‘We need to find a new model of supporting the work of academics.’ – TOUCANS interview

I’m just adding this to preserve the interview I did with Gabi Witthaus of the TOUCANS project, which is examining attitudes to the OERu initiative. It’s a very interesting project, and it’s worth having a look at some of the other interviews that she’s done – in a laudable instance of open practice they’re all preserved as blog posts!

‘We need to find a new model of supporting the work of academics.’

GW: I’d like to start by asking you, in very general terms, what your views are on the OERu.

 DK: In very general terms, I’d say I see it as part of a cultural trend around the changing nature of higher education and around the way in which open education is becoming a part of that. I think I see it as having the same strengths and weaknesses as models such as Udacity, Coursera or MITx, that it is – and I think I’m on record as saying this previously – fundamentally a parasitic model. Basically all of the content is coming from academics and volunteers who are employed by traditional institutions, and the aim of these kinds of initiatives is to draw students in who might otherwise participate at the host institution. So that slightly worries me in that it’s not a sustainable intervention; it has not solved the problem of how you actually reward academics for the work that they’re doing.

 GW: The term parasitic is quite negative and that obviously portrays your feelings about it. I’m not trying to sell the OERu but I think people within the OERu might refer to it as symbiotic, not parasitic, and certainly the way they are seeing the business model is it shouldn’t be undermining existing provision. They’re saying if each participating institution offers a little bit based on OERs they’ve already produced, and assessments that they’re already running for their existing learners, and they recoup the costs of that assessment and accreditation, then the more institutions that participate, the bigger the offering can be. I don’t think your point about it taking paying students away from mainstream provision is the way they would see it either. They would see the OERu as reaching a whole new audience that is currently unable to pay the fees.

 DK: I can take that on board. Certainly, symbiotic is an interesting choice of word. I would query however, precisely what the contributing institutions are getting out of it. They seem to be contributing resources and staff time, and not actually getting any benefit at the end of it. I would say that clearly there needs to be a range of models for the delivery of higher education to a growing population. You could argue I suppose that this is actually about a wider cultural issue; I mean, exactly why is higher education so unaffordable at the moment? Why is it that we need to fit higher education alongside work? Why is it that academic work needs to bring in revenue? As an idealist, I can see completely the aims of what they’re trying to do. But unfortunately when it comes down to it across the Western world, academics are kind of under attack in terms of their conditions – the contractual nature of their relationship with the institution. We’re moving towards the idea of short-term, hourly pay. The idea of academic tenure or an academic career is basically dying off. We need to address these issues if higher education is actually going to be sustainable. There is going to need to be some way of paying academics so they can afford to live. I can see that these models are good for students if they can cope with online learning, they can cope with independent learning, and they are comfortable with self-directed work. A small group of learners, I suspect mainly in the post-graduate area, would be suited to that kind of learning. I used to work in the University of Glamorgan, Wales, which is an institution that does a lot to drive up participation in the Welsh valleys – some of the most deprived areas in Europe. A lot of the time it’s very intensive on staff time and support. These students need a lot of support and guidance. They need a lot of introduction into academic ideas, ways to interact with information, and it’s incredibly intensive. I would query as to whether online learning is the answer for those people.

 GW: The OERu is hoping to get volunteers to support students. They’re hoping to get retired academics, graduates who’ve been through an OERu course and others who are just interested to join as volunteers.

DK: That’s a potential, but it’s still limited to people who have got the private means to afford to volunteer in this way. It’s like the Big Society idea – drawing on people who can afford to give, in Marxist terms, their labour. I’m probably one of the people in that target market. As you know, I’m involved with DS106, working with students around that MOOC. But it’s still a self-selecting group. It’s people that can afford to do this, and it’s people that can afford to be academics because they’re interested in being academics. That’s starting to happen already. Most postgraduates have got private means; most new academics have got some kind of resources outside of their academic employment just because it’s paid so, so badly that you couldn’t really do it otherwise. I suppose you could compare it to journalism as a profession that is essentially dying, because there are lots of people like me who are interested enough in micro-issues that they’ll happily devote their time to research and writing about those issues. And I think you can see the same kind of thing with academics. Now in many ways you could see that as positive. It’s democratising journalism, meaning you’ve not got the ideas of the proprietors and owners, and their friends and contacts being the thing that actually drives the agenda. 

 GW: A lot of people are concerned about quality when the question of volunteers comes up, whereas your concerns are more of a socio-political nature.

 DK: I think so, yes. I mean I love academics, I think they’re fantastic and I think they do amazing, amazing work. We need to have some way to pay these people so that we have a meritocracy for people who have reached academic positions because they’re talented teachers, because they’re great researchers, because they’re basically just bright, interesting people. I’m not certain that a volunteer model is the best model in terms of academia as a profession.

