Rick West on Open Education, Equity, and Responsible Use of Generative AI

Prof. Dr. Rick West from Brigham Young University is a prominent figure in the field of educational technology, known for his contributions to open education, learning communities, micro-credentials, instructional design and creativity. Many of his writings can be found on the platform EdTechBooks, an online publishing tool and catalog that features open-access educational materials. I recently had the pleasure of welcoming him as a guest speaker to our hybrid classroom at the Asian University for Women (AUW), and we used the opportunity to conduct a follow-up interview.

EdTechBooks is a collaborative space for educators and experts to freely share their knowledge, resulting in a vast repository of open educational resources think Amazon, but with free books. Peer review and user feedback mechanisms signal reliability and credibility of the open-access books. An award-winning, highly influential title by Rick West is Foundations of Learning and Instructional Design Technology – now available in a new edition, edited together with Heather Leary. A large part of Rick West’s work focuses on helping students understand their place in the field of instructional design and educational technology. This is exemplified by titles such as Failing Forward, where seasoned professionals share stories about failure and rejection, and the book Becoming an LIDT Professional. As Rick explained it: “Our books have been changed into other languages, used around the world, for example in the Philippines. They’re used all over the world because they’re modifiable. You can translate them, you can adapt them. You can change them. They use a Creative Commons license. We think that we’re changing the world of education a little bit by having these kinds of books”.

Another recurring theme of Rick’s work are open badges, recognizing the diverse skills individuals acquire throughout their learning journeys. He introduces the concept of open badges which were developed by Mozilla in 2012 to address this need. These digital badges serve as a flexible and comprehensive way to acknowledge learning achievements, going beyond traditional degrees to include smaller, more specific accomplishments. Importantly, badges can be awarded by various entities, such as universities, employers, or community organizations, making them accessible to a broad range of learners. The key advantage of open badges is their portability and transferability, enabled by the Open Badge standard. Learners can collect and display their badges in a comprehensive learner record, providing a data-rich and shareable representation of their skills and achievements.

In a new project, Rick addresses a significant pain point in education, namely the limited accessibility of high-quality assessments due to cost and retrieval issues. To tackle this problem, he is working on the “open assessments, instruments, and measures for educational research” (open AIMs) initiative. The project goal is to create a repository where individuals can submit their assessments for review and publication. These assessments are openly accessible, allowing anyone to use and translate them.

In the interview, we talked about open education, social media, generative AI, and the value of writing and scholarship.

“I just want to figure out what this field is all about”

Stefanie Panke: Curt Bonk described you as one of the up-and-coming superstars in educational technology. What brought you to the EdTech field and to the specific topics that are recurring themes in your work, such as learning in communities, designing for openness, and solving real-world problems?

Richard West: I came to this field somewhat accidentally. I was a journalist, working as a sports writer, and saw the world of journalism changing due to the rise of the Internet. While working in journalism, I helped with technical aspects like page layout design and multimedia design for newspapers. I loved education and technology, especially figuring out ways to make information consumption easier for people. A friend introduced me to the field of educational technology, and I pursued my Master’s degree at Brigham Young University.

On my first day, I remember hearing students talking about complex topics they wanted to study, such as virtual worlds and blended learning. When it was my turn, I said, “I’m Rick West, and I just want to figure out what this field is all about.”

That feeling of being overwhelmed yet knowing I belonged in the field influenced my scholarship. A large part of my work focuses on helping students understand the field’s history and current topics. For my dissertation, I explored communities of creativity and how we develop collaborative networks to support creativity. My interest has always been on social relationships and their impact on learning. As our field has moved more towards online learning, I’ve explored how to keep online learning social, ensuring people don’t feel isolated and still feel connected to their institution, peers, and instructors.

Recently, a lot of my work has been centered on open education. Open education offers solutions to problems in education and leverages the opportunities provided by the Internet. I’ve been involved in open education through open textbooks, open badges, and open recognition. Thinking about backward design, where you start with the end goal and work backward, the ultimate end in education is the credential. Re-envisioning credentials with an open mindset can impact the entire educational process.

