Nearly 20 years after the launch of MIT OpenCourseWare, OCW Director Curt Newton lays out a vision for how open knowledge can transform education to better serve humanity in the next decade. This is an adaptation of remarks given at the ScienceDigital@UNGA75 Digital Diplomacy and Cooperation event, organized by People-Centered Internet, on September 24, 2020.

In the many challenges we currently face, there are also unprecedented opportunities for transformative progress. In our responses to the COVID-19 public health crisis, in our reckoning with the inequalities and injustices so deeply embedded within our systems, in our solutions to the daunting reality of our changing climate, so much is at stake. We can’t afford to revert to the status quo. We have a once in many-generations chance to build back better and enable everyone to thrive.

Open knowledge, especially in the form of open educational resources (OER), freely shared and readily adapted through digital technologies, are already an indispensable tool in this progress. I’d like to share my vision for the future of OER and its exponentially growing impact. 

Free access to knowledge, and the freedom to apply and extend that knowledge, is essential in order to understand, connect with each other, and act upon deeply important, complex and rapidly evolving issues. The transforming power of open knowledge is the basis of UNESCO’s recently approved Recommendation on Open Educational Resources. And it’s the animating force behind MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW), the program I’m honored to direct, which helped launch the open education movement nearly 20 years ago and is still going strong, supporting many millions of curious learners and committed educators around the world every year.

A framework for progress

Learners and educators keep telling us at OCW how knowledge shared through OER sustains learning in spite of personal illness or civil wars; how knowledge shared through OER empowers them to learn new skills and launch new careers; how knowledge shared through OER builds their community’s capacity to solve pressing problems.

In this decade, I see four qualities that will ensure open knowledge, and especially OER, propels progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and transforms billions of lives. 

  1. Creating and adapting with radical inclusion
  2. Sharing through a network of unshakeable resilience
  3. Rapidly iterating to include the latest knowledge and experience
  4. Experimenting and refining with adaptive scale

Inclusive, Resilient, Iterative, Scalable (IRIS)

Image for Open Knowledge Provides Clarity of Purpose for Education in Crisis

Source: iStock

The iris is the part of the eye that expands and contracts in response to changing light conditions so we can always see clearly. The more open the iris, the more light gets in. And it’s more than just “functional”—it’s the colorful part of the eye, and unique to every person. IRIS speaks of vision, of responsiveness, of beauty, and diversity. 

I offer IRIS as a complement to David Wiley’s “5 Rs” activities enabled by OER licenses: to retain, revise, remix, reuse, and redistribute material. IRIS emphasizes the qualities of systems, practices, and mindsets that will allow OER to realize its full potential, to maximize the positive impact of the 5Rs activities.

Let’s unpack each of the IRIS qualities a bit more:

  • Inclusive – MIT openly sharing its teaching with the world through MIT OpenCourseWare was a profoundly inclusive act when it launched in 2001, and remains so today. That said, many communities and learners remain marginalized by long histories of systemic oppression and inequity. So we join with all OER practitioners working to lift up all types of knowledge—from science/rationality to art/feeling to social/beliefs—are well represented; that OER recognizes the expertise from generations of lived experience and bonds of reciprocity, as much as from labs of boundary-pushing exploration and libraries of institutional memory; that OER welcomes the dialogues and disagreements among the young and old and in-between. Inclusive OER reflects the full range of perspectives and voices, dismantling the dominance of only some traditions and certain voices being valued. 
  • ResilientYou can’t take that away from me... Because all users are granted the “5Rs” rights in using OER materials, the knowledge and the connections OER enables are there for the long haul. Resilient means that open knowledge is not bound to a particular platform or system, but is easily accessed, downloaded, transferred and carried along, even in times of great disruption and displacement. Resilient OER is there when you need it, anytime and anywhere.
  • Iterative – In this time of transformation, everything is a work in progress, with rapid cycling from step to step. And because big challenges often share common root causes and require multidisciplinary solutions, progress in one domain can be rapidly transferred, explored and incorporated in other domains. For instance, aspects of a successful health outcome can become seeds for growing progress on alleviating poverty, improving education, and other SDGs. Iterative OER fosters experimentation, novel applications and creative mashups, a virtuous cycle of learning and refinement that continually moves us ahead.
  • Scalable – Solving big challenges needs knowledge infrastructure and systems that are adaptively “glocal”—with the capacity to share content, connections, and resources equitably around the globe, while at the same time enabling the local customization that’s necessary for inclusive engagement with individuals and communities. And between these poles are myriad opportunities for intermediate-scale collaborations, such as regional hubs, with a “just right” mix of ambition, resources, and attention to detail. Scalable OER enables knowledge to spread globally and act locally.

The future of OCW

At MIT OpenCourseWare, we are using the IRIS qualities to inspire and guide our work. Next year we will be launching a new platform and new programs for even greater openness, reach and impact, while sustaining our core commitment to freely share MIT materials with the world. A seamless experience for mobile device and bandwidth-limited users, more intuitive and powerful content discovery, and a suite of new features to support educators as they adopt and adapt OER for their teaching, are just a few of the starting points for the next generation of MIT  OCW. 

We embrace the lifelong need to listen, learn, and adapt—for everyone. We were all born curious, imaginative, insightful, and deeply connected. Oppressive forces and crises may seem to drive out these qualities, but they can never be destroyed. And given the opportunity, people will reclaim, recover, and rebuild. In spite of efforts to divide us, we are interconnected as global citizens, and ready to learn from each other. Knowledge shared openly is one of the best ways to build and sustain these bonds.

We look forward to working together with you all, empowering learners and educators around the world to create a truly sustainable and equitable future. 

Curt Newton is Director of MIT OpenCourseWare. He works to put the transformative power of open education in the service of a more equitable and sustainable world, and has a particularly personal commitment to the cause of climate justice. Connect with Curt on LinkedIn and Twitter.