Blog Post

Three Pillars for Open Education

Three Pillars for Open Education

Open source software has shown the world something amazing: that thousands or even millions of people can collaborate in a relatively uncoordinated way to achieve something remarkable.  Many of us are thinking about how open education might replicate this staggering success.  I want to share some of the thought we're developing at with the HASTAC community and invite comments, feedback, and help making open education a reality.  

Despite the ambitious title, I can't claim I know for sure how we'll build education's open future.  But by examining the history of open source, I think we can see what shape the answer will take.  And so this is the approach we're taking with Coursefork: the hypothesis that the future of education looks a lot like the present of software and that both are inexorably becoming open.  

There are three areas that we believe educators must develop if we are to make this future a reality: Community, Leadership, and Technology.



As I've written before, community is like a fabric, made up of many individual strands.  The phrase 'open source' focuses on the fact that the source code of software is available.  Similarly, some believe that 'open education' is primarily about open materials.  Projects such as Merlot and the Open Courseware Consortium have endeavored to make vast repositories of course materials available to educators and students alike.  But the real strength of open education and open source alike are the social interactions they enable about and around the open content.  Access to vast amounts of code or massive repositories of powerpoint decks is a start but is formidable and unwieldy.  Social platforms like Github have won out over less engaging and interactive platforms like Sourceforge for this very reason.  The open repositories with the most robust communities are best able to sustain themselves and their projects.  Excellent examples of this already exist: Mozilla Software Carpentry has a growing network of volunteers united around its open workshops, designed to teach scientists to code.  GirlDevelopIt is just one of several organizations uniting around shared curricula focused on teaching women to code.  These initiatives are succeeding where others did not because they have effectively developed interwoven communities of instructors, volunteers, and students.  



A community is unlikely to flourish without leaders and the direction and drive they provide.  Even a community that's already thriving needs continuity as its membership grows and changes. But in a distributed environment, this might mean that a community has many leaders, helping coordinate and motivate contributors in specific locations or with specific shared interests.  How are these leaders identified, and mentored?  How are they able to actually lead their communities?  In a distributed group, the real question is whether community members take ownership and join the leadership.  That means you!  Open doesn't just mean access- it means you can (and should) get involved and take a leadership role.  The most successful communities encourage and develop new leaders, of course, but the foundation is built when those first few step up and start moving forward.  What is your role in education's open future?



Community and Leadership are inescapable requirements for open education to flourish.  But each of them con be facilitated by the right tools.  As the example of Github has shown, technology that acts primarily as a medium of contextual conversation around an open, distributed workflow has the potential to ignite revolutions.  If the picture I've painted above is even close to accurate, then that's exactly what we need: Github for Courses. is still in alpha, and has a long way to go.  But we're about to double our team and move full steam ahead making this vision a reality.  Currently courses are simply slide presentations.  Immanent upgrades will support a more nested structure, allowing instructors to include materials for multiple sessions, and supporting 'inverted' and other non-traditional styles (perhaps even some Cathy Davidson-style cartwheeling!).  Most importantly, we will soon support documentation for courses.  Just like in software, excellent documentation is as important as excellent content.  Instructors rarely provide "Getting Started" when they share their materials.  As communities of practice develop around educational approaches, we hope many more instructors will document their courses so that anyone can teach


What next?

We've made lots of progress since presenting the initial idea at HASTAC 2013 in Toronto, and continue to evolve our webapp every day.  Coursefork is a platform that connects instructors around open materials, helping them find and form communities of practice.  Read more about our vision in this interview on Techli or this one on

But our technology is only one of the three pillars. The hundreds who use Coursefork every day are building the community and taking the leadership roles we know are neccessary.  The HASTAC community has just the right combination of commitment to openness and pedagogy to grasp and share in our mission and help us get there.  Help us by signing up for the alpha, telling instructors who already use open materials about us, or sharing your thoughts in the comments below.



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