The open gift

Quarters Only

The second of my OER17 posts. Having come down on the side of a loosely defining OEP, a connected strand was the idea of openness as a gift. In Maha Bali’s keynote she mentioned that gift giving can be problematic, we don’t always know that people want that gift, they feel indebted, and it may be inappropriate. In our panel session later, I wondered whether this was applicable to openness in general – we give the gift of open to people, in the assumption they will want it, or it will do them good. Maybe they don’t want it. In that sense maybe it’s like giving someone a dog – now, if it’s me, great, I love dogs, but others don’t and would feel a sense of burden them or it at least might not be appropriate at that stage in their life.

And to riff off another Maha thought, in our joint session about Virtually Connecting she made the analogy with local and maximum optimum from neural networks. This argues that you may think your at an optimum, but there could be a better one further away, but that it requires energy and resources to get out of your current one and reach that one. So for Virtually Connecting, maybe it’s at or near a local optimum for the people it can reach given the current set up. In order to reach another optimum, it might require a lot of resources (more people, funding etc). I wonder if this is true of openness, and OEP, also. We are not near a local optimum yet, but we might get to one that helps a lot educators do beneficial things with their learners, for learners to take control of aspects of their own educational experience, etc. But we’ve been operating under the assumption (I think) that it’s for everyone. Maybe, like the dog gift, it isn’t, or if it is, that is a whole other level of resource and energy required, and we should concentrate on finding the local optimum first.

PS – don’t actually give me a dog as a gift, this chap says no:

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My definition is this

Magnifying glass

I was at OER17 last week (I have another post about the evolution of the OER conference coming up – but in short, great work everybody). I have a couple of posts now in an attempt to fuse together some strands that came out of that and subsequent discussions, particularly around the topic of Open Educational Practice.

The first strand is around definitions. Beck gave a good overview of definitions of OEP in her talk, which led nicely into a presentation from Catherine Cronin and Laura Czerniewicz on the use of critical pragmatism to address issues in OEP. Laura and Catherine took a fairly broad approach to what constitutes OEP, and a member of the audience raised the question that could lead to openwashing, if you have a loose definition then it becomes easy for someone to claim they are doing it. At the same time there was a post from David Wiley, who really attempted to pin this down with regards to ‘open pedagogy’:

open pedagogy is the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical in the context of the 5R permissions. Or, to operationalize, open pedagogy is the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical when you are using OER

This led to an almighty Twitter discussion, particularly from Mike Caulfield, who suffers from being way more intelligent than most of us and therefore bringing more to bear on any topic than I can usually accommodate. I certainly began to lose the will to live reading this thread (sorry Mike). It began to remind me of the old “learning object” definition debates. Remember how much we enjoyed them? Or even better the “all day debate” between Downes and Wiley from 2009 (I believe there are some alternate universes where this is still going on). Jim Groom blogged that he felt uneasy with this push to define OEP so tightly:

I am not interested in the strict rules that define open; open is not the ends, it is one means amongst many. But, I do wonder at the push to consolidate the definition beyond OERs into Open Educational Practices. Seems to me there is an attempt to define it in order to start controlling it, and that is often related to resources, grants, etc

I think this is where I’m coming around to – OER has benefitted from a tight definition, and so we thought OEP would also. But that tight definition works for content, not practice. We should stop focusing on OEP definitions and instead look to a general opening up of practice. And hey, if some things get a bit messy around the edges, we’ll have to live with that. So, in order to combat the need to define things, I’m going to offer, erm, a definition. This is roughly what I have in my head when we talk about OEP, and is broad enough to include interesting stuff:

Open educational practice covers any significant change in educational practice afforded by the open nature of the internet

That’s it. You don’t have to have the same definition, but that’s what I’m going with. And if that leaves too much room for doubt, then as Douglas Adams said “We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”

And here are the Dream Warriors to tell us about My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style

