Annotation & the net conundrum

Chaos

Annotation tools such as hypothes.is have gathered a lot of interest over the past year, and certainly have a lot of potential in education. It was at Open Ed last year that Jon Becker brought some of the ethical issues to my attention. These tools allow others to overlay annotation and commentary on any site, visible to anyone with that browser extension. It’s not on that site as such, so they don’t need permission to do that. This is great for annotating, say, an article in a newspaper, or a Governmental press release for example. But as Audrey Watters points out, less great if as an individual, you have been subjected to threats and trolls in the past. Just as you may want to turn off comments, so you may want to turn off annotation. And that’s what Audrey has done by installing a bit of code. As she puts it “My blog. My rules. No comments.” That seems fair enough – part of the message around helping people develop digital identity is owning your own space, which means have agency and control over that.

However, it comes at a cost. There is no speaking truth to power if you can block tools, you can’t annotate say the latest White House environmental policy stating the scientific evidence for damage this will cause (of course you can elsewhere, but it’s working on that document that others will see where there is value). This is the essential problem we keep coming back to with the internet: The great thing about the internet is that anyone can say anything. The terrible thing about the internet is that anyone can say anything. It’s why discussion lists, chat rooms and twitter have all succumbed to dark forces. Annotation is just the latest manifestation of this essential dichotomy between complete openness (but vile people use it to make people’s lives miserable) and control (used by states and corporations to block criticism). There are negatives at either end (and positives too it should be said).

In his excellent newsletter (sign up if you haven’t already) Mike Caulfield sums it up “the lessons of the past decade or so of the web have been harsh. The dream of open participation, in the economic and social climate it has been dropped into, has been as much plague as cure. It’s been easily perverted by the hateful, the corporate, and more recently perhaps, the state-sponsored.” Mike goes onto argue that we can address this dichotomy by careful tool design: “the separate question is what should be encouraged by the design of our technology. People want to turn this into a legal debate, but it’s not. It’s a tools debate, and the main product of a builder of social tools is not the tool itself but the culture that it creates. So what sort of society do you want to create?”

I’m not sure the problem can be addressed by tool design, it’s just too intractable. But I don’t know enough about tool design, so maybe it can, it would be good to see if there are ways we can shape it. And in this, hypothes.is seem like a reasonable ally, they’re a non-profit and from what I know of them, seem genuinely want to engage in this issue. So if we’re going to make it work, then they represent a good case study. Maybe we can’t though – and simply being able to block is the best solution. Because this issue is central to the future of the internet, and will resurface with the next tool. And given that the internet shapes pretty much most of society now, it is THE FUTURE OF ALL HUMANITY (what’s that? You were with me up until the last bit and then I overdid it?)

The mission statement

mission and purpose

This follows on from yesterday’s post, last week at the Hewlett meeting I was asked to do a two minute presentation about OER work at the OU. There’s quite a lot to fit into two minutes, so I concentrated on four aspects:

  • Research – the OER Hub conducts research on the impact of OER
  • Community – GO-GN develops a global community of OER phD researchers
  • Content – OpenLearn releases thousands of hours of openly licensed learning material
  • International – projects like TESSA and TESS-India use locally developed OER to aid teacher education

My overarching theme was that all of these could be directly influenced by the OU’s mission statement. Now, most mission statements are rather mom and apple pie, and aspirational word bingo (I suspect many of you won’t be able to state your university’s mission statement if you work at one). But at the OU our mission statement ‘is to be open to people, places, methods and ideas.’ This is something we all really sign up for and believe. It is also a really well crafted, concise mission statement that has a number of consequences.

In its original interpretation it translated as the following:

  • People – anyone can study with the OU, there were no entry requirements
  • Places – you could study at a distance and didn’t need to attend a campus
  • Methods – part time, distance education, augmented by the use of television, summer schools, face to face tutorials and then other technologies
  • Ideas – less tangible, but for instance when the traditional universities were being snobbish and refusing to let the OU run summer schools, they considered hiring a boat and doing summer school cruises around the UK (the other unis realised what a massive cash cow summer schools would be and so this idea was not put into place).

The adoption of OER can be seen as an extension of this mission. But it also underpins each of my four example above, for instance in doing research we have to be open to methods, there are often different approaches you need to adopt to get at an answer (not just quantitative research for example).

I raise this because someone commented yesterday that they hadn’t really twigged that it meant the OPEN university. I know what they mean, we get accustomed to saying it as one noun, and not hearing the individual elements. But the mission statement illustrates I think how much openness is core to its identity. It’s a pretty good statement to return to when considering the direction of the OU I find, and if I were tasked with coming up with a mission statement that was relevant today, I don’t think I could do better.

The Open who?

The Open University

I was at the Hewlett OER meeting, and then the Creative Commons summit last week in Toronto. I’ll blog about that later, but for now (and to mark the OU’s 48th birthday today), here is a short post about the Open University. I was surprised at how often during those two meetings I would say I was from the Open University, and it be the first time the person had heard of it. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, I don’t expect everyone to have heard of us, but in two meetings that are largely about open education, it was telling. The follow up conversation would then be along the lines of ‘are you a proper university?’, ‘how do you make money?’, ‘what do you do?’.

My take on this is that open education, at least in this context, has become something quite distinct from open education as it was defined by the OU, and subsequent distance ed universities. What it means here is something like ‘openly licensed education’, or ‘OER education’. When I was in these conversations, it became clear that the model people had in mind was a foundation, NGO or ed tech start up, not a large scale, national university. I have no evidence for this, but my sense is that this would not have been the case 10 or 15 years ago. But open education is, like ed tech, a field people come into from elsewhere (and that diversity of experience is one of the reasons I like it). What this does mean is that their interpretation of open ed is shaped largely by immediate experience, and not a canon of foundational work (I’m NOT getting into the ‘should it be a discipline‘ discussion here again :).

In the Battle for Open, I suggested that there were three ‘parents’ for the current interpretation of open ed: open universities, open source and web 2.0. These merged together into a set of coalescing principles. But I wonder if we are witnessing a divergence now. If you go to conferences such as EDEN or ICDE, these were borne out of the distance ed movement, and here someone from Lumen learning (say) may get the same response I had at these other conferences, whereas everyone knows them at these two I attended.

I think there is, however, real benefit to both sides in maintaining overlap and dialogue between them. For the open universities, there are practices which are relevant. I have often remarked that we struck lucky with the title “The Open University” as it is still a very applicable, resonant name now. But we have very carefully and strategically worked with new definitions of openness in education – adopting open source Moodle as our VLE, setting up OpenLearn to be part of the OER movement, and FutureLearn to engage with MOOCs. Similarly there are current developments in the ‘new’ open education movement we might take advantage of, including open textbooks, open pedagogy and open business models. The reverse is true for the OER-related open ed movement, they are often times creating approaches that look akin to the OU model (I remember the excitement in the MOOC field when it rediscovered the idea of face to face study groups – we ruffled its hair and said “that’s nice”). We can provide years of experience and research in pedagogy, course production models, support, student profiles, etc.

So on the OU’s birthday this is a note to make sure we maintain on both sides that cross over. And also slight *ahem* – it’s why having a research team such as the OER hub that spans both communities is worthwhile. Anyway, happy birthday OU, 48 is a good age, I’ve been there for 22 of them, and I hope I’ll be here for a few more yet.

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.

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