Uncensored State of the Union: OER Unfiltered #oer2015

Drawing proceedings at the Hewlett Grantees meeting towards its close is a final keynote by Hal Plotkin, currently Senior Open Policy Fellow at Creative Commons USA and formerly Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education for the Obama administration.  I interviewed Hal for OER Research Hub back in 2013, so am quite interested in where his thinking is right now.

Hal started by reflecting on the way that college presidents are appointed, noting that they are typically people who understand the college system and how to operate within it.  They tend to be people quite unlike the college presidents of yesteryear who were distinguished in several fields rather than rising to the top of the college administration systems.  What kind of leadership is provided by leaders who are not known for their achievements? Although OER has had a profound impact on improving access to education, not a single college president has championed or advocated for the movement.

The talk proceeded with acknowledgements of the support Hal has received from various quarters over the years, and the inspiration drawn from the OER community.  We tend to see our projects in (modest) isolation, but should better appreciate the historical significance of the work we do.

Hal identified the origins of OER movement with the Midpenninsula Free University (1966-1971).  Founded on the idea that anyone could teach and anyone could learn, the movement was inspired by the first opportunities for public use of computers.  Implicit in the mission statement and self-identity of the Students for a Democratic Society was the critique of corporatism in formal education and a mission for social justice.  Universities, it was held, must reform on the basis of dialogue and bold vision.  Free inquiry, free from centralised, disciplinary control, is the central axis of a progressive society, and must be supported.  At its peak, the MFU had hundreds of instructors, including illustrious authors and scientists.   So what happened to it?

The Revolutionary Union (a group of students) gave classes in Marxism and urban counter-insurgency, which triggered the interest of the FBI.  This inculcated a culture of paranoia at the MFU; eventually the headquarters of the MFU was bombed and a campaign of more than 30 bombings ensued.  In Palo Alto, a fundraising campaign was initiated to raise the money to build a university by music concerts.  But without permission to fund-raise in this way, the concerts often descended into the violence of regular ‘Friday night riots’.  Eventually a route around this was found through a clause in the municipal code.  Hal suggests that the real core of the 1960s counterculture was not drugs, or music, but the drive towards free education.

A pivotal moment in this chaos was a fractious meeting where attendees were divided about whether to exclude a hostile journalist; a debate that can be understood to be essentially about openness.  The journalist was ejected, and half the steering committee left with them in protest.  From this point on the MFU dissipated, and was taken over by hardline revolutionaries dedicated to the overthrow of the government of the USA.  The FBI actively worked to break up the MFU and its organising committees.

Thus, the battle for open education can be understood to start with the MFU, but when it lost its inclusivity and synergistic energy the movement was destined to fail.  When one group imposes its ideology and belief system on others the introduction of pressures to conform become dominant and many leave to find alternative paths. There is a cautionary tale here for the OER movement.

OER was written into the TAACCCT grant program, but the truth about policy is that it is invariably messier in practice than in theory.  Hal has three pieces of advice about getting policy written and passed:

  • have the strongest bladder
  • stay at the table as long as anyone else
  • be the last person to touch the document

Formerly, the Department of Labor allowed its subcontractors to retain intellectual property rights over materials created on behalf of the government (but retaining the right to use it for their own purposes).  There was some debate over whether the OER mandate in the TAACCCT bill was legal (or constitutional).  The Deputy White House counsel was eventually responsible for pushing through the open IP requirements at a late hour.

When dealing with challenges like these we often rely on scripture, poetry, or speeches for motivation and emotional sustenance.  For Hal, Bobby Kennedy’s speech in South Africa is such an inspiration.  Here is a version of the text (not verbatim the same as the version Hal read out, but pretty close).

There is a discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; and millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich; and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere.

These are differing evils, but they are common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility toward the sufferings of our fellows.

But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a tirne – that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men. And surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.

Our answer is to rely on youth – not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress. It is a revolutionary world we live in; and this generation at home and around the world, has had thrust upon it a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.

Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the thirty-two-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal.

These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.

For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. But they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. All of us will ultimately be judged and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves, on the effort we have contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that effort.

The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.

Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.

Hal concluded by thanking those present for the work they do in working for the greater cause and expressing his gratitude in being part of the community.

Launching the Open Education Handbook

This morning I am taking part in a hangout to launch The Open Education Handbook, a collaboratively written document published by Open Knowledge Foundation for which I acted as the editor for the most recent edition.

Lots of people were involved in putting together the manual, both directly (in book ‘sprints’ and through a working group) and indirectly through their support of the LinkedUp project.  Originally the focus of the project was open data but this quickly expanded to areas relevant to open data (including OER, policy, education).  Open research data and open educational data have much potential for influencing education and the working group opens up a space to think and collaborate around this.

