Liminal spaces, folklore and networks

At OER19 Kate Bowles’s keynote set me thinking, as she always does. She made the point that if we value things we should recognise them, so for example valuing ethical behaviour by institutions is encouraged by tables such as the Times Higher’s recent one linked to sustainable development goals. This chimed with recent thoughts on the invisibility of certain forms of academic labour. We don’t value much of the work that is done in social media, ephemeral spaces, networks, etc because we don’t recognise it in the same way as, say, books and articles.

Straight after Kate’s talk was a session by David White in which he was encouraging us to consider what would be the drivers to get people to adopt open methods of practice. And one such driver would of course, be to count them, in the way we count everything else (TEF, REF, h-index, etc).

And this leads to a dilemma. In a distinctly neo-liberal (I know, I went there) environment, if you want the sort of labour that many people do (often women, or people on precarious contracts or early career researchers) then you have to surface it and make it count. It would be nice if we could trust HEIs not to exploit hidden labour, but we can’t. But, we also know how that ‘counting’ gets used to create the anxiety and pressure in the system, and that just reinforces the whole game.

It would also pretty much kill the whole point and appeal of alternative outputs for academics. Imagine if producing X number of blog posts, acquiring a certain number of Twitter followers or achieving a requisite number of views were linked explicitly to promotion, or financial reward. It would be a gamified mess that makes the citation chasing metrics seem positively dignified. And as nearly always turns out to be the case, any formalisation of the system would benefit existing power structures, and not the people we might hope it would.

Talking to Dave after his session, he mentioned the notion of liminality as a way of thinking about this. Blogs and social media are a liminal space – that is a space that is inbetween others, a threshold. Stairwells, hallways are examples in architecture. Liminality is often concerned with transition – moving from one state to another, eg this paper suggests blogs are a means of student teachers moving to becoming experienced teachers.

In mythology however, liminal spaces aren’t necessarily about an individual becoming something else, that is there is no desired end state after the transition. Instead they are revered as spaces that operate at the threshold of worlds – the betweeness itself is valued. For instance, in the Welsh folktale of the Mabinogion, liminal spaces are those that connect to the otherworld. In the First Branch Pwyll sits on a mound that “whosoever sits upon it cannot go thence, without either receiving wounds or blows, or else seeing a wonder.” He sees, and meets the mythical Rhiannon who will become his wife as a result.

So my vague combination of all these things is that rather than surrender online networks to the machine – but while still recognising that they require real labour to be made effective – we seek to establish ‘liminal spaces’ within our institutions and work loads. That is, there is work which is recognised as valuable (as the mound is prized), but that we do not require to excavate it and examine it too closely. How this works exactly I remain unsure, many universities still have some notion of ‘research time’ so perhaps it is about allowing this work to be recognised as a valuable component of that, without then micro-managing it. But I concede it’s a dangerous game, sometimes the transitions in liminal spaces are not always welcome ones after all.

GO-GN, UK OpenTextbooks and OER19

[Repost from the ALT blog]

In this post I am going to attempt to weave together three aspects: the UK Open Textbooks Project, the GO-GN network and the evolving nature of the OER conference. This year, we sponsored the OET19 project through the UK Open Textbooks project. This project investigated whether the successful North American model of open textbook adoption would transfer to the UK. We partnered with OpenStax and the Open Textbook Network, who provided different models of textbook adoption.

We have a fabulous shiny report on the project coming out next week, so look out for it on the website and twitter. The conclusion, was ‘sorta’. I was surprised by the interest in open textbooks in the UK FE/HE sector, but cost was less of a driving factor. It’s often been my experience that OER conferences in N. America are too focused on open textbooks, but it may be that the UK OER conference doesn’t give them enough coverage. They are sometimes portrayed as the boring aspect of open education, who wants a textbook when you can do so many other things? But the interest they generated in our study was not so much related to them being free but the pedagogic possibilities they opened up. Whilst it is true that content is not everything, that doesn’t mean it’s nothing, and the creative use of open textbooks is an area ripe for development in the UK.

