Daniel Rueda Garrido
Education today is changing, as we all know. It is a change that goes hand in hand with many other changes that we are experiencing, mainly due to the irruption of new digital technologies. The concept of what it is to educate and how we educate and study is also changing. In a certain way, since the Bologna Plan, there has been a tendency to maximise results through the connection between the educational institution (mostly university) and the world of work, with the reduction of curricula and in general a reduction in content and even in the requirements demanded for graduation. Today, more than ever, it is the student who decides what to study thanks to a wider choice of subjects and how much he wants to study beyond the minimum requirements. The more interested they are in a topic, the more they can learn about it, and this has been made possible by the increasing availability of educational resources in more and more societies and in the global digital network.
Thanks to this trend towards Open Education, today’s student has all the material available, or so it is intended, at the click of a button. The problem lies in the quality and reliability of these resources. It is therefore very important to discuss the issue of Open Education resources in public debate as we are doing this week with Open Book Publishers. It is well known that Wikipedia and Youtube videos in secondary education are often the main choice when a student wants to broaden his knowledge of a subject (in the West at least, in other countries like China they have other platforms such as Weibo). Open education, as all teachers know, has in this uncritical approach its first struggle to fight. Be that as it may, when it comes to revised texts and quality material, open education is proving to be an essential tool for the new concept of education in the 21st century. Students, both high school and university, have the possibility to take their own education into their own hands, as well as the obvious advantage of eliminating or reducing costs for both parties (users and providers) in production and acquisition.
In my own experience, digital resources have made my research possible while living in various countries such as China where libraries had no or very limited supply of books in Western languages such as English. And in the courses I have taught, I think it has made it much easier for students to interact with the materials when they were uploaded on my website or on the educational platform we used during the pandemic. The fact that these documents, notes, diagrams and books are permanently available on the web, undoubtedly facilitates study in terms of accessibility, economy and space. I admit that these open education resources would have helped me a lot when I was a student. I did part of my studies at a distance learning university, which seems to be the general trend today. I always used to recommend that kind of distance education, of course back then, in 2004, we didn’t have the digital resources that we have today. All the materials or most of them were still on paper but the student had his education in his hands. This is even more true today than it was 15 years ago. Now, to weigh and discuss the two sides of the debate, I will say that there were and (even more so today) there are three aspects that in my opinion represent a loss with respect to traditional education, by which I mean face-to-face education with paper books and in front of a teacher. These aspects are the loss of the role of the teacher, the dissolution of the educational community and the inscrutability of the enormous amount of information.
Open education has favoured and continues to favour this new individual distance education through platforms and social networks. This is making the important figure of the teacher disappear, already officially with the Bologna plan reducing him/her to a guide. And what is the importance of the teacher I am referring to? That of being a role model. We all need role models to get started in our profession and in life itself. Teachers, because of new technology and open education, are disappearing as a role model. The teacher, with whom one feels certain identification, and who transmits knowledge and experience based on principles and values from person to person, is in the process of dying out. And with it, the second aspect, that of the dissolution of the educational or student community. Today communities are said to be digital, global, which is the same as saying that there is no community but individual users. I already experienced both aspects when I began to study in open education, despite its advantages. I lacked the figure of the teacher with whom I could discuss and identify. And I lacked the community of learners with whom one feels a unity; something that could be described as a lack of belonging. In addition to this, in traditional education, the use of the paper book with its limited options of acquisition and even production, gave a certain security, false of course but comforting, that one was reading if not everything, almost everything necessary to be up to date, being the key books only a few. Now, however, with the massification of books and their accessibility in open Publications, the obligation to read to be up to date is unfeasible. The way in which we read is changing, namely, the way of reading at ease in front of the pages of a book that we hold in our hands and of which we are certain that it is worth reading, has now given way to a fragmentary and fast way, jumping from lines and pages, and even jumping from one book to another in the pdf viewer, unsure of the value of what we read there, so that reading is unfinished and functional. Today this can certainly be transferred to what open education presupposes, namely, people trying to train themselves individually, with less time than ever to read carefully and less certainty of the value of what they read, without teachers and without a community.
