Reframing Open in the context of the digital university – part 1 #oer16

Picture of a bridge

In preparation for our #OER16 presentation, this is the first of two blog posts where Keith Smyth and will build on our abstract and give a bit more detail and context around our current thinking. There’s quite a bit to pack into a 15 minute conference presentation so we hope that these posts will allow us to elaborate a bit more, ask some questions and hopefully get some feedback which we can take into the session itself. We’ll also follow up after the session itself.

For the past 3 years now, Keith, Bill Johnston and myself have been investigating and trying to unpack the notion of a digital university, and develop a way to move from what can be a very tech-centric, view of “the digital” to one which is more balanced and includes people, pedagogy, and wider societal factors. If, as we are starting to do, we take open as the lens to examine our conceptual matrix, then a number of questions arise. As our abstract states

”despite the early promise of open online education, including developments such as MOOCs, the Higher Education sector as a whole has fallen short in using digital spaces to provide equitable distribution of access to education.”

From the early openly shared evaluation from the University of Edinburgh, to more recent statistics from FutureLearn, the evidence shows that the majority of “learners” in MOOCs have a first degree and a significant proportion of those have a post graduate qualification. Instead of widening access to education, are we now in a situation where MOOCs, with their “massive” investment, unclear ROI, only served to preserve the status quo and create another elite measure of engagement? MOOCs may not have lived up to their disruptive hype (Siemens et al 2015), however the reverberations of the hype, the urban myths that have grown up around it continue to have an impact in the HE sector, and in the development of open education practice.As MOOCs become more established the already contentious “open” element of the acronym becomes even less significant, the platforms and licences become more closed.

For institutions like my own who didn’t ride the first, or second wave of MOOCs, is development of open educational practice going to suffer from the still widely held assumption that open education = MOOCs? Is our development of digital learning going to be predicated on the more “popular” templates of many MOOCs for example “high quality” video talking heads and MCQ quizzes?

Open falls of the agenda as we can’t justify the case for that level of investment without a clear ROI, and we look for more “legitimate” income streams from postgraduate/Masters level online programmes.“Digital learning” in turn becomes equated only with fully online experiences, the “digital” is something new, disruptive, that doesn’t need to be cognisant of past and current research and practice (Siemens et al 2015).

The obsession with global market share blinds us to the potential of the local. Discussions around digital environment forget the place of the physical and where institutional psychically sit within a community. The power of open, connected, student driven learning exemplified by the numerous examples of spontaneous face to face meet-ups is not being seen as something that Universities could capitalise on. Could this be the place, as we state in our abstract, where open education could “act as a bridge between formal institutional cultures and learning within physical and digital third spaces.”

Should we not be looking for ways for our physical campuses to become digitally enabled community hubs. Places that don’t empty after 6pm until 8am this next day, but are being used to create more informal, open learning opportunities which utilise the capabilities of our digital and physical infrastructures?

We need only look to our conference hosts, the University of Edinburgh, and their definition and use of “the common good” as a rational for their commitment to the support, development and sharing of OERs as a first stage in this type of engagement. My own institution’s 2020 strategy is predicated on our position as “the university for the common good”, yet we are still not able to articulate and use open education as cornerstone of this. Open is a “nice to have”, but still seen with suspicion (if at all) by many.

Instead of open being a means to meaningfully deconstruct the ivory tower and reintegrate it with wider society, the conflation with digital and online merely helps to reinforce the status quo. Those who can afford to be open do so in ways of their choosing, the rest of us still scrabble around for ways to be innovative which actually equates to making money. Open seems like common sense however, as one of my colleagues wisely said in a meeting this week common sense is not common practice.

This frustrating for many of us Yet again open educational practice can offer us a bridge at individual, organisational and sectoral level. Developing open, distributed curriculum is key part of this and something that Keith is going to explore more in part two.