Open education practice, luxury item or everyday essential? #openscot

Early this week I attending the ALT Open Scotland meeting at the University of Edinburgh.  It was a really though provoking day with a great range of speakers from government, FE, HE and the school sectors.

As a result not only of the presentations but the wider discussions before, during and after the event, the cost of open practice has been swirling around my brain.  There’s been a lot of war/battle analogies used about open education. I can see why, there is a struggle, and sometimes it does feel like being in some kind of war like situation with ever changing battle lines being drawn/redrawn. However, as I reflected early this year, not everyone actually realises that there has even been a war let alone realise that it has been won.

As I am only too well aware,  the wider (non open education specific) battles in our education sector have seen a lot of casualties – not least for some of our boldest soldiers. In that context, I am one of the lucky ones. After Strathclyde University decided not to extend the Cetis contract, I did manage to find a permanent job.

However, in terms of analogies in the open education context I’m now actually thinking more around a supermarket one. The reason is due to one word I heard a being used over the day in a number of  different contexts. That word is “luxury”. I used it in my own presentation, when talking about developing open education practice at GCU, and my own experience. I think I said something like “I have had the luxury of being able to develop my open practice and be supported in doing so”.  So is open education practice a luxury item or an every day essential?

Now it’s only really in hindsight that I can use the luxury word.  I experienced plenty of “struggle”, but being part of a nationally funded Innovation Support Centre I felt that developing and being as open a practitioner as I could was almost an unwritten, partly self imposed, part of my raison d’être. I was also fortunate enough to be involved at the start of lots of open education initiatives.

But other people and institutions have been/are in quite luxurious positions in relation to developing open practice too.  The University of Edinburgh invested £5million in developing online education which has helped with their MOOC programme and research.  To their credit, they have been very open at sharing their findings and practice. Other universities in the FutureLearn club, which are by and large the Russell Group,  I’m sure have had quite substantial amounts of funding and/or staff time given to developing their involvement.  Other institutions (including my own) don’t have that luxury.

In terms of community building, the Open Scotland Initiative is in some ways the antithesis of top down, big money projects. It is very much a bottom up, community driven development. And without Lorna Campbell’s continuing (unfunded) support it wouldn’t have evolved the way it has over the past year.   So I found it rather odd to hear at the meeting that the Scottish Funding Council (SFC)  have given the Open University quite a substantial amount of money (£1.3 million) to look at open and online education in Scotland.

Despite the promise of engagement, community building etc, I have very “bad feeling” that this comes about at the same time as I hear that Grainne Hamilton – who has pretty much single handily created  and promoted a very active community around open badges in Scotland, has not had her contract renewed at the SFC/Jisc funded RSC due to funding cuts and is going to work with Blackboard.  Who will carry on that work? The rest of her colleagues are flat out providing the other areas of community engagement and support that is vital in our community.

Open eduction, sector capacity building capability – nil  : commercial, open when it suits them companies – 1.

Being a bear of very little brain at times, I can’t figure out why money is being given to the OU to carry out community engagement in open and online education and at the same time money is being taken away from people who have been doing exactly that. Now I know that the world of funding councils can be very complicated, and there very well maybe moves afoot to distribute some of this money to organisations like the RSC and Cetis.  But it does seem to me that the SFC have gone straight for the shiny, luxury option.  The OU gets the money, the “ancients”, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Strathclyde get a place on the steering group, but what about the rest of us? Do we just wait to pick up the crumbs off their table?  Why not a funding programme that would give those of us who don’t have a spare couple of million to spend on developing MOOCs a bit of support to buy out a bit of space and staff time to explore how open online education could really make a difference to the widening participation agenda here in Scotland? What about relatively tiny bit of funding to continue to co-ordinate and strengthen the OpenScotland Initiative via Lorna and Cetis?

They do say that money follows money, and we all know that open doesn’t = free, there is a cost and we all have to pay the bills which means sometimes we just can’t afford to be involved in open education.  I fear that with this type of funding decision the gulf between those who can afford the luxury of open education and those of us who can’t is going to increase.  Whilst I, and my colleagues can do what we can to develop open practice within our institutions, we do need wider support in terms of community engagement too. That’s where the RSC and Cetis come in. I don’t see them as luxuries, they provide a vital role for our community in terms of the development and sharing of practice. They are a the everyday essentials the sector needs. The SFC and other funding bodes strike them off their shopping lists at their peril and to the detriment of the continued growth of the sector.

14 thoughts on “Open education practice, luxury item or everyday essential? #openscot”

  1. Well done, Sheila, for focusing on the economic implications of open educational practices. I think this is an aspect that is all too often ignored. It’s as if we educators tend to imagine that the future will be business as usual for schools, colleges, universities and their teaching staff but with OERs etc. sort of stuck on top like icing on a cake (and I suppose it is a luxury to have icing on a cake). But the harsh reality of the world of education and training means that the future will be anything but business as usual. As you point out, staff are losing jobs, and those that remain in jobs are kept so busy that they simply do not have the time and energy to be “able to develop [their] open practice and be supported in doing so” unless this is an explicitly funded part of their work.

