February 25, 2017

Towards an open pedagogy for online learning

Image: © University of Victoria, BC

Image: © University of Victoria, BC

The problems with OER

I was interviewed recently by a reporter doing an article on OER (open educational resources) and I found myself being much more negative than I expected, since I very much support the principle of open-ness in education. In particular, I pointed out that OER, while slowly growing in acceptance, are still used for a tiny minority of teaching in North American universities and colleges. For instance, open textbooks are a no brainer, given the enormous savings they can bring to students, but even in the very few state or provincial jurisdictions that have an open textbook program, the take-up is still very slow.

I have written elsewhere in more detail about why this is so, but here is a summary of the reasons:

  • lack of suitable OER: finding the right OER for the right context. This is a problem that is slowly disappearing, as more OER become available, but it is still difficult to find exactly the right kind of OER to fit a particular teaching context in too many instances. It is though a limitation that I believe will not last for much longer (for the reasons for this, read on).
  • the poor quality of what does exist. This is not so much the quality of content, but the quality of production. Most OER are created by an individual instructor working alone, or at best with an instructional designer. This is the cottage industry approach to design. I have been on funding review committees where institutions throughout a province are bidding for funds for course development or OER production. In one case I reviewed requests from about eight different institutions for funds to produce OER for statistics. Each institution (or rather faculty member) made its proposal in isolation of the others. I strongly recommended that the eight faculty members got together and designed a set of OER together that would benefit from a larger input of expertise and resources. That way all eight institutions were likely to use the combined OER, and the OER would likely be of a much higher quality as a result.
  • the benefits are less for instructors than students. Faculty for instance set the textbook requirement. They don’t have to pay for the book themselves in most cases. With the textbook often comes a whole package of support materials from the publisher, such as tests, supplementary materials, and model answers (which is why the textbook is so expensive). This makes life easier for instructors but it is the students who have to pay the cost.
  • OER take away the ‘ownership’ of knowledge from the instructor. Instructors do not see themselves as merely distributors of information, a conveyor belt along which ‘knowledge’ passes, but as constructors of knowledge. They see their lecture as unique and individual, something the student cannot get from someone else. And often it is unique, with an instructor’s personal spin on a topic. OER’s take away from instructors that which they see as being most important about their teaching: their unique perspective on a topic.
  • and now we come to what I think is the main problem with OER: OER do not make much sense out of context. Too often the approach is to create an OER then hope that others will find applications for it. But this assumes that knowledge is like a set of bricks. All you have to do is to collect bricks of knowledge together, add a little  mortar, and lo, you have a course. The instructor chooses the bricks and the students apply the mortar. Or you have a course but you need to fill some holes in it with OER. I suggest these are false metaphors for teaching, or at least for how people learn. You need a context, a pedagogy, where it makes sense to use open resources.

Towards an open pedagogy

I am making three separate but inter-linked arguments here:

  • OER are too narrowly defined and conceptualized
  • we need to design teaching in such a way that it is not just sensible to use OER but unavoidable
  • we should start by defining what we are trying to achieve, then identify how OER will enable this.

So I will start with the last argument first.

Developing the knowledge and skills needed in the 21st century

Again I have written extensively about this (see Chapter 1 of Teaching in a Digital Age), but in essence we need to focus specifically on developing core ‘soft’ or ‘intellectual’ skills in our students, and especially the core skills of independent learning and knowledge management. Put in terms of learning outcomes, in a world where the content component of knowledge is constantly developing and growing, students need to learn independently so they can continue to learn after graduation, and students also need to know how to find, analyse, evaluate, and apply knowledge.

If we want students to develop these and other ‘soft’ skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, evidence-based argumentation, what teaching methods or pedagogy should we adopt and how would it differ from what we do now?

The need for teaching methods that are open rather than closed

The first thing we should recognise is that in a lecture based methodology, it is the instructor doing the knowledge management, not the student. The instructor (or his or her colleagues) decide the curriculum, the required reading, what should be covered in each lecture, how it should be structured, and what should be assessed. There is little independence for the learner – either do what you are instructed to do, or fail. That is a closed approach to teaching.

I am suggesting that we need to flip this model on its head. It should ultimately be the students learning and deciding what content is important, how it should be structured, how it can be applied. The role of the instructor then would not be to choose, organise and deliver content, but to structure the teaching to enable students to do this effectively themselves.

This also should not be a sudden process, where students suddenly switch from a lecture-based format as an undergraduate to a more open structure as a post-graduate, but a process that is slowly and increasingly developed throughout the undergraduate program or a two-year college program where soft skills are considered important. One way – although there are many others – of doing this is through project- or problem-based learning, where students start with real challenges then develop the knowledge and skills needed to address such challenges.

