blogging on blogging on #ukoer

The opinions expressed within this blog post are my own, and not those of my employer, or of projects or programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

For the purposes of future re-enactments of this post, I would like to confirm that all of the bloggers mentioned here were at all times dressed in the traditional blogger attire of red cape and goggles and that all posts linked to were (to the best of my knowledge) made from high-altitude hot air balloons.

Three people said to me yesterday that they were finding the current rush of ideological commentary on OER difficult or impossible to keep up with. So, I’m going to try to do an occasional series of these posts to help people keep up. I also note that blogging about blogging is inherently naff. So I’m cringing slightly as I write this.

I’d like to emphasise that it is not essential to follow any of the wider conversations around OER to be a part of OER as a movement. People release OER for all kinds of reasons, from a simple desire to give knowledge and education to the world, to a need to better market what their institution offers to students, to a will to destabilise the current structures of power around intellectual capital. What I love about OER is that it allows all of these reasons to co-exist, whilst still uniting everyone in a common cause of getting learning materials out there in some way that allows people to make use of them.

At the moment, there is a bit of an argument going on between David Wiley and Stephen Downes, both edublogging superstars of some renown. As I understand it, Downes sees Creative Commons as essentially a way of shoring up the idea of copyright and as potentially harmful to a longer term goal of reforming intellectual property. But Wiley is arguing that Creative Commons is a necessary fix to copyright, and enables us to be a lot of things that we could not otherwise do. And as every workaround to a system is a reason to re-examine the system, it is actually doing the copyright reform agenda a lot of good.

But then Joss Winn chips in (as a comment on Wiley’s post) to suggest that certain forms of Creative Commons do in fact shore up an existing system of the exploitation of intellectual capital. He prefers the “copyleft” (share-alike) licenses, and the public domain (CC0) licenses, as he feels these successfully negate the intrinsic capital value placed on intellectual and cultural works. What Winn wants (and I’m just inferring here, only Winn can say what he really wants… in fact I think he’d admit that he’s not worked it out yet) is a system where people are not valued solely for what they have produced or can produce – which would require the effective abolition of private property. To say that this is outside of the political mainstream is maybe to state the obvious… it’s certainly an attractive idea, but as a programme manager how can I help but think about process and implementation 😉

It’s maybe useful for the slightly interested reader to think about where they stand as regard the purpose of Creative Commons licensing and what they (personally) hope to achieve by it. In Higher and Further Education, we do need to be wary of uncritical action, and this kind of reflection can be very useful. But there are always going to be people that disagree with your understanding, which is what makes this an (academically as well as practically) interesting field.

David Wiley (where does he find the time?) has also been arguing with Steve Carson, a key player in the OpenCourseWare Consortium and in MIT OCW (which, it could be argued, is the birthplace of the modern OER movement). Carson has been digging through a lot of qualitative data he has built up over the years around the benefits that academics and students involved in the use of OER, and has provided an interesting list of commonly observed benefits. Wiley’s point is that these benefits are not predicated on the “openness” of the materials, and the same benefits could have been realised (he argues) with the copyrighted release thus avoiding what he cites as the additional expense of preparing materials for open release.

Exercise for the reader – does Wiley contradict himself between his position defined against Downes and his position defined against Carson? Explain, with examples, your answer. (8 marks)

Now, within UKOER we can actually answer Wiley, by noting that we have found that the additional costs of open release only exist where we attempt to “open” existing materials. Where material is designed by academics with open release in mind, the release itself is trivial. And MIT (notably) has a model entirely based on the redevelopment of materials centrally by the institution rather than engaging academic staff with the openness agenda – which wouldn’t have even got you funded at UKOER phase 1. But what Wiley is doing is arguing as a way of advancing our understanding. As he says himself:

“Let me be clear: I don’t want OCW to be unsuccessful. I want openness and transparency to become absolutely ubiquitous throughout formal education. I’m not trying to tear down MIT OCW or any other OCW initiative (I’ve been involved in a couple myself). I’m just trying to be the little child who asks a naive question about the emperor’s new outfit: Why are we investing so much in the use of open licenses if open licenses don’t enable the benefits we care most about? And, If open licenses don’t enable the benefits we care most about, what benefits do they enable? Are those secondary benefits worth the very significant investment we’re making in them?”

So the questions he is raising here are, again, about the benefits of open release and our reasons for being involved in it. You’ll see this in a number of posts which are attempting to advance OER both as a self-aware movement and as an emerging academic field. And in many ways the question can never be answered with so many different reasons for being involved co-existing.