Every decoding is another encoding

connected

I was invited by the Virtually Connecting team to present with them at OER17, and I of course, jumped at the opportunity. I’m a VC advisory buddy and have done a few VC sessions at conference but the work Maha, Autumm, Rebecca and others put in to making it work is tiring just to observe. For those of you who don’t know VC, it started as away of those not present at conferences to feel part of the experience. This is often realised through an hour session with a keynote or two after their talk, with someone onsite facilitating and a group of online people joining a Google hangout (which is recorded and shared on Youtube). The session is very informal, definitely not an opportunity for the keynote to just give their talk again, but rather to discuss issues. In this sense it more resembles the corridor/bar/coffee chats at a conference. One thing the team have been very impressive at working towards is varying the voices we get to hear, so for example the Hangout only allows limited guests, but they try to prioritise people who haven’t been in before, to get a diverse group and to allow everyone to feel welcome and able to contribute.

The team have conducted a number of focus groups (while I was sunning myself in Cape Town). Autumm has an excellent post on some of the paradoxes of inclusion these explore. Maha follows up, applying James Gee’s work on affinity spaces, which looks at how games go beyond the content itself to meta-spaces and communities. In relation to VC Maha comments:

There are the actual sessions which everyone can watch online or which people can even join and be part of the conversation. That’s the “thing” and it is valuable to many people. But there is also a meta thing that has more value for those who are part of it

This has certainly been my experience – I have been the guest on one, and the onsite facilitator for a few of them. This has influenced the physical experience at the conference also – I’ve made new connections with people I didn’t know who are the same conference (indeed I’m on another panel at OER17 with Jim Luke as a direct result of the VC connection). And VC has expanded the people I communicate and share with online.

From the focus groups I took away three things of interest:

1) Safety – Just like the GO-GN students, some participants stated how the VC sessions feel safe or comfortable, where it’s ok to ask all sorts of questions, to share concerns. As the online environment gets increasingly brutal, this is clearly an aspect that people value.
2) Interdisciplinarity – Nadine makes a point about being included regardless of staff role, discipline, education level, etc. The role of discipline in inclusivity is one we don’t always consider. It’s often difficult to go to a conference for many reasons and one of these is that ‘it’s not really my area’, particularly when budgets are tight. In an era that seeks to promote interdisciplinarity that is potentially important.
3) Democracy – this is one of the paradoxes that Autumm talks about, and something the VC team anguish over. In some ways by getting the keynotes to have sessions afterwards, it’s reinforcing a certain celebrity. But equally, these are often people that those who are remote want to talk to. Sherri makes the point that being ‘in the same room’ as an ed tech celebrity such as Tressie was a big deal for her, and being able to talk in a relaxed environment is liberating. But the team are also expanding beyond keynotes and getting a range of people in the sessions. VC is one of the examples of we can remove some of the formal barriers that traditional practice puts in place.

The team believe deeply in inclusivity, it is the sole purpose for VC existing really. But every inclusion can be seen as an exclusion. I think they get it right, but others may not, but I don’t know anyone who thinks about it as much as the VC team. As I mentioned in my OpenEd post, conferences should learn a lot from the approach and values of VC. The focus group videos are listed below, they represent part of an ongoing reflection about VC and its operation. Because as Morris Zapp said in Small World, ‘every decoding is another encoding’, so the job is never finished. Anyway, it’s a privilege to be involved with them, and a reminder that open practice still brings the good stuff.

Focus Group 1

Focus Group 2

Focus Group 3

Safe spaces and shared interests

With the rest of the OER Hub team I spent last week in Cape Town at the OE Global conference. Prior to every OE Global we run a two day seminar for around 10-15 GO-GN students. If you don’t know the GO-GN, it’s a Hewlett funded project, establishing a global community of PhD researchers in open education. During the two day seminar we bring together some of these to present about their work, share issues, talk about theories, debate methodologies, etc. Many of them then present at the main conference also. The whole motivation for setting up the network was to try and grow the OER research field, and to help many students who were often the only person in their host institution working in this field, which can be an isolating experience.

