I’ve been thinking quite a lot about open policy this year, and I want to take a moment to try and put some of these thoughts into writing.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the global pandemic, there have been some significant policy developments in the broad domain of open knowledge this year. In April, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNESCO issued a Call for Joint Action to support learning and knowledge sharing through Open Educational Resources (OER). This call builds on UNESCO’s Recommendation on Open Educational Resources, which was approved towards the end of 2019. Elsewhere in the open knowledge domain the Wikimedia Foundation has been undertaking its own Movement Strategy exercise to shape the strategic direction of the movement, and outline the processes required to enable Wikimedia to achieve its goal of becoming the essential infrastructure of the ecosystem of free knowledge by 2030.
Closer to home, this year also marks five years of the OER Policy and Service at the University of Edinburgh. The OER Service was launched in 2015 in order to support the University’s new OER Policy which was approved by Senate Learning and Teaching Committee in January 2016. The architect of the University’s Vision for OER is Melissa Highton, Assistant Principal and Director of Learning, Teaching and Web Services, and development of the policy was led by Stuart Nicol, Head of Educational Design and Engagement.
The aim of the University of Edinburgh’s OER Policy is to
“…encourage staff and students to use, create, and publish OERs to enhance the quality of the student experience, enhance the provision of learning opportunities for all, and improve teaching practices. It also recognises that use, creation, and publication of OERs are consistent with the University’s reputation, values, and mission to “make a significant, sustainable and socially responsible contribution to Scotland, the UK and the world, promoting health and economic and cultural wellbeing”.
One of the significant aspects of this policy is that it is informative and permissive. It encourages staff to use and create OER, it does not mandate that they must. In addition to positively encouraging colleagues to engage with OER, the policy also provides them with the reassurance that they have permission to share their teaching and learning resources under open licence. Indeed the policy goes on to state that:
“Unless stated to the contrary, it is assumed that use, creation and publication of single units or small collections will be allowed.”
The role of the OER Service is to support the policy and enable colleagues to make informed decisions about using open licences and creating and engaging with OER. As such, the service focuses on supporting the development of digital skills around copyright and information literacy, while highlighting examples of innovative open education practice from around the University.
Although it’s difficult to definitively measure the impact of this permissive policy at the University, there is ample evidence of increased engagement with OER. Colleagues have created over 3000 open licensed videos which are hosted on Media Hopper Create, the University’s media asset management platform. This collection includes over 500 high quality audio and video resources created for our MOOCs, and all content now created for MOOCs and free short online courses is designed to be shared under open licence. On TES Resources we’ve shared 50 free interdisciplinary teaching and learning resources, aimed at primary and secondary school level, co-created by undergraduates and student interns in collaboration with colleagues from the School of GeoSciences, and supported by the OER Service. Ten undergraduate and masters level courses incorporate Wikimedia in the curriculum assignments, supported by the University’s Wikimedian in Residence, and several more include OER creation assignments, including the Digital Futures for Learning course which is part of the MSc in Digital Education.
The University has recently acknowledged the importance of open educational resources not only for excellence in student education but also for academic career progression. New Principles and Exemplars of Excellence for recognition and reward in academic careers paths, include creating open educational resources as an example of “Dissemination of excellence in student education”.
This permissive approach to policy is quite different from the Open Access mandates adopted by research councils which require institutions to make the scholarly outputs of their research available through open access repositories. Although both approaches have a similar objective; sharing knowledge openly, approaches that are designed with scholarly works in mind are rarely effective for educational resources. Scholarly works are relatively static resources that are one of the endpoints of the research process. Learning materials, by comparison, are more fluid and dynamic, and rarely benefit from being treated as static resources. In particular, open access repositories that are designed for hosting scholarly works, are rarely well suited to accommodating open educational resources. At the University of Edinburgh there is no single central OER repository, instead the policy states that:
“Digital teaching resources should be published in an appropriate repository or public-access website in order to maximise discovery and use by others.”
The University’s OER Service hosts a showcase of Edinburgh’s OERs on the Open.Ed website and also maintains dedicated channels on a number of online platforms to share open educational resources created by staff and students under the Open.Ed banner.
Another significant aspect of the Edinburgh OER Policy is that it applies to both staff and students and indeed students have played an important role in shaping the University’s vision for OER since the outset. EUSA, the student union, were instrumental in encouraging the University to adopt an OER policy, and we continue to see student engagement and co-creation as being fundamental aspects of open education and open knowledge.
While permissive policies are effective in encouraging practice at the individual level and across the institution, there is also a role for mandatory policy in open education, particularly with regard to publicly funded educational resources. I still believe strongly that publicly funded educational content, should be freely available to the public under open licence. This is one of the founding principles of the Scottish Open Education Declaration, an open community policy based on the UNESCO OER Declaration, which calls on the Scottish Government to foster awareness of open education practice across all sectors of Scottish education, and support the use of open licences for all educational materials produced with public funds. Although the Declaration has not gained traction with the Scottish Government, it has been influential in shaping open policy developments in other nations and has been an important advocacy tool for promoting OER and open education practice within institutions.
I believe there’s something to be said about the relationship between policy and practice in open education. OER policies have sometimes been criticised for focusing on resources rather than practice, with critics pointing out that resources alone cannot bring about the transformative affordances of open education, that can only happen with the development of open education practices. However it’s extremely difficult to legislate for open educational practice when it is by its very nature highly diverse and contextual (Cronin, 2017). However, in order to create and use OER, you do need to engage with open practice, so I would argue that OER policies are important enablers of open practice, even if the focus of the policy itself is on resources rather than practices.
At the University of Edinburgh we’ve seen how an informative, permissive policy, supported by a central service focused on developing digital and information literacy skills and supporting student engagement, has enabled a wide range of open education practices to emerge across the institution.