Research as a service = the researcher as an API? #oerrhub

As I blogged about earlier this month, I’m currently working with the OER Research Hub  team helping them to evaluate their progress, outputs and future developments.

The project is taking a collaborative research approach which includes  practitioners/teachers from a number of different educational sectors and countries as well as the “core” team of researchers based at the OU. Given the global spread of project fellows a key challenge for the project is to ensure that the team are able to share their findings and experiences between themselves effectively and provide the basis and data for the OER Research Evidence Hub.  

One of the approaches the team has been experimenting with is taking the premise of agile programming and adapting it to a research project (see Patrick’s post about the first research sprint for a bit more detail).  

Now, when I heard about this I was intrigued. Typically educational research “products” don’t really lend themselves to anything particularly agile,  particularly some peer reviewed journal outputs. Any research based on actual teaching practice does need more than a few sessions to generate meaningful results. Agile programming tends to have very specific,  pre-defined outputs, it’s actually often not the most creative of approaches. Whereas academic research (particularly in the education domain) tends much more open ended. Hypothesis are there more to be broken as well as to be proved, the unexpected is embraced. 

Bringing researchers who form part of a globally distributed team together for set periods to focus on certain aspects of research project does make sense.  As does having some kind of structure, particularly for focusing “group minds” on potential outputs (products), adaptation of peer programming could be useful for peer review etc. However implementing “proper” agile programming methodology to research is problematic.

But if we stick with the programming analogy and stop thinking in terms of products, and start thinking of research as a service (akin to software as a service) then maybe there is more milage.  A key part of SaS approaches are APIs, allowing hooks into all sorts of sites/ services so that they can in effect talk to each other.

I noticed earlier this week a post from Brian Proffitt on readwrite talking about the need for personal APIs  to help organise individuals interactions, but what I’m thinking of in this context is quite the reverse. I’m thinking of researchers seeing themselves as APIs. They need to be the hooks providing entry points into their research which create effective, interactive dissemination or more accurately communication (as described in this Is it time to ban the term ‘dissemination? post by Caroline Cassidy). 

In any research based on teaching practice as is the case with the OER Research Hub, there is always (imho) a tension between research and practice. Sharing effectively lessoned learned with actual teachers and at the same time producing the empirical data that qualified “proper” research requires is challenging and can actually create a gulf between research and practice. I think Learning Design suffered a bit from this. For example, as a teacher I really want to know quickly and easily what people did with OER, where they found it, how it actually changed things for them in the classroom, the pragmatic stuff, not the “science bit” with all the statistics. I probably don’t have time to read an academic paper.  As a researcher I may well be more interested in the quantitive data, and reading a “proper academic paper”. As a funder I really want to know what you’ve done with my money, what difference have you made? I don’t need you to regurgitate in several different ways the original project proposal.  Equally in all cases I might be interested in more “lite” reflection such as a descriptive blog post, video interview etc, or a combination of them all.  

The key thing therefore is for the researcher to think of themselves more as the interface between their work, the data, the findings, the “what actually happened in the classroom” bits and focus on ways to allow as wide a range of stakeholders to easily “hook” into them so they can  use the outputs meaningfully in their own context.

In many ways this is actually the basis of effective digital scholarship in any discipline and of course what many researchers already do.  In the context of open collaborative research into OERs and wider open educational practice in particular,  I wonder if the research as API analogy could help focus development of sharing research outputs and developing really effective interactions with research data and findings? 

The team have already identified a number of key challenges for next year including measuring impact -v- attitudinal data, the validity of comparing diverse contexts as well evidence for critical reflection and its relation to OER so have lots of potential hooks and the project blog is filling up with some really useful reflection and early findings from the research to date.

I’m joining the the team next month for their next sprint so will be getting lots more insights into how a ‘research sprint” actually works, but in the meantime I’d love to hear any views you may have.

Where Sheila's been this week #easc13

Although August is traditional holiday time for most in the sector (and beyond), I was one of about 300 people who travelled to Dundee yesterday for the annual eAssessment Scotland conference. Now it its fifth year it is becoming a well established date in the Scottish, UK and international calendar. It’s certainly one of my favourite events, and now being self employed, the fact that it is free to attend is an added bonus.

I’m still adjusting to my new working life, and although I am able to carry on using almost the same technologies to support my practice, the downside of not having a “” email address is that I can’t connect to the eduroam wifi service. Now, on a day to day basis that isn’t an issue but at conferences held at Universities, connection to the service is something I have started to take for granted. As you’ll know dear reader, I have been know to send one of two tweets from conferences. The latest Jisc Inform (scroll down the page) has a short article by me about my use of twitter and in particular its use in conferences.

So yesterday I was “caught short” a bit as I couldn’t automagically connect to eduroam, my mobile phone signal wasn’t very strong in the lecture theatre and so I wasn’t able to tweet. I should have checked with the fabulous conference team and I’m sure I would have got access to another network, but I just didn’t think!

Now, not being able to tweet for most people wouldn’t be a big thing, but I was quite startled how strange it was for me just to take notes and not tweet and share the #easc13 goodness. In fact several people did ask me why I wasn’t tweeting. So at least I know at least I’m recognised for something . . .