I think each year we have seen those aims realised to a greater extent, which demonstrates to me that the field is maturing. This year it was a real privilege to be with such an amazing group of researchers. Their research covers many areas of open education – OER usage by teachers, open education practice, critical theories of openness, MOOC learner experience, etc. There is also excellent global coverage. But what really impressed me this year was how the group bonded and used the opportunity to support each other, arranging a Slack channel, setting up ongoing discussions around theoretical frameworks, spending a morning in a quick hackfest, etc.

Beck recorded a lot of the participants talking about the impact GO-GN has for them, the video is below. Two things came out for me in this. The first was how several of them raise the idea that GO-GN is a safe place, where they feel comfortable exploring areas they’re not sure of in their work. A PhD is often a very exploratory process, and although it comes together in the end (usually) there are big basins of self doubt on the path to that goal. The second was how many had found useful connections that have really pull together their work, for example around someone else using a similar method. So, if you’re doing a PhD around OER, OEP, (or know someone who is), then get in touch with us. Next year’s OE Global is in Delft, Netherlands. We have a lot of activity going in inbetween, including our monthly webinar series.

GO-GNers, I salute you!

Critically examining unbundling

Doublespeak [Explore]

I’m on the advisory board for a project led by Laura Czerniewicz in Cape Town and Neil Morris in Leeds, examining the concept of ‘unbundling’ in higher ed. I came across unbundling first of all back in 2000 with Evans and Wurster’s Blown to Bits book. It’s important to remember that at the time, internet business was new, people didn’t know how it would turn out, and many were still saying it wouldn’t be a big thing. So anything that offered a reasonably intelligent analysis was seized upon. There was a lot that was useful in their book, setting out the idea that services that had previously been held together by the glue of physical location, became unbundled when they went online, because that glue was insufficiently strong to keep them together. Their classic example was the car showroom, which had new and used car sales, servicing and financing all in one place. Online, these became separate services. This all made sense, and we saw new car sales online, and finance was certainly affected. But car sales showrooms, still persist…

Like its close cousin Disruption, unbundling has been a favourite philosophy of the silicon valley start up. It has often been applied to education (even, erm, by me). This piece for example boldly states “The bundle of knowledge and certification that have long-defined higher education is coming apart”. The idea has some merit – if education moves online, do we need all the services: content production, examination, accreditation, support, etc to come from one provider? Maybe not, but higher education is not the same as car sales, no matter how much Richard Branson wants it to be. Selecting between those services is difficult, particularly for a learner who is a learner precisely because they don’t know what they don’t know. I know what I need to buy a car, even if I’m not a car expert. So having those elements in one bundle has a certain convenience. In short, the glue is stronger.

But the talk of unbundling is persistent and powerful. So I was pleased to be asked to be on the board of this project because it takes exactly the right approach in my view. It is asking good questions such as: what do people mean by unbundling? What are the drivers and motivation for it? W is the evidence of it in practice? What are the different models of unbundling? What are the impacts on learners, staff, society and business?

It is attempting to look for evidence for these in an unbiased, and rational manner. The problem with concepts like unbundling is that they get peddled by people who have an interest in getting the idea established (because their business depends on it), and then dismissed as nonsense by those of us inside the system, and the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Research such as this can act as a “bullshit antidote”. One of the dangers is that the commentary Vice Chancellors and Principals get to hear is from the dynamic young software people with their unbundling start up. Being able to point to solid research that says things like “unbundling isn’t really happening on the scale they suggest” or “unbundling works well for these learners, but has these impact on staff” or “this model is viable, but has these costs”, or even “you can safely ignore it”. This is the sort of research we should be providing for a number of ed tech concepts I feel. Luckily as an advisory board member I don’t have to do any of the hard work, just turn up every 6 months and nod sagely.

Disruption & the unenlightenment

Lights on !

Readers of this blog will know that I’ve often criticised the theory of disruption, and particularly its application in education. I won’t rehearse those arguments again, but it wasn’t until Trump and Brexit that I appreciated how much disruption had transcended its original form. Initially, when digital industry was new on the block, it provided a useful way of thinking about the potentially massive changes coming to many industries. And we can’t say that newspapers, music industry, photography etc haven’t been completely altered by the arrival of digital technology (although often Christensen’s disruption falls down under close inspection and better theories are available). But disruption it turns out is not about the digital. That was just its original form. It has now mutated beyond its original host and become an altogether different form of virus. This is true of the Silicon Valley ideology it is so deeply rooted in also. As Audrey Watters puts it:

“Silicon Valley ideology – “Move fast and break things.” Move fast and break democracy. Move fast and break families. Move fast and break the planet.”

