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The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Sat, 21/04/2018 - 19:02

(The sun always shines for OER)

OER18 was held in Bristol this year, superbly chaired by David Kernohan & Viv Rolfe, and once again organised and managed with care, efficiency and joy by the team at ALT. I found it stimulating, challenging and enjoyable as always, but I’m not going to comment on the content so much here, (Sheila and Maren have some excellent posts amongst many others) but rather on what are the characteristics of it as an event that make it probably my favourite regular conference. These are entirely personal, so I don’t offer them up as a ‘how to’ but just what I like.

Size – it is a fairly small scale, intimate conference, probably around 200. Whilst it would be great for the OER movement and ALT if it had an attendance of 10,000 like some of the mega-conferences, it would lose its charm. Whilst I do enjoy the feeling of reuniting with familiar faces, I also think it is small enough that it can be welcoming to new people, and every year I come away having made new contacts.

Venue – the past few years it has been held in venues that are not completely academic (this year was the Watershed, an arthouse cinema in Bristol quay). This is partly a function of the smallish scale – you don’t need one of those anonymous large conference hotels. These venues send a signal, which is that open ed is accessible. It also helps create…

Atmosphere – as Russ Abbot so poetically put, I love a party with a happy atmosphere. There is a good ‘vibe’ to the OER conference. People can be critical, but equally they’re not snooty about more straightforward OER presentations. There is a sense of community and willingness to listen. It feels like the place you could try out a leftfield type presentation, but equally you won’t be sneered at by the cool kids if you go with bulleted lists in Powerpoint.

Criticality – I like that I am presented with reflections, insights and criticality around OER, and openness. But this is not done in a dismissive manner, but rather constructive and exploratory. It’s not cheerleading but equally it’s not ironic. All of the keynotes this year asked us to question our relationship to open practice and also offered inspiration.

Evolving nature – each year seems to build on and adapt from the previous OER conference, whether in terms of theme, international representation or innovative presentations, whilst still maintaining the core appeal of the conference.

Like so many things when they’re done right, they seem simple, but it takes a lot of hard work, consultation and reflection to make it work this smoothly. For that I salute the ALT team.

Love, Faith, Hope & Charity – the future of the OU

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 13/04/2018 - 12:44

I’ve had a draft of this post kicking around for a while now, but after today’s news that Open University Vice Chancellor Peter Horrocks has resigned, it seems now is the time to publish it. I won’t go into specific suggestions about policy or strategy (but, hey, I have lots of those!) because that is too internally focused and not of interest to most people outside the OU. Instead I want to focus on more cultural, generic issues which, while brought to a very public head at the OU, are pertinent to many in higher ed I believe. I’m going to couch these in terms of Love, Faith, Hope and Charity. If the OU senior management can make steps to addressing these more fundamental (dare I say, emotional) issues, then the OU will return to be a functioning, forward looking institution at the heart of the UK higher education system. But, if it’s permissible, I do offer a general recommendation for each (all this for considerably less than £2.5 million).

First of all, many people will interpret his resignation as confirmation of their own beliefs. It’s not my intention to tell anyone what the ‘correct’ interpretation is, but for me, I feel it would be a mistake to argue that it means change is not needed, and we shouldn’t do more online provision. We are not returning to bearded men wearing kipper ties on BBC2 at 3am anytime soon. But while I expect there will be a big inquisition now as to which parts of the transformation project continue, here is my take on the more high level issues that will create the culture for the OU to realise that.

Love – one positive outcome of the recent public crisis has been the outpouring of support for the OU from students, staff and the wider public. This in itself represents an opportunity. But I want specifically to focus on the devotion staff feel to the organisation. In our staff survey, affiliation with the mission of the OU and its role is always very high. It is trust in senior management that has plummeted in these surveys to an all time low. Working at the OU over recent months has felt like being trapped inside an episode of W1A directed by Franz Kafka. We have had repeated reorganisations, strategic directives, consultancies and reallocation of priorities. No-one knows what they are doing anymore or where it is heading. It has led to complete paralysis. Ironically, the press has occasionally framed this as a pro vs anti-change struggle, but for many the frustration is more that the obsession with managerialism has led to no change.
To put this in terms that finance managers might appreciate – the devotion of staff to the organisation is a valuable resource. It is literally worth millions to the OU in terms of extra labour, free publicity, innovative ideas. This resource has largely been squandered on initiatives that have produced no discernible benefit. You don’t get to put Students First by putting Staff Last.
Recommendation: The priority for a new regime is to win back that love and trust, and to treat it like the precious resource it is.

Faith – I have moaned before how higher education seems to hate itself. Too often the OU has been bedazzled by the opinions and views of those outside higher ed. We spent millions on consultants who knew little about higher education and less about the OU to tell us how to be a better Open University. Not only is this wasteful, but the message it sends is that we don’t trust our own staff to know what is required. Whilst there are some OU staff who will always resist change, most are keen to embrace it and understand the financial situation that the introduction of fees have created. In the second of our major strategic directives 13 Big Shifts were identified (needless to say, everyone immediately started referring to them as the Big Shits. That no-one in senior management could have predicted this was telling in itself). The first of these talked about focusing on the “Business to Student (B2C)” market. Firstly, what did they think we had been doing all this time? Secondly, this reveals a lack of understanding of higher education. No-one enters academia because they want to focus on a “B2C market”. This was the opening line – not students, education, or mission. Compare this with the opening of the Athabasca University review (conducted by a third party academic):

The university has significant problems,… Change is necessary, in my view, but the path forward that I envisage builds on the university’s history and original mandate. The AU community of scholars, students, staff members and community stakeholders is passionate about their institution and its role in Alberta society. There is considerable appetite for constructive change.

This recognises the need for change, builds on the university’s history, offers hope and speaks in a language all staff can buy into. I bet it cost a lot less too. Senior management need to trust their staff and to demonstrate that trust for any large scale change to occur.
Recommendation: Engage with staff and students on clear, practical changes and communicate in language that is appropriate for a university.

Hope – The introduction of fees has hit part time students hard. It has caused a dramatic drop in OU registrations, no organisation can accommodate that drop in income and maintain business as usual. This has created the climate for the much vaunted change. The financial situation was not as dire as depicted however. The amount the OU was below the break even line was pretty near to what we were investing in FutureLearn. If you took that out then the narrative would be less about the need for complete overhaul, and more about introducing some strategic, and deliverable projects. Staff are willing to sign up for change when presented with evidence, but there needs to be a definite end point to it, and some early results. Simply rearranging the words “digital”, “disruption”, “revolution” and “cloud” in various sentences doesn’t offer that. You can only go to the “major change” well so many times, so like staff devotion, be sure when you want to do it, and have clear, manageable deliverables.
Recommendation: Implement no more than three major practical projects simultaneously, all with clearly defined goals, and realisable within 1 year.

