Open education and the Unenlightenment

64/365 Ignorance

Generally I don’t go in for a romantic view of the past, and a sense of displeasure with the present. We forget just how grim the past was for most people, for most of history. But lately, I’ve become disillusioned with what we might call “the Unenlightenment”. Now, the Enlightenment is not an unproblematic historical concept (it’s decidedly Euro-centric for a start), but as a general principle it saw a culture that sought to understand the world, through science and art. This desire for knowledge, the very belief that acquiring knowledge was a worthwhile pursuit, underpinned much of cultural development through to the 20th century. And although it started out as a privileged pursuit, the basic premise, which we can summarise as “knowing stuff is good”, went through all of society, as witnessed by the strong links between education and the trade union movements during the industrial revolution. And while the Enlightenment was a European flavour of this principle, there were similar strands before and after in many cultures. When people used to talk of “bettering themselves” they sometimes meant it in purely financial terms, but more often they meant in terms of gaining knowledge (and yes I appreciate it’s a loaded term, but it was one in common usage).

The Unenlightenment sees a reversal of this basic principle: wilful avoidance of knowledge. During the Brexit campaign we saw Michael Gove proudly declare that he didn’t listen to experts. Brexit may be the most complex political task currently underway anywhere in the world – I don’t begin to understand the legislative, trading, social, implications of realising it. Whatever your own view on the vote, it is surely bizarre that experts should be deliberately excluded by some from commenting on a task of such complexity. And with Donald Trump, we repeatedly see him, his team and supporters dismiss facts and experts. This is not incidental, it is core to his appeal. The Daily Show clip below captures this attitude: “Do I have proof? No. Do I have articles? No. But my mind is made up” one supporter declares proudly towards the end.

Trump and the Brexit campaign can be seen as the culmination of a much longer trend of anti-intellectualism however, particularly in the West. In a complex world, people don’t want to hear that there aren’t simple solutions, so the media has dismissed anyone who says otherwise. We can all find our favourite reasons for this I guess: globalisation, neo-liberalism, mass media, etc. That’s beyond the scope of this post. But it does seem that deliberately, and wilfully remaining ignorant is now seen as acceptable, and indeed desirable in a way that once was not the case. That’s my contention anyway, I’m happy to be corrected.

The question then is how does education, and particularly open education operate in this changed context? Education is often promoted as the removal of ignorance. But ignorance can often result from a lack of opportunity. This is something that can be addressed. Indeed my own institution was founded exactly for this purpose, to give educational opportunities to those who were previously excluded. But that is a very different context from when people have opportunity, but deliberately do not want to gain knowledge. You can’t force people to learn. When knowledge and expertise are seen as part of the problem, the elite, the conspiracy, then you are up against more than just opportunity and barriers to learning – it’s a kind of anti-learning.

In this culture, how does education proceed? Simply creating great OERs about climate change, racial history, evidence based approaches, feminism, evolution, or whatever is not enough. They will be avoided, or dismissed. But having those resources is useful I think should someone come to the stage where they want to learn, and having a variety of ways in is important (OER, MOOCs, local college, night classes, blended learning – not just a three year degree). And academics through social media, blogs etc can show that they don’t live in an ivory tower, they’re real people who do know what the “real world” looks like.

But that won’t be enough. And I don’t know what the answers are beyond this. Education needs to fight not only for its own relevance, but for the culture within which it is situated. Open education needs to ask this of itself though. The effects of the Enlightenment were felt for centuries, we have to hope the same isn’t true for the Unenlightenment.

Digital Scholar course

I may not have mentioned it, but I wrote a book called The Digital Scholar a few years back. It was published under a CC licence by Bloomsbury Academic. Last year a colleague of mine, Fernando Rosell, read it and suggested to the OpenLearn team that they should make a short course based on it.

The OpenLearn team have developed a format of Badged Open Courses (BOCs). These are generally 8 weeks long, 3 hours per week, with a quiz halfway through and at the end, and a digital badge available. They’re openly licensed (CC-NC – don’t go all haterz on the NC people), professionally produced and open for continual enrolment. The evidence from previous runs of BOCs has been that they tend to have a higher retention rate than normal MOOCs (there, I said the M word). Some research on demographics can be found here.

