Author: Rob Farrow

Open Educational Resources from Government and Partliament

OUseful.Info, the blog...

Mentioning to a colleague yesterday that the UK Parliamentary library published research briefings and reports on topics of emerging interest, as well as to support legislation, that often provided a handy, informed, and politically neutral  overview of a subject area that could make for a useful learning resource, the question was asked whether or not they might have anything on the “internet of things”. The answer is not much, but it got me thinking a bit more about the range of documents and document types produced across Parliament and Government that can be used to educate and inform, as well as contribute to debate.

In other words, to what extent might such documents be used in an educational sense, whether in the sense of providing knowledge and information about a topic, providing a structured review of a topic area and the issues associated with it, raising questions about an…

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The Higher Education and Research Bill

The Disorder Of Things

The third and final reading of the UK’s HE Bill has been scheduled for next Monday, 21 November. If it passes the Commons and then the Lords, it will become law. Thanks in part to the turmoil around Brexit, this Bill has flown under the radar for virtually everyone, perhaps even most students and academics. But the consequences, if it passes, will be disastrous. Many academics seem to think it is just yet another piece of regulatory dross, yet another bureaucratic millstone to add to the many around their necks – and thus barely worth registering a protest about. The reality is actually very different. As I’ve warned on this blog before, the Bill will have a drastic impact on the economy of UK HE, and on the education we provide. Last-ditch resistance is urgently needed.


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Critical issues in contemporary open education research #srhe

This presentation outlines some key considerations for researchers working in the fields of open education, OER and MOOC. Key lines of debate in the open education movement is described and critically assessed. A reflective overview of the award-winning OER Research Hub project will be used to frame several key considerations around the methodology and purpose of OER research (including ‘impact’ and ‘open practices’). These will be compared with results from a 2016 OER Hub consultation with key stakeholders in the open education movement on research priorities for the sector. The presentation concludes with thoughts on the potential for openness to act as a disruptive force in higher education.

#liveblog: Critical Perspectives on ‘Openness’ in Higher Education #srhe

Today I’m in London for the Digital University Network Seminar at the Society for Research into Higher Education. Lesley Gourlay began proceedings by noting that openness is an area which needs to be looked at in the context of the ‘digital university’ series.  Here are my notes on the presentations by the other two speakers.

Openness and praxis: Exploring the use of open educational practices for teaching in higher education

Catherine Cronin (National University of Ireland, Galway)

Catherine’s talk was focused on how actors in higher education make sense of OEP. She emphasized that “education is inherently an ethical and political act” (Michael Apple). As educators we face fundamental questions about the role of higher education in the future, and the kind of skills and literacies we are trying to develop. She believes we need more criticality, more theoretical work and more focus on privilege.

In her PhD work the focus is on the ethos of transparency and sharing. Some of the learning spaces in higher education are experiencing changing boundaries, becoming more networked and less bound by physical space. In ‘open’ spaces different voices and interactions are emphasized. Much has been published on openness. There are many different interpretations, but there are few empirical studies, or studies that adopt a critical approach. How do people make choices around the benefits and risks? It was noted that openness cannot it itself be considered an educational virtue.

OEP are perhaps even harder to define than OER. Some approaches include open pedagogy, critical (digital) pedagogy, digital scholarship and networked participatory scholarship. Further complexity is added by the different levels of application (from individual to institutional, for instance). Catherine’s research looks at shared values, the use of OEP in teaching and way that decision-making about OEP adoption takes place. A constructivist grounded theory approach is taken (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) with analysis that acknowledges the subjective and interpretivist understandings of individuals (Charmaz, 2014).

So far it has been found that it is hard to determine who qualifies as an “open practitioner” because there is a wide spectrum of practices and pedagogical choices. A minority of participants use OEP for teaching (e.g. social networking, open VLE, use & reuse of OER, . Most perceive potential risks with OEP. Findings include:

  • 2 levels of OEP use identified:
    • “Being open”
    • “Teaching openly”
  • 4 dimensions shared by educators
    • Balancing privacy and openness
    • Developing digital literacies
    • Valuing social learning
    • Challenging traditional teaching

Catherine suggests that these are intimately connected. For instance, it is impossible to effectively manage online privacy without developing digital literacies. Valuing social learning involves implicitly challenging traditional learning approaches.

