Another scenario for higher education’s future: the triumph of open

Let me offer another scenario for academia’s future.  As is usual with the scenario forecasting methodology, this is based on extrapolating from several present-day trends – here, several trends around open.

A silo.In the past I’ve called this “The Fall of the Silos.”  It’s a sign of our urban- and suburban-centric era that this rural metaphor doesn’t get a lot of traction.  It’s also possible that contemporary American politics leads many to embrace silos.  So I’ve renamed the scenario “The Triumph of Open.”

(Four years ago I blogged the opposite, a scenario where open fails.  The reader is invited to compare outcomes.  That’s a much shorter post, too.)

tl;dr version – In this future the open paradigm has succeeded in shaping the way we use and access most digital information, with powerful implications for higher education.

The triumph of open occurred  not just in higher education but across other segments of civilization.  Journalism, information technology, entertainment, business, religion, and government are all effected.  Individual and group behavior have been altered as well.

In this scenario we understand “open” to describe at least three different types of information management.  First, it refers to open education resources (OER), materials for learning that one may access* easily, for free or for low cost, and with the possibility of reusing and remixing them.  Second is open access in scholarly publication, the practice of publishing scholarly content (articles and monographs, along with datasets and associated materials) that is accessible to any interested person, available for free or a much lower cost than is presently charged for these materials. Remixing is also possible.  A third aspect is that of open source software, computer applications whose underlying digital structure is accessible to, and therefore capable of being copied and reused, remixed by, any would-be observer or user.

How did this triumph occur?

These different forms of openness succeeded by 2030 partly by virtue of incremental change and persistence.  OER and open scholarship grew steadily for years during the 21st century, accreting open content bit by bit and winning over more adherents every quarter.   Open source software took off in the 1990s, scoring major successes with some projects, standards, and businesses, then became simply part of the software landscape from then on.  Some governments offered public funding, licensing, and grant structure support and encouragement.

Growth by quantity played a key role; quality improvements were also crucial in open’s triumph.  To an extent this was an effect of reputation and cultural cachet, rather than most measures of quality, as proprietary publishers continued to released very elaborately produced books and multimedia artifacts, while a good number of faculty remained committed to familiar brands.  Open projects gradually competed with this challenge through improvements in appearance as well as by growing the reputation of key projects (PLOS becoming known as a signal leader in this).  Government sponsorship helped build open’s reputation.  For OER increasing concerns about income inequality helped convince faculty to turn to open, as did rising anxiety about the poverty of students (Sara Goldrick-Rab’s work proved decisive on this point).

Activists played a major role in criticizing proprietary content and encouraging academics and others to participate in the open world.  Libraries were crucial in the transition to open, as they were early adopters of scholarly material repositories, encouraged faculty to adopt open access publishing mandates, and negotiated with publishers. Meanwhile open quality improved on other measures through several processes: peer review, marketplace competition, successful commons-based peer production (as per Yochai Benkler), and continuous development.  OER co-creators gradually applied instructional design and human-computer interaction principles to their work.

The transition proceeded unevenly by geography and institution.  Certain governments led the way in pushing for open through policies, grants, and their own practices, while others took no steps or actively resisted.  Some nations, universities, and activists in the developing world advocated for open as a way to win equitable access to materials largely enjoyed by developed countries, as well as a creating channels for their scholars to contribute more fully to the overall human research enterprise.  The OA2020 initiative drove Europeans more rapidly towards the open flip, while the Association of College and Research Libraries championed the digital literacies librarians deemed necessary for a more open information world.

At some point in the 2020s each of these movements flipped its domain from closed to open, depending on which metric and which study one used.  The majority of textbooks used by students were OER in 2021.  The majority of scholarly articles were available through open access in 2023, most monographs in 2025, and the bulk of software by most measures in 2028.

Along the way each form of open faced opposition of all kinds, from the self-interested to the ill-informed and the scaremongers.  Battles and arguments took place in the mass media, social media, courtrooms, private offices, legislatures, and classrooms.  Many open efforts failed, including software projects, content archives, and businesses based on open.  Yet the net outcome year after year was more openness until the flip was achieved, and no retrograde movement occurred.

The resulting world is somewhat different from that of 2018.  Some major businesses – think of movies, software, music, book publishing, scholarly publishing – have died, while others have transformed radically.  New firms have appeared, along with nonprofits fulfilling some of these functions.  More information and creative content exists than before, and more of it flows across all kinds of boundaries.

There are more conversations worldwide as networks carry communications over those boundaries.  Some filter bubbles pop as companies that filtered users fade or mutate.  There is more creativity as people respond as they often do to the rising amount of accessible, reusable content: responding to content with commentary, remixing it into new content, building new structures to navigate the ever-growing amount of stuff, and creating new information and stories through inspiration, parody, and critique.

This plethora of content has made data analytics more important, since good use of data allows people to better understand the many paths through the open ecosystem.  For some people the value of content has collapsed, while the ability to use data to work with content has become valuable, leading to new businesses and practices.  Software, largely open source, helps people in this future work with these materials. The complexity of such analytics helped drive the development of intelligent software to better apprehend them.  Artificial intelligence tools give insights into the reliability of materials, how they proceeded over time, how they relate to other content streams, and more.

How does this change higher education?

Some developments are generally seen as positive.  The price of information drops, so students are pleased to pay less for course materials, while libraries and researchers delight in spending less for scholarly journals, articles, and monographs.  Consumers around the world enjoy more access to scholarly content, now that the majority of it has escaped from paywalls. Autodictats and professional researchers who previously lacked access to both learning and scholarly materials can now progress in their work, which leads to improved cultural and economic outcomes for their regions.

