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What markets do to open access

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 17/04/2014 - 09:16

I read Michael Sandel's What Money Can't Buy recently. It's not an anti-capitalist book, there are situations when the market approach is efficient and effective. But, he argues, the market driven mentality has become all pervasive, and that does strange things to society. An example is paying poor people to queue for tickets for rich people. Sandel argues this damages society, there is a loss of common experience:

"The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don't belong"

The most famous example in the book is that of the Israeli day care centre. The staff were getting annoyed by parents picking their children up late, so they introduced a fine. And the number of late pick-ups increased. Whereas before parents had felt a social responsibility to pick their children up on time, and guilt if they didn't, by introducing a fine system, it had become a straightforward transaction. Parents no longer felt guilty about it because they were paying for it.

The argument here is that the marketisation of relationships fundamentally changes them. There are big questions to be asked about how this affects education, and we have complained long and hard about the concept of student as 'customer'. But I want to focus on some smaller aspects relating to open access, because we are seeing similar examples to the daycare there.

By adopting the gold route, we have changed the nature of the relationship between the author and the publisher. I am, of course, a big advocate of open access, so this is not an anti-OA argument, but I think it highlights some of the issues with the gold route. For example, in his 'sting' operation John Bohannon got his obviously bogus paper accepted by more than half of the 304 open access journals he submitted it to (unfortunately he didn't do a control submitting to traditional journals, but let us assume the acceptance rate would've been lower). We have also seen a wealth of predatory open access journals appear (Beall keeps a very good list), which are essentially vanity publishing, since none of the normal peer review or filters are in place.

By marketising the publishing process directly with the author, the relationship between the author and the publisher has been altered. This is not, I repeat NOT, a reason to abandon open access. But we should be aware of it. Rethinking the gold route approach might be appropriate, for example instead of research councils paying the researchers who pay the publishers, why not flow money to universities or not for profits to run open access journals? If there is no direct payment for the article then the incentive to lower quality is removed. There are many options I'm sure, but pretending that a market will exist and not change the nature of the process is not one of them.  

Open Learning Analytics

The future of systems such as business, government, and education will be data centric. Historically, humanity has made sense of the world through discourse, dialogue, artifacts, myth, story, and metaphor. While those sensemaking approaches won’t disappear, they will be augmented by data and analytics.

Educators often find analytics frustrating. After all, how can you analyze the softer aspects of learning? Or can analytics actually measure what matters instead of what is readily accessible in terms of data? These are obviously important questions. Regardless of how they are answered, however, ours is a data-rich world and will only continue to become more so. All educators need to be familiar with data and analytics approaches, including machine and deep learning models. Why does it matter? Well, to use a Ted Nelson quote that Jim Groom used during his excellent talk at Sloan-C this week, it matters “because we live in media as fish live in water”. Power and control decisions are being made at the data and analytics level of educational institutions. If academics, designers, and teachers are not able to participate in those conversations, they essentially abdicate their voice.

About five years ago, a few colleagues (Shane Dawson, Simon Buckingham Shum, Caroline Haythornthwaite, and Dragan Gasevic) and I got together with a great group of folks and organized the 1st International Conference in Learning Analytics and Knowledge (complete with a logo that any web users of the 1990s would love). Our interest primarily focused on the growing influence of data around educational decisions and that an empirical research community did not exist to respond to bold proclamations being made by vendors about learning analytics. Since then, a community of researchers and practitioners has developed. The Society for Learning Analytics Research was formed, hosting summer institutes, our annual conference, journal, and a distributed doctoral research lab.

Today we are pleased to announce two new initiatives that we feel will raise the quality of learning analytics, increase transparency around data and algorithms, and create an ecosystem where results can be shared, tested, and validated:

1. Open Learning Analytics. This initiative is based on a paper that we published (.pdf) several years ago. After significant behind-the-scenes work, we are now ready to announce the next steps of the project formally. See here for press release and project scope.

2. Learning Analytics Masters Program (LAMP). The number of masters programs that are offering learning analytics courses, streams or certificates is increasing. Several institutions are in the process of developing a masters in learning analytics. To help provided quality curriculum and learning resources, we have launched LAMP: an open access, openly licensed learning analytics masters program. Institutions will be able to use/remix/do whatever with the content in developing their masters programs. Our inaugural meeting is being held at Carnegie Mellon University in a few weeks to kick off this project and start developing the course content.

If data is the future of education and educational decision making, and in many ways it is, I believe openness is the best premise on which to advance. The projects presented here are our contribution in making that happen.

Hits & thoughts ain't evidence

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 09/04/2014 - 11:28

This week we've been populating the impact map for the OER Research Hub. The impact map (http://oermap.org/) has been developed largely by Rob Farrow and Martin Hawksey, and features lots of Hawksey-goodness. You can do the following on the map:

So, as well as putting our own evidence in there, we have been trying to add in the research of others that really demonstrates evidence for one of the hypotheses. And this has been an interesting exercise. I have been working through Rory McGreal's excellent resource OER Knowledge Cloud, going through papers and trying to add them in. The problem is very few OER papers actually give anything approaching proper evidence or research. Try it yourself, pick a few papers from the knowledge cloud at random. What you get are project reports about releasing OERs, lots of "lessons learned", a lot of beliefs stated as evidence eg "this will improve retention", quite a lot of download stats, but very little hard evidence that you could point at and say to someone "this supports (or negates) this hypothesis".