One of the themes the first keynote by Cathrine Cronin (a long standing twitter buddy of mine and it was lovely to at last meet her face to face) raised was openness, and the value of sharing with peers. I know I have become a much more open practitioner over the past 6 or so years via twitter and blogging. Not being able to instantly share instantly yesterday was very counter intuitive for me. Also as I said in the Inform Article, conferences are a great place to utilise twitter to share, meet and then continue relationships and extend your community. So over the weekend I’m going to explore the twitter archive and try and catch up with the “chat” from the day.

It’s always difficult to distil a conference in a single post but just for the record some of my highlights were:

  • 3 female keynotes, sadly even in this day and age an all too rare occurrence
  • the enthusiasm and sharing of ideas and practice by the presenters and delegates
  • how conventional and risk averse we all are (students, staff, institutions, society) about risk taking and really changing educational paradigms (this was brilliantly encapsulated by Helen Keegan’s keynote – see this video for an overview )
  • pic’n’mix sweeties in the afternoon are a great idea at a conference.

So well done to David, Kenji, the sponsors and all the team for yet again pulling off another great event. I’ll be back next year, and hopefully at full tweeting strength.

The OER Research Hub: Revving up OER research

Open and education, they go hand in hand, a bit like bread and butter or fish and chips. For over a decade, the open education movement has been steadily making inroads into the collective conscious.  Through various global initiatives there is increasing evidence to illustrate that there is more than “just a feeling” that OER and open educational practice can have an impact on teaching and learning. 

Building in particular on the work of the OpenLearn, Bridge to Success and OLnet   projects, and other developments in the wider open education movement, the OER Research Hub is focused on gathering evidence around the positive impact of OER, and open practice in teaching and learning.

Funded by the William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation, the project provides: 

a focus for research, designed to give answers to the overall question ‘What is the impact of OER on learning and teaching practices?’ and identify the particular influence of openness. (

As the project moves towards the end of its first year of funding, I’m working with the team to evaluate their overall approaches, methodologies, findings, outputs and dissemination. So, I have spent some time over the last couple of weeks immersing myself in the world of the OER Research Hub and familiarising myself with the complexities of fully understanding an evolving project with a number of different research activities and contributors. 

The overarching research question forms two key hypothesis as the central tenant for the projects’ research activities:

  • Use of OER leads to improvement in student performance and satisfaction.
  • The open aspect of OER creates different usage and adoption patterns than other online resources.

These “big” hypothesis have been further broken down into a subset of testable hypotheses:

  • Open education models lead to more equitable access to education, serving a broader base of learners than traditional education.
  • Use of OER is an effective method for improving retention for at-risk students.
  • Use of OER leads to critical reflection by educators, with evidence of improvement in their practice.
  • OER adoption at an institutional level leads to financial benefits for students and/or institutions.
  • Informal learners use a variety of indicators when selecting OER.
  • Informal learners adopt a variety of techniques to compensate for the lack of formal support, whichcan be supported in open courses.
  • Open education acts as a bridge to formal education, and is complementary, not competitive, with it.
  • Participation in OER pilots and programs leads to policy change at institutional level.
  • Informal means of assessment are motivators to learning with OER.

Using a collaborative research approach, the core research team is working with a number of established projects and is further complemented by a number of open research fellowships. Each project/ fellow is investigating a combination of the hypothesis.  In this way the project covers four major educational sectors (Higher Education, schools, informal learning and community colleges) as the diagram below illustrates.

(image from What makes openness work presentation,

Last month the team gave an overview  presentation of the project to colleagues at the Open University. The recording and slides provide an excellent overview of the projects’ activities to date.  Some more detailed reflections on the initial findings are included in this post by Leigh Anne Perryman.  

The team have also begun to identify the some of the key challenges they need to address in next year:

*Educators are more positive about the impact of OER on performance & satisfaction than students (across OpenLearn & Flipped Learning).
*Open Education Models don’t necessarily improve access to education.
*Students using OER textbooks may save up to 80% of costs.
*Informal Learner Experience survey suggests that CC licensing is less important than previously thought.
*There is survey evidence the OER (esp. OpenLearn) are being used to prepare and support formal study.
*Examples of OER policies emerging for practice are becoming more common (UMUC, Utah Textbooks, Foothil-De Anza CC).

As well as these headline challenges, there is also the underlying challenge of ensuring that the research and various outputs from the first phase of the project are being disseminated effectively.  How can the team ensure that their growing evidence, reflection, outputs is reaching not just the OER/open education community but the wider teaching and learning community? What other methodologies can be incorporated into their data collection and sharing? What are the key lessons from the “agile research”  approach the project is taking? How are they refining/adapting/reacting to this approach?  What lessons can they share from it?  And most importantly, how can the hypothesis and their findings be made immediate and valuable to all of the projects’ stakeholders? Which is where I come in 🙂

Over the coming weeks I’ll be working with the team to as they prepare for their next phase and I’ll be sharing some of the approaches to answering the questions above both here and via the OER Research Hub

What Sheila's seen this week

Tweeting is part and parcel of my daily working life and I do genuinely believe it helps me stay connected, networked and informed in a way that wasn’t possible before.  But there are a lot of tweets out there and some are undoubtedly more useful than others. I have my own slightly random filters and value system but this  post on the LSE Impact blog by Paul Andre, Michael Bernstein and Kurt Luther gives a properly researched overview of perceived values of tweets.

