Books and Arts

Nature 457, 151-152 (8 January 2009) | doi:10.1038/457151a; Published online 7 January 2009

The learning revolution

Jean-Claude Bradley1

BOOK REVIEWEDOpening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education Through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge

Edited by Toru Iiyoshi and M. S. Vijay Kumar. MIT Press: 2008. 500 pp. $24.95, £16.95

Education is changing. The ethos of openness that increasingly pervades activities from journalism to software to finance is being adopted by the educational community. The series of essays in Opening Up Education offers examples, opportunities and thoughts on the use of shared and freely available resources in education. The book is arranged in three sections: software, content and pedagogy.

Educational software, as in other areas serving a specific need, has both open-source and commercial versions that exist in parallel. Learning management systems, which enable teachers to deliver online content to students and to manage the educational process, are no exception. Projects and open-source software described in the book include the Visual Understanding Environment project at Tufts University, Massachusetts; the University of Oxford's adaptation of the Bodington software developed at the University of Leeds, UK; and iLab and OpenCourseWare from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The book does not compare specific commercial products against open-source alternatives, nor does it give an inventory of common open-source educational software; in its essays, leaders in the field discuss high-level design and implementation issues, such as ease of adoption by teachers and students, and management of user-access policies.

The authors discuss current open resources in education and their possible future. The section on open content, in addition to MIT's OpenCourseWare, covers the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, Connexions and the Open Learning Initiative, all of which offer free, online educational materials in formats ranging from small learning modules to entire courses also taught as traditional lectures. A major theme is the management of intellectual property, such as with Creative Commons licences, investigated in detail by David Wiley. Quality control of the educational materials is important, whether mediated by peer-review or other means. Many essays repeatedly discuss the merits of top-down versus bottom-up approaches to the creation and management of open content.

The growing availability of high-quality open content is colliding with traditional academic business models, particularly textbook publication. Diane Harley explores the barriers preventing the adoption of digital and open content by faculty members. These include time, cost, access to support structures and the nature of current academic culture, raising a need to integrate traditional reward systems with new forms of educational materials and scholarship.

Richard Baraniuk tries to predict the future of open education by extrapolating from the evolution of the Internet. Using the terminology of web-publishing firm O'Reilly, the first open content was disseminated through the direct mechanisms of 'Web 1.0', when creating content was difficult and a broadcast model emerged. With the rise of the more interactive 'Web 2.0', content creation and remixing has become easy using social-networking sites and intuitive interfaces such as blogs and wikis. Now that students can also create content, the role of the teacher is changing. We are currently observing the rise of this phase against a backdrop of traditionally taught courses. Most students can no longer expect a homogenous style of education across the curriculum. The future promises 'Web 3.0', in which the semantic web will allow further opportunities for automation and artificial intelligence. Increased efficiencies in learning and measuring learning might lie ahead, yet what is worth learning could also change significantly.

The book's final section examines initiatives that explore how learning happens. The Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, the Visible Knowledge Project, the KEEP toolkit and the Learning Activity Management System are cited as examples. They do not necessarily involve much technology but use alternatives to the standard lecture format, such as discussions in small student groups. Peer review of research is standard practice, and some argue that teaching should also undergo this process. As these activities require time and effort, new teaching methods need to be given greater priority in the academic reward system before we can expect their widespread adoption. Bernadine Chuck Fong, a former president of Foothill College, California, describes the college's pioneering work in online and open education. She says that leadership is key to supporting such new initiatives: it must be made clear to faculty members that honesty, trust, integrity and forgiveness are highly valued across the institution. Many authors mention that a strong sense of community is important for the sustained sharing of teaching experiences.

For anyone interested in the openness movement or in changes to the educational system, Opening Up Education is worth perusing. The book is freely available online with links to individual chapters, making it easy to cite and share. It is not an exhaustive review of the field — more examples can be found in the blogosphere — but this valuable book highlights the leading authors on openness in education who we should follow as the field evolves.

  1. Jean-Claude Bradley is an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA.