Month: November 2015

Colonisers and edupunks (&c.): two cultures in OER?

I’ve started writing this post at the Open Education 2015 conference at the Fairmont Hotel in Vancouver because I want to try and capture some thoughts about the evolution of this movement and community.  But I’m finishing it from home after a little bit of time to digest and also after attending OpenUpTRU in Kamloops earlier in the week.

This has been my fifth consecutive Open Education conference and I’ve been privileged enough to hear from a lot of different people from around the world about their use of OER and the impact it has for them.  Over these years there has been a steady move towards raising the game with research into impact and strategising ways to mainstream the adoption of OER; perhaps the clearest example of this is the may presentations that have been devoted to open textbook adoption and efficacy studies at this conference.  This is entirely understandable given the co-ordinated focus in the USA on open textbook adoption as a tangible and measurable goal for advocacy and research.

Great things have been achieved by researchers working with the Open Education Group in this regard.  In terms of controlled studies which attempt to isolate the effects of moving to an open textbook while controlling for other variables (like instructors, etc.) there really isn’t any other game in town that comes close.  And there is a real need for this kind of work, since it is creating the body of evidence that can be used to reject the claim that open resources are of inferior quality.  The endgame here is to support widespread adoption of open textbooks in colleges.  This is something that can be measured and the savings calculated, so it’s a great strategic choice for advocates in the USA.

Now we have established that this research is great, I feel there are a couple of points to raise.  Firstly, a methodological issue related to the tension between two virtues of open textbooks that we like to put forward:  that they are ‘efficacious’ (they ’cause’ learning) [1] as established by controlled studies; and that they can be freely adapted.  How much adaptation can a text withstand before the efficacy studies – which are based on carefully controlling variables – must be repeated?  Of course, in many cases the textbooks are just adopted wholesale.  They are mapped onto common curricula and so can be used to teach a whole programme.  But if someone decides not to tamper with the textbook, isn’t the net result of all this just that the commercial textbook has been replaced by an open textbook?  But if they do ‘tamper’ with the textbook, might they be in danger of making their textbooks less ‘efficacious’?

Maybe that depends on how good they are at teaching.  What I mean by this is that, aside from all the fantastic savings made by students, the course may be taught in exactly the same way as before.  In effect, the open textbook strategy might (when fully realised) leave us with more or less the same educational systems as before (although a lot more affordable for many, and this would undoubtedly be a fine thing).

In effect, this is an attempt to ‘colonise’ an existing system by taking it over from within.  Maybe something more radical follows from this – open textbooks are a great way to introduce students and faculty to OER, and who knows what might happen a few years down the line in a situation where everyone knows about open?

For now, though, nothing much need change except using an open textbook. Except it’s not just an open textbook, because to scale up and keep making the case for efficacy the data gathered must grow, which means more metrics, open learning analytics, and possible homogenization of the learning process.

This was how I captured the thought at the time:

What was less obvious at the conference this year were the voices coming from a different part of the OER movement: the people who emphasize the radical potential of OER.

This end of the spectrum may be hard to clearly define.  They might be edupunks or critical pedagogues.  They might identify with the open source, copyleft, open data or open government movements outside of education.  They might just be libertarians who like the idea of greater personal freedom. But the thing that unites them is that OER is, for them, more about challenging existing practices and forms of knowledge transmission than replicating commercial provisions on open licences.

Because they’re a disparate bunch it’s hard to put a label on this group, even though by the title of this piece I’m referring to them as ‘edupunks (&c.)’.  The important thing is that they are more radical in ambition, and in that sense they occupy the opposite end of the spectrum from the ‘colonisers’.

Here are some illustrative comments shared on Twitter at the time.

There were plenty of others to choose from, as well as plenty of support for what is being achieved with open textbooks.  Robin actually went a step further and wrote a blog post which expressed her frustration with the dominance of open textbooks and outlined the kinds of things that she wants from a conference like Open Education.

  1. Engage learners in contributing to their learning materials so that knowledge becomes a community endeavor rather than a commodity that needs to be made accessible. To that end, let’s stop fetishizing the textbook, which is at best a low-bar pedagogical tool for transmitting information. OER is better than that.
  2. Make open licenses the focus of our advocacy for learners, teachers, scholars, which means explaining how the open license enables us to do more with the ideas that we ourselves as learners, teachers, scholars are generating. It’s not the open textbook, it’s the open license that matters here.
  3. Consider public funding models for open education (OER, open pedagogy, open access). “Philanthropy” is the wrong word for a model in which the public pays itself for what it needs and can generate on its own. And I am not buying that private, for-profit companies– while capable of being good community partners– are the only way we can build a public infrastructure for publishing and organizing and economically supporting open work.
  4. Build a better mission statement for why we work in the open. I took a stab here, but it was just one tiny specific start. I need help explaining this why. We need the why before we can develop the what (who cares about our open tools and apps and platforms? that’s the easy stuff, so let’s do it second). We need the why before we can assess whether or not we achieved success. Will working in the open serve a social justice vision? improve retention and enrollment? increase interdisciplinary collaboration and improve the quality of our scholarship? Yes? Why? How? And what will it look like if our vision succeeds?