This seemed a good fit for a Digital Scholar course, which could be seen as professional development. So following on from Fernando’s suggestion, the team got in touch. The great thing was that being openly licensed, we could use the book as the basis. It needed a bit of updating, and not all of it was relevant, but it formed a good spine to a course. I wrote the first draft, and Nigel Gibson then added a layer of a guiding voice to it. We shot some (super-awkward, rabbit in headlights) videos and created the quizzes. And last week it went live. I don’t know how useful it will prove, but I’ve added it to my list of “unexpected benefits when you release something under an open licence”.

And while you’re thinking “free open courses, maybe they’ll become a thing”, you might also want to look at the Open Educator course created by my colleague Beck Pitt and the Open Education Scotland team. It would make a nice staff development double pack with the digital scholar course. I know, we spoil you.

Keynotes & communities at ALT-C

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I was at the ALT-C conference last week (I become Chair of ALT for this year, will try not to break it). I’ve noticed over the years that there are two communities at ALT (there are many more of course, but two main ones I think). These can be labelled practitioners who have started to use some ed tech, and more full time educational technologists. For the former group, Alt-C is not their normal conference, they may be physics lecturers, but they have started to use technology in an interesting way. This may well be their first time attending. For the second group, ALT-C represents the main UK conference in their field and they are more interested in critical thinking and practice.

Catering (not food, why did you think of food?) for these two audiences is difficult. It can be done within sessions easily enough as people tend to choose the type of session they prefer, and maybe conference themes help also. But there is a danger of them remaining quite distinct audiences who don’t really intersect. This is where keynotes play a vital role I feel. They are the one common session between sub-communities. If they are pitched right then they speak to both of them, and provide a common ground for discussion, a sort of unifying conversation. However, these two audiences can want different things from a keynote: the first group maybe to be enthused about the possibility of new technology, and the second some critical analysis of the theory and direction of educational technology itself. What pleases one may alienate another.

In this respect, I think ALT-C got it exactly right this year, as all keynotes appealed to both communities: Josie Fraser talking about trolls was something anyone with a Twitter account could relate to, and increasingly an issue as we encourage students to develop online identities; Lia Commissar debunked some educational neuroscience myths nicely, which resonated with the old timers and may have been new to some also; Ian Livingstone gave an engaging talk about his life which frankly would be a great keynote at any conference; Jane Secker gave an impassioned plea for copyright awareness that even made this hardened open access, Creative Commons hack sit up; Dave White and Donna Lanclos gave an entertaining closing talk on creativity in the digital world.

The keynotes can be viewed here if you haven’t seen them: ALT-C 2016 keynotes. This post is really a ‘well done’ but also linking back to earlier discussions in the year around keynotes. They may be a bit traditional in the day of the unconference, but they fulfil an important role when there are diverse audiences at a conference, so getting them right is important.

The open licence gift to the future

Gift

One of those phrases that passes around on twitter is that “metadata is a love note to the future” (apparently coined by Jason Scott). A few recent news stories have made me reflect that an open licence is also a gift to future generations. In my Types of OER User piece I argued that there are groups of people who would benefit from OER who don’t know it yet, but that option may be closed off before they know OER is an option.

Recently we’ve seen Elsevier attempt to patent the online peer review system. It’s unlikely to succeed because of prior art, and is regarded I think as a ‘defensive’ patent, ie to protect themselves against infringements from others. But nevertheless we live in a world where a company can try and own the peer review process. The work of open systems such as OJS has done much to help protect this process and how it has realised in technological terms.

Then we have Wiley placing out of copyright date, public works from Darwin behind a paywall. Of course there were enough public versions available to circumvent Wiley’s attempt at a land grab. But this is Darwin, there are others who may well be lost.

Perhaps most aggressively was news that McGraw Hill are now charging access codes to students to submit assignments. This is a particularly insidious means of gouging extra money from students. Whereas the first two attempts at dodgy claims to ownership have been somewhat rebuffed by existing open practice, this example demonstrates how content can be annexed before people appreciate it is an issue. Establishing openly licensed assessment (linked to content) is the antidote to this.

The point is, sometimes you can’t see why someone would want your content, or that there is little immediate uptake, but as these examples illustrate we don’t know what will be taken from us.

