EC Foresight Workshop on Open Higher Education & Research

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Last week (6-7 June 2013) the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (JRC-IPTS), convened 20 experts to develop Open Education visions for Higher Education in 2030 and a roadmap to get to the more desirable outcomes. They also invited several heads of unit from DG’s of Education and Culture and R&D from the Commission. When I received the invitation to participate, I could of course not resist and try to present the ideas and experiences we have been generating over the last years within the Free Knowledge Institute, the Free Technology Academy and the commons movement.

This workshop was the third and last of their consultation round; previously workshops had been organised about school education and about lifelong learning (LLL). The OpenEducation 2030 consultation is done by the JRC-IPTS on request by the DG EAC. Here follows a subset of ideas that we discussed; for brevity I will focus on the parts I brought forward or found most interesting.

The workshop was led by Christine Redecker and Yves Punie from JRC-IPTS. After a presentation session about the context of open education and research on behalf of Ana Carla Pereira, Georgi Dimitrov and Jean-Claude Burgelman from the Commission, we had to form groups. We formed five groups to discuss the most important and difficult challenges in the areas of 1) governance & funding; 2) educational resources; 3) learning & teaching; 4) research; and 5) assessment & certification.

Some of the ideas and challenges that came forward during the plenary reporting session showed that many aspects are transversal. The way an educational institute is organised – central hierarchy vs. bottom-up community – has serious implications for funding, for how learning may take place, etc. In the area of assessment and certification we have an important challenge to recognise skills acquired elsewhere, for example in peer production communities. Informal learning is one of the biggest challenges for the educational system as a growing group of people are nowadays already acquiring the most interesting learning experiences in such communities. Either Higher Education adapts to that or it’ll face the threat to become ignored and obsolete. MOOCs have risen over the last five years, since George Siemens and Stephen Downes started their massive open online course. Now we may disagree about the importance MOOCs will have in the future of HE, but it can’t hardly be disputed that they will have a stronger role than today and we can expect MOOCs to provide a coniserable amount of free/open or just gratis resources available on the net.

Many people mentioned “user-driven”, “needs-driven”, “demand driven” instead of the old “push” model. And I think demand-driven is indeed the way to go, but at the same I think we must be careful with the threat of corporate control. What matters here is to go all the way: a bottom-up redesign of the whole organisation. That leads us to a commons based model, where all participants can participate in the governance of the educational initiative, one person one vote. Educational resources will be peer produced and learners can easily provide feedback and contribute to the production and improvement, following the SER-model (Seeding-Enhancing-Reseeding, De Paula, as we implemented in the openSE project). If Research is thought of as bottom-up, it will be organised by the people that need it for their personal or collective needs. Learning, Education and Research will then become a more disperse continuum. Crowdfunding maybe needed in combination with some public funding.

Many participants had ideas about “open badges”, “microcredentials” and more flexible, adaptive accreditation systems. My idea would be to use the contributions people are making in many online communities and infer useful information about what people did and add that to their personal portfolio. Complex learning & reputation metrics can assist people to assess those contribution-based metrics. In the SELF project (Science, Education & Learning in Freedom) we designed a prototype of such metrics for a collaborative peer production platform for educational resources. I can imagine that in the coming decades we will be able to build much better and more complex algorithms that can help us find people with specific interests, skills and experience to match them for a particular project or need. Meanwhile, the educational system should indeed work on a much more flexible recognition of competences obtained outside the formal educational system. Participants agreed that universities and educational institutes in general need to change and reinvent themselves if they want to survive and this is definitely an important part of it.

I brought forward the issue of ownership and control. And the importance of the commons. While a few people used the term “commons”, still the dominant vision was the dichotomy public/private and public-private partnerships. Even though the participants all had a certain background in the “open education” movement and most considered OER/OEP and OER based MOOcs as an important element of the future. Still the growing relevance of commons-governance has not reached most. Just as an illustration: all of us agree about the importance of Wikipedia as a source for learning. But let’s reflect for a second about the implications of the Wikipedia model. It was in 2012 that Encyclopedia Britanica stopped the presses and that Wikipedia has won much “marketshare” (or better: “mindshare”). This means that the model of commons-governance and peer production has become hegemonic at least in the domain of encyclopedias. It also means an exodus of the market towards the commons. This phenomenon has happened in the domain of software before and is happening in every area of knowledge. It has far reaching consequences on our socio-economic model (see my perspectives of the commons for industrial production).