In some ways this is understandable - OERs had to be developed in order to do research on OERs. So the early phase of the field will always be partly driven by evangelism and implementation. But we've moved beyond that phase now, after more than 10 years of OERs. The field really needs to up its game in terms of research now and demonstrating impact and evidence. I think all OER projects should have a research strand built in that asks questions such as "what are the expected benefits of this work?", "how will we measure that?", "what happens if these aren't realised?" etc. (Our 11 hypotheses would be a good start for anyone).

I really believe in OERs, and I think in the early stage of their development you just needed to take a leap of faith and develop them. But they have reached a level of maturity now when we can ask tough questions of them, without fear of undermining the whole enterprise. Indeed, I think having such solid research to point to is essential for OERs to make that next push through into mainstream practice.

So if you've got any of this evidence lying around (and I do mean evidence, not something a bloke down the pub told you), please let us have it.

You don't get openness for nothing

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 09/04/2014 - 11:27

<Warning, post may be a bit preachy - photo: https://flic.kr/p/8PRgdC>

This isn't a post about the financial cost of open education, but rather the reciprocal, moral cost. As I mentioned in my last post, I've been working through a lot of OER publications for the OER Impact map. I've also been reading a lot of MOOC, open access & open scholarship publications for my Battle for Open book.

One thing that surprises and irritates me is the number of such publications that aren't published under an open access licence. It is a tad ironic to say the least when you encounter an article along the lines of "How OERs will transform education" - please pay $24.00 to access the article.

I'm not usually one for the kind of Open Stalinist approach, outing people for not being open enough and dictating exactly how people should be open, I think it's counter-productive, unimaginative and not very pleasant. But on this subject I am a hard-liner.

Now, I think all articles should be open access anyway, but I think if you are doing any research in the field of open education (MOOCs, OA, OER, open data, etc), then as soon as you start doing that research you are morally obliged to publish results open access. I don't care which method (although if Green route, make it easy to find). You only get to do that research (even if you are critical of it) because others have been open. You are therefore beholden to reciprocate in a like manner. If you don't want to, or feel that the journal you are targeting isn't OA, then choose another subject area. Openness is the route that allows you to do that research and it also has value - people will want to read your work because it is about openness. And you don't get that for free - Open access is the price of admission.

Art of Guerrilla Research workshop

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 24/03/2014 - 14:03

On Monday I ran a workshop with Tony Hirst on the Art of Guerrilla Research. This was a vague idea I'd floated a while back, and Rhona Sharpe of ELESIG got in touch, asking if I could run one of their masterclass workshops on it. This was a good opportunity to think through the idea with others.

With tongue a bit in cheek I proposed a manifesto for Guerrilla Research which was: 

  • It can be done by one or two researchers and does not require a team
  • It relies on existing open data, information and tools
  • It is fairly quick to realise
  • It is disseminated via blogs and social media
  • It doesn’t require permission

It is that last one that is most significant I think. This is stuff you can just do, it doesn't require funding, permission from IT services, access to privileged data, etc. It is thus more exploratory in nature, Tony used the phrase 'recreational research' (I hope Tony blogs his slidedeck soon). Another point I was trying to explore is one I've made before, that we have become enculturated into thinking about research in a particular way. What constitutes research is the 2 year funded project with a journal article at the end. Like much else to do with digital scholarship, it is not the case that this traditional approach is not valid, but rather that we now have a much more extended toolbox and set of possibilities. But culturally we still fall into a certain set of behaviours.

It was interesting that a lot of the people at the workshop classified themselves as being outside traditional academic roles, so couldn't engage in traditional research anyway as it wasn't part of their remit. For these people guerrilla research is all they've got.

The slidedeck is below:

The Art of Guerrilla Research from Martin Weller   [Update: here is the video of the session, it's a bit quiet]  

Battle for Open webinar

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 21/03/2014 - 10:16

As part of Open Education week, the OER Research Hub organised some webinars. One was around my Battle for Open idea/forthcoming book. It was my first attempt to condense the book into a presentation. The areas I covered were: the roots of open education; Open access publishing; OERs; MOOCs; Open scholarship; The Silicon Valley narrative; some warnings, and conclusions.

For the 4 areas of openness (OERs, MOOCs, OA and open scholarship) I tried to set out the success of the open approach and also the key areas of battle. 

You can watch/listen to the webinar here. The slidedeck is below:

The Battle for Open from Martin Weller

Open research ethics - the puppy killer scenario

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 18/03/2014 - 13:10

Yesterday I ran a workshop called "The Art of Guerrilla Research" for ELESIG, along with Tony Hirst. I'll blog it later but basically it was about what sort of research can you do without permission and funding, eg asking questions of open data (hence Tony describing the things he does).

One issue that was raised a few times was that of the ethics of it. The assumption has long been that anything openly available is fair game. So for instance there is a lot of research that uses travel blogs as its data source, and they don't require the permission of these people to analyse them or interpret them. In general, this is my stance too, but thinking through the types of things Tony does with data led me to come up with a scenario which would raise ethical issues. I offer it just as an example of how it isn't quite as clear cut as you may think regarding openly available data.

Let us imagine that there is a heinous crime we can all agree is very bad - puppy murders (I'm using a silly example so people won't get distracted by a specific crime, but you can replace puppy murders with a small or large crime/amoral act of your choice). Tony does a FOI request to find all the people convicted of puppy murders over the past decade. He then finds which of these have Facebook pages that are openly available. He creates an interest graph of their listed interests, and shows that puppy murderers tend to have a number of interests in common. He blogs this, just out of interest.

Someone else then comes along and finds all the people on Facebook who also have these interests, and publishes a list of 300 people who have 'puppy murderer' type interests. One of these, although entirely innocent of any puppy mistreatment, is attacked by a mob who accuse him of being a puppy murderer.

