use of open learning materials remains at least two years away, and the larger promise of open content — in which teaching and learning experiences and insights are shared as easily as information — will take even longer to realize. For the present, the creation of learning materials is still more a process of design driven by individual tastes and opinions than a collaborative process involving the contributions and views of many.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

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(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

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(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on teaching, learning, or creative expression?

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