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.

My author metrics from ORO

My ORO report

I’ve just a quick look at my author report from the ORO repository of research published by members of The Open University.  I’m quite surprised to learn that I’ve accrued almost 1,300 downloads of materials I have archived here!

An up to date account of my ORO analytics can be found at I suppose a 50% strike rate for open access publication ain’t bad… but there is probably room for improvement…

JiME Reviews Feb 2012

We currently have the following books available for review at the Journal of Interactive Media in Technology.  Please forward these details to anyone who might be interested in being a reviewer for us.  If you’d like to nominate yourself as a reviewer, please email rob.farrow [at] or tweet philosopher1978.

Dede, Chris and Richards, John (eds.) (2012). Digital Teaching Platforms: Customizing Classroom Learning for Each Student. The Teachers College Press, Columbia University: New York. 224+vi pp.  (see

McDonald, J. P., Mannheimer Zydney, J., Dichter, A., and McDonald, E. C. (2012).  Going Online with Protocols: New Tools for Teaching & Learning.  The Teachers College Press, Columbia University: New York. 128+xi pp. (see

Goh, T.-T., Seet, B.-C., and Sun, P.-C. (2012).  E-Books & E-Readers for E-Learning.  Victoria Business School, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.  Available from

Information about house style may be found at