What I learnt from being a student

The Student

Yesterday I submitted the thesis for my MA in Art History at the Open University. I completed the MA in History a couple of years ago also, so I’ve had about four years of experience of being a part time student. At the risk of being like one of those ‘woke’ pieces where proper students will scream “yes, we’ve been saying that for years!’, here are some of the things I’ve (re)learnt, from the perspective of being an educator while also studying:

Everyone should do it – I don’t mean study a subject for career development (although that’s nice), the content isn’t the important part. Do it for the experience of being a student again. Particularly if you’re developing online or part-time study then definitely do it (and hey, we’ve got lots of nice courses at the OU in all disciplines).

Small stuff is big – for all the talk of revolutionary pedagogy, personalised learning, disrupted education, what really matters most of the time is the straightforward, everyday matters: do I know what I should be doing at any given time? Can I access the material? Is it clearly written? Can I get support within a reasonable timeframe? Is it set out so I can plan my time effectively?

Don’t design for the perfect student – I’ll be honest, I was not a model student. I was what is often termed a strategic learner. Partly (and a tad ironically), work pressure at the Open University meant my study on an Open University course was compromised. I needed to find the most effective path through a course (basically focussing on assessment). But that is not to say I didn’t get a lot from it, so ensuring there are paths through the course that don’t assume full capacity but are still rewarding is essential.

Engaging and challenging – apart from the small things mentioned above, what I also wanted from my course was for it to be challenging (in that it made you think about things differently, for instance the first block of the Art History course really dismisses the whole ‘lives of famous artists’ approach to art history, which is the naive view I had of it). And I want it to be engaging, in that there is enough there for me to dig into (without getting lost). I’ve mentioned before that I came to like assessment because this forced me to engage with the content and bring it together. So it’s not just about making sure as educators we cover topics A to E but also that the student wants to learn about them.

Give me a reason to interact – given my time constraints, I didn’t do much interaction in the forums. And this was fine with me, I was glad the course didn’t make lots of interaction compulsory just for the sake of it. But also without a major prompt to do so, it was easy to avoid interaction all together, and if this was my first time studying, that would be a shame.

It made me vulnerable – and not in a cute puppy way. I am from a science background and so don’t have any art history knowledge. I was therefore winging it a lot of the time, and didn’t have the vocabulary or the depth of knowledge most of my fellow students had. I would have been reluctant to have been forced to display this scarcity of knowledge in the open, so I was grateful for a closed environment, and careful feedback from tutors to scaffold my learning. Having said that, I think some of the stuff I’ve written is mildly interesting, so maybe we could have found ways of sharing it more openly. But the important aspect was to be reminded of how vulnerable the whole learning process is.

Looking over those, I have a renewed appreciation for why education is often perceived as being conservative. I wonder how many radical educational change gurus have actually been students (particularly in an unfamiliar subject) recently? Which is not to say students aren’t up for trying something new, but often in a limited, controlled manner. And my take away as an educator is that we should focus on improving these elements rather than demanding their wholesale replacement (but that’s always been my line I guess). Also, breaking news – education isn’t broken, kinda works ok, and is rewarding. I don’t expect that’ll be a headline anytime soon though. Seriously though – as an educator, the best thing you can do is go study again. Mind you, I’m looking forward to spending my Saturday mornings just listening to vinyl and looking wistfully out of the window again.

When this is all over, we still have to clear up

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Let’s be optimistic (remember optimism?) and assume that US and UK politics will return to some sense of normality within the next five years, and, you know, actual competent politicians will run the country. Only then will we really see the damage of the current period. For a start, I worry about the mental health of people having to endure this period. Waking up to a new piece of insanity and attack on humanity every morning is wearing. Being perpetually angry, frightened, vulnerable, confused is just exhausting. When we’re in it you keep going, but like looking after young children or going through a painful divorce, it’s only afterwards you look back and think “how did I do that?”. A lot of people will carry the toll of this period for a long time.