Is OER doing what you want it to do? That is the single question all of this discussion and political theorising is asking. And your answer to that is as valuable and as valid as anyone elses.

The OER spin doctor on the wheels of steel.

These are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a creative commons CC-BY license.

As @josswinn frequently reminds me, OER is political, in terms in how it stands both within and against the prevailing ethos of marketised education, and in the way it is (at heart) a personal choice with wider political ramifications, taking in debates about work and labour, intellectual property and ownership, and the nature and purpose of the institution of academia. 

As an essentially transformative political idea, it needs help to gain ground in areas where diametrically opposed opinions have long held sway. I’ve been wondering if we couldn’t be doing a better job of getting our key messages across using a well chosen metaphor in the grand political spin-doctor style.

Our Coalition overlords provide an awesome example of what I am looking for – how many times have you heard, in the context of the national debt, the UK compared to a poorly managed household budget, where belts have to be tightened? Hundreds, thousands? It works because it connects something theoretical and abstract with something real and concrete which many of us will have experienced.

It models a response in a new situation from a response to an old one.

However metaphors work both ways. You could argue that this choice of metaphor tells us more about the background of Gideon Osborne and colleagues, multi-millionaires who have never had a mortgage, much less a personal cash-flow problem. And you’d maybe suggest that a family having difficulty paying a debt may look to earn more money, or restructure their loan, rather than going without food and clothes.

There’s a whole other blog post to be written about how wrongheaded and dangerous this concept is as applied to this situation. But despite this, a cursory glance at any set of comments on a Guardian editorial, or at Gideon’s dire opening to his CSR statement suggest that it has had and continues to have a huge effect in shaping public opinion, and public responses.

The situation around the (re)use of OER in formal is slightly more obscure. What common experience do we have which models a useful response to OER by a teacher or lecturer?

Breaking it down, do we need to demonstrate that:

* reuse is preferable to the creation of new content?, or
* reuse is a part of the creation of new content?
* reuse is valuable because of the nature of the content, not the cultural frame of references?
* reuse saves time and/or money?
* reuse adds value to existing practice?

The CSAP OER team compared sharing and using OER to sharing and using recipes in cooking in a recent blog post, other responses to a request I made on twitter last week have included:

The Roman Catholic Church(?), ebay ; freecycle; comedy (parody / mimicry), music/theatre/dance, the use of the reference break in hip hop (the funky drummer), environment/energy areas, cooking, museums/ libraries (providing access to limited/rare things); (unhelpfully) teaching, mash ups (both in the hip-hop and web app senses), coding, books, crosswords,  videogames (in jokes / references), boardgame design….
(hat-tips to the PatLockely/xpert_project mindmeld, deburca, BasCordewener and especially KavuBob)

There’s some great (and very off-the-wall!) suggestions in there, but – to me – nothing that really captures what we hope OER reuse could be. Coding, the idea of code reuse being better than starting from scratch and the existence of stuff like Google Code, perhaps came closest – but is hardly mainstream to most academic staff. Music is another interesting idea, especially the use of famous sounds and loops (gratuitous link to what may well be my favourite website ever, mid-nineties HTML tables and all) – but how much of this is the musician remembering how a particular sound or style makes them feel in another context. 

So much of cultural reuse is about the associations and resonances that a particular artefact has within popular imagination. I remember being in equal parts distressed and cynically impressed when I first came across DJ Yoda, cutting and pasting enough of any given genre or meme to allow an audience to recognise and respond to it, but without ever being anything other than a stream of references without a meaning. But OER isn’t about the greatest hits of teachers, I see it more as an educational pandora, where (unexpectedly) you find just the right thing

The idea of “teacher as DJ” has been popular for a while, using images of bringing in materials from various sources to keep a thematic flow going. It’s perhaps the closest we have come, but it may take a few more years in western culture before the DJ and the musician are seen as equally creative (though I’d argue the case for people like DJ Shadow as being worth several thousand limp-wristed indie kids in the creativity stakes).  And are DJs not more concerned with entertaining their audience than in getting them to “understand” what they are playing?

“Teacher as DJ” says a lot about us too – the DJ is (very much) the “sage on the stage”, setting the mood, introducing themes, calling for responses. The audience have little control over the experience, except to walk out in disgust. And the DJ (in popular imagination) has that insouciant air of unstudied cool that commands attention and respect without attempting to earn it. Is this how we see ourselves?

But somewhere out there is *the* killer OER metaphor, which would allow us to explain to people that “it’s just like x”, where x is a situation that prompts desirable outcome “y”: which is a close analog to our desirable OER outcome reaction. Thoughts?

