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Open Educational Resources and the future of institutions

December 28th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

One of the most positive developments in technology Enhanced Learning over the past year has been the ‘mainstreaming’ of Open educational resources’ (OERs). What do I mean by ‘mainstreaming’? Instead of being confined to the fringes in funded projects the creation and distribution of OERs are increasingly being seen as a strategic approach ro institutional educational strategies. At the same time there has been an increase in fundfing avaiable for the creation, distribution and discovery of OERs together with added awareness of what OERs are and how they might be used.

That is not to say every issue has been resolved. The resourcing of OER creation is till an issue, although some institutions seem to be absorbing the cost into the overall budgets. There remain issues over how to develop OERs, given that materials often include artefacts that are covered by copyright. Discovery – finding suitable OERs – is still not always easy. Academic practices (and terms of service) are not always aligned with the idea of open publishing. And of course we still do not as a community have a single agreed understanding of what constitutes an OER. But all thes eissues can be resolved given a little time.

However, the movement towards OERs conceals bigger issues. Firstly what do we mean by an Open Educational Resource. I am not  talking here about definitional squabbles. More important for me is who the resources are aimed at. many of the early OER repositres have comprised of materials for teaching and not for learning. these are not the same. Of course lecture notes and overhead presentations may be helpful to support learning (and certainly helpful for teachers). But, I am not sure that reading and watching course materials constitutes a learning programme in itself. Neither have many of the institutions providing OERS intended it to be. Why make free courses available online of it would compete with courses offered by an institution.

Yet, at the same time, organisations such as the BBC, are publishing increasing amounts of  learning (not teaching) materials aimed at a wide range of age groups and a wide ability range. YouTube contains hundreds of videos providing help in how to do almost anything. Web tutorial sites abound. And the growing power of mobile devices and if rumour is to be believed, the immanent arrival of smart tablet readers, allows integration of learning into everyday work and leisure activities. In other words, learning is moving outside teh institution at an ever increasing rate. It is these materials which will be of most profound influence on the future of our education systems

My prediction of trends for 1010 is that the crisis over the future role of institutional education will continue to deepen. The crisis, engendered largely by technological and social change, can only be exacerbated by the financial cutbacks facing higher education in many countries. At the moment education institutions can fall back of their function in providing recognised qualifications. Although the degree of regulation regarding qualifications and the weight such qualifications carry for employment varies between sectors and countries, in general we might expect that increasingly employers will look to a person’s digital identity and digital record of learning, rather than accepting qualifications as the basis for employment.

So do educational institutions have a future? I think they do but this will require profound change. Already a few pioneers like Dave Wiley, George Siemens and Stephen Downes have tested new models for online courses including both participants registered for a course credit and those not registered. But more fundamentally institutions may have a role in motivating and supporting the learning of students at particular phases in their (lifelong) learning. But this requires far more flexibility than our present (higher) education systems provide. Although I do not agree with his motives the Prince of Darkness, UK Business Minister Peter Mandelson, may be right when he talks of more flexible degree offerings including both full time two year degrees and more work based degrees. And we may even have to question the degree structures. Why not start recognising the learning that takes place whilst following a course in an institution, rather than referring to the course which frames that possible learning?

And of course such (personal learning) programmes will have to start from the point of where learners are at – recognising their previous learning and their learning needs (and desires). Much of that learning will have come from engaging with OERs in a workplace or social setting. That doesn’t mean there is no place for the seminar, workshop or even lecture. But it does mean that the regimentation of courses may become a thing of the past. Different learners will have different prior experiences and different learning needs. Why not conceive of university as an university such as an extended bar camp or unconference. Students could opt to follow particular elements and could themselves support the learning of others. Support would still be needed to help learners get from where they are now to where they potentiality could be. Universities could become an intense learning experience, unlike the present exam factories, often marketed on the basis of the social life around the institution.

If course I might have been reading too many science fiction novels over Christmas. But the times are a changing, however slowly and the increasing availability of Open Education Resources or Open Learning materials are part of that change.

12 Responses to “Open Educational Resources and the future of institutions”

  1. “Universities could become an intense learning experience, unlike the present exam factories, often marketed on the basis of the social life around the institution.”

    Good post Graham. Given the availability of learning resources, one has to question the advantage of the education factory. If you think about it, the models of teaching and learning used are more akin to Henry Ford and F.W. Taylor’s approaches to industry from the 1920s. Much of our curriculum infrastructure comes from Tyler’s ‘Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction’ (1949 but developed during the 1920s). It frequently seems as if we are trying to tailor a century-old model using the current models of learning technology.
    If we question the value of summative assessment (based on everyone going through the gate at the same time / speed) and look at valuing ipsative assessment (based on journey travelled) that might be a starting point. However there is a huge vested interest in the state-sponsored institutions that prepare our young people for the needs of the state – we do deliver (in the main) an instrumental curriculum (as required by The Prince of Darkness).
    Is there a place for a more liberal education in the face of cutbacks? The value of web-based content delivered by a VLE is cheap and repeatable, but it isn’t learning. But then Illich said that better than I did, and a long time ago.

    Blwyddyn Newydd Dda pawb!

  2. Paul Hollins says:

    Graham an interesting post raising any number of questions,

    I largely agree with the sentiment of the post although I’m not entirely convinced with the argument that OER could challenge the role of HEI , it might (in some sectors). With the recent emphasis on, what I would describe as, the commodification of HE it is not only the accreditation function which provides distinction for HEI but also “brand” wether we like the term or not. This is why (at least one of the reasons) a degree from a college in Cambridge may be more highly regarded from one granted by an institution such as the university of Bolton (for example). The more established institutions have established (over many years) a significant “brand value” to their educational offering (speaking commercially). One thing we can be sure of students (learners , customers [whatever your perspective!] ) are certainly “brand savvy” .