On the other hand, in the world of academia, open education is facilitating access to information and discussions previously reserved for a privileged few or those professionals and specialists in a given sector. Today, specialisation is, in any case, closing in on itself through various mechanisms, including peer review in international journals, as detailed by Martin Gurri in The Revolt of the People (2015). Thus, there are two contradictory trends: on the one hand, every amateur is increasingly in a position to obtain as much information as those specialists, and on the other hand, elitism is being exacerbated to the same extent that is growing the number of people who can access resources that used to be the subject of specialisation. Specialists use various mechanisms to continue to impose the content, views and methods that are considered standard, while at the same time academic journals are flooded with articles in which what falls outside these standards is simply not taken into account. If open education supports individual training outside scientific communities, so that these individuals, in their research, are not subjected to the standards imposed by a certain tradition in their field of specialisation, their results are only with great difficulty accepted by academic societies and journals. The novelty and heterodoxy to which having a vast amount of information at one’s disposal, unconstrained by school or tradition, in a way, gives rise, results in a certain academic ostracism. This is possibly the reason why blogs and social networks are being chosen quite frequently for the publication of research that would otherwise be difficult to publish on traditional academic platforms. By this I mean, in the academic world, which is what I am referring to, there is a trajectory of two contradictory forces, one of change and innovation nurtured by open education and the other of stagnation and protection of the standards of various schools and traditions.
Finally, I would like to conclude with a general reflection on open education through the network as a way of bringing knowledge and enabling education to people in the most diverse material and social conditions. I believe that its effect can already be seen in the rise in the general level of education and training of the world’s population. Access to educational resources of all kinds is such that more people are obtaining university degrees, bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees, many of them at a distance and some of them free of charge, such as at The People’s University (USA). This, it should not be forgotten, is also having an impact on the general organisation of the academic hierarchy, which we cannot be under the illusion that it is disappearing as the educational level of the general population rises. The immediate effect in the academic world is that university degrees are depreciating. And for certain teaching positions on offer, a doctorate has lost its value, and the way to continue setting limits and hierarchies is to establish a preference for those candidates who are postdocs, so that the only ones who have a chance in the rickety job market of the university world are postdocs. This is an academic figure that is very much in vogue, and which has been promoted for no more than a decade (China, the US and the European Union are offering the most postdocs). In fact, it goes hand in hand with the reduction in curricula and years of academic degrees, with the postdoc being a position that is accessed through competition and for a fundamentally research purpose. So the number of years of degrees is shortened but other academic degrees are added to the training of those who want to engage in academic research. For now only a few can, but there are more and more calls for applications at many universities. When the labour demand from these postdocs becomes massive, and due to the speed at which this process is taking place this will happen in about 5 years’ time, a new category of competitive access will have to be opened up so that the world’s top universities can continue to attract the elite, and then, what will this category of academics be called? Post-post-docs? What will we end up with?
The point is that no matter how much the level of education is raised, there will always be an unequal access to jobs due to scarcity in a competitive market. The more education is provided for all, the higher the level of academic elites will be because of these restrictions on access to jobs that determine the evolution of knowledge and scientific standards and criteria. This situation, which is more prevalent today in some countries than in others, nevertheless indicates that a change of strategy is needed to bring into the labour market all those citizens for whom open education has opened up a horizon of training opportunities, so that the equality achieved in access to education is accompanied by an equally desirable and necessary achievement of the possibilities to contribute to society with the acquired training through changes in the labour sector in line with the new situation of the 21st century.
Daniel Rueda Garrido is the author of Forms of Life and Subjectivity: Rethinking Sartre’s Philosophy an Open Access title that explores the fundamental question of why we act as we do. Informed by an ontological and phenomenological approach, and building mainly, but not exclusively, on the thought of Sartre, Daniel Rueda Garrido considers the concept of a "form of life” as a term that bridges the gap between subjective identity and communities.
You can read and download this title for free on the link below.