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What’s in a name?

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 27/05/2016 - 09:39
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Yesterday I had a bit of a pedant tantrum, when following the announcement about FutureLearn MOOCs offering credit, Leeds Uni tweeted they were the first Russell Group university to offer credit for online courses. They deleted the tweet after I complained because online courses aren’t the same as MOOCs, and of course many universities have been offering online courses for credit for years. I fully appreciate it was the demands of twitter and communications that caused this, there wasn’t anything sinister in their intent, and I apologise if I seemed a bit grumpy about it. But it was the latest example of a move to conflate MOOCs and ‘online courses’ that has a number of negative effects. It’s not just historical pedantry that wants this clarification, there are other issues at stake also. Here are the implications of this confusion:

It’s disrespectful – say you’ve been creating innovative online courses for years. Suddenly all of this work is dismissed because MOOCs represent a year zero for online education, and therefore everything you have done previously cannot be counted.

It’s a landgrab – some of this confusion is accidental (as I believe the case was with the Leeds tweet), but in other cases it is more deliberate. By claiming that MOOCs invented online learning they look to be the inheritors of its future.

It underplays the role of universities – this quote from a piece in the Times Higher captures this I think:

“If we have learned nothing else from the move by universities worldwide to be part of the massive open online course (Mooc) movement, it is that education or research development can easily be shared without the need for time and place dependencies.”

The piece has the title “Moocs prove that universities can and should embrace online learning”. I mean, really? Universities have been embracing online learning for at least 15 years. And yet this view makes it seem that we needed those silicon valley types to make us notice the internet. This adds to the landgrab. Similarly FutureLearn’s Simon Nelson stated “our platform means that they can achieve meaningful qualifications whilst still being able to work”. This rather seems to downplay the 40 year history of the OU which was designed for that very purpose, and once again makes it appear as a MOOC invention.

It limits our options – if MOOCs and online courses are synonymous then MOOCs become the only way of doing online learning. Let’s not limit ourselves again, now that we’re just emerging from the VLE restrictions. You can see some of this in this NYT piece: “After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought”.

This conflation of MOOC and online learning means that MOOC failures become the failure of all online learning, and MOOC future becomes the future of all online learning. It’s more important than that, so we shouldn’t cede the ground to lazy terminology. That’s why I’m pedantic about the use of the term. Or maybe I’m just pedantic.

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Appropriate use of MOOCs

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 26/05/2016 - 14:42
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One of the unfortunate downsides of all the MOOC hype is that it pushed people into opposing camps – you either buy into it all or reject them absolutely. And of course, MOOCs are not going to kill every university, educate the whole world, liberate the masses. But they can be used for some purposes effectively.

Today the OU, FutureLearn and University of Leeds announced a mechanism by which you can gain credit for studying MOOCs and transfer this to count towards a degree. Getting this set up is the type of thing that just takes ages and lots of negotiation (we never cracked it with SocialLearn), so well done to all those involved.

Some will suggest this marks the beginning of the much heralded unbundling of higher education. But I am increasingly inclined to always resist big claims, and instead focus on more modest, realisable ones. I don’t think this model will appeal to everyone, and is unlikely to massively transform the university sector. But what it does allow is more flexibility in the higher education offering. One of the claims the OU has always made for OpenLearn, who are also working in accrediting learning, is that it helps smooth the transition into formal learning. For lots of learners, committing to a three year full time degree is off-putting. This was partly why the OU was invented in the first place. But even signing up for a course complete with fee commitment is a high threshold. MOOCs with a smaller accreditation fee offers a lower step down still.

I suggested a while back that MOOCs might offer a first year replacement, thus reducing some of the financial barriers. The OU itself has run programs where students can study with us for two years and then complete on another campus. More of these hybrid models in education is generally a good thing – students come in many different shapes and sizes now, and will have different needs. But loads of students still want the traditional, 3 year campus model. And that is the key – stop trying to replace one universal model with another one. It is less about blowing up the core and more about fraying the edges productively.

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The role of policy in open ed

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

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

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The new or reused keynote dilemma

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

The advantages of giving the same talk multiple times are:

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

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

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

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

The advantages of giving new talks are:

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

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

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

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

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

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The open ed landscape

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

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

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

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

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

Slidedeck is below:

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Nothing is deserved, everything is accepted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10 years of Edtechie – the imposter gang

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

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

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

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

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

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IT services – we need to talk

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

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

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

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

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Should bid proposals be open access?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Types of OER user

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

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

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

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

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

The replay of the presentation is here.

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What are the research questions for OER?

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

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

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

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Openness as feature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Positive openness

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

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

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

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

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

Constellations of Open from Robert Farrow

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

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The non-Uberization of education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why open practice?

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

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

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

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

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