Now, this has used all openly available data, publicly and knowingly shared by the individuals. But by taking it and creating a new interpretation of that data, new knowledge has been generated which the original posters could not have foreseen. The new form of this knowledge then carries an ethical dimension. This is obviously an extreme example, but it illustrates the potential complexity of assuming all open data is fair game.

Open scholarship, social media & libraries

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 17/03/2014 - 13:09

I gave a presentation to a conference of university librarians in Aarhus, Denmark last week. Social media and the role of the librarian was their theme. I won't pretend to be an expert on libraries, but taking Shelby Foote's quote that "a university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library" you could argue that the factors affecting higher ed are the same for libraries.

The talk was kind of a cross over between my Digital Scholar book and the new Battle for Open one. My argument was that openness represents a key direction for libraries, and that social media plays a vital role in this. I then set out four such areas: MOOCs, OERs, Open Access and Open Scholarship, and the role of social media in each. You can view social media as the glue binds these, or the substrate, that underlies them. For instance, social media creates a pressure for open access, since people want to share articles, and there is no point tweeting a link to an article that asks someone to pay $50 to view it.

The talk went well (I think) and provoked some good discussion. Anyway, the slidedeck is below:


Open scholarship, social media & libraries from Martin Weller

What will universities monetize in the future?

Universities do more than teach. Research is one of the most important activities of higher education. From the lens of students and society, however, the teaching and learning process and what it costs, is the primary focus.

The university economic and operational structure, in relation to educating learners, can be seen as consisting of three legs of a stool: content/curriculum, teaching, and assessment. The past decade has not been kind to higher education’s economic model as two legs of the stool – content and teaching – have started to move toward openness. Academic resources can now be found from top universities around the world. If I was tasked with designing a course from scratch, I would start by searching repositories, rather than creating any new content.

More recently, the teaching leg of the stool is seeing stress. Open online courses now make lectures of faculty from elite universities accessible to learners around the world (minus a few countries on the US “we don’t like” list).

This leaves assessment as the last leg of economic value. The badges and competency-based learning movement may challenge assessment, but at this point it remains reasonably secure.

What will universities do in the future to monetize their value? I offer the image below – instead of monetizing learning, content, and teaching, universities in the future will monetize assessment and the process of filling learner knowledge gaps. Content is largely free/open. Teaching is becoming more free/open. If something can be duplicated with only limited additional expense, it cannot serve as a value point for higher education. Creating personalized and adaptive learning processes that account for the personal knowledge graph of a learner is, and likely will continue, to be a source of value economically for universities.

University of Texas at Arlington

This is likely not news to most readers as it has been posted in various blogs, forums, and announced at the MOOC Research conference in December, but I have applied, and received approval, for a leave of absence from Athabasca University to establish and set up a digital learning research lab at University of Texas at Arlington. I will be based in Arlington, but will continue to work with my AU doctoral students.

My research to date has focused on the social and technological learning, sensemaking and wayfinding activities of individuals in digital information environments and how these actions inform the design of learning, curriculum and ultimately institutions. At the core of this research is how people interact with information. When information is limited, it can be assessed and understood individually or through social interactions with peers. When information is abundant, technology extends human cognition and capacity for sensemaking. How people use technology and social methods to make the world sensible, and the types of knowledge institutions required to assist that process, is what we hope to address through the Learning Innovation & Networked Knowledge (LINK) Research Lab.

A key second goal at UTA will be the development of a digital learning research network. Just like local-only classrooms no longer make sense, research institutions that work only within a small local domain don’t make sense. I’m particularly interested in understanding how we can connect excellent research with practical implementation. More is known about quality learning in literature than is reflected in classrooms and online courses. The digital learning research network is expected to bring those two domains together.

Pity the austerity natives

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 19/02/2014 - 13:33

Mike Caulfield has a post on how automation of middle-class jobs, increases competition for poory paid job, which removes the incentive to innovate in technology for those jobs. It made me think how many postgrads going into an academic career now don't really expect it to be well paid, or secure. They approach higher education career with a very different mindset than I did. When I came into academia it was with the hope of getting the "cushiest job on the planet". Professors used to be part of the prosperous middle class, now they hover just above the precariat.

This chimed with another thought I'd had which was that for my daughter she has mostly only ever known living in a post-financial crisis world. She was born before 2008, but most of her formative memories will be of the age of austerity. Going on the principle that a bad naming idea worked once, so why not try it again, we could label her and her generation "austerity natives".

What will be the attitude of austerity natives to money and government? There was a report out today about teenagers in the UK (basically, they're a lot nicer and care more than the media give them credit for). But what of the generation after, and specifically their relationship to money and economics? Will they be fearful of credit, having seen the damage it caused? Will they be like children who were brought up in a strict household who go a bit wild when they are suddenly let loose at uni? They may have a frivolous attitude to money, because hey, it's all screwed up anyway. I suspect there is an interesting longitudinal study in there somewhere...

Politics of openness

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 17/02/2014 - 15:22

[The following is an adapted extract from the upcoming Battle for Open book, which I'm bouncing off you lot first].

I am not by nature an overtly political person, in that I don't interpret everything through a political lens. So, rather like Clay Shirky and higher ed, writing on politics is not my strongest point. Which is by way of saying, sorry of what follows is a bit rubbish.