The Open Education Working Group takes an open approach to collaboration, which has also been applied to the handbook.  The LinkedUp project was required to produce a handbook as a project deliverable and it was decided that an open, collaborative and community based approach would be appropriate.  The idea of using ‘book sprints‘ was new to the team, and was slightly watered down so that instead of trying to write the whole thing in three days there would be working groups and multiple sprints which attempted to improve the existing version.  The sprints were held at conferences and workshops with a ‘question and answer’ approach used to structure the content.  Around the time of the second sprint the workspace moved from Google Docs to BookType which helped the organisation of the materials as well as version control.  The working group would regularly meet to chat about the project.

Translating the book into Portuguese allowed for further refinement of the draft as the translators queried the structure of the book as well as the possible Eurocentric quality of the earlier drafts. My own contribution was to try and pull in the shape the rather fragmentary draft and apply a consistent editorial tone across the manuscript.  This involved moving away from the ‘question & answer’ model originally used to generate content to reassemble and rephrase content more like a structured narrative but also leaving open the possibility of reading sections in no particular order.

The latest version is still available for editing and there will undoubtedly be new versions as we move forward.

  • Martin Poulter reported that the book content is being imported into WikiBooks for ongoing wiki style editing and improvement;
  • Jo Paulger spoke about the FLOSS manuals site as another possible home for the handbook (and possibly the more ‘official’ versions as they are produced.

Here are Marieke Guy‘s slides from the hangout:

Guerrilla Research #elesig

We don't need no stinking permissions....

Today I’m in the research laboratories in the Jennie Lee Building at The Institute of Educational Technology (aka work) for the ELESIG Guerrilla Research Event.  Martin Weller began the session with an outline of the kind of work that goes into preparing unsuccessful research proposals.  Using figures from the UK research councils he estimates that the ESRC alone attracts bids (which it does not fund) equivalent to 65 work years every year (2000 failed bids x 12 days per bid).   This work is not made public in any way and can be considered lost.

He then went on to discuss some different digital scholarship initiatives – like a meta educational technology journal based on aggregation of open articles; MOOC research by Katy Jordan; an app built at the OU; DS106 Digital Storytelling – these have elements of what is being termed ‘guerrilla research’.  These include:

  • No permissions (open access, open licensing, open data)
  • Quick set up
  • No business case required
  • Allows for interdisciplinarity unconstrained by tradition
  • Using free tools
  • Building open scholarship identity
  • Kickstarter / enterprise funding

Such initiatives can lead to more traditional forms of funding and publication; and the two at least certainly co-exist.  But these kinds of activities are not always institutionally recognised, giving rise to a number of issues:

  • Intellectual property – will someone steal my work?
  • Can I get institutional recognition?
  • Do I need technical skills?
  • What is the right balance between traditional and digital scholarship?
  • Ethical concerns about the use of open data – can consent be assumed?  Even when dealing with personal or intimate information?

Tony Hirst then took the floor to speak about his understanding of ‘guerrilla research’.  He divided his talk into the means, opportunity and motive for this kind of work.

First he spoke about the use of the commentpress WordPress theme to disaggregate the Digital Britain report so that people could comment online.  The idea came out of a tweet but within 3 months was being funded by the Cabinet Office.

In 2009 Tony produced a map of MP expense claims which was used by The Guardian.  This was produced quickly using open technologies and led to further maps and other ways of exploring data stories.  Google Ngrams is a tool that was used to check for anachronistic use of language in Downton Abbey.

In addition to pulling together recipes using open tools and open data is to use innovative codings schemes. Mat Morrison (@mediaczar) used this to produce an accession plot graph of the London riots.  Tony has reused this approach – so another way of approaching ‘guerrilla research’ is to try to re-appropriate existing tools.

Another approach is to use data to drive a macroscopic understanding of data patterns, producing maps or other visualizations from very large data sets, helping sensemaking and interpretation.  One important consideration here is ‘glanceability‘ – whether the information has been filtered and presented so that the most important data are highlighted and the visual representation conveys meaning successfully to the view. is a good source of data:  the UK government publishes large amounts of information on open licence.  Access to data sets like this can save a lot of research money, and combining different data sets can provide unexpected results.  Publishing data sets openly supports this method and also allows others to look for patterns that original researchers might have missed.

Google supports custom searches which can concentrate on results from a specific domain (or domains) and this can support more targeted searches for data.  Freedom of information requests can also be a good source of data; publicly funded bodies like universities, hospitals and local government all make data available in this way (though there will be exceptions). FOI requests can be made through  Google spreadsheets support quick tools for exploring data such as sliding filters and graphs.