The significant tenets of disruption are revealed in Trump. They are that existing knowledge is not only irrelevant, but a dangerous impediment. Disruption isn’t even about business it turns out. When Christensen says:

“By doing what they must do to keep their margins strong and their stock price healthy, every company paves the way for its own disruption”

What this actually came to mean (even if it wasn’t his intention) was that knowledge of any area itself is viewed as a reason not to trust someone. Core to disruption is the romantic notion of the outsider riding in on their white horse to save the sector from itself. And it is essential that this person be an outsider, only someone unencumbered by domain knowledge and all its established bias can truly see the opportunity for disruption. That pretty much describes Trump’s whole campaign, from “drain the swamp” to “lock her up”. Secondly, disruption pitches itself as complete revolution – a displacement of the incumbent by the new arrivals. Microsoft may have worked with IBM in the early days, but ultimately they replaced them. There is no collaboration, working alongside, improving here. At this point I cast an eye over Trump’s appointments.

It turns out disruption is a key element in the unenlightenment because it explicitly prioritises an absence of domain knowledge and seeks to undermine expertise. That’s a hell of a legacy Clayton.

Easy Profs and Raging MOOCs

Stan Brakhage

I’ve been reading (well listening to on Audible) Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. It’s the account of New Hollywood, covering roughly 1969 to 1982, and plotting the rise and fall of the Hollywood auteurs such as Coppola, Scorcese, Altman, Friedkin and Bogdanovich. As is my wont, I’ve been drawing parallels with the education sector as I’ve been going through it. The tale is often portrayed as one of these plucky outsiders with artistic vision challenging the studio system, but ultimately failing and the money men then ruining cinema forever. Certainly when you consider the best films that arose form this period – The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, Jaws, Chinatown – then they stand up better than the ‘high concept’ films of the 80s – Top Gun, Die Hard, Basic Instinct – which followed.

But this simplistic take discounts the awful films created in this period which were the result of unchecked egos and a licence for self-indulgence (Hopper’s The Last Movie being a prime example). And what’s more, when you hear the inside story, these were often not the pure artists they are perceived of now – they are mostly nasty, megalomaniacs, with as much greed as any studio exec, driven by drugs, sacking people at will, and the sexism – wow, the sexism (I also read Julia Phillips’ You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, which is a blast and really underscores the rampant misogyny in many of the new directors). These are very indulged men who wanted to create their own powerhouses. The reaction against them was driven by a desire for revenge from the studios who had lost money and been undermined by the new power of the director. The high concept movies of the 80s (they can be summarised in a sentence) were very much an accountant’s take on cinema. And while some of these are fun, they don’t approach the shambolic beauty of Apocalypse Now, say. But there was a reaction against this reaction also. And while now multiplexes are full of comic book movies, there is also a decent independent cinema circuit now, and a steady stream of intelligent, engaging movies that don’t require the director to think they’re a messiah to complete.

On to the parallels with education. I think we have a similar tendency to over-romanticise the academic culture of the 1970s. This was a time when universities were not subject to the managerial approach that dominates now. But like the new hollywood, this lack of accountability was not always a good thing for students. It also easily gave rise to a clique – people getting jobs for their pals was not uncommon. The problem was that this led, under New Labour particularly, to a desire to control those academics in the same way the studios wanted to control directors. Some of this has not been bad – the focus on helping students gain employment, improve student success, open up education to those beyond the usual elite – have all been a result of increased administrative and managerial approaches in higher ed. “Do what you want, the best will survive” approach to education that often persisted in the 70s ends up benefitting those in relatively privileged positions.