I often avoid given a tight definition of open education, because I want to admit degree and variation in practice. Whilst some areas, such as OERs, have a very clear definition, others such as open scholarship, represent more of a general approach and set of beliefs. Finding one definition would exclude some elements of the open education story that are interesting, hence I prefer to think in terms of a set of coalescing principles. This approach however does allow for a vagueness in the term which potentially renders it meaningless, or subject to abuse.

In his thoughtful critique of open source publisher Tim O’Reilly, Morozov argues that this vagueness around the term has been deliberately constructed by O’Reilly to create good PR:

“Few words in the English language pack as much ambiguity and sexiness as “open.” And after O’Reilly’s bombastic interventions—“Open allows experimentation. Open encourages competition. Open wins,” he once proclaimed in an essay—its luster has only intensified. Profiting from the term’s ambiguity, O’Reilly and his collaborators likened the “openness” of open source software to the “openness” of the academic enterprise, markets, and free speech. “Open” thus could mean virtually anything.”

For Morozov, O’Reilly’s co-option of the term allowed him to ally it to economics, which the market found more palatable, allowing O’Reilly and many in the software movement to “look political while advancing an agenda that had very little to do with politics”.  Openwashing suggests that there is market capital now in proclaiming open credentials, and ambiguity around the term facilitates this.

Stephen posted a piece last week about the OU, history and MOOCs (we had a bit of a misunderstanding about it), which highlights that history has political connotations. Many accounts of open education usually have one of two starting points. The first is the founding of the Open University, for instance Andy Lane contends that “The discourse around the role of openness in higher education can be said to have seriously started with the inception of the United Kingdom Open University (UKOU) in 1969”. The second, alternative, starting point for history is that of the open source movement, which is what Wiley & Gurell use, while admitting that “Histories are difficult to write for many reasons. One reason is the difficulty of determining where to begin telling the story – for there is never a true starting point to a tale woven of people, events and ideas.” The choice of starting point will have an influence on the type of interpretation of open education put forward: the OU based one may suggest a university and student focused approach, whereas the open source one might indicate a more technological and license driven perspective.

Peter and Diemann propose a longer historical perspective, highlighting aspects of open education in the Middle ages with the founding of universities which “contained in them the idea of openness, albeit by no means comprehensive. This period highlights “open” as learner driven, resting on a growing curiosity and increasing awareness of educational opportunities.” Open education can be traced through the 17th Century with coffee-houses and then into the industrial revolution with schools and working clubs. Their overview of this broader history of openness is shown below:



A history of Openness From Peter, S., & Deimann, M. (2013). On the role of openness in education: A historical reconstruction. Open Praxis, 5(1), 7-14. ) released under a CC-By license

This longer historical perspective has some illuminating lessons for the current debate. The authors conclude that “Historical forms of openness caution us against assuming that particular configurations will prevail, or that social aspects should be assumed as desired by default. … After a period of open movements many times there have been slight but important shifts from “pure” openness towards “pretended” openness, i.e. some aspects have been modified to offer more control for producers and other stakeholders.”

This illustrates that openness has always been perceived as problematic, and one of its principle difficulties is that it operates against an individual’s, and more significantly, an organisation’s need to control. And to return to my original subject, where there are issues of control then there is undoubtedly a political aspect. Peters and Britez are blunt about this in their book on open education, opening with the statement “Open education involves a commitment to openness and is therefore inevitably a political and social project.” It is possible to argue, as the open source community do, that openness is simply the most efficient way to operate, and there is some truth in that, for instance the argument for learning objects and OERs makes this case. But even if that is so, a degree of politics follows. This can be a set of assumed beliefs, in democracy, altruism, sharing, and a general liberal perspective for instance, or more directly, it can be political lobbying, for instance to introduce open textbooks into a country or a region.

There have been explicitly political criticisms of aspects of open education. For instance MOOCs have been seen as exploiting academic labour, and of having a neoliberal agenda. The Silicon Valley narrative can itself been seen as embodying a form of neoliberal capitalism, and so there should be no surprise that MOOCs can be seen from the same perspective. For others, the open education movement is not being radical enough in its reconceptualization of the role of universities. Joss Winn asks “Is Open Education being used as a method of compensating for a decline in the welfare state? Is government advocacy of OER a way of  tackling resource scarcity in an expanding system of higher education?” Winn and others favour a more social interpretation of openness, which draws on some of the historical trends mentioned above,  as well as the strong ethical basis of Stallman’s free software movement. In this interpretation, open education leads to a cooperative university which is “a free association of people who come together to collectively produce knowledge. It is also a political project.”

Even if one ignores such politically explicit aspects of open education there is an unintentional (or maybe intentional) form of cultural imperialism associated with exporting the open education beliefs which are inextricably aligned with open education resources. Dave Cormier suggests that OER can be viewed as a means of exporting an educational model. The power of an global institutional brand, such as MIT, combined with free (as in cost), makes it difficult for local providers to compete, both in terms of cost and voice. As Dave puts it “How are local professors, debating the relative value of their curriculum against the standardizing power of a major university, going to be able to forward their own ideas?”

So even in our definition of open education (or lack of one), our history and practice, there are political dimensions. When it was just straightforward open vs closed the fine differences between these perspectives may not have mattered, but if I had to make a prediction, I'd say that we will see more explicitly political arguments about the direction of open education over the next decade.

Build it and they might come

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 17/02/2014 - 14:38

Some of you will have seen a report about a survey conducted on the use of Open Course Library (OCL) free, open textbooks. The findings were that use was "extremely limited". Over the 42 courses that could use the textbooks, this amounted to 98,130 possible students, but only 2,386 did, some 2.4%. All that is rather disappointing to say the least, and it left me a little puzzled. Why would uptake be so low? Given the question "do you want to buy this $100 textbook or have this free one?" one might expect more than 2.4% to go for free.