Some educators talk about openness as a kind of ethos or way of being. Others see it as a distraction, or as a pragmatic approach. These differences can be observed as the nano, micro, meso and macro levels. Most guidance is offered at the macro level, but the day-to-day decisions are smaller and less well supported. Other issues that were highlighted were the anxiety and stress experiences by individuals who feel that by being open they are inviting observation and possibly controversy; and the sense that institutions are not providing adequate support.

Some general conclusions:

  • OEP use is complex, personal, contextual and continuously negotiated
  • More evidence is needed on the actual experiences and concerns of staff and students
  • Open education strategies need to reflect the real benefits and risks
  • HEIs should provide support for developing digital identities, navigating tensions between privacy and openness, and spaces to reflect on changing roles in a more participatory culture.


Exploring higher education professionals’ use of Twitter for learning: issues of participation

Muireann O’Keeffe (Dublin City University)

Muireann’s research focused on use of Twitter by 7 HE professionals. Martin Hawksey’s TAGS explorer was used to collect data. Semi-structured interviews followed – these underwent thematic analysis. Some important theoretical influences:

  • Eraut (2004) identifies three factors for informal learning: feedback; challenge; confidence/commitment.
  • White & Le Cornu (2010) on ‘spaces’ rather than communities of practice and the distinction between ‘visitors’ and ‘residents’ (

‘Visitors’ tended to be information gatherers, with little social presence. They tend not to ask questions of others.

  • Barriers for this group include time, cautiousness, vulnerability, capacity to participate, confidence
  • A tendency to lack confidence in their own knowledge
  • Tendency to think of themselves as an observer rather than participant
  • A belief that the platform was designed for someone else – not them
  • Feel marginalized and excluded

‘Residents’ positively experience questioning, challenge, and other forms of academic debate on Twitter. They engage in non-educational commentary.

  • Unlike the ‘visitors’, this group tended to speak in terms of enablers
  • They are confident with Twitter etiquette: playfulness, tone, etc.
  • They were more likely to have a professional confidence, and a capacity to participate

#opened16 live blog: College Affordability and Social Justice

Preston Davis (aka @LazyPhilosopher) invites us to think about the early days of Western civilisation where philosophers like Plato and Aristotle formed educational institutions on the basis of their own privilege.  This kind of system persisted into Roman times, where males with the ability to pay could attend organised schools where they would learn to become educated citizens of the empire.

Education was further formalised in the Middle Ages, but mostly organised according to the strategic aims of the church.  Formalised educational systems in the USA widened curriculum and admitted women, but still remain ‘exclusive’ in many ways.

Rawlsian theories of social justice are reflective of conversations that are starting to take place in OER around stepping back from personal bias when making decisions.  If we disregard the considerations of race, gender, class and so on, we can support a more democratic and equally distributed educational system.

The remark is made that aspects of the USA educational system are exclusive rather than inclusive.  Much of the OER movement was organised around saving money on textbook costs, but this overlooks wider patterns of disenfranchisement.  The Sanders run for USA president foregrounded the idea of access to higher education as a matter of social justice.  Should education be ‘free’?

From the discussion:

  • Class divides are reinforced by higher education.  Some scholarships are set aside for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but does this really change structural patterns of disenfranchisement?
  • If public education was made free, would this lead to a loss of resources through inefficiencies?
  • Can we really act as if we are ‘difference-blind’?
  • Is the difference between the student who goes on to higher education and the one who doesn’t a matter of money?  Disenfranchisement has other elements, e.g. confidence, role models, self-interpretation,  Much of these are the kind of ‘differences’ stripped out of the Rawlsian model.
  • How can social justice be understood from the perspective of what is essentially privilege?
  • Low cost vs. free?

The Open Research Agenda #opened16

Today at Open Education 2016 I presented the provisional results of a research consultation exercise we have been doing at OER Hub over the last year.  Several people asked for copies of the slides, which are available here and on the OER Hub SlideShare account.

