The Long View: Changing Perspectives on OER

Transcript and slides from my keynote at the OER18 Open For All Conference in Bristol. A recording of the keynote is available here.

Being invited to keynote is always a privilege, and I’m particularly honoured to have been invited to present the opening keynote at this year’s OER18 Conference here in Bristol. Not least because I’m following in the footsteps of the three inspirational women who presented last year’s keynotes; Diana Arce, Maha Bali and Lucy Compton-Reid, but also because it’s a real privilege to be here talking, and more importantly, listening to you. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s the people at this conference, people like you, who have shaped my thinking on OER and my career as an open education practitioner more than any other. You see, OER is my conference, I’ve attended every single one since the conference launched at the University of Cambridge in 2010, and in 2016 I had the huge pleasure of chairing the OER Open Culture conference at the University of Edinburgh with my inspiring colleague Melissa Highton.

Over the years I’ve seen this conference grow in scale and scope, I’ve seen themes and trends around open education change and evolve, and I’ve watched with real pleasure as the conference has become more diverse, inclusive, and international. The OER conference really is increasingly open for all.

One of the things that I’ve always loved about open education, and indeed about learning technology more generally, is that we have all arrived here by very different, often circuitous, and sometimes surprising routes. We all came from somewhere else and we all bring something different to the domain of open education in terms of experience, practice and perspective.

I started out not in education or technology, but in archaeology.  I studied Archaeology at the University of Glasgow and after graduating, I worked as a professional archaeologist for five years before deciding it was time for a career change. After a brief foray into the commercial sector, where I worked for the first commercial multimedia company in Scotland,  I came back into Higher Education in 1997 to work on one of the early learning technology projects funded by the Scottish Funding Council’s innovative Use of the MANs Initiative. I’ve worked in the education technology ever since, but I still have an active interest in historical research, particularly naval history, the history of gender and sexuality, and sometimes all three together!

So, in keeping with my historical interests, I want to look back and re-examine how the OER Conference has explored and renegotiate what “OER” means,  and how the changing themes and fluctuating interpretations of OER have influenced and reflected my own development and perspective as an open education practitioner over the last decade. And by meaning, I’m not talking about defining the specific attributes and semantics of what does or does not constitutes an Open Educational Resource, I’m talking about critically reflecting on what openness means in relation to education at different points in time and from different perspectives, because as Catherine Cronin reminds us in her thought provoking 2017 paper Open Education, Open Questions, “openness is a constantly negotiated space”. Open education looks very different to each and every one of us, and our perspective will depend entirely on where we are standing and the privilege of our vantage point. And of course it is inevitable that our perspective will change as our roles and careers change and develop over time. I’m sure this is something you’re all familiar with and I am certainly no exception to that rule.

In my current role I have the privilege to work with an incredible team of people at the OER Service at the University of Edinburgh, an institution with a strong commitment to openness and a vision for OER. This commitment is squarely aligned to the University’s mission to provide the highest quality learning and teaching environment for the greater wellbeing of our students, and to make a significant, sustainable and socially responsible contribution to Scotland, the UK and the world, promoting health, economic and cultural wellbeing. And later in this talk I’ll be highlighting some of the ways that the university encourages learners to engage with and co-create open education through a wide range of initiatives including internships, playful learning activities, Wikipedia in the classroom assignments, and outreach and engagement courses.

But first I’d like to turn the clock back to 2010  when the conference first launched, UK Higher Education was just starting to explore OER and I was approaching open education from a rather different perspective. In 2010 the JISC / HEA Pilot Programme, which was the precursor to the UKOER Programme, was just concluding and the first OER keynotes were presented by my former University of Strathclyde colleague Allison Littlejohn and JISC’s Executive Secretary Malcolm Read. The themes of the conference were open educational content, OER design, and open education communities and it’s notable that the focus of the first two strands was very much on technology approaches to OER. Specifically how different tools, technologies, platforms, standards and folksonomies (remember them?!) could be harnessed to manage, discover and retrieve Open Educational Resources and interoperable capital L capital D Learning Designs. The third strand, open education communities, explored the “huge opportunities” Web 2.0 social networking offered, asking if we could carry informal social networking practices into professional communities. Interestingly, this strand also asked how we could balance the conflicting demands of quality and inclusivity, (personally I don’t think there is a conflict there), and what the role of learners is in these communities, a theme that is very much in keeping with this years conference.

