The Open Ed identity crisis

(Openwashing by @bryanMMathers is licenced under CC-BY-ND)

I’ve been keeping out of the debate around the OpenEd conference panel (Rajiv has an excellent analysis of it, if you want to catch up), partly because it seemed a very N. American discussion, but also partly because I found it, well, boring. But then I thought about why it bored me, and that was, well, interesting (perhaps).

Firstly, to clarify, it wasn’t the objections made very clearly by people such as Billy Meinke-Lau or Michelle Reed that induced my ennui. These are important and valid arguments and I thank them for articulating them. Rather it was that the panel itself, and the ensuant kerfuffle, are symptomatic of a narrowing of focus and range as to what constitutes open education.

Irwin, Viv, Katy and I wrote a paper about the range of topics that can be included under the open education umbrella, and the manner in which these areas don’t reference each other. The distance ed people don’t talk to the MOOC people, who don’t acknowledge the OER people, and vice versa. But even then, within OER, there is a reduction, where OER comes to mean “North American Open Textbooks”.

I think, in part, the backlash against this panel reflects something of this identity crisis. I haven’t been to OpenEd since 2016, maybe it has changed, and I’m happy to be corrected if it has (I note several papers on Open Pedagogy in the programme), but the panel would indicate not. The OER Conference (disclosure: I’m President of ALT who organise this, so not an entirely disinterested party) started from the Jisc OER projects, and was thus initially focused on content. It has moved away from this over the years, to focus much more on practice and thought around openness. In fact, one could argue that “OER” is not really the best name for it now, and something like “Critical Open Educational Practice” might be more accurate (but I doubt they’re going to change it as it has recognition). OpenEd seems to have gone on the opposite trajectory – from a conference that was built around the possibilities of what openness could mean in education, to one largely focused on the open textbook as artefact. A more appropriate name might be the “USA and Canada Open Textbook conference”.

That is not a criticism – for those working in the field that is a very valuable conference. Just as a Blackboard conference is probably the most useful event many people who work with it daily will attend. But if I went to a conference called something like “21st Century Learning” and it was only about VLEs/LMSs, then I would feel a tad aggrieved that they were implying that was the only thing of interest. Similarly a major conference called OpenEd that is almost entirely US/Canada and open textbook centric implies that is what constitutes open education. And from this disjuncture tension arises which the current debate is an example of, but not the only instance.

I don’t have an objection in principle to hearing from a commercial publisher (although one on a mixed panel might be a better option), but for instance, imagine the different message it would send if that panel was focused on OER in the Global South, or OER and Social Justice. Keynotes are signifiers about the identity of your conference, and that’s why this one didn’t grab my interest (although I should add I like the other keynotes). I just want Open Education not to be synonymous with this one narrow instantiation – there’s a big, wide, open world out there folks, go explore.

PS – I realise I’m complaining about open textbooks, and thus seem to be transforming into Jim Groom. Stop me before I reclaim something 😉

Situated degree pathways

As part of my role in the OU’s open degree programme, we had a session with Bryan Mathers recently to draw out some of our key principles and vision (and get some nifty graphics of course). During this wide ranging session with the team, one of the things we talked about was the flexibility in the open degree. You can create your own pathway, but perhaps more importantly you can change and adapt it as you go along, responding to changes in your life, interest that has been sparked by your studies, topics of your study you have found less interesting than you expected, or shifts in society.

This responsive (can I call it agile?) is quite different from conventional degree structures, which may have some electives, but are largely pre-determined. I was reminded of the well known analogy Lucy Suchman uses at the start of her influential book, Plans and Situated Actions, of different forms of navigation. She uses a comparison of the Trukese and European methods of navigating the open sea – the Trukese navigator “begins with an objective rather than a plan. He sets off toward the objective and responds to conditions as they arise in an ad hoc fashion. He utilizes information provided by the wind, the waves, the tide and current, the fauna, the stars, the clouds, the sound of the water on the side of the boat, and he steers accordingly.” This is in contrast to the European navigator who plots a course “and he carries out his voyage by relating his every move to that plan. His effort throughout his voyage is directed to remaining ‘on course.’”