So, should the open education movement seek to colonise education, or transform it?  In can be tempting to think that the difference here is really between evolution and revolution.  The colonisers want to evolve formal education in a helpful way while the ‘edupunks (&c.)’ are more interested in empowerment and the freedoms provided by open licensing.

We might also surmise that this is a false dichotomy. Most people are somewhere in the middle, and relatively few people go around calling themselves ‘edupunks’.  In some ways this can be seen as the return of the familiar gratis (‘colonisers’) vs libre (‘edupunk (&c.)’) distinction that has been with the OER movement since the very early days: is the OER movement about freedom, or about things being ‘free’?

C. P. Snow famously wrote about the divergence of science and the humanities in the influential The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.  Snow foresaw that the aspirations, language and standards of validity of academic cultures were moving apart in ways that prevented cross-pollination of ideas and findings.  Thus, we have science professors who have never read Shakespeare, literature professors who cannot explain the laws of thermodynamics, and so on.  Now arguably there are more interdisciplinary thinkers than there used to be but education does still tend to siphon learners off into one or the other camp.

Without getting too far into that debate, I think we can use the basic idea of ‘Two Cultures’ as a way of thinking about changes in the OER movement, and being aware of people pulling in different directions.  Everyone is still part of the same conversation at the moment, but it doesn’t feel like it would take much to see new, more niche conferences and journals springing up.  In my view, both of these cultures need each other, because each ameliorates the vulnerabilities of the other and encourages attentiveness to the bigger picture.  So keep talking!

[1] I’m a little uncomfortable personally with the language of efficacy, which risks being scientistic – I’m not sure that isolating a lot of variables and then attributing any difference to the intervention is reliable in education research per se – though it is certainly commonplace and there is of course a need for evidence.



Open education and critical pedagogy

I have a new publication entitled ‘Open Education and Critical Pedagogy’ upcoming with Learning, Media and Technology.  Here’s the abstract.

This paper argues for a revaluation of the potential of open education to support more critical forms of pedagogy. Section 1 examines contemporary discourses around open education, offering a commentary on the perception of openness as both a disruptive force in education, and a potential solution to contemporary challenges. Section 2 examines the implications of the lack of consensus around what it means to be open, focusing on the example of commercial and proprietary claims to openness commonly known as ‘openwashing’. Section 3 uses Raymond’s influential essay on open source software ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’ as a framework for thinking through these issues, and about alternative power structures in open education. In Section 4, an explicit link is drawn between more equal and democratic power structures and the possibility for developing pedagogies which are critical and reflexive, providing examples which show how certain interpretations of openness can raise opportunities to support critical approaches to pedagogy.

Keywords: open education; OER; MOOC; critique; evidence; critical
theory; critical pedagogy; discourse analysis; openwashing

The paper is available online but it unfortunately behind a paywall. I have an author’s link that allows free downloads for the first 50 requests, so if you’d like a copy then redirect your browser to

[If you try the link and all the free copies are gone, let me know and I’ll send you a pre-print version.]

Ethics of FutureLearn

This is just a mini blog post, maybe even more of a bookmark.  Futurelearn is the MOOC provider owned by The Open University but with many operational partners.  The first courses launched in September 2013 and since then, 2,683,556 people have joined FutureLearn (with varying levels of commitment, like all MOOC).

This week a colleague forwarded me their ethical practice policies, which are available at  I think they are an interesting case since FutureLearn is not committed to being an open project (though enrolments are entirely open).  I haven’t had time to go through them yet but I have an idea that I could write a paper analysing them…


Research ethics

Research Ethics for FutureLearn

The purpose of this document is to provide a framework and guidelines for ethical and productive research practices associated with FutureLearn.

1. FutureLearn welcomes research by partners into all aspects of massive online learning including, but not restricted to, learning design, course evaluation, data analysis, educational technologies, and policy related to FutureLearn. Research is essential to understanding and improving the FutureLearn offering, and online learning in general.

2. We recognise that partners will have diverse needs, interests, philosophies, methods and forms of collaboration in research, including collaboration with external partners. The research may include comparative studies of learning on FutureLearn and other platforms.

3. All research should be conducted with an ethic of respect for: the people involved, diversity of cultures and interests, the quality of research, academic freedom and responsibility, the educational and commercial interests of FutureLearn and its partners.

4. This document provides guidelines to institutions and researchers in relation to research undertaken with data provided by FutureLearn, or in relation to FutureLearn courses or technologies. It is intended as a consensual document, to set down an agreed approach to research ethics. The sections that follow are based on the ‘Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research’ by BERA.[1] Some parts of that document are quoted verbatim.
Responsibilities to Participants

1. Individuals taking part in FutureLearn courses must be treated fairly and sensitively, recognising that they are engaging voluntarily with the courses with the intention of learning. They come from a wide variety of social and cultural backgrounds, with differing attitudes to research and to intrusion into their online activities.

2. Research into participation in FutureLearn courses presents particular challenges with regard to obtaining consent. Participants must be clearly informed that their participation and interactions may be monitored and analysed for research.

