Combing the commons: how to learn just about anything for free
Massive usage of free learning resources points to new forms of learning. David Jennings argues that, while these are emerging in contexts where traditional educational offerings are out of reach, they may disrupt institution-centred approaches as the scope to organise your own learning programmes increases.
By David Jennings
A thirst for knowledge
YouTube EDU, iTunes U, Khan Academy, the Open Universities OpenLearn initiative — these are all examples of resources for learning that are available for free to anyone with an Internet connection. The figures are staggering. Khan Academy, started only five years ago by one man putting his video tutorials on YouTube (though now with significant backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google), has produced 2,600 free video tutorials which have logged 67 million visits. iTunes U clocks 300 million downloads a year, with 350,000 lectures offered by more than a thousand universities around the world — 40 million of these downloads are from the Open University materials alone.
Evidently there’s a big demand: who is using all these resources, and with what outcomes? What’s really going on here?
The supply side
In the first article in this series, I wrote about the how Wikipedia had gone from nothing to an unprecedented launching pad for learning — through its ever more comprehensive citations — in just a decade. Another initiative celebrating its tenth birthday in 2011 is OpenCourseWare (OCW) from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). OCW has become the (comparatively well-heeled) poster child for what is known as the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement.
This movement has its own jargon and formalities: in the UK, universities get grants to develop OERs, which are then placed in dedicated ‘repositories’, where they are indexed according to subject matter, licensing and so on, so that others may find them, and remix them for their own purposes. In essence, though, an OER need not be complicated: it could be a blog post, a podcast or a photo on Flickr with an educational spin; and what makes it open is that others are free to copy, use and adapt them within set licensing constraints.
MIT estimates that its materials have reached 100 million people over their ten years. That’s more than 15 times the number that passed through the entire UK Higher Education system over the same period, from one institution (and remember, OCW achieved this from a standing start). Obviously these figures are not directly comparable. Even if you worked through an entire syllabus using OCW, you wouldn’t get the tutorial and peer support, the assessment or accreditation with a degree. What is more, perhaps the majority of those 100 million engaged with the course materials for little more than an hour. Nevertheless, that’s a very large number showing interest and intent.
Beyond traditional institutional learning: emerging behaviours
It’s very hard to get reliable data on what people are actually doing with educational resources. You can count the number and length of loans from a library yet still have no idea whether each loan was used to support long-term formal study, to satisfy a casual or temporary interest, or just left on a shelf. Khan Academy, since it’s run by an ex-hedge fund manager with a passion for data-crunching, is looking at ways of capturing more information to track usage. Undoubtedly a significant proportion represents students enrolled in formal courses who are supplementing the course materials and teaching that they’ve been given. That’s interesting in terms of what it says about the courses, their effectiveness and value for money.
However, the bigger story here is in how OERs might enable new agile forms of learning, outside institutional walls and with more fluid and self-organised features. The numbers quoted above suggest that education, in the form of OERs, is reaching parts that it hasn’t reached before.
Some of these are in the developing world, where access to formal courses and educational institutions is unaffordable to many. The US-based start-up, University of the People, is moving into this space, using OERs and peer learning methods — there is no tuition beyond this — to offer unaccredited degrees in Business Administration and Computer Science. They have targeted populations aiming to rebuild capacity after a crisis, such as the earthquake in Haiti. The Saylor Institute offers a wider range of degree-level courses, all free.
But this isn’t a substitute for real learning for the rest of us, right?
The drawback of learning from OERs outside a traditional course is that you have to rely heavily on self-motivation. It can be lonely and not much fun. Some quarters of the education establishment dismiss free, self-organised learning for this reason. Learning, they remind us, is about more than pouring knowledge into learners’ heads. Of course it is (though these arguments are rarely used against public libraries).
But agile learning doesn’t stop with OERs. We use social networks to find people with similar interests, and to learn from — and with — them. Much of this learning is informal and intuitive, and may be best that way. For those occasions when something more akin to a tutorial group or extended project is needed, the online tools and environments for creating these are becoming ever more sophisticated. These tools and how to get the best from them will the subject of the third and final article in this series.
For now, the key point is that innovation in learning is happening beyond institutional walls where demand most outstrips supply. Necessity is the mother of invention, and over the next decade we’re likely to see new forms of learning moving from the margins to the centre. As the premium costs of many traditional forms are called into question, there is almost certain to be further disruption.
See the other articles in this series
About the author
David Jennings is an independent consultant who helps people learn and discover online. He is accredited as an occupational psychologist and learning technologist, and is author of Net, Blogs and Rock’n’Roll: How Digital Discovery Works and What it Means for Consumers, Creators and Culture (2007).
About the company
David is director of DJ Alchemi Ltd, a consultancy whose client list includes learndirect, the National College for School Leadership, BSI, CIPD, Nesta, PA Consulting, unionlearn and several startup enterprises.
1. ● MIT’s plans for its second decade of OERs http://ocw.mit.edu/about/next-decade/
2. ● The OER programme in the UK http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/oer
3. ● Khan Academy’s automated assessment http://david-hu.com/2011/11/02/how-khan-academy-is-using-machine-learning-to-assess-student-mastery.html
4. ● University of the People http://www.uopeople.org/
5. ● Saylor Institute - free degree-level courses using OERs http://www.saylor.org