Charity – The OU is a registered charity but at times it seems to really want to be an edtech business, to be the Facebook of learning. We have poured millions into FutureLearn, which increasingly looks like a vanity project, while closing regional centres. As mentioned previously, we prioritise managerial expertise in other sectors over higher education knowledge. We need to stop viewing (or listening to people who view) Higher Education as a problem that needs to be fixed, as if it is the same as increasing the sale of baked beans. Instead of trying to be something it’s not, the OU should get back to being the wonderful thing it is. This is best done by letting staff get on with teaching, and the managerialism being as much in the background as possible, instead of being foregrounded in every single functioning unit.
Recommendation: Focus on improving core university functions in an incremental manner.

I don’t know what the future of the OU holds, or if I’ll have a part in it. But I do think the current crisis has given us a renewed focus on retaining our position and mission in UK and global higher education. With some understanding management it can easily assure it’s next 50 years, and be in a good place from this current situation.

25 Years of EdTech – 2003: Blogs

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 10/04/2018 - 17:39

Whatever happened to blogs eh? What kind of poor, deluded, stuck in the past has-been would still keep a blog? In my 25 Years of EdTech series we’re now at 2003. Elearning is A Serious Thing, with standards, platforms, policies and strategies. Blogging developed alongside these more education specific developments, and was then co-opted into ed tech. In this it foreshadowed much of the web 2.0 developments, which it is often bundled in with.

Blogging was really just a very obvious extension of the web. Once anyone could publish, they would inevitably start to publish diaries. This speaks more to the immutability of human communication than new technology – give people a communication medium and they’ll start writing diaries. Blogging emerged from just a simple version “here’s my online diary” with the advent of feeds, and particularly the universal standard RSS. RSS meant you could subscribe to anyone’s blog and get regular updates. This was as revolutionary as the liberation that web publishing initially provided. If the web made everyone a publisher then RSS made everyone a distributor also. And if you ever picked up hand printed Socialist Worker leaflets outside a Billy Bragg concert on a rainy Wednesday in Hammersmith, then you understood that distribution was where the real power lay.

Once this was in place, then people swiftly moved beyond diaries. What area (from news about newts to racist conspiracy theories) isn’t impacted by the ability to create content freely whenever you want and have it immediately distributed to your audience? Blogs and RSS type distribution were akin to everyone being given superhero powers. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – they’re all the brattish, ungrateful children of blogs. It’s not really surprising that in 2018 we’re wrestling with the implications of this. Imagine if Superman had a zombie virus and passed on his powers – it’d cause a lot of shit to happen, good and bad.

In 2003 I think I tried my first abortive attempt at blogging – it would take another couple of attempts before it stuck in 2006. John Naughton was my blogging father – in 1999 he had shown me a homemade system he’d developed to do a daily online HTML journal, and it was through him that I became aware of the work of Dave Winer and the nascent Radio UserLand blogging platform.

If I had a desert island EdTech, it would be blogging, and that is not just in a nostalgic sense. No other educational technology has continued to develop, as the proliferation of WordPress sites attests, and also remain so full of potential. I’ve waxed lyrical about academic blogging many times before, but for almost every ed tech that comes along, I find myself thinking that a blog version would be better: e-portfolios, VLEs, MOOCs, OERs, social networks. Sometimes it’s like Jim Groom and Alan Levine have taken over my brain, and I don’t even mind. I still harbour dreams of making students effective bloggers will be a prime aspect of graduateness. Nothing develops and anchors your online identity quite like a blog.

When is widening participation not widening participation?

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 05/04/2018 - 09:57

The Higher Education Policy Institute released a study today that ranked universities by their widening participation stats. You’d expect Russell group unis to do poorly in this, but I bet the Open University, a provider set up to specifically address WP will do well, right? Except, they didn’t include it. I got into an exchange (HEPI Twitter is feisty!) on this, where they defended their methodology. But this was itself revealing, they replied to my criticism about the OU’s exclusion saying:

“To be clear, there is not a valid way of including it in this study as Polar focuses on young people, the data was sourced from UCAS etc etc etc. Much dodgier to wrench an institution in just because we think it might do well. You’ll find lots about the OU on our site elsewhere.”

POLAR as a measure of recording WP is flawed, particularly if you want to measure mature students. The TEF recognised this by including IMD data this year (this also has issues, particularly for inner city where postcode can include widely varying incomes, hence they include both). The message from HEPI seems to be that it’s your fault if you don’t fit their methodology. But inherent in the methodology are assumptions that undermine the very point of the study I think (I should note that HEPI strongly disagree with me, saying that was not the intention of this study).

This report focuses on traditional universities (Birkbeck is similarly noticeable by its absence), and traditional students (young, campus based). If your aim is to argue that widening participation is an important metric (they are sort of promoting a WP league table), then that message is entirely undermined if your definition of WP is, ironically, too narrow. A study that showed how providers who focus on WP perform would be more powerful. This one seems designed to get headlines (it succeeded in that), over making a valuable contribution to the WP agenda. If your methodology is excluding institutions that everyone thinks should be included, maybe it’s worth looking at that method? That’s what I’d be telling a PhD student embarking on this study. The report is titled “Benchmarking Widening Participation”. This has the intention then to become a useful metric, and if so, the exclusion of widening participation institutions from the outset is not just annoying, it’s potentially damaging.

25 Years of EdTech – 2002: Open licences & OER

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 04/04/2018 - 22:21

(As much as I love OER, this is a crap logo)

This is part of the ongoing 25 Years of Ed Tech series

Now that the foundations of modern ed tech had been laid with the web, CMC, elearning, wikis, etc. the more interesting developments could commence. For 2002 I’m going with Open Educational Resources (OER). In the preceding year MIT announced its OpenCourseWare initiative which marks the real initiation of the OER movement, but it was in 2002 that the first OERs were released, and people began to understand licences (MIT would adopt Creative Commons in 2004). MIT’s goal was to make all the learning materials used by their 1800 courses available via the internet, where the resources could be used and repurposed as desired by others, without charge. At the time it caused a real stir, and lots of unis wished they’d got there first.

I covered the idea of Learning Objects earlier, and how they had taken their inspiration from reusability in software coding. The software approach, and in particular open source software also provides the roots for OER. The open source movement can be seen as creating the context within which open education could flourish, partly by analogy, and partly by establishing a precedent. But there is also a very direct link. David Wiley cropped up in the piece on Learning Objects, and he provides the bridge to OER through the development of licences. In 1998 he became interested in developing an open licence for educational content and contacted pioneers in the open source world directly. Out of this came the open content licence, which he developed with publishers to establish the Open Publication Licence (OPL).

