OLnet Academics' Blogs

The battle for open – tales from the front

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 02/07/2015 - 12:59

I know some people don’t like the whole “battle” idea in my book, and I get why it isn’t always applicable. But sometimes, it really does feel that way. In what could become a regular feature, if I could be bothered, I thought I’d do a quick round-up of stories that really emphasise the battle (or struggle if you prefer) aspect of open education currently.

The battle for language: This story that the University of Guelph trademarked the term “OpenEd” has largely resolved itself now. Understandably most of us who have worked in Open Ed for years were outraged, particularly when Guelph then aggressively pursued BC Campus over its use of the term. Brian Lamb and Clint Lalonde both captured this sense of outrage. Eventually, Guelph backtracked and climbed down. I won’t dwell on how misguided the attempt was in the first place, but rather just highlight that this shows that “Open” has market value now, and that commercial interests will seek to control what that means.

The battle for money: I could pick a similar story every month, but this CBC piece comparing the profits publishers make with the dire straits of many university libraries caught my attention. The researcher found that “the five largest, for-profit academic publishers now publish 53 per cent of scientific papers in the natural and medical sciences – up from 20 per cent in 1973. In the social sciences, the top five publishers publish 70 per cent of papers.” That’s a lot of control we’ve ceded to them. Make no mistake, we, as academics, messed up here and lost control over our own content and knowledge dissemination. A similar story in that Russian libraries lost access to Springer journals because they were unable to pay the fees.

The battle for ownership: Thanks to my OU colleague Simon Knight for flagging this. Potentially a change in European copyright laws might see the loss of the “freedom of panorama”. That is, you can take photos of public buildings without breaching copyright. As Simon highlighted, there is an implication for OERs here that include photos of public buildings. It’s supposed to allow non-commercial use, but that can be a grey area (eg if you are sharing them on a commercial site such as Facebook, Slideshare, that might count as commercial use). It’s one of those detailed legal arguments that might come to nothing, but equally we might found someone being prosecuted for by some over-zealous claimant. It also adds in another potential barrier, fear factor and layer of confusion for educators who just want to create a learning resource.

The battle to share: Colombian student Diego Gomez faces a potential prison sentence of 4-8 years for sharing an academic article he liked on Scribd. He didn’t make any money from it, he just thought others would benefit from reading it. The author sued for economic damage and the full weight of the law kicked in. Even if you think it was wrong of Gomez to share, the response seems massively disproportionate – it is an example of a legal system designed for one use, coming smack into the digital world and then floundering around like a bully. These type of confrontations will become more frequent.

When you view these, it’s hard not to frame it as a battle, one to make sure openness stays open, and that it isn’t closed down or thwarted for other uses. Or maybe I’m just paranoid and see it everywhere…

Preparing for the digital university

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 18/06/2015 - 13:10

George Siemens, Dragan Gasevic and Shane Dawson have produced an excellent report with this title. I think it’s a very ambitious and also very timely thing to do. They synthesise the research of distance, blended and online learning to provider an analysis of the benefits and issues for each. As nearly all universities offer one or more versions of these forms of learning, it is very useful to have a report to start from. As we’ve often voiced in the OER field, there is a lot of research published that is of questionable quality, and in order to make good decisions we need to be drawing on sound evidence.

So, I applaud their efforts and what I offer here is by way of an addendum, not a major criticism. I have two points I’d add to the report, both of which arise from my Open University experience. I fully appreciate that in wanting to produce a readable report they can’t give the detailed history of distance education. But I’d like to add the following two items for consideration:

i) The discussion of distance education seems to be focused on correspondence tuition and then jumps straight from here to interactive, online modes. Anyone who has worked at the OU becomes sensitive to this, so maybe it doesn’t matter to others, but I think it’s worth highlighting the Supported Open Learner model developed by the OU (and then successfully replicated across the globe). This has a range of elements all specifically designed to aid the distance learner, including course material designed to be studied individually, a part-time tutor allocated for support (by face to face tutorials, phone, online, etc), a regional centre support system, summer schools, use of different media and assessment constructed to be a feedback and progression mechanism. I stress it because many universities and online providers still haven’t discovered this rich support mechanism. I expect one will reinvent it soon, amongst much fanfare, but the point is that different elements have greater significance for different students. Think of it like reversing a car: you use side mirrors, rearview mirror, reverse sensor, look over your shoulder. All those elements are useful. I feel the report rather brushed over the significance of this in a rush to get to blended learning.

