conference

#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’ (http://firstmonday.org/article/view/3171/3049)

‘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 tinyurl.com/2016ORA.

#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.

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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.

 

The Open Research Agenda

Here are the slides I’ll be using today for my presentation at the CALRG Annual Conference.  The Open Research Agenda is an international consultation exercise focused on identifying research priorities in open education.

You can read more about the project here:

The Open Research Agenda (2)

The Open Research Agenda (1)

Who are the open learners? #opened15

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

Beyond the Neoliberal University #criticalpedagogy2015

Today I’m on Coventry at the ‘Beyond the Neoliberal University‘ conference in Coventry, just half an hour on the train from Milton Keynes.

Proceedings began with quote from Brecht on the value of criticism and how criticism is itself an art. The conference brings together (i) those interested in critical pedagogy (as a theory of transformative education); (ii) people from the UCU union facing practical issues on a daily basis. The idea is to bring the two together through a focus on practical issues: job insecurity, tuition fees/loans/debt; instrumentalisation of higher education.

Keynote: Andrew Gettigan, author of The Great University Gamble

  • Financial pressures on HE insitutions will increase, be tighter, and be varied
  • It can be shown that the cuts to the HEFCE teaching grant have been replaced by full time undergraduate fees

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  • The future will be dominated by questions about the extent to which HE improves human capital and future earnings
  • Neoclassical ideas about market competition underly much of the reform
  • Most profitable courses for HE providers are often the ones with the worst return on investment for the government
  • In the last 5 years replacing the teaching grant with fee income made fiscal sense – in future, increasing fees will just increase government costs
  • Since the 2015 election, £150m a year has been cut from teaching grant
  • New export target of £30bn by 2020 – focus on international students, distance learning
  • Quality assurance review and Teaching Excellence Framework aim to ‘double the proportion of disadvantaged young people in HE relative to 2009’
  • Graduate tax acts as a tax on social mobility: poorer students can expect to be paying back their loan for an additional four years, paying back an additional £9k
  • There is no more scope for budgetary tricks to increase university income

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Keynote: Sarah Amsler, author of The Education of Radical Democracy

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What is ‘the beyond’?  A space between utopianism and the status quo – something that allows us to think of radical alternatives in ambiguous ways.  Higher education institutions are increasingly empowered to act undemocratically and autocratically in favour of market forces and neoliberalism.  Managerial power is calibrated and refined, and since the 1970s it has become harder to teach critically, connect with social movements, and provide a space for progressive potential. What makes it possible for people to believe that this is somehow not the case (i.e. that there is hope)?

We experience deep ambiguity towards the university:  e,g, both wanting to save it and destroy it.  We see an exodus of academics leaving the academy because of low pay, unstable contracts, etc.  (The same phenomenon can be seen in other educational sectors as well as the NHS.)  Many feel that the neoliberal university holds little appeal for them.

It is only through practical experimentation that we can explore possibilities for resistance.  Counter-hegemonic forms of resistance must be explored through praxis, and becoming comfortable in an uncomfortable, dialectical space.  We tend not to use the language of grief and loss when discussing the neoliberal university but we should mourn the loss of space in higher education for thinking and acting progressively.  

(I struggled to identify the practical things that can be done from this talk – mainly it seems to be about imagining otherwise, identifying concrete possibilities for social change and spaces for radical democracy but to me these things seem quite abstract.)

Q&A

  •  First question criticised Amsler for concentrating on rather bourgeois concerns – doctors, lecturers, etc. They may be in a position to opt out, but what about those for whom opting out means not paying the rent?
  • McGettigan makes the point that many academics are not really engaged with policy – this shold be something that is brought more fully into the limelight of academic culture
  • Amsler criticised for paying lip service to praxis but not identifying practical forms of resistance: self indulgence?  One person accused the questioner of being dogmatic (I disagree completely).
  • Amsler responds by emphasising autonomous self-organization in response to power, no real specifics though
  • McGettigan notes that UK HE culture is quite robust against direct threats, but is not good at dealing with the indirect threat of financialization and instrumentalization – this does not inspire solidarity between the different elements of the university.
  • Gurnham Singh noted that the neoliberal project has been extremely successful and it’s quite difficult to imagine real resistance.  But McGettigan’s work suggests that it will fall at some stage – hence the need for a reimagining of what is possible.
  • Two sociology teachers emphasized the need for engaging with students and understanding that we have a role in explaining the situation to them.  Students (understandably) are focused on getting a good degree and a good job, not the long term future of the institution.  But how can we do this?  The point is made that for students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university at all might have been a radical engagement.
  • McGettigan notes that the success of the last 20 years of HE policy has been to establish metrics for success (e.g. participation rates, retention rates, graduate employability, increasing access).  Much of these metrics use the garb of equality and social mobility and this makes it harder to critique.  But questioning this reframing should be at the core of rethinking all this – what would success look like?  What is truly progressive?

Workshop:  Introduction to Critical Pedagogy

Introduction by Gurnham Singh:  Pedagogy is the means by which learning is enabled.  It has its roots in the Greek ‘pedagogeu’, literally meaning ‘to lead the child’.  More generally, the word refers to the science and art of human education and cognition.  Influential theorists include Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner, Kolb, Shor, Freire, and Knowles.

Critical pedagogy radically challenges traditional, didactic models of education.  Shor characterises this as ‘questioning the answers’ rather than ‘answering the questions’.  It is rooted in the invitation to examine power and the role of power relations in knowledge and cultural formation.  Education is never politically neutral:  it results either in control and subjugation or liberation and greater autonomy.

The methodology of critical pedagogy:  teaching methods may be largely the same an for non-critical pedagogies in practice.  The key thing is the disruption to traditional pedagogical relationships and expectations.

