How Will Free Education Improve in 2012?

It's the end of the year as we know it, and we feel fine about OER's advances in 2011. But as December 31 approaches, we ask ourselves: what's next? What changes do we hope to see come to the worlds of OER and OCW in 2012?

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By Eric Garneau

2012 OCW OER

Looking Forward

Yesterday we published our look back on major OER developments throughout 2011, and there were some big ones. On its tenth anniversary of existence (at least according to its shepherds at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), OER made some serious headway into mainstream recognition and acceptance, but it's not quite there yet. And if there's one thing we hope 2012 brings to the OER movement, it's the legitimacy it so deserves.

As we mentioned yesterday, one of the biggest events to rock the OER world in 2011 was Internet company Mozilla's announcement of their Open Badges Project, which should allow online learners of all types to accrue verifiable credentials for skills and knowledge they've garnered. With support from entities like Duke University and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, it seems like a lot of powerful people are throwing their weight behind open badging. The question is, will it be enough?

A Cautious Beginning

As we remarked in a previous piece, if open badges are to become accepted as valid academic credentials, it's going to have to start slowly. It will probably happen like this: one intrepid employer, looking to secure the hottest talent even through nontraditional venues, will take a chance on hiring someone with the desired skill set as represented not by a traditional diploma but by digital badges. If that employee works out (hopefully he or she will), his or her human resources manager may look online a little more quickly next time a position opens up. Word will spread to other companies, and to be sure they get the best talent possible they'll start looking at people with only badges to show for their skills as well. Slowly, the hiring game will change; badges could even begin to rival the status of traditional academic degrees.

But that's an oversimplified scenario, and a smarter futurist than your current writer would be required to figure out just how long such acceptance would take. It seems almost certain, though, that it will have to start with someone in a position of power taking a leap, recognizing that not only are badges 'good enough' but that they're legitimately good when it comes to proving one's aptitude. As soon as that starts to happen, it seems that we may be in for an education revolution.

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Motivating Factors

Why is that? Because then, assuming it was desired (why wouldn't it be?), all these purveyors of OCW could start offering badges as free, acceptable credentials for completing their courses. Earlier this year, I wrote a series of posts for this site in which I took a University of California - Irvine course in music theory - imagine if, at the end of that, I'd been granted proof of music theory competency. I don't know what I'd do with that, necessarily, but wouldn't it be nice to have some kind of tangible (albeit digital) marker that I'd completed the course?

With that in mind, one could argue that badges have the potential not just to affect change in OCW, but in its users. It's not that hard to imagine that there are plenty of people out there who, even if they know about OCW, don't care to use it because they don't 'get anything from it.' Of course, that's not true; when you teach yourself something, you improve yourself. But that's not necessarily the most practical motivation for a lot of people. Badges could change all that. Students who don't have the time or money to get a traditional college education could work through OCW courses at their own pace and come out the other side with digital proof of their knowledge that's just as good as a piece of paper from a university. Were that the case, this type of thing would spread virally - a successful badge recipient would excitedly tell his friends, who would tell their friends, etc. The education world could really cash in on this age of faster-than-light memes in which we live.

Consider this quote from technology blogger Doug Belshaw, who writes for the site 'no substantive change occurs without such top-down and bottom-up support.' Acceptance from employers and excitement from potential employees would seem to constitute both types of support. And while 2012 may not see that happen completely, ideally some headway will be made. Make no doubt: Mozilla's open badging is the OER/OCW movement to watch next year.

Looking to master some new skill sets in 2012? Check out Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative.

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