Corbyn, higher ed & the Overton window

Welcome to Overton!
This post follows on from the previous one regarding our view of higher ed (yes, I’ve been thinking about it over the summer). As those in the UK will know, but overseas readers (hello!) may not, there is currently a leadership election underway for Labour, the opposition party. To everyone’s surprise, and to the chagrin of most of the senior Labour figures, it looks as though the left-wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn will win. This isn’t a post about Labour, or politics really, but about what the more general value of someone like Corbyn is in the current climate (and possibly why that has proven popular).

There is a political concept known as the Overton Window, which is defined as the range of ideas the public will accept. If an idea falls outside of the Overton window it is rejected. However, as Owen Jones argues in his book The Establishment, there are people, and groups, whose function is to effectively shift the Overton Window. It has been moving steadily right since the 1970s, so that ideas that even Margaret Thatcher thought were too radical, are now seen as standard practice. Ideas, such as privatising the NHS, would once have been political suicide, but aspects of them can now be discussed. For me then, Corbyn’s role is to help drag the Overton Window back to a more central position. For example, if a privatised part of the prison service performs badly, the media will focus on discussing whether that company is doing a good job, providing value for money, etc. But they will not question whether selling of services such as this is a good idea in the first place. That falls outside of the Overton Window currently. Corbyn’s presence makes that question a viable one to ask, and thus helps shift the window back. I’m not saying this will make him a successful leader, my point is rather that what is interesting here is the control of narrative.

And this shaping of narrative is something I’m interested in with regards to educational technology and higher education in general. I touched upon the importance of narrative regarding MOOCs in the Battle for Open. It is evident also in the “university degree as personal investment” narrative that has come to dominate higher education. In my last post I talked about the value of viewing higher education as a process and not just a product. The reason it is difficult to do so, is because a process view falls outside of our own Overton Window in higher education.

And just as I value Corbyn’s presence for helping shift the narrative ground in UK politics, so I regard many of the bloggers whose work I admire (Audrey Watters, Kate Bowles, Jonathan Rees, Richard Hall) as performing a similar service – they help shift the higher education window (or at least help resist it being dragged in a certain direction).

Product and process in higher ed

Science Fiction by Gaslight (1968 HB)

When I was a young man I harboured dreams of being a novelist (instead I became the next best thing, an ed tech blogger). Recently by way of entertaining myself I have taken to writing fiction again. But I do so without any intention of ever publishing, sharing or doing anything with it. This was quite a liberating decision, it means I can just enjoy the process. And this set me thinking about tasks we do for the joy of the process itself, and those we do for the end result, the product.

Fiction writing is quite odd in this respect, and different from many other leisure pursuits. If you tell someone you are writing fiction, they will often ask (or assume) that you intend to get published. That you harbour dreams of doing a JK Rowling (and this is indeed true of many people who take up writing). In that respect it seems a pursuit that tends more (although not exclusively) towards the product side. Contrast it with other past-times people may take up, such as painting, or pottery. One would probably not ask of someone who is doing an evening class in painting “are you planning on holding an exhibition?” the way you might ask a writer “are you going to publish?”. It is understood that painting is something most people do for the joy of the process itself.

Exercise or sport is also similar in this respect. While people may have a product, a goal, in mind such as entering a race, or losing weight, exercise is usually undertaken for engagement in the process. You do not assume that your friend who has started running is planning on becoming a professional athlete.

And this brought me round to thinking about how we view higher education. It used to be firmly in the process camp. People went to university because the act of learning, critical thinking, engagement with peers and time away from the pressures of career were seen as valuable in themselves. There were undoubtedly vocational degrees which were more product centred – you did an accountancy degree usually because you wanted to become an accountant – but largely it was the process that mattered. Over the past twenty years we have seen a shift where the dominant rhetoric and mindset around higher education is one of product. When I did a degree in Psychology I would be asked by people of the older generation who hadn’t been to uni “what job are you going to do with that?”. They didn’t mean it unkindly, it was just that they had a more pragmatic mindset. But it was understood by most that in some ways the degree subject didn’t really matter. I was the first generation at uni and that was significant.

But the “what job are you going to do with that?” question now dominates, and is even the one students often have uppermost in their minds. I hesitate to use the term neo-liberal but I think this change in mindset did coincide with the rise of the neo-liberal dominance during the 00s. And it has become solidified with the introduction of high student fees. Fees make the conversation all about product. And a product focus is not necessarily wrong, I’m glad a surgeon had one, for example. But I’m pleased that some countries have resisted this product centric view of higher ed, and still understand that, like painting, and for me, fiction writing, there is value in the process that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Scholarship can’t afford itself

This is not a detailed study in economics, but rather a view from inside the system. It’s occurred to me a few times, that as higher education (particularly in the US and UK) becomes increasingly commercialised and commoditised, there is pressure on academics to account for their time, and for it to be spent in revenue generating pursuits. These drivers come from Government, and also just the general post-recession context where every expenditure needs to be justified. I understand this and don’t think academics should be immune from the same pressures that society faces. But I have also felt that taken to its conclusion, it could create a system that undermines itself.

