Open Education: project or process and practice?

I’m new enough to the Open Education world that I can’t tell how unusual the closure of Utah State’s OpenCourseWare initiative is (http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Utah-State-Us-OpenCourseWare/7913/ and http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/967). It’s probably the largest OCW initiative in the US after MIT and in a summary of its successes earlier this year the  Utah State University online news noted that it gets 50000 visitors a month http://www.usu.edu/ust/index.cfm?article=34468. To all extents and purposes it has been a success but it’s now a success that’s, at best, on hold.

At the risk of simplifying the undoubtedly difficult and complex issues behind this decisions, it strikes me that for USU Open Education has been a project. A successful project, and one that has been good for the institution, but a project nevertheless. But in academia and in recessions projects are always vulnerable – they are, almost by definition, additonal to institution’s core business.

For Open Education and for Open Access, USU’s decision reinforces the need for sustainable approaches – a need to embed the work of making things open into the normal processes and practice of the institution.

I’m not suggesting that Open Education can be done without any additional cost to the institution, that it’s easy, or that all those invovled in the initiaive at USU didn’t do all that they could (and way more than I could). There are plenty of things that you have to do on top of normal practice and process before you can make content freely available and higher costs if you want to maximise the benefits to your institution. Open Education like Open Access is not free to provide.

Unfortunately I suspect that most OER (and most OA) initiatives face the challenge that they have to start from the position that institutions aren’t actively managing their digital stuff and that staff aren’t always considering IPR when they create materials. I’m not sure how many institutions would be able to say that they have organised copies of all their lecture materials and research papers (irrespective of whether they want to be Open or not).  An OER initiative that tries to do all that work for the institution, without the instituion undergoing some  changes to the basic institutional processes of how we do education. runs the risk of remaining a project (irrespective of their funding source). I’d suggest that the sustainability of OER and OA initiatives is entirely dependent on if institutions choose to manage their digital stuff. [I also don't know how much of an issue this was at USU]

I’ll finish with three quotes drawn from the USU example that I take as a warning to any project:
“In the tradition of land grant universities, Utah State University OpenCourseWare assures that no individual who is prepared and who desires the opportunity to advance his or her education is turned away. USU OCW provides an unprecedented degree of free and open access to the knowledge and expertise of our faculty for the benefit of every citizen of the state of Utah and every person in the world. As we enter the 21st century, services like OpenCourseWare will enable land grant institutions to more fully accomplish their missions.” (Stan Albrecht, President, Utah State University on http://ocw.usu.edu/)

“The cause? The effort ran through grant money from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and $200,000 from the state Legislature. It needed $120,000 a year to keep going. But it failed to secure any more state or university money, Mr. Jensen said, despite being the third-most-visited Web site hosted by Utah State University.
“It’s just a bad timing issue,” Mr. Jensen told The Chronicle this morning. “The recession hit. People wanted to keep us up, but the economy was just such that we could not find money anywhere.””( “Utah State U.’s OpenCourseWare Closes Because of Budget Woes”, Marc Parry, The Chronicle of Higher Education http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Utah-State-Us-OpenCourseWare/7913/)

“2009-10 AUTHORIZED BASE BUDGET [of $] 226,327,800″ http://www.usu.edu/budget/documents/legislature/2009/budget%20summary_fy2009%20leg.pdf

Sadly this suggests to me that for USU, Openness was a project.