The OPL proved to be one of the key components, along with the Free Software Foundation’s GNU licence, in developing the Creative Commons licences, by Larry Lessig and others in 2002. These went on to become essential in the open education movement. The simple licences in Creative Commons allow users to easily share resources, and wasn’t restricted to software code. Key to the Creative Commons licences are that they are permissive rather than restrictive. They allow the user to do what the licence permits without seeking permission. These licences have been a very practical requirement for the OER movement to persuade institutions and individuals to release content openly, with the knowledge that their intellectual property is still maintained.

OER has become a global movement since these early days. It has not transformed education in quite the way we envisaged back then, and many projects have floundered once funding ends, but through open textbooks and open educational practice (OEP) it continues to adapt and be relevant. I keep waiting for it to be the next major breakthrough, and I sometimes wonder what could have been achieved if OER had the funding that MOOCs received. But then it is a very different beast, embedded less in the silicon valley approach to education and more grounded in teacher practice. OERs are Mr Darcy to MOOCs George Wickham.

The general lessons from OER are that they succeeded where Learning Objects failed because they tapped into existing practice (and open textbooks doubly so). The concept of sharing educational content with a licence that doesn’t restrict this is alien enough, without all the accompanying standards and concepts associated with LOs. You need the component parts to slot into place: in this case the digital platform, open licences and the concept of sharing educational content. Also, you need patience, educational transformation is a slow burn. And get yourself a David Wiley if you can.

Social media, the academic & the university

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 27/03/2018 - 09:41

If you follow me on Twitter you may be aware that it’s been an eventful weekend. The Vice Chancellor of the Open University made some injudicious remarks dismissing what OU academics did as “not teaching”. He has since apologised, and suggests he was trying to make a different point (that OU academics used to have direct contact with students through summer schools but now don’t, and a more online focus could reinstate that contact. This I agree with and have been promoting the benefits of online events since making the annual OU conference open and online in 2010). The point of this post is not to discuss the statement, but rather to reflect on the relationship between the online academic and their institution.

I am, in general, stupidly loyal to the OU, which means I don’t criticise it publicly, although I fully understand why colleagues do (and arguably, their public criticism is being more loyal as it seeks to protect the integrity of the institution). But as these comments had been made in a semi-public forum (an online webcast to students which was put on the intranet), and my interpretation was that they were a dismissal of my, my colleagues and the OU’s entire history (although I should stress the apology seeks to rectify this interpretation), I felt justified in making a public announcement on Twitter:

So here is a transcript of what @PeterHorrocks said in an online forum to @OpenUniversity students 1/n

— Martin Weller (@mweller) March 25, 2018

So I transcribed the comments and set out a thread detailing my objections to the comments. That thread went semi-viral (around 50,000 views), and was picked up by the Times Higher.

Which brings me onto the delicate relationship between a university and the academic with an online profile. The OU has been very positive in promoting and encouraging academics to develop online profiles. It recognises the power and value of these to the institution. I am generally happy to retweet OU news, job adverts, promote research findings of colleagues and cheer awards we receive. But it’s a double edged sword for an institution, as the events over the weekend demonstrate that a story can quickly escalate.

I would like to acknowledge that the VC and the OU comms team behaved impeccably, despite this being a story they could have done without. They have not asked me to amend my post, or placed any pressure on me to withdraw it, or threatened me with sanctions (as one hears at other institutions). They have respected the freedom of expression by academics.

On a personal note it has also been rather double-edged also. The comments in replies and many others via email and DM expressing support, and admiration for the OU have been truly powerful. I had a big dose of self pity on Sunday, and the support from my network was important. This may sound sentimental and like an old hippy but I view the OU like a close family member. When it’s in trouble, I feel that acutely and on a personal level. At the same time each retweet is a little dagger to my heart as it spreads a negative image of the institution I love. And some responses have interpreted it in a manner I didn’t intend (who knew such a thing could happen on Twitter, right?). For instance, this is not saying online education is bad, or that central academics don’t respect associate lecturers. And these misinterpretations increase in likelihood the more the tweet spreads.

I don’t have an easy take-away from this, and that is the take away in itself. The relationship between staff and the university is altered by social media. This has benefits for both, but also potential hazards, so both sides need to be careful how they negotiate it. A tweet is like setting a dog loose in a shopping mall – it might go to sleep quietly in the corner, it might be cute and get adopted, it might make people happy, perhaps it poops in the Ann Summers shop, or it might go on a rampage and bite someone. It’s a strange and unpredictable power.

25 Years of EdTech – 2001: e-learning standards

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 26/03/2018 - 19:01

This post effectively brings together two preceding ones, namely elearning and learning objects. By the turn of the millennium, elearning was everywhere. The internet was no longer dismissed as a fad, and you could make yourself a guru by spouting a few homilies about the death of distance and the like. After the initial flurry of activity, typified by a wild west approach to creating your own website (I’d like to say that academics have a flair for website design, but, erm, we really don’t), there was a necessary, if slightly less fun, concentration of efforts. This meant developing platforms which could be easily set up and run elearning (oh, yes, we’ll come to VLEs later), a more professional approach to the creation of elearning content, the establishment of evidence (which generally found there was no significant difference), and initiatives to describe and share tools and content.

Enter elearning standards, and in particularly IMS. This was the body that set about developing standards to describe content, assessment tools, courses and more ambitiously, learning design. Perhaps the most significant standard was SCORM, which went on to become an industry standard in specifying content that could be played in VLEs. Prior to this there was a lot of overhead in switching content from one platform to another.

Perhaps the standard that brings any ed tech people out in a sweat is that of metadata, and particularly the Dublin Core. This was used to describe a piece of content (such as a learning object) so that it could be discovered and deployed easily, and hopefully automatically. The reason that mention of Dublin Core still induces wry chuckles is that at the time it was largely human derived (the always prescient Erik Duval used to preach “electronic forms must die”). You spent ages crafting a nice activity and were then presented with 27 fields of metadata to describe it, which often required more effort than the initial content. This was obviously not an approach that would scale. And some of the fields remain a mystery to this day (semantic density anyone?). As well as simply being a pain, this level of description also became restrictive, in that it seemed to define exactly how the content should be used.

As a nostalgic aside – if you currently bemoan your VLE usability, tender me your sympathy when around this time I was developing one of the pilot courses for the ill-fated UK eUniversity. This built a whole new platform, based around learning objects. Every object needed to have metadata entered by hand. If you made a change to the content, for example correcting a typo, the nascent platform lost all the metadata and you had to enter it all again. So don’t come crying to me about your Blackboard!