 GW: Now if we were just talking about a model for the UK or for a single country, we could proceed with that debate and say, well what should the government be doing? But this is an international model and it’s based on the premise that…

 DK: It’s an international problem.

 GW: Yeah, it’s an international problem, and it’s really aimed at, the ultimate point of it is a kind of altruistic attempt to support people in developing countries who have few resources, without hurting the better-resourced institutions in any way.

 DK: Yes, it’s a noble aim isn’t it, that you are trying to provide higher education to people that wouldn’t otherwise have access to it, but to my mind, that should be an aim of core academic practice. That’s something we should be directly paying people to do, rather than expecting people to do it in their own time.

 GW: When I interviewed people in the OERu network institutions, one person said: “The ideal OERu learner is a self-contained student who is going to resolutely keep persevering…”

 DK: There are quite a lot of students and quite a lot of independent learners outside of institutional system that are doing that, but I don’t think it’s a model that’s typical, especially not for those with previous experience of learning in this particular way. It’s quite difficult. I mean, even coming from compulsory sector education into higher education is a really difficult job. From having someone else being responsible for your learning to you being responsible for your learning is really difficult, even with all the peer support, the library, the study skills support that you get in a traditional campus university. I think online learning is a similar step. Going from campus-style learning to that, I think it’s a similar jump. And to expect people to make two jumps, if we’re talking about people who haven’t even completed compulsory education, that’s a big, big step.

 GW: Yes, I’m really curious to see if this model actually works. Going back to what you said earlier, that academics should be paid by their institutions to support students who can’t afford to pay the fees of mainstream universities, someone’s still got to pay for that – it’s either the student or the taxpayer.

 DK: Absolutely. It used to be a core part of what was expected of an academic. If you go back to Cambridge in the 17th century and look at contracts, the only tangible output that an academic was supposed to give was to offer a public lecture every year, and that was the reason they were employed, so they could provide a public lecture. Even these days in universities, there is a lot of outreach activity, which is what academics are at least partially paid to do. That can be really effective. If you look at what Viv Rolfe was doing in the DMU open day, just standing on a soap box and shouting about Biology – that was fantastic. If you look at the likes of Dr Alice Roberts on Coast on the BBC talking about geology and local history and biology, all the amazing stuff that she does, this kind of activity has long been part of an academic contract. A lot of the wonderful things about higher education have happened because academics have had it in their contracts to do that. It’s slightly fading away because increasingly we’re putting young academics onto hourly paid contracts or just paying them for the contact hours they do; they’re doing the preparation and marking in their own time, and they’ve just not got time to do the wider collegiate, as it used to be called, activities. Bringing in a model like this would work if we still had widespread academic tenure in the US and the UK, if we still had academics employed full-time to do academic “stuff”, but we don’t have that any more. We’re looking for efficiencies and that seems to be the priority rather than maximising the benefit that we get from the people that we do employ.

 GW: There’s something horribly ironic in that isn’t there: it’s because of the recession which is worldwide, we’re cutting down on our own institutional staff capacity, and this is exactly the time that people in less-resourced parts of the world are even more disadvantaged than before.

 DK: Absolutely.

 GW: Let me come back to something you mentioned earlier, when you said you couldn’t see what the benefit was for the institutions that joined the OERu. The people I interviewed who were in senior management were partly looking at it as a marketing exercise. They want to be seen to be out there, being innovative. But all of my interviewees, without exception said they had some curiosity about the OERu and they wanted to ‘dip a toe in the water’. They felt it was a relatively low-risk way of experimenting with taking OERs to the next level and seeing what would happen. Wayne Mackintosh, in particular, emphasised sustainable educational practice. You know there are statistics that show that India would have to build something like two universities a week to meet the demand for higher education. For me that raises a whole separate question, which is, do these masses of people actually need and want a higher education?

 DK: Yes, and if they do want higher education, do they want the kind of higher education that is sitting in front of a screen for a couple of hours in between shifts? Is that really what they actually want, or is that what we as the West have deigned to give them? I mean why shouldn’t India build loads of universities? Unfortunately we’ve decided that the expansionary stage of higher education is completed now, and so therefore we have to do something else. It kind of feels like we’re letting those people down in a way.

 GW: That’s an interesting way of looking at it. OK, something else that all the OERu members said to me when I interviewed them was that it was about social inclusion and widening participation.

