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What does it mean to be human in a digital age?

It has been about 30 months now since I took on the role to lead the LINK Research Lab at UTA. (I have retained a cross appointment with Athabasca University and continue to teach and supervise doctoral students there).

It has taken a few years to get fully up and running – hardly surprising. I’ve heard explanations that a lab takes at least three years to move from creation to research identification to data collection to analysis to publication. This post summarizes some of our current research and other activities in the lab.

We, as a lab, have had a busy few years in terms of events. We’ve hosted numerous conferences and workshops and engaged in (too) many research talks and conference presentations. We’ve also grown significantly – from an early staff base of four people to expected twenty three within a few months. Most of these are doctoral or post doctoral students and we have a terrific core of administrative and support staff.

Finding our Identity

In trying to find our identity and focus our efforts, we’ve engaged in numerous activities including book clubs, writing retreats, innovation planning meetings, long slack/email exchanges, and a few testy conversations. We’ve brought in well over 20 established academics and passionate advocates as speakers to help us shape our mission/vision/goals. Members of our team have attended conferences globally, on topics as far ranging as economics, psychology, neuroscience, data science, mindfulness, and education. We’ve engaged with state, national, and international agencies, corporations, as well as the leadership of grant funding agencies and major foundations. Overall, an incredible period of learning as well as deepening existing relationships and building new ones. I love the intersections of knowledge domains. It’s where all the fun stuff happens.

As with many things in life, the most important things aren’t taught. In the past, I’ve owned businesses that have had an employee base of 100+ personnel. There are some lessons that I learned as a business owner that translate well into running a research lab, but with numerous caveats. Running a lab is an entrepreneurial activity. It’s the equivalent of creating a startup. The intent is to identify a key opportunity and then, driven by personal values and passion, meaningfully enact that opportunity through publications, grants, research projects, and collaborative networks. Success, rather than being measured in profits and VC funds, is measured by impact with the proxies being research funds and artifacts (papers, presentations, conferences, workshops). I find it odd when I hear about the need for universities to be more entrepreneurial as the lab culture is essentially a startup environment.

Early stages of establishing a lab are chaotic. Who are we? What do we care about? How do we intersect with the university? With external partners? What are our values? What is the future that we are trying to create through research? Who can we partner with? It took us a long time to identify our key research areas and our over-arching research mandate. We settled on these four areas: new knowledge processes, success for all learners, the future of employment, and new knowledge institutions. While technologies are often touted as equalizers that change the existing power structure by giving everyone a voice, the reality is different. In our society today, a degree is needed to get a job. In the USA, degrees are prohibitively expensive to many learners and the result is a type of poverty lock-in that essentially guarantees growing inequality. While it’s painful to think about, I expect a future of greater racial violence, public protests, and radicalized politicians and religious leaders and institutions. Essentially the economic makeup of our society is one where higher education now prevents, rather than enables, improving one’s lot in life.

What does it mean to be human in a digital age?

Last year, we settled on a defining question: What does it mean to be human in a digital age? So much of the discussion in society today is founded in a fetish to talk about change. The narrative in media is one of “look what’s changing”. Rarely is the surface level assessment explored to begin looking at “what are we becoming?”. It’s clear that there is much that is changing today: technology, religious upheaval, radicalization, social/ethnic/gender tensions, climate, and emerging super powers. It is an exciting and a terrifying time. The greatest generation created the most selfish generation. Public debt, failing social and health systems, and an eroding social fabric suggest humanity is entering a conflicted era of both turmoil and promise.

We can better heal than any other generation. We can also better kill, now from the comfort of a console. Globally, less people live in poverty than ever before. But income inequality is also approaching historical levels. This inequality will explode as automated technologies provide the wealthiest with a means to use capital without needing to pay for human labour. Technology is becoming a destroyer, not enabler, of jobs. The consequences to society will be enormous, reflective of the “spine of the implicit social contract” being snapped due to economic upheaval. The effects of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear are now being felt politically as reasonably sane electorates turn to solutionism founded in desire rather than reality (Middle East, Austria, Trump in the US to highlight only a few).

In this milieu of social, technology, and economic transitions, I’m interested in understanding our humanity and what we are becoming. It is more than technology alone. While I often rant about this through the perspective of educational technology, the challenge has a scope that requires thinking integratively and across boundaries. It’s impossible to explore intractable problems meaningfully through many of the traditional research approaches where the emphasis is on reducing to variables and trying to identify interactions. Instead, a complex and connected view of both the problem space and the research space is required. Trying to explore phenomena through single variable relationships is not going to be effective in planning

Complex and connected explorations are often seen to be too grandiose. As a result, it takes time for individuals to see the value of integrative, connected, and complex answers to problems that also possess those attributes. Too many researchers are accustomed to working only within their lab or institutions. Coupled with the sound-bite narrative in media, sustained and nuanced exploration of complex social challenges seems almost unattainable. At LINK we’ve been actively trying to distribute research much like content and teaching has become distributed. For example, we have doctoral and post-doctoral students at Stanford, Columbia, and U of Edinburgh. Like teaching, learning, and living, knowledge is also networked and the walls of research need the same thinning that is happening to many classrooms. Learning to think in networks is critical and it takes time, especially for established academics and administrators. What I am most proud of with LINK is the progress we have made in modelling and enacting complex approaches to apprehending complex problems.

In the process of this work, we’ve had many successes, detailed below, but we’ve also encountered failures. I’m comfortable with that. Any attempt to innovate will produce failure. At LINK, we tried creating a grant writing network with faculty identified by deans. That bombed. We’ve put in hundreds of hours writing grants. Many of which were not funded. We were involved in a Texas state liberal arts consortium. That didn’t work so well. We’ve cancelled workshops because they didn’t find the resonance we were expecting. And hosted conferences that didn’t work out so well financially. Each failure though, produced valuable insight in sharpening our focus as a lab. While the first few years were primarily marked by exploration and expansion, we are now narrowing and focusing on those things that are most important to our central emphasis on understanding being human in a digital age.

Grants and Projects

It’s been hectic. And productive. And fun. It has required a growing team of exceptionally talented people – we’ll update bios and images on our site in the near future, but for now I want to emphasize the contributions of many members of LINK. It’s certainly not a solo task. Here’s what we’ve been doing:

1. Digital Learning Research Network. This $1.6m grant (Gates Foundation) best reflects my thinking on knowing at intersections and addressing complex problems through complex and nuanced solutions. Our goal here is to create research teams with R1 and state systems and to identify the most urgent research needs in helping under-represented students succeed.

2. Inspark Education. This $5.2m grant (Gates Foundation) involves multiple partners. LINK is researching the support system and adaptive feedback models required to help students become successful in studying science. The platform and model is the inspiration of the good people at Smart Sparrow and the BEST Network (medical education) in Australia and the Habworlds project at ASU.

3. Intel Education. This grant ($120k annually) funds several post doctoral students and evaluates effectiveness of adaptive learning as well as the research evidence that supports algorithms that drive adaptive learning.

4. Language in conflict. This project is being conducted with several universities in Israel and looks at how legacy conflict is reflected in current discourse. The goal is to create a model for discourse that enables boundary crossing. Currently, the pilot involves dialogue in highly contentious settings (Israeli and Palestinian students) and builds dialogue models in order to reduce legacy dialogue on impacting current understanding. Sadly, I believe this work will have growing relevance in the US as race discourse continues to polarize rather than build shared spaces of understanding and respect.

5. Educational Discourse Research. This NSF grant ($254k) is conducted together with University of Michigan. The project is concerned with evaluating the current state of discourse research and to determine where this research is trending and what is needed to support this community.

6. Big Data: Collaborative Research. This NSF grant ($1.6m), together with CMU, evaluates the impact of how different architectures of knowledge spaces impacts how individuals interact with one another and build knowledge. We are looking at spaces like wikipedia, moocs, and stack overflow. Space drives knowledge production, even (or especially) when that space is digital.

7. aWEAR Project. This project will evaluate the use of wearables and technologies that collect physiological data as learners learn and live life. We’ll provide more information on this soon, in particular a conference that we are organizing at Stanford on this in November.

8. Predictive models for anticipating K-12 challenges. We are working with several school systems in Texas to share data and model challenges related to school violence, drop out, failure, and related emotional and social challenges. This project is still early stages, but holds promise in moving the mindset from one of addressing problems after they have occurred to one of creating positive, developmental, and supportive skillsets with learners and teachers.