OpenRefine is another tool which Tony has found useful.  It can cluster open text responses in data sets according to algorithms and so replace manual coding of manuscripts.   The tool can also be used to compare with linked data on the web.

Tony concluded his presentation with a comparison of ‘guerrilla research’ and ‘recreational research’. Research can be more creative and playful and approaching it in this way can lead to experimental and exploratory forms of research.  However, assessing the impact of this kind of work might be problematic.  Furthermore, going through the process of trying to get funding for research like this can impede the playfulness of the endeavour.

A workflow for getting started with this kind of thing:

  • Download openly available data: use open data, hashtags, domain searches, RSS
  • DBpedia can be used to extract information from Wikipedia
  • Clean data using OpenRefine
  • Upload to Google Fusion Tables
  • From here data can be mapped, filtered and graphed
  • Use Gephi for data visualization and creating interactive widgets
  • StackOverflow can help with coding/programming

(I have a fuller list of data visualization tools on the Resources page of OER Impact Map.)

Ethical Use of New Technology in Education

Today Beck Pitt and I travelled up to Birmingham in the midlands of the UK to attend a BERA/Wiley workshop on technologies and ethics in educational research.  I’m mainly here on focus on the redraft of the Ethics Manual for OER Research Hub and to give some time over to thinking about the ethical challenges that can be raised by openness.  The first draft of the ethics manual was primarily to guide us at the start of the project but now we need to redraft it to reflect some of the issues we have encountered in practice.

Things kicked off with an outline of what BERA does and the suggestion that consciousness about new technologies in education often doesn’t filter down to practitioners.  The rationale behind the seminar seems to be to raise awareness in light of the fact that these issues are especially prevalent at the moment.

This blog post may be in direct contravention of the Chatham convention

This blog post may be in direct contravention of the Chatham convention

We were first told that these meetings would be taken under the ‘Chatham House Rule’ which suggests that participants are free to use information received but without identifying speakers or their affiliation… this seems to be straight into the meat of some of the issues provoked by openness:  I’m in the middle of life-blogging this as this suggestion is made.  (The session is being filmed but apparently they will edit out anything ‘contentious’.)

Anyway, on to the first speaker:

Jill Jameson, Prof. of Education and Co-Chair of the University of Greenwich
‘Ethical Leadership of Educational Technologies Research:  Primum non noncere’

The latin part of the title of this presentation means ‘do no harm’ and is a recognised ethical principle that goes back to antiquity.  Jameson wants to suggest that this is a sound principle for ethical leadership in educational technology.

After outlining a case from medical care Jameson identified a number of features of good practice for involving patients in their own therapy and feeding the whole process back into training and pedagogy.

  • No harm
  • Informed consent
  • Data-informed consultation on treatment
  • Anonymity, confidentiality
  • Sensitivity re: privacy
  • No coercion
  • ‘Worthwhileness’
  • Research-linked: treatment & PG teaching

This was contrasted with a problematic case from the NHS concerning the public release of patient data.  Arguably very few people have given informed consent to this procedure.  But at the same time the potential benefits of aggregating data are being impeded by concerns about sharing of identifiable information and the commercial use of such information.

In educational technology the prevalence of ‘big data’ has raised new possibilities in the field of learning analytics.  This raises the possibility of data-driven decision making and evidence-based practice.  It may also lead to more homogenous forms of data collection as we seek to aggregate data sets over time.

The global expansion of web-enabled data presents many opportunities for innovation in educational technology research.  But there are also concerns and threats:

  • Privacy vs surveillance
  • Commercialisation of research data
  • Techno-centrism
  • Limits of big data
  • Learning analytics acts as a push against anonymity in education
  • Predictive modelling could become deterministic
  • Transparency of performance replaces ‘learning
  • Audit culture
  • Learning analytics as models, not reality
  • Datasets >< information and stand in need of analysis and interpretation

Simon Buckingham-Shum has put this in terms of a utopian/dystopian vision of big data:

Leadership is thus needed in ethical research regarding the use of new technologies to develop and refine urgently needed digital research ethics principles and codes of practice.  Students entrust institutions with their data and institutions need to act as caretakers.

I made the point that the principle of ‘do no harm’ is fundamentally incompatible with any leap into the unknown as far as practices are concerned.  Any consistent application of the principle leads to a risk-averse application of the precautionary principle with respect to innovation.  How can this be made compatible with experimental work on learning analytics and sharing of personal data?  Must we reconfigure the principle of ‘do no harm’ so it it becomes ‘minimise harm’?  It seems that way from this presentation… but it is worth noting that this is significantly different to the original maxim with which we were presented… different enough to undermine the basic position?