At this time, I was working for the JISC Innovation Support Centre CETIS, the Centre for Education Technology, Interoperability and Standards, where I led the team that provided strategic and technical support for the UKOER Programme, and it’s great to see several of my old Cetis colleagues in the audience today. Our focus then was on how we could harness lightweight web technologies and new Web 2.0 platforms to create a sustainable OER infrastructure without relying too heavily on the monolithic systems and formal education technology standards mandated by previous Jisc programmes. The technology strategy we proposed for the UKOER programme was something of a departure for Jisc, and although it was more successful in some areas than others, these approaches have been broadly vindicated. One of the cornerstones of this strategy was that projects could share their resources on any platform they chose as long as they could be shared under open licence, and they were also made available through the Jorum national repository. And it’s interesting to note that there are still many UKOER resources scattered across the web on platforms such as Flickr, Slideshare, Youtube and OER Commons.  Alas the same can not be said for the national repository which was shut down by Jisc several years ago. The lightweight tagging system recommended for resource description is also now commonplace.  It’s still possible to find resources on the web using the UKOER hashtag and for a number of years after the programme ended there was still an active community using this tag to share resources and practice. We’ve been less successful in creating tools and technologies for aggregating resources, the Solvonauts OER search engine developed by Pat Lockley is an admirable exception, and Creative Commons are doing great work here too, but I think we still have some way to go before seamless discovery of OER becomes simple and ubiquitous. However we’ve also seen our understanding of OER expand to include applications, tools, technologies and indeed the web itself. An approach exemplified by initiatives such as Jim Groom and Tim Owen’s Reclaim Hosting, which provides educators and learners with a simple way to own and control their own web domains.

In the very first OER Conference keynote, Malcolm Read highlighted one of the aims of the UKOER Programme as being to build sustainable practice and it’s one of my frustrations that because the end of the Programme coincided roughly with the Jisc transition, there has never been an evaluation of the long term impact of the programme on the sector.

Fast forward two years to 2012, the OER Conference was again hosted in Cambridge, though it had been to Manchester in the interim, the theme was Openly Collaborating to Enhance Education, and while technology was still there in the mix, the focus was starting to shift to open academic practice and institutional and government policies. I vividly remember sitting in the audience with my colleague Joe Wilson, then Head of New Ventures at the Scottish Qualifications Agency, and listened to Sir John Daniel, present a keynote about the UNESCO / COL initiative Fostering Governmental Support for OER Internationally, one of the outputs of which was the influential Paris OER Declaration. In a rather roundabout way, that keynote and the subsequent Declaration inspired us to launch Open Scotland,  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. And it was through Open Scotland that we came together with colleagues to draft the Scottish Open Education Declaration a community drafted policy statement, based on the Paris OER Declaration . I’m not going to say too much about about Open Scotland at at the moment, though I’m very happy to talk about this later if you have questions, however it was through this initiative that I started to re-frame my perspective on OER and open education in terms of personal ethics and the wider policy landscape.

2012 was also the year that the UKOER Programme came to an end and the education technology sector in the UK was facing an unprecedented and prolonged period of change and restructuring. Many people predicted the demise of the OER Conference at that time, particularly when open education discourse was increasingly becoming dominated by  commercial MOOC providers and their promise to disrupt! education. Such was the hype around MOOCs, that for a time it appeared open educational resources would fade into obscurity. The shift in discourse from OER to MOOCs was so marked that I remember Amber Thomas, previously of Jisc and now of the University of Warwick, remarking in 2013 that it was as if MOOCs had stolen OER’s girlfriend. For what it’s worth, I still think the relationship between MOOCs and OER is deeply problematic. While instigating swingeing cuts to faculty, teaching support and pensions across the sector, Higher Education has invested astonishing sums of money in the development of MOOCs, yet the vast majority of the resources produced remain locked up on proprietary platforms. We really ought to do something about that.