Tony Bates posted a very good response to it which captured much of my feelings. The survey itself raised a number of questions he suggests: 

  • who commissioned the survey? If it was the college stores, would students necessarily go through college stores to download free online materials? If it was the college stores, is not there a conflict of interest here? Who benefits from the sale of high-priced textbooks?
  • is this survey too soon to draw any real conclusions? How long were the materials available for instructors to review them? These kinds of decisions are likely to be taken several months before courses open, and it may take another year at least before instructors start to accommodate to these materials
  • since the report concluded: ‘the question remains as to why so few of the sections for these 42 OCL courses actually used any of the free or lower-priced materials’, why did the Chronicle of Education, when reporting this, NOT get a comment from the people running the project in Washington State?

 Let us for now, accept that the survey is a true reflection of the state of uptake (although I agree with Tony, using stores as a measure seems an odd way to approach it). This raises other questions about OER adoption. Simply existing is not sufficient for a number of reasons:

  • Faculty have established practices, if they are unaware of the resources, or see no reason to change, then why disrupt their curriculum? 
  • Existing publishers will not go quietly into the night and spend a good deal on marketing existing provision that open textbooks have to compete with. In online chat someone said Pearson had been on their campus 3 times that week.
  • Students will create a momentum if they are aware of the content and it is relevant. The question I posed at the start regarding cost becomes a no-brainer if the material performs the same function

What this mostly comes down to is awareness. Given time enough students may pass around knowledge about this material, but to really make an impact OERs have to be competing with large marketing budgets. This represents the next phase in this particular battle for open I would suggest. Having created the content, getting into the system is now the challenge.

Increased university costs and admin

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 31/01/2014 - 10:08

One of the common themes you'll see when people complain about rising university costs is the increased cost of administrative staff. This is usually portrayed as simply greed, or laziness on the part of universities, for instance this Wall Street Journal article reports a 37% increase in admin staff from 2001 to 2012. The Center for College Affordability and Productivity has little doubt about the lack of value admin staff add, stating: "You can have a university without administrators, but not without students or faculty. The minimization of administrative costs and bureaucracy should be sought in any university reform. A few decades ago, few universities had more than a small centralized public relations staff."

A report detailed in Inside Higher Ed comes to a similar conclusion: "They waste a lot of money on redundant administrative activities and could probably save money in the long run if they made big changes to their structure". And this article suggests that Pennsylvania universities increase in admin spending rose by 53% from 2001 to 2010. And while he doesn't address admin specifically, Clay Shirky tells us that the Golden Age of higher ed is over because it's unaffordable (see David Kernohan's withering response also).

Now, I ought to confess that I'm married to a university administrator, so I may have more than a little bias in my response to this. What most of these articles conclude is that it is simply greed, or unnecessary bureaucracy that has led to this, with of course, the implicit suggestion that if universities were proper businesses they wouldn't put up with it. Now, I get very frustrated with some of the needless layers of process that have been put in place, and often it seems inflexible and all rather pointless, so I'd admit that I'm sure we could do a bit of a streamlining. But between my wife and I we've been through a fair number of these restructurings, as well as seeing other universities do it, and my general impression is that they don't really produce the admin savings people predict. 

One of the common complaints is that "we used to be more efficient and not need as many admin staff". The second part of this is true, we didn't need as many admin staff, but that was because the amount of legislation that universities have to respond to was far less. Think of the following areas, all of which affect universities, and ask yourself whether the associated administration related to them has increased or decreased over the past 20 years:

  • Student accessibility
  • Finance, tax, charity status
  • Health and safety
  • Estates and property
  • International students and business
  • Student recruitment, teaching quality assessment, pastoral care
  • Research bidding and reporting
  • Employment law

The reason universities have big, complex administration is because they operate in a big, complex world. Probably far more so than most companies who only have a particular focus and are only concerned with legislation that relates to their niche practice. In the 1970s you only needed one administrator in a department because no-one cared about any of this stuff. Now, you'd be shut down, or face criminal charges for failing to respond to it.

As a test of my hypothesis that university administration has increased in complexity, I did a simple bit of research. I went to the legal database Justis.com and searched for legislation that related to universities. Now there are all sorts of problems with this methodology: I didn't analyse each piece, I didn't strip out repeated legislation, I just counted the number of bills.  It doesn't include a lot of things that will relate to universities but not mention them specifically, eg health and safety, and it also won't include all the increased administrative overhead that isn't included in a bill, eg increased demands for reporting on EU funded research projects. So it may well be flawed, but as a simple indicator of the increased administrative burden on universities, it should work to give a general feel for the level of change. My hypothesis would predict a substantial increase. I counted the number of bills from 1974 to 1993 and from 1994 to 2013. The results are shown below:

From 1974 to 1993 there were 262 bills, and from 1994 to 2013, 413, an increase of some 58%. Now I did this in 10 minutes and I suspect it's really a two year research project to really underake it (maybe someone has, please let me know), so I'm happy to be corrected, but I think this gives a good general indication. My guess is that it may underplay the real increase in administration since so much else relates to factors apart from legal duty.

The question then is not so much "why do universities spend so much on admin?" but rather "do we want society to make universities spend this much on admin?". And here people can be a bit hypocritical - they will probably say reduce the admin spend, but then demand robust appeals procedures or sue a university for not taking due care. Which of the areas I've outlined above would you personally be willing to take responsibility for if we reduced the legislation on it? 