DashLearn – the Amazon Dash for Learning

Amazon Dash

[Following on from my piece on Pokemon Go, this week’s thing is Amazon Dash, so getting in with a “for learning” piece before anyone else. And in case it isn’t sledgehammer obvious, it’s parody]

“This month has seen the launch of Amazon Dash – easy buttons to order everyday items that has completely revolutionised shopping. Amazon understand that we live n a modern, high tempo world and need to take instant action. Sadly, this attitude has not permeated the ivory towers of education, where 100% of lectures take place exactly as they did 200 years ago. While the internet disrupts every aspect of society, it is impossible to find a university academic who has even heard of the internet, let alone knows how to harness its potential for learning.

Which is why DashLearn is promising a revolution in how we learn. As with shopping people don’t want to go to a physical university to get an education, or to wait 3 years to get a degree. They want to learn stuff, and have feedback, instantly, at a time and place that is suitable for them. Sitting on the loo and need some history knowledge? Press the button. Cooking dinner and want some coding assessment? Hit that button.

DashLearn buttons deliver a nugget of knowledge at the press of a button. Press and hold to speak to an accredited expert. They come in 15 different disciplines, including computing, math, history and psychology. Partners including Premier Inn, Virgin and RyanAir have already signed up to help us disrupt education.

(“learning”, “elearning”, “knowledge” are all currently filed as patents)”

Emerging OER research discipline

primordial soup
The Primordial soup of OER…

One of the things I’ve become increasingly interested in is how the OER discipline emerges. Having lived through it, you get to see the field evolve. I’m not sure it counts as a field, subject, discipline, or whatever. Is it part of a new open education discipline? Is there a unifying field at all? These are general questions I have, but one I was also interested in, was what themes have emerged in research over the years?

I set out to have a look at this, by examining publications in OER Knowledge Cloud from 2001. I did a content analysis of abstracts from 2007 (chosen because it was the first year with a decent number of publications) and 2015 (the most recent full year). It’s not the most rigorous piece of research, but it does get at the emerging themes I think.

In 2007 the themes (and no papers) were:

  • Project case study (6)
  • Technical (6)
  • OER as subject (11)
  • Research with impact data (3)

In 2015 the themes I found were as follows (with number of papers):

  • Project case study (8)
  • Technical (7)
  • OER as subject (18)
  • Research with impact data (7)
  • Policy (15)
  • Practitioner (11)
  • OER in Developing Nations (2)
  • MOOCs (36)
  • Pedagogy (9)
  • Open data/practice/access (6)

The categories tell a story of how the OER field is developing. It is interesting that the four categories from 2007 are still relevant in 2015. The dominance of specific project case studies and announcements in the literature has subsided a bit. While the number of papers detailing impact research has increased, it still represents a relatively small amount overall. Emergence of robust research from the many implementation projects can be seen as one of the key elements in facilitating the movement of OER into the mainstream. This analysis suggests that while it is occurring, empirical research is still an area of the OER field that needs encouragement. OER as subject has remained a prominent category. This could be interpreted as the field being inward looking, but it highlights the early phases of a discipline that is establishing its approaches, boundaries, and potential. Constant reflection and analysis can be seen as the method through which the field differentiates
and establishes itself.

In contrast, policy related publications have grown substantially over the past few years. This indicates the maturation of OER as a practical solution, and the success of policy advocates such as Creative Commons and SPARC. Policy is regarded in these articles as a productive means of gaining uptake for OER, and thus an area worthy of resource allocation.

The use of OER by practitioners is also a reasonably large category. If this is combined with other practical focused categories such as technical and case studies then this accounts for around a quarter of the publications. The concerns of these OER practitioners might be very different from more theoretically oriented papers which can be found in the OER as subject category, or the more politically motivated policy type papers. Also, whether MOOCs should be even included in OER is a question, and a similar analysis of that as an emerging discipline could also be conducted.

Anyway, I wrote a paper about this, which is available here: Different Aspects of the Emerging OER Discipline

People are sticky

Toffee Apples

Do I win the “eeeuuuwww” blog post award? There’s a concept in web design about stickiness, ie content that has people returning or spending longer. So in web design this might be having up to date content, nice design, etc. In light of my previous post about OER (read the comments by the way, some great stuff from Pat Lockley, Jim Groom, Lorna Campbell and Alan Levine in there) I’ve been thinking about why we like blogs and are a bit meh about OER sometimes (some OER is great of course, and many blogs are woeful, but you get my drift).