ii) The report states that distance learning has high retention. This seems odd, and makes me wonder what version of distance ed is being considered here. Distance ed is not synonymous with open education, but it has often been used as a means by which open education can be realised. One of the things about open education is that it doesn’t have high retention rates. Just as MOOC developers are now discovering, if you have open entry, it makes comparison with filtered entry difficult. MOOC providers are also making claims that traditional metrics of completion rates are not as applicable. This has always been the case for truly open education. Many open ed students come in, try one or two courses, and then leave the system, quite satisfied. They have got what they wanted and they never intended to gain a degree. This is why funding systems based solely on whole course completion are a disaster if you care about social mobility, inclusion, or open education. So to claim that distance learning has high retention seems a bit at odds with some of the reality experienced.

Apart from that, thanks George, Dragan and Shane, I really did enjoy reading it, and apologies if I’ve misinterpreted anything here.

The Open Flip

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 11/06/2015 - 09:31

At the start of the digital, networked revolution there were lots of books about new business models. Most were, let’s face it, rubbish. But there were some salient points that came out amidst all the hyperbole. I think Weinberger’s concept of filtering on the way out instead of filtering on the way in, is a good example.

Anyway, now that internet models have settled a bit I’ve been thinking that the next phase might be around what openness offers. I circulate in different overlapping communities: OERs, open access journals, MOOCs, open textbooks. I’ve noticed a common theme emerging which you could label the “open flip”. Briefly stated, it is that money shifts from purchasing copyrighted resources to production of open ones.

Cable Green, speaking of open textbooks, says we have lots of money in education, we’re just really bad at spending it. His claim is that the cost savings for schools buying books is considerable, once you make this shift. Similarly, for open access journals, there is a good argument to stop buying journals, but instead start producing them ourselves. Or we stop buying elearning content and produce OERs.

There are other areas where this might be applicable too, beyond education. For instance, currently we spend billions on purchasing drugs from large pharmaceutical. An open flip would see that money spent on producing drugs that are then openly licensed so production is cheap. I don’t know enough about big pharma to know if the economics would work out in this instance, but the point is it is an approach that could be considered now.

The digital, networked infrastructure is the substratum that allows this to happen, but it is open licensing that adds the final ingredient. I think we will see variations of the open flip across many disciplines as the intersection of these three elements opens up new approaches. Often we have become so accustomed to existing models that they seem like the only way to realize the desired goal, but we have an opportunity to reconsider where money is allocated in the chain now, and there may be more effective ways of spending it.

Three R’s that universities care about

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 10/06/2015 - 08:27

With apologies to David’s 5Rs of reuse…

Whenever a new technology, or approach, or technology driven approach arises, the claims for it are often varied, ranging from student emancipation, to cost saving, to complete revolution of the higher education system. It often seems that nearly all of the early years of a technological development are spent arguing about what exactly it can help with, what problem it is solving. In this post I am taking a purely pragmatic approach, in that I am going to suggest that for any tech development to be taken up long term, it needs to solve some specific concerns of universities. Now, I fully accept that learning takes place outside of universities, or your goal might be to completely destroy that system. That may well be so, but that is probably a different argument. And similarly there are deeper perspectives than this one which address issues such as learner emotion, deep learning, etc. But my argument here is if you think an ed tech development has value, then a good strategy is to make an argument based on these pragmatic lines and recognise the context within which it is operating.