The Global OER Graduate Network (GO-GN) is a project the OER Hub team at the OU have been running for several years. It is a network of doctoral researchers in the broad field of OER. Every year we bring about 12-15 of them together for an intensive two-day seminar. The focus here is on developing their research, and giving them a chance to network with other researchers from around the world. In an emerging field such as OER a researcher may be the only one in their institution looking at open education, and so the connection to a network like GO-GN has proven invaluable. We usually coincide this seminar with the OEGlobal conference, but with their move to a November slot we decided to link it up with OER19. This was particularly apt as one of the co-chairs, Catherine Cronin, is a GO-GN alumnus.

Although the GO-GN started with a focus very specifically on OER, it has evolved over time to include more aspects of open pedagogy and open educational practice. All of the researchers presented over the two-day seminar and the range of topics was diverse and rich. In this the GO-GN reflects the evolution of the OER conference itself, from one focused very deliberately on the development and implementation of OER, to one concerned with a wide range of issues which open education and resources have an influence upon.

The GO-GN researchers past and present were well represented throughout the OER19 programme, with over 30 presentations, which is evidence of this mutual development in areas of interest.

All of the GO-GN participants came away from Galway enthused (if a little tired), and with renewed vigour for their research. For the OER Hub team, this marks the end of one phase of GO-GN and with the next phase we hope to develop some of these ideas further.

This leaves me somewhat conflicted as my first takeaway was ‘don’t underestimate the importance of resources’ and my second one was ‘the evolution away from a resource-centric focus in OER is to be applauded’. Perhaps the way to reconcile these is to argue that in the past the ‘R’ in OER has stood taller, and we are now looking at a rebalance of attention across all three aspects of OER.

50 years of IET

At the OU I work in The Institute of Educational Technology (IET). This year the OU is celebrating it’s 50th, and thanks to some excellent historical research from my colleagues Lesley McGrath and Patrick McAndrew, we think we have a date for when the first proposal for IET went forward too. Apparently it was fashionable not to put a date on documents back in 1969 (thanks past people!), but Lesley proposes the following dates:

June 1969 – establishment of An Applied Educational Sciences Unit
Mar 1970 Proposal for this to become IET
Jul 1970 approval of IET staffing and costs

The role of IET is explained in this 1973 clip. Then there is a fabulous 1976 video here of David Hawkridge detailing what IET did back in those early days.

So, June this year can be said to be the 50th for IET in some respects. It was an important step, because educational technology didn’t really exist much before then. There were lecture halls, and research on the efficacy of labs maybe but in the face to face model which pretty much had a monopoly in higher ed, what was the need for educational technology research? But the OU of course needed to evaluate how different approaches worked, and what technology worked effectively at a distance. So, if you were feeling generous, you could sort of say they invented ed tech (or at least gave it prominence and legitimacy). Yes, it’s all our fault. Anyway, I was asked by those nice people at Wonkhe to write a piece on this, in my unofficial role as “Old Man of OU Ed Tech”.

(In a more official role, VC Mary Kellet also has an excellent piece on 50 years of the OU)

The great support mystery

This is sort of a companion post to a previous one on recognising different types of labour, particularly work associated with women. I enjoyed this article in Wonkhe from Cath Brown, the President of the Open University Students Association. She talks about the difficulties of supporting distance ed students, but also the importance of this support, stating ‘A feeling of being supported – that someone out there knows about you and your studies as an individual, will look out for you, and share your highs and lows – can make a real difference’.

But, as I’ve commented on here previously, support for distance (which in most models translates to ‘online’) students is rarely something that garners interest, headlines or investment. Indeed, given how valuable we know it is, the concentration of effort seems to be on finding ways to remove it. MOOCs, AI, learning analytics, automated assessment – these are often framed in terms of scaling up online learning by removing the need for human support. This is taken as a given to the extent that people don’t often question it. So, let’s question it – why is human support in online education undervalued and deemed replaceable? I propose it is a result of the following four reasons:

1) It’s costly. Much of the motivation for new models of education is couched in terms of the cost of higher education. This is particularly prevalent when students themselves bear the cost through student loans. Then it is framed in terms of a return on investment or democratising education. Someone has to pay for education, that is true, but these questions are rarely asked in countries that view higher education as a civic mission, for example Germany. Seeking a technological solution to the question of cost is missing the more fundamental issue as to how a society funds higher education. If the Bill Gates, Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos of the world turned their resources to adequately funding higher education, then the view might be different.