“Education is so much more than just content”

Stefanie Panke: I’m an adjunct professor in two graduate programs where I teach international students. In this context, I meet a lot of absolutely terrific young people who get the rare chance of obtaining a graduate degree. Many of them are first-generation students, and they’re fully aware of the privilege that this degree entails. Are open educational resources and open access textbooks enough to promote equity in education on a global scale? Or are they just one ingredient, and if so, what else do we need?

Richard West: I’ve been pondering this question quite a lot. Open content, encompassing open textbooks, open educational resources and open articles, is undoubtedly crucial. Education requires content. But there’s a misconception; we’ve grown comfortable with the notion that producing an open textbook or article means we’ve fulfilled our commitment to open education. But education is so much more than just content. In my work, I’ve been conceptualizing an open educational framework. Building on the work of David Wiley, I believe this encompasses open content, open recognition, and open practices. We need openly discussed, shared, and established criteria for what we expect people to learn. It’s also about open assessments. Often educators want to gauge learning, but assessments are hidden behind paywalls. We need these instruments to be accessible. And finally, the credentials students receive should be open, which is why I delve into open badges and open micro-credentials. Education isn’t only content; it’s about assessment, feedback, credentials, pedagogy, and relationships. All these components need to be open for us to truly embrace open education. That’s the direction I’m exploring.

“I don’t think our digital literacy is currently very strong”

Stefanie Panke: Currently, everybody is all aflutter about generative AI. You’re somebody who thinks very broadly about the online education space, so I wanted to get your take on it.

Richard West: There are new technologies all the time, and a lot of them are interesting, but not necessarily Earth-shattering. I remember when I was a grad student, I did a conference presentation on blogs and wikis, the new vocabulary of teacher education. I thought this was going to change the world.  Looking back, it was significant, and blogs and wikis have done a lot of good, but I don’t know that they changed the world. Sometimes we oversell technologies, and I was guilty of that as well. But every now and then there are technologies that really do change the world. The Internet was one. Obviously, education just isn’t the same after the Internet. I think generative AI is going to be another. We’re going to look back 10 years from now and wonder, “How did society work before generative AI?” Just like I often think, “How did I ever get anything done without email?”

I think generative AI is going to be transformative. For good and for bad. Some of the negatives have been discussed quite a bit. Generative AI is really good at creating things very quickly, but a lot of it isn’t very good. We have to do a better job of judging what is good and what’s not good. What’s true and not true. Because generative AI makes things up, it isn’t very accurate. It’s also not very equitable on occasion in the things that it produces. This output will presumably get better as the algorithms improve. But still, I think we’re going to need a higher level of digital literacy to use this material effectively. That concerns me because I don’t think our digital literacy is currently very strong. We’re already in our echo chambers, not really listening, reading, or hearing a wide variety of opinions. We tend to only consume content that aligns with our beliefs. So we’re prone to being deceived or simply not accessing good information because our perspectives aren’t broad enough. Generative AI might amplify these echo chambers, making it harder to discern truth from falsehood.

However, there are also positives. Generative AI is going to allow us to do things that we couldn’t do before. For example, I’m terrible at graphic design. Even though I’m familiar with tools like Photoshop, I just don’t have the artistic eye. That’s always been a limitation for me, especially in education where visuals are crucial. So, I’ve often had to rely on others to create graphics. Now, I can use prompts to generate visuals. If you give AI the right prompts, it can produce impressive results. This technology allows me to better showcase my strengths while compensating for my weaknesses. This might empower instructional designers to be more independent by leveraging generative AI to enhance their skills. That will be exciting in many ways.

“We shouldn’t assume it’s always going to be beneficial”

Stefanie Panke:, I certainly do remember the early days of the Internet. Another example that was, I think, a game-changer in our society, was social media. As you mentioned, blogs and wikis may not have changed the world, but Wikipedia certainly did. What can we learn from our past about how we might adjust the parameters for adopting generative AI? If you consider both the Internet and social media, are there things we should have done differently as educators? Are there areas where we should have done more safeguarding or more exploration?