In an increasingly competitive higher education system, what is it that senior management at higher education institutions are concerned with? I guess the base line might be economic survivability, but if we take a level of abstraction above the purely financial, then I would argue that most good vice chancellors, provosts, presidents etc are legitimately concerned about three areas, as they seek to pursue their overall mission of educating people:

  • Recruitment – depending on who you are, getting students is an issue. If you are an elite university it is not so much a matter of getting sufficient students, but getting the types of students you want. Either way recruiting students is the lifeblood of any university.
  • Retention – having recruited students, you then need to keep them. Why do students drop out within a module, or fail to progress to another module? What can we do to help students with particular needs? How can we be flexible enough to accommodate non-traditional students?
  • Reputation – what is the reputation of the university with potential students (see recruitment), the general population, the local community, the media, government, etc. What is it known for? What perceptions or misconceptions about it do people hold?

Now consider any recent tech development in the light of these three Rs: learning analytics, MOOCs, OERs, learning design, VLEs, etc. Quite often we have made confused claims against all three, or ignored these in favour of revolutionary rhetoric (“MOOCS will democratise education for all!”) or more abstract potential (“open education creates better citizens”). These may be true in the long run, but more practically it is useful to make specific claims against one or more of these Rs, and then set about conducting research which can verify this. It may be less exciting, but ultimately more useful if we can do this.

Let’s take OER as an example. Our work with the OER Research Hub has found that many students are using OERs before they take up formal study, so are trialling subjects. And others are using OERs to supplement their study whilst in formal education. We need some further work to get evidence on this: what is the conversion rate from studying OERs to formal study? How can this transition be helped effectively? Does using OERs in formal study lead to greater retention of students?

I would propose that answering such questions against one or all three of the Rs should be an aim for any new ed tech development once it moves beyond the experimental stage, if it is to be adopted widely in higher ed.

Do not go gentle

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 14/05/2015 - 16:17


(T-shirt available from Fake Elsevier)

This post is a plea really to academics to not surrender rights, or the promise of openness so readily. I completely understand that I am in a privileged position, and it’s easy for me as a prof to say “only publish in open access”, or “share your stuff openly”. But it’s a different story if you are a new researcher, and after one of those ever more elusive permanent positions. But even so, I am often surprised at just how readily academics acquiesce to bad deals, particularly with regards to publishing.

I have frequently heard “I would love to publish open access, but in my field I can’t”. Or “I tried, but they said no.” And that is it, there is no attempt to find an alternative journal, to negotiate the embargo period with a publisher, to offer any form of push back. Academics frequently underestimate their power I think. As I mentioned a few years ago, I took the open access oath (only reviewing and writing for open access). It is a remarkably effective step. Our labour (offered freely to journals) is all we have, but the system requires it to operate.

Similarly, I have heard academics state that they would like to develop an online profile, but it would be frowned upon by their boss. Academic life seems to me to be increasingly precarious, and this climate of doubt and uncertainty can be abused. You have to tow the line ever more to get, or stay in a job. But academics are remarkably good at fighting against attacks on the integrity of their discipline. I don’t feel that they have become accustomed to thinking of their labour and outputs in the same way. So my plea is this – push back a bit. Ask the question about open access, refuse to do the review, start a modest (non-job threatening) online profile. Each time we acquiesce quietly makes it harder next time.

The Eddie Murphy Cycle

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 13/05/2015 - 14:45

In response to my previous post, a throwaway analogy about Eddie Murphy and MOOCs, Rolin Moe produced this post. It is probably the best response to one of my posts I’ve ever had. I respond in kind here.

In the article The Eddie Murphy MOOC Mystery – Part 1, Moe (2015) responds to the author’s critique of MOOCs through the lens of Eddie Murphy. The Moe article is undoubtedly a significant contribution to the MOOC-Murphy literature in its analysis of the three core claims in the original article. However, in its analysis it fails to take into account the temporal element of the Murphy film rating, instead ordering them by Box office and Rotten Tomatoes rating. It is the author’s contention that consideration of this temporal element will further reveal the utility of the Murphy metaphor.

Using the IMDB rating for each of Eddie Murphy’s films, we can plot them against year of release. This gives the scatter plot shown in Figure 1:

What this reveals is that (ignoring the outlier of Best Defense), Murphy’s career commenced with a series of highly successful, highly rated movies. By the late 1980s however, the Murphy success formula had reached its peak, and we witness a period of stagnation, and general decline through the 1990s. In the 2000s, the picture becomes more complex. There is a form of renaissance (a murphaissance if you will), particularly aided by the Shrek franchise. However, this is more than matched by an underlying general long trend of decline. For every Shrek, there are two Norbits.

