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An Intro to Open Education

Author: Ryan Holm


Open Education is a bit of a Frankenstein creation of computer science that is affecting the education system. It derived from computer science because it is the application of open source licensing to educational resources. It is having interesting results (sometimes frustrating slow results, however), and as I have worked the past two years on EdTech teaching computer science to K-12 students and now have a side hustle github project that focuses on CS OpenEd, I'd like to take this Code Topeka blogpost as an opportunity to discuss a 101-level introduction to Open Ed to anyone who doesn't know how open source licensing is affecting education today.

Open source licensing usually refers to any software project that makes its source code available to read. There are different levels of open sourcing, from the most restrictive to the most permissive, such as letting you copy the source code as long as a similar open source permissive copyright is used by your project ("copyleft") to letting you use the source code even for commercial/non-open source use as long as the permissive copyright is included somewhere in your source (MIT License). There is usually an open source license for whatever permissiveness you're looking to grant. This github repo is an "unlicense" repo, which is basically public domain. That is the most permissive open source license. Whoever writes up a blog post on this Code Topeka blog will essentially be contributing to Open Ed by fact that their blog post will be made public domain for anyone to reuse and remix without restriction.

There are a different set of open source licenses for non-source code cultural artifacts. Those typcially use Creative Commons licenses. Creative Commons licenses are powerful because they allow CC books to be read and downloaded online for free while still protecting the rights requested by the author, while still being more permissive than copyright. Creative Commons licenses aren't used for source code, but do apply to books, music, and movies. They allow these realms to be "open sourced", allowing for remixing and reuse as well as free download. If you need a primer on Creative Commons license, I recommend this video on YouTube. When I was a musician in college, I released my music under the BY-SA (By/Attribute, Share Alike) license, which was equivalent to copyleft/GPL3.0. I've since public domained my music. I did this because I was into linux long before I got into making electronic music, so I knew about copyleft and wanted to work in the same domain of open source even though I wasn't programming source code, per se. CC allowed me to do this without just using "copyleft" and "anti-copyright." The "CC-BY" license is roughly equivalent to MIT license, and the "CC0" license is public domain.

Most of this got a huge kickstart in 2003 when MIT created its "OpenCourseWare" web page. Using realmedia videos, they hosted videos of their actual class lectures on their OCW website. The debt to open source licensing is obvious in their choice of name for the project: "Open course" instead of "open source." This was the first real initiative of an important player in postsecondary education to commit to creating open source educational resources. While the emphasis on the beginning was videos of lectures, which obviously has a high up-front cost (both for the video and audio equipment but especially in regards to hosting the video files in the days before YouTube), professors at even schools with small budgets eventually found the fundings to make their own OCW, especially after YouTube was invented and after the rapid advancement in digital cameras in the mid-2000s. There was a boom in OCW, and nearly the entire computer science curriculum was available (from prestigious universities) on YouTube by the late aughts. Of course, with the D.R.Y. principle you only need one version at a time, but multiple professors from multiple universities were uploading OCW every year, creating updated versions of their classes in near real time. Of course, the problem with OCW was that the textbook usually wasn't open source. That wasn't due to lack of availability -- there has for a long time been a robust offering of open source computer science textbooks, it's just that the professors weren't brave enough to choose these books for their classes. The creation of Creative Commons in the mid-2000s afforded a hope that OCW would be created that also used an open source textbook. This dream has been slow to be realized, with the stigma surrounding using open source textbooks as the core of the class and not just as a supplment, but I am at the moment cataloging all OCW that also uses OER.

Eventually educators in other departments found these licenses and realized that a public domain of educational resources is a good thing to create, especially considering the potential cost savings to college students. This resulted in the creation of "Open Educational Resources" (OER) as a philosophy as well as the concomitant search engines and databases. This allows OER compilation websites to include download links on their OER databases to the actual book/textbook. OER is just taking off, but it's pretty exciting to be at the birth of a whole new form of open source technology and seeing the adoption in colleges and libraries. Of course, the irony of this is that OER is nothing new. Since computer scientists have been working in open source for decades, many computer scientists already had released their textbooks free online. Though they didn't use these new fangled CC licenses, they did write in their copyright the permissiveness they desired for their work while still releasing their creation for free download online. Many college professors did this, and it's always interesting to come across an old HTML webpage (without CSS, without images, using tables or something) on a college website linking to a full textbook in an important computer science concept. These books were previously hard to find, but now thanks to the crowd sourcing of sites like github, there are repositories centralizing an archive of "free" computer science textbooks. The main one at the moment is EbookFoundation/free-programming-books/, where there is a list of thousands of free computer science textbooks for download. It's sort of ironic to see other college departments play catchup as their professors for the first time in their life encounter open source. Whereas computer scientists have been publishing open source books for decades, CC-licensed books are getting published in other departments for the first time in just the past few years. And the numbers are paltry. The number of free textbooks in other departments (especially the liberal arts) in on the order of tens. Watching OER get released in non-CS departments is a sad affair. The professors are more resistant and stubborn, and view OER as a threat to their bottomline. As a result, OER, while being around for many years, still flounders in every department other than computer science. There are maybe a textbook or two for use in college classes, and usually only for introductory-level classes (see OpenStax). A robust public domain is a testament to the value of the field for society, rather than a testament to the value of the field for a select few with tenure.

