OER17 – The Distance Travelled

Reflections on open education policy in the UK since the Cape Town Declaration

Paper presented at the OER17 Politics of Open conference.

[slideshare id=74455916&doc=distancetravelled01-170405150403]

2017 has officially been designated the “Year of Open”.

The Year of Open is a global focus on open processes, systems, and tools, created through collaborative approaches, that enhance our education, businesses, governments, and organizations … Open represents freedom, transparency, equity and participation … During the Year of Open, we want to capture and display these efforts to increase participation and understanding of how open contributes to making things better for everyone.

This initiative is backed by many of the major international players in the field of open education, including Creative Commons, the Open Education Consortium, OER Africa, etc.

And the reason that this is the Year of Open is that we have a number of important anniversaries

It’s the 15th anniversary of the Budapest Open Access Initiative, and it’s also the ¨ 15th anniversary of the release of the first Creative Commons licence.

It’s the 10th anniversary of the Cape Town Declaration which laid the foundations of the “emerging open education movement” and advocated the development of open education policy to ensure that taxpayer-funded educational resources are openly licensed. And if you haven’t read the Cape Town Declaration recently, I can highly recommend revisiting it, it’s really quite inspiring and inspiring statement.

And it’s also the 5th Anniversary of the UNESCO Paris OER Declaration which, five years after Cape Town, strengthened this call by encouraging governments and authorities to open license educational materials produced with public funds in order to realize substantial benefits for their citizens and maximize the impact of investment.

The Paris declaration was an output of the World OER Congress held at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris in June 2012 and to mark this anniversary, UNESCO, in collaboration with the Government of Slovenia and the Commonwealth of Learning will host the 2nd World OER Congress in Lubljana in September this year.

This event will bring together government ministers, policy makers and open education practitioners in order to:

  • Examine solutions to meet the challenges of mainstreaming OER
  • Showcase best practices in OER policies and initiatives
  • Provide recommendations for the mainstreaming of OER

In advance of this event, the Commonwealth for Learning are undertaking a series of regional consultations in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific and in addition, to these consultations, COL have circulated a questionnaire to government education ministries and stakeholders focused on OER for Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education.  Both the consultations and survey are ongoing, so I don’t have figures for the number of governments that have participated, but I want to come back to this initiative later.

There’s no denying that there have been significant advances in open education in the ten years since the Cape Town Declaration.  And you only have to look at the programme of this conference to get an idea of the diverse range of open education initiatives that are going on worldwide. Even the International Open Science Conference had a special focus on OER this year. During that conference Dirk Van Damme of OECD gave a great talk on how OER can act as a catalyst for innovation.  Much of Dirk’s presentation was based on  this OECD report, which I can highly recommend.  One of the figures Dirk quoted was this one; out of 33 countries that responded to a 2012 survey undertaken by OECD, 76% of them had policies to support OER production and use. 76% is a pretty impressive figure, particularly if it’s representative.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if 76% of governments worldwide had OER policies?  But if we look at this map you’ll notice that one of the countries highlighted is the UK and the UK does not in fact have any government policies that support the creation and use of open licensed educational content. And neither do the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales.  In fact government support for open education has arguably declined since this survey was undertaken.  To be fair to OECD, I suspect the UK was originally included in these figures as a result of the UKOER programme, which came to an end in 2012.  UKOER did not result in the creation of government policy, that was never it’s aim, though it did result in the creation of institutional OER policies, and again, I want to come back to that later.  Funding for UKOER did come through government channels, but I don’t think that’s quite the same thing as actually having government policy on OER.

To my knowledge, the Westminster Government has not invested any further direct funding in open education since the end of the UKOER Programme and in the intervening years, central support for open education has diminished.  Jisc, the organization that coordinated and supported UKOER and once led the field in technology innovation for open education, is no longer active in this space and, as I’m sure many of you will be aware, last year they closed Jorum, the UK’s central OER repository. Selected resources from Jorum have been migrated to the new Jisc Store, which is intended to host both open licensed and paid for content, a move that resulted in some discussion and concerns about open washing when the prototype was launched last year.

As many of you will be aware, Scotland did not participate directly in the UKOER programme, as funding came from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and therefore, quite rightly, only English institutions were eligible to bid.  It’s my understanding that the Scottish Funding Council were invited to contribute to the pot, but for reasons that remain obscure, chose not to.  Some of us, who were involved in supporting the UKOER programme and happened to be based in Scotland, thought that was rather short sighted of SFC so we launched the Open Scotland initiative as a result. I’m not going to say too much about Open Scotland as I suspect many of you will have heard me talk about it before, but just briefly, Open Scotland is a voluntary cross sector initiative that aims to raise awareness of open education, encourage the sharing of open educational resources, and explore the potential of open policy and practice to benefit all sectors of Scottish education. Open Scotland has been supported by a number of organisations over the years, most recently ALT Scotland and the University of Edinburgh.

One of the main outputs of the Open Scotland initiative is the Scottish Open Education Declaration, which is based on the Paris OER Declaration of 2007, but which broadens the scope of the original to include all aspects of open education. And again, I’m sure some of you will have heard me speak about the Declaration before. Open Scotland has been lobbying the Scottish Government since 2013 to encourage them to endorse the principals of the Declaration and recommend the use of open licenses for educational resources produced with Scottish public funding. I’ve been personally involved in leading this initiative and after four years I can stand here with my hand on my heart and say that despite our best efforts we have had next to no influence on government policy.  We have contacted three consecutive Ministers for Education, and although two made vaguely encouraging noises about the Declaration, they had no inclination to support the principals of the Declaration.