There is a lot of activity that an academic undertakes that acts as ‘glue’ holding together the whole scholarly practice. Consider the following tasks for instance:

  • Reviewing journal articles
  • Editing journals
  • Examining PhDs
  • Organising conferences
  • Giving keynotes, workshops, seminars, etc

Now, although there is sometimes an honorarium associated with these, I would suggest that we don’t really fully cost them as activities and charge appropriately. The reason is that it is understood that this is part of what is required to make the whole system function. Someone from University X examines a PhD student from University Y, and later someone from Y examines one from Z, and so on. I get asked to examine quite a few PhDs. It’s generally both a pleasant thing to do, and also very useful in that it helps keep me up with the field also. You will sometimes get an honorarium for these, say £200, but if we were to fully cost it, then the figure would be closer to £2000 I expect. I’m a pretty quick reader and reviewer, but even so it takes me a couple of days to read a thesis, and then there is the viva day itself. I know colleagues who will spend much longer reading a thesis. Some of that reading takes place in work time, some in my own time, some could be counted as research time, some as a service to the other university. So it’s messy, but the point is we don’t make an attempt to properly cost it. And that is a really good thing. If we did then the administration involved would add significantly to the actual cost.

Then look at all those other activities listed above (and you can probably think of more). As there is increasing pressure on universities to justify student fees, to account for staff time, to monetise every aspect of the education process, I fear that such activities will be ‘realistically’ costed. The result of which might be to make them unviable. There is also a strong element of game theory once we start costing these activities – it would be to your institution’s benefit to be selfish rather than benevolent, ie to get more out of the system than you put in. And then others start acting the same. When someone suggests that we start costing these activities appropriately, my suggestion is you quote Billy Bragg to them: “The temptation to take the precious things we have apart to see how they work must be resisted for they never fit together again.”

The granularity of personalisation

Various dice

(with apologies for that title, it sounds like a bad Milan Kundera novel).

In my post on personality, I may have suggested that I thought courses such as DS106 and Rhizo were a cult of personality with Jim and Dave at their head. This wasn’t my intention. I highlighted them because I think they are good examples of where the founder’s personality is in the DNA of the course, but that it has then been shaped by others. The course itself has personality.

And this, along with the many excellent responses (60! It’s like 2006 all over again in the edublogosphere) got me thinking about courses with personality and how people react to them. I have sent students on the OU Masters in Online education to look at DS106. And their reactions are very interesting. Some absolutely love it, and become converts (why aren’t all courses like this?) and others have a real aversion to it. Both of those reactions are perfectly valid of course, and highlight what a personal thing the learning process is.

This got me thinking that when we talk about personalisation in learning we often mean at the level of the resource. For instance, you will see different resources based on a score. Or depending on your preferred ‘learning style’ you may get more textual or visual based resources. Learning styles are hugely problematic, but that doesn’t seem to stop them popping up when people talk about personalisation. This type of personalisation is a very technology driven view, with a dream of a the perfect course for you being assembled automatically instantly. I have to say this type of personalisation doesn’t excite me very much, and I’m not sure it’s been very successful. But here’s a thought, maybe we’ve been looking at the wrong level of granularity (hence my Kundera-esque title).

Personalisation may occur within a programme of study by taking different course with different ‘personalities’. Within a degree programme, say, you might have some core courses, structured fairly traditionally. But then there are options which you choose based not on their content, but on their approach. Of course we have a high degree of modularity and optionality in most degree programmes now, but this is usually around content (do you want to study linguistics or philosophy as your first year option in psychology). But open education, yes I mean MOOCs but also other options, mean you can have the same subject area, but different approaches to it. Here the choice might be more “do you want to study the creative, collaborative approach to statistics or the methodical, strictly paced approach?”.

Such personalisation may encourage educators to create courses with variety, instead of uniformity, because enough people will like that approach. And it also reinforces the importance of the human educator in the process, and gives students courses they can relate to in a mixture. You might also force them to take a type of course they don’t much like just to experience different approaches. Vive la difference may work better at the programme level than the resource one.