But as with the studio’s revenge, there is a downside to all of these. The increasing customerisation and fear of litigation/public failure has seen a move away from experimental pedagogy to safer options. This isn’t always to the benefit of students who don’t get to use that university time to really experience new ways of learning, and ultimately new aspects of themselves. The environment for academics has become increasingly pressured and controlled – and at the same time they are then criticised for being insufficiently innovative. I’m tempted to see MOOCs as the high concept equivalent in education – the Days of Thunder interpretation of university experience.

So, the question then is how do we get the balance right in allowing sufficient freedom, while still developing an environment that doesn’t allow (male) egos to run unchecked with scant regard for others? It has to be based on mutual respect between these two arms of the university – administration and academia. Too often people in both camps speak disparagingly of the others: academics ‘don’t live in the real world’; administration ‘just wants to control everything’. There is a bit of truth in both of these, I’ll admit, but we’ll need to get that balance right to avoid our students sitting through years of The Last Action Hero or At Long Last Love, when they could be watching Moonlight or Captain Fantastic.

Making dry biscuits tasty

Where do we go from here

Last week I had two experiences with forms of documents that can be a little, let’s say, dry. The first was writing learning outcomes on a new OU course, and for a MOOC on the bizMOOC project. The second was the launch of the ALT strategy document. It struck me that there was a similarity between these two types of document. They’re both potentially useful but often become mired in a particular vocabulary of their own that renders them largely meaningless to their intended audience.

I don’t think I quite succeeded in breaking through this with the problem with the learning outcomes in question, but I do feel that Maren Deepwell and the team at ALT managed it with the strategy. It’s been an interesting process and what has resulted is, I feel, a meaningful and engaging document. So for future reference for myself as much as anything, I’m recording what was important about the process.

Firstly, Maren took it seriously. This wasn’t something ALT were doing just because you have to have a strategy document, but then you put it in a drawer and never look at it again. For ALT this was seen as an opportunity to both produce a strategy that would guide the organisation and also to engage the community. Which is the second feature, to conduct the process in an open, collaborative manner. We held webinars, a face to face session, an open survey and invited comments all the way along. This was not a top down, management consultant derived strategy, but a bottom-up, community driven one.

Lastly it represented an opportunity to rethink, or at least tinker with, what such a document should be. We deliberately kept it short and written in an accessible language. But Maren also had the great idea to invite along the hugely talented Bryan Mathers for a ‘visual thinkery‘ session. During this he got the trustees to talk about ALT and the purpose of the strategy. From this he produced some lovely images. And these are of course, CC licensed. This gives a whole different feel and life to the strategy document I feel.

I’m not sure I could apply the same process to learning outcomes, but I feel there is something generalisable from Maren’s approach to this that could work there too.

Working harder for less

B&W Milk 2

I realise this blog has been a bit whingy of late. This is my last whingy post, after this, sunshine and unicorns, I promise.

I was chatting with (okay, whinging to) a colleague the other day, bemoaning the fact that we all seem to be working much harder, for less impact in higher education. I now regularly work during evenings, weekends and holidays. I don’t recall doing that so often since the days when I was creating T171, our big elearning course, in 1999. Then I was doing that whole “get up at 3am to fix problems” thing, but it was a big deal, it led to the OU becoming an elearning university, 1000s of students and 1,000,000s of pounds. If ever that stuff is worth it, then it felt like this was a case. But now I’m doing near that just to get bids in for smaller amounts, to work on existing research projects, deliver to strategic initiatives, supervise PhD students, write papers, etc. All good stuff, but not life changing. Everything just requires more effort now, for less reward. Research is a good example – it is much more competitive to get a grant, the requirements of submitting a bid (both internally and by the funder) are much more time consuming now, the amounts you get are smaller, and the reporting requirements when you have it much more onerous.