2) It’s messy. Technological solutions that remove the need for human support are, well, neater. People have problems, illness, dips in performance, and so on. Algorithms don’t. But beyond this trite comparison there is something deeper in our psyche maybe, which is a desire for a clean, definite solution instead of acknowledging an ongoing vagueness. Despite all our study and research, education remains a slippery beast. We sort of know what works, but not always, not for everyone, not every time. And that just grates against our desire for a clear resolution, like a Scooby mystery that doesn’t have an unmasking. By seeking to formalise the support element through technology, this becomes a more controlled aspect.

3) It’s undervalued. A tautology, but part of the reason the support role is undervalued is because it’s undervalued. The significance of support in education is not realised often, partly because it’s messy as we’ve seen but also because it can be hidden. So because it’s not seen, its value is underplayed, which allows other components in the educational offering (content, assessment) to be seen as central. That’s not to say they’re not important, but as we proposed in our OOFAT model, content, recognition and delivery (which equates with support in this sense) are all equally significant. And if it seen as less important then it receives less attention, and thus can be replaced, in a way we would not consider for the other components.

4) It’s not technological. I’ve been reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez and she makes a point we all know, that men tend to seek technological solutions to problems. Her example of clean stoves in developing nations is telling – the mostly male developers kept trying to ‘fix’ (educate) the women who weren’t using them. But when they actually paid attention to how they were being used they found that the new stoves couldn’t accommodate the logs women were using, and as chopping logs fell to them also, they didn’t want to take on extra work in their busy schedules. This is relevant in two respects. First, support is probably perceived as being a more female role. This is not necessarily true, there is nothing innate between sexes to make a difference, but it is about perceptions and investors and education innovators probably perceive of support as ‘soft’, ‘caring’, ‘nurturing’ – all aspects they would associate with women. This automatically gives a bias (see being undervalued) in a male dominated industry. Second, like the stove designers the technologists don’t talk to educators, but rather they want to develop a technological fix to the problem.

All of which is not to set up technology and support in opposition. Ed tech can help support be more effective, for instance, attendance at OU online tutorials is around 50% more than face to face. Learning analytics can be an additional useful tool to help tutors know when to intervene. Social media provides meaningful support networks for many learners. And so on. But all these examples start from a premise of valuing and recognising support. So, let’s be those pesky kids and stop those venture capitalist ed tech evangelists from getting away with it.

Ranking Full Stop

Ranking Roger of The (English) Beat passed away yesterday, which caused me to reminisce about my first ever gig, seeing them play at the Rainbow in 1981. I posted a thread on Twitter, but then lay awake for much of the night recalling other details, and also just how alien the 1980s seem to today. So forgive an old man his nostalgia, as I flesh out that experience a bit more.

It was May 1981, and I had just turned 14. Living in Waltham Abbey, we are both part of London, but also on its periphery. A mate & I had been fans of the Beat since their first album and decided to see them at the legendary Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park in the lead up to their second album, Wha’ppen. We got the tube from Loughton and I was quite apprehensive. I hadn’t exactly led a sheltered life but going to a gig seemed like something older, proper London people did.

I can’t remember the support act, but it was quite sedate & I felt reassured. This would be just standing around, appreciating music, so we took up a position about halfway back, in the centre. Then the Beat came on & it was like an extra 5000 people had poured into a small space. The number of people per square metre trebled and they were all surging towards the front. There may have been seating further back, but where we were, it was all standing, with a sprung wooden dance floor. The whole floor was bouncing, I was afraid the building was in danger of imminent collapse. I was swept into a sort of skanking mosh pit.

Skanking was like a mixture of pogoing & running on the spot. It is exhausting to maintain for two minutes. This went on for 90 minutes and you were forced to continue, like a bouncy version of They Shoot Horses Don’t They? To relent risked getting sucked under the trampling feet. I was desperate for the band to play a slower number, to allow us to get our breath back. I began to curse them for being irresponsible as another crowd pleaser segued straight from the previous one. They didn’t let up for the whole night (apart from the ageing Saxa who sat on a stool). I must have lost about a stone in weight.