3. By taking part in a free open online course, where they are informed that activities may be monitored for research purposes, participants can be assumed to have given consent for participation in research conducted according to these guidelines, so opt-in consent from each participant is not required. It follows that learners can opt out from further participation only by unregistering from FutureLearn.

4. Although the FutureLearn platform is open to registration from anyone with internet access and learner names, profiles, and general comments and replies are made available for viewing by other users, it does not imply that learners engaging in FutureLearn discussions have forfeited rights to anonymity. The contributions were made in the context of an ongoing course discussion. It would normally be expected that research into learner contributions should use anonymised data.

5. Ownership of data created by learners is a further challenge. Learners own content they create on the FutureLearn platform, which they license to FutureLearn and partners forever and irrevocably. It should be recognised that participants in courses have a moral right of identity with materials created in their name. Some materials submitted by learners, including texts, documents, images, photographs, video and computer code may have additional rights of ownership. Learner-created content is published on the FutureLearn platform under a Creative Commons Licence (Attribution-Non Commercial-NoDerivs; BY-NC-ND), which means that any learner comments quoted in research publications must be attributed to the author.

6. If a learner ends registration with FutureLearn, there will be no further contact from the company or partners with that learner in relation to FutureLearn, but anonymised data from that learner’s previous interactions may continue to be used for research.
Responsibilities of Partners

1. All research associated with FutureLearn should be based on the principles of high standards, honesty, openness, accountability, integrity, inclusion and safety.

2. Partners are expected to gain appropriate approval from their institutional ethics panel for all research conducted in relation to FutureLearn.

3. Partners and FutureLearn together should be sensitive to the problem of inundating learners with surveys, particularly where learners may be engaging with many courses. Due regard should be given to the length of a survey, its complexity, and the intrusion into a learner’s private life.

4. There is increasing awareness that the mandatory conditions required by ethics review panels may not be sufficient to illuminate the complexities of research in online environments. Researchers are expected to reflect on their practices, and are encouraged to seek peer review of research proposals, particularly if they involve new or unusual methods.

5. Researchers should normally only work with anonymised data. A clear justification would need to be provided to analyse or present non-anonymised data, such as discussion postings or learner profiles with real names.

6. All non-anonymised data received by researchers should be kept secure, and in compliance with the partner’s research data management policies. This should involve, for example, securing the user account with a good password, encrypting the computer hard drive, encrypting any backups of data, and restricting access only to those essential to process the non-anonymised data.

7. Participants should be given opportunities to access the outcomes of research in which they have participated. This might, for example, be done by mailing those who participated in the course with a link to the research findings.

8. Researchers should not bring research into disrepute by, for example: falsifying evidence or findings, ‘sensationalizing’ findings to gain public exposure, distorting findings by selectively publishing some aspects and not others, criticizing other researchers in a defamatory or unprofessional manner, undertaking work where they are perceived to have a conflict of interest, or where self-interest or commercial gain might be perceived to compromise the objectivity of the research.

9. Researchers and partner institutions should recognize that research using data provided by FutureLearn is conducted in partnership with the company. FutureLearn would expect acknowledgement in research publications. It is also appropriate to provide FutureLearn with a copy of research findings and papers in advance of publication, particularly if these offer any new insight or issues.
Responsibilities of FutureLearn

1. FutureLearn should do all it can to enable researchers to publish the findings of their research in full and under their own names.

2. FutureLearn should not seek to prevent publication of research findings, nor to criticise researchers. The company may wish to respond in public to research findings, for example to promote favourable results, or rebut unfavourable ones.

3. FutureLearn should assist research wherever it is appropriate within its resources, for example by providing partners with data on their courses in forms that enable in-depth and comparative analyses.

4. This document will be made public and available for download from the FutureLearn website. It may also be distributed freely by partners.
24th February, 2014


[1] BERA (2011). Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research. British Educational Research Association. Available online at

Who are the open learners? #opened15

Here are my slides from today’s presentation at Open Education 2015.  As ever, all feedback welcome!

11 years of Open Education with David Kernohan

Here at Open Education 2015 David Kernohan is drawing on his experience of attending many years of this conference to review the Open Education conferences (what happened, what resulted, etc.).

He captured 11 years of presentation titles and tagged them against ten categories, plotting each tag as a percentage of papers in each year.   These were then compared with data found in other sources.  The data is available from and experimenting with this is encouraged.

  • The number of attendees and sessions has grown steadily each year with more than 500 attendees in 2015.
  • Interest in sustainability peaked in 2010 – since then there has been less dependency on large grants
  • Conversely in 2010 there was a drop in interest in pedagogy
  • Policy is currently an area of particular interest; this can be understood in the context of some real progress under the Obama administration
  • Open education is a diverse interdisciplinary field, nuanced and multifaceted
  • We can draw parallels to wider culture; but also ways in which open education has influenced wider culture
  • We need to be better at building on existing work and better at archiving what has gone before and making it available openly


  • I asked about the relation between what was proposed for the conference and what was actually selected for presentation
  • Another question on a related note focused on the fact that particular tracks were available for particular conferences and this may have influenced submissions
  • David Wiley suspects that early conferences were dominated by reuse while later ones were more focused on adoption