However, far from being swept side by the avalanche, the OER conference continued to thrive. and to push the boundaries of open education to incorporate open pedagogy, policy, research and practice and when ALT stepped up to support the event in 2015, its future was assured.

And I want to pause for a minute here and just acknowledge the importance of the role that ALT has played in supporting the OER conferences as I believe it’s largely through their support that the conference has grown to become the diverse and inclusive international event it is today.

The Conference has continued to explore and re-assess the domain of open education and what OER means in the context of the ever changing educational landscape.  Indeed at OER14 co-chairs Simon Thomson and Megan Quentin-Baxter suggested that the conference had moved beyond “resources” and asked delegates to suggest alternatives for what the R in OER might stand for. Suggestions included Open Education Re-Imagined, Openness Education Reflection, Open Educative Relationships and, perhaps preempting the themes of OER17 The Politics of Open, Open Education Rebellion and Revolution.

While it is crucial that we continue to critically negotiate and reassess openness and OER, it is also important that we don’t lose sight of the fundamentals of open education.  And I would argue strongly that one of those fundamentals is that publicly funded educational resources should be freely and openly available to the public. And if you take away one message from this talk, this would be it. As open education discourse has shifted to focus on open policy and practice one might be forgiven for thinking that, OER, open educational resources are done and dusted, but that is very far from the case. We have a long way to go before we can claim that our publicly funded educational resources are freely and openly available to all. And while I welcome the expanding focus of open education discourse, it does sometimes frustrate me that open education practice and open pedagogy are sometimes held up in opposition to OER, while in truth they are all part of the wider open education landscape. It is true that resources alone can not transform education, only practice can do that, only we can do that, but that doesn’t mean that there is no role for OER, and it doesn’t mean that we can sidestep our responsibility to ensure that our educational resources are freely available under open licence. I see this is a personal ethical responsibility, but it is also a responsibility that institutions and government agencies must shoulder. Far too few of our publicly funded teaching and learning resources produced across all sectors of education are released under open licences. We really need to change that, we need to take action, because if we can’t change that, then who can?

This is one of the challenges that last year’s UNESCO OER World Congress in Ljubljana sought to address. The theme of the Congress was “OER for Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education: From Commitment to Action” and there was a strong focus on how OER can help to support United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4.

“Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”

The main output of the Congress was the UNESCO Ljubljana OER Action Plan and central to this action plan is the acknowledgement of the role that OER can play in supporting quality education that is equitable, inclusive, open and participatory. The Action Plan outlines 41 recommended actions to mainstream OER and to help Member States to build knowledge societies and provide quality, lifelong education.

In his summing up at the end of the congress UNESCO Assistant Director for Education Qian Tang said

“To meet the education challenges, we can’t use the traditional way. In remote and developing areas, particularly for girls and women, OER are a crucial, crucial means to reach SDGs. OER are the key.”

These are laudable goals and the OER Action Plan does help to articulate what my colleague Melissa Highton has referred to as  the value proposition for OER. We need to be clear about what problems OER and open education solve, what specific benefits they deliver.

It is notable that the individuals, institutions and organisations that have really committed to opening access to their resources are those for whom the value proposition for OER aligns with their personal ethics, institutional vision, organisational mission or business model.

Whether it’s  the Rijksmuseum whose vision is to link individuals with art and history.  Wellcome which exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive.  The National Library of Scotland which aims to make a significant and lasting contribution to global knowledge and the memory of the world.  The University of Edinburgh whose mission is the creation, dissemination and curation of knowledge. Open textbooks initiatives which are founded on the belief that textbook costs should not be a barrier to education. The Wikimedia Foundation which imagines a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. And of course, the organisation which has made this conference possible, ALT, whose core values are participation, collaboration, membership, independence and openness.