Then there is the social cohesion impact. Families and friends have been pushed irrevocably apart in a way that normal left/right divides never achieved. This is no ‘on both sides’, the rhetoric has been pushed by the right to a point of no return. The new right portray themselves as brave, free thinkers, but I’m guessing the old right just knew you couldn’t push it this far – they knew there was no coming back if you did and from there no-one wins. You don’t go on a Nazi rally at the weekend, and then come in to work on Monday like it was an outing to the mall. And you don’t say you support someone who backs that rally, then move onto talking about the football. There are no gentle comedies waiting to be made of this era which portray family members initially arguing bitterly but coming to understand that each side has a point. When one side wants to deny you or your friends’ right to existence, there is no common middle ground.

And then there is the damage to democracy, politics, the media and the role of the public figure. If lying is just ‘meh’ now, what does that mean for any of this?

But from our perspective, what is the role of education after all this? I’ve talked about combatting the unenlightenment, but the whole role of education will be shaped by how we look back on this period. These are some of the areas we will need to address:

  • Educating network savvy students – dealing with fake news, engaging in meaningful debates, understanding the role of tech companies, data, privacy and the social impact of all this will be cross cutting. Computer science degrees can’t operate now without understanding how algorithms shape power, and social scientists can’t work without appreciating how platforms shape identity. Pick a subject and the social element of the network needs to be part of the curriculum.
  • Digital scholarship – I’ve been updating my digital scholarship talk for someone recently, thinking about what has changed since I wrote the book in 2011. Then it was a case of ‘hey you should try using this stuff, it could be interesting for education’. Now it’s more a case of ‘we have a duty to use this stuff to help shape its future’. That’s a very different context for an academic.
  • Public engagement – how do academics and universities help shape the public discourse and politics so that facts, truth, knowledge, experts and research are no longer dismissed as irrelevant?
  • Building platforms and communities – interdisciplinary work involving tech experts, psychologists, designers, social scientists etc must help inform the next wave of platforms so that they facilitate the sort of discussion and community we once hoped for on the open web.
  • Policy – helping shape policy that makes democracy functional again.

This is quite a big shift in education, far beyond the ‘let’s get digital’ mantra. Maybe that’s too much to ask for education, but we need to start looking to a time when we’re not just firefighting but actively learning the lessons from this period and helping to shape a more functional, and hopefully positive, future. Assuming there is still a world with people in it by then, of course.

Rewilding EdTech

Wolf Park - BW Howl

At ALT-C I was having a conversation with Amber Thomas about our mutual friend Ross MacKenzie’s interest in rewilding in Scotland. There are many different approaches to rewilding it turns out, but the two main ones are top down – reintroducing the big fauna such as wolves into a habitat, or bottom up, where you start at the bottom of the food chain and reintroduce small scale flora (and remove invasive species). Anyway, that’s my very basic understanding of it, my apologies if I’ve got it completely wrong.

This got me thinking that rewilding might be an idea we could take to ed tech. Much of the early enthusiasm around ed tech was that it was, as Brian Lamb used to characterise it, fast, cheap and out of control. But as it gained significance and a more central role in the university system it became more robust, and controllable. This is a good thing – students don’t want the system they need to submit an assignment at midnight to be flaky. But inevitably there has been a loss of some of the innovation that was prevalent when there were greater freedoms, as university processes and regulations have solidified around enterprise systems.

Rewilding offers a metaphor here, so I went searching to see if others had written about it, and came across this piece by Aaron Davis where he talks about rewilding education. In ed tech terms we would want to introduce tools into the ecosystem that would encourage some of the innovation we saw previously. But as with introducing wolves, it has to be done carefully, you don’t want tourists attacked and you don’t want students caught in frustrations with unusable systems. The two approaches to rewilding offer pointers here. A bottom-up approach might be to introduce some small scale, low impact tools, such as SPLOTs which encourage some of the pedagogic innovation, without becoming a system wide tool (as Jim Groom says, “let’s get small“). The more top-down approach is not to introduce a big system, but rather to tackle the policy issues – incentivise the use of such tools, make the IT infrastructure capable of supporting them, allocate resources and remove barriers. I’m convinced there’s a more interesting ed tech ecosystem out there.

