The idea of openness is one of the most used and often misunderstood terms in Higher Education. It informs many of the debates around access, delivery, equity, innovation and technology. It became quite clear though after attending the twinned conferences of OCWC14 in Ljubljana and OER14 in Newcastle over the Easter weekend, that this ever-greying definition is fragmenting the skills base and capacity for practice sharing within the sector.
The development of MOOCs is the perfect storm. Technology now has more institutional focus on it than it has had for decades. The mainstream media is howling for change, government policy is actively promoting it and the academy has to respond. The notion of ‘Open’ within MOOCs generally refers to the enrolment being open as opposed to closed. However, institutions like MIT argue that Open includes the fact that all the courseware delivered through the MOOC are themselves Open (as in free to use and repurpose). Alternately, FutureLearn does not currently allow for learners to universally save and reuse their materials (however it was noted at OER14 that this capacity was coming soon). There were a number of examples at the conference where open meant ‘open platform’ with Pearson launching their new ‘open’ platform (openclass.com/home) as well as some institutions demonstrating the benefit of the new Open edX (code.edx.org/).
One thing that was patently obvious through the duration of the conference is the hypnotic sway of the MOOC. It pervaded every debate, every example and almost every paper. It even generated it’s own #klaxon when it was mentioned. As David White from Oxford notes, we are in a post-digital world. So in some ways these conferences opened up for the debates around the post-MOOC world. There were two key examples from the conferences that suggested the post-MOOC future. The first example was a good demonstration of the ‘elastic theory of innovation’ that roughly suggests that innovation pushes a boundary of practice and then through organisational or financial resistance or pressure settles back into a more reasonable change. A number of California and Arizona institutions are providing textbooks to all learners free. This seems to be a version of openness that causes little internal resistance but, at least for the learners, provides both a learning and financial benefit. At the other end of the scale you have the rebellious innovator pushing the boundaries of change even further, and this was clearly demonstrated by the DS106 digital storytelling course being run by Jim Groom from the University of Mary Washington. This is an innovative, rolling Open Course that truly creates a community of practice amongst learners which was clearly evident at the conference. There were a number of presentations around this course but the most interesting asked to think back to our first internet experience and how we have changed our own digital image and identity from then to now. Give it a go, it is a quite a weird and crazy journey. They also presented an example of how this course was run inside 3M as another way of encouraging innovative and creative thinking amongst staff.
One of the underpinning elephants in the room at both of these conferences was the discourse that technology is still fundamentally caught in the notions that it has the ‘potential’ to disrupt or transform higher education. Despite almost a century of development in distance learning and technology enhancements and over 20 years of fundamental societal change, the basic and prevalent practices of higher education are still firmly rooted in teaching and learning activities and models from over a century ago. Openness is something that should challenge that inherited tradition. Many of the papers focused on the doing of something, the platform that does something, there was very little integration into the student experience, the design and changing nature of pedagogy. This is a huge disconnect and possibly contributes to the reason technology is still potential, it is like a hamster wheel spinning endlessly (and pointlessly). The challenge for all HE providers including the LSE is to integrate pedagogy, learning, technology and openness into a seamless policy and practice experience. That is a challenge that no institution on the face of it had yet to crack, although FutureLearn noted they were well on the way. (through Paul Bacsich who had completed an external evaluation of the platform).
One of the key debates at both conferences was around the space in which the MOOC world exists. There were a number of twitter debates about the dichotomous position of being either in or out (in means with the crowd, out means curmudgeon or resistor). There were also debates around whether MOOCs are truly open in that they seem to be generally run by the leading institutions and not the smaller, often highly innovative HE providers. This is a debate with no winners as it opens up the old wounds and prejudices where as a sector we would be far better learning collaboratively and collegially with and from each other.
The notion of community building was a common theme through both conferences. Communities of practice are well explored in recent literature. What is interesting is whether we are seeking to form community of practitioners or communities of learners? The work I presented as part of my former institutions strategic vision for learning innovation (called Greenwich Connect for the University of Greenwich) aimed to encourage the formation of networks and connections between all parts of the institution; learners, academic staff, employers and the community. There were a number of other papers that presented examples of the the ways and means of successful higher education community formation. What is important for me in that process is that the community contributes to and enhances learning. We know that social learning is an important and effective mode of learning and knowledge acquisition. However if the engagement with other learners, academics or industry is superficial, stage-managed, edited or controlled then we run the risk of the learning being equally so. One of the key aspects of these conferences for me was the ability of projects and pilots to be scalable, sustainable and flexible across the wide variety of disciplines and teaching practice.
The area of institutional resistance to technology and change was at the heart of the presentations we made. It was reflected equally in a number of the debates that occurred online and during the question and answer sessions. There were two layers of resistance well evidenced within the cases and papers presented at the conferences. The first was from the institutions who were actively supporting projects but did not subsequently fund them when the external funding ran out. This problem of sustainability cruels many learning innovation strategies. Successful projects, which are well implemented are generally designed to go further and have an institutional and perhaps even sector impact. Yet many of the projects presented were at end-stage with no further possibility of funding or support, leaving their impact as potential (again). The second layer of resistance was demonstrated in the types we discussed in our two papers, where at a staff, student and organisational level innovation was resisted through fear of change, fear of workload, fear of privacy, fear of losing power and control or just fear borne from ignorance (see the papers here and here). Whilst they are based on a case from the University of Greenwich, they were well received by a wide variety of other institutions who saw similar institutional resistance occurring in response to their own initiatives. The key lesson from the conferences was that successful open projects need to realise the existence of and plan for resistance and change, to develop a strategic approach to sustainability of initiatives and to place learning firmly at the centre of activity (more so than simply doing something).