Ralf Klamma, Technical University Aachen
‘Do Mechanical Turks Dream of Big Data?’

Klamma started in earnest by showing us some slides:  Einstein sticking his tongue out; stills from Dr. Strangelove; Alan Turing; a knowledge network (citation) visualization which could be interpreted as a ‘citation cartel’.  The Cold War image of scientists working in isolation behind geopolitical boundaries has been superseded by building of new communities.  This process can be demonstrated through data mining, networking and visualization.

Historical figures of the like of Einstein and Turing are now more like nodes on a network diagram – at least, this is an increasingly natural perspective.  The ‘iron curtain’ around research communities has dropped:

  • Research communities have long tails
  • Many research communities are under public scrutiny (e.g. climate science)
  • Funding cuts may exacerbate the problem
  • Open access threatens the integrity of the academy (?!)

Klamma argues that social network analysis and machine learning can support big data research in education.  He highlights the US Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology, Cyber Security Division publication The Menlo Report: Ethical Principles Guiding Information and Communication Technology Research as a useful resource for the ethical debates in computer science.  In the case of learning analytics there have been many examples of data leaks:

One way to approach the issue of leaks comes from the TellNET project.  By encouraging students to learn about network data and network visualisations they can be put in better control of their own (transparent) data.  Other solutions used in this project:

  • Protection of data platform: fragmentation prevents ‘leaks’
  • Non-identification of participants at workshops
  • Only teachers had access to learning analytics tools
  • Acknowledgement that no systems are 100% secure

In conclusion we were introduced to the concept of ‘datability‘ as the ethical use of big data:

  • Clear risk assessment before data collection
  • Ethcial guidelines and sharing best pracice
  • Transparency and accountability without loss of privacy
  • Academic freedom

Fiona Murphy, Earth and Environmental Science (Wiley Publishing)
‘Getting to grips with research data: a publisher perspective’

From a publisher perspective, there is much interest in the ways that research data is shared.  They are moving towards a model with greater transparency.  There are some services under development that will use DOI to link datasets and archives to improve the findability of research data.  For instance, the Geoscience Data Journal includes bi-direction linking to original data sets.  Ethical issues from a publisher point of view include how to record citations and accreditation; manage peer review and maintenance of security protocols.

Data sharing models may be open, restricted (e.g. dependent on permissions set by data owner) or linked (where the original data is not released but access can be managed centrally).

[Discussion of open licensing was conspicuously absent from this though this is perhaps to be expected from commercial publishers.]

Luciano Floridi, Prof. of Philosophy & Ethics of Information at The University of Oxford
‘Big Data, Small Patterns, and Huge Ethical Issues’

Data can be defined by three Vs: variety, velocity, and volume. (Options for a fourth have been suggested.)  Data has seen a massive explosion since 2009 and the cost of storage is consistently falling.  The only limits to this process are thermodynamics, intelligence and memory.

This process is to some extent restricted by legal and ethical issues.

Epistemological Problems with Big Data: ‘big data’ has been with us for a while generally should be seen as a set of possibilities (prediction, simulation, decision-making, tailoring, deciding) rather than a problem per se.  The problem is rather that data sets have become so large and complex that they are difficult to process by hand or with standard software.

Ethical Problems with Big Data: the challenge is actually to understand the small patterns that exist within data sets.  This means that many data points are needed as ways into a particular data set so that meaning can become emergent.  Small patterns may be insignificant so working out which patterns have significance is half the battle.  Sometimes significance emerges through the combining of smaller patterns.

Thus small patterns may become significant when correlated.  To further complicate things:  small patterns may be significant through their absence (e.g. the curious incident of the dog in the night-time in Sherlock Holmes).

A specific ethical problem with big data: looking for these small patterns can require thorough and invasive exploration of large data sets.  These procedures may not respect the sensitivity of the subjects of that data.  The ethical problem with big data is sensitive patterns: this includes traditional data-related problems such as privacy, ownership and usability but now also includes the extraction and handling of these ‘patterns’.  The new issues that arise include:

  • Re-purposing of data and consent
  • Treating people not only as means, resources, types, targets, consumers, etc. (deontological)

It isn’t possible for a computer to calculate every variable around the education of an individual so we must use proxies:  indicators of type and frequency which render the uniqueness of the individual lost in order to make sense of the data.  However this results in the following:

  1. The profile becomes the profiled
  2. The profile becomes predictable
  3. The predictable becomes exploitable

Floridi advances the claim that the ethical value of data should not be higher than the ethical value of that entity but demand at most the same degree of respect.