Fire and trothing at #ALTC2010

(these are my views and not those of my employer, or of projects and programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a creative commons CC-BY license)

I should admit, to my shame, that I had a blog post pre-prepared – I felt we know all there is to know about #altc by now. Someone waves some flashy technology around, everyone says “oooh shiny”, someone asks “what do the students think?” and then we nod sagely at this insight and move on to the next session. I was going to call it “Fear and Loathing at ALT-C” – travelling to Nottingham to find the great academic dream, systematically and self-destructively losing touch with reality, and reflecting on missed opportunities and the old high water-mark

But there were surprises in store. This was bat country.

If we started with Donald Clark trashing the cathedral, we followed it with Sugata Mitra connecting the bazaar. We’ve been critiquing the lecture for nearly 30 years (“What’s the use of lectures”), we know the arguments well, we’ve used them ourselves. It felt like cavoli riscaldati – reheating old cabbage – and the gas and the stench of negativity nearly choked us. But then out of nothing more than a hole in the wall, we saw learning (almost) unplugged and a restatement of the essentials of self-education (and really, what other kind is there) by exploring, of community and peer (and near-peer) support.

ALT-C used to be a gathering of technologists, but we seemed to be groping towards the unfashionable social sciences – anthropology, psychology, sociology, education and (most clearly) politics. We saw the birth of a star: Dave White with the golden ratio of research evidence, charisma and radicalisation managing to please the crowd whilst drawing the wool away from our eyes. And an award proved that, as our governmental ministers draw from their Oxford experiences and networks, we could now draw on TALL, and on similar departments of agitators, trouble makers and genuine post-doctorate-level awkward fuckers (see Donald, I can do it too!) elsewhere.

The technological is now political; rather than leaping at the possibilities as in the past we are sitting back to ask why? who for? and what is the real cost? There was a sense of a last gasp, we are running out of time, running out of money, and (as Richard Hall and Joss Winn made terrifyingly clear) running out of energy. Even by 2014, we could be living in a radically altered society in which we would either adapt or collapse. Kudos to the pair of them for making it sound challenging and exciting. We’re higher education, we used to love solving problems…

In my own meagre contribution, my colleagues and I tried to highlight the dangers of toying with transformative concepts without at least an aspiration of where we want to end up. We saw three delightful models of how OER could benefit the educational community, and then one neo-liberal corporate nightmare. The oncoming commercialisation of higher education is another figurative crossroads that we stand at, with a genuine and fundamental conundrum about the creative and connective capacity of humankind being used for the benefit of all, or sold back to us to benefit from the few.

But there are strange and magical powers within our creaking old dark-age institutional structures. The gaps, the synergies, the misfiring collegiate neurons and the freedoms within the way we work give us the chance to influence, to build and to organise against the oncoming storms.

Maybe Dave White won’t get to be prime minister after all, but as academics and tutors (even if we are not teaching PPE at Oxford) we can rule a nation with a microphone.

David Kernohan
twitter: dkernohan

OER futures and Universality, Inc. #altc2010

(these are my own views and not those of my employer, or of programmes and projects I am responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license)


In working with Sheila MacNeill, Li Yuan and Heather Price (nee Williamson) in preparing our workshop at ALTC2010 (slides) on trends and scenarios in OER, I was challenged to flesh out the following scenario:


“the radical change model in which a global university appears to serve the different needs of the learners through open access to course materials, learner support and assessment”


This was one of four, ranging from a status quo model in which OER was simply an adjunct to an institutionally focused model, on  to seeing OER as a means of facilitating institutional credit transfer, and (excitingly) to OER as a spur to widespread institutional collaboration. So clearly my scenario was on the neo-liberal nightmare edge of the spectrum.


Predicting the future is not the kind of thing I generally enjoy. I feel that I understand the present and the recent past so poorly that anything I could come up with is based more a hunch than the result of any proper analysis of trends and patterns. Unlike other future gazers, I admit this,


But I ended up with a business model that was both plausible and terrifying; contemplating “Universality Inc” where OERs are a primary means of learning alongside peer support and automatic formative assessment, with other “optional services” (like tutorials, practicals, examinations and qualification/graduation) available for a fee. Academics, in this nightmarish vision, were mainly paid to produce OERs to draw customers in to pay for other services, and employers had enough input into the curriculum to save on corporate training costs.


I frightened myself.  I stared in to the abyss and saw things that cannot be unseen.


The only thing to do seemed to be to make a pretend corporate video, featuring the range of fine acting talent you can find around the JISC offices on a Tuesday lunchtime.