Elearning standards are an interesting case study in edtech. I must admit that after being quite heavily involved around this period, I lost track of them. But that in a sense is a sign of their success. Good standards retreat into the background and just help things work. But it’s also the case that they failed in some of their ambition to have easily assembled, discoverable plug-n-play content. The dream was that you’d type in “Course on Burt Bacharach” and it would automatically assemble the best content, with some automated assessment at the end. This wildly underestimated the complexity of learning (and overestimated the good quality Burt Bacharach learning objects). So while the standards community works away effectively, it was surpassed in popular usage by the less specific, but more human approach to description and sharing that underlined the web 2.0 explosion. But (as they used to say at the end of Tales of the Riverbank), that is another story.

25 Years of EdTech – 2000: Learning objects

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 20/03/2018 - 12:57

(In 2000 these diagrams were Hot Stuff)

In my last post in this series, I focused on elearning, and its shift into the mainstream at the end of the 90s. This was accompanied by new approaches, often derived from computer science. One of these that gained prominence was learning objects. The concept can be seen as arising from programming – object oriented programming had demonstrated the benefits of reusable, clearly defined pieces of functional code that could be implemented across multiple programmes.

Learning objects seemed like a logical step in applying this model to elearning. As Stephen Downes argued:

“there are thousands of colleges and universities, each of which teaches, for example, a course in introductory trigonometry. Each such trigonometry course in each of these institutions describes, for example, the sine wave function. Moreover, because the properties of sine wave functions remains constant from institution to institution, we can assume that each institution’s description of sine wave functions is more or less the same as other institutions’. What we have, then, are thousands of similar descriptions of sine wave functions. …
Now for the premise: the world does not need thousands of similar descriptions of sine wave functions available online. Rather, what the world needs is one, or maybe a dozen at most, descriptions of sine wave functions available online. The reasons are manifest. If some educational content, such as a description of sine wave functions, is available online, then it is available worldwide.

This made a lot of sense then, and it still makes a lot of sense today. Step forward then, the idea of learning objects, with a rough definition of “a digitized entity which can be used, reused or referenced during technology supported learning” (more on definitions later). A lot of work accompanied the learning object gold rush: standards were developed to make them reusable, platforms were built to deploy them, content was produced in their style, and papers were written about them.

But they never really took off, despite the compelling rationale for their existence, that Downes and others set out. Their (or our) failure to make them a reality is instructive for all ed tech I feel, and they are something I frequently reference when we’re discussing new technologies. So, here is my list for why learning objects failed (although, to be honest, this video interview with Brian Lamb is a better account):

Overengineering – I’ll cover standards in another post, so won’t say much here, but in order for LOs to work like software objects, they needed to be tightly standardised. This version of the LO dream went beyond Downes’ sine wave simulation, and had as its dream courses that were automatically assembled on the fly from a pool of LOs for a personalised, just in time learning experience. For this to be reality you really needed to make those LOs machine friendly, and so they became so overengineered and full of accompanying metadata, that no-one would create them, and they lost any sense of being an interesting subject for educators to engage with.

Definition debates – related to the above, the ed tech field debated endlessly what a learning object was. I mean, every paper started with their own definition. It was exhausting. For some it was ‘anything that could be used in a learning context’. This could be a photo, but it didn’t even have to be digital, it could be a stone. Which is fine, but doesn’t really get you anywhere. Other definitions were more general but specific to digital, and others had tight definitions around having a learning objective or meeting a specific standard. The problem this highlighted was twofold: Firstly, it highlighted the academic obsession with definitions to the point where most discussions degenerated into two men (it nearly always was men) shouting definitions at each other across a conference hall until everyone left and went to look for doughnuts. Secondly, the more specific definitions helped you decide what an LO was but ended up excluding too much, while the general ones included too much. The definition problem hinted at a more fundamental issue with LOs, which is next on the list.

The reusability paradox – David Wiley (it was through learning objects that I first encountered David, so they’re not all bad) got to the heart of the problem with LOs, and particularly the vision of automated assembly with the reusability paradox. He argued that context is what makes learning meaningful for people, so the more context a learning object has, the more useful it is for a learner. But while learners want context, machines don’t – in order for them to be reusable, learning objects should have as little context as possible, as this reduces the opportunities for their reuse. This leads to Wiley’s paradox, which he summarises as, ‘It turns out that reusability and pedagogical effectiveness are completely orthogonal to each other. Therefore, pedagogical effectiveness and potential for reuse are completely at odds with one another.’

An unfamiliarity threshold – we wanted LOs to be like reusable code, but the concept of sharing chunks of code was already familiar before it got formalised in object-oriented programming. And even then you learnt the concept as part of the language. LOs never achieved this for education, so the very idea seemed quite alien to many teachers, and particularly in terms of digital content. It began to look less like an ed thing and more like a tech thing. And you’ll never reach critical mass if that is the case.

The world wasn’t ready – you could argue, that like so many things, it takes more than one go at these concepts, each one building a bit on the momentum of the previous one. LOs didn’t take off, but OER did (to a greater extent anyway), and open textbooks more so. It’s possible LOs are ripe for a revival (or because ed tech only does year zero, rediscovery).

Education is too messy – this is probably just reiterating Wiley’s point about reusability, but in coding the boundaries are fairly well delineated (queue laughter from software developer friends). But education doesn’t break down so neatly. Particularly once you get beyond neatly defined concepts. To take Downes’s example, a sine wave LO might be easily reusable, but pretty soon the way I describe and illustrate even a shared concept will differ for PhD psychology students to first year undergrad engineers, partly because you know what they want to do with it (Wiley’s context again).

Reluctance from educators – as well as being unfamiliar, there was also a reluctance to share their carefully crafted material. This persists with OER – there simply isn’t the same culture of sharing for teaching as there is for research. This is largely to do with reward structures – you get promoted for getting your research paper cited by 1000 people, you get sacked for giving away intellectual copyright relating to teaching (I’m overstating, but you get the point).

They didn’t fail – while LO repositories may not be competing with Google for web traffic, you could make the argument that they didn’t fail. As mentioned above, they sort of morphed into OER, which sort of gave rise to MOOCs, and a lot of the LO work fed into standardisation around platforms, assessment, and content transfer. Publishers (shhhh) probably took the LO idea to heart more than others and have a large number of subscribers who pay for elearning content that can be redeployed in their context. LOs may be a successful failure after all.

PS – I tweeted that I was going to post on this, and Brian Lamb pointed me to a recent post of his, which sets out the LO lessons better than I managed, but I can’t abandon this post now.

25 Years of EdTech – 1999: Elearning

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 15/03/2018 - 15:32

(Look how happy elearning can make you!)

