Enter your email address to receive a twice-weekly newsletter on learning/technology.

Powered by ymlp.com

| Starting | Enabling | Doing | Evaluating | Managing | Resources | Home

Why We Should Share Learning Resources

May 29, 2003

Educational resource sharing is emerging as a viable means to improve the quality of and access to education. To foster sharing, Open Education functions from these principles (1):

Foundational principle of progress: Ideas build on other ideas

To preserve this foundation, we need to promote the following freedoms for learning material:
Freedom to use for any purpose
Freedom to improve and extend
Freedom to build on and make new

Learning objects

Learning objects and learning object repositories are gaining momentum in education. After years of theoretical discussion and promises about learning objects, development is now at a critical stage. Institutions are creating their own repositories, standards are being adopted to make objects shareable, and understanding is growing that learning objects are the centerpiece of a new digital education economy.

Many definitions exist for learning objects (see Stephen Downes, What are Learning Objects , Learnativity , David Wiley ). For the purposes of this article, a learning object is simply defined as a digital resource used for learning. In many cases, learning objects are digitized versions of existing learning content. Much like the Internet allowed organizations and individuals to make their information available to a global audience, learning objects make learning resources available to a larger audience as well.


The benefits of learning objects are numerous:

  • Reduced costs
  • Personalized learning
  • Interoperability
  • Standardization
  • Customization

Conceivably, as learning objects grow in popularity, a learning object infrastructure will create a vibrant forum similar to the Internet as a means of sharing and accessing the resources of other educators.

Educator's Needs

A commercial economy needs to exist - it is a foundation of an open and democratic society. Due to copyright, the commercial sector does not provide the required functionality of public education. Education is not a "canned" experience. Educators need learning resources to be flexible, allowing for the following:

  • Customizing for the region or student base
  • Updating resources to reflect advancement in research
  • Using only parts (i.e. a graphic, not a whole chapter)
  • Integrating with existing content to create uniform look/feel and avoid duplication

Simply, educators need to be able to use and modify learning material to ensure personalized, effective learning. The above requirements are not permitted under existing copyright laws. An alternative is needed that meets the needs of educators.

To meet this challenge, an organization has been formed to promote open sharing of learning resources: Open Education. The intent of the organization is to create an environment for learning object sharing and distribution that meets the needs of educators. Through advocacy and dialogue, Open Education will promote a vision of learning object sharing that is focused on making it easier for educators to educate, rather than tying their hands through increased copyright restrictions.

Why should we share our educational content?

We need options. The current environment is moving to increased expense and tighter copyright restriction. We are now at a point where an alternative is needed. Waiting (or not doing anything) will result in a market where profit is the greatest focus of education, not learning.

Digital resource sharing doesn't add costs. When a publisher produces a text, each subsequent version requires physical resources. Digital resources can be duplicated without additional expense

Structure is needed before a revenue model. As stated earlier, Open Education is an alternative to copyrighted, for-profit education. They can both exist within the same economy. Educators, however, need a choice. At this stage, the learning economy is still in its infancy. The infrastructure of the Internet allowed for the subsequent creation of value. If the initial model of the Internet required users to pay for each web page they viewed, we would not have the Internet we have today. The foundation of openness, paradoxically, created the opportunity to add commercial value later. A similar mindset of open learning will also provide greater capacity for commercial content, allowing them to co-exist. Unfortunately, if a commercial learning object market develops first, it will be more difficult to develop an open market later.

To preserve public education. Increased fiscal pressure (and the success of a few for-profit ventures) have the potential to threaten existing education markets. To compete on a scale of quality, educators must now embrace sharing of resources to ensure that the high ideals of public education preserved (or in some cases, ignited again).

Competition. Competition is needed in any market. Open source software has been credited with keeping Microsoft "honest", even resulting in reduced prices of Microsoft's software in order to stay competitive. Similarly, the existence of an open education market will ensure that the for-profit market remains responsive to users needs in terms of price and copyright.