The skinhead and 2-tone movement was at its peak around then. Skinheads were a mixture of very left-wing, anti-racists and swastika tattooed nazis, you got one of the extremes (sadly the latter would come to dominate over the next few years with the Oi! movement, and it died as a youth culture). I used to go to Petticoat Lane market on Sundays (you could buy an album for £2.99 there) and you would see the skins, languishing by a wall in their Crombies, smoking, passing around a can of Special Brew like visitors from the Planet Fuck You. Skinhead boys were not uncommon in my school, but skinhead girls were still a rarity. It was a bold look in an age that idolised glamour. As I was caught up in that heaving mass of humanity, I found myself next to a skinhead girl, dressed in full regalia, like an incel’s worst nightmare – no. 2 shaved head, Ben Sherman shirt, braces, black jeans, DMs.

A very drunk bloke with a mullet and an excess of denim was pestering her. You have to appreciate that the start of the 80s still resembled the 70s in many ways, and a band like the Beat attracted a mixed audience. This bloke had clearly missed the memo about the changing times. As if to alert him to this fact, skinhead girl stopped dancing momentarily and nonchalantly punched him. Just full on laid him out, then went back to dancing. He didn’t move (I don’t think he was dead) and some bouncers dragged his prone body out. I was both scared and impressed – I’d never seen anything like this. It was the decisive manner in which skinhead girl acted so immediately, no debate, just boom! It was if with that right hook she sent him back to 1975. There was no room for that kind of shit where she was going. Fights were breaking out with casual abandon everywhere, as if they were just a regular part of the entertainment.

We survived and left completely soaked through in sweat. It was a Sunday so the underground was even worse than usual and there were no trains running past about 10.30. Having missed the last train back we set off walking with a vague plan to get a bus or something. We had no money and mobile phones were the stuff of science fiction. Walking along a street somewhere in north London, a car passed and my friend shouted “Nick!”. The car stopped and it was driven by the older brother of a school friend. He had been visiting his girlfriend and offered us a lift home. At the time I just accepted this with the incuriosity of a teenager, but now I can hardly credit that it occurred. London is not a small place, and we just happened to see someone we knew, who stopped for us. My friend was feeling nauseous after the night’s exertions and being hit by cold air while soaking wet. He spent the drive back with his head out of the window trailing a line of vomit like a horror movie Hansel and Gretel.

And that was my first gig. It perfectly captured the exhilaration and also the casual violence of London in the 80s. I went to school the next day and was like the ancient mariner wanting to stop one in three and tell them I had seen the world out there. It was scary and violent and noisy and dangerous and exciting and full of possibilities. I went to a lot of gigs after that (don’t worry I won’t make Martins 1980s Gig Tales a series), but none quite matched the awakening of that first one. Somewhere a kid will be having a similar experience this weekend, and I envy them. You only get a handful of those transformative experiences in life, so thankyou Roger for mine. Rank in peace.

The form of shame

As the latest Brexit crises (it is not just one single crisis, but a series of crises now) unfolded this week, each more worrying, bizarre and removed from rationality than the previous one, I’ve noticed one overriding emotion emerging in myself. From the sludgy mix of anger, depression, puzzlement, hysteria, the one that emerged like a taste of celery overriding everything else was shame. I have never felt so ashamed to be British. I appreciate that nationality is a social, even imaginary construct, and I have never held romantic notions about Britain’s past. But I am, in my way, quite “British” in character – reserved, emotionally crippled, polite, fond of beer and pie. Like most people, I am a product of my culture, and if you’ve met me, you will know that there’s a streak of “British” running through my personality.

Every nation has its characteristics, and they are always a mixture of positive and negative elements. Having worked on many European projects, one sees that although national stereotypes are too simplistic, there is also an element of truth in them. In most European bids the British partner is usually seen as hard working, not necessarily imaginative, collegiate, humorous, but also usually a monoglot and a bit off to one side.

