How open education relates to socioeconomics

Debt is truly a heavy burden to carry. But to no one more so than those attempting to rise from poverty and enhance their prospects of a better livelihood.

Why is this? The very mechanism designed to propel people into better places – education – comes with shackles that drag down those struggling to break out of the cycle of poverty.  That shackle is the cost of a 21st century university education. According to The Guardian, the less well-off are accumulating far more debt than their wealthier counterparts, simply in order to gain a degree – despite arguments that university funding schemes in the United Kingdom, for example, actually benefit poorer students. While it is true that steps had been taken to alleviate the strain on poorer students, that gain has been since cancelled out by increased student loan repayments.

One research study carried out by a Boston-based non-profit interviewed more than 100 low-income individuals and found most existing debt had resulted from student loans, followed by unemployment and medical fees. Most notably, it found that the greatest burden of all to participants were the high interest rates they were subjected to when paying back installment loans, so high that such debts were in fact nearly impossible to pay off, lending further to their bad credit rating.

And sadly, it all makes sense – tuition fees are on the rise world-wide. The cost of a college degree in the United States has increased a whopping 12 times over the past 30 years, with college fees in general having increased by 1,120 percent since the first records were taken in 1978. Compounding the problem are the hidden fees slowly being factored into university system costs, including “service fees”, “activities fees”, “health fees” and “curriculum fees”. Fees that are entirely non-essential to gaining an education, but part of the “college package” and a way of ensuring the “right people” continue to graduate with university degrees. And this doesn’t even take in to account the cost of feeding and accommodating oneself through the college years, together with textbooks, travel costs and so forth.

So even those attempting to rise up and break free of their circumstances, by gaining new skills and attaining qualifications and higher levels of education, are more or less doomed because of the inherent failures of the modern education system.

But something is happening. A revolution is taking place.

And that revolution is free, readily available, open education. Defined as a philosophy about the way people should produce, share, and build on knowledge, open education is premised upon collaboration – among institutions, administrators, educators, and students. It is method of teaching and learning that depends only upon an internet connection and the desire to learn. Open Educational Resources (OERs) are the materials and tools that are used to deliver lessons, and these include podcasts, syllabi, lesson plans, lectures, worksheets, textbooks and videos, among other resources. Perhaps the most wonderful part of open education is that its creators typically waive the copyright, meaning others can freely access, use, translate, and modify their resources, making it a truly global platform for learning and engagement.

Is open education the solution to the woes of the lower-class? To the cries of students burdened with loans and debt? It seems this could be so.

Since 2001, when Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) became the first university to make its courses publicly available online, the OERs movement has grown rapidly. Today, MIT offers 21,000 online courses in 9,904 languages and utilising contemporary online materials including custom-designed textbooks. The decision sparked a change – it led to a draft national policy on OERs being validated to address the shortage of quality learning resources in the subsector, for the first time in the history of higher education. 

OERs have even been recognised for their potential to solve the global education crisis and contribute to sustainable economic growth due to their accessibility and adaptability – but only if governments come to recognise their power. Already, more than 400,000 teachers have benefited from the Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa open education program, whilst Open University’s ‘OpenLearn ‘website has attracted more than 21 million site visitors since 2006.

There can be no denying we are in the middle of a crisis in respect to higher education, right around the world. It is overpriced, exclusive, out of touch and outdated. Is open education the solution? It symbolises equality, freedom, empowerment and citizens’ rights to its very core, but is it enough to pull poorer members of the community out of the cycle of debt they wish to break themselves free of?

It could well be, only if governments around the world and particularly those governing countries where the disparity between rich and poor, privileged and under-privileged, educated and uneducated, is so great, sit up and pay attention, and support such platforms in whichever way they possibly can so that they may thrive into the future.

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