9. A large initiative at University of Texas Arlington is the formation of a new department called University Analytics (UA). This department is lead by Prof Pete Smith and is a sister organization to LINK. UA will be the central data and learning analytics department at UTA. SIS, LMS, graduate attributes, employment, etc. will be analyzed by UA. The integration between UA and LINK is one of improving the practice-research-back to practice pipeline. Collaborations with SAS, Civitas, and other vendors are ongoing and will provide important research opportunities for LINK.

10. Personal Learning/Knowledge Graphs and Learner profiles. PLeG is about understanding learners and giving them control over their profiles and their learning history. We’ve made progress on this over the past year, but are still not at a point to release a “prototype” of PLeG for others to test/engage with.

11. Additional projects:
- InterLab – a distributed research lab, we’ll announce more about this in a few weeks.
- CIRTL – teaching in STEM disciplines
- Coh-Metrix – improving usability of the language analysis tool

Going forward

I know I’ve missed several projects, but at least the above list provides an overview of what we’ve been doing. Our focus going forward is very much on the social and affective attributes of being human in our technological age.

Human history is marked by periods of explosive growth in knowledge. Alexandria, the Academy, the printing press, the scientific method, industrial revolution, knowledge classification systems, and so on. The rumoured robotics era seems to be at our doorstep. We are the last generation that will be smarter than our technology. Work will be very different in the future. The prospect of mass unemployment due to automation is real. Technology is changing faster than we can evolve individually and faster than we can re-organize socially. Our future lies not in our intelligence by in our being.

But.

Sometimes when I let myself get a bit optimistic, I’m encouraged by the prospect of what can become of humanity when our lives aren’t defined by work. Perhaps this generation of technology will have the interesting effect of making us more human. Perhaps the next explosion of innovation will be a return to art, culture, music. Perhaps a more compassionate, kinder, and peaceful human being will emerge. At minimum, what it means to be human in a digital age has not been set in stone. The stunning scope of change before us provides a rare window to remake what it means to be human. The only approach that I can envision that will help us to understand our humanness in a technological age is one that recognizes nuance, complexity, and connectedness and that attempts to match solution to problem based on the intractability of the phenomena before us.

The Godfather: Gardner Campbell

Gardner Campbell looms large in educational technology. People who have met him in person know what I mean. He is brilliant. Compassionate. Passionate. And a rare visionary. He gives more than he takes in interactions with people. And he is years ahead of where technology deployment current exists in classrooms and universities.

He is also a quiet innovator. Typically, his ideas are adopted by other brash, attention seeking, or self-serving individuals. Go behind the bravado and you’ll clearly see the Godfather: Gardner Campbell.

Gardner was an originator of what eventually became the DIY/edupunk movement. Unfortunately, his influence is rarely acknowledged.

He is also the vision behind personal domains for learners. I recall a presentation that Gardner did about 6 or 7 years ago where he talked about the idea of a cpanel for each student. Again, his vision has been appropriated by others with greater self-promotion instincts. Behind the scenes, however, you’ll see him as the intellectual originator.

Several years ago, when Gardner took on a new role at VCU, he was rightly applauded in a press release:

Gardner’s exceptional background in innovative teaching and learning strategies will ensure that the critical work of University College in preparing VCU students to succeed in their academic endeavors will continue and advance…Gardner has also been an acknowledged leader in the theory and practice of online teaching and education innovation in the digital age

And small wonder that VCU holds him in such high regard. Have a look at this talk:

Recently I heard some unsettling news about position changes at VCU relating to Gardner’s work. In true higher education fashion, very little information is forthcoming. If anyone has updates to share, anonymous comments are accepted on this post.

There are not many true innovators in our field. There are many who adopt ideas of others and popularize them. But there are only a few genuinely original people doing important and critically consequential work: Ben Werdmuller, Audrey Watters, Stephen Downes, and Mike Caulfield. Gardner is part of this small group of true innovators. It is upsetting that the people who do the most important work – rather than those with the loudest and greatest self-promotional voice – are often not acknowledged. Does a system like VCU lack awareness of the depth and scope of change in the higher education sector? Is their appetite for change and innovation mainly a surface level media narrative?

Leadership in universities has a responsibility to research and explore innovation. If we don’t do it, we lose the narrative to consulting and VC firms. If we don’t treat the university as an object of research, an increasingly unknown phenomena that requires structured exploration, we essentially give up our ability to contribute to and control our fate. Instead of the best and brightest shaping our identity, the best marketers and most colourful personalities will shape it. We need to ensure that the true originators are recognized and promoted so that when narrow and short-sighted leaders make decisions, we can at least point them to those who are capable of lighting a path.

Thanks for your work and for being who you are Gardner.

The role of policy in open ed

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 16/05/2016 - 20:14
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I was invited to give a talk at the Dept of Business Information and Skills for a meeting organised by ALT, on the role of policy in open education. I looked at OER policies at the institutional, regional and national level and open access policies. I argued that open policies are a good example of how policy can influence practice, and also some of the issues. But the same applies to other areas you might want to consider. The Open Flip I argued will be significant, and policy offers us a means of reallocating resources and encouraging new models, such as Open Library Humanities.

Putting these slides together was a good example of what I was talking about in my last post. Creating a new talk forced me to pull together the different strands on open policy that I have gathered over the past year. The slidedeck is below:

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The Future of Learning: Digital, Distributed, Data-Driven

Yesterday as I was traveling (with free wifi from the good folks at Norwegian Air, I might add), I caught this tweet from Jim Groom:

@dkernohan @cogdog @mweller A worthwhile think piece for sure, almost up there with "China is My Analytics Co-Pilot"

— Jim Groom (@jimgroom) May 11, 2016

The comment was in response to my previous post where I detailed my interest in understanding how learning analytics were progressing in Chinese education. My first internal response was going to be something snarky and generally defensive. We all build in different ways and toward different visions. It was upsetting to have an area of research interest be ridiculed. Cause I’m a baby like that. But I am more interested in learning than in defending myself and my interests. And I’m always willing to listen to the critique and insight that smart people have to offer. This comment stayed with me as I finalized my talk in Trondheim.

What is our obligation as educators and as researchers to explore research interests and knowledge spaces? What is our obligation to pursue questions about unsavoury topics that we disagree with or even find unethical?

Years ago, I had a long chat with Gardner Campbell, one of the smartest people in the edtech space, about the role of data and analytics. We both felt that analytics has a significant downside, one that can strip human agency and mechanize the learning experience. Where we differed was in my willingness to engage with the dark side. I’ve had similar conversations with Stephen Downes about change in education.

My view is that change happens on multiple strands. Some change from the outside. Some change from the inside. Some try to redirect movement of a system, others try to create a new system altogether. My accommodating, Canadian, middle child sentiment drives my belief that I can contribute by being involved in and helping to direct change by being a researcher. As such, I feel learning analytics can play a role in education and that regardless of what the naysayers say, analytics will continue to grow in influence. I can contribute by not ignoring the data-centric aspects in education and engage them instead and then attempting to influence analytics use and adoption so that it reflects the values that are important for learners and society.

Then, during the conference today, I heard numerous mentions of people like Ken Robinson and the narrative of creativity. Other speaking-circuit voices like Sugata Mitra were frequently raised as well. This lead to reflection about how change happens and why many of the best ideas don’t gain traction and don’t make a systemic level impact. We know the names: Vygostky, Freire, Illich, Papert, and so on. We know the ideas. We know the vision of networks, of openness, of equity, and of a restructured system of learning that begins with learning and the learner rather than content and testing.

But why doesn’t the positive change happen?

The reason, I believe, is due to the lack of systems/network-level and integrative thinking that reflects the passion of advocates AND the reality of how systems and networks function. It’s not enough to stand and yell “creativity!” or “why don’t we have five hours of dance each week like we have five ours of math”. Ideas that change things require an integrative awareness of systems, of multiple players, and of the motivations of different agents. It is also required that we are involved in the power-shaping networks that influence how education systems are structured, even when we don’t like all of the players in the network.

I’m worried that those who have the greatest passion for an equitable world and a just society are not involved in the conversations that are shaping the future of learning. I continue to hear about the great unbundling of education. My fear is the re-bundling where new power brokers enter the education system with a mandate of profit, not quality of life.

We must be integrative thinkers, integrative doers. I’m interested in working and thinking with people who share my values, even when we have different visions of how to realize those values.

Slides from my talk today are below:

Future of Learning: Digital, distributed, and data-driven from gsiemens

The new or reused keynote dilemma

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 12/05/2016 - 10:51
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James Clay wrote a post about ‘the half life of a keynote‘ recently in which he pondered how long you should keep giving the same talk for. I know people who always create a new talk, and people who give the same one for almost their entire careers. This year I decided I would create new talks for every keynote, so it’s something I’ve been thinking about. I think the initial reaction is that creating new talks is better. But now I’m through my new talk phase, I’m less convinced. To add to James’s conversation then, here are my pros and cons.