Freire emphasized the importance of literacy:  not just as the ability to read and write but also as an attitude towards personal transformation and social revolution.  He was interested in connecting learning to social action through a pedagogical cycle (Reflection / Analysis / Action ).  Learners must discover new avenues of thought and consciousness for themselves to become better moral subjects who assume greater responsibility for the other.  Only a self-managed life can be call education:  preparation for work is ‘training’ that focuses on conformity and predictability.  Similarly, critical pedagogues often reject classical measures of intelligence and intellectual ability.

Friere referred to his method of teaching as ‘conscientisation’:  it represents a self-awakening and coming to critical consciousness.  This is closely related to Marxist ideas about the emancipation of the proletariat through greater awareness of self and world.  Conscientisation seeks to reverse a prior process of objectification or reification.  In order to move away from false consciousness subjects must come to understand themselves and the world differently.  This usually involves the rejection of fatalism, karmic understandings, naive consciousness and learned helplessness.

For critical pedagogy the vast majority of educational institutions act to maintain the status quo and are thus instruments of power and dominance.  In Marxist terms, a political understanding of power can be developed through understanding the underlying political economy (the example of Jeremy Corbyn was raised).

The distinction between education and training raised in the morning sessions came up again in the discussion.  The mindset of students and graduates is changing and becoming more focused on a return on investment and a way to pay back massive debts accrued while studying.

One delegate noted that universities can easily absorb critical pedagogies and in some sense neuter them by incorporating them into curricula.  How can the critical impulse be retained?  Do we just concentrate on the time spent in the classroom and see this as a possible space for ‘subversive’ activity?

One distinction that was brought out in the discussion was the distinction between self-directed learning (heutagogy); critical thinking skills; and critical pedagogy.

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Excerpt on difference between critical thinking and critical pedagogy. Cowden, S. and Singh, G. (2015). Critical Pedagogy: Critical Thinking as a Social Practice. Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education. p. 565.

Workshop: Today’s Learners – Consumers or Producers?

This session began with an overview of the housing crisis for students in Coventry.  Because university-provided accommodation is oversubscribed many students are forced to use privately rented accommodation which is often substandard.  They also often have to work long hours in employment, and this can also have an impact upon their studies.

Students at the university feel aggrieved at this state of affairs.  Their campaign uncovered that the university had declared a profit of some £25 million while still cutting student provision.  The argument was made that students should have a say about how the university resources are used and prioritised.  The suggestion was also made that student representatives should sit on the executive boards of the university and ensure that the student voice is heard.

Library of Birmingham Occupation Movement:  2.5 million people visit this library per year, with a diverse user base.  As part of the austerity faced by the city they cut opening hours and budgets for new books.  Spaces are closed at key times so they can be rented out to private enterprise (receptions, seminars, etc) and more than a hundred staff have been made redundant.  The campaigning group initially coalesced around reduced opening times, then used the library space as a focus for meeting and planning further activity.  A big rally and occupation is planned for October 2015.

The question is posed: why don’t students who are unhappy simply just go off to a different university, or do something else entirely?  Classical economics makes several assumptions about how agents operate within markets, but can we assume that students have enough knowledge of the situation to act as ‘rational’ consumers?  Neoliberalism assigns value through (‘free’) markets, but are there values which we need to impose upon these markets?

Practical Strategies

  1. Teach ourselves university accounting so that narratives can be challenged with authority
  2. Document and share the outcome of interventions
  3. Break down barriers between different interest groups, promote solidarity between staff and students

Further resources

A series of podcasts on critical pedagogy can be found at https://critped.wordpress.com/resources-3/talks-and-interviews/.

Liveblog: #oeglobal Keynote Mark Surman (Mozilla)

Mark is a community activist and technology executive who currently serves as a director of the Mozilla Foundation, makers of the Firefox web browser.  He began by noting the need for digital literacies, suggesting that literacy is characterised by the ability to:

  • read
  • write
  • participate

Technologies allow us to express ourselves help us to read, write, and participate in new ways.  And in important ways, since ideas and communication shape the world.  “The Roman empire and city states were essentially products of writing“.  Yet at the same time, how do we direct this process?

Mark referred to the media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror“. Agreements like the Cape Town Declaration help to orient us around a conception of openness that can inform strategies and ambitions. Mozilla’s Firefox browser is an example of success in reframing the status quo through collective action.  The Internet Explorer browser went from 98% market dominance, and Microsoft lost a hold on their monopoly.  Similarly, we are now in a position to rethink educational systems and break the patterns of the past.  We can see this happening in a shift around the expectation around use of public funding, with programmes like the TAACCCT grants which mandate for OER production in community colleges. We have won battles, but we are losing the war:  vast portions of the internet are walled gardens, and monopolies/oligopolies are emerging in educational markets. Companies like Google potentially control almost every aspect of a range of services with a business imperative based on gaining complete vertical control of our digital lives. The intent of companies like Uber is to become the monopolist of the ‘internet of things‘.  Many people don’t really understand how the internet works, or what is happening when they use it.   New literacies are needed if we are to influence the future development of digital life.  The modern from of empire is based in Silicon Valley and Palo Alto.

As William Gibson said, ‘the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed“.  By building up web literacties and knowing how to use the web provides a way to build resistance and alternative pathways into content.  In a sense, the argument here is that knowledge (as a kind of savoir-fair) is power – or at least empowering.  A culture of making – whether webpages, OER, creative endeavours – is also a culture of learning and empowerment.

We need to be more ambitious in terms of taking back control of the web through digital and web literacies.  Mozilla is running short training courses and conferences to encourage this culture. We are at a kind of ‘Guttenbergian” moment – the extent to which we get the right kind of solution now will influence how information is produced and shared in future years.