Putting all this together:  how can privacy be protected while taking advantage of the potential of ‘big data’?.  This is an ethical tension between competing principles or ethical demands: the duties to be reconciled are 1) safeguarding individual rights and 2) improving human welfare.

  • This can be understood as a result of polarisation of a moral framework – we focus on the two duties to the individual and society and miss the privacy of groups in the middle
  • Ironically, it is the ‘social group’ level that is served by technology

Five related problems:

  • Can groups hold rights? (it seems so – e.g. national self-determination)
  • If yes, can groups hold a right to privacy?
  • When might a group qualify as a privacy holder? (corporate agency is often like this, isn’t it?)
  • How does group privacy relate to individual privacy?
  • Does respect for individual privacy require respect for the privacy of the group to which the individual belongs? (big data tends to address groups (‘types’) rather than individuals (‘tokens’))

The risks of releasing anonymised large data sets might need some unpacking:  the example given was that during the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire (2010-2011) Orange released a large metadata set which gave away strategic information about the position of groups involved in the conflict even though no individuals were identifiable.  There is a risk of overlooking group interests by focusing on the privacy of the individual.

There are legal or technological instruments which can be employed to mitigate the possibility of the misuse of big data, but there is no one clear solution at present.  Most of the discussion centred upon collective identity and the rights that might be afforded an individual according to groups they have autonomously chosen and those within which they have been categorised.  What happens, for example, if a group can take a legal action but one has to prove membership of that group in order to qualify?  The risk here is that we move into terra incognito when it comes to the preservation of privacy.

Summary of Discussion

Generally speaking, it’s not enough to simply get institutional ethical approval at the start of a project.  Institutional approvals typically focus on protection of individuals rather than groups and research activities can change significantly over the course of a project.

In addition to anonymising data there is a case for making it difficult to reconstruct the entire data set so as to stop others from misuse.  Increasingly we don’t even know who learners are (e.g. MOOC) so it’s hard to reasonably predict the potential outcomes of an intervention.

The BERA guidelines for ethical research are up for review by the sounds of it – and a working group is going to be formed to look at this ahead of a possible meeting at the BERA annual conference.

Liveblog: Audrey Watters at Open Ed 2013

This presentation began with a general discussion – informed by Audrey’s background as a folklore scholar – of apocalyptic prediction.  Apocalypse and crisis are motifs that are common in contemporary discourse around education and educational technology, often accompanied by the idea of some sort of salvation through technology.  Christiansen’s (1995) notion of disruptive innovation threatens to both sweep away the new as a destructive force while ushering in the radically new.

Watters argues that these ‘end-times’ kinds of myths have a pervasive on American culture, and that the idea of disruptive innovation is particularly prevalent among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and in business culture.  These provide an ideological framework which leads to a lot of predictions about the future of education:  the move to mass online learning; the inevitable death of under-performing institutions; the death of the university.  These are seen as inevitabilities that result from a kind of technological determinism.  From the high-priests of this culture the accusation is made that public institutions are unable to innovate because they are monolithic, inflexible and somehow beyond the reach of these forces.  Thus we are encouraged to embrace for-profit and MOOC style education since their prevalence is seen an an inevitability.

Good folklorists respect the sacred stories of particular cultures, but need not accept them as true.  What happens when the rhetoric of crisis is adopted widely?  Can we successfully move away from the rhetoric of ‘crisis’?  These are the questions upon which we are encouraged to reflect…

Audrey’s notes and slides are available here.

[Reblogged from]

Liveblog: George Siemens at Open Ed 2013

David Wiley introduced George by noting that he wrote the course for which the term ‘MOOC’ was originally created.  George similarly paid tribute to David’s stewardship of the OER movement.  Here are George’s slides, helpfully made available ahead of time.

The presentation started with a bit of a review of George’s experiences as a blogger and online educator.  This led him – and Stephen Downes – to think about ways in which to lever technology and openness to improve student learning.  Early courses encouraged public discussion and sharing of ideas and a move away from ‘transmission pedagogies’ which replicated the worst of classroom interaction online.

George noted (correctly, in my opinion) that innovation is typically iterative and collaborative.  Often there are so many strands that it’s difficult to identify the main one but rarely does it result from one person with some sort of moment of divine inspiration.

Learning systems should recognise this, being: flexible, open, accessible, build-able extendable, remix-able.  Most of Siemen’s reservations about current MOOC providers are down to the lack of these features.  He also questioned the ‘newness’ of MOOC by noting that large scale education opportunities have been explored through television since the 1950s. MOOC are actually, he asserted, a supply-side answer to decades of increased in demand for education.  The move to a knowledge-based economy in the West was not accompanied by a similar re-haul of education.  When only 10-20% of people go to university we can expect them to be self-motivated and reasonably competent learners.  As this figure increases, so the kind of support we need to offer changes with it.