The advantages of giving the same talk multiple times are:

You get better. As anyone who has seen me talk will attest, I’m not a great public speaker. Giving the same talk allows me to tighten it up, as the first version is often a bit rambling. You take bits out, strengthen other points, know which jokes work, etc. It’s a bit like a comedian going on tour, if you only give new talks each time then it is always the equivalent of the pre-tour show when material is being trialled, compared with the 15th night when it is finely honed.

People want that talk. I have given versions of my digital scholarship talk since 2011. I keep retiring it and then people ask “can you come and give that talk I saw, to my team”. It feels a bit like that group who had one hit in the 70s and every gig they play, people just want to hear the hit and not their electro jazz fusion material.

It saves time. This is not just me being lazy, but is a real consideration for people who have a substantive job. Creating a new talk can take a day, giving the talk takes at least a day out of your normal work, and if you don’t want to be rambling you will practice and refine the talk beforehand, which might be another day. That’s at least 3 days per talk. Most talks I give are unpaid or there is a small honorarium, but the OU doesn’t get anything. If I give 5-10 talks a year that is 15-30 days out of my job. Now there are benefits (see below) so it’s not all lost time, but even so, that is a sizeable chunk of workload. If you reuse talks then you can cut that amount down by half probably.

I don’t really have that much to say. I mean, come on, one or two decent ideas every couple of years is enough surely?

The advantages of giving new talks are:

It really helps pull together your thinking. Often you have lots of ideas and content but it’s not until you create a talk for others that it helps shape your thoughts. There is real scholarly benefit in creating a new talk.

It makes you think about the audience more. There is a danger when giving the same talk repeatedly (usually modified) that you don’t tailor it sufficiently to the audience.

It keeps you fresh. The flip side of the advantage given above of getting sharper with familiar material is that you can also be complacent and not really engaged with it.

It avoids repetition and gives you online content. Prior to the internet you probably could get away with giving the same talk forever. But now you share content on blogs and slideshare, or it is livestreamed. So people may have seen it in some form already before you even get there. Creating new talks help feed the online beast, if that is important to you.

I’ve created new talks where I’ve been mildly incoherent, and given old talks where it has not really been appropriate, so there are merits to both. I usually come down in the middle and adapt, remix material from previous talks, but I’m finding this year of refreshing my presentation stock very useful and quite challenging.

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The open ed landscape

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 11/05/2016 - 08:43
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I gave a presentation for the Disruptive Media Learning Lab in Coventry last week. This year I’m trying to do new talks each time (I’ve another post on that), and was asked to give a talk to an audience who weren’t that aware of issues of openness in education. So I tried the metaphor of thinking of different places on a map. This gave me:

  • Open access – a well developed, sustainable city with infrastructure
  • OERs – a friendly, well populated town, that could expand into a city, or may just stay the way it is. Has nice schools.
  • MOOCs – these are reminiscent of the ‘ghost cities‘ in countries such as China. They have been developed quickly, and they may become populated over time, or they may remain largely empty
  • Open educational practice – stretching my metaphor here, my argument was that this is a very mixed, broad category that is really about people, so think of it as a large open market on the outskirts of a city
  • Open data – the metro system in a city that keeps everything flowing
  • Open citizenship – open education takes place amidst a broader context of open citizenship, so we should view this as the overall map or landscape.

Using this analogy allows some comparisons between the various areas in the open ed landscape. For instance some were more formalised and others more experimental and some are more fragile and others more robust. But there are common elements between all of them, which make them part of this landscape:

  • Enabled by the network – obvious but digital technology drives all of these areas, so we have to understand the key aspects of the digital, networked environment
  • Reallocation of resources – many of the models rely on spending money or using time in different ways, for example in producing open content rather than purchasing copyrighted works.
  • Practical benefits of open – they bring the practical benefits of openness to the fore, eg more citations, different learning approaches
  • Sharing as default – the base assumption underlying them is that sharing stuff is the starting point
  • Moral argument – there is often an ethical dimension to the arguments for adopting an open approach

Like all metaphors (at least all of my metaphors) it is flawed and only takes you so far, but I feel there is more to explore in it. And yes, I am considering a Game of Thrones version.

Slidedeck is below:

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Nothing is deserved, everything is accepted

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 03/05/2016 - 18:35
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In a recent post I mentioned how I’d been at two conferences and academics had bemoaned the state of the relationship with IT services. At the risk of making academics seem like a bunch of whingers, a second theme occurred (perhaps people just like moaning to me) which was the precariousness of the academic researcher. I write this as a tenured Prof (whatever tenure means now), so it is not a self pity or self serving motivation that drives this but concern at the direction universities are hiccuping their way to.

I’ve become increasingly disturbed by the way universities (in the UK, but I suspect it’s commonplace) treat researchers. For nearly all forms of employment there is the 4 year rule which states “Any employee on fixed-term contracts for 4 or more years will automatically become a permanent employee, unless the employer can show there is a good business reason not to do so”. Lucky, lucky researchers are exempt from this however. In 2008 people were saying the fixed term contract was a thing of the past, but with austerity, the introduction of fees and general uncertainty in the higher education sector, its use seems to have increased. This is particularly true for researchers who are employed on external funding. Researchers are employed to a specific project, and when that project ends, unless there is another project, their employment is terminated. This may make sense for a big 3 year project, where you don’t want to employ a large team after the funding ends. But many researchers exist on a diet of short and medium term projects, hopefully with no gaps in between. My understanding, but I’m no expert in employment law, is that the project manager would have a good case for being made permanent at the end of a 4-year project, whereas the researcher would not. I appreciate project managers and researchers equally, but it seems non-sensical to have a surfeit of permanent project managers and a deficit of full time researchers.

The Research Concordat proposes that: “Research posts should only be advertised as a fixed-term post where there is a recorded and justifiable reason.” However, making that ‘justifiable reason’ is not difficult for universities, and the Concordat is not the same as employment law. In 2014 67% of researchers were on fixed term contracts and 39% have been at their institution for more than four years, which indicates that since the Concordat introduction in 2012 we haven’t really seen a significant reduction in the use of fixed term contracts.

Effectively universities are deploying a legal loophole in employment law to keep researchers on a series of short, fixed term contracts. I want to argue that this is bad at an individual, institutional and universal level.

For the individual, it is no way to live, being continually only 6 months or so away from being unemployed. Getting a mortgage, deciding to put down roots, and just feeling secure is very difficult in this context. It also means focus and loyalty to any one project or institution is difficult – if you’re sensible you are always looking for the next job.

At an institutional level the short-term approach can be costly. A project ends, you lose the staff, the three months later you get a new project. You then have to recruit new staff, which with advertising, and interviewing timing often takes 3-6 months. That’s 3-6 months of your new project that is lost. It is estimated that it costs £30K to recruit a new member of staff. That’s pretty much the salary of a researcher for a year, when they could be doing other things for you anyway. It also makes the establishment of a research culture much more difficult, community is a very nebulous thing, and can be easily undermined with the loss of two or three key individuals (and the full time researchers are often the ones who give most to the local community because they are unencumbered with many of the other duties and roles of senior staff).

At the more universal level it is detrimental for research at universities as a whole. This lack of a readily available research staff makes universities less agile and flexible, since everyone is either fully employed on an existing project or they need to employ new staff, with the difficulties described above. If you have a one year project, you don’t want to lose 3 months of it recruiting staff. Increasingly we are seeing independent researchers or small research companies offering services. As more research involves using IT rather than expensive equipment then it can be done by a few people working at home. Without the need for the large overheads of universities, they can be cheaper, and offer researchers better contracts and pay. Apart from the heavy duty STEM projects, research then becomes outsourced from the university, or the university is simply bypassed. This would be a shame, research is an integral part of the university identity, and is often allied with teaching. You want your best teachers and researchers in the same space. But the short-term gains universities are opting for with fixed term contracts undermines their longer term viability.

My feeling is that this has become habit and confused with employment law and best practice. It is possible to make the situation better for individuals, institutions and the overall research environment, but it requires some effort to address it. Now is the time, before it becomes too embedded and the damage at all levels too substantial.

The title comes from Martin Amis’s essay on Kafka. As internet kids like to say, I’ll just leave this here: “He deals in savage inequities that are never resented, pitiful recompenses that are tearfully cherished.”

