When the World Wide Web was created by Tim Berners-Lee, no one could have known what the internet would eventually become. Information in immense quantities is uploaded everyday. It is almost unfathomable that this amount of information is available to anyone with an internet connection. Sadly, the internet, for all of its knowledge base, is still limited by the copyright laws of the 19th century. Many of these laws were written to protect the intellectual property of artists, authors, and creators. The copyrights worked well for the purpose for which they were intended, however, for the digital age they are somewhat of a hindrance to the sharing of knowledge. People like Aaron Swartz and Lawrence Lessig worked hard to bring the internet out of this dark age and offer the opportunity for people to share what they create openly with the world. Many of the Creative Commons Licenses can be altered to allow commercial use of works of art or even allow others to expand or alter your work. Why is this important for educators? Imagine for a moment a world in which people work completely collaboratively. Imagine a world in which people share resources, information, and ideas freely; each building on the notions of the other. A world in which the words ‘ownership’ and ‘mine’ are seldom heard. The reason the idea of open education is so critical for educators is this: learning is synonymous with sharing. As David Wiley argues here, there is no education with the free and open exchange of information between learners.
Reflect for a moment on the typical classroom. Teachers and students engage in a constant flow of information, creativity and ideas. This flow can happen in a variety of ways. Information flowing from teacher to student in a one-way stream (traditional forms of teaching) or information flowing through web between both teachers and students. It is impossible to be a teacher and not be learning along with, and in collaboration with, the students. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve taught the subject matter, new insights and learning will happen simply because there are different students in your room. Speaking from personal experience, I cannot begin to describe the feeling of working alongside a group of students who have a genuine inquiry and decide to pursue it. It is crucial that teachers take on a defining role in teaching our students the importance of open information sharing. The use of collaborative techniques for learning is not a new concept. Learning alongside others or under the view of a mentor or teacher is a practice that hearkens to ancient times. However, with the technology available to us today, the possibilities to improve the learning outcomes of students and people all over the world are incredible.
So, what does open education look like in the digital age of open source and open information? Well, teachers need to be constantly asking students to engage in the process of evaluating, absorbing, remixing, and reusing what they learn. Isn’t this how we apply new knowledge to the world around us? The testing and proving of other theories and work is what drives the intellectual community forward. Because of Einstein‘s Theory of Relativity, we can make things like GPS systems and electro-magnets work. Learning is almost always done in conjunction with the use of knowledge from other sources. Students need to be shown how to be at the same time consumers, contributors, and collaborators in a digital realm that is far too often concerned with ownership instead of with learning.
Does this mean that we stop teaching students about plagiarism and copyright? On the contrary. We must educate students to be global sharers. People who are not afraid to stand up and say “my ideas were built on the work of ___________.” We need to show students that it is a matter of pride to use, remix, and revise a piece of intellectual work while at the same time crediting the owner for the hard work. Is it always possible to give attribution for the use of anothers’ work? It is certainly becoming more difficult in the remix culture in which we live. For every viral YouTube video, there will be hundreds if not thousands of spin offs or mashups. The world is growing ever smaller as increasing numbers of people gain access to the internet and to open source educational resources. Sites like Coursera or MIT are changing the face of how education has worked for centuries. No longer do you have to own a text book or pay tuition to have access to the best minds of our time. Why would we not embrace this type of educational strategy for our students? This week is Open Education Week. I would encourage you to check out one of the many available online sources for learning in an open environment. Make a remix or create something totally original and share it on Creative Commons for others to use and enjoy. After all, sharing is just as much a part of education as creativity is a part of the human experience.