Researchers in educational technology have often made reference to the Gartner Hype Cycle. The author proposes that the Murphy Cycle offers a more robust framework for analysing trends. Not only is it grounded in empirical data (unlike the Gartner model), but it also offers a more nuanced picture. It has a similar peak and trough, but then a more mixed pattern of usefulness amidst a general sea of poor application.

The author also contends that it provides researchers with more meaningful reference points than those used in Gartner. Teams can talk about being in “the Beverley Hills Cop moment”, or realise “this is our Pluto Nash.” It also offers a degree of hope – for after the Klumps, comes Shrek.

MOOCs as Eddie Murphy

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 12/05/2015 - 17:29

File under: pointless things that occur to you while walking the dog.

My daughter came across Beverley Hills Cop on TV the other day, and then worked her way through a range of Eddie Murphy films. She quickly discovered what the rest of us learnt back in the 80s. Most Eddie Murphy films are not very good. Murphy has undeniable screen presence, and when he’s not on screen these films are just interminable. But for a few years anything with Murphy in it was a guaranteed hit. I came to the conclusion that what happened was that a lot of average scripts had sat around without any real backing, because they weren’t very original. But stick Eddie Murphy in it, and you’ve got box office success on your hands. It is hard to imagine why on earth anyone would make The Golden Child if it didn’t have Murphy headlining it. Or 48 Hours which was just another mismatched cop film. But with Murphy in it, they become something else. A lot of them aren’t really comedies either. They’re just films that have Eddie Murphy in. This is not a critique of Murphy as an actor, but I think he paid the price for this in the end. That “anything with Murphy in it is great” attitude wore thin by Beverley Hills Cop 3, and by the time you got to Pluto Nash, it was insulting.

So, what does this have to do with MOOCs? The ‘stick Murphy in it’ attitude of studio bosses back in the 80s seems to me rather akin to the ‘stick a MOOC in it’ attitude I’ve encountered with research bids, or discussions around innovative teaching. I have joked that I’ve dusted off all my rejected research bids and replaced “OER” with “MOOC”. It’s not quite true, but there’s an element of the Golden Child script about it all. At the moment, even with the MOOC backlash hitting, funders, governments, journalists – they all want a bit of MOOC action in there. To extend the Murphy-MOOC analogy, then I think MOOCs will pay the price for this high coverage. A good MOOC proposal will be rejected because they were of their time.

Actually, watching all those 80s Murphy films made me think there is a MOOC in there somewhere about 1980s action films and what they reveal about social attitudes of the time (it’s a LOT by the way).

The industrial education system myth

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 27/04/2015 - 13:05


“Reading hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens”

Audrey Watters does a fantastic job of debunking the myth around the concept of the factory school, or industrialised education model. I see this mentioned almost as often as ‘education is broken’, and it is a close ally of ‘education hasn’t changed in 100 years‘. The basic line is that we have an education system that was designed for an industrial age and we are now in a post-industrial age, ergo, that education system is faulty.

I think the first thing to do is what Audrey has done so magnificently, which is to really dig into the historical perspective, and demonstrate why the assumptions underlying that stance are just wrong. Another approach is to examine why the lack of change that is touted is wrong also. So view this piece as a little sibling to Audrey’s foundational work.

When people suggest that schooling is the same as in the industrial change, as Morrissey would have it, this is true, and yet it’s false. I want to explore both the elements that are true (and why that’s not a bad thing) and those that are incorrect, by way of an analogy. Imagine that it was commonly stated as fact that “reading hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens”. To take the true aspect first, we could take a photo of someone reading a book (maybe even a Dickens novel), printed on paper, sitting in a chair in front of a fire. If you could go back in time you could show this to Dickens and he would declare that indeed, reading has not changed (he’d also be very pleased that people were still reading his novels). The first question to ask then, is why would you want reading to change? Why is an absence of change deemed a bad thing? Reading a book is a pretty good way to convey an idea, a story, and an enjoyable, enriching thing to do. That it hasn’t changed significantly in 150 years is testament to its value, not a sign of its weakness.

The next aspect is to look at why this statement is, while true, also incorrect. There are undoubtedly core similarities between reading now and in Dickens’ time, but there are also very significant differences. For example there have been significant changes in:

  • technology -eg ereaders,
  • the publishing industry – eg Amazon
  • the publishing process – eg Dickens serialisation versus self publishing
  • the novel genre – compare a William Burroughs or graphic novel with Dickens
  • the context – reading now exists alongside gaming, television, cinema, the internet, etc

So any statement that merely says nothing has changed would not recognise that reading in 2015 is a very different experience to what it was in 1840.

If we now return to the industrial schooling argument we see a similar pattern. Firstly, there are significant similarities, so the statement is true in some respects. If you looked at education now and in the 1900s there are some things you would recognise: we send children to a central place, we group them by age and ability, we have teachers. As with reading, this unchanging aspect might be because it’s a good thing. Whenever I hear people state that they want to revolutionise (or do away with) the school system, I am struck by their lack of a viable alternative. If you want to educate all children in your country, regardless of motivation, ability, parental engagement, etc then you need a robust system. If you completely started from scratch tomorrow, my bet is you would end up creating something that didn’t look dissimilar to a schooling system. So the absence of change so deplored by many may indicate that viable alternatives are not available.

The second aspect is to consider what is wrong with the statement. As with the Dickens example, it actually ignores many significant changes, including:

  • Use of technology
  • Changes in curriculum
  • Changes in pedagogy
  • Increased professionalisation of teachers
  • Access to resources
  • Increased access to education for all children

When you take these into account, the schooling of children in 2015 is nothing like that of kids in 1915. Now this is not to suggest that there aren’t significant changes we can make within the schooling system. The Finnish approach is often cited as having a better attitude to assessment, curriculum, grouping, pedagogy, etc. And too often the education system is subject to the whims of whoever is the education minister (for example, the disastrous Michael Gove, who seemingly did want a 1915 system). And this is what irritates me about the industrial schooling argument – as so often with tech driven approaches, it demands wholesale revolution, instead of focusing on doing practical changes within the system which would actually be useful.

It’s about ownership, stupid

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 23/04/2015 - 14:31

I went to an excellent presentation from Cable Green yesterday about the K12 OER Collaborative. The project is aiming to get states to some of the money they currently spend on buying text books from publishers to produce open ones. He highlighted very forcibly what a crappy deal we currently have in that books are often very old (because they can’t afford to update), children are not allowed to do anything useful like take notes in them (because they have to be passed on), and if you lose one, the parents have to pay to replace it (which results in some parents telling their kids not to bring the book home). And on top of this, it’s really expensive.

So what they did was for a fraction of the cost currently allocated to purchase books they put out a call for companies to create new ones, but crucially, these would be openly licensed. This means that a) the digital copy is free, b) the state owns the rights so can update and adapt as they want and c) they can match specifically to common core. While the big publishers boycotted the call, many smaller ones responded, as did university departments. A million dollars (say) may not mean much to Pearson, but to a small company it’s a decent sum of money, even if there is no further revenue had then on sales.

The finances are truly staggering here, at the moment the state (he was talking about Washington state) can afford to update two books a year. When you consider the range of subjects and the age ranges, that means a lot of set books are out of date before it’s their turn to be updated. For the same money to update 2 books a year, using the open approach they could create open textbooks for ALL subjects. And these would of course, be usable across the whole of the US, not just in one state. And they would have money to pay people to regularly update the books. And they’d still have change left over.

When this is laid out you realise, that much like the academic publishing model, the current system was devised when ownership resided with the physical artefact. It now looks ludicrous. I do think we will look back in years to come and think “how did we let it go on for so long?”. I don’t know what the figures are for buying UK textbooks for schools, or how the process works, but the same approach would surely work here. In the US the figure is $8 billion nationwide, and the K12 OER project reckons it could do it all for around $30 million. Imagine what that extra money might be spent on in education.

