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Open Education: A New Paradigm

The promises of open technologies for education
University Business, Jan 2009

BETWEEN 2010 AND 2025, nearly 80 million “baby boomers” will leave the workforce, just as they entered it between 1960 and 1980. When this exodus occurs, only 20 percent of workers remaining will possess the skills required for most of the jobs being created today. On a global scale, the United States, the European Union, Japan, China, and India will face critical shortfalls of 32 million technically specialized professionals. Throughout the world, the demand for educated professionals is growing faster than populations of people with the required skills. 

A more open culture of collaboration will ultimately lower costs of operation and delivery.

The education industry is facing challenges that make improvements more critical than ever:

1. Demand for increased delivery capacity. In many developing countries, half of the population is under age 25. In India, where more than half is under 25, within a decade the working population could peak at 800 million people. Education and skill-set development are crucial to the continued growth of economies like these. And in major economies, most people will change careers several times in their lives. Retraining and continuous learning mean more demand for education.

2. Declining workforce populations in many developed countries. Japan’s workforce population today is about 2.5 times smaller than that of the United States, and it is trending to be five times smaller by 2050. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2030 the European Union can expect to have 14 percent fewer workers than it does today. Innovation in education is crucial to continued productivity as workforce populations decline in many industrialized countries.

3. Poor system performance. A May 2006 Manhattan Institute study found that for every 100 U.S. ninth-graders, 68 graduate from high school on time, 40 enroll in college, and only 27 are still in college a year later. Only 18 earn an associate’s degree within three years or a bachelor’s degree within six. So it is questionable whether or not the United States will continue to have the necessary skilled labor force to compete globally.

Typically underfunded, today’s educational systems must do more with less and are ill-equipped to close the skills gap. Despite billions of dollars in spending, technology has produced inconsistent results. Siloed institutions and enterprise applications, lack of data interoperability, escalating total cost of ownership, and absence of industry standards contribute to inefficient processes, creating barriers to collaboration and innovation.

To address these challenges, the education industry must offer (1) more open access to education for more students, regardless of their institution, the region they live in, or any other factor; (2) more open data and processes within and across institutions to improve quality and outcomes measurements; and (3) a more open culture of collaboration to foster reuse and sharing, to ultimately lower costs of operation and delivery within the industry. With all this openness, addressing security and privacy concerns will be critical. These changes can be enabled by more open technologies. Together, this new paradigm is referred to as “open education.”

Many educational institutions are taking steps to embrace open education by creating more open, flexible processes and data access to improve quality and performance outcomes, while lowering cost. Here are two examples in K-12:

— In 2005, the School District of Philadelphia implemented “SchoolStat,” a data-driven management process, within 270 schools. It quantifies performance in areas such as attendance and school climate and provides school leaders with actionable data from the district’s IBM-powered data warehouse. District improvements since the implementation include a decrease in student suspensions and a decrease in teacher absences.

— Broward County Public Schools in Florida implemented a similar system based on IBM’s On Demand Workplace for Education. With 231 schools, 274,000 students, and 19,000 teachers, tracking student data and achievement was a daunting challenge, and No Child Left Behind mandates required realignment of the district’s educational technology. An IBM data warehouse and portal has saved money, and county leaders can better understand the potential of every student, tailor educational pathways, and engage in more meaningful dialogue with students, parents, and educators.

Open communities enable greater reuse, shared services and efficiencies, and foster innovation. For example, the Sakai community is an alliance of more than 150 universities, colleges, and commercial affiliates working to build and support a global collaboration platform and tools for learning. IBM, with partner rSmart, provides a commercially supported Sakai solution to schools and universities built for easy adoption and integration.

Open platforms offer innovation and enhancements developed by educators for educators, while also improving integration and reuse, which ultimately lowers costs and improves service quality.

The Chinese minister of education partnered with IBM to address the educational disparity that exists between China’s developed cities and its rural areas, where approximately 70 percent of the population lives. In 2006, BlueSky Open Platform for Basic Education was launched to bring online education resources to China’s approximately 210 million students. BlueSky is a reliable, low-cost, e-learning solution based on open source technology that offers functionality, collaboration, and support to classrooms across the country, no matter how remote or strapped for funding. Piloted in 15 cities across China, BlueSky registered 56,204 total users in less than one year.

Cloud computing can eliminate costly duplication of resources and ongoing support costs.

New technology is enabling more shared services between institutions, lowering IT support costs and equalizing access and learning opportunities across student communities. In 2006, North Carolina State University partnered with IBM in a Virtual Computing Initiative to make education tools and resources available to students at all levels across the state. Supported by IBM Blade Center servers, the resulting Virtual Computing Lab required that the campus PC lab applications be moved into a central campus data center. This has enabled significant savings in the costs and management of traditional PCs, as legacy workstation applications are managed centrally, allowing students to access these resources from thin clients in campus labs or from their own workstations.

The success of this program can be seen in the power of virtualization to provide equal access to curriculum and technology resources to even the most economically disadvantaged or remote parts of the state. The NCSU-IBM initiative has led to collaborative projects with the North Carolina Community College System and a K-12 project in Granville, Franklin, Halifax, and Northampton counties. This lays the groundwork for computing tools never seen before in these areas.

Open technologies like virtualization have spurred an industry paradigm shift from client-server to cloud computing. Cloud computing is an IT infrastructure in which computing resources are virtualized and accessed as a service. It takes advantage of developments like broadband internet, software, and advances in computing power and storage to eliminate costly duplication of resources and ongoing support costs. The NCSU collaboration illustrates the potential for shared IT services to be delivered across wide sets of traditionally isolated education institutions, helping to bridge gaps from funding or IT staffing shortfalls.

To build and maintain a competitive IT workforce, the Vietnamese government partnered with IBM in May 2008 to launch the Vietnam Information for Science and Technology Advanced Innovation Portal to enable open and collaborative relationships with universities and research institutions around the world. Government institutions and universities use the interactive online portal, which runs on a cloud-computing infrastructure, to develop education programs for service science, management, and engineering. The program will offer computing courses in IT service, free software tools, and real-world business case studies. Once implemented broadly, Vietnamese officials hope these resources will help in gaining a competitive edge globally.

For students, open education means consistent and secure access as well as a more level playing field. For educators and administrators, it means increased business flexibility through access from any workstation, as well as lower costs, increased security, and responsive IT infrastructure. For nations, open education is critical to future economic sustainability.

Open education isn’t just about technology; it’s about new ways of communicating, collaborating, and exchanging information such that every student is able to achieve his or her full potential. The fundamental shift taking place indicates an underlying need for education to become more seamless, to break down the silos within and across education institutions, to form an education continuum that’s more student- and outcome-centered and less centered on individual institutions. Open education will enable seamless delivery at a reduced cost. The question is not if open education should become a global reality—it is when. Learning should not be proprietary. Education systems around the world should all have access to the best content and resources possible.

Michael King is vice president of IBM Education Industry.

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