The first decade of the 21st century witnessed an explosion of access to higher education. In Brazil, the number of university students doubled. In India, a distance-learning mega-university, the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), has grown to a size – 3.5 million enrolled students – that, at the time of this writing is unprecedented in the history of higher education. Governments have advocated aggressively boosting both secondary and university completion rates. In turn, they face the financial pressure of supporting these larger numbers directly through added infrastructure, and student grants and loans. Furthermore, government policies and economic and population growth are only accelerating the twin tendencies of ever-larger gross enrollment ratios alongside declining per capita support (the latter with a few happy exceptions!). Open education, more than providing an occasional beneficial support for learners, has become an imperative for addressing the gap between demand for higher education and supply. Governments, at their peril, ignore the need to develop a clear open education strategy.
The beginning of the decade was marked by the birth of OpenCourseWare (2001) and the subsequent formulation of Open Educational Resources by UNESCO (2002). Today, the open education movement is truly diverse, ranging from edu-hackers to educational startups to prestigious universities. These developments are, first and foremost, testimony to the power of the Internet to tie together far-flung communities and institutions and make technical solutions feasible at a grand scale. This volume takes as its starting point a parallel phenomenon, social media, also birthed by widespread Internet penetration and ties it to the issues arising from the development of open education. And why not? Learning is a social activity. Well before the rise of social media, the examination of communities of practice was already an important part of educational research. And the literature shows that well-designed peer learning in STEM education produced superior results in learning to lecture classes.
MOOCs have a lot to gain from the investigations that comprise this volume. In various ways, their educational success will rely on strengthened collaborative learning, in which peer groups build social networks, support learning, and arrive at valid assessments outside of easily machine-scored test items. This is not an easy task. The first problem is that peer groupings and free education can be difficult to combine. It may seem paradoxical, but the benefit of low- or no-commitment enrollment processes conspires against robust peer learning of the kind pioneered by Peer2Peer University or peer activities in MOOCs. The articles in this book collectively help to address the critical issues of motivation. In the context of OERs, motivation is critical for creation, adaptation, reuse, and, of course, learning. Through a careful reading of the articles on games, social media, software, collective intelligence and others in this volume, it becomes clear that the old producer-consumer dichotomy in open education is being changed dramatically. The learner becomes an active agent of his/her education and everything from pedagogy to content becomes a shared responsibility.
Higher education used to be the domain of social elites. Through the economic transformations in Asia, Africa and Latin America, tens of millions are being lifted out of poverty from Asia to Africa to Latin America. Today, we can begin to trace the evolution of higher education from elite to mass to quasi-universal systems. Just as distance learning has been essential in the transition from elite to mass institutions, open education is required because it is free (without cost), flexible (without significant use restrictions), and fair (accessible to all). However, making the case for open education requires a fourth component: educational efficiency. And in that regard, the investigations that this book contains into infrastructure, institutional benefits, and instruction and learning are indispensable for everyone who sees a world in which nothing stands in the way of people who want to better the world they live in through education.