All feedback welcome.  You can still take part in the project by completing the form at

#opened16 liveblog: OER Research Fellows Update

This session began with an introduction from John Hilton III, who leads the OER Research Fellows programme.  The project is intended to build future research capacity in the OER field.  Most of the work done by this group uses the COUP framework, which focuses on cost savings and learning outcomes.  At present there are:

  • 43 Fellows
  • 18 articles submitted
  • 1 article accepted
  • 1 article published

Marcela Chiorescu of spoke about her work at Georgia College.  On an algebra course, $86 was saved per student, and students expressed gratitude for monies saved.  Between Spring 2014 (78.2%) and Spring 2015 (84.3%) there was a significant uplift in students receiving a C grade or above.  There was also a statistically significant increase in the proportion of students receiving the top grade.

Christina Hendricks and Ozgur Ozdemir spoke about their work with the COOL4ED project in California.  They focused on faculty motivations, cost savings for students, perceptions and impact on other factors.  The OER included an OpenStax textbook on Sociology and a Libretext on Chemistry.  They found that students has some negative attitudes towards the content of open textbooks as being rather basic.  The impact on learning and retention outcomes were less clear because fewer faculty reported back on these.  However, no-one reported a decline while some reported an improvement.  Cost savings was the most prominent aspect for both faculty and students.  Only 4% of faculty and 12% of students had anything negative to say about the open textbooks.

Tsung-han Weng (University of Kansas) reported on a qualitative case study involving students from economics and statistics.  He found that students tend to have ambivalent attitudes to open textbooks.  They appreciated the cost savings but had some reservations about content and quality.  This ambivalence was also found in teachers, whose main complaint was that using the open textbook required them to spend more time preparing assessments and supplementary materials.

Royce Kimmons (Brigham Young University) told conference about allowing students to select which textbook a project management studies class would use.  Students decided the evaluation criteria (not including cost).  What were the effects of this approach?  The two most popular choices were subjected to a more detailed evaluation.  They arrived at the conclusion that an open textbook was the best offering.  Kimmons recommends involving students in the selection prices, arguing that textbook quality metrics are not objective, but relative to the needs of a particular class.

Christopher Lawrence (Middle Georgia State University) spoke about the Affordable Learning Georgia initiative, which aimed to replace proprietary textbooks on American government with open versions.  It was found that most students obtained used or new copies of the traditional text.  On the whole, they felt that the proprietary version should continue to be used.  In comparison with the traditional book, the quality of the open textbook was perceived to be lower.  The online version of the open textbook was found to be a useful supplement.  However, there was no significant difference in results between those using commercial and open textbooks.  Particular challenges in this context included a poorly funded production process which led to a lack of polish in the open textbook; fixed textbook content; and a lack of ancillary materials.  An emphasis on the need for sustainability was mentioned.

There was a question from the floor about open access publication of results.  The Open Research Fellows are not committed to open dissemination – indeed, there is funding set aside for publication fees – but anonymised research data could be shared.


#opened16 live blog: Gardner Campbell

Kicking things off here in Richmond, VA. we have our first keynote, Gardner Campbell.  The presentation began with a video montage featuring (among other things) a young Bob Dylan; quotes and graphs about different educational models; sections of It’s a Wonderful Life; Indie music; and end scenes from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.  

We were then introduced to Robert Wagner Dodge, a ‘smokejumper‘ who escaped a raging forest fire by acting rather counter intuitively.  He lit a fire in front of him, reasoning that once the smaller fire had burned out he could shelter in the ashes.  None of his companions would follow him, and they perished.  Campbell refers to this kind of learning as ‘insight’.

‘Insight’ is a term that has grown in use as civilisation has become more complex.  There are many synonyms for insight (both formal and informal) and the word is used in many ways.  We normally understand it as:

  • an accurate and deep understanding of a person or thing
  • the capacity to gain an accurate and deep understanding of a person or thing

From psychiatry:

  • a breakthrough in understanding one’s own mental illness

Insight-oriented psychotherapy relies on conversation between therapist and patient.  (It can be contrasted with biomedical approaches that place the emphasis on medication.)

The question is posed:  why do insights come to us in the way they do?  A typical process might look like this:

  • Concentrate
  • Search
  • Mental block/Impasse
  • Distraction/Relaxation
  • *space*
  • Problem is somehow solved; a solution presents itself
  • Feeling of certainty – the Eureka!

The solution can’t be forced or rushed. What happens in this *space*?  From cognitive science there is a suggestion that certain regions of the right hemisphere of the brain become unusually active before an insight is reached (a related area is related to appreciation of jokes).  Gamma wave activity (the highest electrical frequency of the brain) spikes at this moment.