But this week more than any other, all of the counters I might have given to the negative aspects of Britishness and British history, have finally evaporated. All that remains is shame: shame that we inflicted this devastating crisis on ourselves; shame that we gave charlatans, racists and fools such prominence; shame that we have diminished the future for my daughter and her generation; shame that we have been so utterly rude and contemptuous to our European neighbours; shame that our cherished political systems have been so incapable of preventing the fiasco from continuing; shame that we look to the past, Empire and war instead of to the future; shame that the only arguments people have left are based on selfishness and delusion. And finally shame that I am part of that mix. I would like to think “this is not who we are”, but it seems that in fact, this is exactly who we are. It has now been revealed, the UK has taken on its final form, and it’s not attractive. It is cushioned somewhat by being in Wales, as most of the bluster comes from England. But Wales still voted to leave, still commits the sin of thinking there is some rational debate to be had with extremists. And Wales will suffer (more) the same fate, as part of Britain. And when it comes to Britain, I’ve finally come to feel that I no longer have any relationship with this pompous, ridiculous nation.

Anyway, here’s an Irish comedian capturing much of the aspects of Britishness:

Gatherer calories and invisible artefacts – labour in OEP

I’m reading Angela Saini’s excellent Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong at the moment, which examines the range of ways science has misrepresented, simplified and ignored women. There’s a lot to dig into, and she writes clearly and knowledgeably, so I’d recommend it. While acknowledging I am writing about areas outside of my expertise, this reading, combined with some other conversations has sparked some thoughts that may be of interest.

One of the chapters in Saini’s book looks at how anthropology had elevated the role of the hunter in hunter-gatherer societies, until a feminist movement in the 80s and 90s caused a reappraisal of much of the literature in the field. In particular I was struck by two ways in which women’s contributions were significantly underplayed, or rendered irrelevant (Saini is quick to point out that hunter-gatherers vary enormously, and there is no fixed model, sometimes there is no sexual division of labour and other times there are clearly defined roles, so what follows is a generalisation).

The first was the prioritising of the contribution of the hunter to the group. Because most of the research had hitherto been done by men, there was a pretty explicit assumption that hunting was the most valuable activity. But closer analysis revealed that often the calories provided by hunting did not represent the majority of the group’s intake. The “gatherer calories” (also often small animal hunting) typically provided by women accounted for anywhere up to three quarters of the overall. The gatherer calories here were simply not regarded as important by the researchers because of cultural values they had about what was significant. The second aspect was that, following dodgy evolutionary psychology reasoning, it was proposed that men developed certain skills in order to hunt, including being natural inventors. But, again, closer inspection revealed that women often created more inventions, such as bowls, food storage, etc. Crucially though, these types of inventions would often decompose, leaving no archeological trace, whereas a sharpened spear point would remain. In this respect the contribution of women literally became invisible to scientific record.

This is all an over-simplification and I apologise to any anthropologists out there (hi Donna!), but it serves as an analogy I feel. These two examples provide ways of considering what constitutes labour and methods by which it is undervalued. The first type of work – gatherer calories – is ignored because it is not deemed important. The second – invisible artefacts – are not seen because they are ephemeral. If we take these two as metaphors then we can think about the type of labour we see in digital and open practice. So for example, much of digital scholarship (blog posts, twitter networks) is akin to gatherer calories, it is not deemed as worthy as, say, one highly cited paper, but in fact may contribute more to the overall academic discourse in that area.

I was having a conversation with Deb Baff who is examining informal online communities as a means of staff development. The work of communities such LTHEChat do much of the heavy lifting of professional development in the open, digital space, but like the invisible artefacts, it remains unseen because the people who make decisions about reward don’t inhabit that space. It is often the case that women do much of these two forms of labour in digital, open spaces, and also early career researchers, academics on precarious contracts and many of those professionals that Whitchurch describes as occupying the Third Space. These are all categories whose contribution is undervalued and can struggle to get their work recognised within formal structures.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but the first step is definitely to recognise that ‘gatherer calories’ type activities in OEP and digital scholarship are valuable, and secondly to find ways to surface the ‘invisible artefacts’ type contributions so that they are seen and noted.

Others have written much more and better about academic labour than I have here, in different contexts and how it touches upon digital practice, including Kate Bowles, Maha Bali, Catherine Cronin, and Richard Hall.