A mixed data tools diet

World's Fair Food Circus, 1962

I was at ALT-C this week, and enjoyed Sian Bayne‘s keynote on using Yik Yak to explore ideas around anonymity, data privacy and ephemera. Sian made the argument that while abuses certainly happened on Yik Yak, the experience of Edinburgh students was largely a positive one, and one of the key aspects of this was the anonymity of the user. And non-persistent id anonymity in particular, so you didn’t have the same identifier every time, which adds to the ephemeral, temporary nature of the discussion. For students, and young people, (but hey, maybe for all of us), I can see how anonymity allows you to explore different aspects of your personality, as this is still forming. But also it just made asking questions and being open easier for many students.

Sian made the point that for companies that ant to make money selling our data, anonymity is bad news. They need to know who you are, and for you to have a persistent identity. She had a very nice summary which was along the lines of ‘when we promote the moral panic around anonymity, we are doing the work of data capitalism’.

Some of the questions afterwards concentrated on the benefits of not being anonymous, and downsides of anonymity. But I think this is to view it as an either/or. In reality those students using Yik Yak would have had a reasonable collection of tools (I’m not calling it a PLE), including Facebook and others that rely heavily on not being anonymous. What we might like to promote then is encouraging students to avoid a monoculture in relation t how platforms use their data and id. Imagine it being like a healthy diet infographic. Platforms could be colour coded as to how well they handle things like transparency around data, dealing with anti-social behaviour, user ownership of data, persistence of data, anonymity, etc. If you’re just using the big bad ones, it’s like being on a burgers only diet. A burger may be fine for some occasions bit you want to make sure it isn’t all your having. This would include university systems also, such as the VLE.

In the Virtually Connecting session afterwards Anne Marie Scott joined us from Edinburgh, and she has been writing some interesting stuff about platforms and ephemera. We discussed whether ephemerality might make anti-social behaviour more or less likely. It might reduce it in that trolls seek the notoriety of having their name known, and want to persistently attack someone, so if it disappears and they can’t find the same person, then the attraction is decreased. But then again it may increase it because the impact and risk is removed, it could be a way of trialling being a troll. I don’t know, and expect it would be a mix of the two, but it’s an example of how we don’t consider some aspects of platforms, such as how persistence might influence behaviour, and take them as just how things are. So I was grateful for Sian’s talk to remind me of how we always need to be examining these aspects.

The Barnaby Principle

British Youth Culture - Mods & Rockers 1960s - 1970s

There is often discussion about getting more working class (or at least not very middle class) pupils into university, including debates about lower entry level requirements for state school pupils, first in family scholarships, and the intention (whether you agree it worked or not) by TEF to consider POLAR and widening participation agendas. It’s not always easy being a first generation/working class student, particularly at elite universities, but there does seem to be some recognition that they represent a group who may need more support or encouragement (this is particularly problematic in areas such as medicine, which are pretty much a closed club for the privileged). The assumption seems to be though that once you’ve been through the university system, we’re all equal then (or all equally middle class).

I had a couple of experiences in the past year which reminded me that this is not so. As I’ve mentioned before, I was first generation to uni, comprehensive school educated, via Hatfield and Teesside Polys. And even now, as a senior (hey, who are you calling senior?) academic, the imposter stuff still lingers. Even at a famously egalitarian institute such as the Open University, when I first joined I was aware I hadn’t been to grammar school, not attended a Russell Group university and had somewhat oikish tastes (sport, lager, horror movies, indie music), although I feel this has altered a lot over the intervening twenty odd years (and I’ve become more middle class, I drink wine now and like art now and everything). But this stuff hangs around, your frame of reference can still feel wrong. Take this recent scene – I am out at a meal with academics from other universities, and they are ALL discussing their favourite regattas. So, not only should I have been to a regatta (I mean WTF even is a regatta?), but I need to have been to enough of them that I have a favourite one?