Some recent (Gates-funded) research on MOOC discourse revealed the following:

  • There is genuine interest and good quality research being done on MOOC
  • 90% of conversations involved education researchers
  • Mixed-methods research are preferred by most

Now, the angst-filled reflection:

  1. MOOCs don’t prepare learners for the kinds of things that learners need to be able to do:  we need ‘stuff that stirs the soul’.  (This is similar to the argument made by Marcus Deimann and myself here.)
  2. Openness is being lost in the noise – we need an idea of openness that can engage with wide audiences the way that MOOC has
  3. Revenue models have come to be the focus for a lot of people
  4. Drop-out rates in MOOC do not matter because they can’t be compared to the level of personal investment that traditional university education involves
  5. We are too wedded to the traditional model and this stops us from properly exploring the possibilities that are available to us

Given these anxieties, what might provide succour?  We are currently witnessing the unbundling of previously existing network structures in education and this means that it can be rebuilt in ways that enable quality of learning and increasing access.  MOOC should be seen as a stepping stone towards this since they co-opt elements of the traditional university programme.  Fragmentisation of education ecosystems leads us to an open landscape which can be shaped.  Furthermore, MOOC have made technology-enhanced learning into a part of the public consciousness and wider conversations.

There is a bunch of MOOC related stuff at  They have plans for a MOOC evidence hub too but they seem to be a bit behind on making this available.

Liveblog: David Kernohan at Open Ed 2013

David began by running out of the room (to jump in the chilly outside pool) only to be followed on camera in a segue that led to a video documentary (‘The Avalanche That Never Happened’) about the ‘deliverology’ which vexes UK education.  In the UK, in the mid 1990s Michael Barber (then a professor at the University of Keele) was invited by the government to consult with a view to improving literacy and education.  He advocated the replacement of public schools with private institutions, notably at Hackney Downs.  At the time both major political parties were keen to present themselves as the party of education.  This led to a change in the culture of British education which came to emphasise ‘targets’ and processes which were determined for the ‘front-line’ by ‘the top people’.

The obsession with setting and meeting educational examples led to an endemic manipulation of metrics across the public sector:  education came to be a matter of passing tests and passing tests alone.  Despite mounting criticism and evidence that Barber’s reforms may have been detrimental to education, the management culture he typifies remain dominant in British education despite the fact that those who espouse this approach are not themselves educators.

In more recent times a number of entrepreneurs – Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, Branson, many of them college dropouts – have supported the idea that there remains something inadequate about traditional approaches to education.  Educational (and teacher training) models have increasingly emphasised flexibility and profitability across the world.   The new model of the privately run school has become prevalent worldwide.  Barbers’s recent reports continue to perpetuate this view – but he’s only an example of a class of decision makers who have real influence.

Intellectual property laws have come to play a central part in this process, spreading from the west to Asia in order to protect the rights of private companies and to gather large amounts of data about markets.  Dressed in the language of ’empowering students’ and ‘globalisation’ one could see all this as the UK flavour of a wider, utopian trend.  The private sector remains the only admitted source of innovation and improvement in this view of the world.

Open education exists as a genuine threat to this orthodoxy:  it can provide a more personalised experience which can derive from genuine learner interest rather than the imposition of external frameworks of assessment.  However, we need to move away from the culture of measurement, which is a feature of this ideology:  we shouldn’t care so much about how many people use courses, what kinds of grades they get, etc.  We should resist standardisation which is carried out in the name of ‘choice’.

References and more information about the film are available at  The film itself (which is a pretty impressive production) is available from (password = avalanche)

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Liveblog: Andrew Ng at Open Ed 2013

Andrew Ng – co-founder of Coursera – joined us by Skype for this presentation since he couldn’t be with us in person.  His presentation focused on the ‘revolutionary’ aspects of Coursera’s MOOC platform.  Most people, he noted, could never take a course at Stanford but Coursera makes this possible by putting courses online which anyone can access for free.

For the uninitiated – if there were actually any in the room – a lengthy explanation of what Coursera is:  as a Stanford professor, Andrew usually taught around 400 students per year.  By putting his materials online he was able to reach 100,000 students.  The project now has 107 partners and has taught 5.2 million registered students across 532 courses.  Instruction is video-based and leads to certification which can be used to improve academic or vocational credentials.  Students interact with materials through quizzes and short assignments.  These are supported by plugins that offer a range of functions and can be designed by the partner institutions.  There are peer-grading functions which supplement machine assessment.