In truth, 1999 is getting a bit late to focus on elearning in my 25 Years of Edtech series. It had certainly been in use as a term for some time, but it was with the rise of the web, and the prefix of ‘e’ to everything that saw it come to prominence. By 1999 elearning was knocking on the door, if not already part of, the mainstream. In a typical academic fashion we argued what we meant by it, and it was obligatory for one person at every conference to say in a rather self-satisfied manner “there’s already an e in learning”. But it was a useful term, as it highlighted the profile of online components (and as a previous post suggested, exploration of accompanying pedagogies).

I’m also making it the focus of 1999 because this was the year we developed T171 at the OU. I’ve talked about this before, but just to rehash, it wasn’t our first online course, but it was the first major online one. We wanted to explore what it would be like to deliver a course entirely online. No printed units, no accompanying material. We were frequently told that no-one would study this way. And of course, it turned out lots of people wanted to. The success of this course (some 12,000 students) almost overwhelmed the OU’s systems and we had to invent a whole new set of digital infrastructures and procedures to cope.

The point of this is that these students were keen to study this way and saw it as liberating, whereas most academics were reticent about its use, and frequently hid this behind concerns about students. I also raise it because a) the OU has been digital for a long time and b) large scale online courses weren’t invented in 2012. You will forgive me an excessive eye roll at the BBC breathlessly reporting that the University of London is going to offer a degree online. In 2018!

One of the interesting aspects of elearning was the consideration of costs. The belief was that it would be cheaper than traditional distance ed courses. It wasn’t, but it did see a shift in costs. You could maybe spend less in production (because you’re not making physical resources, and can reuse material) but you end up spending more in presentation (because you have support costs and more rapid updating cycle). This cost argument keeps reoccurring though, and was a big driver for MOOCs. It came as no surprise to those who had any history in elearning that this did not come to pass.

Elearning really set the framework for the next decade, most of which I’ll cover in subsequent posts, in terms of technology, standards and approaches. This period might be seen as the golden age of elearning in some respects, so sit back and enjoy the next ten posts or so.

PS – I would like to nominate “elearning” as the worst category for stock photos.

25 years of EdTech – 1998: Wikis

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 09/03/2018 - 13:02

I think of wikis sometimes and it makes me a bit sorrowful. Perhaps more than any other tech they embody the spirit of optimism and philosophy of the open web. The wiki, a web page that could be jointly edited by anyone, was a fundamental shift in how we related to the net. The web democratised publication and the wiki made it a collaborative, shared enterprise. In 1998 wikis were just breaking through. Ward Cunningham is credited with inventing them (and the term) in 1994. I heard of them in 97 at an ed tech conference. I came back from that all enthused, I would accost people in corridors like the ancient mariner and shout “let’s make all our courses wikis!” People would mutter things like “quality control” or “we don’t have any online courses yet”. I should have persisted – we could’ve been the digital university 20 years ago.

Anyway, enough about me and the OU. Wikis were a hot topic for a few years, and were really groundbreaking. Remember at the time Encarta was a revolutionary take on the encyclopedia. Wikis had their own markup language which made them a bit techie to use, although later implementations such as Wikispaces made it easier (that Wikispaces closed a couple of weeks ago speaks to my sorrowful theme). With Wikipedia now the default knowledge source globally with over 5.5 millions articles (in English), it would seem churlish to bemoan that wikis didn’t fulfil their potential, but that is how I feel in terms of teaching. Wikis encapsulate the promise of a dynamic, shared, respectful space. I get sad just writing that now, thinking of the lack of those values in social media. With wikis this was partly the ethos behind them (named after the Hawaiian word for quick after all, I mean duuuuuude), but also their technical infrastructure. You can track edits, rollback versions, monitor contributions – there is accountability and transparency built in. Wikipedia has become something of a bro-culture but it’s less of a dumpster fire than Twitter.

But they didn’t really transform education to their potential, for instance, why aren’t MOOCs in wikis? It’s not necessarily that wikis as a technology have not quite fully realised their potential, but rather that the approach to ed tech they represent, has been replaced by a more broadcast, commercial, publisher model than a cooperative, process oriented one. Maybe education wasn’t ready to let go of control after all. Credit to OERu for persisting in the potential of wikis, and people like Mike Caulfield for advancing the thinking around federated wikis.

25 years of EdTech – 1997: Constructivism

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 05/03/2018 - 17:14

In 1997 web based learning was getting a lot of traction, and with it people began to look around for new models of teaching. So for 1997 I’m not focusing on a technology, but rather an educational theory because there’s education in educational technology after all.

Constructivism was by no means new, dating back to Piaget, Vygostky and Bruner. The principle concept of constructivism is that learners construct their own knowledge, based on their experience and relationship with concepts. It’s a (sometimes vague) learning theory rather than a specific pedagogy, so how it is implemented varies. It was often put into practice by active learning, or discovery based approaches. The appeal of this for online learning was the sense that the web gave agency to learners. They could create, collaborate, discover for themselves, freed from the conventions of time and distance. When people can learn anywhere and anytime then the pedagogy designed for a lecture hall seemed limiting.

Just about every conference paper at the time opened with a piece on ‘student centred’ learning, and their constructivist approach. In reality this often equated to little more than ‘we gave them a forum’. And sometimes it could be an excuse for poor design, a reason for the educator to absent themselves from creating content because, hey, everyone had to construct their own interpretation. It also doesn’t work well for a lot of disciplines, quantum physics for example is almost entirely theoretical (and bloody bizarre), so bringing your own experience of quarks isn’t going to help. There was also a sense of snobbery about it, constructivism was the new kid, and all your old fashioned instructivist approaches are plain wrong.

But, even with these reservations, constructivism was significant because it showed educators engaging with technology in a meaningful, conceptual manner. It wasn’t about just the tech, but rather the possibilities it opened up for new pedagogy. It also marked the first time many educators engaged with educational theory – this was true for me certainly, I had come from an AI background, and although I had done psychology and knew my Piaget from my Bandura, these hadn’t really applied to adult education. It took technology to cause that reflection on practice. As the OER Hub found with the use of OER, this reflection on practice by educators is often one of the main, but unspoken, benefits of a new tech.

Why does education hate itself?

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 27/02/2018 - 19:16

Here’s a news story that doesn’t happen: A bank has appointed a former university Vice Chancellor as their new CEO, because they feel the expertise in running an institution with longevity and stability is what’s required.