Faculty members and librarians display more creativity in using this expanded amount of content, wrangling or making more multimedia materials of their own and generating new practices for research and learning.  Librarians and IT staff similarly respond productively to this surge in digital information.  Libraries publish new finding aids, teach new classes, and explore the history of information to look for inspiration in how previous ages responded to upsurges in content.

Pedagogies changed as a result of open’s triumph.  To begin with, more students experienced more content, as class materials and scholarly research became more affordable.  More classes took advantage of remixing possibilities to edit and produce new versions of OER.  Students increasingly played a role in co-creating content, both textbook materials and scholarly research. Student-authored materials became more popular.  A shift towards student-centered learning and constructivist pedagogies occurred, driven by these changes in content availability.  Instructors increasingly taught “in the open,” sharing more of their practice to the open web, boosting professional development possibilities.  Students can learn in the company of more learners, both in terms of absolute numbers and diversity, once fellow students can be connected with from far beyond a given classroom’s walls.

Meanwhile, many surviving companies that serve academia have shifted their operations to respond to open’s triumph.  Some scholarly publishers are essentially data analytics specialists, providing value by helping researchers see links between documents, tracing patterns of discovery, and generating insights about articles and monographs through data mining and AI.  Textbook firms offer instructors ways of better understanding student progress, while promising students better learning results.  Further, some companies position themselves as open enablers, guides to the wide-open world of sometimes chaotic-seeming content, assistants to campuses trying to integrate these materials into systems and curricula.

Nonprofits also work in this intermediary space.  Established associations like the Creative Commons, the OER Commons, and the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) contribute resources to help people navigate and contribute to the sprawling open world.  Others offer the kinds of support services companies provide, but without the profit motive.  Pre-open-triumph academic nonprofits and associations help their members as well.

Other aspects of open’s triumph appear problematic or outright harmful to contemporary observers.  The collapse of certain businesses has had negative humanitarian and economic consequences.  Some technologies fail to realize good open source software solutions, so their user experience degrades.  With the collapse of some barriers, including walled gardens, comes an increase in the circulation of malware; the reduction of some filters means an expansion of abuse.  Privacy, already challenged by state and business surveillance, becomes even more frail in this situation.  Older students, having been socialized by class experiences strongly bounded by multiple enclosures (a classroom’s physical walls, the restriction of copyrighted content online to single instances of a class, policies driven by privacy laws like FERPA), find the open environment disturbing at times, and possibly uncomfortable for their learning practices. Grappling with these challenges can cost organizations and individuals money, driving some operational costs upwards.  Additionally, one flipside to creativity and content growth is that creative ownership becomes more difficult to ascertain, especially as remixing becomes easier to accomplish and identity more easily spoofed.

Campuses experience further changes.  IT offices see support and training needs shift away from products maintained by established vendors towards community sourced projects.  Campus IT also struggles with the rising tide of malware and threats to privacy.  Supporting some open materials, especially software, is a challenge when it is not clearly designed to integrate with a campus enterprise environment.  Librarians see their roles become more prominent as teaching students (along with faculty and staff) to better navigate the increasingly chaotic open world requires further instruction in information and digital literacy.  Indeed, for some institutions digital literacy becomes central to their curriculum.

Teaching and learning occur more often in the open, as course materials are usually available to the world, as is student work.  Students, especially those belonging to marginal or threatened populations, can therefore encounter abuse from beyond their class in the course of their learning.  Other learners can follow student progress through lessons, giving them insight into learning, while making plagiarism easier and test security more difficult.  Instructors can easily access vast amounts of teaching materials for their own use.  Researchers can share data and papers more readily, leading to greater collaboration while accelerating the pace of scholarly publication.

The learning management system has mutated.  Some LMSes consist of small modules that secure some class information (grades, registration details) connected to other programs and functions that work across the open web (readings, telepresence labs, discussions).  Some campuses have minimized their LMS deployment in favor of supporting learnings in creating their own personal learning environments (PLEs), assembled from the open web and structured to match a learner’s progress through a curriculum.  These PLEs are sometimes centered on documents that demonstrate learning, such as blockchain-published microcredential stacks or media-rich e-portfolios.

Institutional variations in the age of open’s triumph are widespread.  Some research-focused universities will struggle to switch faculty over from closed and secretive inquiry to open strategies.  Teaching-oriented campuses will create new mechanisms and practices for protecting their students while showcasing faculty teaching.  Hands-on work with open content and open source software will be configured differently in different institutions, depending in part on their attitude towards production (as opposed to studies).

The rising generation of younger students – i.e., teenagers – have a somewhat different worldview than that of their pre-open-world elders.  They are more attuned to a chaotic digital environment.  They have grown up expecting most content to be free and easily accessed and fine proprietary databases, digital walled gardens, and paywalls to be strange, stodgy, and offensive.  At the same time some find themselves attracted to closed and proprietary content and architecture for their combination of retro flair and marginal status.  This generation’s sense of digital identity is playful, based on multiple identities worn as masks in different situations.  Some of the content giants of the 2010s, so vital to their elders, are as distant in their minds as the titans of Greece and Rome.

I’d like to leave the reader with one question.  How would your work change in this future?

*For most of this post I am using “access” and “accessibility” in the sense of being able to get at information, rather than the other sense of making content accessible to people with different needs and abilities.

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