The point is that these are issues beyond universities, society can't place an increasingly complex legislative and administrative burden on universities and then complain that they spend more money on legislative and administrative tasks. If higher education were truly privatised and run by companies as some wish, then maybe some of this cost could be reduced, mainly because government ministers would listen to entrepreneurs who complained that needless bureacracy was impeding profits. I'm not sure that would lead to better education necessarily, but it may be cheaper. But can we please stop with the "bloody admin doesn't add anything" message?

Dickens & open scholarship

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 30/01/2014 - 16:45

You know when you're doing two completely unrelated things and your brain forces connections that aren't really there? You think it's genius, everyone else thinks it's painfully laboured? This is one of those posts.

So, I've been away for a week in the middle of Bodmin moor writing some chapters for my Battle for Open book. I came away with just my dog and a week's supply of beer. It's amazing what you get done when there is nothing else to distract you. I have written three chapters this week on MOOCs, the silicon valley narrative and open scholarship. I'm not saying they're good, but they are written.

Anyhow, when I can't bring myself to think about open education anymore, I've been reading Claire Tomalin's well written and nicely balanced biography of Dickens. Because there is nothing else in my head but MOOCs n stuff, I've been making tenuous connections, which I may as well share. Three connections have come to mind:

1) Publish as you go - for about a third of my book I've been taking existing blog posts and adapting them. I worry that this is cheating somehow, but I figure I've been writing the stuff as I go, now I'm pulling it together. Can you plagiarise yourself? Anyway, Dickens reminds me there is nothing new in this. He famously published many of his novels as serialisations, which would then be wrapped up. This strikes me as very hard to do, there is no revisiting it and deciding that character needs to live after all. Compared to Dickens I have it easy. But it does illustrate that content can have more than one mode of existence.

2) Copyright wars - Dickens was rather screwed over by international copyright. British copyright didn't extend to the US so publishers there could just take his work and put out books, making huge sums of money (they adored him in the states), which he saw very little of. I think with his money obsessions I'm not sure Dickens would have embraced CC licensing, but I think he would've been a champion of open textbooks in education.

3) Hard work never killed anyone, oh wait - after reading this quote, I will never complain about being over-committed again:

"Dickens was now committed to the following projects: He had to continue Pickwick in monthly instalments for another year; he had to provide a few more pieces for the Sketches; both his farce and his opera were being published and needed seeing through the press; he had promised a children's book, 'Solomon Bell the Raree Showman' by Christmas; he had to start preparing for his editorship of Bentley's Miscellany, which began in January and for which he must commission articles and also contribute a sixteen page piece of his own every month; Chapman & Hall were hoping for a sequel to Pickwick; Macrone still wanted 'Gabriel Vardon'; and Bentley was expecting two novels."

So that's alright then. Of course, Dickens kept up an impossibly punishing schedule all his life and it contributed to his early death. So not one to follow in that respect.

The challenge of coherence

I’ve been thinking about coherence formation in the learning process for many years (it was a key topic of my phd). Traditionally, coherence of knowledge is formed by the educator through her selection of readings and lectures. The assumption underpinning learning design is something like “decide what’s important and then decide how to best teach it or foster learning activities around it”. When students take a formal course, success is measured by how well they internalize (whatever that means) and repeat back to us what we told them. Most grading and evaluation happens at the intersection where comparisons are made between what the student can demonstrate in relation to what has been taught.

As students advance through their studies, they are asked to begin contributing new knowledge. There aren’t any clear lines around when students should start contributing instead of consuming, but masters level learning is a common demarcation point. I’m drawn more to the work of Bereiter and Scardamalia and their emphasis of knowledge building at all levels of learning, including primary/secondary levels.

I’ve found it difficult to articulate coherence provided by educators in contrast with coherence formed by learners and the growing role of the internet in fragmenting previous models of coherence. Most courses that I teach now do not rely exclusively on one or two texts. Instead, a bricolage of readings, videos, and other mutlimedia resources form course content. This fragmentation, however, generates a lack of coherence. Learning is the process of creating coherence – of seeing how pieces (ideas, concepts) are connected. I found the best description of this process in a recent article about Hola (while most articles about Hola emphasize “a way to get blocked content”, a simple definition is difficult. Hola does a variety of things: peer to peer content sharing, sharing idle computing capacity, VPN, a way to circumvent blocked content, etc). I’ll take it a step beyond and say that this is the most prescient statement regarding the future of learning that I have read in years:

Our processing power has increased so much faster than our networking speed that it’s easier to piece together stuff from all these nodes than to get a coherent piece of media from far away on the network

The dangerous appeal of the Silicon Valley narrative

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 23/01/2014 - 11:44

For my book I've been writing about why it was that MOOCs came to such prominence in the popular press in a way that OERs didn't. One key aspect is that they fit the Silicon Valley narrative.

The model of Silicon Valley provides such a powerful narrative that it has come to dominate thinking far beyond that of computing. For instance Staton declares that the degree is doomed because Silicon Valley avoids hiring people with computer science degrees, and prefers those with good community presence on software developer sites. From this he concludes this model is applicable across all domains and vocations. It hardly needs adding that Staton is the CEO of an educational company.

There are several necessary elements to the silicon valley narrative: firstly a technological fix is both possible and in existence; secondly that external forces will change, or disrupt, an existing sector; thirdly that wholesale revolution is required; lastly the solution is provided by commerce.