Enjoy (and come along to the session in room ALTCT at 10:30 on Thursday 9th if you want to discuss).


(if anyone wants the raw materials from the video for reuse please leave a comment and I will send you anything you need. Oh, and please don’t build Universality for real. If you do, I waive the attribution part of the license. I want no part in this.)


Update: With thanks to Barbara Dieu, this video is now available with English and Brazillian Portugese subtitles

Is an OER still an OER if no-one uses it?

(note, these are my personal views and not those of my organisation or programmes and projects I have responsibility for)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “academic reuse” angle of OER for a while now – eagle-eyed #ukoer10 attendees may have spotted that my contention that this is a peculiarly British obsession got sneaked in to Sarah Porter’s opening remarks. There are international exceptions – most notably MERLOT and Connexions at Rice – but there is a much greater focus at a global level on reuse by learners. In many ways I think this is healthier – the end users of all educational materials are learners, and academic reuse is simply an extra mediating level.

In English HE policy we have been trying to get academics to use digital materials created by other academics for at least 15 years. One of my favourite historical policy documents is a short summary of an evaluative seminar concerning the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI), Technology in Learning and Teaching Support Network (TLTSN) and Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP). The first two of these became the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN), which mutated in to the Higher Education Academy, the latter has been (unfairly) maligned as “that big expensive HEFCE programme that produced loads of content that no-one ever used”.

One key phrase from this document  is “not invented here” – an assertion that a combination of “professional pride and pure snobbery” was a major stumbling block to the reuse of material. A more thorough investigation into the use of these materials suggested the following:

“Of the 919 departments/schools which responded to our questionnaire, 33% were using the products of one or more TLTP projects”

I’m still not sure why this was seen as a disappointing result – getting a third of any given pool of academics to do anything is nearly impossible. I would be surprised to see similar take up levels for UKOER, not through any issue with the quality of UKOER materials but more a reflection on the sheer number of materials now available out there. Thirty-three percent take up, even within a sample, would have any textbook publisher sending out for crates of Cava.

“More TLTP materials are in use in the HE sector than may be generally recognised, especially allowing for the failure of some staff to recognise the materials they were using as being from TLTP. They are embedded in conventional courses, alongside a very substantial use of other types of C&IT. Reasons for adopting these are mostly pedagogical rather than operational or tactical.”

What we were beginning to see here is an early challenge to the idea of an academic as a “delivery mechanism” for materials. An (unnamed) participant at the seminar suggested:

“The world is full of information, information is not knowledge, and wisdom is disappearing”.

Ten years later, this seems almost prophetic. Information is now fully commodified and almost without financial value, and any academic manager still making the claim that his (and it is always “his” in this case) institution is a repository of arcane knowledge would be laughed out of the annual HEFCE conference.

Knowledge and wisdom (or the application of information) is hopefully what we are imparting to our graduates, and the growth of the web as an uber-RLO has hopefully served to highlight this. The old truism is that “everything is a learning object”, I’d amplify this by suggesting that not only is everything a learning object, every learning object is connected to other learning objects – not only in a TCP/IP sense but also in a Baudrillardian hyperreal sense of a system of referentiality between objects and the idea of objects. This uber-RLO that we call the internet is available constantly from pretty much anywhere, and is constantly being added to.

We can no longer usefully look at a learning object in isolation and this to me is why the emphasis on reuse by academics is maybe missing the point. In the same way that I sit at my synthesiser and worry that I haven’t chosen the “right sound” from the billions it is able to make; I find information on the web and worry if it is the best, most complete and most comprehensible source of that particular knowledge. In both cases, I may investigate a few further links but will end up using what seems to work at that time. And being able to identify (quickly) something that just works is the skill in either case, and is what makes me (at my best) both a musician and a deep, reflective learner,

I don’t think it would be possible to gain a degree looking only at the materials that your tutors gave you – not in any meaningful sense. Students have always sought additional knowledge – in textbooks, in libraries, in conversation and latterly in on the net. In releasing OERs we are improving the pool of information that learners can freely access. Perhaps staff will use some of these materials as the centrepiece of their own teaching, in the same way as they may use a textbook or an anthology. Perhaps not. It would be interesting to know either way (and great, encouraging feedback), but it shouldn’t matter.

The point is that OER release is adding to and improving the quality of the sum of human understanding, in an even more profound way than a research paper or press release. A good OER is written to support deep learning and this is the advantage that academia, which is unique in grappling with these issues every day, can bring.

cc-by-sa 3.0 (unported)