Ludicrous, right? And yet, the opposite occurs regularly. Higher education has an inferiority complex. It always feels like it needs to change, to be more like something else, to take radical lessons from elsewhere. But here’s the thing – education is not like newspapers, music, content industry, banking, software development or selling cars. It’s fucking odd, and unique. I mean, there are definitely things to be learnt from other sectors, just as every sector can learn from outside its domain. But books and music are more similar than education and entertainment, say, and even they are very different.

The point is, education has a lot to learn about operating in a digital age. But it seems to ignore learning from its own past (see my previous whinges about forgetting open education’s past), and prioritise what is perceived as more valuable, relevant knowledge from elsewhere. What this does is send a message that we in education don’t value it highly. Expertise in education can be picked up in a few weeks, it’s not like it’s important. The culture of higher ed is posited as a problem that needs to be fixed rather than something that has value. Guess what? I’m fed up with it. Here’s my new consultancy business pitch for higher ed: Education is different from other sectors. Education should trust itself.

25 years of EdTech – 1996: CMC

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 26/02/2018 - 14:15

I’m revisiting the previous post on Bulletin Board Systems slightly here. One of the interesting things about this series is the way others are bringing great stuff to my attention. For instance, David Kernohan has covered much of this in better detail than I can (sometimes I hate that guy with all his knowledge stuff).

The reason I’m revisiting Bulletin Board Systems with the concept of Computer Mediated Communication is that it’s a good example of how a technology develops into a more generic educational approach. CMC became a popular phrase around this time and represents higher ed really beginning to engage with online tools in a theoretical, conceptual manner, comparable to the way they had with early developments in open education. CMC was, as David notes, particularly driven by a shift from text based systems to graphical interfaces. When I joined the OU we were using the FirstClass system. It allowed us to automatically allocate students to groups, set up groups with different permissions, sync offline, thread and structure conversations and allow a high degree of personalisation to users.

Such systems were forerunners to VLEs, both technically and socially. CMC systems made ease of use simple enough that the pedagogic benefits could be realised. This is again a recurrent ed tech theme – when the barriers to use of a particular tech become low enough (and in the case of smart phones, say, almost invisible), that its use can be generalised. From CMC we got online tutor groups, e-moderation, forums, conferences, and so on. For a long time these were the issues that concerned ed tech academics. It was online tutor groups for the OU that was particularly relevant. There were a number of courses that experimented with this before I got there. I tried implementing one on an existing course, which was an indication the software was becoming easy enough to use to expand to broader application, and that there was an appetite from some students for an all online experience. Gradually the viability of it as an approach gained credibility until it would be the norm (some 15 or so years later – we don’t like to rush these things).

If the benefit of the web was the removal of barriers to broadcast and publishing, then what CMC delivered was the ability to collaborate at a distance. This is arguably more powerful in education than the democratisation of broadcast, but it gets to the heart of different views about education. The use of the web to disseminate info cheaply (see also MOOCs) is the infinite lecture hall model. The use of the net to facilitate collaboration and discussion in groups at a distance speaks to a more student focused, less industrial model. In this we see another common theme – technology brings underlying beliefs regarding education into focus, and then gives them steroids.

Social media and the academic (through the medium of dog pictures)

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 19/02/2018 - 18:43

Photo by Don Agnello on Unsplash

I’m giving a presentation to OU staff on the use of social media. This was part of a broader social media training day, and they were interested in the potential impact of using social media. I chose to present it as a series of hypotheses. For many of these there is some evidence, but for a lot it is either very indirect, or we haven’t really gathered it yet. And just for the sake of it, I limited myself to only using pictures of dogs in the slidedeck. Because dogs.

The hypotheses (some are more just statements if I’m honest), were as follows:

  • Soc Med increases student recruitment
  • Soc Med increases student engagement
  • Soc Med increases student retention
  • Online identity is vital part of graduateness
  • We have a duty to develop expertise in fake news, etc
  • Soc med helps lead development of new pedagogy
  • Soc Med increases research impact
  • Soc Med reaches different audiences for your research
  • Soc Med is a valuable research tool/method
  • Soc Med is complementary to traditional scholarship
  • Soc Med gives new opportunities for ECRs
  • Online profile leads to collaboration
  • Soc Med is (relatively) cheap
  • Soc Med is fun?

I do then have a section on the dangers and downsides, lest the above seem a bit cheerleady. Framing it as hypotheses is a potentially useful way to approach for it academics. They can select from these which is most relevant for them and view their use almost as action research.

My presentation with all the dog pics you could want, is here:

Social media and the academic (with dogs) from Martin Weller

25 years of EdTech – 1995: the Web

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 19/02/2018 - 12:25

Before someone jumps in and says “actually the web was invented in 1989”, this series isn’t about when they were invented, but when I feel they became relevant in ed tech. So don’t be that guy. It’s now 1995, in my personal history this is the year I joined the Open University. At the interview I said “so have you thought about using the web to deliver courses?” I think they interpreted this as me knowing more about it than I did, but hey, I got the job. The web browser was becoming reasonably common now, with Netscape (*sniff*) dominating.

I won’t go all nostalgic about the early promise of the web, at this stage it was still techie and awkward to use. People regularly made proclamations that no-one would shop online, or that it was the equivalent of CB radio. Even at the time these seemed ridiculous, even if we couldn’t predict smart phones and ubiquitous wifi, being able to dial up and connect to information sources anywhere was always going to be revolutionary. And particularly for education. What the web browser provided (although it would take a few years to materialise) was a common tool so that specific software wasn’t required for every function. In this the browser was like HTML that underpinned it – it wasn’t as good as bespoke versions for any specific function but its generality made it good enough. I had this argument repeatedly with tech people at the OU, who would always point out the superior functionality of their favoured software tool. Good enough always wins out in popularity if you can make it universal (Facebook is another example of this).

Learning HTML was always going to be a barrier and web publishing tools such as FrontPage came along, before we all switched to Facebook pages or WordPress sites. But I recall the magic of running OU summer schools (which, ironically I and the web would help make redundant) where we taught people HTML, and got them to publish a page online. The realisation that anyone in the world could now see their page was a revelation. In this are the important aspects of what the web gave education – the freedom to publish, communicate and share. For distance education which had previously relied on expensive broadcast (the much loved OU BBC programmes for instance) or shipping physical copies of books, video and CDs, this was a game changer. It not only altered how single function institutions such as the OU operated, but it significantly lowered the cost of entry into the distance education market, so suddenly all other universities could now become distance ed providers. Of all the technologies I will look at in this series, the web is the one we are still feeling the impact of most keenly.