As fortunate computer scientists, we can benefit directly while the other departments struggle just to get their professoriate to understand open source licenses, let alone take the plunge to release their textbooks using one. As the department that invented open source licenses for nearly all creative output (source code and cultural), these licenses' saturation and influence upon almost everything computer scientists do has created the unique situation that learning computer science has reached the point that an undergraduate education can be obtained for basically the cost of a cheap tablet and a Raspberry Pi. Since the suite of everything needed to code itself can be obtained for free using open source software, since the suite of everything need to allow yourself to code can be obtained for a couple hundred bucks using open source hardware, and the suite of everything needed to allow yourself to learn to code can be obtained for free thanks to OER and OpenCourseWare. It's never been easier to catalog new and innovative OER and OCW, as a Pull Request to a prominent github repo is all that's needed to add it to the catalog. Crowd sourcing thanks to github will continue to permit ease of access to OER. It's no longer the wild west out there, the infrastructure for this project is mature and finalized. It is up to computer scientists to promote this opportunity to new people in the field, as not many people uninvolved in computer science know about OER and OCW (although platforms like Khan Academy, Udacity, Coursera, edX, and other free MOOCs have saturated American educational culture in recent years).

Part of that will be teaching to students that Github offers educational opportunities outside of just source code. It's a good place to crowd source text documents including books, videos, and catalogs of books and videos, a task formerly dominated by wikis. Promoting Github as an important platform for everyone regardless of department will be a monument task, perhaps even foolhearty, but as a Github evangelist I think it is the best resource at this time for promoting Open Ed. Teaching Github competency should be done at the high school level, and everyone regardless of school or department should know how to maintain a repository. It is as important of a tool in a student's arsenal as a graphing calculator (also a tool with a strong learning curve, but completely worth it). Students should also be taught about open source licenses, so they know where and how to look on the internet for a free educational resource to download.

The funny thing about OER is that it takes an important principle of software development -- D.R.Y., or Don't Repeat Yourself -- and applies it to education. Instead of looking for market solution for a panoply of competing textbooks looking for future subscription fee earnings, it takes the cost of production of one book (just one book) and distributes it among philanthropists so that a professor can dedicate some of their free time to producing a textbook that is dedicated in the public domain. Once in the public domain, there is no need to produce any other similar textbook, because there is zero marketability when it comes to open source books. Instead, this one book can serve the entire world by being downloaded and used free via the internet. Rather than having thousands of professors writing the same textbook over and over trying to get new purchasers, they just create one textbook for use for the rest of eternity. Since it's open source, future updates can just be appended or integrated in the original document and its maintenance can be crowd sourced. This is D.R.Y. when it comes to education, and the immediate benefit to society is a completed oeuvre of public domain books that cover all the bases necessary for a college education in computer science. At which point future OER can be dedicated to media that aren't already covered, such as video lectures or software, etc. Do it once and do it well, then move on to the next gap for learners and fill the holes. It's like road repair work -- pretty boring, not particularly prestigious, but damn essential to the modern city. The former way of charging outrageous prices for college textbooks is dead, and the boom times are fortunately over for opportunistic textbook publishers and authors who could exploit a captive audience.

What's left for OER? Beyond fleshing out curricula in other departments, there is also on the horizon the future finalization and legalization for a "Spotify for Books." Once this product is offered on the market for a $15 a month subscription fee, the former way of going to college and earning a degree are probably over. For $180 a year you will be able to read every book available at your college's library's stack, thus making the need to enroll as a student just for access null. For pittance, all the world's books will be available at a pindrop through the app. Affordable and instaneous (and legal -- pirate book sites already affords this opportunity at the cost of not being legal), open education will be complete. As competiting services lower their prices and streamline their deliverables, public libraries will soon be able to pay for the "Spotify" service. All the world's books will be free for everyone in America through their public library. In my prediction this is only 10-20 years away, and the effects will be monument. Kids will be able to study what they want where and when they want, and costs will no longer be a factor in educational opportunity. OpenEd is a neat trick for the moment, but once we get an affordable "Spotify for Books" education as a practice as we know it will be forever changed. Then anyone can teach themselves what they want for free, without having to rely on trips to the public library or coughing up a hefty sum for college classes. I fully expect a future with ubiquitous free books, and every indication I'm finding while I research this points to it happening within our lifetimes. That, in my opinion, is the objective of open source and the internet: free books. It's taken a while but anyone who has participated in the realm of open source is excited to finally see the relaxation of copyright law's influence in American media finally be realized in the finalization of an app that serves every book every published for pittance. Maybe even the cost of a few ads occasionally.

At that point, online education will change to such a drastic degree that online universities will be able to trim their costs to such a radical degree that the cost for tuition will be able to be covered by philanthropy or else services such as a public library. The public library, for example, already covers the cost of Lynda for most everyone in the nation (and in Topeka we are lucky that the library also subscribes to Treehouse -- a $300 a year value). There already exist online B.S. degrees in computer science that cost $4000 total and master degrees that cost $7000 total. When the cost of these colleges ($1000 a year at the moment) goes below what even Treehouse costs ($300 a year), public libraries will be able to subscribe on their patron's behalf and cover the cost of tuition thanks to a grant or philanthropic endowment. In my opinion, once ubiquitous free digital books happens in America, ubiquitous free college degrees in computer science will rapidly follow (thanks to your hometown public library). You won't be on the hook for college tuition anymore, your public library will pay for you. That's my prediction, we'll see in thirty years if I'm right or wrong. I suspect something similar, if not exactly this, will be common practice. I don't suspect people will be paying to study computer science, computer science will be so affordable that they're practically handing out computer science degrees for free like candy since the overhead of creating CS educational content has been crowd sourced thanks to OER and OCW. It's not a matter of opportunity, it's a matter of motivation for a student to want to study computer science. Computer science education is already free now, thanks to OER and OCW, and in the future computer science degrees will also be free. It's a crazy world where you can get a B.S. in C.S. for $4000 in 2019. In thirty years, even that tuition will be seen as outrageous. People can learn computer science for free because people need to learn computer science in the twenty-first century, and the market meets demand. If you don't believe things are being turned upsidedown, just consider the fact that most future Microsoft technology will be open source. Microsoft is now an open source company. Open source is affecting everything in the world, not just computer software and hardware. It's a really good idea that was created because of the influence of networks and the internet. The internet isn't going anywhere, and neither are open source licenses.

I obviously write about education because I've worked in CS EdTech the past few years. Open Source licenses are affecting every field, not just education (although it looks like education is just about the second most impacted field next to computer science). Open source licensed media is going to work it's way down the creative industries of the world and soon be the defacto choice for copyright. I suggest you enter the world of open source by purchasing a Raspberry Pi, it's just $50 an allows you to explore a low-risk implementation of open source software and hardware. You can explore any topic that catches your fancy, but for now the most robust field for learning using open source media is computer science. Perhaps you could start an open source company or project on Github. Perhaps you could produce OER or OCW yourself. The sky's the limit once your costs are cut down to such a small degree that the need to earn a return on your investment is just a couple tens of bucks. That's what permits you to create open source works and to dedicate media to the public domain. The nice thing about open source is that it sort of acts as an passive and electronics-free Artificial Intelligence, instead of affecting a computer it affects human culture and society. The public domain is a worthy objective to aim your creative efforts towards. It sort of compounds on itself and instead of just rewarding you alone it rewards everyone in society. I'm obviously a bit on the edge when it comes to open source evangelism, but trust me that's from a position of knowledge as opposed to ignorance. If you aren't creating open source technology now, you are basically writing yourself out of the future. You might make a few more bucks in the meantime as a result of your choice, but you won't be influencing the future the same way that you would if you created open source media. That's just an opinion but again, all I point to is the fact that even Microsoft, yes Microsoft, is now an open source company. Open source is the future, proprietary media is not.

That's a lot of predicting of the future, but the immediate gain from the Open Education movement is the uncommonly-known fact that you can learn computer science for free, and soon that will also apply to other departments (first STEM departments, and then in the future liberal arts departments). This doesn't mean colleges are unnecessary, it just means that if you find yourself on the hook for a large debt you might be better off looking at alternatives. I think thanks to ubiquitous free digital books, public libraries will play an increasing role in future computer science education. The fact that the Topeka Public Library has a Treehouse subscription (in addition to Lynda) which is basically an undergraduate education in computer science for free, and you can "library card hop" from a Johnson County Public Library card (available to anyone in Kansas) to a Johnson County borrowers card at Mid-Continent Public Library (Kansas City), which affords you a free subscription to O'Reilly's Safari Books Online, just shows that as a Topekan you are able to get a vast amount of educational resources for free from local public library. That doesn't include their physical stacks nor the sheer amount of free OER and OCW online to add on top of that heap of resources. I know many of the current members of Code Topeka aren't interested in education anymore since they're established developers, but this blog post is for anyone in Topeka that is just starting out their computer science education. It also expands on what I'm researching and working on as a former EdTech developer and current github-based EdTech side hustler. My current project, Holm School, attempts to curate the vast amount of OER and OCW into a bachelor's degree equivalent curriculum. I think at this point curation is needed more than contributing even more OER on top of what has already been curated. EbookFoundation/free-programming-books is a nice repository to have, but to a newbie it is almost valueless since they don't even know where to start or how to choose the appropriate OER for their circumstances. I am also following other curations of OCW and OER in order to catalog their differing approaches for students' benefit.