Campbell invites us to think about these kinds of ‘Eureka!’ moments in the context of formal education.  We make novel neuro-chemical connections between existing parts of our knowledge.  This goes beyond the classroom:  the pattern of making new connections prepares us for some fresh insight where we generalise about categories of our understanding.  Campbell employs a couple of quotes from Bruner to support the idea that this way of understanding learning is unlike traditional pedagogy.



Trying to force an insight can actually prevent the birth of an insight.  This is a counter-intuitive outcome:  we learn by avoiding the learning activity (or at least waiting until the appropriate psychological state is arrived at).

Campbell refers to some students essays on their responses to The Eureka Hunt.  Rather than thinking about it for themselves, many obviously just searched online for ‘the right answer’.  Their goal was evidently just to ‘succeed’ rather than authentically engage with the text.  There is a whole industry devoted to mantras of student ‘success’.  Campbell invites us to question this idea of ‘student success’.  Some of the claims associated with it (“4 deadly mantras of student success”) include:

  • “Students don’t do optional” – life will be a matter of conformity, not the exercise of freedom – why encourage it now?
  • “Define more pathways” – restriction of unique pathways, enforced rubrics
  • “We need to graduate more students” – Campbell suggests that students in fact graduate themselves
  • “Our students are our products” – !

Such approaches, it is contended, do not encourage the right kind of insights.  Essentially they all treat the learner as passive in their own education.  An open, Connectivist course for AAC&U faculty and collaborators will explore these issues from January 2017.



Irons in the Fire

The blog has definitely felt a bit neglected of late.  This is partly because I’ve been quite busy over the summer and blog updates are usually the first thing to go when you have a lot of writing on.  But I’ve been posting at OER Hub and OER World Map, so it hasn’t been a complete hiatus.

I thought I would write a summary of the various piece of work that I have on at the moment.  This is partly about facilitating later reflection on these projects and how they have developed, but also to offer some online record of my activities in case they are interesting to people who might want to connect.

I’ve also just come from a ‘Developing Researchers’ workshop in IET where we discussed online presence and how we present our activities, so I have some impetus to get this done.  First of all, here are the various projects I’m working on right now:

Open Education Research Hub (OER Hub) has managed to establish itself as an ongoing identity for various pieces of work around OER and open education.   The main recent deliverable work we have been doing as the OER Hub itself is designing and delivering a range of open courses (including several which can now be called ‘award winning!).

There isn’t as much of a dedicated focus on evaluating the impact of OER implementations as we used to have, but I have recently completed some preliminary analysis of the OER Wales Cymru project that could be developed further.  Another strand of OER Hub work that I am leading is one we call  ‘The Open Research Agenda’.  This project takes an action research approach to trying to develop an understanding of the research needs of the open education / OER movement.  We started off with a simple online survey that anyone can take.  The results are then taken to face-to-face meetings with representatives of the OER community for discussion.  Data is collected at these meetings, becoming part of the data set for future sessions.  So far we have held sessions at:

Still to come we have the following sessions:

Once the last of these is done I’ll be writing up the results.  The experimental action research approach seems to work in terms of promoting engagement, so hopefully it will produce something interesting from a research point of view.

I haven’t written much about OER World Map here but the project has come on a really long way since I joined it in 2014.  The best way to catch up is to check out the project blog.  Although I have some input into the design and technical side, my main role is to act as a conduit to the OER community (which happens through running the Twitter account, collecting data from practitioners, and, recently, drafting papers).  Having worked on the OER Impact Map which took a much more basic approach to the underlying data, I continue to be impressed with the developers, designers and library scientists I work with on the project and the meticulous approach to data.  Now we have a pretty good infrastructure in place I’m hoping the next year will see a real uptake by the OER community.  Earlier this month I hosted the first UK meeting of the OER World Map project here at The Open University, UK.

Another big element of the OER Hub portfolio is the Global OER Graduate Network (GO-GN) which we took over the administration of last year.  GO-GN is a global network of support and research capacity building for doctoral students working in open education.  In addition to running a webinar programme, we hold a face-to-face two-day seminar once a year and bring students together.  This year we met in Krakow, Poland, and in 2017 the meeting will be held in Cape Town, South Africa before OE Global 2017.  I also built the GO-GN website, where using Reclaim Hosting for the first time has allowed all kinds of experimentation that vanilla WordPress wouldn’t readily permit.