Now, excuse me, I’m off to listen to some modem dial up noises:

25 Years of EdTech – 1994: Bulletin Board Systems

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 14/02/2018 - 14:43

Continuing my 25 years of Ed Tech reflections, it’s now 1994. The web is just about to break in a big way, and the internet is gaining more interest. One of the technologies that old ed tech hacks like me go all misty eyed over is the Bulletin Board System. These were popular for the nascent discussion forums online, and mark the first real awareness of education to the possibility of the internet. They often required specialist software at this stage, were text based and because we were all using expensive dial-up, the ability to synch offline was important.

At the OU (I was yet to join) they were experimenting with a couple of systems. While people such as Robin Mason could see their potential, they were still viewed as a very niche application. At the time the university needed to help people with the whole getting online process, dealing with unfamiliar software and advice on how to communicate online. That is a lot of academic real estate to use up in a course about, Shakespeare, say. So their application was reserved for subjects where the medium was the message. For distance education though the possibilities were revolutionary – they had the potential to remove the distance element. The only way students communicated with each other previously was at summer school and face to face tutorials. If we want to talk about the OU becoming a university of the cloud, then this is where it started.

The lessons from BBS are that some technologies have very specific applications, some die out, and others morph to a universal application. BBS did the latter, but in 1994, most people thought they would be in one of the first two categories. What was required for them to become a mainstream part of the educational technology landscape was the technical and social infrastructure that removed the high technical barrier to implementation. More of that in later posts.

The Digital Scholar – ebook file

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 13/02/2018 - 10:39

I’ve been doing some writing on revisiting my 2011 book The Digital Scholar. I’ve also got a couple of presentations planned around it. But on checking I note that the imprint of Bloomsbury that published it, Bloomsbury Academic, is no longer functioning and the titles have been rolled into the main Bloomsbury catalogue. My previous links to the free version don’t work any more, and you have to dig pretty hard to find the free version on their site. I think open access publishing was something they experimented with when Frances Pinter was there, but now she has moved on to Knowledge Unlatched, they’ve quietly abandoned it.

Of course, the benefit of open access is that the destiny of my book is in my own hands, and needn’t die when a publisher changes tack. I own it. It’s strange that this is not the norm, I know. So, this post is really just a means of archiving my own book (on my own domain) for future reference. And of course, a reminder to read it if you haven’t done so.

Here it is then (only PDF & epub I’m afraid):
The Digital Scholar PDF

Digital Scholar Epub

25 years of edtech – 1993: Artificial Intelligence

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 12/02/2018 - 10:13

This year marks the 25th anniversary of ALT. I’m co-chairing the ALT-C conference with Sheila MacNeill, which celebrates this in September. This got me thinking about the changes I’d seen in that time, and so I’m going to attempt a series of blog posts that use this as a vehicle to explore the developments in ed tech over the past 25 years. It may end up like Sufjan Stevens project to write an album for every state, and I won’t get past two or three, but let’s give it a go. Also, in order to fit it in, there may be some twisting to fit a tech into a year, and it’s not necessarily the year the technology was invented but rather when I came to recognise it. So, with those caveats, let’s set off. It’s 1993, I’m a PhD student in Middlesbrough, it’s just before Nirvana and Oasis break, the Stone Roses and Madchester have peaked… (screen goes wavy)

I’m starting with Artificial Intelligence. This is partly because in 1993 I was studying a PhD in AI applied to aluminium die casting (I know you want to read my thesis). But it’s also partly to demonstrate the cyclical nature of ed tech. In 1993 AI was going through its second flush of popularity, following on from initial enthusiasm in the eighties. The focus was largely on two approaches: expert systems and neural networks. These were contrasting approaches: expert systems tried to explicitly capture expertise in the form of rules, whereas neural networks learnt from inputs in a manner analogous to the brain. The initial enthusiasm for Intelligent Tutoring Systems had waned somewhat by 93. This was mainly because they really only worked for very limited, tightly specified domains. You needed to predict the types of errors people would make in order to provide advice on how to rectify it. And in many subjects (the humanities in particular), in turns out people are very creative in the errors they make, and more significantly, what constitutes the right answer is less well defined.

Expert systems though were pushed as teaching aids also – if you captured the knowledge of an expert, in say, medical diagnosis, then this forms a useful teaching aid. My experience in developing an expert system to diagnose problems in aluminium die casting is probably symptomatic of the field: it sort of did the job, but didn’t really catch on. The problem was twofold: the much quoted ‘knowledge elicitation bottleneck’ and the complexity of real world. The first meant getting the knowledge from experts in a format you can use. Apparently you can’t just drill a hole in their heads and tap it out like siphoning petrol from a car. Experts don’t always agree, and making expertise explicit is notoriously difficult. What characterises an expert is that they ‘just know’. The complexity issue means you can’t predict the way things work out. For example, we characterised typical flaws (and provided a very nice database of images). But sometimes these co-occur, sometimes they look different, sometimes the causes can be multiple.

AI faded after this for a while, only to resurface with a vengeance in the past five years or so. I may revisit it later, so I won’t say much about the current instantiation. What is interesting I think is that the claims are much the same (although they often think they have invented them for the first time), and some of the problems remain. However, what has really changed is the power of computation. This helps address some of the complexity because multiple possibilities and probabilities can be accommodated. In this we see a recurring theme in ed tech: nothing changes while simultaneously everything changes. AI has definitely improved since 93, but equally some of the fundamental issues that beleaguered it still remain.

Edtech & Symbols of Permanence

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 29/01/2018 - 12:32

I understand why tech companies like education, but I don’t understand why they like it so much. Obviously, there’s money, the global education market is estimated at $4.4 trillion. Get a big chunk of that market and you can buy a football team. And there’s the perception that it’s slow and ripe for change, which appeals to both investors and egos of developers. These are both undoubtedly significant factors. But I’ve come to suspect there’s something else in the psychological mix – a form of legitimacy and permanence. I’m going to try to explain this by way of a long winded detour into the history of my local castle. But it comes together, so bear with me.

Castell Coch – a brief history

Castell Coch (Welsh for Red Castle) is situated above the village of Tongwynlais, on the outskirts of Cardiff. The ruins of an earlier 11th century castle and the surrounding land were acquired in 1760, by John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. His great-grandson, John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquis of Bute, inherited the castle in 1848. The landed estates, and particularly ownership of the Cardiff docks which had become the busiest coal exporting dock in the world, made him one of the wealthiest men in the world. A keen medievalist, he employed the architect of High Victorian style, William Burges to reconstruct the castle, as a summer hunting retreat.

In collaboration with the Marquis, Burges developed a design in the style of medieval, fairy tale castles. The exterior was constructed from 1875 to 1879. Despite its intended aim as a hunting lodge, the castle was not used often, and is largely viewed as part of the Victorian fashion for follies.