I want to stress that I don’t think that class diversity is more important than other perspectives on diversity, and indeed diversity agendas are not in competition with each other. I think once you adopt a diversity attitude it benefits all. But with social mobility pretty much ground to a halt in the UK, and higher education often promoted as a solution (although the stats are questionable), then I would suggest that having more staff, particularly at a senior management level that demonstrate that principle and understand the needs of working class students is something universities should seek to promote.

I’m not convinced this needs a quota system, and I think other diversity agendas have priority, but it would be interesting to see what proportion of university senior management come from working class/first generation students/post 92 university backgrounds. Until we have such data I offer the following metric: I was in another inter-university meeting not long ago, and there were two men named Barnaby in attendance. I would suggest that if you have more than one Barnaby present then you probably want to look at the class representation.

A USB port for informal learning

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I’ve been part of a team working on an unusual (and dare I use the word, innovative) course at the OU. It’s called ‘Making your learning count‘, and the unusual thing about it is that it doesn’t really set out to teach a particular topic. Rather it seeks to recognise the learning that people bring with them from informal means, such as OER and MOOCs. There are several challenges in this. Firstly, we can’t just formally recognise all possible OER, so we have to get students to do something to demonstrate their learning. But then secondly, having gone for this broad approach, as opposed to just accrediting a specific MOOC say, you then have to make any activity generic enough to cover people coming in from diverse domains.

The approach the team have taken then is to base it around 9 tasks. These focus on developing a learning plan, producing a means of communicating your learning to others, making interdisciplinary connections between subjects, and developing peer assessment and digital communication skills. They’ll be guided by their tutor in this, but I think it’s hopefully one of those courses where the diversity of knowledge people bring is a key benefit. You get to see connections between your subject and by explaining your own one to others, consolidate your own understanding. At the end of it students will then have converted their informal learning into 30 points of OU formal credit. Obviously we hope they go on to study with us further, but even if not, it helps legitimise that learning and hopefully make the prospect of formal study at some point less daunting.

At the moment it’s focused around OpenLearn as a pilot, but in its approach I see it as part of a solution to a thorny issue that has circled around OER, MOOCs and informal learning, which is how you help people make use of that knowledge acquired elsewhere. Approaches to this include challenge exams (as practised by Athabasca), more flexible degree programmes (for example the OERu’s first year free study), or giving credit for specific MOOCs (eg the OU and Leeds with FutureLearn). We’ve always had recognition of prior learning (RPL), but to be honest, this has often been so complex and costly to realise that you were better off just studying the courses.

All of these are valid approaches and I think we’ll see more of them. I see our course as the first of this type for the OU, and as well as allowing OER based study to come into the university context, it can be adapted for specific needs and projects. For example a version might allow recognition of sector training, corporate learning, as well as different levels, specific disciplines or providers. So, I see it as a big old USB port sticking out of Walton Hall, saying ‘insert learning here’. It’ll be interesting to see if it gets many takers as it’s still quite a difficult concept to convey, but one that will be increasingly useful I think.

Sci-Hub and the Rebecca Riots

Going on one of my extended, and tenuous analogy skits, you are warned.

In order to consider recent developments in open access publishing, particularly Sci-Hub, and #ICanHazPDF I’m going to go back to, where else, a set of rural riots in 19th Century Wales. The Rebecca Riots as they were known, were a series of protests and disturbances in South-West Wales concentrated in the period 1839-1844. The target of the protests were usually toll-gates, which were demolished by large crowds during night-time raids, although toll-gates were seen as symbolic of a wider series of grievances. The leader of the crowd would be dressed in women’s clothes and be referred to as Rebecca, although who fulfilled this role would vary depending on location. The origins of the name were biblical, from a passage in Genesis 24:60: ‘And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them’. Over 200 such incidences occurred during this period, causing the Government to mobilise the army and extra police. These were largely ineffectual in preventing the protests however, as the movement had popular local support, and retribution was threatened against informers. The increase in tolls constituted the main cause of vexation amongst the populace, it’s important for our analogy to see this as the final provocation in a long line of injustices. Other issues were also gathered under the Rebecca umbrella, including the imposition of workhouses, absent landlords, and suppression of the Welsh language. The outcome of the Riots was a commission that largely ceded much to the protestors, and sought to improve conditions. The riots are popularly interpreted as a statement of Welsh identity and of rural protest.

