September 11th, 2017

Curt Bonk Talks about Open Education


Open education

Curt Bonk is one of the foremost authorities on open resources in higher education.  A professor of education at Indiana University, he is known for his many hundreds of talks, books, articles, and videos on open education.  For a good introduction to open education, find his 27 short video primers at TravelinEdMan on YouTube. He also has written the free e-book Adding Some TEC-VARIETY, which includes more than 100 technology integration activities you can use in your courses, available at

Open education really breaks into two forms: open courses and open resources.  Open courses are the MOOCs hosted on Coursera, EdX, and elsewhere. Open courses allow higher education to advance its fundamental mandate of serving the public good by making its faculty expertise freely available to the world.  Traditional education serves only the small percentage of the population that can meet the entrance requirements, pay the costs, and take time off to be at a certain place at a certain time.

By contrast, open resources are free material from the outside world that higher education pulls into its teaching.  For instance, studies show that an alarmingly high number of students never purchase textbooks due to their cost.  But faculty can use open textbooks developed by organizations such as OpenStax ( at Rice University to provide the same material at a fraction of the cost or even for free.  As a result, a consortium of 38 community colleges has recently begun switching to open textbooks in an effort to save students over $1,300 per year ( Plus, the electronic textbooks can allow for student annotations, video content, and discussion forums that are not possible with paper-based textbooks.

MOOCs have tended to dominate discussions of open education, which generally fixate on their low completion rates.  But judging a MOOC by retention rates is the wrong matrix, as it is not designed to fulfill a degree requirement.  It is designed to provide information that the participant needs, which means that participants will naturally skip around to get what is relevant to them, just as we skip around reading articles in a newspaper.  MOOCs require a new vision of how we assess the efficacy of a course.

The fixation on MOOC completion rates also ignores the open resource side of the coin by casting a shadow across open education in general. This is a huge oversight, as Curt suggests that efforts to get faculty to embrace open education should start not with trying to cajole them into building a full-fledged MOOC, but rather by focusing on helping faculty see the ways in which open resources can enrich their courses.  This is a much easier step for faculty to take, and help them see the value of open education.

We also need to broaden our view of open resources beyond textbooks.  For instance, former students, alumni, and outside experts are a large untapped resource that are only a mouse click away. They can be asked to provide guest lectures by video, live discussions, or other forms of content that can enrich the course.

Drawing open resources into a course can be hampered by an LMS designed to be walled off from the outside world.  But more flexible systems like Moodle and others could allow alumni to participate directly in the class via the discussion boards.  Another option is to host shared activities on outside systems such as VoiceThread, Padlet, and so on.

Bonk’s central message is that the Internet allows us to break the traditional vision of higher education as something you acquire by leaving the real world for a number of years, only to return later.  Higher education needs to be situated within the wider world both by making its resources available without barriers and by drawing from the wealth of resources available outside of it.

This also requires faculty to think of open courses as an opportunity to make their expertise available to a much wider audience than traditional students.  Faculty often turn away from teaching open courses on grounds that they should not be giving away course content that they created for free.  But why must they think of course content differently from the research they create? Faculty are expected to engage in research and publish that research for the benefit of the world in academic journals that rarely provide royalties.

Hear more about what Curt has to say on open education in his interview at

John Orlando is editor of Online Classroom.

Reprinted from “Tips from the Pros: Curt Bonk Talks about Open Education,” Online Classroom, 16,9 (2016): 1,4. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.