Education is directly linked to quality of life. An expensive education market limits the ability for those most in need to improve the quality of their life. This is particularly true in underdeveloped nations. The greatest export of wealthy nations may be our quality of life as expressed through provision of educational resources. Open education is needed to provide these nations with access to improved quality of life. Expensive education (especially when the resources are shareable without significant expense) is the equivalent of denying education, which in turn equates to controlling and limiting opportunities.

The value of education is not the process but the impact. This is an extension of the concept of education as a means of improving quality of life. Manufacturing derives value from taking a raw product and making it into something of value for consumers. Education is the opposite - value is derived from what the process generates - a more skilled society, capable of greater research, tackling more complex challenges, and allowing learners to embrace opportunities that exist in an innovative, connected, creative workforce. Education is the key that enables participation in this market.

It's democratic. Undoubtedly, some will link the concept of open education with socialism, communism, or any other concept intended to evoke an emotional response. The opposite is true. Open education is democratic. As publishers choose and select which concepts and ideas are published, the result is closed education - a limiting, undemocratic model where inclusion is based on connections and politicking, not merit.

Building and spiraling. Knowledge is built on other knowledge - a spiraling sequence of adding value based on value created by others. This system breaks down when copyright laws move beyond protecting content creators efforts, and into preserving a business model. Education has, until recently, been afforded generous "fair use", but the creators of digital content are increasingly closing doors. The freedom of shareable digital content is being used as a means to exclude unintended uses - a foundation of innovation and spiraling. If this model progresses, universities and colleges will lose much of their ability to experiment and create.

Moving the learning object economy forward. Learning objects have been a point of discussion for several years - but they have yet to largely impact teachers and instructors. Why? Critical capacity has not been reached. Like any marketplace, it will only become viable once significant participants are present. The for-profit model will result in far slower adoption than the open education model.

It's all too big for one person. The complexities of technology require a team approach. No one person can be an expert in all areas. Diverse skillsets are needed. For example, a biology teacher may have the ability to write excellent descriptions, but lack graphical skills. If this teacher produces a learning resource of value, and releases it into the public domain, other biology teachers with different skill sets can contribute to and extend the resource. Over time, some may add graphics, learning activities, and animations. A copyright system doesn't allow for "joint content creation".

Communities of practice. The heart of an open education market is the formation of communities of practice. Educators link and connect with others in similar fields from around the world and begin to share and improve on each others work. These communities can foster improved excellence and quality.

Similar to open source software. Many of the benefits realized by open source software may be applicable to the open education market. Some of these benefits are:

  • Increased resource reuse
  • Increased quality
  • Reduced likelihood of "vendor lock-in"
  • Reduced costs
  • Increased access to resource authors
  • Rapid development
  • Greater collaboration
  • Larger market

Open education is not about stating that learning materials must be free of expense. Learning resources may be financially free ( this is the greatest benefit to "have not" institutions and countries), but it is not implicit to the concept of open education. Open education means that learning materials must be free for others to use and integrate in the manner they choose. Some type of commercial economy is needed to fund and support certain activities. An educator who spends day/weeks/months creating resources should have the option of earning an income based on that effort. The resources they create should be made available for others to innovate and extend. It's about the democratic freedom of a content creator to earn an income, balanced with the freedom of others to do the same.

What's Next?

If the ideas expressed in this article resonate with you, there are several ways to become involved:

  • Join Open Education. Get involved in work groups, post news, discuss
  • Form a community of practice based on open content creation and sharing. List the community with Open Education.
  • If you are able to, release your resources under a Creative Commons license
  • If your institution retains copyright, encourage them to adopt the Creative Commons license
  • Advocate for foundation of Open Education, Ideas build on Ideas...and for the freedoms of Open Education: Freedom to use any purpose, Freedom to improve and extend, Freedom to build on and make new

To discuss this article: Discuss Why We Should Share Learning Resources

1) Based on the work and views of Richard Stallman and Lawrence Lessig


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License