Richard West: That’s a really good question. I haven’t had a chance to deeply ponder that, but I will share since you brought up social media, that I think we’re learning that we perhaps jumped too quickly into it. I’m not particularly concerned about adults or educators, but I am worried about how we introduced social media to young people. There’s strong evidence suggesting that early exposure to social media can lead to higher levels of depression and anxiety, especially among young women. So, perhaps platforms like Facebook and Twitter weren’t really designed for teenage brains. Maybe we shouldn’t have adopted them so hastily, and we should have exercised more caution until we understood the potential impact. Now, I don’t know how you put the genie back in the bottle. It seems that here in the United States, there’s an effort to move cautiously. At least, the creators of ChatGPT, along with others like Elon Musk, are calling for a measured approach, so there seems to be a desire to go slower. The question is, can we prevent the market from moving quickly?

So, as educators, what do we do? I believe we need to use these tools, to explore and understand them. It’s crucial to figure out how to implement them into our practices and our teaching. But we shouldn’t assume it’s always going to be beneficial. At times, our field can be too forgiving of technology’s faults. We get caught up in the allure of a shiny new technology without considering its negative aspects. We need to be honest with ourselves about the challenges and negatives. We need to question when we should be using these tools with younger minds. As much as possible, we need to be genuinely reflective practitioners. As a field, we can recognize the potential of this technology and at the same time ask: What does it really mean for us? And what precautions are necessary when integrating it?

Stefanie Panke: What regulatory challenges do you see around AI and how should those be addressed? What role do you think regulations will play in making this technology accessible, safe and productive?

Richard West: That’s a tough question. I know that regulating anything in the commercial market can be difficult and problematic, especially in the case of new technologies. Other countries may not be regulating to the same degree, so we don’t want to fall behind in terms of understanding the technology.

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I think we need to be particularly careful with children. We can explore generative AI as adults, but we need to slow down for the youth until we better understand it. I don’t think we should stop using these tools, but we need to be cautious and reflective about how we use them. We need to be open to regulations if they are needed, or at least to good policies and practices that help us use these technologies in ethical and responsible ways.

“I don’t want to be too quick to throw away the benefit of having us do this work ourselves”

Stefanie Panke: How do you think generative AI will specifically affect the open movements?

Richard West: I do a lot of work with open education, and I ponder if AI could play a role. For instance, I’ve spent the last year and a half revising one of our textbooks, gathering a lot of chapters from really smart people. Could I have used generative AI for some parts? Obviously, it’s not good enough yet. Could it be good enough in the future? It probably could be. But I don’t know if that’s the world we want. I believe we learn a lot – I know I do – through writing. And if we eliminate the act of writing and conducting research, we might end up with less knowledgeable professors in our classrooms. We learn by writing, and we expand our understanding by engaging in research. This process of learning and discovery is how we become educated, and it’s how we educate our students. We assign them writing tasks for this very reason. There’s inherent value in the practice of writing and scholarship. I don’t want to be too quick to throw away the benefit of having us do this work ourselves.

However, AI can assist in areas like brainstorming or providing a synthesis of vast amounts of data. While I’m hesitant about letting AI author content fully, it can undoubtedly aid in brainstorming and fact-checking. One potential advantage is translation. While AI translations aren’t perfect, they can achieve maybe 80%. Correction is easier than starting from scratch. This might simplify localizing open textbooks or content for specific regions, enhancing the learning experience for students globally. Imagine open textbooks on EdTechBooks with a button to localize content for Germany, Nigeria, or the Philippines, powered by AI. Maybe that will be possible in the future.

Stefanie Panke: Thank you! If people want to learn more, how can they find your work?Rick West: A good starting point is my website https://richardewest.com/. I’m also on Twitter @richardewest Usually all the ‘Rick West’ handles were taken, so, even though I go by Rick West, you will find me under Richard E. West on these different social media places. And finally, you can also go to https://edtechbooks.org/ and find my work there.

Video Interview

Watch the complete video interview.


Rick West is a professor in the Instructional Psychology & Technology department at Brigham Young University. He teaches classes on instructional design, research writing, and K-16 technology integration. His research focuses on understanding learning communities and assessing their learning, performance, and innovation. Rick West has analyzed Communities of Innovation and has explored methods to enhance online collaborative learning. Additionally, he investigates the role of open badges and micro-credentials. With over 100 publications that have amassed 6500+ citations (Scholar), his contributions to educational research are significant. He’s a recipient of awards from the American Educational Research Association, the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, and the McKay School of Education. Moreover, as an evaluator, Rick West consults for diverse programs across K-12 schools, higher education, grants, and healthcare.

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