Do not go gentle

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(T-shirt available from Fake Elsevier)

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

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

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

MOOCs as Eddie Murphy

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

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

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

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

The industrial education system myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about ownership, stupid

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Cable’s slidedeck:

MOOCs as open driver

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

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

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

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

OER15 and the nature of change in higher ed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the problems OER solves

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

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

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

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

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

The Ivory Tower & the wrong focus

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

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

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

Where do you go for community?


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

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

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

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

Good vs Evil Unicorns


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

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

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

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