The education is broken meme satisfies the third condition of the silicon valley narrative. If it is accepted as broken, then only a revolution is sufficient to resolve it. MOOCs appeal to the first and second of these conditions. They are a very technologically driven solution, particularly in their xMOOC instantiation. Thrun famously worked at Google after all. The artificial intelligence promise of adaptive learning systems and sophisticated automatic assessment is both appealing in that it seems futuristic and aligns with the silicon valley technological solution approach.

Although Thrun, Koller and Ng all worked at Stanford, and so could thus be seen as part of the establishment, Thrun in particular has been cast as the education outsider. In order to satisfy this need for an external party coming to the aid of the sector, the Sal Khan has often been proposed as the godfather of MOOCs.

Another important aspect that appeals to silicon valley, entrepreneurs and journalists alike is that of disruption. It is a term that has been applied much more broadly than its original concept, to the point where it almost meaningless, and rarely critically evaluated. Dvorak complains that it is essentially meaningless, stating that “There is no such thing as a disruptive technology. There are inventions and new ideas, many of which fail while others succeed. That's it.” There remains however a disruption obsession inherent in the silicon valley narrative. As Watters argues, disruption has become somewhat akin to a cultural myth amongst silicon valley: “when I say then, that “disruptive innovation” is one of the great myths of the contemporary business world, particularly of the tech industry, I don’t mean by “myth” that Clayton Christensen’s explanation of changes to markets and business models and technologies is a falsehood… my assigning “myth” to “disruptive innovation” is meant to highlight the ways in which this narrative has been widely accepted as unassailably true.”

Nobody wants to just create a useful tool, it has to disrupt an industry. Education, perceived as slow, resistant to change and old-fashioned is seen as ripe for disruption. Christensen, Horn and Johnson themselves have deemed it so, stating that “disruption is a necessary and overdue chapter in our public schools.” Hence the Avalanche report justifies itself by claiming that all of the key “elements of the traditional university are threatened by the coming avalanche. In Clayton Christensen’s terms, universities are ripe for disruption.” In his criticism of the impact of OERs, Kortemeyer states that they “OERs have not noticeably disrupted the traditional business model of higher education”, because for something to be successful, only disruption counts.

We can see many of these elements in essays on MOOCs. Let us take Clay Shirky’s essay “Your Massively Open Offline College Is Broken”, as it generated a lot of interest and was considered to be a thoughtful analysis.

In terms of our narrative essentials, Shirky even has the “education is broken” meme in the title of his piece, and later states it boldly: “I have a different answer: School is broken and everyone knows it.” He sets out a reasonably convincing case about the finance issues associated with higher education, although he does not question finance models for higher education in general. Shirky cites a book "Don't go back to school" which interviewed 100 people who had dropped out of school and gone on to be successful. Largely they then self-teach themselves using internet resources, an example of the Silicon Valley model being applied broadly.

In his previous essay, Napster, Udacity and the Academy he compares the impact of MOOCs on higher education with that of the MP3 on the music industry. This conforms to the silicon valley narrative, proposing a revolution and disruption: “Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC)”. It also suggests that the commercial, external provider will be the force of change, stating that “and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup”.

All of the elements can also be seen in Clark’s piece where he declares that (referring to Khan) "It took a hedge fund manager to shake up education because he didn’t have any HE baggage." It appeals to the silicon valley narrative to have a saviour riding in from outside HE to save it. If the influence of those inside higher education such as Wiley, Downes, Siemens, etc is acknowledged then that weakens the appeal of the story.

David Kernohan performed a semantic analysis of eleven popular MOOC articles. Taking Kernohan’s articles to conduct simple word counts, then the word “disrupt” (or derivative) occurred 12 times, “revolution” 16, and “company” 17. Obviously this is a selective choice of terms (“open” appears 48 times for comparison), but the presence of these terms indicates a particular framing of the MOOC story that allies with the silicon valley narrative.

We can now see why MOOCs proved so popular with journalists. Firstly they seem to offer a solution to the education is broken meme, which had been gaining currency. Secondly, they met all the criteria for the silicon valley narrative: they proposed a technological solution, they could be framed as the result of external forces, and they provided a revolutionary model. Nearly all the early MOOC articles framed them as disruptive to the standard higher education model. And they were established as separate companies outside of higher education, thus providing interest around business models and potential profits by disrupting the sector. This heady mix proved too irresistible for many technology or education journalists.

This analysis also reveals why other open education initiatives haven’t garnered as much attention. They often seek to supplement or complement education, thus ruining the education is broken argument. Similarly, they are often conducted by those who work in higher education, which undermines the narrative of external agents promoting change on a sector that is out of touch. And lastly, they are supported by not-for-profit institutions, which does not fit the model of new, disruptive businesses emerging. If one wanted to make an argument for disruption, then open textbooks could make a convincing case, since they undermine an established business with digital, low-cost alternatives, but as projects like OpenStax are not-for-profit, they do not fit the silicon valley narrative as neatly as MOOCs.

One further aspect of the silicon valley and disruption narrative is that it demands a ‘year zero’ mentality. It is a much more convincing story if someone can be said to have invented a new way of working. Because complete genesis invention is rare, most work is tinkering with old ideas and improving them, this often requires either a wilful ignorance of past work, and an imaginative reworking of it

The morality of scale

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 15/01/2014 - 13:30

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When I was an undergraduate a friend and I had one of those (no doubt drink fuelled) discussions that we felt were very important. It was based around the idea of what would it be like if everyone lived to be 1000 years old? We decided that it would be unlikely that anyone would stay with the same partner for that length of time. Not because you didn't love them, but because in order to stay sane you would need to change yourself. Otherwise you'd just go mad being the same person all the time - the 670 year old you is likely to be different from the 130 year old you. We also felt that morality would change under such a dramatic shift - could you really live to 1000 years old and not be in trouble at some point? So having a criminal record might not be unusual anymore ("yeah, I had a brief fraudster phase in my 570s").