This can be considered as a belated example of what Peter Borsay termed the The English Urban Renaissance. After 1700 Borsay argues that many English towns underwent a renaissance period, characterised by uniform design, street planning, a growing middle-class population and increased leisure facilities such as assembly halls, public gardens and theatres.

A number of conditions then arose to see a shift from towns being less focused on their rural position, and instead on their own services. Borsay provides the role of leisure as an example of such a shift in identity and function. The urban renaissance was largely unseen in Wales however, which lacked major industry prior to the nineteenth century. Towns such as Brecon acted as agricultural market towns. The geography made transport difficult between many Welsh settlements, which further limited their trade.

However, the features Borsay sets out as being characteristic of a 17th Century urban renaissance can be seen in nineteenth century Cardiff, accompanied by population growth. Allied with this population growth are many of the public amenities Borsay cites as characteristic of an urban renaissance, for instance a Gas Act in 1837 for public lighting, a waterworks act in 1850, as well as signs of leisure such as a racecourse in 1855. This is contrasted with the experience of the poor in Cardiff, which after the Poor Law of 1834, developed a workhouse in 1836. This soon proved inadequate for the expanding population, and a new workhouse was constructed in 1881.

Castell Coch as representation of power

This provides a context within which Castell Coch was constructed, and how it could be interpreted by the local population. This was a time of great social upheaval – the trade union movement was a significant force in South Wales and the Rebecca Riots of 1839-1844 in West Wales had demonstrated that social unrest could flare up violently. The political activism of the Chartists in the South Wales coal fields similarly highlighted that the feudal order was in decline. These social upheavals caused great anxiety amongst the elite, with the Railway merchants proclaiming that ‘the late Chartist and Rebecca riots sufficiently evince that Wales will become in as bad a state as Ireland, unless the means of improvement are given to it’.

In this context then the Castell becomes not simply an indulgence of an interest in medievalism, but a deliberate attempt to lay claim to the historical immutability of the position of the aristocracy. This is further reinforced by the siting of Castell Coch on an existing ruin. The original site dates back to the Normans, and was rebuilt in 1277 to control the Welsh. As Wales faced another rebellion the reconstruction of Castell Coch can be interpreted as a signal on the longevity of power. The decision by Burges to incorporate elements of the earlier castle, particularly noticeable in the cellar reinforces this connection with past representations of power.

Although the Marquis could point to several generations of wealth, they were not part of the landed gentry dating back to Napoleonic times. In South Wales, Philip Jenkins argues that there was a shift in the gentry from ancient landed families to a new landed elite from approximately 1760. These new families sough to establish an ‘ancient gentry’:

For the new ruling class, newness was politically damaging, while antiquity could be a considerable asset. If they could only assert their historical roots they could claim to be part of a natural and immemorial rural order.

In this context, the faux romantic style can be interpreted as an extension of power. By evoking romantic notions of medieval ages, and building on the site of a Norman century castle, the message of Castell is one of the permanence of power. The immutability of the aristocracy is presented as both reassuring and unquestionable. Tom Williamson highlights this use of consciously manipulating ‘symbols of the past’, in order to hide a very modern use of land ownership rights. For example Susie West highlights how landscape landscapes gardens are ‘spaces deliberately removed from production’ and are now presented as aesthetic objects. Castell Coch can similarly be viewed as an artistic creation, removed from the original function, in this case military defence, of the original.

The ed tech equivalent

If we view the digital revolution as a similar social force as the industrial revolution, then it creates challenges to established power. What the new powers then seek to do is ally themselves with symbols of longevity. In the physical world this is castles and manor houses. In the digital world, it is education and governance. Education is often decried for being slow to change, and stuck in the past, but whether they realise it or not, these are the values tech companies seek to appropriate. Education is a recognised universal good (generally). It has longevity, history, social value. Those, as much as the millions of users with dollars, are assets that tech companies seek to acquire, because as with Castell Coch, what they do is strengthen your position. The message of Castell Coch was that physically and literally it was unassailable – which meant that metaphorically so was the position of those who owned it. It rendered legitimacy to their new found wealth, the crucial function of which is to remove questions. This is precisely what being deeply involved in education does for tech firms. We don’t question their algorithms, their ethics, their control because, look, we’re educating 20 million people in developing nations with our platform.

Of course, that doesn’t mean higher ed should eschew technology – far from it, we have a duty to ensure learners get the most from technology and to use it to teach in new ways and reach new audiences. But it shouldn’t sell itself cheap. They want something from education, its ‘symbols of the past’, so stop treating them as saviours.

(And if you want to come and see Castell Coch, give me a shout).

Diving for pearls

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Sun, 21/01/2018 - 12:27

For the upcoming REF, the OER Hub are one of the possible impact case studies for the OU. We applied for a small bit of internal funding, and last week all decamped to a cottage in Gloucestershire for five days to put in an intensive writing session. This is not a commentary on the REF, an analysis of the neoliberalisation of education or the dangers of metrics, just some reflections on that writing process (so lower your expectations).

Firstly, a dedicated (isolated) week is definitely the way to go. We had been provided with a set of documents to complete by our excellent REF advisor, Jane Seale. But without a dedicated, prolonged period to devote to these, it would have taken months to complete. Also, the intensity of focusing on only this, rather than fitting in amongst other pressing demands, meant that the quality of what we produced was greatly improved (I think). So, a week away may seem like an indulgence, but was probably more productive and efficient in the long run.

Secondly, impact in higher education research is difficult, and often indirect. The dream type of impact is you do research, it leads to a change in Government policy on health or schooling. But that’s actually quite rare. In the last REF they didn’t allow impact within higher education to count, which is especially problematic for us, as part of our aim has been to work with researchers elsewhere and build OER research capacity. This time they may be a bit more lenient, but impact on other researchers is still frowned upon.

Thirdly, we’re all collaborative and supportive in the OER community (yes we are). Claiming impact sometimes seems like you need to ego and lack of shame of Donald Trump. We were solely responsible for everything that has happened and invented it all! This rather grates with the collegial, sharing network we are part of. So there is a tension in the process between needing to promote yourself and claim impact while also wanting to acknowledge the diverse, distributed nature of influence.

Lastly, we wanted to stress how the process by which we have conducted research, namely making openness (through social media, open access publications, open data, our open researchers pack, open courses, etc) is as impactful as the research itself. I feel that we made a good stab at this, but I wonder how much it will mean to assessors who are from a ‘traditional’ approach.

We’re writing this up now, and have identified lots of bits of evidence and testimonials we need to gather. Which means we may be coming to you for some input soon. I guess if I was to offer any advice, it would be to definitely try and carve out a dedicated chunk of time, to clearly work through some distinct messages you want to convey and then match these with evidence. You may need to then go through several iterations of this to find the best match of evidence to message.


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