For time sake in this workshop only some trends in open education and science were pointed out (very well done btw by Jean Claude Burgelman), but maybe it would have been good to put the current multiple crises and transition into context. Recently I participated in the Economy of the Commons Conference in Berlin, which did provide such critical context. Here’s an excerpt: “A rich array of commons – in nature, cities, civic life, the Internet, and many other realms – are showing that commons can provide stable, equitable and ecologically benign alternatives to conventional markets. The Economics and the Commons Conference (ECC) will expand and empower this work by exploring the commons as a coherent field of inquiry and action. It will convene approximately 240 commoners — researchers, practitioners and advocates from around the world — to explore the relationship of conventional economics and the commons, showcase key actors and initiatives, and devise plans for moving the commons paradigm forward.”

Let us for a moment consider the main differences between a bottom-up organised cooperative organisation and a central hierarchy. As you can see in the illustrartion, a central hierarchy has much less connections between the nodes (persons). This means the hierarchy has much less exchange of information and knowledge which logically results in slower and less efficient responses. The Internet has helped us become hyperconnected, which resembles much more the bottom-up cooperative organisations, where decisions are taken on a more participatory way. More on this can be found in this excellent post: “what if everything ran like the Internet.”

In the workshop we formed groups to develop a scenario for 2030. Two groups worked on conservative scenarios, and one on a more “radical” scenario, this last one being of course the one I participated in. Our group included Georgi Dimitrov (DG EAC), Hanna Shapiro (Head of Centre Policy and Busines Analysis Danish Technological Institute), Sophie Touzé (OCW EU/Université de Lyon), Jean-Claude Burgelman (Head of Unit DG RTD/EC), Jim Taylor (WikiEducator/OERu), Darco Jansen (programme manager EADTU), James Mazoué (Director Ofice of Online Programs, Wayne State University), Bastian Hamann (Hertie School of Governance), Hrissi Karapanagioti (University of Patras). We agreed on the main aspects being a commons-based, bottom-up organised network of educational initiatives with a strong focus on transparency and free/libre/open knowledge resources. But there were various parts we didn’t reach consensus on yet. Let me sketch my version of the scenario we discussed.

Name of the scenario: University of the Commons / Bottom-Up Commons-governed Educational Network

  • governance: commons governance by its participants, learners, mentors, researchers, etc One person one vote. This in itself is a radical change and implies the rebuilding of existing institutions and emergence of many new ones. As Jean-Claude observed, existing institutions can join the network, as long as they adhere to the shared values, or charter.
  • It is a distributed network of local and global topic based communities that run their community within the larger network platform. Open standards and free software assure each community can join without artificial barriers, as long as they adhere to the shared charter. The charter includes the shared values, protocols and design principles for the network structure, governance model and platform. As it is a commons, it can easily be replicated so others can use the experience to go into other directions if they would like to. This right of “forking” or “replicability” assures the golden way of commons based governance (we learnt this in the free software communities). Commons Governance means that a smart form of self-governance is chosen. It builds on the ideas of liquid democracy combining direct democracy with real-time, topic-based delegation.
  • Access for All: As all activities are commons based and driven by the interests of the community, people can freely join any of these cmmunities and learn, research, develop and deploy in the area they find relevant and useful to them and get help from reputed mentors.
  • Contribution & Reputation metrics: According to their contributions, participants build up a reputation within each community. Open Standard protocols assure that people can choose where they would like to keep track of their microcredentials and reputation. They will be able to choose from the various community providers and/or set up their personal portfolio server on their own computers. Community servers will have filtering software to allow complex ranking systems to evaluate a very diverse range of badges, microcredentials including contributions in many private, public and commons based platforms. Communities issue their own quality labeñs in the form of badges for indivual skills, competences and knowledge and for more aggregated programmes.
  • Based on direct local needs. Education, research and economic activities will be intensely intertwined. E.g. to solve the local energy needs, communities of neighbours, villages, regions etc will get together to build up their own solar energy capacity. Some will travel and study how other communities have solved this issue technically and research the necessary adaptations to their local context, while others will study the legal aspects, yet others the economics, while crowdfunding will help to pool the necessary resources. At the regional level a microfactory will be built based on open hardware designs best suited for their local needs. Of course the crucial design elements have first been tried out in the local FabLabs and hackerspaces and through iteration, participants have learnt and improved the design. The process is documented to give back to the global knowledge commons. This way communities can become reputed in certain areas.
  • People can team up anf orm projects around needs they share themselves or to cater for external needs. Structures like guilds will exist, with mentors and apprentices, others just as horizontal groups of peers, around a community organised list of challenges, some of which provide also economic opportunities, others just add to the participant’s reputation and skills. Ultimately reputation is what drives the meritocratic communities. See the Free Technology Guild to get an idea of a prototype of this.
  • The learning process itself can best be imagined by pedagogies like peeragogy, mentored learning, peer learning, self-directed learning, collaborative learning, social learning.
  • Need & Distribution of Resources. The network and the individual nodes (being educational communities/initiatives/institutions part of this network) function as a so called “Open Value Network” where peers contribute to a shared resource through peer production (contributing research, mentoring, assessment, …) while available monetary resources are distrubted to the peers according to an agreed metric based on their contributions. This is an innovative approach that is currently being developed by research communities like Economic resources can be a combination of public and private funding but also donations and collective crowdfunding. And even without monetary rewards, this system can work as it is useful for the participants involved. Therefore it is the most resilient scenario.
  • However to avoid exclusion, those people that for reasons out of their direct control, didn’t acquire high reputation metrics, the communities have an access for all policy, which is laid down in the founding manifest of the University of the Commons.


