Critical issues in contemporary open education research #srhe

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

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

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

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

Catherine Cronin (National University of Ireland, Galway)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some general conclusions:

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


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

Muireann O’Keeffe (Dublin City University)

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

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


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)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was how I captured the thought at the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Open education and critical pedagogy

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

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

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

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

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


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.