An Open Letter to President Obama On Free & Open Education

Dear Mr. President,

I’m writing regarding your recent announcement about a forthcoming proposed plan for making the first two years of college free in the United States. I realize that this is a startling concept for some, troubling for others, and that it will face many challenges from opponents. I understand that it may be unlikely to get the necessary support to move forward on a national level. It has only been days since the announcement and I’ve already ready dozens of critiques, some with good and important insights that might help to strengthen the proposal and assist us in making progress toward free and universal education. I also realize that making a public statement like this from the President of the United States has power and influence, even if the idea makes no progress on a national level. Your statement brought an important issue and opportunity to the public square. Even by giving attention to the idea and a comparable state-level program like the Tennessee Promise, you have challenged us as a nation to consider how we can be bold and committed to making progress toward increased access and opportunity to higher education and the jobs that require training beyond high school. I also recognize that, while your statements were about a specific idea, the spirit of such a proposal goes well beyond two free years of college. Thank you for the challenge. I would like help, and here are five ways that I will do so.

1. I will champion open education.

Open education is about removing barriers to education and learning. The digital revolution has thrust us into a world where such a vision is possible and scalable on a global level.  Current funding models in American higher education often make it difficult to imagine free and open educational opportunities, and yet widely supported movements like massive open online courses, open badges, open courseware and open education resources prove the power of shared vision and action in this area. Educational opportunities are more available than any time in history, and much of this has come from a spirit of social entrepreneurship, a concept that can serve us well as we dream of a more open, equitable and humane approaches to education.

2. I will champion making a greater distinction between evidence of what is learned and how it is learned.

As much as I believe that two free years of college is a move in the right direction (despite the fact that it challenges the existing model of higher institutions like the one where I work), I aspire to help un-chain evidence of learning from the academy. Today it is hard for many of us to imagine this possibility, but there is a movement underway that is making important progress in this area. We are a group of people involved with something called open badges, visual and digital symbols of achievements and accomplishments. While the concept of a digital badge is simple, it has tremendous possibilities, some of which we are seeing through hundreds of early applications and innovations, projects in after-school programs to competency-based graduate school, workforce development to support for veterans, professional continuing education to turning entire cities into inter-connected learning networks with a common and shared means of verifying and documenting accomplishments.

I am convinced that it is possible to take a set of standards, like what we see established for given professions, and to design competency-based digital badges that can be issued when people demonstrate that they met each of these standards. How they learn it should not matter. It might come from self-study, participation in open courses, through a local study group, through two free years of college, or through some fee-based course or program. By unbundling the “how” of learning from the credential we open doors to employment for people regardless of the learning pathway. I believe that this fits very will with your vision for two free years of college, but it takes it to a level where we are not just concerned with attendance at an institution. This makes sure that what we are doing is resulting in actual learning that translates into new opportunity in life and qualified candidates for many important jobs.

3. I will champion education that is open and accessible to people regardless of socioeconomic status.

While schooling has yet to prove itself to be a complete equalizer among people, true education has shown itself to crease access and opportunity to people regardless of socioeconomic status. It does not solve all problems of inequity, but it gives people a fighting chance. As such, I am committed to supporting, championing, even helping create programs and models that extend educational opportunity to all people, and doing it in a way that doesn’t give the “good stuff” to the élite and offer a more general or watered-down education to the rest.

4. I will champion education that empowers human agency, the capacity for self-direction, purpose-driven living, and service to others.

I believe in a liberal education for all, liberal in the classical sense, which is about education of a free person. It is the education that treats each person as free, inherently valuable, and capable of agency and self-direction. Such a conviction calls for something greater than more education. It calls for a type of learning that equips, empowers, and nurtures people who do more than follow and comply. It invites people to lives of courage, creativity, personal conviction, and personal responsibility.

Too many people are limited by not having a sense of the possibilities, and I will work to promote education that helps people grow into a sense of purpose and possibility. This comes from people who live and think with agency, but who have the opportunity to benefit from learning experiences that invite them reflect  upon their life’s purpose and calling. As such, I will champion education that invites people into the life of the hero’s journey, one that embraces the opportunity to use one’s distinct gifts, talents and abilities in service to others; and that embraces life as a gift and grand adventure.

5. I will advocate for educational innovation and entrepreneurship that furthers the pursuit of the above four goals.

I commend the vision for two free years of college, and this is a good and important step in the right direction. However, if I understand the spirit of such a proposal, I am convinced that this calls for a reform and re-imagining of education that goes beyond removing the cost of tuition. As such, I am excited about the good and important innovation and entrepreneurship work being done in the public and private sector. I will continue to write and work for a vision of innovation in the education sector that is rooted in a desire for social good and accountability for the impact of one’s products and services. At the same time, I will support and bolster responsible experimentation, thoughtful educational entrepreneurship, and purpose-driven innovation.

I support your proposal, Mr. President…not necessarily every letter of it (I have not yet seen it). Perhaps it is best done by supporting and empowering states to do it. Maybe there is another way. In the end, I am open to many ways of getting at the same thing whether it happens nationally or locally. We can almost always find a workable “how” if only we allow ourselves to be immersed and inspired by a compelling “why.” We have a wonderfully compelling “why” for increased access and opportunity to education. As such, I support and seek to build upon the spirit of your proposal. Thank you for giving such attention to this important topic in education.


Dr. Bernard Bull