Roadmap. In order to get the scenario off the ground, organisations will change and new ones will emerge, tools will need to be developed and improved; funding schemes and policies need to be adapted to move in this direction. In the years ahead some organisations will move in the direction of this vision and take the lead in certain areas. As the change is driven by (lead)users, we will see different kinds of actors taking a stronger role in education. Think hackerspaces and FabLabs for example.

The right tools will empower these bottom-up educational communities to strengthen their educational work while also helping existing actors to move in this direction. We can envision the tools needed as an application layer of the Internet. Like the foundations of the Internet, the layers are organised around open standard protocols and implemented in Free Software.  Here are a few of the relevant tools we need:

  • a commons-governance platform needs to be developed that allows democratic decisionmaking by all participants involved. Current prototypes already exist, such as the liquid democracy model implemented in liquid feedback;
  • a federated platform for peer production of granular OER;
  • a federated/distributed p2p personal portfolio system with badges, microcredentials and automatically computed metrics about the contributions any user makes in a wide range of peer production platforms (wikipedia, github, oer production platforms & repositories, learning platforms …).You can think of this as part of the future social networks, but instead of proprietary platforms like FaceBook or Google Plus, it will be a distributed network operated by many different actors and even individuals who wish to run their own server;
  • advanced search algorithms and visualisation tools will help find and match people based on interests, skills, and any specifics regarding their contributions. This federated platform will help people form teams and work together on concrete challenges both for learning & economic opportunities. See the FTG;
  • advanced tools to account for the value generated in the network and economic resources available to distribute over the participants according to their contribution metrics. (cf. Open Value Network above). This can be integrated with crowdfunding platforms (cf. Goteo) and complementary currencies.
  • tools and platforms to empower participants to build and reuse 3D visual models and interactive multimedia applications that allow complex subjects to be worked on collaboratively on remote locations.

Although most of the change should be expected to come from bottom-up initiatives, several of the key tools of the roadmap could benefit from European funding. This provides unique opportunities for the European Union and a more sustainable model for higher education and our economy. It will help to select the right prototypes among the currently available, but experimental projects and initiatives and support these to spread. If we compare with the two conservative scenarios that have been sketched during the workshop, both were an extrapolation of the current status-quo (but more privatisation). The first one predicted an elite league of global top-universities, funded by private money and tuition fees. And the second one imagined a consortium of OER & MOOC initiatives, as public-private partnership. The implicit understanding was that with a lot of money they would be able to keep high quality levels and attract the best talents and rich people. However I doubt very much that large sums of money will be the key to build quality projects in a few decades from now. Already now the more interesting innovation is coming – at least in part – from commons-oriented peer production initiatives (cf. Wikipedia, Arduino, …). With the need for capital decreasing, research and education that directly matches the users’ values of equality, autonomy, privacy, solidarity is what I think will lead to the ultimate values of individual and collective freedom and sustainability. And that’s what we work for at the Free Knowledge Institute. I look forward to see how the future will look like 🙂