Stickiness, for want of a better, less punchable phrase, may be the answer. Blogs are generally more personal, social content. People are sticky – we like reading certain people’s take on a subject precisely because it is human. I don’t want the BBC interpretation of a new technology, I want to know what Audrey Watters thinks about it. Two things about stickiness: it’s a continuum, not a binary; you don’t always want or need something to be sticky.

On the first point, people are good at being sticky (I’m already annoying myself with the term, so I can imagine how you feel). Indeed in a world where our jobs may be taken by robots, stickiness may be one of our defining attributes. It’s nebulous, shifting, personal and rooted in thousands of years of culture and millions of years of evolution. But a newspaper, project, organisation or website can be sticky (because it is made up of good contributors). Some things are more sticky than others and to different people, so it’s a hard quality to pin down and provide a template for that is reproducible.

On the second point, you need to determine if stickiness is an attribute that is important. For example, if I’m creating an open textbook, it needs to be great for that course, but it doesn’t really need to be something that people want to come back repeatedly. This may get at the distinction Jim was making in the comments about why he likes people and not resources. So, “how much stickiness do we want?” is now a valid project question.

What if OER was blogging?

Eyeballs

I work a lot in OER, and I do a lot of blogging, and I often blog about OER. But I don’t blog as OER. In this post I’m going to compare two things that are completely different – OER repositories and blogs – and so you can’t make any valid comparisons. But that’s the point of the post really, to see if there is a different way of looking at a topic.

I’ve been looking at the stats for various repositories recently, both OA publishing ones, and OER ones. Thanks to David Kernohan for pointing me at JISC’s IRUS service, which provides a breakdown of publication repositories from UK universities. You need to have a login from a UK university to access it, so I’m not sure how public the data is. But it does provide you with a breakdown across all unis. The figures vary wildly eg the number of deposits per institution range from just six to over 37,000. The average monthly downloads ranges from 0 to 174,000. But in general most institutions have a total number of deposits in the low 1000s, and monthly download figures between 5-20K.

If we look at the UK’s now retired nationwide OER repository, JORUM, the stats are quite strange. They vary wildly by month eg 9K in Feb 2015 and 463K just a few months later in June. They list “views” and “downloads” – my guess would have been that views would always exceed downloads (people tend to look at an item to assess it rather than download I thought). But this shows wide variation also – sometimes views far outstrips downloads (eg Sept 2015 285K vs 80K) but other times the opposite occurs (eg Sept 2014 8K vs 351K). It would be interesting if anyone has theories about this, but that’s not really the point of my post.

I’ve also seen the stats on a few institutional repositories (which I won’t name) – some are impressive with millions of hits and others really don’t get much traffic at all. I was thinking about this in relation to blog stats. This blog has reasonably high traffic, whereas my new blogs have zero visitors. Partly that is a function of having built up enough content in here that others have inked to, so it has some SEO juice. It is also a function of being caught by lots of bots, so the stats are not always reliable. Visitors (which I think is the more reliable figure) over the past year was 214K and visits (probably mainly bots) 3.3 million.

I offer these figures up not as a poorly disguised humble brag (ok, not that poorly disguised), but just because they’re the ones I have. I know plenty of other bloggers who far outstrip these. The point is, they are the type of access figures that are comparable to many big projects and which would be reported happily reported in impact statements. Now, as I said I am deliberately comparing things which are not alike – a blog visit is not the same as an article download.

But the thing it set me thinking about was the figures are in the same sort of league. And blogging is done in spare time, at little or zero cost to the institution. What if we started envisaging projects more in terms of the blog as the core element rather than the dissemination or engagement channel? When a project or an institution is tasked wit building an OER repository, we all know what that looks like, and our default mode is to produce content, build a database, recruit a technical team, etc. But what if we said instead, we’re going to employ four bloggers (say), who will write engaging posts about the topics rather produce academic content? Are those posts better accessed and used than formal OER?

I’m pretty sure someone (Jim Groom? Alan Levine?) has written on this before. And I’m not quite sure I know what I mean by it. But I think there is something in there about rethinking what we mean by OER to be content that is more socially embedded and personal. The impact stats suggest it might be a more successful route if number of eyeballs is our measure.

Dear reader, I blogged it

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A couple of posts coming up about every blogger’s two favourite subjects: themselves and blogs. Since moving to Reclaim Hosting (slogan: We put the host in hosting) I’ve started creating blogs willy nilly. Partly this is because I can, and it’s a fun thing to do on a Saturday afternoon when you live on your own and have no friends when it’s raining. But I think it also reflects that I have a number of discrete interests now that qualify for blogs of their own.