The authoritative account of the Rebecca Riots is that of Williams. Although the riots can be interpreted as a straightforward protest against an increase in the number of toll gates and their respective tolls, which had a particularly damaging effect on farmers who needed to transport lime to improve soil, Williams provides a comprehensive account of the multiple causes that led to the riots. These include a decaying gentry system that did not represent the people; a language barrier; poor treatment by the judiciary; a lack of agricultural innovation so the soil became depleted; the strong Methodist nonconformist influence; and perhaps most significantly, extreme poverty. This combination of factors created the environment wherein the increase in tolls proved to be a catalyst for protest.

The toll gates were owned by different groups of trustees, depending on their location. The first protest where Rebecca was seen occurred in 1839, when toll gate contractor Thomas Bullin erected four new gates, specifically to increase profits from lime traffic. The gate at Efail-wen was destroyed in May, a week after opening. Then on 6th June a mob of some 300-400 destroyed it again, and a week later the Maes-gwyn gate. The persistence and scale of these protests led to soldiers being drafted in to keep the peace. This was largely unsuccessful as a tactic as on the 17th July a crowd again assembled at Efail-wen, and here the leader was addressed as ‘Becca’. On the 23rd July the Whitland trustees, who owned the tolls held an emergency meeting and the four gates were revoked. This stopped the immediate violence but set a precedent, which would lead to the more widespread and persistent protests of 1842-1844.

The 1844 Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry for South Wales, established to examine the causes of the disturbances, identified five contributing factors: the turnpikes and their mismanagement in the affected areas; Tithes, in particular the Tithe Act of 1836 which made payment in money, rather than in kind, compulsory; the New Poor Law of 1834 which led to a loss of control; Magistrates Clerks Fees which varied widely and could be ‘unreasonably high’; the Country Rate which increased and was occasionally put to inappropriate usage, although abuses were deemed to be ‘greatly over-rated’. In general, although there was some criticism of the rioters, the commission interpreted their actions as arising from an intolerable set of conditions.

Which brings me onto Sci-Hub, and other acts of rebellion against proprietary access to academic publications. There are a number of parallels I find interesting. Firstly, although we can criticise a specific form the rebellion takes, as with Rebecca, a number of factors have accumulated over time to make some form of rebellion almost inevitable. Of course, an academic not being able to access a paper is very different from poverty stricken farmers, in the 19th century, but some of the grievances are similar.

Firstly, the riots occurred when the Toll owners became excessively greedy. Up until that point farmers had paid a reasonable toll, but these were increasingly interpreted as means of making more and more money. Some instances would lead to a farmer crossing three tolls within the space of 100 metres or so – if you have to do a return journey to fetch lime for your soil, that’s six tolls just to start your work. Similarly, the introduction of big deals, increased profit margins, and increased costs. Secondly, the toll owners were often absent, English and uncaring – any connection between the gentry and the local population had been lost. This reflects also the decaying relationship between academics and publishers, what was once seen as mutually beneficial and supportive is now viewed as remote, highly commercialised and predatory. Thirdly, there was sufficient local support from the community. It is undoubtedly true that there was intimidation involved to stop people informing, but generally the movement could be successful because the local population backed it. Fearing an uprising similar to that seen in Ireland, it was this popular support that most scared the Government. In academic terms also the practice of sharing articles is now seen not as something done by a rebellious, or technical clique, but widely supported by general practice. Lastly, the farmers in Wales were responding to changing economic climate around them. They were missing out on the benefits of the industrial revolution (transport links bypassed them for instance), working soil that was increasingly poor quality and facing the imposition of a draconian new Poor Law. While obviously very different in degree, academics on increasing precarious work contracts, operating in an austerity driven economy and threatened with excessive punishment are feeling similarly aggrieved and less likely to look generously upon the wealthy owners.

