Yeah, but what do _we_ know?
I hosted a series of seminars here at the OU, with the intention of sharing research we have in various aspects of ed tech, prompting the OU to ask questions of itself and also to showcase that we have lots of internal expertise (and, ahem, don’t need to pay consultants to tell us how to be a good Open University). They’ve now finished so this provides an opportunity to summarise the series. Firstly, here is a recap of the topics and speakers:
- Martin Weller – models of open, online flexible learning
- Bart Rienties – learning analytics
- Wayne Holmes – Artificial intelligence
- Rebecca Galley – Learning design
- Denise Whitelock – automated assessment
For the record, we had more planned on MOOC research, informal accreditation and student surveys, but for various reasons these didn’t materialise, but would make good topics for any future series.
So, what can be gleaned from these talks? I gave each of the speakers the same brief, which was to highlight research, give an overview of the field and bring it back to the OU context, but beyond this they had a free hand. Given this, there are still a surprising number of similarities that arise. Firstly, in most talks it is evident that the work at the OU is amongst the world leading research in that area. It is often the case that when you are inside an institution you see only the barriers or problems, and when you are external to an organisation, you see only the positive aspects. Of course, the truth always lies somewhere in-between these two, but it is worth acknowledging the excellent work of colleagues and how the OU continues to lead in many of the pertinent issues for open, online education. But while this is true, nearly all presenters gave a mixed picture. There was more we could do, and many things that had not worked as well as expected. It can be painful to acknowledge this sometimes, but part of the problem with the internal/external perspective is that it can appear that everywhere else is only having success because we are not all honest about the problems.
Another recurring theme was the sensitive, appropriate application of these approaches. None of my colleagues were advocating mass revolution, or some fully automated university. The issues were all around how to use such tools to effectively support students and educators. It is this understanding of how ed tech operates within an existing system, and the complex nature of those interactions that sets apart academic ed tech in my view from much of commercial ed tech, which seeks to reimagine the education system so that many of the problems disappear. Imagining your technology working effectively in a technology-centric education system is easy, it is getting it to work in the messy, ill defined world of humans that is difficult.
Lastly, the series as a whole provides a model for how senior management can think about the issues facing their own institutions (not just here at the OU). Lawrie Phipps has an intriguing post on how most technology vendors don’t want academics in the room when talking to senior management, because they ask awkward questions. However, what this series demonstrated is that the asking of those awkward questions is part of the process of thinking through a solution. Having staff present on such topics and then couch them in terms of strategic possibilities provides a much more context sensitive approach, and also highlights that an institution trusts its own experts.