It reinforced to me an obvious point, but one that bears repeating – ownership is key here. The real reason education boards spend millions of dollars in buying textbooks is not because the publishers have specialised technology or skills anymore. It is because they own the rights to the content. Once you break that link, then all sorts of possibilities open up.

Here is Cable’s slidedeck:

K12 OER Collaborative #oeglobal from Cable Green

MOOCs as open driver

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 22/04/2015 - 22:24


(I could pretend this image had some connection to the post, but it doesn’t really, it’s just a pic I took in Banff to make you jealous)

I’m at OEGlobal this week and attended a session from Athabasca University Library this morning. They were talking about how they have gathered together open access resources under the subjects for their uni, and also gathered in open resources from elsewhere. You can access this open access collection at their site. I think more libraries should do this, prioritising open resources so everyone can access them.

But what struck me in their presentation was that MOOCs were quite a significant driver in doing this. For many university libraries collecting open access resources doesn’t really matter as the fee paying students will have access to those resources anyway (if the library can afford to pay for them). And so there is no real driver for educators to focus on OA above other resources. But when people started creating MOOCs, this breaks down – your open learners won’t have that privileged library access, so any resources you use must be open.

This is similar to the manner in which social media drives open access also. What it highlights is that openness in any form begets openness. So while we may sometimes bemoan that MOOCs themselves are not really open (in the sense of openly licensed), they do form part of a larger system, which helps drive openness. I expect you’d all realised this long ago, hadn’t you?

OER15 and the nature of change in higher ed

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Sun, 19/04/2015 - 13:47

Last week was the OER15 conference here in Wales. I was the co-chair along with Haydn Blackey. While my view may be somewhat biased, I think it was a great success. We had great sessions, everything worked well, the venue was marvellous and the sun was out in Cardiff. If you haven’t been to the Uk OER conference before, I recommend getting along to Edinburgh next year for OER16. I was, as is so often the case, reminded very forcibly of how enthusiastic and engaging the open ed community are.

The theme of the conference was “Mainstreaming OER”. I suggested in the opening remarks, that it wasn’t the case that OER are already mainstream practice, but that they now stand on the cusp of it. After 13 years or so of development, a global community has been developed who are focused on OERs, open textbooks and open education in general. But the next stage is to move into the mainstream. There is almost nowhere else left to go now. That transition may not be successful, and it isn’t inevitable, but it is the next phase we need to attempt, in order to realise much of the ambition that underpinned the OER movement.

Often conference themes are rather vague, and don’t really bear any resemblance to the actual sessions. They’re rather like having a theory of parenting – you think it will go one way, and reality trundles along regardless of your interventions. But I feel that the theme of mainstreaming OER was really very relevant to the content of the conference. All of the keynotes explicitly addressed it, and in all the sessions I attended, participants made it a key thread in their work.

This caused me to muse somewhat on the nature of change (especially in higher education). I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction the other week, and she talks about the nature of extinction and its time frame. Darwin and others believed species go extinct very slowly (the winding down of a natural selection process). But of course, we discovered that sometimes extinctions happen quickly, caused by major events (the dinosaur slaying K-T event being the most famous). As Kolbert puts it, “conditions on earth change only very slowly, except when they don’t”. Or as paleontologist David Roup sums it up, evolution is “long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic.”

Related to this, my colleague Simon Horrocks pointed me to the French historical tradition of la longue duree. This argues that we shouldn’t focus on the big events in human history, but rather on longer cycles. While we tend to talk of significant battles and revolutions, the ideas or regimes these have overthrown persist for much longer. This is in line with the theme of my book, that having had the initial victory, it is actually now that direction is determined.

Which brings me back to the theme of OER15. I think change in higher ed has some resemblance to the evolutionary pattern (although over much shorter timescales) – change happens very, very slowly, and then very, very quickly. At the same time there are also longer patterns of change beneath this. For example, one might argue that MOOC hysteria was an example of one of those moments of panic. But this occurs within longer cycles – for example, the trend towards openness might be one, but so are much more fundamental practices such as knowledge construction, autonomy, critical thought, etc. I would suggest that silicon valley and the media are almost exclusively focused on those moments of panic, but ignore the equally important longer processes. In terms of OER then, I would argue we need to embrace both – be prepared for the long haul, but ready to react when the rapid change comes.