 DK: It’s a nice easy way to meet that goal, isn’t it? They don’t have to go out there and engage with people. They can just tick the box and say this is for learners who are savvy enough and motivated enough to be online, be curious, to sign up for an online course. But I suspect those people would have found a way to get some kind of education anyway. It’s not actually widening participation; it’s just a cheaper way of reaching a student body. I mean, cynically, they could say, ‘Maybe this is a good way of exposing ourselves to the market. We can eventually bring the best of these incredibly motivated people back as post-graduates.’

 GW: A few people have said that.

 DK: The way we sell higher education at the moment is that if you’re not actually moving up in your career, there’s not much point in getting your degree.

 GW: In your slightly cynical view…?

 DK: It’s not that cynical…

 GW: I find it quite depressing! But there might be something in it. Most of the people I spoke to in the OERu network were at the grassroots, academics within their institutions who are making this happen, with a few exceptions of senior managers. I think that the people on the ground who’ve been tasked with implementing this are incredibly focused on the social agenda. I believe that if you get a critical mass of people like that in an institution, you can achieve things that you wouldn’t really imagine. You don’t really know what’s going to come out of it because of that.

 DK: Well, it’s a research project!

 GW: The OERu not really a research project; it’s an implementation project.

 DK: Shooting first and asking questions later?

 GW: OK then, it’s an experiment! Once you’ve put your hypothesis out there, you’ve got to pour all the stuff into the test tubes and see what happens…

 DK: Yeah… but, I suppose experiments usually start with thought experiments and then right at the end you can actually go in to the wet lab and start playing with stuff, but you’ve got some kind of a model of change in your head that says well this active group will combine with this active group, which will give the chemical in question the following pharmaceutical properties, wouldn’t you?

 GW: You would, yes.

 DK: You wouldn’t think, well let’s just pour some of this in and some of that in and then say, well let’s see what happens, and then drink it. That’s not science.

 GW: Well no… The hypothesis includes many ifs: if the OERu gets enough institutions involved, if they manage to recruit learners who are willing to give this a try, if the learners have got the staying power, if there are people willing to support the learners in the various ways that have been suggested, then who knows? Then… even if out of the hundred million people, one percent of them actually succeed, that’s a million people.

 DK: I think that the Open University might reach that number in China as well. You’ve also got the likes of Nottingham. You should see the university parks that they build out therein China. You’ve got, say, Sheffield Hallam and next door you’ve got Lancaster. It’s just about sending academic staff out there, having people on the ground.  That seems to be the way a lot of institutions are going, although unfortunately the Chinese and Indian economies are starting to slow down now.

 GW: Something else the OERu people said about the benefits: there was a lot of talk about the collaboration between member institutions in the network as being valuable. There are what are perceived to be world leaders in PLAR/ APEL/ RPL in this network. For them PLAR is matching up what a person can do against a graduate profile.

 DK: I remember working with a project looking at APEL in the University of Derby, and it takes substantially more time, for students and academics, than doing the course. There’s been a lot of defence of APEL because of the degree mill argument – you know the ones that send you these emails saying you can get a PhD now for 6,000 GBP without doing any work.

 GW: Otago Polytechnic  in New Zealand and the North American institutions are doing a lot of APEL work. They didn’t see it as being overly labour intensive. One person I interviewed was really happy that the OERu would provide a structure for PLAR applicants to prepare their portfolios that could then be mapped against course outcomes.

 DK: Then again, it does actually drive up their income. It means that they don’t have to employ many full-time academics to do full-time teaching.

 GW: That’s another question for me: if it is ultimately successful, imagine if every student could choose to do absolutely any programme either the mainstream way or the OERu way: then what do the institutions do – do they become licensing offices?

 DK: There has been a lot of talk about this around JISC  and CETIS. The linkhttp://www.jisc.ac.uk/blog/mooc/ contains a short video showing an imaginary university called Universality that I invented back in 2010 to explore these models. I presented this at ALT-C 2010 (http://followersoftheapocalyp.se/oerfuturesanduniversalityincaltc2010), and what that suggested was basically a model largely based around peer support with extras like direct academic support, practical weeks and the exams and accreditation actually paid for. I didn’t like the idea at the time and I still don’t like it, but it appears to be becoming true. I mean, it’s a slightly over-the-top, slightly tongue-in-cheek investigation of that kind of model. Something in that model that I did like was that they actually employed academics. They paid academics so that their primary goal would be creating OER and recording lectures that would drive hits, and then students paid directly to have one-to-one tuition with them, or to attend intensive courses. I suggested that they would be paid according to the number of hits their courses got. So there was the anthropology lecturer that was making millions and millions of pounds… I’m not going to speculate on what exactly she was doing – it could be anything… That is one potential model. When I see Udacity, Coursera, the stuff that is starting to happen around TedX, not so much the OERu, I see elements of that coming in.

