OER as educational heritage

Tragic face

There has been a pruning of A-level subjects in the UK recently, with Art history, Archeology, and Classical studies all for the chop. It’s like the Beeching Report for education. It is puzzling in many respects – everyone talks about how the workplace is becoming increasingly fragmented, diverse in terms of jobs. We are told things like 65% of today’s students will be doing jobs that don’t exist yet (which reminds me of Anchorman’s “60% of the time it works every time“), and yet we are making the education sector increasingly homogeneous. And with higher ed funding increasingly focused on STEM subjects, it is not just at secondary level that this restriction of choice will occur.

This perhaps hints at another role for OER, which is preserving some aspect of the necessary diversity in educational topics. Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting OER should replace A levels in these subject, but rather arguing that if they are being scrapped, then thank goodness OER can at least keep them going in some format. OER provide good quality content that is specifically aimed at learners, which is distinct from other resources (documentaries, books) in the area. The OU’s OpenLearn site for instance has a fine collection of material on Art History. OER then can at least help the motivated learner stay in touch with a subject. There may be further possibilities however, in the often talked about model of accrediting informal learning. In such a model maybe we can bring some diversity to a curriculum by having OER electives. You may be studying Physics, say, but there is one open elective so you can add in an option of Archeology through the provision and accreditation of OER.

That is of course, nowhere near the same as having rich diversity in official courses, but it at least keeps appreciation of these subjects alive, until such time as a more enlightened educational regime is in place.

The lesson of Mabon’s Day


This is one of those “thoughts I had while walking the dog that I might as well blog before I forget them” posts. It concerns a little known holiday in Wales, and the relevance this has for (educational) technology. Mabon’s Day started in 1888, around the South Wales coal mines, in which the 1st Monday of every month was declared a holiday. Named after the Lib-Lab politician William Abraham (who was better known as Mabon) who fought successfully for the miners to have this holiday. His argument was largely that they were physically exhausted through labour, and thus could not devote time to intellectual pursuits. A day a month would allow them to focus on self development. Needless to say the pit owners opposed the move, which they saw purely in terms of lost coal output.

It was successful however, through lobbying by politicians such as Mabon and Trade Unions. Alas, Mabon’s ideal that it would be used for holding union meetings, studying and general intellectual pursuits was not borne out. Anyone who has been in the UK on a bank holiday weekend will know what happened – everyone got very drunk. This isn’t quite true, there were meetings, but attendance was often low, and instead fairs, and entertainments were set up in parks, which attracted more people.A local newspaper noted that ‘in many cases the day is spent in dissipation’. This led to much moral outrage, and complaints from the pit owners, as subsequent days were lost also. In 1898 it was abolished.

I like the story of Mabon’s Day – there’s lots going on there. The attitudes of owners and the press to workers is obvious, but so also is the moralising of their supporters such as Mabon. It is worth noting that Mabon was a lay preacher and teetotaller. While he fought passionately for workers’ rights, it was to do what he deemed appropriate. I don’t want to raise drinking 10 pints of beer to some political statement, but I quite like that the miners gave them a clear message, and used the day as they saw fit.

And this is the link with technology I was musing – many NGOs, Foundations, and Start-ups have very good intentions about how technology can help developing nations, or underprivileged groups. But it often feels like it comes with the Mabon clause – it’s to do the things we view as worthwhile (study, entrepreneurship, creating community). Those are worthwhile things, but a freedom given is one to be used by those people in the manner they see best. Getting drunk on Mabon’s Day may not be the wholesome practice the politicians envisaged, but think of the fun people had at those big public fairs, with races, stalls and entertainment. That was what they wanted and maybe it made the dangerous job and relentless nature of life much more bearable.

So, whenever you hear a tech entrepreneur (for example in a TED talk) talking about the noble, utopian vision they have for the freedom they are gifting to a particular group of people, it’s worth having the lesson of Mabon’s Day in the back of your head, and asking what the equivalent would be, and how that person would then react.

(All of my knowledge on this holiday is from Andy Croll’s article “Mabon’s Day: The Rise and Fall of a Lib–Lab Holiday in the South Wales Coalfield, 1888–1898“)

Ed Tech as discipline

Perseus with the Head of Medusa

(There’s probably a really good metaphor I could make about this image, but I’ve included it just for the Vasari ref below and because Cellini was something of a ‘character’).

There was an article that did the rounds a few days ago about Ed Tech should become a discipline. And last week Audrey Watters gave a tremendous keynote which touched upon why she felt it was a bad idea (it’s worth reading Audrey’s keynote in full not just for the content but as an example of someone really crafting a keynote, developing an idea and articulating it with clarity cf. my approach of chucking together a bunch of slides at the last minute and mumbling my way through them). Audrey’s keynote is a plea for situating educational technology in a broader society and being critical:

“I want to suggest that what we need instead of a discipline called “education technology” is an undisciplining. We need criticism at the center of our work.”

I agree very much with Audrey, that too often ed tech is not critical, it idolises the technology, or at least fails to question what values it carries within its software kernel. But, I wonder (and I wonder a lot about ed tech without getting to firm conclusions), if some of these reservations might not be best overcome by ed tech becoming a discipline. Which sounds paradoxical, but bear with me.

For a start we should ask what we mean by it becoming a discipline? It should have its own journals? Tick. Its own conferences? Check. Recognised accreditation? Hello CMALT. A professional society? Nice to meet you ALT. So, in many ways, it is one already. I guess the defining characteristic though is a number of undergraduate degree in that area. There are a few “Education and IT” type degrees out there, but not really a range of Ed tech ones.

So how might ed tech being a discipline in this respect help? Firstly, it allows us to bring in a range of perspectives. One of the criticisms of ed tech is that people come in from one discipline and are unaware of fundamental work in a related one. So the Ed Tech discipline might well have components from psychology, sociology, education, computer science, statistics, etc. This would help establish a canonical body of texts that you could assume most people in ed tech are familiar with.

Secondly, another criticism of ed tech is that it lacks rigour. Claims are often based on anecdote, small trials, or just hopes about the power of technology. As well as establishing a set of common content, Ed Tech can establish good principles and process in terms of evaluating evidence. These first two I would argue are vital as ed tech becomes more significant in education and the claims made for it more extravagant (why are you thinking of MOOCs?).

Lastly, and for me, most interestingly, it creates a body against which criticism can push. By way of analogy, let us consider Art History, which I’m currently struggling through a Masters in. Art History used to be predominantly about the history of Art. Starting with Vasari’s Lives of the Artists it focused on the ‘great’ artists and their works. Later it shifted to talking about styles as a way of framing the history of art. But in the 1970s there was a reaction to this, bringing in marxist, feminist and multi-cultural perspectives. The implicit assumptions in the previous approaches were directly challenged, leading to the New Art History. Now Art History is as much about “Art History the discipline and practice” as it is about “the history of Art”. By making Ed Tech a discipline there is the possibility that we facilitate a similar perspective. You could only have a New Art History if there was an Old Art History. When a subject becomes a discipline, then it is not long before you get a version of it prefaced by the word “Critical”. Critical Educational Technology sounds fine to me, and could sit alongside Practical Educational Technology to the mutual benefit of both.

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


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


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.

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