Here is a nice playlist of all the keynotes from OER15, and also an overview video:

Finding the problems OER solves

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 14/04/2015 - 08:26

At the Hewlett Grantees meeting in San Francisco, David Wiley made a very good argument that we need to focus on specific problems that OERs can address and solve those. I think this is part of the mainstreaming process – at the start of the movement there are grand claims and big visions. These are necessary to get it going, but over time and with further investment the focus becomes more practical. So, reducing the cost of textbooks for students in higher ed is one such specific problem. We can show how OERs (in the form of Open textbooks) can achieve this, we can implement an approach to solve it, and we can measure it.

We also discussed whether there are universal problems which OER can solve. David suggested that actually problems often look superficially similar, but there is such variety in context that they are actually very different problems. The situation in North America is different to that in Europe, and that in the UK is different to that in France, and that in K12 is different to higher ed, etc.

I would contend that there are some problems which, if not quite universal, are similar enough to be of interest to a wide range of people. If we take the original premise that we need to focus on specific problems, then the next stage is to find problems of sufficient interest. Here are some which our OER Research Hub findings point to, but these are just some suggestions, and will undoubtedly be influenced by my higher ed, northern hemisphere perspective, so I’d love to hear more:

  • Student retention – students in formal ed at all levels were often using OERs to support their learning. At the moment this is all behind closed doors as it were, but educators could make better use of promoting OERs to offer a broader range of material. Specific research could then identify whether such use does aid retention.
  • Student recruitment – higher education study is increasingly expensive in many countries, so the idea of trying it out for a year and then maybe switching to a different course is not really an option (as it was in my day). So if you want to help recruit students who are really interested in your subject, then giving them some good OERs is one way of them exploring whether they want to study with you. Again, there is longitudinal research here that could verify whether this has any impact.
  • Student costs – this could be in terms of open textbooks for formal learners, but also more broadly in terms of allowing access to educational content that would otherwise be unaffordable for informal learners. This research would focus on the impact of OERs for informal learners, or savings for formal learners.
  • Pedagogic variety -teachers, colleges, universities all struggle with the issue of appropriate staff development, updating the curriculum and incorporating technology. We found that use of OER by teachers led to a lot of reflection on their own practice, and caused them to incorporate a greater variety of content and approaches in their teaching. The impact of OERs on teaching practice is, I think, under reported and researched so one could imagine projects targeted specifically at encouraging this.

There are obviously more, but that wouldn’t be a bad set of problems to both solve and to investigate fully. But I definitely feel that these targeted benefits allied with appropriate research is what is required in OER now.

The Ivory Tower & the wrong focus

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 27/03/2015 - 15:29

I am at the Hewlett Grantees meeting in Sausalito this week, and last night they showed the film The Ivory Tower, in order to provoke discussion around what relevance OER had to the issues raised in the film. I’d seen it before, on a plane, and it had vaguely irritated me, but it was interesting to see it again last night, when it really irritated me.

I think a documentary film about how we fund higher education is an interesting thing to do, but this one jumps around all over the place. It suggests that the fault of high education costs lies with the university. It is not a film about how society funds higher education. For instance it only looks at the US. If you were interested in the topic of higher ed funding you would look at other countries with different models. As I’ve said before, if you make higher education a market, you shouldn’t then criticise universities for behaving in a perfectly logical way to succeed in that market. The film makes a big play on universities having climbing walls and fancy buildings, but if these attract students and money in a competitive market, then that they are inevitable. It doesn’t take the next step and make the discussion about funding in general, but rather says we should look at what universities are doing and whether education is now a good investment.