Ng tried to make a virtue of the fact that most Coursera users are already ‘educated’ – “over 80% of Coursera students already have a bachelor degree” – and argued that because today’s world is rapidly changing the ‘half-life of knowledge’ is decreasing people will be more likely to keep learning – not sure I fully grasped the logic of this.  It seems to me that this is entrenching privilege rather than increasing access to educational opportunity, particularly when Coursera certification is not widely recognised as equivalent to a formal degree or diploma.

So far, so generic: but what does the future hold?  Andrew went on to ruminate on the ‘flipped classroom’ phenomenon and suggested that Coursera content could be used to support campus education by making classroom time available for ‘deeper interactions’.  (I thought this model had been in place for all humanities degree programmes since… well, since there were universities.)  In the future, Andrew wants lower income people to have educational opportunities that they have not had in the past.  To me this is hardly revolutionary…

Rory MacGreal made the point that student work produced within Coursera cannot be used towards credit for university courses, and questioned the validity of terms and conditions that could own the intellectual property of students.  How is this compatible with ‘education for all’.  Andrew responded by noting that Coursera has costs and needs to find a sutainable model; this is the same reason for not adopting open licensing.  (The implication seems to be that this is all leading to monetization.)

More questions could have been interesting, but Andrew had another engagement.

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Report from Educause 2013


I’ve spent the last few days here in Anaheim (a stone’s throw from Disneyland) at the annual Educause conference.  It’s my first time here and I’ve found a few things that were surprising or of note.  The first thing to say is that this is a very well organised and VERY big conference. I’m pretty sure it’s the biggest I’ve ever been to with some 5500 people in one room for the keynotes.  Given the number of people hammering the wifi simultaneously they have done really well to keep the service going and everything seems to be running like clockwork.  There really is a lot going on here – the programme looks like a telephone directory.  That said, it was a bit disappointing to find that with so much going on not all of the sessions are recorded for posterity.  In particular, I think the keynotes should be available although Ken Robinson‘s will not be.  His session was all about the need for imagination and creativity, though for me the link through to formal education was a bit sketchy.  Jane McGonigal‘s enthusiasm for videogames really came through during her keynote about gamification which was very well received.  She did a great job of explaining the rationale behind gamification to an audience who it seemed were not natural gamers, but I confess to being left with quite a few questions at the end about both the psychology informing her position and the vision of the future of education that was being proffered.

I haven’t been able to attend everything I wanted to.  Partly this is due to the sheer volume of talks but also because I took a little trip out to University of California Irvine to meet with Larry Cooperman (which I will write about separately).  My overriding impression of the conference, though, is how little mention there is of open education or OER here.  I asked a few people about this and was told that there had been an OER focus in previous conferences.  But I know that there’s quite a lot going on out there and so it feels like a conspicuous absence.  I have managed to track down all of the people involved in OER related presentations and had some interesting chats.

A College-Level Learning Framework for Assessing Open Educational Resources Amy McQuigge, Coordinator of Open Education, Office of Research, Innovation and Open Education Nan L. Travers, Director of Collegewide Academic Review, Empire State College SUNY “SUNY Empire State College is developing a framework to assess university-level learning, regardless of where it was acquired. Participants will apply the framework to sample student learning and will leave with strategies to use the framework within their prior learning assessment programs or OER initiatives.”

  • Understand the need for a framework to assess student university-level learning
  • Apply the framework to your programs
  • Relate the shared principles of national and international frameworks to define university-level learning and domains of knowledge

I managed to catch up with Amy yesterday and we had an interesting chat about some of the work she is involved with over at Empire State College, State University of New York.  She has been working with others to develop a Global Learning Qualifications Framework to evaluate learning across a variety of learners and courses.  An open curriculum system allows students to create their own programme of learning and this seems to lead to positive results in terms of performance and retention.  They have a lot of students who started out using Saylor materials so linking up their data with our own survey data could prove very interesting in respect of our hypothesis about the transition from formal to informal learning being supported by OER.

OAAI: Deploying an Open Ecosystem for Learner Analytics Josh Baron, Senior Academic Technology Officer, Marist College “The Open Academic Analytics Initiative (OAAI), an NGLC grant recipient, has developed a predictive model for learner analytics using open-source tools, which we are releasing un- der an open-source license. We will share project outcomes along with research into effective OER-based intervention strategies and other critical learner analytics scaling factors.”