The most recent project I’ve taken on is working as part of an IET consultancy team for the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Training (CEPOL) who are looking for input into the redevelopment of their online learning portal.  This is a bit of a departure from the focus on open approaches (since there are operational issues around the security of the information) and there are other concerns perhaps unique to law enforcement training.   I’ve primarily been involved in shaping some thoughts around the vision and design principles, but also carrying out some qualitative evaluation of the legacy site.  It’s been quite stimulating in a number of ways.

There have been various bits of travel associated with these different projects, including several trips to Germany for OER World Map and to Budapest for CEPOL.  I was was invited to give two keynote presentations this year:  at the Open Education Symposium at Utah Valley University and at the 3rd e-Learning and Distance Education Conference at Virtual University Pakistan.  I was also pleased to be invited to the annual OER meeting of The Hewlett Foundation which took place in Louisiana earlier in the year.

But having done a fair bit of travelling over the last five years I’ve attempted to slow it down a little in the latter part of 2016 in the interests of completing writing projects.  I’ve published several papers so far this year, and have a couple of book chapters in the pipeline.  Currently, I have these writing projects on the go:

  • I’m contributing to a post-project analysis on forms of OER implementation in the Bridge to Success project with  a couple of colleagues
  • Writing a history of the OER World Map project that will serve as the basis for a couple of articles
  • Re-working a manuscript on OER policy
  • I started writing a piece of Popper’s concept of an open society and how this might provide insight into wider normative understandings of openness
  • I’ve been considering putting together a monograph based on several papers written over the last few years; or an edited collection (or both).

One theme that I’ve been considering for the last of these is that of utopian approaches to educational technology.  I’ll be examining a PhD thesis related to this theme in the new year, which gives somewhat of an impetus to brush up.  But I find myself often thinking of Adorno’s work on utopia (which I mainly know through the work of a fellow doctoral student from the University of Essex).  Critical theory frameworks are still very relevant to what is happening in educational technology and education more generally.  But it can be hard to find the time to work meaningfully on a book-length proposal with lots of project work and shorted writing commitments taking up headspace.  The last few weeks have been particularly intense from a grant application writing point of view as the deadlines seem to coincide with the start of the academic year.

I’ve also become more involved in course production at The Open University:  specifically in relation to H819: The critical researcher: educational technology in practice where some of the insights we’ve gained through exploring open practices are being shared.   The transition from IET student to course writer will hopefully soon be completed by the award of the MA in Online and Distance Education for which I recently submitted the final piece of coursework.  I started the MA in 2010 when I was still new to educational technology, and it hasn’t always been easy to find enough time to devote to studying, but it has been really useful for improving my understanding of research practices in educational technology as well as providing insights into the lot of the distance learner.  That said, I will be glad to have some more weekends available for other things in the future.

Alongside all this I have been learning to drive for the past year or so, and my exam isn’t too far away.  I failed my first test as a teenager nearly twenty years ago and never retook it, so it does feel as if some long-delayed gratification is within reach…

So, basically I feel like I have many irons in the fire at the moment – and if you’ve made it all the way to the end of this post then I salute you.  Reflecting on what I have written, it strikes me that it can be pretty demanding to work across such a wide range of activities, but having the connections between theoretical and empirical work, between evaluation and design, and between research and practice allows for a very productive synergy.  Getting the balance right can be hard, though, especially when projects have competing timelines.

One thing that’s also of great benefit is being able to draw on the expertise of several strong project teams in moving your own thoughts forward.  I’ve been thinking recently about the nature of collaborative work in academia and note that we rarely tend to frame research skills in terms of the way people collaborate.  It strikes me that we should both consciously strive to be  catalysts for others while being open to allowing others to act as catalysts for us.  I don’t suggest that as a grand theoretical statement (although a connection could perhaps be made with open practices) but rather as an attitude towards effective collaboration.  Not allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good is essential here. With lots of different stuff happening concurrently it’s also really important to keep track of how much time and effort is going into each element to make sure one doesn’t suffer at the expense of another; and on that note I sign off.