Suchman uses this analogy to frame how people act, and in particular what she calls ‘situated actions’, which are “actions taken in the context of particular, concrete circumstances.” Here, we are acting like Trukese navigators, taking in available information and (re)acting accordingly with an overall objective in mind. This is in contrast to when we have a definite plan and steps we follow. (As an aside someone commented on Twitter the other day, imagine how different MIT Media Lab would have been had people like Suchman been given the lead, but that’s another story).

I think this analogy works for the choice of modules in an open degree for many of our students also. This is particularly true if they are studying part-time, and thus over a longer period than the traditional 3 year full time degree. There is more chance that circumstances will change during a longer period of, say, six years, and thus the degree pathway itself needs to be flexible. As an example, look at what has happened in world politics since 2016 – you may well have started off with a plan for your degree, but have become interested in economics, or your change in career now requires some expertise in European politics, or now have an idea to develop an app for your company, and so on. This ability within the degree structure to be responsive and adaptable will be increasingly significant I feel.

Ed tech metaphor generator

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a book along the lines of “Metaphors for Ed Tech”. Readers will know I like an extended ed tech metaphor. Sometimes it’s just to be playful, but I also think it can reveal a new perspective on ed tech. As a bit of fun I thought I’d create an ed tech generator, so you can play along. It’s a bit UK and me-centric so feel free to adapt to your own context.

I’m sure there is a better way to do it, but I used the Glitch site and adapted someone else’s app. You can see it here, and code here. I’m up for other suggestions to implement it, maybe more extendable by others or WP based. Laura Gibbs recommended RotateContent, so I will have a look at this too. I may develop it further – it might be fun to add a SPLOT so people can post their solutions? Feel free to use in your Ed Tech class ice-breaker activities 🙂

Some work better than others, but that’s instructive too. Ping me any base domains to use for the metaphors and I’ll add them in (I’ve steered away from overtly political ones, I really don’t want to read Trump or Brexit as metaphor for Blockchain pieces).

Also – Metaphors of Ed Tech book, good idea or not?

[UPDATE: Super lovely Alan Levine, put together a nicer version, which I’ve now installed here: – happy metaphor generating]

Education in an empty planet

I’ve been reading (well, listening to) Empty Planet by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson. It makes the claim that the projections of global population growth are incorrect, and in fact after about the mid-century point, we will start to witness a global population decline. Many countries, such as Japan, are already experiencing this. I’m not enough of an expert to know if they are being selective with the data in their argument (this article suggests they are, but it too will have its own bias). But it’s credible enough, we already have fertility rates below the maintenance level of 2.1 babies per couple across Europe (Spain is as low as 1.3).

The general trend is for increased urbanisation (you don’t want many children if you live in a city or a slum compared with a farm), women’s empowerment (taking control of reproductive rights), loosening kin ties (family pressure people to have children in a way that friends don’t) and decreasing religiosity (if you are less devout then contraception becomes more likely), and all of these reduce the number of children people tend to have. That argument seems persuasive from one’s own experience and that of people you know.

Even if it is a little shaky in places, it made me appreciate how much of our world view is predicated on global population expansion. I don’t think about it much, but I suppose that it is the model I carry in my head. So it’s an interesting example of how challenging that assumption causes some significant shifts. If in 200 years time, say, the population of the UK was 40 million, with 10 million of those at what is currently post retirement age, and another 10 million in school or education, then that is a drastically altered society. The politics of population decline is very different, for instance it would need to be pro-immigration, provide free child care, remove disincentives for women to take career breaks, encourage part-time work for the over 67s, etc. As an aside, a real timebomb from Brexit could be that it has so trashed the UK’s reputation as a desirable place to come to, that by the time politicians wake up to realising that far from immigration being a burden, they in fact desperately need it to help boost the economy, it will be too late.

And what would the challenges be for higher education in such a scenario? Again, to reiterate I’m not suggesting the claims in the book are irrefutable, but rather playing the thought exercise of what if they were true. For a start higher ed provides an excellent means of attracting young, smart people to your country who may well remain, so it it is a route to bolster your population and economy. In terms of policy then you would need to do pretty much the opposite of what the Conservatives have done over the past 8 years. Costly fees put people off from studying here, but also have the side effect of making those with that debt postpone having children. A welcoming, easy visa (or open border) system would be necessary too.

Universities will be in increasing competition for fewer young students as that group declines, so they will need to appeal to older learners. The type of education offered will need to be flexible, as the traditional student profile of the 18-22 year old will no longer be the norm (we are already seeing this, but it will be amplified). Learners will likely be older, have care commitments (children or older relatives who are living longer in a state that doesn’t generate as much tax for social care), multiple jobs and changing priorities.

Some of these conclusions look similar to those from the ‘digital economy’ perspective. But in a declining population, maybe the threat from AI and automation taking jobs is less pronounced – there are fewer people around to do the jobs anyway. In this scenario the role of education is less about reskilling people for different jobs (as is often proposed), if jobs become a ‘buyer’s market’ then education shifts to a more social, individual role, as perhaps was original envisaged, rather than the current vocationally dominant narrative.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting thing to muse while driving to the OU today. We often do scenario planning for an automated future, a globalised one, climate change affected one etc, but I don’t recall ever having done one for population decline.

Tracker bikes and open degrees

Style was everything…

When I was young, in the 70s/80s we used to ‘make’ our own bikes, which went by the generic label of tracker bikes. These generally consisted of a second hand frame, usually no gears, knobbly tyres, massive cowhorn handlebars, and short (or no) mudguards. They were cheap, individual and occasionally dangerous. The handlebars of one of mine sheered off at the base midway down a hill once, leaving me holding them helplessly waiting to crash (I often marvel that any child of the 70s made it to adulthood).

These largely died out with the advent of standardised versions, notably the Raleigh Grifter, and then the ubiquitous mountain bike. These, like mass produced skateboards, took their inspiration from the messy culture of home made, customised versions, which was often working class and innovated through necessity. The mass produced ones were in many ways superior, you had gears on the Grifter, they were more robust and you were less likely to die.

But the advantage of the DIY culture was a sense of ownership and individuality. When we would meet up no two bikes were the same. You would add tape, grips for the handlebars, spray it, but they also bore the scratches and dents of their history. Each was an extension of the owner’s personality. They were also affordable, and didn’t really require expertise – we weren’t bike nerds. The bespoke bicycle movement now is, I expect, a more expensive, and rarefied pursuit, and as bike production has become heavily industrialised, you can now buy a very good mass produced bike cheaply, so the need for the homemade version has dwindled.

I was talking about these to someone at ALT-C last week as a way of thinking about open degrees (it made sense after two beers). As I’ve mentioned I’m now chairing the open programme at the OU. This is an open choice. pick n mix degree programme, so students construct their own degree, choosing modules across disciplines. We’ve been looking at the module selection data, and I expected there to be a handful of dominant pathways but that is not the case. There are thousands of combinations, and students really are shaping degrees to suit their interests, circumstances, opportunities.

Now, like the tracker bike, any mass produced named degree with set choices may be superior in some ways, for example getting specific jobs. Although as this piece highlights, the large majority of employers are degree agnostic, so a specific degree may not be the boon many assume it is (unless it is very vocational focused). The open degree, like the custom track bikes are individual, each one reflecting the personality and the context of the learner. This allows for a greater sense of ownership over your learning. Additionally, one feature of our tracker bikes was that they were also very modifiable – you could add bits and change them over time because you weren’t locked in to the standard provider. The open degree similarly provides the framework for a learner to extend certain elements, and change them as they progress, often changing their plans in response to social or personal changes.

The meticulous informality of ALT-C


I was at the annual ALT conference in Edinburgh last week. I’m often slow to appreciate things, so I accept this is not a revelation to many, but one of the aspects of ALTC that has struck me over the years is the informality of it as an event. I go to many conferences which have very formal opening ceremonies, dignitaries speaking and a carefully represented hierarchy. This is often what people want, so I don’t knock it, but I appreciate the contrast that ALTC offers.

This informality is manifest in many ways. The keynotes included one of our own in Sue Beckingham, Jesse Stommel sitting casually on the stage and Ollie Bray getting participants to make lego ducks. The Gasta sessions were fast and fun with Tom Farrelly MCing. The catering, ceilidh session and networking were all relaxed. ALT’s CEO Maren Deepwell and the team are approachable, and very much in the conference.

All of these are signifiers, that the participants are the important element here and not merely vessels for the messages to be delivered. It makes it a friendly, inclusive, democratic conference, in my view and one that is not concerned with hierarchies and position.

This informality should not be mistaken for a laissez faire attitude. It is the result of meticulous planning by Maren, the ALT team, the co-chairs and committees. All of the things you want to run well, do so – sessions, AV, catering, rooms, timing, support, etc. But above this military planning there is the culture of informality, and this is itself a deliberate and carefully cultivated outcome. As ALT’s President I am also delighted that this meticulous informality provides a cover for my own shambolic chairing of AGM.

The VAR lessons for Ed Tech

I’ll apologise up front that this subject probably warrants a deep dive into VAR (video assisted referee) history and the role of technology in sports, rather than some quick thoughts. But watching the roll-out of the technology at the Men and Women’s World Cup tournaments, and now in the Premier League, it strikes me there are some general lessons to be learnt. Both ed tech and VAR involve the application of technology to fundamentally human enterprises, with the intention of improving them for those involved. There are of course, many differences too, education is not the same as a ninety minute game of football, but at this very generic level there are sufficient similiarities to bear consideration (and apologies if football/soccer is not your thing).

Firstly, on a positive note, there are aspects where it does help. Goal line technology for instance has removed the infuriating disallowed goals when a ball has clearly crossed the line. These very practical applications of technology in education, such as being able to submit assignments online, or conduct tutorials at a distance are benefits that are tangible for students.

However, it also provides a false confidence around aspects that are not reducible to minute measurements. VAR decisions where a ball has brushed a hair on someone’s hand, or a player is offside by a fingertip may technically be correct, but really the game and the rules were not developed to be so finely measured. Analytics in education can similarly give us so much data about student performance that it provides us with a belief that we can pinpoint exactly how the student is learning, whereas the process is much more inexact.

It makes us consider the role of humans in the system. Arguably, the application of technology in cricket has been more advantageous, with Hawkeye and a developed video review system to support increasingly complex decisions for umpires. In this it is similar to education, if the technology is used to support the humans in the system, it can be beneficial. There is a danger though that VAR makes the data the most important aspect, the decision could go to an AI system, just as tuition could be deemed a task for AI.

Much like a lot of ed tech, VAR didn’t solve the problem in the manner people envisaged. There had been an increasing desire for video technology to be applied to football, to solve bad offside decisions, missed penalty calls, goals that should have been disallowed. “If only we had video technology, this wouldn’t happen!” everyone declared. And that is sort of true, but instead we have arguments about whether decisions should or shouldn’t have gone to VAR, and then whether the fine calls I’ve mentioned above really should have been given. The controversy has just moved location it seems. Like the original injustices, one suspects that roughly these things will even out. But it’s difficult to say that in the end it’s really been worth it.

VAR relocates the areas of concern – for VAR it becomes not so much was that movement legal, but what about that incident in the build up? It goes back up the sequence in the search for justice. In education, technology can make us focus on doing things that are measured by technology, say activity in online forums, but ignore things like mental health issues.

As a Spurs fan, I think the use of VAR to rule out any Man City late winner is to be applauded and should be made compulsory in all their matches, but overall there is a danger that VAR dehumanises aspects of football. The point of our enjoyment in sport is that it is not an exact science, it is undpredictable and conducted by humans. Technology can certainly improve it, but its application needs to be cautious and our expectations for its results need to be measured. It will not lead to a sporting nirvana devoid of errors. Enjoying and accepting the messiness of it is part of its inherent appeal, and so it is with education.

Want to be a paperback writer

I’d been pondering recently that when I was young, my sole ambition was to be a writer. My fifth book is about to be published, I blog, I write course material, produce reports and publish papers. Writing is pretty much all I do, and yet I would never describe myself as a ‘writer’ if someone asked what I did.

Partly it’s because when I had in mind being a writer I dreamt of fiction, not ed tech books no-one reads. And also making my living from those books. But ambition is a peculiar beast, you get what you desire but don’t recognise it sometimes. I’ve managed to carve out a career which mainly revolves around writing, and yet ‘writer’ isn’t how I identify.

Then I read Kate Bowles piece today in which she reflects on the reasons she’s been finding writing difficult, and concludes that it’s because “I write too much of the wrong thing”, by which she means reports, proposals, updates – all of which “could fall into the sea tomorrow without loss”. I sympathise here – words are not a finite resource obviously, but our time is, and more significantly our intellectual focus to engage in writing. If you’ve spent all day writing bullshit words, then you’re used up for more writing, even if it’s writing good words. I suspect Kate may suffer from a higher quality threshold with her writing than most of us also, which makes it more difficult to just bang something out (witness my entire blog history).

I saw someone on twitter once comment something like “pretend you only have a handful of exclamation marks to use in your life, and allocate accordingly” (as an antidote to the fashion to add them to everything!). Thinking of writing similarly as a finite resource may not be a bad mental trick to deploy for yourself. Where are you going to use that allocation up today? Is that what you want to do?

This line of thinking also brought me back to some conversations we had on the back of Maha Bali’s post about whether we own our own domain, or merely rent it. Audrey Watters followed up on this, setting out how a domain of one’s own was about owning a space to write and think, “To own is to possess. To own is to have authority and control. To own is to acknowledge.” What Kate’s post reminds us is that a domain of one’s own is also about having your own space conceptually, and stylistically. As a writer that is essential.

In the days when I used to advocate for blogs unambiguously, I used to make the claim that they were a space where you retained much of the freedom to think and explore ideas which attracted you to academia in the first place. That claim is modified now by the more toxic aspects of online, but some such outlet is still required. It needn’t be public (some of the writing I enjoyed doing the most was when I kept a journal of being a father from when my daughter was 2 through to about 13, but I never wanted to share that), but there may be benefits in making it so. For one, it can make the need to allocate time to it easier or more valid – you are producing public outputs for all to see. And it helps shape the writing, and the connections – such as this one riffing off Kate’s post – make writing easier since you don’t have to do all the heavy lifting.

Maybe we’re pretty much all writers these days. If you described yourself as such, I wonder if we would treat that craft with more respect? Anyway, Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?

Your house is a very fine house

Generally I’m adverse to Twitter Quit Lit pieces (“How I turned off social media and learned to love life again”). I find them a) patronising (I’ve seen the truth and you poor suckers are caught in the trap), b) insulting and shallow (like when people live on minimum wage for a month and then make judgements about it) and c) egotistical (“I need to let my fans know I’m going offline, look everyone, I’m going offline!”). But with all that said, I have been thinking about social media usage, and taking more control over it recently.

As the world turns ever more into a bad parody of a satire written by a nihilist on acid, we all need to find ways of managing our own self care. Social media, and Twitter in particular, plays a not insignificant part in all this. You can only go so many days of being outraged 100 times before breakfast without it affecting you. One antidote to this is the more extreme full on quit, and I admire anyone who does that. But for many of us there is still value in it, and also a good deal of our professional and personal identity is wrapped up in those connections. So finding ways to manage it and make it a better environment for yourself are important.

With this in mind I am experimenting with the following:

Deleting Twitter from my phone – I tend to check twitter too much, and often when I should be doing something else (watching TV, listening to a conversation, walking the dog). So by deleting it that constant urge to check is removed, and by using Tweetdeck on my laptop, it places Twitter firmly in the ‘work’ category. I’m not removed from it but I have recategorised its use.

Muting words and phrases – Heidi Moore posted a pic of all the words she has muted:

You can do this via Settings – Privacy and Safety – Muted. She commented just how much it made her stream feel cleaner and less full of bile.

Blocking/Muting – I don’t get much hassle on Twitter (being a white male who writes about fairly uncontroversial stuff, I am not the recipient of regular death threats or unsolicited pictures of genitalia). But even then there are some instances I’ve had where people seemingly want to argue about something which is largely unrelated to anything I’ve written, but is clearly AN ISSUE for them. The sweet, sweet relief of just muting a conversation or an account is not to be understated. The aforementioned Heidi Moore has an ‘instablock” strategy for any jerks and enforces it rigorously.

Being fluid – you can mute, unmute, block, unblock, reinstall, etc. These are not permanent decisions. I have some misgivings about myself being over-zealous with muted words – could I really mute “Brexit” for instance? Would that mean I am living in a sanitised, detached version of the world? I haven’t muted that word yet, but there are days when I might. And that is fine. Which brings me on to the last tactic…

Taking ownership – all of these are really instances of one larger approach is that you can take control and shape your own social media environment to an extent. Educators often feel guilty about this, blocking people is not part of the socratic dialogue, and this sense of guilt is often used against them, so you’ll hear people reply “I thought education was about debate!”, if you’ve decided not to engage with their hot contrarian take. But don’t feel guilty, it is your space, and like a garden or house you construct it to bring you reward.

