Beyond Borders, Said Business School, University of Oxford

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Mel Highton, Head of the Learning Technologies Group, kicks off the conference, casting it in the context of a long line of “Beyond..” events (Beyond the Learner, Beyond the Search Engine, Beyond the Red Tape, Beyond Digital Natives, Beyond Walls). Oxford iTunesU was launched at the latter in 2009 and recent efforts have been focused on making the materials truly open through licensing permissions and the OpenSpires project, of which we will hear more about later.

Andy Lane presents “Content, Collaboration and Innovation: Past, present and future”, welcoming Oxford to the OER community. He describes OER as a “new form of old practices”, reminding us that we are still in the same business of helping people learn stuff. Andy poses the question “Why make resources open?” and offers seven good reasons:

•             Growing momentum behind OER worldwide (and emergence of CC licenses)

•             Consistent with OU’s commitment to social justice and widening participation

•             Helps build markets and reputation

•             Bridges divide between formal and informal learning

•             Test-bed for new e-learning developments and opportunity to research and evaluate them

•             Way of drawing in materials from other organisations

•             Provides the basis for worldwide collaboration

I could also add one slightly closer to home: OER has a huge staff development potential, providing a ‘hook’ to get staff involved in resource creation, sharing and evaluation in particular whilst enhancing their IT skills (plus their understanding of the benefits of IT) in general. There is a real appetite for sharing, not just amongst the digerati, but also at the chalk-face, where user-friendly tools and release of OER materials afford wholesale remixing and repurposing of valuable educational content.

Andy uses a couple of terms I hadn’t heard before: “short form content” and “long form content”, a pair of new media-isms apparently, and broadly analogous to learning objects as opposed to courses, the former has a timescale of minutes, the latter hours. He goes on to highlight the difficulty of truly understanding the implications of OER with an example: 60,000 units are downloaded for printing each month but that doesn’t mean that they understand how people are actually using the materials. (This is a recurrent theme with OER, the act of making materials truly open means that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to track their use).

Jan Hylén from OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) talked about “Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources” based on a comprehensive report recently produced by OECD looking at the wider implications of OER. Competition between institutions is increasing, yet sharing is taking place. Why is this happening? What are the implications of this new trend? There is a new culture of openness in HE. It began with Open Source, growing through the Open Access movement and now gains momentum with the OER movement.

OER resources are defined as: “digitised materials offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and reuse for teaching, learning and research” (UNESCO, 2002)

OECD has analysed and mapped use of OERs in its 30 member countries and has flagged up four main issues: IPR; cost/benefit models; incentives/barriers; how to improve access and usefulness.

The drivers for OER are:

•             technological (increased broadband/hard drive capacity/processing speed; user-friendly software for creating/remixing content)

•             social (digital natives; desire to share/contribute; development of communities and collaborative projects)

•             economical (lower cost for broadband, tools; lower entry barriers)

•             legal (CC licenses)

In order to ensure ease of access most providers have no registration on their sites; consequently there is poor user data. This is familiar territory to RLO-CETL where it is very difficult to gather comprehensive data on global reuse of learning objects precisely because we want to make them as accessible as possible. There is a perceived inverse relationship between the potential for discovery and reuse of a resource and the ability to record and analyse that reuse.

Jan goes on to note that the OER movement began as a grass roots one and has only recently become institutionally based.  This also chimes with our experience. Current users tend to be well-educated (to degree or Master’s level), self-learners and primarily from N. America (although this might reflect OECD’s demographic). They use OERs mainly as a supplement to conventional T & L and they tend to use small, bite-sized chunks. Their main reasons not to are lack of time, skills and reward system (sounds familiar…).

Jan outlines the main challenges:

•             quality and relevance of resources

•             IPR – obtaining rights difficult

•             Awareness is low amongst staff

•             Non-commercial licenses can cause difficulties down the line

Peter Robinson then presents the OpenSpires project, a HEA/JISC OER pilot with a quote from Prof.Oliver Taplin, Faculty of Classics, Oxford: “The world of learning need not be a possessive one.”