[UPDATE: Reposted, with added GIFs at FemEdTech open SPLOT]

Learning the rules of predicting the future

I was asked to contribute a piece on the future of higher ed in the next 50 years. I don’t really like these sorts of things, they tend to be a bit ‘hoverboards for education!’ fluff pieces. But in exploring why I didn’t like them, I wrote the following, which I don’t think is what they were after. Here it is anyway, with added Parks and Recreation gifs:


Predicting the future of education is a game to which we never seem to learn the rules. Despite nearly all previous predictions being wrong, the tendency is to continue in the belief that this time, technology will lead to wholesale revolution. The first rule to learn about change in higher education is that very little changes, while simultaneously everything changes. Any prediction that highlights just one of these elements underestimates either the immutability of the general higher education system, or the degree of innovation that actually does occur within it. So, a prediction would be that the future of education will look not dissimilar on the surface, but closer inspection will reveal significant changes around the use of technology to support learning.


A second rule is that technological change is rarely about the technology. Take recent innovations such as eportfolios or digital badges. The technology here is fairly robust and straightforward, but what they require to have impact is a shift in cultural attitudes from employers and learners regarding recognition, the format of learning and alternative accreditation. A second prediction then will be that many existing technologies will still be around, but that some of them will have developed the appropriate social structures for broad adoption, whereas others will have withered in this task.


The third rule is to appreciate the historical amnesia in much of educational technology. Every few years the same ideas are reinvented and heralded as a new innovation, for instance MOOCs were proclaimed by some to be the first attempt at online learning, which had in fact been working effectively for 15 years or so. A related prediction then will be that exactly the same technologies we see now will be present in the future, but under different names.


The fourth, and final rule I would suggest is that technology is not ethically or politically neutral. This has become increasingly evident through the use of social media for political purposes, the misuse of data by Cambridge Analytica and the manner in which AI algorithms reinforce the gender or racial bias in much of society. The prediction here then is that awareness of this will continue to grow, with educators and learners viewing technology use in education as a political choice (whether to partake in data capitalism for instance) as an educational one.


Some aspects will become commonplace as a trajectory of what we have now, for instance the use of online education will expand as people are increasingly comfortable and adept at creating social bonds online. The distinction between face to face and online diminishes, so all university study is to an extent, blended. The use of narrow AI focused on particular tasks will increase, but so too will the scepticism around what this means. Similarly learning analytics will become an increasingly contested ground, between what is possible, what is ethical, what is desirable from a learner perspective and what is useful for an educator.

In short, the future will have much resonance with the present, but it will be one where the relationship between people and increasingly powerful technology is one that is constantly examined and negotiated. I would not expect any grand revolution in the higher education space, the much quoted concept of disruption is almost entirely absent and inappropriate in this space. So don’t expect the type of future often predicted by educational technology entrepreneurs, with all existing universities made redundant by a new technology centric model. Instead we see a continual model of innovation, testing, adaption and revisiting within the constraints of an existing, and robust system.


Questions about openness – the audience decides!

During my inaugural I made extensive use of PollEverywhere, in order to make it more interactive and gain feedback (I also had a sore throat so these parts gave me a chance to swig water,  but let’s go with the pedagogic justification). Following on from the previous post detailing the theme of the inaugural, here are the responses to the questions, and some musings on what they mean.

First of all, lots of lovely people came in from across the globe (disc if you’re a flat-earther) which in a way, demonstrated the point I was making about exploring openness. These were often people I have met via blogs, social media, and open practice generally, and they were now participating in my keynote.

Next I asked what the ‘open’ in ‘Open University’ meant to the audience. Predictably this focused around access to education, which the OU was specifically established to address:

This provided the basis to explore different interpretations of open education, and at the end of this, I asked the audience to imagine that they were the Vice Chancellor for a year, and which area they would prioritise for development. Interestingly there was little love for MOOCs and OER (perhaps people feel that they’ve been adequately prioritised through FutureLearn and OpenLearn). Despite my prompting around open textbooks, the winner was open pedagogy. I did a similar presentation at UCL yesterday, and the results were similar. This indicates that exploring ways in which we can get students involved in aspects of open practice, and using open resources in teaching is what interests educators (perhaps unsurprisingly). I would suggest then that if you have an open education policy or initiative then framing it in terms of open pedagogy is a route to adoption. I would also propose that the OU makes this an explicit staff development aim.

Then, I took people quickly through the OOFAT work, and proposed this as a means of considering institutional strategy. Of the different dimensions where the OU did not currently score highly (as rated by our own staff), where should the strategic direction focus? Here, the perhaps surprising winner was flexible assessment, such as being able to take assessment at different times, in different formats.

