Free Learning Rules: The Downsides (pt.1) - No Free Lunch

Free Learning Rules: The Downsides (pt.1) - No Free Lunch


Finding fault with the Free Learning Rules scenario and its advocates may strike some as insensitive or worse. What could possibly be wrong with a world where “anyone can now learn anything from anyone at anytime?” How could anyone criticize such a noble cause as providing tuition-free universal access to education? Isn't free learning another cute, cuddly kitten beyond reproach?
Unfortunately, the answer is 'no' for several reasons. Here's one:

No free lunch -- yes, the old saw applies; free learning is not as free as it appears to be. In theory, as Wikipedia describes it, open educational resources (OERs) “are offered freely and openly for anyone to use” as well as to re-mix, improve and redistribute under some licenses. In practice, this is often not the case. In many instances such as the Open Learning Initiative, courseware is free for learning purposes but not for educational purposes. Some web sites require fees.

Also, OERs are often not as easy to use “off the shelf” as they may appear. For example, the OER Commons web site divides its featured resources according to the American system (K-12/higher education) which surely must confuse some international users. Besides the obvious language issue (the vast majority of OERs are in a single language, English), there are deeper cultural issues with OERs - difficult-to-translate idioms, references to country- or region-specific historical events or cultural figures, embedded pedagogical approaches, etc.

OERs are also hamstrung by the same limitations which have limited the use of learning objects and shareable content objects. In U.S K-12 education, for example, a learning object or other OER typically needs to be adapted to meet a particular state’s set of standards or even a local school system’s specific curriculum. In higher education, the use of learning objects and other OERs have long been limited by the ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome: college faculty are reluctant to use learning resources which they didn’t create, or at least put their unique stamp or perspective. Many OERs are also useless or nearly so by themselves; they require additional scaffolding to be ready to use such as creation of related lessons, assignments, or assessments. And some OERs are not platform- or operating system-neutral: they must be run on a particular operating system or learning management system.

As a result, “free” learning resources often require a certain amount of “sweat equity” on the part of their users. Likewise with learning tools, most of which take an investment of time and effort to find, learn, and use. Learning tools sometimes disappear or drastically change without warning, as happened for instance with the summer 2010 conversion of the social networking platform Ning to a paid-only use, which caused a lot of scrambling, consternation, and abandonment of sites. Many a prospective user has turned to the open source LMS Moodle thinking it was "free" to use, only to find that operational costs were significant, in some cases even higher than commercial LMSs.

"Open" and "free" are relative terms; using these resources comes at a cost, and to disingenuously pretend otherwise invites disappointment and cynicism. Some may say that this is implicitly understood, and to some extent this is correct. A suitable semantic alternative ("freer"? "more open"??) is not readily apparent. But the starting point with such resources is not "open" or "free" -- it is "how open?" "how much less expensive?", etc. -- a truth which often gets lost in the hype and the promises...

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