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10 years of Edtechie – the imposter gang

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 02/05/2016 - 12:11
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Today marks ten years of blogging here at edtechie. I had started a few blogs before, but this was the time I stayed with it. That ten years later I’m still doing an activity which is not part of my formal job description, is not recognised and is usually undertaken in my own time is a testament to the power of blogging in itself. But I’m not going to make this a ’10 reasons why you should blog’ post. I was struck by a comment Sava Singh made in her presentation at OER16 when she said that even complaining about how Twitter used to be better in the old days is a sign of privilege. She’s right, we old timers have a temporal privilege – anyone coming in to blogging now is starting out in a very different context. I recall Pink Floyd saying that they were lucky that when they started there weren’t many bands around, so they were given time and people who might not listen to them came to them for want of anything else. This is a very different scenario for an artist now, who must compete within the deluge of daily releases. And so with blogging, I had the good fortune to be able to build up a reputation when there wasn’t much around, it would be a very different story now. So, I’m aware that my story is not necessarily applicable now, but it’s the only story I have. So apologies in advance, this is a self-indulgent post.

As I’ve considered writing this post over the past week or so, I’ve reflected on why I personally like blogging. I don’t mean all the reasons we often give people, such as establishing an identity, increasing dissemination, keeping a record of your process – all those are valid extrinsic motivators, but what is it about blogging that appeals to me. I came to the conclusion that blogging was where I felt I really belonged. I had found my academic tribe.

People talk a lot about imposter syndrome now. Again, I appreciate I have a set of privileges which mean it is only a fraction of what others may feel (white, european, male), so please interpret this in light of how it shaped my blogging reaction only: I was comprehensive educated, working class, first generation at university. I was educated at a range of polytechnics, which post 1992 became new universities: Hatfield, Kingston, Teesside. All good places, but not the key to a network of influence. I didn’t feel any sense of being an outsider whilst studying because fellow students at Polys tended to be similar to me in upbringing. I definitely did feel it when I started working at the OU. I remember my first coffee break after joining in 1995 – everyone was Oxbridge educated, older than me and generally middle class. One colleague recounted a story of how Edith Wharton had bought him a train set when he was young. Yeah, we’ve all got stories about our family’s friendship with a famous author haven’t we? I felt like (and probably was) a yob. For the first year at least I expected someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, “sorry, we made a mistake”.

But everyone was friendly and supportive, and such feelings subsided. But it was with the advent of the web, and encouraged by my OU colleagues John Naughton and Tony Hirst (probably both outsiders also) that I took up blogging. At the time blogging amongst academics was still relatively rare. I used to tell people excitedly “I have a blog”. Now that would be akin to saying “I have a microwave” – not guaranteed but not worthy of comment. Blogs were like little beacons shining across the globe that would splutter in to life and look for fellow signals to respond to. I fell in with the North American and UK ed tech blogging crowd. And this is why I think blogging resonates with me – I generally like bloggers. I don’t like all bloggers and I don’t dislike non-bloggers, but there is something about the approach to blogging – the informal use of language, the sense of fun, the support, willingness to try new things and the personal, social element that appeals to me. I think nearly all of the bloggers who influenced me (George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Audrey Watters, Jim Groom, Bon Stewart, Alan Levine, Scott Leslie, Josie Fraser to name just a very few) were outsiders to formal academia to an extent. Indeed I think you had to be an outsider in those early days to get blogging. That’s probably why there was an inverse relationship between online and academic reputation. Blogging was the refuge of the outsider. This is less true now when it is an accepted part of a communications strategy and you can take courses on being an effective blogger. It is now more professionalised, but I still think it represents a more democratised, open space than formal academia and I still make new connections with people here. As a tenured Prof at a big university I can’t really claim outsider status any more, I’m one of ‘them’ now. But blogging was where I found an authentic voice and I still cherish that. Bloggers are still my kind of people.

I don’t know what its role is really in relation to my ‘proper’ work, but I’m okay with that now. When I retire I expect that the three people who turn up to my retirement party (under duress) may point to formal publications as an indication of my work, but I can think of no higher honour than if they declared “he was an allright blogger”.

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Reflecting on Learning Analytics and SoLAR

The Learning Analytics and Knowledge conference (LAK16) is happening this week in Edinburgh. I unfortunately, due to existing travel and other commitments, am not in attendance.

I have great hope for the learning analytics field as one that will provide significant research for learning and help us move past naive quantitative and qualitative assessments of research and knowledge. I see LA as a bricolage of skills, techniques, and academic/practitioner domains. It is a multi-faceted approach of learning exploration and one where anyone with a stake in the future of learning can find an amenable conversation and place to research.

Since I am missing LAK16, and feeling nostalgic, I want to share my reflections of how LAK and the Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR) became the influential agencies that they now are in learning research. Any movement has multiple voices and narratives so my account here is narrow at best. I am candid in some of my comments below, detailing a few failed relationships and initiatives. If anyone reading this feels I have not been fair, please comment. Alternatively, if you have views to share that broaden my attempt to capture this particular history, please add them below.

How we got started
On March 14, 2010, I sent the following email to a few folks in my network (Alec Couros, Stephen Downes, Dave Cormier, Grainne Conole, David Wiley, Phil Long, Clarence Fisher, Tony Hirst, and Martin Weller. A few didn’t respond and those that joined didn’t stay involved, with the exception of Phil):

As more learning activities occur online, learners produce growing amounts of data. All that data cries out to be parsed, analyzed, interrogated, tortured, and visualized. The data being generated could provide valuable insight into teaching and learning practices. Over the last few years, I’ve been promoting data visualization as an important trend in understanding learners, the learning process, and as an indicator of possible interventions.

Would you be interested in participating in a discussion on educational analytics (process, methods, technologies)? I imagine we could start this online with a few elluminate meetings, but I think a f2f gathering later this year (Edmonton is lovely, you know) would be useful. (Clarence, Alec, and I tackled this topic about three years ago, but we didn’t manage to push it much beyond a concept and a blog ).

At the same time, I sent an email to colleagues in TEKRI (Rory McGreal, Kinshuk, and Dragan Gasevic) asking if this could be supported by Athabasca University. Dragan promptly replied stating that “I can say that most of the things we are doing with semantic technologies are pretty much related to analytics and I would be quite interest in such an event”. Then he told me that my plan for a conference in fall 2010 were completely unrealistic asking “[who] would be a potential participant? How we can get any audience in December?”.

Dragan and Shane Dawson, who I connected with through a comment on this blog, are two critical connections and eventually friends. Except Shane. He is mean and has relationship issues. SoLAR would not exist without their involvement. Another important connect was Ryan Baker. Ryan started the International Educational Datamining Society a few years earlier. The fact that Ryan was willing to assist in the formation of a possibly competing organization speaks volumes about his desire to have rich scientific discourse. We ended up publishing an article in LAK12 about collaboration and engagement between our fields.

LAK11
Organization was slow plodding for the first LAK conference. We built out our steering committee (defined by anyone who agreed to join) to include Erik Duval, Simon Buckingham Shum, and Caroline Haythornthwaite). We set up a Google group at the end of March on Education Analytics. The bulk of the planning for the first conference happened in that Google Group. By the end of June, I had seen the light of Dragan’s wisdom and agreed to move the conference to 2011. The LAK11 conference was held in Banff, Alberta in March. Important to note that we paid $500 for that logo. It should have come with a hit of acid.

The financials of any first event are critical. There is always risk. I’ve had events fail that cost a fair bit of money – a social media conference that I ran in Edmonton was a pleasant financial failure. For LAK11, we received financial support from Athabasca University, CEIT (University of Queensland), Kaplan, D2L, and the Gates Foundation. We generated a profit of ~$10k and that was forwarded to the organizers of LAK12 (Shane Dawson) to help seed the next conference. We didn’t have a formal organization to share in the expenses so each organizer for the first several years had to bear the financial risk. Paying past success forward made things easier for the next event. Leading up to LAK14, we were legally organized as SoLAR and took on the financial risk for local organizers.

Finding a publisher
In order to improve the scholarly profile of the conference, we pursued formal affiliation with a publisher. For many academics in Europe and Latin America, this was important in order to receive funding for travel. Dragan made numerous attempts to get Springer’s LNCS volume affiliation for the conference. The LNAI affiliation ended up being the avenue that we were suggested to pursue. Dragan put in the application on September 11, 2010. Springer stonewalled us at great length. We finally received confirmation that they would publish on July 17, 2011. Needless to say, as a professional organization, we did not want to work with a partner where that type of delay was considered acceptable. We were fortunate to connect with ACM and our first proceedings were published with them. Simon Buckingham Shum and Dragan were critical in securing this relationship, and in many ways for the academic rigour now found in LAK. I have been appropriately criticized by top researchers like Ryan Baker that the conference proceedings aren’t open. It was a decision that we made to broaden, oddly enough, access to travel funds to researchers from other countries.