Lastly, I set out how open education, and by extension the OU, played a role in society. I asked for free text comments on completing this sentence, here are some of the answers.

While not a representative audience on which one might base the strategic direction of a university, the use of polls in such a presentation, particularly with many students watching online via the OU’s Facebook page, could be a useful means to quickly acquire some sense of the relative importance of different issues, which could then lead to further investigation. I know I’ve banged this drum repeatedly, but it seems a cheaper, and more open way of realising this than paying PWC millions to tell you about your own institution.

Also, I expect I’ll overuse them, but at the moment I am enjoying the use of polls in presentations as a means of creating some dialogue, breaking the talk up and also opportunities for feedback, humour and spontaneity.

You can see my slides here:

A journey through open education

On the 19th Feb I gave my inaugural lecture (rather belatedly, having become a Prof about 15 years ago), as part of the Open University’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Given the delay it was something of a mix between an inaugural and a valedictory, as I chose to trace the changing nature of open education through the personal narrative of my own involvement in projects at the OU. My pitch was that up until the 90s, ‘open education’ roughly equated to the open university model – there were some variations, but it was largely focused on access to higher education. The advent of the internet, and wide spread popularity of the web, both deliberately ‘open’ systems, changed this.

Here are the projects or related bits of work I listed:

  • Open source teaching project – towards the end of the 90s my colleague John Naughton got a few of us together to explore the idea of adapting the open source model of code development to education. We didn’t really persevere with this, which is a shame as others such as David Wiley and Stephen Downes were independently coming to some of the same conclusions. Here the open, online aspect of the internet began to touch upon how we created courses.
  • T171 – I chaired the OU’s first major online course in 1999, which I’ve mentioned on here several times. The key here was that by creating a purely online course, which was hugely successful (around 15K students per year), we demonstrated that the traditional supported open learning model of the OU could be transferred online and at scale. Large scale online learning, who ever thought that’d be a thing, eh?
  • VLE – around 2004 I became the OU’s first VLE director, at a time when we had a collection of 3rd party, in house, and sometimes cottage industry systems across the university. I proposed a service oriented architecture, and Ross Mackenzie who superseded me led the adoption of Moodle. Here we have an open source platform providing an enterprise system to around 200K students.
  • OpenLearn – I was part of the team that won a grant from Hewlett in 2006 to develop OpenLearn. This was our foray into OER, and has since gone on to be very successful, with around 8M visitors a year. Openness here is providing the OU with a new way to realise its public education mission.
  • OEP – around 2006 I started blogging and later using social media. Here the interest turns away from institutional systems to individual practice, and how open education can change the manner in which educators operate.
  • MOOCs – through blogging I met people like George Siemens and Stephen Downes, and experimented in some early MOOC output. In 2012 Martin Bean launched FutureLearn, and we have also developed Badged Open Courses on OpenLearn.
  • OER research – in 2012 we got a grant from Hewlett to set up the OER Hub and research into the hypotheses around OER benefits. As part of this we developed an evidence hub (under an open source licence) which has gone on to be used in other projects. I also made the point about researching in the open.
  • Open Access – I’m co-editor of the Open Access journal JIME, which is operated by Ubiquity Press, and through a small grant from the OU we cover the APCs so it’s free to publish. I’ve also published two (soon to be three I hope) open access books, and since around 2009 I made a vow to only publish open access.
  • Open Textbooks – we have just completed a project examining the potential for open textbooks in the UK. I made the point that open textbooks are a very OU thing and something we have the experience, expertise, systems and reputation to be leading on (but aren’t currently).
  • Open pedagogy – we have only really touched upon this in the OU, but there is room for development.

The conclusion to all this was that it turns out ‘The Open University’ is a really good name, and still current. Much of the interesting and innovative activity in higher ed happens around the concept of openness. My pitch was that the OU should focus on innovating in this area, and that it has a good story to tell. There is a strong narrative of change and adaptation in the list above, and yet last year when we were going through some of our ‘tough times’ there was often the public perception that the OU needs to ‘get digital’. The closing point I made was that the story we tell about ourselves isn’t a luxury, and the OU needs to get better at telling the type of story set out above.

You can see the lecture here: