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Brexit silver linings

Ok, this is my attempt to get out of the pit with this one, and find some positives. I don’t suggest all of these things will happen, but they might, as a result of the Brexit decision. They largely arise from the fact that it has been a disaster. Within hours the country was in financial and constitutional crisis, there was a Tour de France of backpedalling from Leave campaigners on their promises, it became apparent there was no plan and Britain had become the laughing stock of the world. By lunchtime after the victory the Brexit dream was dead, making it a contender for the shortest lived revolution in history. It now looks as though Johnson will seek a Norway deal. My guess is this will end up costing as much as we currently give and involve free movement of labour. Which pretty much makes the whole thing a monumental waste of time, but from the crisis we’re in now, a monumental waste of time begins to look like a pretty good deal.

So what might be the positives then? Here’s my attempt at happy face:

Closer EU union – rather than emboldening many exit feelings across Europe, I think they will now have a concrete example to look at and be able to say “that was a disaster, maybe this being in Europe thing isn’t so bad”.

The US is saved from Trump – in the US they may have thought there was no way a populist campaign based on lies, and targeting immigrants could be successful. Now they know it can and so can learn how to combat it.

A retreat from racism – there have been reports of an increase in racism as those elements feel emboldened by the result. However, it’s possible that once people actually see it, they will feel repulsed by it and rather than seeing a rise in racism, we are actually witnessing its death rattle. Okay, maybe this one is wishful thinking.

Political engagement of the young – many young people have felt very upset by this result (my own daughter is very despondent), but I think it will be a defining moment for many of them. They have been betrayed by politicians who have blatantly lied and used their futures for their own ambition, so they will need to get engaged themselves.

The last hurrah of newspaper influence – many who voted leave are already feeling tricked by the newspapers that promised a bold new future. In the future, Brexit will become a by-word for being duplicitous with the public and people will be more wary.

Being nice – I have been deeply touched by the nice comments from people around the world, sympathising with us in the UK. As Jo Cox commented we have more in common than that which divides us, and certainly I have felt this. At the same time of course there have been very painful divides and we will need to work hard to repair these. But to be reminded of decent humanity is a good thing.

The end of Europe as a topic – this has been such a divisive, unnecessary campaign that I don’t think anyone will want to go near the subject of Europe as a political topic for a generation. This will hopefully mean the end of Farage, one of the most despicable political figures in the last 50 years.

Now, I know there is quite a lot of wishful thinking in the above, and there is no need to tell me about all the negative issues, I’m very aware of them. But in the spirit of trying to have a group hug, my challenge is to post a positive possible outcome in the comments. We’ve got the rest of the internet to be angry in.

Yours, in despair

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:14


The unthinkable has happened and Britain has voted to leave the EU. The nation stared into the abyss last week and I had hoped that would be enough to make it pull back, but no, it seems that 52% of my fellow Brits decided the abyss looked just fine and plunged in. I feel for my European colleagues who work and live in the UK. They must feel very uncertain about their future now in a country that has shown itself to be so aggressively anti-European.

This is a personal post, I’m not going to dissect the campaigns or implications here. I feel lost. It is not just the decision itself, but what it has revealed about the country I live in. Every aspect of the Leave campaign has illustrated that Britain is now a place where you cannot feel any sense of belonging. It demonstrated that being openly racist was now a viable political tactic for the first time since the 1930s. It was anti-intellectual, as experts were widely dismissed in favour of slogans. It was distinctly Kafkaesque when a rich city banker and aristocrat talk about fighting the elite, when a Prime Minister hopeful proudly boasts “I don’t listen to experts”. It was post-truth, with deliberate lies told repeatedly and no rational argument or model proposed. It was selfish, with most young people wanting to Remain, the over 65s who will the least affected, voted to Leave.

As a liberal, academic who tries to do research gathering evidence with European colleagues, this is pretty much my anti-society. It feels very different to when your side doesn’t win in a general election. I could always understand, even if I didn’t agree with, those choices. But my country has just voted gleefully for hatred and economic ruin. What am I supposed to do with that fact?

There have been many casual nazi references thrown around in this campaign. But the similarities are horrible – right wing demagogues coming to power by blaming the current financial problems on immigrants and employing hate based tactics. No-one in Britain ever gets to ask again “How did Nazi Germany happen?” In The Drowned and the Saved, Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi talks about letters he received from Germans. One of them seeks forgiveness, saying “Hitler appeared suspect to us, but decidedly the lesser of two evils. That all his beautiful words were falsehood and betrayal we did not understand at the beginning.” Levi replies angrily highlighting that Hitler’s intentions were always obvious. This sentiment will be expressed by the people who voted Leave in a few years time when the economy has worsened and things have lurched to the right too far even for them. “How could we have known we were being tricked?” they will cry. Yes, you were tricked, but only because you wanted to be. The facts were there but you chose to deliberately ignore them in favour of indulging self pity and rage. I will find it very difficult to forgive anyone who voted Leave for what they have done to this country and to my daughter’s future.

I know I should feel emboldened to fight on for the things I believe in, but at the moment I need to find personal tactics to get through it. This whole process has brought the full, boiling, rage of Brits to the surface and it’s been like living with YouTube commentators for the past few weeks. It has made me feel quite ill, and so I need to find tactics for dealing with the new reality, as the only thing I have at the moment is curling up in a ball in the corner. I’m taking a social media and news break for a while, I’ll walk my dog and try to tell my daughter that things will be ok.

Waking up on a Brexit morning

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 15/06/2016 - 12:17

In order to get people to think through complex issues, one technique is to get them to envisage waking up the day after it has happened and imagining their feelings. Bizarrely, inexplicably, insanely, it seems that a British exit from Europe might actually be on the cards, so here is my attempt to imagine how I would feel on the morning of the 24th if that did occur. Note it is not an attempt to make reasoned argument (the Leave campaign seems largely post-rational and immune to any factual arguments anyway), but entirely a personal assessment. I think the emotions I would experience are as follows.

Anxiety – most observers seem agreed there will be a short to long term negative impact on the UK economy, with possibly an extra two years of austerity. After eight years of austerity, the thought of a deeper recession fills me with dread. In terms of universities we have just about accommodated the impact of fees, which has hit part-time study particularly hard. More uncertainty and lack of finance is unlikely to be a good thing. In addition a good deal of research funding comes from Europe, and although promises have been made to compensate for this, I feel the same money has been promised several times over, and in the end university research will be at the back of a long queue. I will also feel anxious about social cohesion – if we do enter a long, deep recession as a result of this national self-immolation, it will be difficult not to resent those who brought it upon us for no real gain.

Shame – I did my PhD as part of a European project and have been engaged with numerous research projects over the years. I collaborate and communicate with European colleagues on a regular basis. These interactions have been socially, culturally and intellectually enriching. I will feel a sense of shame that my country has chosen to abandon the European project.

Isolation – if you’re a large nation (the US, China) you don’t need to be part of a larger group. But generally it helps to be part of a collective social, economic, geographical group. Snubbing our local neighbours will make us more isolated in the world, as a nation. As an individual I feel that the campaign has not been one of project fear, but project anger. I’ve been dismayed by the casual racism, small minded mentality of many in the Leave camp (not all, there are justifiable reasons for being anti-EU). I will now feel trapped on a small island with angry people, grimly clutching their Tesco carrier bags and attempting to make a living by selling Royal Wedding souvenirs to each other. It doesn’t feel like a forward looking, progressive place to be.

Grief – like the end of a marriage there will be a sense of grief following the break-up. I am fully aware of the dubious history of Europe, but I do classify myself as a European. I like being with other Europeans. I appreciate that I am in a privileged position working in a university on joint research projects, so my experience is not the same as everyone else’s. Also I understand that the European Union isn’t devised for my entertainment. But in those European research projects is a microcosm of the grander European Project – people from different countries working on goals of joint interest, with shared values and celebrated differences. Whatever shape our relationships take with Europe following an exit, it will be much more difficult to realise this.

Of course Europe won’t disappear, I can still go on holiday there and attend conferences. But undeniably we will all wake up after a Brexit a lot less European. That is the point of it after all. And that fills me with sadness.

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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