My momma don’t like you
Not everyone was a fan of the idea of learning analytics. As this discussion thread on Martin Weller’s blog post reveals, there were voices of doubt around the idea of learning analytics:

Wish you luck in pursuing this Next Greatest Thing. Maybe next year’s can include the words “Mobile” “Emergent” and “Open” to broaden its hipness even further…really, really, really have been trying very hard not to make any comments since I first saw this announced early in 2010. I mean REALLY hard, because that comment above doesn’t even start to capture the amount of bullshit this smells like to me. But I am sure it will be a smashing success, a new field will have been invented, and my suspicions that there is no ‘there there’ even more unfounded. History will surely side with you George, of that I have little doubt.

Some of these doubts have become reality due to a techno-centric view of analytics, as is often captured by Audrey Watters. Interestingly, one of my first interviews on LA was with Audrey when she was writing for O’Reilly. The field has sometimes moved distressingly close to solutionism and Audrey has rightly turned toward criticism. We need more criticism of the field – both from researchers and practitioners and I find people like Audrey who are bluntly honest are essential to progressing as a research domain.

LAK11

Leading up to LAK11, I organized a LA MOOC (haha, MOOCs were so cool back then). This served as an opportunity to get people onto the same page regarding LA and to broaden possible attendance to the conference. LAK11 was fairly small with about 100+ people in attendance.

About two days before LAK11, I sent out an email stating:

We are expecting a week of nice weather – beautiful for strolling around Banff and enjoying the amazing scenery. Weather in the Canadian Rockies can be a bit temperamental, so it’s advised to pack clothing for the possibility of some chilly days.

Well, I lied. We were expecting -2C. We got -35C. Freaking cold for those of you that haven’t experienced it before. Also, it generated exceptionally high attendance rates as few people wanted to be outside.

The conference agenda (here) reveals the significant contributions of early attendees. While my first email to colleagues included my blogging network (Stephen, Alec, Dave, Martin) the LAK conference itself resulted in me engaging with a largely new social network disconnected from much of what I had been doing with connectivism and MOOCs, though there were points of overlap. In many ways, I see both MOOCs and LA as an extension of my thinking on connectivism as my more recent focus on the social, affective, and whole person aspects of learning.

Expanding and Growing

Following LAK, we spent some time organizing and getting our act together about what we had created. Over time it became clear that we needed an umbrella organization – one that was research centric – to guide and develop the field. On Oct 2, I sent the following email to our education analytics Google Group. I include the bulk of it as it reflects our transition to SoLAR – the Society for Learning Analytics Research.

With interest continuing to grow in learning analytics – at institutional, government, and now entrepreneurial levels – some type of organization of our shared activities might be helpful.

Based on the sentiment expressed at the post-LAK11 meeting on developing a group or governing body for learning analytics, a few of us have been working on forming such an organization. In the process, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and chat with several SC members (Erik Duval, Dragan Gasevic, Simon Buckingham-Shum) on different organizational structures that might serve as a model. We’ve done enough organizing work, we think, to open the discussion to a broader audience…namely the LAK SC (that’s you).

We’ve decided on Society for Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR) as a name for our organization. The term was coined by Simon Buckingham-Shum (program co-chair, LAK12). Obviously, we would like to invite existing LAK conference steering committee members to be a part of it. Are you interested in transferring your SC role to SoLAR? If so, please provide an image of your lovely head as well as a preferred link to your site/blog/work and a few sentences about how awesome you are.

We have also reserved the domain name: solaresearch.org for our society.

We envision SoLAR as an umbrella group that runs the LAK conference, engages in collaborative research, work with research students, scholar exchange, applies for grants, provides access for researchers to broader skill sets than they might have on their team, produces publications, etc. SoLAR is expected to be an international society/network where learning analytics researchers can connect, collaborate, and amplify their work. It is possible that SoLAR may occasionally provide feedback on policy details as states and provinces adopt LA. Maybe that’s a bit too blue sky…

Over the next few months, various documents will be drafted, including a charter, mission, and decision making process for SoLAR. For example, how do we elect officials? How do we decide where the conference will be held next year? etc. We (currently: Shane, Simon, Dragan, Caroline, John (Campbell), and myself) recommend that an interim SoLAR leadership board – the group just listed – be tasked with developing those documents and sharing with the SoLAR steering committee for comment and approval. Once this interim leadership has completed its organizing work, we will then open the process to democratic elections based on SC and society membership. We haven’t yet determined the criteria for being a SoLAR member (fees? attend a conference? invite only?) or how long SC members serve. Currently we are a self-organized group. Everyone is here either by an invite or expressing interest. Laying a clear, democratic, foundation now will help to position SoLAR as a strong advocate for learning analytics in education.

LAK12 was a tremendous success. Shane was a spectacular host. It became clear to us that interest was high in LA as a research activity and practice space. Following LAK12, SoLAR engaged in a series of initiatives to improve the sharing of research and increase support for faculty entering the field. We had spent time in late 2011 discussing a journal, but didn’t get much traction on this until 2012. In early April, Dragan and Simon had put together an overview of the journal theme and it was approved by SoLAR executive and announced at LAK12. Dragan, Simon, and Phil were the first editors. Simon stepped down shortly after it started and Shane stepped in. Shane and Dragan have been the main drivers of the Journal of Learning Analytics.

A mess of other activities were started during this time including workshops at HICCS (organized by Dan Suthers, Caroline Haythornthwaite, and Alyssa Wise), Storms – local workshops, Flares – regional conferences, events affiliated with other academic organizations such as learning sciences. Basically, we were putting out many shoots to connect with as many academics and practitioners as possible.

One activity that continues to be highly successful is the Learning Analytics Summer Institute (LASI). In August of 2012, I sent Roy Pea from Stanford an email asking if he’d be interested in joining SoLAR in organizing a summer institute. We felt the Stanford affiliation signalled a good opportunity for SoLAR. Roy agreed and we started organizing the first event.

Roy and I didn’t connect well. Roy felt I was too impatient. I was pushing too hard to get things organized. Academic timelines always give me a rash. We managed to secure significant funding from the Gates Foundation and the first LASI was a tremendous success, in no small part do to Roy’s organizing efforts. After LASI, we decided to move the institute to different locations annually – a perspective that I strongly pushed as I didn’t want LASI to be affiliated with only one school. Due to my head bumping with Roy and suggestions to host the next LASI elsewhere (Harvard it turned out), I was written out of the final learning analytics report that he produced for the Gates Foundation on LASI. Academics are complex people .

A list of LASI, Flare, and LAK events can be found here.

Getting the finances right

Follow LAK11, we started exploring university subscriptions to SoLAR. This was informed by Shane’s thinking on paying an annual fee to be involved in groups such as NMC or EDUCAUSE. We set up a series of “Founding Universities”, each committing about $10k to be founding members. This served to be a prudent decision as it gave us a base of funds to use for growing our membership and hosting outreach events. Our doctoral seminars, for example, are funded and supported by these subscriptions.

We had strong corporate support as well with organizations like D2L, Oracle, Intel, Instructure, McGraw-Hill, and others providing support for the conferences and summer institutes. Corporate support has proven to be valuable in running successful conferences and enabling student opportunities. We decided to stay away from sponsored keynotes so as to ensure academic integrity of our conferences. I continue to be disappointed that we have been largely unable to get support from pure LA companies such as Civitas and education research arms of companies such as SAS. The students that we graduate grow the field. LA companies benefit from field growth. Or at least that’s my logic.

The founding members and current institutional partners are listed here. Each one has been central to our success.

Enter Grace
Grace Lynch joined SoLAR work in 2012. During LASI at Stanford, she pitched the idea of hiring someone to do administrative and organizing work with SoLAR. Up to that point, we were run by academics devoting their time. The work load was increasing. And those who know me also know my attention for detail is somewhat, um, varied. Hiring Grace was the best decision that I made in SoLAR. She was able to get us organized, financially and administratively. The success of SoLAR and LAK and LASI events is due to her effort. I frequently hear from others who first attend a SoLAR event about how impressed they are with the professionalism and organization. That’s Grace’s doing.

Engaging with with big ideas
During LAK11, we expressed our goals as an association:

Advances in knowledge modeling and representation, the semantic web, data mining, analytics, and open data form a foundation for new models of knowledge development and analysis. The technical complexity of this nascent field is paralleled by a transition within the full spectrum of learning (education, work place learning, informal learning) to social, networked learning. These technical, pedagogical, and social domains must be brought into dialogue with each other to ensure that interventions and organizational systems serve the needs of all stakeholders.