It started when Blipfoto, where I posted my photo a day, began having financial difficulties. I didn’t like the thought of losing that three year catalogue of memories. They seem to have sorted themselves out now (and I recently stopped doing the photo a day thing anyway), but I liked creating a backup that I owned and could control.

Then last year I set myself the goal of seeing a current film every week. I decided to continue that this year, but also set up a blog to record it. I don’t exactly review the films, I go on the basis that people know the plot, but rather I use it to talk about my personal reaction to a film. It’s quite fun, but I’m well aware it’s not that great. Writing about movies is tough beyond “I liked it/I didn’t like it”.

Last week I created (still messing with the themes) a new blog for the upcoming Cardiff Devils ice hockey season. This will be even harder to write about than films I predict. It’s very difficult to write about sport without sinking into a quagmire of cliche, sentimentality and melodrama. Plus I’m not really grounded in hockey knowledge.

So why do it? I don’t really promote these other blogs (allright, this post is doing that I confess, but I don’t tweet them often or seek out traffic). I don’t particularly want anything from them – the sports and movies blogosphere is a crowded place, so you’re not going to make a dent there. It is this very difficulty with writing for these last two blogs in particular that is the point of it really. I think it improves my writing overall to stretch myself beyond the usual topic (I mean, I can write about OER until everyone starts crying). Blogging is how I get to grips with a subject. Making myself write about it, in a public forum (even if no-one beyond Jim Groom actually reads it) forces me to think about ways in which I can frame it, respond to it and analyse it, be that a game, a film or anything.

This is exactly what I did with ed tech blogging at the start. Blogging is a key aspect of how I engage with a topic and come to understand it. That is allied to twitter and other forms of social media also, but blogging is at the centre of it. Some of you will have read that piece in the Guardian about how using social media was not serious academic work . Although the writer is mainly sniffy about twitter and instagram, I imagine they lump blogging in there too. My feeling is the opposite – I can’t imagine being a serious (or otherwise) academic without blogging.

Revisiting my own (blog) past

timecircuits

Here’s a fun thing to try if you’ve been blogging for a while (Warning: may not actually be fun). Get a random date from when you started blogging until present (eg using this random date generator), find the post nearest that date and revisit it. The date I got was 27th October 2010 (remember those crazy days?). Luckily I had a post on that very date: An unbundled publishing business proposal.

In revisiting it I set myself four questions:

1) What, if anything, is still relevant?
2) What has changed?
3) Does this reveal anything more generally about my discipline?
4) What is my personal reaction to it?

Answering questions 1) and 2) first, I was proposing an academic publishing model that allowed self publishing, but with a set of services. Authors paid for peer review and copy-editing, and perhaps most importantly, the prestige of it being ‘approved’ by a publisher. But they could then own the rights and distribute freely. I would suggest this is still relevant, and we haven’t really seen a model this ‘unbundled’ take off. Publishers such as Ubiquity offer a range of services, and they publish the book under a CC license, which is pretty close to the model I was suggesting (except I removed the publishing costs and used external services). Not much has changed really, except I think we have seen a gradual development of such models, and wider acceptance. But the traditional academic publishers still dominate and not owning your own work is still the norm for academics.

In terms of what it reveals about ed tech I think it shows that change happens slowly. There are lots of cultural issues around processes such as publishing and dissemination that are deeply embedded. The point I was trying to make was less about new publishing models but more about how we can rethink traditional academic practices by considering what are the core functions they provide. We publish books because we want to share knowledge, but we use publishers partly to handle the logistics, but also to give legitimacy to the work (it has passed a “is it worthy of publication?” test). Six years on I think we are probably as, if not more, conservative in our approach to publishing in academia.

In terms of my personal reaction, I was pleased it wasn’t too embarrassing (there are lots of such posts in my back catalogue). But I do think I was still a bit enamoured of the whole new shiny digital thing, and it might be a bit more nuanced if I wrote it today. I think I overlooked the value of marketing and the lock big publishers have on many channels. But generally the lack of an emergence of exciting new, viable, publishing models in academia in the six years since I wrote it I found kind of depressing.

Anyway, the revisiting your past posts is the equivalent of those episodes in long running serials that consist of flashbacks. It’s cheap, but sort of fun.

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