Steve Jobs isn’t your role model

Others have written about this, so I’m not saying anything new here, but it’s my blog, so I get to vent when I want, and I’m amazed at how much of this Steve Jobs as role model stuff still persists. It annoys me when I continually see articles along the lines of “Steve Jobs did X, so if you want to be successful, you should too.” The rather explicit assumption in all of these is that being like Jobs is a desirable thing to be. So recently there was a spate of “Steve Jobs did a lot of his thinking while taking a long walk, so you should do walks too”. There is pretty good evidence that walking does help stimulate thought, but that Jobs did it is not relevant. He is also the poster boy for “dropping out of college is a smart career move”.

I’m not going to discuss the Jobs legend here, whether he really was a genius or not. Let’s assume all the accolades he is regularly awarded with are merited, that he changed our world. Even so, here are four good reasons why elevating Jobs to role model is a really bad idea.

1. He’s an outlier. Outliers always exist, and are the worst possible choice for you to base your career or life on. You are probably not an outlier, that’s why they’re outliers. Copying their characteristics will not make you like them.

2. We shouldn’t indulge bullies. There were elements of the psychopath, sociopath and bully in Jobs. Taking point 1, you are not Steve Jobs, so if you adopt many of his characteristics, you’re just going to be a nasty bully. But more widely, we shouldn’t indulge these traits in people because they’re the talent. Everyone – genius, billionaire, celebrity – is accountable, so we shouldn’t reinforce the myth that this type of behaviour is acceptable and even desirable.

3. He was a product of his time. Even of you accept the “Jobs was a genius” line, he was a genius in the right place at the right time. Steve Jobs wouldn’t be as successful as Steve Jobs if he were around now because the context is different.

4. It reinforces privilege. If language is couched in terms of ‘the next Steve Jobs’, then it’s likely that you will have a sub-conscious confirmation bias for a white, american male. You’re more likely to believe that such a person standing in front of you making a pitch is the next Steve Jobs, than, say, a Chinese woman making the same pitch.

So if you want to promote walking to encourage thinking and problem solving, please do. But don’t use Steve Jobs to justify it. The next Steve Jobs will not be at all like Steve Jobs, and for that we should be grateful.

The role of personality in education


This is one of those posts where I don’t have a firm conclusion, I’m just thinking some stuff through. I’ve been thinking a bit about what the role of personality is in eduction, particularly online and distance ed. In my own institution, The Open University, there has been a long tradition of removing the personal from teaching material. While the course materials we produce are written in an accessible manner, they are not imbued with one person’s personality. Although one academic may write them, they go through multiple reviews, and editing. Course units are often attributed to the “The Module Team”, or “written by X on behalf of the Module Team”. The idea is that this is an objective view, created through collaboration to distill clear teaching material. The trouble with making them based around a personality is that this can be a barrier to accessing the content, if you don’t respond well to that particular personality (but the opposite is also true, it can be a boost if you do like that person). When I joined the OU removing myself from the writing was one of the difficult aspects of learning to write distance ed material, while still keeping it engaging and not too ‘dry’. I mean, who wouldn’t want my personality stamped all over their units on Artificial Intelligence, right? (don’t answer that).

Now, many of my more constructivist inclined colleagues will laugh at the idea that any teaching content can ever be objective, or that it isn’t shot through with individual assumptions, cultural history, etc. This is true to an extent, but less so when you adopt a deliberate policy of writing from a collaborative perspective and specifically looking for cultural bias (this is always one of the aspects of peer review that we ask people to comment upon).

But then along come MOOCs, and they’re all about the personality. Ironically, I find that cMOOCs, for all their intentions at being hierarchical and distributed, have a very strong cult of personality driving them. To be successful they often require someone with a well established online network to gather enough momentum, and because creating successful cMOOCs is hard work, that person usually needs to really be central in driving the course forward. And when this works well, it really does create a very engaging learning community. As you’ll know, I’m a BIG FAN of Jim Groom, but it’s hard to say that DS106 isn’t a product of Jim’s online personality. Indeed it is all about that, which is exactly why it’s fun. Similarly, I think Dave Cormier’s Rhizo courses are truly innovative and beginning to explore what a networked take on education might look like. But I think Dave’s (loveable, cuddly) personality is a big factor in its success. And then there are xMOOCs with Rock star professors. There is even talk of actual rock stars (or film stars anyway) presenting MOOCs.

This all takes place in the context of social media now of course, which wasn’t the case with original OU material. Whenever I do my social media for academics sessions, I always stress that it’s called social media for a reason, so put a bit of yourself in there. What I’m genuinely unsure about is the extent to which we should deliberately seek to place the learning process. If we remove it, learning can become dull and dry and possibly out of sync with the social media world it needs to operate within. But if we place too much emphasis on it, we risk highlighting the extrovert academic, the jokester, the good looking one, above academics with better subject skills. I’m just sharing my pondering here, not making a call one way or the other.

The battle for open – tales from the front

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

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

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

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.

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