These are all institutions and organisations that have placed openness at the heart of their business and have made a commitment to opening up access to their resources because the value propositions for OER align with their strategic missions. And I believe this is where policy can play an important role; by clearly articulating the benefits and value propositions of open education and OER, and being explicit about how these align to the mission and vision of the institution.

Of course it’s important to recognise that the value proposition for OER will differ from place to place and will depend very much on organisations and institutions strategic drivers and priorities.

In the US where OER increasingly equates to open textbooks, it makes sense for states and school districts to adopt OER in this form because open textbooks offer huge cost savings to students. In the UK, the value proposition is rather different.  For example OER aligns with the University of Edinburgh’s strategic mission not only because it has the potential to offer costs benefits by ensuring that we continue to have longevity of access the the resources we invest in, but also because it is an effective way to contribute to the the University’s civic mission to make a significant, sustainable and socially responsible contribution to Scotland, the UK and the world. And I want to come back and say a little more about this in a minute.

The important thing to remember is that there is no one size fits all, there will always be multiple drivers and priorities for investing in OER and there will always be a wide range of perspectives. This is one reason why it’s important when we talk about open education and OER, that these discussion are inclusive and accommodate multiple, diverse voices and viewpoints. And I’ve been encouraged over the years to see the very real and tangible efforts that the OER Conference has made to ensure that it is welcoming, accessible, inclusive and diverse. From it’s initial UK focus, the OER Conference has become increasingly international and has gone to significant lengths to ensure that it really is open and accessible to as diverse a community as possible. ALT is to be applauded for its commitment to providing a wide range of channels and opportunities to enable colleagues to participate in the conference virtually and remotely, and the event has not shied away from asking difficult questions about who is included and excluded from open spaces and conceptualisations of openness. And this is important, because those of us who are privileged enough to participate in this wonderful open community, need to remind ourselves that while openness may be a personal ethical choice for some of us, or a sound business investment for our institutions, for those that are oppressed, excluded, or marginalised, openness may be an unattainable privilege, or even a threat. And this is a point that Chris Bourg stressed in their keynote at the Creative Commons summit in Toronto last week.

“We have to prioritize voices from marginalized communities. We have to pay attention to and address how open systems can replicate inequities.”

One perspective that has sometimes been missing from open education discourse is the voice of the learner. That is not to say that the Conference has not made an effort to ensure that the student voice is included and represented. Two officers of the National Union of Students have presented keynotes; Toni Pearce (standing in for Rachel Wenstone) at OER13 and Wendy Carr at OER14. And I’m particularly encouraged to see that this year’s conference is squarely addressing learner inclusion by focussing on how open education and open practice can support learners, foster learner diversity and inclusion, and help students develop important digital literacy skills.

At the University of Edinburgh, students have always played a key role in shaping the institution’s vision of openness. Together with senior colleagues within Information Services, it was the Edinburgh University Student Association (EUSA) that provided the initial impetus for the development of an OER policy at the university, and in 2014 EUSA’s Vice President for Education, Dash Sekhar, attended the conference in Cardiff along with colleagues Melissa Highton and Stuart Nicol to talk about this student-led OER policy. Right from its inception, Edinburgh’s vision of openness encourages both staff and students to engage with the use and creation of OER and open knowledge, to enhance the quality of the student experience while at the same time making a significant contribution to the cultural and digital commons.

I’m delighted that EUSA’s current Vice President for Education, Bobi Archer, is attending the conference this year, along with several of my amazing colleagues from Information Services, Charlie Farley, Ewan McAndrew and Anne-Marie Scott, who will be presenting papers highlighting examples of innovative open education initiatives and creative student engagement across the university; including Wikimedia in the classroom initiatives, student and community OER creation, OER for access and activism in cultural heritage, so please do go along and check out their talks.