In general we have been learning how to use social media as individuals. It is now at such a pervasive and significant part of all components of society that turning it off is both difficult and not practical. But we can be more active in ensuring that our experience of it is better. The sort of social media training and development we give to staff and students needs to have this as a focus rather than increasing followers or brand. Because, as Lucinda Williams who I saw this week, puts it “I don’t need Donald Trump in my life”:

To re-know the known

I’ve had a couple of experiences recently that have made the familiar be seen in a new light, which if not exactly as new, is certainly fresh. The first was watching the film Yesterday with my daughter. This is a cheesy, cliche-ridden rom com with all the usual Richard Curtis tropes (what is it with him and public declarations of love?). And yet, the basic premise – that everyone forgets the Beatles existed except the main character – is quite profound despite all the other stuff. It makes you, the viewer, also hear those songs as if they are new. Occasionally you might find yourself somewhere, a European city in the summer say, and a busker will be playing a Beatles song. And just for a second or two you hear it afresh before realising what it is, and in that moment you appreciate the quality of those songs. This is what parts of the film do and it is enhanced when watching it with someone who has an awareness of their music, but not a big knowledge of their catalogue.

The second experience was also film related. As many will know I am a huuuuuge Jaws fan. But I’ve not really seen it on the big screen, I was only 8 or so when it came it, and the first time I saw it was at a holiday camp when I was 11, projected onto a wall. I’ve seen it a couple of times in similar circumstances since, but it currently has a proper, digitally remastered, cinema release. Watching this very familiar film on a big screen was both an exercise in nostalgia (I wanted to cheer as “SHARK ATTACK” is typed out), and it also allowed me to see it differntly. For instance, in the scene where Hooper visits Brody with wine, I found myself watching Scheider open the wine bottle rather than Dreyfuss talking. It struck me that this was a brave directorial decision, because he has to cut the foil off, and uncork the wine, which could easily go wrong and ruin the scene, but it makes it very natural.

What both of these examples illustrate is the possibility to re-know the very well known. Jaws and Beatles songs are amongst the most familiar of modern cultural artefacts that it might seem impossible to find anything new in them. While walking the dog I have been pondering how these examples had some resonance with a couple of experiences with education recently (you are correct – there is NOTHING I won’t pressgang into use as a metaphor for education). As someone who has worked in higher ed, writes about ed tech, and through TEF and ALT has a reasonable (although not David Kernohan-level) understanding of the sector, higher education as a whole becomes difficult to see anew.

The first of these experiences is signing up for another course (in Classical Studies). It doesn’t start until September, so I’m trying to get up to speed, not having studied it at undergrad level. I’ve written before about the value in becoming a student again. One of these benefits is that allows those of us who work in education to experience it from a different perspective, both practically (what is it like to navigate university systems?) and emotionally (how does it feel to be out of your depth in a subject?).

The second is the experience of visiting university open days with my daughter who is in the process of choosing where to study. From these I have I have come away impressed by the resilience of the university system as a whole. Despite being a political football, having REF and TEF thrown at it, fees, precarious labour practices, the impact of new technology, and numerous metrics and policies it needs to support, the core offering of higher education is still attractive. I came away wishing I was studying these courses. None of this is to gloss over the issues in higher education, but rather to recognise that despite all of these, educators, administrators and all staff are still enthusing people to want to study. That is something to be acknowledged and cherished, and seeing the system from the eyes of a prospective newcomer to it made me appreciate that.

Both of these are about the HE system as a whole, but more local versions exist also. For example, we found that using OER caused educators to reflect on their own practice. In my 25 Years series, I argued that the shift to online made people question appropriate pedagogy, often for the first time in their careers.


The benefit in doing so is to gain a different insight into your own practice, and in something as slippery and varying as education, that is always useful. My conclusion then is roughly twofold: it is possible to see familiar things anew given the right impetus; it is useful as educators to find ways of realising this within higher education. Mind-blowing, right?