This does not mean we no longer need subject specialists or content experts. Indeed, a deep understanding of a subject domain is essential if students are to be steered and guided and properly assessed. However, the role of the subject specialist is fundamentally changed. He or she is now required to set their specialist knowledge in a context that enables student discovery and exploration, and student responsibility for learning. The specialist’s role now is to support learning, by providing appropriate learning contexts, guidance to students, criteria for assessing the quality of information, and quality standards for problem-solving, knowledge management and critical thinking, etc.

A new definition of open resources

Here I will be arguing for a radical change: the dropping of the term ‘educational’ from OER.

If students are to develop the skills identified earlier, they will need access to resources: research papers, reports from commissions, case-study material, books, first-hand reports, YouTube video, a wide range of opinions or arguments about particular topics, as well as the increasing amount of specifically named open educational resources, such as recorded lectures from MIT and other leading research universities.

Indeed, increasingly all knowledge is becoming open and easily accessible online. All publicly funded research in many countries must now be made available through open access journals, increasingly government and even some commercial data (think government commission reports, environmental assessments, public statistics, meteorological models) are now openly accessible online, and this will become more and more the norm. In other words, all content is becoming more free and more accessible, especially online.

With that comes of course more unreliable information, more false truths, and more deliberate propaganda. What better preparation for our students’ future is there than equipping them with the knowledge and skills to sift through this mass of contradictory information?  What better than to make them really good at identifying the true from the false, to evaluate the strength of an argument, to assess the evidence used to support an argument, whatever the subject domain? To do this though means exposing them to a wide range of openly accessible content, and providing the guidance and criteria, and the necessary prior knowledge, that they will need to make these decisions.

But we cannot do this if we restrict our students to already ‘approved’ OER. All content eventually becomes an educational resource, a means to help students to differentiate, evaluate and decide. By naming content as ‘educational’ we are already validating its ‘truth’ – we are in fact closing the mind to challenge. What we want is access to open resources – full stop. Let’s get rid of the term OER and instead fight for an open pedagogy.

Automation or empowerment: online learning at the crossroads

Image: Applift

Image: AppLift, 2015

You are probably, like me, getting tired of the different predictions for 2016. So I’m not going to do my usual look forward for the year for individual developments in online learning. Instead, I want to raise a fundamental question about which direction online learning should be heading in the future, because the next year could turn out to be very significant in determining the future of online learning.

The key question we face is whether online learning should aim to replace teachers and instructors through automation, or whether technology should be used to empower not only teachers but also learners. Of course, the answer will always be a mix of both, but getting the balance right is critical.

An old but increasingly important question

This question, automation or human empowerment, is not new. It was raised by B.F. Skinner (1968) when he developed teaching machines in the early 1960s. He thought teaching machines would eventually replace teachers. On the other hand, Seymour Papert (1980) wanted computing to empower learners, not to teach them directly. In the early 1980s Papert got children to write computer code to improve the way they think and to solve problems. Papert was strongly influenced by Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, and in particular that children constructed rather than absorbed knowledge.

In the 1980s, as personal computers became more common, computer-assisted learning (CAL or CAD) became popular, using computer-marked tests and early forms of adaptive learning. Also in the 1980s the first developments in artificial intelligence were applied, in the form of intelligent math tutoring. Great predictions were made then, as now, about the potential of AI to replace teachers.

Then along came the Internet. Following my first introduction to the Internet in a friend’s basement in Vancouver, I published an article in the first edition of the Journal of Distance Education, entitled ‘Computer-assisted learning or communications: which way for IT in distance education?’ (1986). In this paper I argued that the real value of the Internet and computing was to enable asynchronous interaction and communication between teacher and learners, and between learners themselves, rather than as teaching machines. This push towards a more constructivist approach to the use of computing in education was encapsulated in Mason and Kaye’s book, Mindweave (1989). Linda Harasim has since argued that online collaborative learning is an important theory of learning in its own right (Harasim, 2012).

In the 1990s, David Noble of York University attacked online learning in particular for turning universities into ‘Digital Diploma Mills’:

‘universities are not only undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education.’

Noble (1998) argued that

‘high technology, at these universities, is often used not to ……improve teaching and research, but to replace the visions and voices of less-prestigious faculty with the second-hand and reified product of academic “superstars”.

However, contrary to Noble’s warnings, for fifteen years most university online courses followed more the route of interaction and communication between teachers and students than computer-assisted learning or video lectures, and Noble’s arguments were easily dismissed or forgotten.