    Undoubtedly some institutions (the recruiters, certainly not the selectors) will have to offer more flexible offerings to their “market” prompted by demand but more likely by policy (Higher Ambitions in the uk being a case in point). I would suggest the more established institutions will continue (successfully) to maintain their offering of the last 800 to a thousand years.

    Recently I attended a very well established institutions (selector not recruiter) open day, I was astounded by, what I perceived as, the arrogance of that institution in showing little or no interest in those attending the day, no tutors available, they merely sold the “value” of the qualification gained by attending the institution and the value of the experience of interacting with like minded tutors and students, online was not an option, nor would it “ever” be, the value was in the human interaction and I have to concede in their case they had a point. The course in question is now ten times oversubscribed !

    I’m convinced that employers will continue to regard institutional “brand value” very highly in the recruitment process much more than “digital identity, persona” much as I wish that were not the case.

  3. Glen says:

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more w/what you outlined above, especially your points on the ongoing (and deepening) financial crisis. It is very sad. Here in the states the stimulus money has been used as a temporary solution. The problem, unfortunately, is that the problem is persisting beyond temporary status. Consequently, more and more cuts and more and more and tuition increases are needed to keep higher education in its current state.

    I look forward to a future where there is some agreed upon way of evaluating digital identities/competencies/recommendations as an alternative accreditation process. At http://www.nixty.com, we are struggling w/ways of capturing this. Right now, we are following the lead of some of the folks you mentioned above in providing an ePortfolio that is comprised of a work display, CV, and recommendations. We are definitely still in the beginning stages of this process.

    Thanks again for the post.

  4. Hi Graham, hi Paul! I reflected a bit – initiated by your post here: http://userpages.uni-koblenz.de/~dkauwaer/blogline/?p=959. But beside that I think there is the need on being sensitive on the use of institutional level. Whom you are talking about? Leaders of institutions?¿ Employees?¿ Associated stuff¿? The origin behind this thought is: It depends who you are talking with 2 convince. And maybe the existing communication leaks between those “structures” (to avoid the hierarchical level) can deliver more reasons than we would like it. Why? Because there is a diffrence between fulfilling an institutional strategy and it is different talking as result of the personal will instead of ‘institutional brand’ or institutional intention. (Like Paul mentioned his final words). The institutional level seems to be satisfied in having something done (again avoiding a thought like having showed good will). The Educators levels satisfaction usually starts widely later after having seen people having something done with their material. Those Backchannels are leaking. And again – I guess it would be interesting getting the people in institutions more and more on board. Thats more than having the institutions sharing those values.

    So far my 2 Pennys.

    Andreas

  5. Eileen Lübcke says:

    Good post Graham, and happy new year – by the way :-).
    I think the whole dilemma of current situation can be described in the way the University of Bremen deals with it. The university has applied for an award for its excellent use of e-learning tools. But instead of emphasizing the new ways of learning that are developed through it, the subtext of the application is: We are under-financed and we are trying to fix the wholes in our educational system with new learning devices that do not need man power.
    I know there is a lot of political tactics going on here, but I did not found any positive subtone in the press-release with regard to the trend.
    And I think this attitude is easily transferred to OERs in general. As long as those developments are considered to be a cheap substitute for traditional educational tools, positive aspects and new learning paradigms will not strike roots in traditional educational systems.

  6. Clayton Christensen writes about disruptive innovation, and why it is more likely to happen outside of existing institutions. Something similar seems to be happening in higher education. While the institutions are debating the benefits of producing OER, a growing number of organisations and informal groups are radically innovating around the formal education system.

    At http://www.p2pu.org we are experimenting with social learning communities that take advantage of open educational resources. We are finding that there is an incredible enthusiasm for learning together, and for sharing knowledge, and that the necessary educational resources exist in abundance. The People’s University uses OER to provide public health education online at very low cost. Edufire and SuperCoolSchool are building platforms that anyone can use to teach. Someone from nixty commented above about designing eportfolios and ways to measure online social learning (something we are also interested in). It’s an exciting moment, but I see very few institutions taking a leading role. Through my work at the United Nations University and the University of the Western Cape I understand some of the reasons for this – but there is a risk in looking to the past in order to predict the future, especially at a time when technology is enabling new social norms and behaviors.

    Best – Philipp

Tweetbacks

  1. Good post from @grahamattwell Agree on flexible degrees, but not sure OER is anywhere near mainstream: http://tinyurl.com/y8h7ptj

  2. Free online educational resources and the future of universities…http://tinyurl.com/y8h7ptj

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paulo Simões, Jeff A. Jones and topsy_top20k, topsy_top20k_en. topsy_top20k_en said: Pontydysgu – Bridge to Learning » Blog Archive » Open Educational … http://bit.ly/8eP727 […]

  2. […] 30, 2009 · Leave a Comment Graham Atwell discusses mainstreaming open educational resources. From the post: My prediction of trends for […]

  3. […] under the water [1] of the open educational web today I came across an excellent essay “Open Educational Resources and the future of institutions” by Grahm Attwell on pontydysgu. It’s about the future of educational resources and how […]

  4. […] couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog entry questioning the future role of universities. “At the moment education institutions can fall […]

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