And it occurred to me, mid-whinge, that this is true of every profession – teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, journalists. All working much harder for less return – often that lower return is financial, but also just in terms of impact. Doing more for less, and doing it more often is the new mantra. In many ways academia has been protected from this trend to a greater extent than many others, so this is not a special plea for sympathy. Rather the question I keep asking, is “how did we get here?” Computers were meant to liberate us all from drudgery. I guess the big suspects are globalisation, neo-liberalism and technology. But even then I don’t think this state of affairs was inevitable. My candidate is post-2008 austerity. Not just in terms of finances, but psychologically and socially. Austerity made crisis the new normal. This created a culture of envy and mistrust. If you or your institution wasn’t operating at the very limits of breaking point then there was slack in the system. And slack was to be eradicated. This created continual downward pressure – in my privileged example, the Government creates pressure on funding bodies to show greater return and demonstrate maximum efficiency; the funding bodies pass this onto grantees in terms of bidding requirements; universities pass it down to PIs and they pass it down to research associates. There was insufficient pressure back up the chain, and each extra cut or requirement is not enough to trigger this.

That’s my simplistic view of how we got here. What I’m not sure then is how we get out of here, because for all of those professions and more, it doesn’t seem like a sustainable approach.

Now, onto unicorns. Just as soon as I’ve finished writing this bid…

Myths of academia

BW Castle
(Typical academic house)

The Guardian runs a series called Academics Anonymous, in which an anonymous contributor writes about some aspect of academic life. It is occasionally enlightening, but has recently descended into clickbait style deliberate controversy. However, what I think some of the recent articles illustrate are commonly held misconceptions about academic life. They are so far off the mark in the current climate, that I suspect they were not written by academics at all, and are rather “bloke in the pub who went to the ‘University of Life’ anonymous”. But it’s worth looking at some of them just as a means of combatting some of the outdated perceptions of academia, as these represent images we need to overcome in the anti-knowledge environment.

Unsackable staff block promotion of younger staff – the article wasn’t as bad as the headline here, but the core idea that there is such a thing as ‘unsackable’ staff in universities anymore is at least 20 years out of date. The idea that once you gained tenure you could spend the rest of your career smoking pipes and looking sagely out of windows across the quadrant is probably only true if Jeremy Irons is depicting you in a movie. Tenure doesn’t exist, everyone is one slightly underperforming year away from getting the boot, and the pressures to bring in external money, deliver strategic aims, and get REF standing is more intense for those with tenure than others. So, myth 1 is that there is some tenure Camelot which once attained is an easy, secure life.

The second article was the one on academics using tax payer money to gain consultancy. While contacts with industry are encouraged, and most universities have an allowance for some consultancy work, the scenario proposed in this article was far removed from any reality most academics would recognise. It may be true in some Russell Group universities, but for the rest of us, workloads are tightly monitored and accounted for. That we would have the time to engage in the full time consultancy services while still delivering on all the other objectives, or be allowed to, is a fantasy. I also laughed out loud (if only there were an acronym for that) at the suggestion the university had paid £20K for room hire to allow for a self promotion exercise. In my university it is a major triumph if you manage to get biscuits and coffee for a meeting, so the idea of a senior manager glibly signing off 20K for room hire seems, well, fanciful. Myth 2 then is that academics workload is not tightly controlled.

The third article was one from last year, referring to the boozy life of the academic. In this they reported that every seminar started with free wine. What university is this (and do you need a Prof in Ed Tech)? I refer m’learned friend to the aforementioned battle for biscuits. Wine? After a PhD viva we usually open up a bottle of champagne. Which we buy. Now, academia can be a bit boozy, but in these days of longer working hours, more part time staff, longer commutes and general change in social mores, it is actually quite an abstemious profession (with the exception of conferences). When I was at uni in the 80s, a lecturer might go to the pub at lunchtime, and then we’d all sit in their tutorial room smoking roll-ups. This behaviour would have you on disciplinary action within a week now. Myth 3 then is that of the carefree, boozy academic life.

There are undoubtedly more, but when you piece these three together, what you get is a picture of an academic in the 1970s (Michael Caine in Educating Rita maybe) – shambolic, aloof, and unfettered by the concerns of normal working life. It’s a romantic image in a way, but also one that lends itself to the ‘ivory tower’ accusation. It is also about as representative now as the fearful matron in charge of a typing pool is to office life.

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