I love EdTech and am excited I can use my knowledge of open source from working in open source for more than twenty years. EdTech isn't the only solution to problems such as excessive student debt, but curated appropriately it can certainly be a huge benefit to students' bottom line. I myself benefitted immensely from studying CS at Washburn for two years, but I also benefitted immensely from studying Treehouse at the same time through the Topeka public library. I think I successfully navigated the treacherous terrain that is modern college education in CS, in that I got out with a job as soon as possible for just a small initial investment, while also supplementally educating myself at the public library as well as using free OER and OCW. It was so successful in my own experience that I'm now starting a nonprofit in order to teach OER/OCW and public library's benefit to others too. If you ever want to talk about computer science education (K-12 or postsecondary), let me know. I think I'm probably the only person in Code Topeka that's worked on EdTech as a job, so I just wanted to share in a blog post what I've learned about current technology and future innovations. Getting a college education in computer science for just a couple thousand bucks is a neat trick, but I hope in the future that this trick isn't just available to linux nuts and github diehards but also anyone and everyone interested in programming and computers. It's an uphill battle but one I'm particularly interested in, especially as I believe that open source licensing directly benefits human civilization because it is a technology. And technology is a powerful tool when used appropriately by civilized, altruistic people. The more people are digitally literate the better.

For now I'm focusing on what I call "OER Literacy," a sort of companion to digital literacy. Most students aren't aware that legal, free textbooks in computer science are available. OER literacy is the knowledge of where to find such resources, and why you would even want to use them in the first place. College debt is a serious issue, since the opportunity cost of debt when you're young is the equivalent of lost earnings for potentially decades worth of compounding if invested instead. And for the cost of college nowadays, that opportunity cost can easily exceed a million dollars. I wish I were lying but that's the cold facts of a college tuition debt's obligation's worth of index funds (10% average gain annually) compounded over 38 years.

Open Ed at least offers hope to remedy the situation. I'm sort of hoping for a middle ground in which college prices can decrease by their increasing adoption of opened, but honestly I doubt it will happen. College is just a bit of an unsustainable historical note in the day and age of the internet. I think it'll go the way of telephone operators. What isn't going anywhere is the increasing commitment of future authors and creators to publish their works using open source licensing. That will only increase in prominence and ubiquity and soon the public domain will be so robust that most everyone will be aware that going into debt at age 18 in order to learn computer science just isn't necessary. Online education will be so well developed that people will be able to learn what they want, to the degree that they want, without even thinking or trying. OER literacy needs to be taught as a skill of citizenship. What's the point of writing an open source textbook if no one uses it? And no one using it is a bit of a tragedy, instigated by stigma and misunderstanding and fear of the unknown. Someone I was talking to, for example, thinks linux people are just trying to stick it to the man when I brought up the Lawrence Linux User Group in relation to thanking him for introducing me to Code Topeka. I responded that I'm a capitalist and I subscribe to the notion, admittedly rare, that open source is capitalism in action. I know many people who feel open source is communism. I'm skeptical. While there are some counter-cultural legacies behind the history of open source, I think open source is just "good engineering" dedicated to solving a problem that has arisen out of modern technology and the internet. It is politically and economically neutral. It doesn't require an overthrow of capitalism for a command economy instead to work in open source. I instead think technological advancement helps the free market and liberal democracy, which is what I want, so that's why I do it. To deny that open source is a success or that college has gotten a bit out of hand (with tuition increasing four times the inflation rate) doesn't help anyone nor solves an obvious real problem. People benefit from wanting to learn computer science, because it is such a good industry, that often they rebound from heavy tuition hits, but what about students in other departments? Should everyone else in America just pick themselves up by the bootstraps for not being foresighted enough to be computer scientists? Open Ed at least opens the conversation to talk amongst professionals about what could or needs to be done with regards to current educational practices. It is an interesting source of innovation (although innovation is a bit ironic considering computer science communities have been doing "modern" OpenEd practices for decades).

It's never been a better time to be a lifelong learner and computer scientist. Just about everything you need is free online. Who knew when the internet was invented that free postsecondary education would be its killer app? Thank you to all the computer scientists and authors and programmers who licensed their books and videos using open source licenses and made CS Open Ed a possibility. May many others join your ranks in the future and keep lowering the barriers to entry of becoming a programmer.