The message here is that when suppression failed, the authorities were ultimately forced to concede the grievances were valid, and a more equitable arrangement was ultimately established. Tolls are pinch points in historic change and we are witnessing this now in the digital era. It’s not always pretty, but as one commentator said of the Rebecca mob that descended on a toll, it is a ‘romantic and fearful sight’.

The Golden/Dark Age of what?

24/52 Dominoes (Explore)

One of the rewarding things about being in ed tech is that because it’s very fast moving you get to act all wise with very little experience. I mean, I started in this in 1995, I’ve been through interactive CD-ROM, electronic tutor groups, intelligent tutoring systems, elearning, VLEs, virtual worlds, elearning standards and metadata, learning objects, personalised learning, OER, blogging, web 2.0, PLEs, MOOCs, intelligent tutoring systems (again), open textbooks, personalised learning (again), learning analytics, and a whole bunch more. To do the same in another discipline I’d have to be approximately 250 years old.

When I reflect on this I’m struck by two sides of the same notion: we don’t realise often the implications of where we are currently (which is not to say people don’t like to try predictions, ed tech is full of futuroligists). An example is that, like many people, I passed my tenth anniversary on Twitter this year. Half jokingly, but also with a tone of regret we bemoan how friendly, open, exciting twitter was in those early days. Remember the first time you met someone face to face who you’d only known on twitter? Sava Singh rightly points out that being able to moan about how Twitter isn’t as good as it used to be is a form of privilege. But even accepting this, it is definitely a different type of place now. Similarly, people often talk about the ‘golden age of blogging’ as if was in the fifteenth century and not around 2006.

Which led me to think, what might we look back on in ten years time and consider 2017 the Golden Age of? Not much comes to mind, but perhaps it is the start of a social awareness around the power of online media, after the shitstorm of 2016, the acceptance that this is not peripheral anymore and thus a critical perspective that goes beyond “Use it/Don’t Use it”. Or maybe it’s just the Golden Age of Instagram, which I still kinda like as a social space.

The flip side of this is, what are the negative aspects that might spread out? There has always been unpleasant corners of the internet – some of these remain very unpleasant, but confined to those who seek them out. Others spread beyond their community of nastiness and infect society as a whole. The alt-right, gamergate, 4Chan pits are an example of this – people such as Audrey Watters warned us that this behaviour wasn’t confined to just a group of spiteful nerds, and she was right. Trump is the end game of all that behaviour and it doesn’t get much bigger at expanding beyond your chatroom than that. So if we are in an unrecognised Golden Age of something, we are also probably in the early phases of the next major social problem (although to be fair, most of them seem pretty much out in the open now). Islamic extremism, alt-right – these bubbled away in dark corners of the net for years and then spread into everyday life. What’s the next candidate?

Of course, I’m also wise enough now not to have any answers to these questions, but simply to pose them to you.

Bridges between formal and informal learning

Jogging

I’m considering doing an occasional series based on ed tech developments at the Open University. I’m interested in ones that roughly align with my take on ed tech, are offering practical, often small scale benefits and link to broader developments beyond the OU. So hopefully of interest outside the institution itself.

I was thinking of this when I came across the unofficial OU counselling and forensic psychology site, run by a few of my colleagues at the OU. It’s hosted on Reclaim Hosting (I think on my recommendation, Jim you owe me), so sits outside of the official OU structure. This was partly a practical decision I think (it’s just easier to set up externally) but it also has a symbolic significance – what is interesting about this project is that it sits on the border of the university and the external world, a sort of semi-formal approach.