I should add at this point that the Scottish Government isn’t completely blind to the concept of open education.  In 2014 the then Cabinet Secretary for Education, Mike Russell,  allocated £1.3 million to the Open University to launch the major Opening Educational Practices in Scotland Project.  That project, which has had considerable success in engaging the third sector in open education, is coming to an end on July this year and some of the team are here at the conference if you want to find out more about this initiative.

The Scottish Government’s lack of interest in open education can be seen at policy level too. In September last year Scot Gov launched their new digital learning and teaching strategy for Scottish schools.  Key themes are closing the attainment gap, developing digital skills, embedding technology across the curriculum, and using digital technology to improve the assessment process. While it’s encouraging that the strategy acknowledges the potential of digital technology to enhance learning and teaching, and equip learners with digital skills, it’s disappointing that it doesn’t acknowledge the significant role that open education can play in achieving these objectives. Similarly, the Government’s “refreshed” Digital Strategy makes no mention of open education, though it does talk about open data and digital education.

And remember the Commonwealth for Learning’s Regional OER Consultation and Survey I mentioned earlier?  Open Scotland liased closely with COL to facilitate Scottish Government participation in this initiative. Again, we had no response, the government did not send a representative to the consultation and to my knowledge they have not participated in the survey either.   ¨ Open Scotland did actually send a representative to the consultation, Joe Wilson attended on our behalf, and in actual fact Joe was the only person who attended from the UK.

To be fair, both the UK and Scottish governments have had other things on their mind recently, but this lack of engagement with international open education initiatives strikes me as being both short sighted and rather depressing.

So why is this?  Why is it that open education generates barely a flicker of interest at government level? In Scotland at least, there is a perception that open education is peripheral to government priorities, primarily because there is a lack of statistical evidence base supporting the impact of open education on learners.

This is not a new issue, many open education practitioners and scholars have highlighted the need for more evidenced based research into the impact of open education. In a challenging talk at the recent Open Science Conference Marco Kalz, UNESCO chair of Open Education at the OUNL, acknowledged that reuse and adaptation are notoriously hard to track and measure, as are direct and indirect effects of OER, and he pointed out, there are no studies that show a direct correlation between OER and innovation. Quoting Sian Bayne and Jeremy Knox’s research at the University of Edinburgh, Marco agreed that “discussions of OER too often tend to optimism and lack of critique” and he argued that the open education field must move from being advocacy driven to become more research driven.

That’s not to say that there is no high quality research into the impact of open education, I’ve already mentioned the work of the Digital Education team at the University of Edinburgh and of course there’s the OER Research Hub at the Open University who do sterling work.  There’s also a lot of good research being undertaken in the US, however much of this focuses on the significant cost savings associated with the adoption of open textbooks. However these figures don’t easily translate across the Atlantic and it has proved much harder to quantify the benefits of open education in sectors that are less reliant on textbooks.  Impressive though the figures are, knowing for example, that Maricopa Community College district saved students $5 million over 5 years isn’t going to cut the ice with education ministers if learners aren’t expected to buy costly textbooks in the first place.

So it’s not so much that there’s no research, its that we need more of it, we need more diverse research and we need research that directly addresses strategic government priorities.   One of the most frustrating things about all this is that we actually have an excellent evidence base for research on the long term impact of open education here in the UK.  The UKOER programme ended in 2014, but very little in depth research or evaluation has been undertake on its impact and outputs. This is primarily because the end of the programme coincided with JISC’s transition from government quango, to not for profit company and its subsequent shift in priorities.   Of course the political and education landscapes have changed radically since the end of the UKOER programme but I still believe there is useful research to be done here. After all, you don’t have to look far to see the continued impact of the programme.  Many people predicted the demise of the OER conference when the HEFCE funding came to and end, and yet here we all are participating in the biggest most diverse OER conference ever and despite all the funding cuts, despite all the political doom and gloom we are making progress.  We may not have had a significant impact on Government policy yet but there are a wealth of open education and OER initiatives going on all over the UK.

Several Higher Education institutions, including the University of Edinburgh[1], have formally adopted OER policies, policies I should add which have their roots in the UKOER programme, and there have been notable successes in the public sector with charities such as the Wellcome Trust and public institutions such as the National Library of Scotland and the British Library taking positive steps to make their collections more open and to support openness at scale. Other organisations such Wikimedia UK and ALT have also stepped in to play an important role in supporting open education policy and practice across the UK. And it’s been really encouraging to see ALT placing openness right at the heart of their new strategy.

Ten years ago the Cape Town Declaration identified a number of barriers to realizing the vision of open education

  • Educators remain unaware of the growing pool of open educational resources.
  • Governments and educational institutions are either unaware or unconvinced of the benefits of open education.
  • Differences among licensing schemes for open resources create confusion and incompatibility.
  • The majority of the world does not yet have access to the computers and networks that are integral to most current open education efforts.

Clearly some of these barriers remain to be overcome and on the evidence of our experience in the UK, I would argue that there is still much to be done to convince governments of the benefits of open education.  Some governments are really starting to get it though.

We may still be struggling to convince the Scottish Government of the benefits of open education but I was delighted to hear just a few days ago, that as a result of the Open Med project the Moroccan Government plans to endorse and adapted version of the Scottish Open Education Declaration making it the first country in Africa to have an open education policy I believe.  It’s perhaps not the kind of impact we envisaged for the Open Scotland initiative but I think it’s a brilliant example of the unexpected, serendipitous aspect of openness and I hope that where Morocco leads, the UK will, eventually, follow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *