Why sharing is a key part of academic practice

Open education is one of those simple, cheap, ideas that are potentially revolutionary. Like all such ideas, there are multiple approaches to implementation that can divide (or at least cause an argument in) a community of practice.

With my OER18 co-chair Viv Rolfe I wrote about some of the work on open textbooks – providing teaching resources that can be adapted to suit by academics free of cost (or at cost) to students. Lorna Campbell (OER18 keynote speaker) wrote for us alongside Maren Deepwell of ALT about the wider policy implications.

But there is another tendency of open education that is far harder to sell to policymakers, but remains enormously attractive to many. And it underpins two major concepts you have undoubtedly heard of while shedding light on the history of learning technology, staff development, and critical academia.

Welcome to open academic practice.

I heart the 00s

Way back in 2002, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) made a startling announcement – all of their lectures and teaching materials would be made available, for free, online. By using a then-new Creative Commons (CC) license, MIT and the staff involved granted permission for these materials be reused and adapted by anyone around the world.

Other universities followed suit – in the UK Nottingham (Unow) and the Open University (OpenLearn) were the early leaders.

On the beginnings of the social web (I remember reading the stories on Slashdot!) this was a huge deal. Post-millennial hot takes rained in, on how this move would challenge the “elite” HE sector and offer a path to learning at the very highest level for anyone that could benefit. There were many that predicted an increasingly irrelevant future for the university in the connected world of “open courseware” and Wikipedia – how could the university stay relevant?

Even back then there were concerns that the focus on the existence of the material, as the artefact, was unhelpful. What did the idea that the outputs of academic practice would be available for anyone to access and interact with mean to the staff who created them? And was there a way to bring the benefits of the global network developing around these resources back into the lecture theatre and seminar room?

Parallel ideas of open access to research, and open science more generally, were developing at a similar time. This all accorded with a general cultural rediscovery of collaboration fostered by nascent web 2.0 technology and the open source and free software movements. The Cathedral and the Bazaar (Raymond) and Here Comes Everybody (Shirkey) are two key texts here, but you equally could look back to As We May Think (Bush) and the post-war mood of scientific optimism.

Universities globally had just emerged from two decades of cuts and commercialisation – a pressure felt particularly strongly in the UK. Collaboration, and free sharing felt like a reassertion of the spirit of scholarship to many who felt a radical spirit reawakening.

How to teach the world

Collaborating with other researchers, in some ways, is the easier problem. Researchers generally want to collaborate, and the spirit of sharing underpins much of the scientific endeavour. But the relationship between scholars and learners has always been an uneasily worldly one – students bring payment in order to become a part of an institution.

A small group of academics, centred initially in Canada and the US, tore at the heart of this business model. What if learners could learn online, for free? And not just watch videos and read lecture notes, really learn – by interacting with each other. David Wiley (another OER18 keynote) ran the first wiki-course “Understanding Online Interaction” in 2005 at Utah State University. Like the later “Creating Connectivist Knowledge” (2008 – and the official birth of the MOOC) this course was characterised by the inclusion of both paying and free students, a focus on inter-student interaction to support learning, and a certain lightness of touch.

Jonathan Worth, then at Coventry University, was an early UK adopter of this approach with his photography courses including Phonar – and globally DS106 (run by Jim Groom, Martha Burtis and her team at Mary Washington University in Virginia) was probably the best-known example amongst the edtech “cool kids”. If you caught the wave right, were lucky enough to make the right connections, and shared a cultural frame of reference these, were transformative and life-changing courses.

Generally, one participated by creating a blog, with posts federated into a class feed that students read and commented on. As Twitter became popular, this was another vector for discussion, sharing and debate. Students (paid and “open”) around the world collaborated on assignments and presentations.

But this early promise was overshadowed by the growth of what became known as the xMOOC – Coursera, Udacity, EdX, Alison, and FutureLearn (though few of these use the MOOC terminology today). Cutting out much of the interaction, and all of the freewheeling spirit of the earlier courses, these presented a return – as Rolin Moe recently described – to the video and quiz model of passive online learning.

As the global mood on social media turned – as Twitter stopped being a shared reading list, common room, and bad joke feed, and turned into the maelstrom of shouting and hatred we currently deal with every day – these earlier courses seemed like a thematic aberration from the crushing dullness of most online instruction. A few still exist – for example, DS106 is still very much alive, and I love Laura Ritchie’s work at Chichester in opening up her post-graduate music courses.

Keeping the fire burning

But even if you don’t go as far as running an open course – I’ll admit the benefits of bringing the connected world into the classroom, though frequently amazing, are a difficult sell – people are still quietly publishing their teaching materials, and blogging about their practice and their subject interests. The idea of being an “open practitioner” in any field concerns sharing as much of yourself and your work as you feel comfortable in doing. For some this may be keeping a blog on areas of their work that interest them, for others releasing teaching materials or other resources for the simple joy of seeing others make use of them.

There’s a strand of puritanism in there too – some people claim that anything without a clear CC license is “not open”, ignoring the many structural and personal reasons why that level of sharing may not be possible. There are concerns about making “open” into a sustainable enterprise – where some are leery of anything that smacks of commerce, others are running concerns that generate enough income to support expansion and further sharing. OER18 keynote Momodou Sallah has grown and sustained a youth work social enterprise operating in the UK and the Gambia (Global Hands), without compromising on the principles of sharing that underpin his work.

Mike Caulfield, a US practitioner, uses open and distributed approaches to examine and address our concerns around fake news and news literacy. The University of Edinburgh Library use open practice to share their work and build a community understanding of their library, institution, and city.

The future of open

In 2016 I was lucky enough to attend the Open Education conference, a North American equivalent to the UK’s OER conference series. I sat on a faintly dispiriting panel rejoicing in the name FutOER (future OER_, and as I looked at my white, male, middle-aged co-panellists I realised we were the last people who should be pronouncing on such things. Like any academic disciplines, there is a coterie of practitioners which seem to get all the grants and prestige (which largely focus on textbooks and MOOCs), and recent times have seen a pushback on this from social justice (are there really no other voices to hear?) and ideological (are open textbooks/MOOCs all we are about?) perspectives.

Open Textbooks are already having an impact in the US and Canada: they will come to the UK and be of great benefit to students – it’s a question of when not if. The MOOC star has faded but we cannot and should not dismiss the good they have done in providing educational opportunity to the world.

The benefits of open practice – far from the epoch-defining predictions of the web 2.0 era – are generally localised and discrete. The future is one of a thousand niches, around finding your own world rather than joining together. Open practice will be the space where the next online learning revolution will come from. It won’t make a splash in EdSurge, it won’t raise venture capital or make an ICO. I’m hoping the change will be too small for you to see, but too big for the world to ignore.

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