While we may not be living to 1000 yet, I think we're seeing a similar need to shift morality when it comes to networking. The twitter mob is now operating on a daily basis, as a number of recent examples have shown. The Justine Sacco story attracted much attention - being sacked while in flight for posting a racist joke. To be clear, what she posted was offensive and stupid, but as this Forbes piece argues, "at no point in history has it been so easy to destroy your entire life so quickly in so few words". And while sympathy with Sacco may be in short supply, the twitter mob is not very discerning: this teenage girl received lots of abuse after posting a joke which most people failed to appreciate.

While Sacco and other twitter morality outrages are based on offensive tweets, they are often no more offensive than the type of conversation one overhears in the pub. And yet someone won't have their life ruined for saying such things in a pub, but if a broadcaster said such things we would rightly be outraged by them. And this seems to be the difference, we are applying broadcast morality to personal communication.

Of course, you can say 'treat everything you say online as broadcast', and that's a pretty good model. But to bring us back to my 1000 year lifestyle change in morality, just as we would have to get used to people having a criminal record, so we might need to get used to someone having been the subject of a twitter mob. As pervasive technology gets used more extensively, those pub conversations may be broadcast without the speaker's knowledge. Most of us (in my world) are liberal, and don't go around saying offensive things either in pubs or on twitter, but can any of us say that over the course of our lives, something you've said couldn't be taken out of context, and be the subject of a twitter storm? 

I'd like to think that we're going through an evolutionary phase and this massive connectivity is something we'll grow accustomed to, and adjust our social norms. But as the tragic gun crime stories from the US remind us, we're not always that great at adjusting society to meet the new possibilities of technology. In the mean time, avoid being part of a twitter mob, no matter how justified it is - it's bad for your soul.

The vulnerability of learning

In a meeting with a group of doctoral students last week, one individual shared her challenging, even emotionally draining, experience in taking her first doctoral course. Much of her experience was not focused on the learning or content. Instead, she shared her self-doubts, her frustrations of integrating doctoral studies into her personal and professional life, the fatigue of learning, and feeling overwhelmed. Personal reflections such as these are important but are usually not considered when discussing learning and being a successful learner.

In education, seemingly in tandem with the advancement of technology and online learning, growing emphasis is placed on making the learning process more efficient. Through a barrage of instructional techniques and technologies, researchers and administrators strive to reduce the time that it takes a learner master a topic or complete a degree. While this is a laudable goal, it is an impoverished and malnourished view of education.

Learning involves many dimensions, but triggered by my conversation with my doctoral students, two are relevant here: epistemological and ontological. Epistemology is concerned with knowledge. In the educational process, that means the focus is on helping students to learn the knowledge (concepts, ideas, relationships) that a teacher or designer has designated as being important. Most thinking on improving education centres on the epistemological aspect of learning. While epistemology addresses “knowing”, ontology is concerned with “being” or “becoming”. For many students, this is the most substantial barrier to learning. Our education system and teaching practices largely overlook ontological principles. Instead, the focus is on knowledge development at the expense of “learner becoming”.

Learning is vulnerability. When we learn, we make ourselves vulnerable. When we engage in learning, we communicate that we want to grow, to become better, to improve ourselves. When I first started blogging, I had a sense of fear with every post (“did that sound stupid?”), loss of sleep soul-searching when a critical comment was posted, and envy when peers posted something brilliant (“wow, why didn’t I think of that?”). When a student posts an opinion in a discussion forum or when someone offers a controversial opinion – these are vulnerability-inducing expressions. On a smaller scale, posting a tweet, sharing an image, or speaking into the void can be intimidating for a new user. (I’m less clear about how being vulnerable becomes craving attention for some people as they get immersed in media!). While the learning process can’t be short-circuited, and the ambiguity and messiness can’t be eliminated, it is helpful for educators to recognize the social, identity, and emotional factors that influence learners. Often, these factors matter more than content/knowledge elements in contributing to learner success.

Find time for courage

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 30/12/2013 - 13:44

At the MOOC research conference last week Amy Collier gave an impassioned call for courage in relation to MOOCs, and in the way I interpreted it, openness in general. As she put it "some things are too important not to have courage".

This quote came back to me last week, when I was in discussions about open access publishing at the OU. The responses from others in different departments were sensible and cautious, a wait and see strategy. I couldn't disagree with them, but part of me felt, 'remember when we used to take risks and do stuff because we thought it was right?' This isn't a moan about that decision, but rather that it made me consider the wider context in universities.

My concern is this - post-austerity, and particularly post-fees in the UK, all universities have become risk averse and cautious. There are lots of factors to consider. I don't blame an individual - it's not a great outcome to take a risk, get a bad NSS score and have to lay off staff the following year because of reduced enrolments. But I think this cautious approach seeps into the culture and takes years to overcome. Imagine you are a new academic who takes on a management role, sub-dean say. You are being enculturated into how a sub-dean behaves by observing others. If the appropriate sub-dean type behaviour is sensible caution, that is the mode you adopt. And then this gets passed down to the next incomer, and so on. Twenty years from now you find yourself asking "where did all our innovators go?". But if you reverse that and have people taking appropriate but occassional risky decisions, then this becomes the behaviour you adopt. 

So I make a plea to all of those in universities, especially myself as I lack it on a daily basis - have the occasional flash of courage.

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