The site performs a number of functions, but primarily it was set up because the team are developing a new course in this area. Graham Pike said that the ‘our original intention was to find a way of engaging students in the process of creating a course from the start’. So they use the forum to engage with potential and existing students and shape the course accordingly, and they are crowdsourcing images and art for the course, and providing a space for resources that sits outside the formal course. Psychology is a subject in particular that has many everyday resonances, and so providing an open space where even those mot studying the course can gain from it blurs the boundary between the university and ‘out there’ in a useful manner. Further on, the site provides a means of students trialling, and coming in to the course, and vice versa, for those who have completed it to stay connected and informed.

There’s nothing particularly new in any of this – no radical new technology, no (you guessed it) disruption, but it represents a nice example of how we can operate beyond dichotomies. The course will have an existing VLE presence, and much of the material will be traditional OU content. But it is not a choice between this or a wholly student generated curriculum. Similarly technology is not a choice between locked in the VLE or a totally distributed open tech approach. In ed tech there is often a tendency to become frustrated with current practice and advocate for its wholesale removal (and there is an obsession with change for its own sake also). What this project highlights I feel is that small, practical, implementable changes can offer useful routes through the noise. It is this bridging function between new approaches and traditional education in a manner that doesn’t demand the wholesale reformation of either and can be implemented right now, that appeals to me.

What if the US had an OU

Study group meeting in the shade on a Sunday

On Facebook, George Veletsianos asked “What educational innovation do you see as “democratizing” and why?”. Needless to say, I championed open universities. Not just The (UK) Open University, but the model which it first developed and which then got replicated across the world. Africa, Asia and Europe in particular adopted the model of a national, high quality, part-time, distance education university with low or no, entry qualifications. Each of these will have educated thousands of people who were previously excluded from education. It is hard to think of a single innovation in modern higher education that has had such a democratising effect.

While Canada has Athabasca, and TRU, the US is a notable absence in the list however. So much so that OU even tried to launch a US OU in the 1999. It did not go well. Open SUNY is a more recent attempt to fulfill some of this function.

But in the US, distance ed was usually allied to private colleges, offering correspondence tuition. Its reputation is not one of high quality. Similarly, when elearning gained ground, it was the for-profit provider, University of Phoenix, which gained the central position of part-time, online provider, rather than a national university. Much of the function of an open university is fulfilled by community colleges in the US, but these tend to be local based. We can probably think of several reasons why an Open University of the US never arose – the size of the country, decentralised education to states making a national university problematic (Athabasca suffers from this with provincial politics in Canada), the bad reputation of correspondence teaching, and a large for-profit sector that would see a national open university as a threat (and some form of socialism no doubt). And yet other countries have had these limitations, and with its narrative of the american dream, one could argue that an open university that allows someone to work while gaining a degree to improve their career, would be a natural fit.

I wonder if there had been a well recognised and widely respected US Open University, what the impact might have been? As I mentioned previously, I was surprised at how little awareness there was of the OU, even amongst people in the open education field, in the US. Playing ‘what if?’ I think a US OU would have made silicon valley ed tech less given to a year zero mentality. They would firstly be aware that MOOCs were not the ‘first generation of online learning‘ and also aware that everyone else is aware of this too. Also, there is a very healthy community of open universities, and given the prominence of the approach in Asia and Africa, this community is not a western dominated one. Open University type conferences look much more diverse than many north american ed tech ones. Being aware of, and an active participant in this community might have helped ease some of the cultural imperialism accusations against MOOCs. And open universities, although they can be reluctant and slow to adopt technology sometimes, generally have an approach to ed tech which is based on pragmatism and student benefit for the distance learner. This attitude is also absent from much of the ed tech start up rhetoric.

I’m not naive, even in the UK where the OU is well known, we still fall for hype, tech buzz and are guilty of insufficient diversity in ed tech. But it is nonetheless an interesting question I think to consider what the impact of a successful US OU would have had on the evolution of ed tech, both in the US, and as their developments have such a global influence, for all of us. In a parallel university maybe…

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