  • Learn how students who received interventions had a 7% increase, on average, in their overall course grades
  • Hear how predictive models are more portable than first anticipated
  • Learn about the emerging field of learning analytics

I was first drawn to speaking with Josh by the headline figure of a 7% uplift in student grades as a result of interventions which took place on the basis of automated analysis of performance.  They had a big sample group – around 2,000 students – but the overall picture is still a bit unclear.  There were two groups who got support and a control group.  The two groups that received support either received this in the form of automated messages or through an online support forum.  There wasn’t a significant difference in the subsequent performance of these groups so it might be that interventions are what is important regardless of what form they take.  In any case, the results are encouraging from an OER point of view since they seem to be getting results that commercial alternatives would be happy with and the peer-to-peer mentoring is something that they will be focusing on in the future.  All the materials are available on a CC-BY licence.  You can find out more about the project at

Exploring Ginkgotree: Increasing Access, Engagement, and Learning with OER
Dylan Barth, Learning Technology Consultant
Tanya Joosten, Director, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

“University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee will discuss its partner- ship with Ginkgotree to explore the efficacy of their application to curate digital content for creating textbook alter- natives that improve student outcomes.”

  • Consider faculty development and training in using Ginkgotree and OER
  • Learn about institutional processes to launch a Ginkgotree pilot

This presentation started with an outline of the prohibitive cost of many educational materials, particularly textbooks.  (The suggestion was made that students tend not to be interested in OER but they are interested in digital texts they can annotate.)  The solution suggested emphasised the need for institutional readiness to adopt which runs across faculty and IT staff.  Responsibility for student support needs to be clearly delineated, especially during the piloting phases, recognising all stakeholders.  GingkoTree allows for the curation of a range of digital content which can act as anchor for pedagogical activities and discussion.  For their pilot activities they chose faculty on the basis of applications which suggested they could make effective use of the technology and evaluate it successfully.  (There was a lot of take-up from arts & humanities and none from social science.)  Many faculty were interested in using both OER and copyrighted materials beyond ‘fair use’ – GingkoTree automatically ensures that relevant payments were made to copyright holders – rather than being locked into an OER approach. (By entering ISBN number, etc and identifying the specific sections you want to use the system automatically calculates the revenue and payments required.)  The tools provided within the system look pretty useful from the point of view of supported blended learning and guiding students.  They include archives of learning materials, annotations, discussions, voting and quizzes but don’t yet allow for grading & feedback, or much in the way of multimedia content.  Overall, I got the feeling that this was really an OER-agnostic platform which would lend itself quite well to a teacher who was thinking about integrating OER into their teaching without necessarily moving to a fully open approach.  It would also encourage students to interact with each other.  I get the distinct feeling that perhaps institutions and students have to pay for the service.  I made the point that the danger here may be in settling for a partly open solution when a fully open approach might be preferable.  Tanya made the salient point that at least the whole thing hasn’t been bought out by one of the big educational publishers.  (It’s a comfort of a sort but not the same thing as an ongoing commitment to openness.)  They’re quite early on in their pilot, so it may be worth checking in with them at a later date to assess the impact of what they’re doing.

Late on Thursday (17th October) I took part on the Openness Constituent Group panel on the theme of openness in education with Kim Thanos of Lumen Learning, Patrick Masson of UMassOnline, Doug Johnson of University of FloridaPaul Erickson of University of Nebraska Lincoln and Ken Udas of University of Southern Queensland.  The conversation was inclusive and wide-ranging and it seemed like everyone got something out of it.  I’ll post a link to the recording when it becomes available but you can follow the live tweets on Patrick’s Twitter account.  I took two main points from the discussion.  Firstly, there is a need for clusters of OER activity and OER advocacy to translate into more diverse communities and thus bring about institutional change.  Secondly, the rationale behind OER Research Hub – and particularly the forthcoming Evidence Hub – was justified as a catalyst for making this happen.

On the non OER-related front there was too much going on to summarise, but given the roles most of the delegates perform there was understandably a focus on practical initiatives for campus and distance learning technologies.  There seems to be a buzz around learning analytics and what I would probably term as xMOOC extensions of existing courses.  The exhibition space here has to be seen to be believed; I don’t seem to have been able to take a picture that does it justice.  It is huge and filled with custom built displays.  Needless to say there are some very big corporations spending a lot of money here.  Might this explain the lack of conversation about open education?

Out of hundreds of presentations, these were the only ones with any mention of OER that I could identify.  Anyway, this could (optimistically) all be seen as evidence of considerable opportunity to talk about OER.

Finally, it was a pleasure to connect with George Veletsianos today after lots of online interaction over the last year or so.  It was good to hear that he has a prestigious new position up in Victoria and continues to be interested in understanding openness in education.  I also got to chat briefly with Dr Chuck!

My next stop:  Community Colleges around greater Los Angeles

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