    The world of education is, as we all know, being commodified, and the culture is becoming increasingly commercial and competitive. Some open education enthusiasts seem to be motivated by an idealism that runs counter to this commodification. But might such developments as FutureLearn simply be the ‘freemium’ part of the new higher education commerce? Tempt thousands in with a free offer and a hundred or so might buy the increasingly expensive luxury – a ‘real’ course. And of course, as you imply, Sheila, it will be the large-scale institutions that can afford such giveaways. They will be only too delighted if this helps put the minnows out of business (in the same way that Waitrose supermarket gives away free coffee to its customers and thereby makes life difficult for small neighbouring cafes).

    We all hold long-established assumptions about the economic and hierarchical relationships among students, teachers, institutions, publishers, authors etc. but I believe that the real impact of technology on learning will be to utterly disrupt these relationships, as they are based on outmoded technologies. Will students, teachers and authors continue to need institutions? Or, on the other hand, might the big institutions triumph rather like the supermarkets, wiping out the small-scale competition and using high-tech (and possibly ‘open’) resources to deskill teachers and redeploy them on lower pay as the educational equivalent of ‘shelf-stackers’? Or am I just being outrageously provocative on a hot Friday afternoon?

    1. Thanks Terry. I love outrageous provocation on a Friday afternoon – or any afternoon really! I hope that we aren’t going to be wiped out but I do fear that we are only really at the start of any war to change practice, and without funding it will take even longer to win.

  2. Sheila,
    not really my area any more but here are a few thoughts anyway…

    You couch the post in terms of ‘open education’ but then talk about MOOCs a lot. From my naive perspective these two things are only loosely connected – primarily by the ‘O’ in MOOC – and often not in a fundamental way. In my experience, MOOCs are ‘open’ in the sense that they are available to a lot of people – they aren’t particularly open in any other sense.

    In terms of where funders choose to put their money… clearly, there may be a view that putting a larger pot of money in one place gets more bang for their buck than spreading it around more thinly. Without knowing more about what is being funded and what the aim is it’s hard to tell if that is a reasonable view but it doesn’t seem unreasonable as a starting point. To a certain extent, that has been one of the underlying principles in CETIS and UKOLN funding over the years. Perhaps I’m missing your point? This is not to deride the capability of any of the individuals involved – just acknowledges that funding bodies sometimes have to make difficult decisions about how best to allocate their money.

    On luxury vs. essential… it seems to me that there are two aspects to this. Firstly, that phrase can concern the target market (this is the sense that supermarkets tend to use it – e.g. Waitrose vs Lidl). Secondly, it can concern the institutions attitude to having staff working on open education – i.e. is it a luxury for University of X to employ people who are working on open education or is it a luxury? To answer that question you’d have to look at the mission of the university and ask whether open education contributes to that mission or not. I’m not convinced that in doing so, one would come to the same conclusion in every institution?? That said, I don’t have the evidence to hand and therefore am not really in a position to comment.


    1. Thanks for your comment Andy – yes MOOCs are conflating/ confusing the whole open education agenda. From my point of view working in a post 92 institution with a commitment to widening participation it is hard to see how we can compete with some of “the big boys” who can afford to experiment with MOOCs. I totally understand the difficult decisions funding agencies have to make – but again as times get harder it does seem that sometimes the people with the most get the most.

  3. MOOCs as a concretion of luxury does raise the issue that I am not sure the redbrick concretions are those that can teach well? The 1992 group would be my first choice, but I assume part of the MOOC pedagogy is reliant on believing a “Harvard” course must be taught to a higher standard, or harder, than an alternative. I’ve built a WordPress plugin to allow people to make their own MOOC. I feel the centralised platforms we see just build directly onto existing structures / perpetuate existing issues.

    I’d take issue with open as luxury, as it moves towards an economic model akin to US OER when the focus is on savings. If openness is just adding a license, then the openness is effectively one more step in a process. Is adding metadata a luxury? Not really if it is a default setting.

    1. Hi Pat
      Thanks for the comment. I would like to see a move away from opaque measures of quality as you describe. I have a bit of an issue with “MOOC pedagogy” too – not sure there is such a thing, and people have forgotten about the developed pedagogies for distance education – but that’s for another post.

      I don’t think open should be a luxury item either Pat, which is why I wrote the post. There is a lot of work to be done to make more open default settings.

      1. I put mooc pedagogy as I didn’t want to put mythology. But I’d expect an Oxford MOOC to beat an Oxford Brookes MOOC regardless of how well either was taught. The huge numbers are driven partially by hype, not be say quality.

        MOOCs as Hollywood

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