In order to serve multiple stakeholders, beyond LAK/LASI/Journal, we also held leadership summits and produced reports such as Improving the Quality and Productivity of the Higher Education Sector: Policy and Strategy for Systems-Level Deployment of Learning Analytics.

We have also been active in helping to shape the direction of the field by advocating for open learning analytics – a project that is still ongoing.

Losing Erik Duval
When one’s personal and professional worlds come together, as they often due in long term deep collaborative relationships, individual pain becomes community pain. Erik Duval, a keynote speaker at our first LAK conference, passed away earlier this year. He shared his courageous struggle on his blog. Reading the Twitter stream from LAK16, I am encouraged to see that SoLAR leadership has set up a scholarship in his honour. His contributions to LA as a discipline are tremendous. But as a friend and human being, his contributions to people and students are even more substantive. You are missed Erik. Thank you for modelling what it means to be an academic and a person of passion and integrity.

What I am most proud of
LAK is a unique conference and SoLAR is a special organization. I have never worked with such open, non-ego, “we’re in it because we care”, people in my life. I wish that future leadership also has the pleasure of experiencing this collegial and collaborative spirit. Our strengths as a community are in the diversity of our membership. This diversity is reflected in global representation and academic disciplines. As a society, we have better gender diversity than what is found in many technical fields. It is not where it should be yet. And the progress that we have made is due to the advocacy of Caroline Haythornthwaite and Stephanie Teasley. The current executive is a reflection of that diversity.

What’s next
At LAK15, I stepped down as founding president of SoLAR. I felt like it was time to go – I’ve seen too many fields where a personality becomes too large for the health of the field. We’ve always emphasized that SoLAR should be a welcoming space where individuals from different disciplines and research interests can find a place to play, to work, to connect. In order for this to happen, fluid processes for getting opinionated people out and new ideas in is important!

My attention is now primarily focused on two areas: developing LA as a field in China and increasing the sophistication of data collection. Recent visits to China, Tsinghua University and Beijing Normal University as well as an Intel LA event in Hangzhou in fall, have made it clear to me that LA is robust, active, and sophisticated in China. In many of the projects and products that I’ve seen, they’re well ahead of where the current state of publishing in English suggests that we are. In conversations with colleagues at Tsinghua, we have agreed to make the development of a research network and academic community in China a key priority.

Secondly, at LINK Research Lab, we have turned our research attention to wearables and ambient computing. As I stated in my keynote at LAK12, increasing and improving the scope and quality of data collection is needed in order to improve the sophistication of our work as a field. Physiological and contextual data will assist in advancing the field, as will a greater focus on social and affective aspects of learning. Cognition is only one aspect of learning. As a consequence, focus on affective, social, meta-cognitive, and process and strategy is required. To get there, we need better, broader data.

Well, that’s my reflection how we got here with LA and SoLAR. What have I missed?

IT services – we need to talk

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 25/04/2016 - 18:33
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I was at two conferences recently (OEGlobal and OER16). At both of them I ended up in a (different) group bemoaning the IT services in their university. I didn’t initiate either of these conversations I should add. Also, please do not interpret this post as having a pop at people in IT services, I know lots of good people there. Rather it is about how universities have created the environment where academics and IT are now in a rather dysfunctional relationship. Across many universities the complaints seemed to be rather similar:

  • Security is used rather the same way Governments use terrorism – as a means of controlling things and removing freedoms
  • Increasingly academics have no control over their machines, and cannot install or trial new software
  • Even basic tasks are often highly frustrating and time consuming
  • Support has been centralised so there is no local advice or help
  • Senior IT managers have been brought in form other sectors with little understanding of the university culture
  • Increasingly academics are circumventing official systems to buy their own machines, or host their own services, often in their own time and at their own expense
  • There is little room for experimenting with tools beyond the VLE

Listening to these complaints (and occasional horror stories) made me rather wistful. As IT has become increasingly part of the central operation of every university’s teaching and research environment, it seems that it has moved further away from the people who actually need it for those functions. It has become a thing in itself, and the academics (and students), merely an inconvenience in its smooth operation. This is not to blame those in IT services, they are operating in the context that universities have established for them. If there is a security breach, it will be the IT manager who is in trouble, not the academic who wanted to play around with a cool new tool. It must be frustrating for lots of people in IT also, I’m sure they’d like to be experimenting with tools also.

We have to get back to having dialogue, and having IT people who understand the needs of universities (and equally academics who understand the demands of IT systems). The need for innovation in universities is often trumpeted, but it doesn’t arise from stony soil, but rather from the stinky, messy fertiliser of failed attempts with less than perfect ideas and tools. Innovation is not necessarily synonymous with digital technology, but often it is deeply associated with it. If you don’t have freedom to explore this stuff then increasingly universities will struggle to compete with ed tech companies who have more flexibility and freedom.

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Should bid proposals be open access?

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 08/04/2016 - 09:57
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I was at a UNESCO OER meeting in Paris last week (impersonating an important person) and a topic that came up a couple of times was the waste of resource that we just accept. Someone highlighted all the EU funded projects which are difficult to search, or find outputs for. They were from an AI, machine learning background so they wanted access to this to discern patterns and create links between projects.

In the Battle for Open I talk about how much effort is wasted in the current bid writing proposal:

Some of the inherent waste in current practice often goes unnoticed, because it is accepted practice that academics have been enculturated into. For example, some researchers can spend considerable time, months even, developing research bids to submit to funders. Stevenson (2013) calculated 3 months for a proposal, but the Research Councils UK found that 12 days for a conventional proposal was the average (RCUK 2006). The success rates of bids are decreasing as it becomes more competitive; for instance, the ESRC state that only 17% of bids were successful in 2009–10 (ESRC 2010). If a bid is unsuccessful then sometimes it will be modified and submitted elsewhere, but often it is simply abandoned and the researcher moves on to the next one. That equates to a lot of lost time and knowledge. The RCUK report in 2006 estimated that £196 million was spent on applications to the eight UK research councils, most of which was staff time. The number of applications increases every ­year – ­there were 2,800 bids submitted to ESRC in 2009–10, an increase in 33% from 2005–6, so this figure is likely to have increased significantly. Some of these 2,800 proposals were studentships, which have a higher success rate, but even taking an optimistic figure of 800 bids accepted to account for studentships, this still leaves 2,000 failed bids. If we take RCUK’s figure of 12 days as an average per bid, then this equates to 65 years of effort, and this is just one of several major research councils in the UK and Europe to whom researchers will be bidding. Obviously this is just an indicative figure, and there are many assumptions in its calculation that one could challenge, but nevertheless, the nature of research as it is currently conceived has a lot of waste assumed within it. This is not to suggest that the ­peer-­review process is not valid, but that the failure to capitalise on rejected bids represents a substantial waste of resources. As with open source software and OER approaches to teaching, open approaches to research may provide a more efficient method.

That was 65 years of wasted academic effort for just one research council in one country. And many of these are never revisited. That is a very inefficient way to operate. While research bodies have tackled some aspects of openness, for example mandating publications are open access, and have searchable databases for funded projects (eg the ESRC one), they don’t tackle this waste problem. The simple solution is to make all bids openly available also (I’m not aware of a funder who does this, but please let me know if there is one). Maybe not all aspects, individuals and institutions may want to keep salary costs, or overheads private, but the main idea and methodology could be made available. Others could then build on these, as well as allowing the type of meta interpretation my friend at UNESCO was interested in.

But this probably wouldn’t be easy to realise, and it really gets at the difference between an open culture and a more circumspect one. The research system overall may benefit, but there would be risks to individuals. For example, research teams in more expensive countries may never get funded because the funders know that if it’s a good proposal, someone else will take it and adapt it for half the price. Would people be cautious about what they shared in research bids? People do alter and resubmit so would this undermine that?

There would be some adjustment required, but if we’re using CC-BY (maybe even CC-NC) then the original party would be credited. The point of research is often not just that you have the idea, but that you have the ability and expertise to conduct it also, so it wouldn’t simply be a case of lowest bidder. This would be a more radical step to an open research culture. Part of me is just sad at all those very good research proposals that never see the light of day.

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Types of OER user

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 07/04/2016 - 09:45
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For the GO-GN we are relaunching our webinar series. These will be the first Wednesday of every month, 4pm UK time. They are aimed at anyone with an interest in OER research, and will feature external guests, GO-GN students talking about their work and also research advice sessions. So, put a reminder in your calendar, details will appear on the GO-GN website.

