The New Commons Movement in Education

A new class of knowledge commons is poised to explode in coming years, joining the ranks of free and open source software, the Creative Commons, Wikipedia and others as a coherent social movement. The new groundswell goes by the name of “Open Educational Resources,” or OER, and it includes course materials, digital repositories, collaborative websites for developing teaching materials, wikis for students and scholars working together, multimedia presentations, and much more.

Although the movement is highly eclectic and still evolving, it is united in “the simple and powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that technology in general and the World Wide Web in particular provide an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use and reuse knowledge.” That conclusion is from an excellent new report, “A Review of the Open Educational Resources Movement,” by Daniel E. Atkins, John Seely Brown and Allen L. Hammond. (Link is to an 84-page pdf file.)

OER innovations are only now beginning to develop the critical mass and momentum to qualify as a real movement. But at a conference in Houston convened this week by the Hewlett Foundation — a major funder of OER activity — it is clear that OER is going to have dramatic impacts on education at all levels in the coming years.

The OER movement has particular importance for people who want to learn but don’t have the money or resources — which is to say, developing nations, low-income people and people with specialized learning needs. In some community colleges, for example, the cost of textbooks exceeds tuition. In some developing nations, there would not be libraries if books were not photocopied. Subscriptions to the latest research journals are prohibitively expensive. OER is also about bringing new tools to people who don’t normally have access to them — such as high school students being able to use the Internet to conduct experiments with electron microscopes and world-class telescopes.

OER is based on the proposition that it will not only be cheaper or perhaps free if teachers and learners can find ways to share their materials through the Web. It will also engender more powerful and efficient types of learning. OER has the potential to transform passive students into active participants in communities of learning. It can convert formal, hierarchical modes of teaching into more self-directed, socially driven learning. In short, OER doesn’t regard a student as a funnel into which a teacher pours knowledge. It honors the self-directed capacities of students.

The pioneer in OER was M.I.T., which started the OpenCourseWare Project several years ago by placing the syllabi for all of its classes online, making them freely available to anyone. (This is not be to confused with an M.I.T. education!) Now there are more than 120 educational institutions who have joined the OpenCourseWare Consortium to create “a broad and deep body of open educational content using a shared model.”

At Rice University in Houston, the Connexions project provides an online space where more than one million people from 194 countries are collectively developing courses for all sorts of topics. Currently, there are some 3,755 learning modules and 197 courses on topics ranging from computer science to music to biodiversity. Carnegie Mellon has started the Open Learning Initiative to develop virtual laboratories for students, group experiments and learning simulations.

A variety of scientific disciplines are now working with the Science Commons to try to knock down barriers — software incompatibilities, copyright restrictions, university rules, etc. — to the sharing of their research. Even the humanities, long indifferent or slow in adopting digital technologies, are beginning to recognize the need to develop new online tools for archiving, publishing, social interaction and teaching. A great many of the OER projects mentioned here rely on Creative Commons licenses to facilitate the sharing of works. (For more on the OER movement, check out the new blog,

These are all exciting developments because they point to a different paradigm for learning. It’s too early to know how the diverse projects underway may coalesce and work together; they may not. But collectively, they represent a promising new development for the much-beleaguered world of education. I am eager to see how some of the new commons models for learning grow.