I don’t want to steal their thunder but I do want to highlight just a couple of examples of how we engage students in OER co-creation at the University.

A number of studies have shown that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual health is not well-covered in Medical curricula, however knowledge of LGBT health and of the sensitivities needed to treat LGBT patients are valuable skills for qualifying doctors.

The LGBT+ Healthcare project, which involved a team of undergraduate medical students, sought to address the lack of teaching on LGBT health through OER. The project remixed and repurposed resources originally created by Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio, and then contributed these back to the commons as OER. In order to contextualise these resources, new open resources in the form of digital stories recorded from patient interviews were also created and released under open license. These resources were then repurposed by Open Content Curation Student Interns, to create open educational resources suitable for Secondary School children of all ages. All resources are available through multiple channels including the University’s OER Service and the TES portal.

The University of Edinburgh has made a considerable investment in MOOCs over the last 5 years so it is important that we ensure we get a positive return on investment from the high quality resources created for these courses. This is a non trivial issue as few MOOC providers make it easy to access course materials off their platforms, regardless of whether or not they are open licensed, and some are increasingly time limiting access to resources. The Open Media Bank initiative at the University has surfaced over 500 high quality media items originally created for University of Edinburgh MOOCs and our Open Media Intern has made these available under open licensed on Media Hopper Create, the University’s media asset management platform where it can be accessed and downloaded by all. In addition to these original media items, short re-usable media snippets have been released for use in creative projects and several have been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons. These snippets have already been used by students as part of DIY film school workshops and OER game jams as part of the University’s Festival of Creative Learning.

Our students also have an opportunity to contribute to the world’s biggest open educational resource, Wikipedia, though a wide range of projects and initiatives supported by our Wikimedian in Residence, Ewan McAndrew. These include Wikipedia in the Classroom assignments, and editathons, many of which are designed to improve equality and diversity and enhance the representation of marginalised groups on Wikipedia.

Open Content Curation student interns play an important role in OER creation at the University, helping to repurpose and share resources created by staff and other students while at the same time developing their own digital literacy skills. We’re now in the third year of this internship and the feedback we have received from the students has been nothing short of inspiring.

This quote is from Martin Tasker, an undergraduate Physics student who worked with us two summers ago. If you’ve heard me speak recently you’ll probably have heard this quote before, but I make no apology for sharing it with you again. In a blog post titled “A Student Perspective on OER Martin wrote:

“Open education has played such an integral part of my life so far, and has given me access to knowledge that would otherwise have been totally inaccessible to me. It has genuinely changed my life, and likely the lives of many others. This freedom of knowledge can allow us to tear down the barriers that hold people back from getting a world class education – be those barriers class, gender or race. Open education is the future, and I am both proud of my university for embracing it, and glad that I can contribute even in a small way. Because every resource we release could be a life changed. And that makes it all worth it.”

And ultimately to me, this is what openness, open education and OER is really all about. I strongly believe that engaging learners and equipping them with the digital skills necessary to participate in open education is key to ensuring that OER and open education is collaborative, diverse, accessible and participatory. Because openness is not just about attributes, definitions and licences, openness is also about creativity, access, equality, and inclusion, and ultimately it’s about expanding access to education, supporting social inclusion and enabling learners to become fully engaged digital citizens.

Over the years, my own journey as an open education practitioner has followed a similar trajectory to the OER Conferences; my focus has shifted from national technology strategy, to institutional policy and practice, and personal ethics and politics. One thing that has not changed however is that I still believe passionately that open education and OER are necessary to provide diverse and inclusive education and to ensure that education really is Open to All.

One thought on “The Long View: Changing Perspectives on OER

  1. Thanks Lorna for your thoughtful reflections on the OER conference . I enjoyed the keynote and as I tweeted it was really good to see you highlight that Open (in a diverse and inclusive context) should be mean “open” to those excluded from this and other conversations , probably the biggest challenge we face as educators !

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