I did the first of the new series, using it as an excuse to trial my talk for OEGlobal and OER16. It was looking at types of OER user, based on the findings of the OER research hub. What with OER movement being 15years old now (depending on when you date its inception), I’m interested in the strategies for engagement with OER. In the talk I propose three types of users:

  • OER Active – these generally know what you mean if you use the term ‘OER’. They are engaged, have knowledge of licences and act as advocates. An example might eb a community college teacher who adopts an open textbook and becomes an OER champion.
  • OER as facilitator – these are people who want to achieve a particular goal, and are only interested in OER in as much as it allows them to realise that goal. This might be flipping a classroom, saving students money or increasing retention.
  • OER consumer – this group just want high quality resources and will use OER amongst a mix of other media. They don’t really care about licences, but they d care about good, easy to use material. An example might be a learner considering entering formal education and seeing if the subject is for them.

If these groups have any validity, then they have implications for OER strategy. I would suggest that thus far most of the attention has been focused on the OER active group. This has been a successful strategy, but there may be limits. You can’t make everyone an OER convert. To reach the other groups different (but complementary) approaches are required.

For instance, the OER as facilitator group want packaged solutions. It may be that we can identify five or so key aims here, eg teachers who want to flip their classrooms, those who want to create distance education type all inclusive courses, particular subject areas, etc. For these a packaged OER based solution can be created so they can more readily achieve their goal. This is the type of activity that commercial providers offer. They know that teachers are busy people, and offering convenience is a key benefit. For the OER consumer there is a need to improve the overall OER brand. Usually OER project funds are spent on producing good quality material. But we don’t have a very good cross OER brand, so maybe there is a need to bring in marketing, SEO and promotion expertise, so OER can compete with publishers who have whole departments dedicated to this.

The replay of the presentation is here.

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What are the research questions for OER?

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 17/03/2016 - 09:16
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When we developed the OER Research Hub project with Hewlett, we came up with 11 hypotheses that they and we felt represented questions that it would be useful to find answers to. Some worked better than others to be honest, but it was a good way to shape the research of that project. We got the questions largely right I think, and this led to more people wanting to collaborate with us.

But it was still very much our interpretation as to what was significant, and this was back in 2011. A lot has changed in the OER world since then – we’ve had MOOCs, open textbook projects are getting solid results, we’ve seen the demise of JORUM in the UK, lots of new players have entered the arena, etc. So it would be a good time to revisit the key research questions for the OER community. This isn’t for any project we are running, so it’s not “what should the OER Hub research” but more widely, what does the community as a whole feel are the research questions that should be addressed? For the OER Research Hub there was a focus on trying to establish evidence for what were perceived as long held beliefs about OER. It may be more targeted now, for example, if it could be shown that OERs have an impact on this very specific aspect of education (for example retention), that would be a key piece for influencing decisions.

To this end, we’re running a couple of workshops at OEGlobal and OER16 to explore the research questions for the OER community. I’m sure you have an opinion regarding key research questions, so please complete this mega-short form to let us know. And if you’re at either of those conferences please come along, but if not, we’ll run some online discussion also.

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Openness as feature

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 03/03/2016 - 10:41
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(going with the “if in doubt, use one of Alan’s pics” approach)

Sorry, this is two ‘open’ posts in a row, I’ll blog something else soon (if you want something very different, I’ve started a film a week blog, it’s reassuringly uninformed).

There have been a few announcements recently that made me reflect on the co-option of ‘open’ in a commercial sense. The first was Amazon’s Inspire announcement where they look to be getting into the OER game. Amazon & OER, that is big time and has Battle for Open written all over it. It could be amazing, it could miss the point of OERs altogether. Audrey Watters blogged her reaction to it, but I guess we’re playing a wait and see game at the moment. I will say, as far as I know, the Amazon team haven’t spoken to people in the OER world and haven’t previously engaged with that community (not that they need to of course, they’re Amazon, but they might learn something useful).

The second was actually an old article (from 2014, practically prehistory I know), that I only recently came across. It was predicting how SOOCs (selectively open online courses) would be better than MOOCs, because SOOCs would have “an entrance requirement designed to reduce the unwanted diversity.” As the kids say: I can’t even. Unwanted diversity? Selectively open?

One more – a piece in Inside Higher Ed about Coursera beginning to charge for more of its MOOCs. The piece says that learners can explore freely but “To turn the course materials into an actual course, learners have to pay.” The Coursera blog said ““We are on a mission to change the world by providing universal access to the best learning experience, … The changes that we are making this year will move us toward sustainability and enable continued investment in our learning experience, without compromising our commitment to transforming lives for people around the world.”

What these highlight to me is that openness is a feature when you’re developing a business model or technology. Will it get you more money or users? If yes, then adopt it. If no, like any feature it can be dropped. Compare this with universities and non-profit organisations for whom openness is a principle. It is embedded in what they do, and matches their core mission (or should do, although the increasing commercialisation of universities may see more ‘feature’ based thinking). So while the announcement of any big company that they are adopting open gets headlines and is exciting, it is worth examining to what extent is it a feature versus a principle?

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Positive openness

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 01/03/2016 - 15:54
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I’ve been mulling around something on how openness ain’t what it used to be for a while. I’m not sure I’ve got it, but a few strands are converging.

Firstly, the way openness is framed now is really as free. Tressie McMillan Cottom gave a good presentation at ICDE last year, in which she highlighted that the new forms of openness do not create the equality many had assumed. For instance, it is mainly elite universities that adopt open source LMSs, whereas poorer community colleges sign up with commercial providers. And both for OERs and MOOCs, the learners who use them most tend to be well educated already and from privileged backgrounds. Simply making something ‘open’ itself does not lead to equality or democratisation, and in fact may increase inequality.

This arises because ‘open’ has become largely synonymous with ‘free’. But openness is something much richer and more complex than this. In order to make things truly open, then free may be the least interesting element in the overall equation. You need to provide support structures, to specifically meet the needs of the audiences you feel might benefit from open. And that costs money. So not only does the equating of open to mean free underplay other elements, but it also falsely gives people the impression that this is a cheap option. It is not. Support for openness usually requires people, and they are often the most expensive component in an education system. Whether that is supporting learners on MOOCs, or supporting teachers to adapt OERs, the ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy only applies to people for whom the route is already easy. It also gives a lower return. The audiences you might want to benefit from open approaches are likely to drop out more, get lower grades, earn less than the guaranteed successful people. So now openness is more expensive and gives lower success rates. It then becomes less of a Silicon Valley dream investment, but it does become more of a social good.

The conflation of open with free has nearly always been to the detriment of the people openness is intended to benefit. So we need to get away from it: Accept that openness costs money somewhere in the system if you want to do it properly, or stop calling it open education.

My colleague Rob Farrow has been coming to this from a philosophical perspective. He has been thinking about how currently open is framed as an absence – eg the removal of restrictive copyright. In the presentation below he frames it using Isaiah Berlin’s concept of positive and negative liberty. Negative liberty is the removal of constraints, whereas positive liberty carries agency. Both are required, but I think Rob’s point is that we’ve focused on the negative liberty aspect hitherto and now need to move to the positive liberty aspect:

Constellations of Open from Robert Farrow

This might be a useful way of thinking about the type of supported openness I mean here. When the Open University was founded it developed a model called “Supported Open Learning”. Note that it wasn’t just “Open Learning” – without that ‘supported’ part the rest falls away. This is my resolution for this year, to look at open education ventures and ask ‘yes, but where’s the positive openness?’

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Open Learning Analytics. Again

Several years ago, a group of us wrote a concept paper on Open Learning Analytics (.pdf). Our goal was to create openness as a foundation for the use of data and analytics in education. We have, it appears, largely failed to have our vision take root.

Few things are more important in education today than the development of an open platform for analytics of learning data. It’s a data-centric world. Data, and the analysis of that data, are a rapidly emerging economic value layer. Most educators and students are unaware of how much algorithmic sorting happens in the educational process. Even before students apply to a university, the sorting has started (postal/ZIP codes can indicate chances of success). Recommender systems suggest next courses. Engagement with course content produces predictive models. Suggested help resources are generated for students identified to be at risk. And this all happens behind the scenes as the Wizard of Algorithms spins dials and outputs intimidating results (often with more smoke and noise than actual usefulness) that are starting to drive learning practices that cover the full range of a student’s engagement with higher education.

We are, as a field, facing an interesting time. The decisions that we make now will cast a long shadow into the future. And the best decision, in uncertain times, is the one that allows the greatest range of decisions in the future. It is here, in analytics and data use in education, that far more attention and awareness is needed than is currently evident. Algorithms will subsume most of our educational practices as they will embody certain pedagogies, support roles, and even faculty practices. Quite simply, the shape of tomorrow’s university is now actively being coded into analytics models. I’m generally fine with this as a concept, but quite nervous about this as an action. The future needs to be open. And yet, the exact opposite is happening.

The article in the Chronicle today on Big Data and Education is timely reminder of the importance of the work and the challenges of a closed learning analytics future. The work is rather urgent. And we as academics have been sleeping.

The non-Uberization of education

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 22/02/2016 - 14:45
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I have tried to avoid writing a piece about Uber, because, well I just lost the will when I thought about it. There is a very strange tendency in technology writing to take any successful business and view it as a universal acid. All of the commentators and tech media go on an obsessive hunt across every sector: THIS MUST APPLY EVERYWHERE!! is the mantra. So we get “Uber for [insert sector of your choice]” pieces everywhere. I guess they’re easy to write, and people seem to like reading them. I think they appeal to the “get on the bus” fear argument I mentioned in the previous post.

Inevitably there have been “Uber for education” pieces – Nassim Taleb says we will bypass institutions and go straight to instructors (because people approaching a world famous expert is exactly the same thing as a nervous, financially poor learner getting started on a subject who doesn’t know how to proceed, of course); the inevitable start-up (InstaEDU) which gets bonus points for almost literally stating the get on the bus argument (“Are you the one still hailing a cab or are you calling an Uber?”); rehashing the unbundling education argument; and on and on.

The basic idea is that universities will be made redundant (for about the fourth time since 2010) because individual learners will go direct to a marketplace of private educators. What people rarely write is why a sector isn’t like Uber. That’s probably because no-one wants to hear this, and anyone foolish enough to write such stuff would have to be some kind of curmudgeon who was like, not with it, Grandad. Well, hello there. So here is my attempt at such a post.

It’s important to understand the key elements of the Uber offering:

  • A taxi ride is a brief interaction. It helps if I like the person, but it’s over in 15 minutes, so I don’t have to worry too much about investment in it.
  • A taxi ride may vary in some local colour in terms of car, environment etc but it’s essentially the same product everyday and anywhere in the world.
  • It is something that a lot of people possess the equipment for (a car) and the capability (driving)
  • I know what I want from it (to get to my destination safely and at low cost)
  • Getting a taxi is largely a solitary pursuit
  • It utilises mobile technology and pervasive connectivity to overcome some of the limitations of the previous model (waving down a cab)

Hardly any of those conditions apply to education, which has the following characteristics:

  • It requires a long time frame (certainly longer than 15 minutes usually) to gain the required outcome.
  • It is very diverse, both geographically and by discipline, so any model would require such diversity and thus be difficult to use, compared with the simplicity of Uber
  • While there are a lot of people who can act as tutors, the ability to construct a curriculum or design a learning activity that can be effectively delivered online is quite rare. Also while gaining a driving licence is fairly easy, being licensed to offer formal credit for learning is very difficult.
  • Meno’s paradox goes something like: If you know what you’re looking for, inquiry is unnecessary. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, inquiry is impossible. Put simply, if you’re a learner in a new discipline then you don’t know what it is you need to know. So it is very difficult to bypass institutions that are constructed to help you overcome this very problem. (Incidentally, Meno’s paradox undermines nearly all ed tech startups which rely on the autodidact model, but no-one’s ever told them)
  • Learning is often a social activity that is undertaken with a cohort of people with similar interests, goals, etc
  • Education is already engaging with online learning and mobile delivery, so it’s not obvious it is solving a problem

I think there will be aspects of (really, really for want of a better phrase) Uberization of education. Indeed they’re already here, and are just part of the changing approach to workforce. For instance, it is often difficult for an institution to compete with an individual consultant on price for research that doesn’t require large resources. Writing a review, conducting interviews, etc – the overheads of a university add too much to a bid compared to someone working out of a home office. Similarly the online tutoring model which seems to be such a revelation to many, is already underway. I think this will expand, particularly in combination with OERs and MOOCs. But I suspect it will be largely in conjunction with higher education, not in competition to it.

The appeal of apps and businesses like Uber is their simplicity. It’s not impossible to address all of the reservations I’ve set out above in some Uberized fashion, but it would end up being a complex, unwieldy affair that would defeat the very object of its existence. And that is the biggest difference between Uber and education – getting a taxi is simple, getting an education is complex. That’s why we value it highly – after all, you put letters after your name to indicate your education, not to show how many taxi rides you’ve taken.

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Why open practice?

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 22/02/2016 - 13:40
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I gave a presentation recently trying to set out the arguments for engaging with open practice in higher education. I’ve shifted from the “because it’s awesome” argument to a more nuanced one. My starting point is that open practice is a smorgasbord of components from which one selects those parts that you feel most comfortable with and will most benefit your current role. For instance, an academic might be interested in developing a personal online profile, and also in open access. A librarian in open access, OER and an institutional profile. A researcher in open data, licenses and knowledge exchange, etc. However, a smorgasbord is a simplistic metaphor – it’s also a stew of different ingredients and it is difficult to extract one component from another. If you’re in for OER, you get a taste of online identity too. You can probably add your own food metaphor now. The point is that it’s not one thing, and thus we end up talking across a wide range of issues from “should I use Twitter?” to “what are the sustainability models for OER?”.

I presented four arguments about why people working in higher education should at least be aware of open practices:

  • The “get on the bus” argument – this states that openness is happening, you’d best get with it or else you’ll be left behind. I’m not keen on this, vaguely threatening, line of persuasion. We saw this with MOOCs and many university principals I think felt they “get on the MOOC bus or die” pressure. But there is something about a coalescing group of driving factors around openness – funding, mandates, platforms, licences, institutions – that gives weight to the argument that something is happening here that is worthy of attention.
  • The “it’s good for you” argument – I’ve outlined benefits of open approaches elsewhere, and this is what I used to focus on. There are many good reasons for engaging with different aspects of open practice – it’s good fro you, your institution, your project, society as a whole.
  • The “you need to understand this stuff” argument – however, there are downsides to various aspects of open practice. However, having an appreciation of these and how they affect you, your institution and your students (if applicable) is essential as aspects of them may be forced.
  • The “if you don’t control it, someone else will” argument – openness has commercial traction now, and as I’ve written about elsewhere, there are lessons from recent education history here. The LMS, publishing and MOOCs all became controlled by external forces, often to our disadvantage in education.

It may be that you’re involved in similar discussions in your place, so here is the slide deck if it helps:

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The control of your network

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 08/02/2016 - 13:51
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(photo by some guy called Alan Levine)

There was much anxiety this week about the possible move by Twitter to an algorithmic feed, where some magic (see previous post) determines what comes up in your timeline, instead of the chronological order of everything we’re used to. Whether it goes ahead or not, what this highlighted is the power we have given over to a commercial organisation to shape our community. There is a real dilemma here – this stuff (social media, online identity) is only worth investing time in if it has real value in your life. But then as soon as you invest that value in it, any changes have a potentially big impact on how you work, communicate, portray yourself and even sense of identity.

Increasingly one answer to this is to own everything yourself – the whole reclaim hosting movement. Or another is to deliberately opt out of any of this online invasion, as many savvy kids are doing. But even with self-hosting there are networks, tools you need to connect with others (even Jim Groom is still on Twitter after all). And the opt out option requires a dedication to resist and a surrendering of much of what is useful.

This concern over Twitter controlling our network made me appreciate that, actually, as academics, our communities have always been shaped by others. Prior to social media the way you developed a network of peers was often through conferences, and collaboration. These are highly regulated practices – to get funding to attend a conference you often have to be presenting a paper, it has to be deemed a relevant conference, and it needs to be affordable, which often means local. To collaborate people have to find you – this can be through existing networks, recommendations or through publications. Academic publishing is again, a highly regulated practice – only certain types of papers are published. Disciplines themselves act as boundaries, making it difficult to build professional relationships with people in different subject areas, because you simply wouldn’t read their academic papers, or go to their conferences. For want of a better phrase, there was a cultural hegemony which shaped the people we got to know as academics.

Social media changed this drastically. Although the democratisation card may be overplayed, there was certainly a flattening (the prominent people online were often not the people with a high citation index for example), and a broadening of the range of people in your network. You could communicate in different ways, and these were powerful methods for making all sorts of connections with others in many different countries, disciplines and roles. Now I could make connections with someone in, say, classical studies from South Africa, because I connected with the person, found they were entertaining on twitter and wrote accessible blog posts. This reforming of the academic landscape is a process we’re still going through, and is the type of thing Bonnie Stewart, Inger Mewburn and Katy Jordan are all researching.

I don’t really have a solution here, but I think we’ll see waves of openness and closed practice. The very liberating opening up of networks that arose with online, social media, web 2.0 etc is now being controlled and increasingly begins to resemble the old ways. But there’ll be a new one along soon. Every great revolution is ultimately disappointing and needs to be revisited.

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