 This is slightly prefiguring mine and Amber’s presentation for the ALT conference this year, which is that there are a number of sub-cultures within the open education movement. One of these is the “education is broken” DIY movement that says nothing in traditional education is working; it’s all broken and we need to tear it up from the ground and start again, which largely for some reason involves the private sector. I think they can see a massive new market expanding. Much like what is starting to happen in the schools sector with academies and the New York state school system. I think there is a component within the open education movement which is directly antagonistic to traditional education, and that differs from the people who are just saying knowledge should be out there, should be shared, should be free – basically dodgy old hippies such as myself and the likes of Alan Levine, that kind of crowd. Brian Lamb as well has talked a lot about this. Then you’ve got the likes of David Wiley that are coming from the old tradition of reusable learning objects (RLO). It’s all about making the existing model more efficient; it’s using technology as a way of designing courses. It’s the old RLO dream of automatically populating a course with the required material, seamless sharing within a VLE framework.

You’ve got all those different traditions that are kind of mashed together in the open education sphere, and the tensions in there are really interesting.

 GW: You mentioned ALT-C – I’m also preparing something with Jonathan Darby and Megan Quentin-Baxter. It will be a symposium/ debate pretty much about these issues. One more thing I wanted to ask your opinion of. This slide has generated some really interesting comments from people I’ve interviewed. The image is based on a paper by Norm Friesen and Judith Murray.

 DK: I think that ties in with the argument I was making earlier; it’s a fantastic way of not providing student support and saving costs, and not paying academics and saving costs. So I could see institutions really going for that because it lowers their recurrent outgoings substantially.

 GW: I suppose, going back to the business model, which is that no institution in the network should put out more than half a percent of their total offerings through the OERu, this would only apply to that half a percent.

 DK: If these are the institutions leading on APEL, this could actually be their business model. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be hundreds and hundreds of OERus.

 GW: I suppose so, but a single OERu means more collaboration towards a single goal…

 DK: And branding. You can imagine. I think the big untapped market for higher education expansion is the kind of people that are posting on particular interest forums and blogs and tumblrs etc. If you think of the man-years, and I think it is actually ‘man’ years, of the stuff going on on wookipedia, the Star Wars fan site. People are experts in camera choices, scripting and sets, and they’re contributing all this stuff because they love Star Wars. There’s no reason at all why you couldn’t put together something called the University of Alderran that would directly market itself to people are contributing in this way. ‘Come here and learn about the musical principles in John Williams’ scores!’ By the way, I’d like to immediately dissociate myself from that idea.

 GW: [Laughs.] To some extent isn’t that what’s already happening with the P2P University and so on?

 DK: Yes, in the same way that people used to share on Slashdot in the old days, it would be Github or Stack Overflow now, that kind of thing. You can see Stack Overflow saying you’re doing all this incredible learning, why not get a badge for it? A qualification that people could actually use on their CV might be of interest to them. I think we could go for the Star Wars model – there’d be a big market for that one.

 GW: Yes, possibly even on other planets – we could really expand!

 DK: Absolutely: A long time ago in an institution far, far away… That’s no moon; it’s got degree-awarding powers!

 GW: (Laughs) Is there anything else you want to say about the whole concept of the OERu?

 DK: My primary concern is finding ways of paying academics. I think we need to find a new model of supporting the work of academics. This is probably going to be the big defining struggle of the next ten years of higher education. I mean, how do we support academics in the early years; how do we get the people who are best at teaching and researching actually doing the job?

 GW: Good question. I think there are some people who are a bit fatalistic about that and they’re saying, well if the market shrinks for the kind of support for students that universities have traditionally offered, then academics must be creative and use all their grey matter to think of ways to move forward.

 DK: Absolutely, because it’s already starting to happen; I was writing about this in my blog. It’s a future designed by entrepreneurs that were brought up on pulpy fifties science fiction; it’s like a culture reaching back to the certainties of the black and white and the government as the Empire, free enterprise as the rebels, and shooting down the red tape. You look at the mainstream cultural growth of the likes of steampunk, looking back at previous ideas of the future rather than having new ideas of the future. There’s a big gap here in defining what the world is going to be like, and academics need to step into it.

 GW: I think I’ve taken enough of your time, although I’d love to continue! Is there anything else you want to say?

 DK: I think I’ve been quite cynical in places, but I’m absolutely not saying we shouldn’t try it. I think we should try it and see what happens but we need to be really self-critical in the best sense, and really aware of the politics and the implications of what we’re doing.

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