Our tweets might be funny, interesting, confusing, or just plain boring, but with little audience feedback it’s hard to tell; we’re often tweeting into a void. If we understood what content is valued (or not), and why, we may be able to 1) derive design implications for better tools or filters; and 2) develop insight into emerging norms and practice to help users create and consume more valued content.

As well as being an enabler of valuable conversations and interactions, twitter (like life) also has its dark side which has been highlighted recently in the UK with the Caroline Criado-Perez trolling scandal.  Although I’m online quite a lot I have, thank goodness,  only had one really offensive tweet (so far).  I can’t imagine getting 100s of these an hour.  There has been a lot of press coverage but I particularly liked Clare Allen’s take on Internet Trolls  and the overt and covert sexism the debate has raised about acceptable attitudes and behaviours.  

  . . .the journalist Toby Young argues against the introduction of a “Report abuse” button on Twitter. “Let’s not try and domesticate the wild west,” he writes. But it is worth remembering that the wild west was never a place that was particularly friendly to women, and certainly not to women who demanded sexual equality. In fact, perhaps Young has unwittingly drawn an apter parallel than he intended.

Much of my work this year has been around learning analytics and really appreciated Michael Feldstein’s Desire2Learn Analytics Follow Up post  which gives an insightful overview of the problems of the promise of analytics and the reality of current system capability to process data and produce reports within time-frames that users want and need. Echoing what I’ve heard John Campbell say many times before about starting with a simple problem first in analytics, Michael also suggests that D2L maybe need to concentrate on a smaller number of use cases and get them right, instead of the current situation where: 

they check a lot of boxes in terms of features that could be useful, but I’m not sure that they’ve quite hit the bull’s eye for solving any one specific teacher or student problem. 

Maybe IBM are going to help us all take a huge leap forward with data processing with their new era of cognitive computing,  which will provide an architecture that will work more “like our brain” and provide the “fluidity and interactiveness” that our current systems lack. Sounds great, but is it just me or is there always an undertone of command and control/minority report in these developments?


And finally, for something completely different, but equally worthwhile. Lou McGill ( well kent learning technologist, photographer and artist) has launched a website for her gallery Life’s Little Ironies.  Well worth a look to see some of Lou and her partner Tim’s work.  

What Sheila's seen this week

Following in the footsteps of Martin Hawskey and Tony Hirst who often publish links of sites/articles they’ve book marked, I’ve decided to take a leaf out of their books but take a more manual personal approach and share a few things that have caught my eye.

I really admire Audrey Watters work and writing style – it’s something I aspire too.    I also wish I had a brother who knew people like Seymor Papert 🙂 This article embodies everything I admire about her philosophy and writing style.

the huge gulf between those like Gates who have a vision of computers as simply efficient content delivery and assessment systems and those like Seymour who have a vision of computers as powerful and discovery learning machines. The former does things to children; the latter empowers them to do things — to do things in the world, not just within a pre-defined curriculum.

The LSE Impact of Social Science blog attracts some great writers too.  Perhaps this week as I set out on a bit of a new adventure and launch this blog, this article by David Beer on Academic Knowledge and the politics of circulation struck a chord.

Just because it looks like we are able to communicate our ideas directly to a potential audience doesn’t mean that it will ultimately be heard. Academics may need to turn towards those working with new media forms in order to understand their own working conditions and the potential implications of this remediation. We might need to start with the materiality of new media infrastructures and then try to understand exactly how the politics of circulation is shaping the communication and dissemination of our knowledge and ideas. At least then we will have a better sense of the context in which we are attempting to forge new types of dialogue with the social world

Since taking part in #moocmooc last year I’ve become a fan of Hybrid Pedagogy and this article is a really useful overview of the history of the #hashtag, as well as a fascinating account of how the #arthistory tag crossed from the virtual to the real world.

Part (potential) academic tool, part play-thing, the hashtag is a complex entity

Of course the new Cetis site launched this week too which I have to mention.

And last but not least, have you every wondered what it would be like to be a cow? No, not a horrible person but an actual cow. Well now you can.  I often fall asleep to the World Service which has an eclectic range of programmes in the middle of the night.  I thought wearing sensors, a visor and crawling around may have have been a dream but no, there is a real project at Stanford where you can experience life from a cow’s point of view. This article explains more.

An Introduction to How Sheila Sees IT

I’ve been blogging for a number of years now as part of my role at Cetis, and Sheila’s work blog is a record of the many adventures I have in and around educational technology. However, as from 1 August 2013 my position with Cetis is taking a bit of a sideways step (read more in this post). So I’m setting up this blog as a a space to share my ponderings from the world of educational technology in HE, other non Cetis work I’m involved with, and generally rant about various things that catch my attention, and share how Sheila sees IT.

How Sheila Sees IT