OpenSpires has two objectives:

1)            Deliver Oxford talks and lectures as open content

2)            Explore and report on the institutional implications

What they’ve achieved is truly inspirational: 280 recordings; 160 hours; 130 academics; a huge range of subjects including quantum mechanics, climate change, China, ancient writings, philosophy…

Content includes tutors and students discussing topics mirroring Oxford’s highly successful tutorial system.

OpenSpires has led to significant institutional change at Oxford and is to be applauded both in terms of its breadth and outputs. It’s built on the success of iTunes U which has produced some 1630+ items, 260+ RSS feeds and has had over 3 million downloads. It has involved all the faculties.

The two presentations after lunch explore the global perspective: Tim Unwin (UNESCO) delivers a thoughtful piece on video “Open Educational Resources and ICT for Development” offering some of the reasons why OERs just don’t seem to achieve the uptake in sub-Saharan Africa that one might expect.

Fred Mednick (Teachers without Borders) presents “Connecting Teachers with Content” live via video link from Seattle. There are teacher members in 183 countries – 30,000 offline and online members – an impressive community of practice.

The ‘Challenges Panel” comprises Peter McDonald, David Robertson, Marianne Talbot, Andy Lane and Fred Mednick.

Peter McDonald believes in working for the public good because he’s publicly funded. Good!

There’s a question from the floor about sustainability:

AL makes the point about the music industry having been here before. The OU “thinks it’s something we’ve got to do – working out how much we can spend. Outreach and open access work continues, this could contribute to that. Also, it attracts and retains students, so  this might provide cost savings.”

PM puts forward the individual researcher/teacher point of view. Institutions should promote this so OER can become part of what’s put forward as a research proposal, as a virtual form of publication. This would incorporate it into practice.

DR thinks the activity needs to be more central.He likes to feel that his material is universally available yet “inexcusable parochialism” prevails. And invariably materials are not freely available.

MT wishes she had a penny for every download (she has the mot successful OER lecture on philosophy, attracting 18,000 downloads a week).  She suggests why not link iTunesU podcasts to the campaign for Oxford encouraging users to donate – click here.

AL outlines the Freemium model. People want to come and study, they find out more through OER, then they pay fees.

Strategic Content Alliance comment: There’s a hybrid model – delivering open content – but area of site used commercially. Audience analysis is key. And need to be very clear about costs.

My question to the panel is: What’s the single greatest challenge to OER?

FM: The plethora of organizations themselves – interoperable organizations are needed. “I’d give up my organisation for the sake of the teachers. New relationships are needed where there’s a level of sacrifice.”

AL: “We need to stop talking about OERs and move on to talk about ‘Open Education’ – we will have succeeded when we stop talking about the means and focus on the ends.”

PR: The biggest challenge is how to change thinking and mindsets – we still translate for the new media directly from the old.

MT – worries that her podcasts might prevent another lecturer being employed. (This is a common but, I think, largely unfounded worry among academics).

Finally, Robin Wilson presents “Communicating Mathematics – a historical and personal journey” using OHP slides outlined and annotated with a liberal amount of coloured felt-tip. Very engaging. And possibly infringing all sorts of copyright by liberal use of modern and historical images of mathematicians apparently lifted directly from books and other publications. So just as well it’s not online.

Best quote: “The lecture theatre has long been the method for getting what’s on the teacher’s notepad onto the student’s notepad with no evidence that it has passed through the brains of either!”

My top issues for OER, gleaned partly from the day and partly from historical experience, are:

Issue 1: Staff awareness, development and reward

We really need to crack this one to maximize uptake. But there are plenty of competing pressures (Research, face-to-face, administrative duties etc.)

Issue 2: Quality assurance; peer-review

This is the question that PVC’s, Deans and the adminisphere always ask. But it matters to teaching staff too. OER demands that they expose their materials to public scrutiny, so they had better be right!

Issue 3: Evidence of use, reuse and sharing

Freely available resources are the hardest to track. Yet an evidence base is required to build a robust case for future investment.

Issue 4: Sustainable business models

The 6 million dollar question! And undoubtedly the successful model will be a mixed one – but which exactly?