It also offers some of the alternatives that were popular a few years back, including UnCollege and, of course, MOOCs. The whole MOOC section just seems deeply embarrassing now. There is a definite ‘these will sweep away unis’ feeling, and they give the pre-pivot Thrun full rein. No-one making a documentary in 2015 would present MOOCs in such a light (which is not to fall into Good vs Evil Unicorn territory, not to say you couldn’t have an interesting doc about them). And this I think is the problem – for OERs they need to avoid getting caught up in any of the rhetoric that will date quickly. Instead, as David Wiley likes to propose, focus on particular problems and solve those. OERs don’t need to mean the end of university, but they might help with the high cost of textbooks. OERs don’t need to create an UnCollege program, but they can help students pick the right course by studying before they choose, and then help them complete by supplementing study when they’re in university. And so on. These benefits aren’t as glamorous and may not get you a documentary made, but they are actually useful.

Where do you go for community?

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 20/03/2015 - 15:31


(It is a little known fact that every time a pub closes, an angel dies)

I use the site Blipfoto to do the photo a day thing. I’m not that active over there, but it is one of those sites that some people really, really, love. It has developed a strong community over the years, but this week it was announced it was going into liquidation. It may not be lost, as a buy-out may be on the cards, but it’s a reminder of the fragility of these things. It doesn’t bother me too much, I started a WordPress blog to do the same, and I’m in the lucky position of having my main network elsewhere. But for many users, Blipfoto is the place they go to connect with people.

Of course, the obvious solution is to own everything yourself and self-host. But there are two issues with this – if you want to connect around a particular interest you need to go where others with that interest are located. You can build up a network through self hosted blogs, as many of us have done, but a specific site is an easier thing to manage, and also allows for more serendipity I think. I have seen photos from people who work on North Sea oil rigs, people doing relief work in Mongolia, others who have the same dog as me, as well as connecting with the people I know through other means. Those other connections don’t always happen through your self hosted sites. The second reason is that while I might just about manage to host my own WP site, it’s really into something a lot of people will do. The ease of use and simple purpose of such sites is their attraction.

Ultimately I think it’s just one of those things. Online services have no more right to permanence than physical ones. We have complex, emotional attachments to buildings because of the social function they perform. Think of the impact the closing of the village pub has on that community. Why did we imagine online spaces would be any easier? Enjoy it while you can, make sure you have a backup and remember nothing lasts forever – that’s about the sum of it.

Good vs Evil Unicorns

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 16/03/2015 - 14:46


I’ve done variations on my Battle for Open talk 3 times this week, and one slide I’ve used is to talk about the way false dichotomies are created. I characterised it as you are forced to be a good or evil unicorn (these are actually a thing, but a not real thing). This is often the result of excessive hype and over-reaching on the part of educational technology. The silicon valley/technology utopia narrative has a lot to do with this – in order to get attention for you start-up it is better to give a story that it is revolutionary, rather than a bit useful. The media plays an important role too as it prefers these ‘next big thing’ stories. And when they don’t realise this potential (which is usually a good thing as their utopia is quite often a dystopia for others), people get disaffected.
If you work in ed tech you’ve seen enough of these to become completely jaded and cynical, and there is some fun to be had in puncturing the puffed up nonsense of the latest education disruption. But we should also be careful not to just reject all technologies simply because they come wrapped in nonsense media. And this is what happens, we find ourselves forced into diametrically opposed camps because that is what the narrative demands of us – there are no neutral unicorns.
And while it is boring, and can be dismissed as sitting on the fence, the truth almost always lies in the middle. MOOCs are not going to destroy higher education as we know it, nor are they irrelevant. They’ll turn out to be useful for some purposes.
Here are the types of conflict we often see set up in this good vs evil unicorn world:

  • MOOCs as saviours – MOOCs as irrelevant
  • All online learning – all face to face
  • Learning analytics means no more pesky humans – Learning analytics as dehumanised teaching
  • Technology as solution for everything – Technology offers no help

And so on. I’ve felt myself being forced into these extremes at times. It’s easier in a way, you don’t have to think anymore – your reaction for any new development is pretty much defined for you. It may also be profitable – if a newspaper, TV or radio show want an interview, they want the people at the extremes, not the nuanced view in the middle.
But ultimately it’s not helpful, and simply just wrong. If you find yourself being pushed into an extreme view, ask yourself if you’re a good or bad unicorn. The answer is, neither.

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