Then along came lecture capture and with it, in 2011, Massive Open Online Courses (xMOOCs) from Coursera, Udacity and edX, driven by elite, highly selective universities, with their claims of making the best professors in the world available to everyone for free. Noble’s nightmare suddenly became very real. At the same time, these MOOCs have resulted in much more interest in big data, learning analytics, a revival of adaptive learning, and claims that artificial intelligence will revolutionize education, since automation is essential for managing such massive courses.

Thus we are now seeing a big swing back to the automation of learning, driven by powerful computing developments, Silicon Valley start-up thinking, and a sustained political push from those that want to commercialize education (more on this later). Underlying these developments is a fundamental conflict of philosophies and pedagogies, with automation being driven by an objectivist/behaviourist view of the world, compared with the constructivist approaches of online collaborative learning.

In other words, there are increasingly stark choices to be made about the future of online learning. Indeed, it is almost too late – I fear the forces of automation are winning – which is why 2016 will be such a pivotal year in this debate.

Automation and the commercialization of education

These developments in technology are being accompanied by a big push in the United States, China, India and other countries towards the commercialization of online learning. In other words, education is being seen increasingly as a commodity that can be bought and sold. This is not through the previous and largely discredited digital diploma mills of the for-profit online universities such as the University of Phoenix that David Noble feared, but rather through the encouragement and support of commercial computer companies moving into the education field, companies such as Coursera, Lynda.com and Udacity.

Audrey Watters and EdSurge both produced lists of EdTech ‘deals’ in 2015 totalling between $1-$2 billion. Yes, that’s right, that’s $1-$2 billion in investment in private ed tech companies in the USA (and China) in one year alone. At the same time, entrepreneurs are struggling to develop sustainable business models for ed tech investment, because with education funded publicly, a ‘true’ market is restricted. Politicians, entrepreneurs and policy makers on the right in the USA increasingly see a move to automation as a way of reducing government expenditure on education, and one means by which to ‘free up the market’.

Another development that threatens the public education model is the move by very rich entrepreneurs such as the Gates, the Hewletts and the Zuckerbergs to move their massive personal wealth into ‘charitable’ foundations or corporations and use this money for their pet ‘educational’ initiatives that also have indirect benefits for their businesses. Ian McGugan (2015) in the Globe and Mail newspaper estimates that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is worth potentially $45 billion, and one of its purposes is to promote the personalization of learning (another name hi-jacked by computer scientists; it’s a more human way of describing adaptive learning). Since one way Facebook makes its money is by selling personal data, forgive my suspicions that the Zuckerberg initiative is a not-so-obvious way of collecting data on future high earners. At the same time, the Chang Zuckerberg initiative enables the Zuckerberg’s to avoid paying tax on their profits from Facebook. Instead then of paying taxes that could be used to support public education, these immensely rich foundations enable a few entrepreneurs to set the agenda for how computing will be used in education.

Why not?

Technology is disrupting nearly every other business and profession, so why not education? Higher education in particular requires a huge amount of money, mostly raised through taxes and tuition fees, and it is difficult to tie results directly to investment. Surely we should be looking at ways in which technology can change higher education so that it is more accessible, more affordable and more effective in developing the knowledge and skills required in today’s and tomorrow’s society?

Absolutely. It is not so much the need for change that I am challenging, but the means by which this change is being promoted. In essence, a move to automated learning, while saving costs, will not improve the learning that matters, and particularly the outcomes needed in a digital age, namely, the high level intellectual skills of critical thinking, innovation, entrepreneurship, problem-solving , high-level multimedia communication, and above all, effective knowledge management.

To understand why automated approaches to learning are inappropriate to the needs of the 21st century we need to look particularly at the tools and methods being proposed.

The problems with automating learning

The main challenge for computer-directed learning such as information transmission and management through Internet-distributed video lectures, computer-marked assessments, adaptive learning, learning analytics, and artificial intelligence is that they are based on a model of learning that has limited applications. Behaviourism works well in assisting rote memory and basic levels of comprehension, but does not enable or facilitate deep learning, critical thinking and the other skills that are essential for learners in a digital age.

R. and D. Susskind (2015) in particular argue that there is a new age in artificial intelligence and adaptive learning driven primarily by what they call the brute force of more powerful computing. Why AI failed so dramatically in the 1980s, they argue, was because computer scientists tried to mimic the way that humans think, and computers then did not have the capacity to handle information in the way they do now. When however we use the power of today’s computing, it can solve previously intractable problems through analysis of massive amounts of data in ways that humans had not considered.

There are several problems with this argument. The first is that the Susskinds are correct in that computers operate differently from humans. Computers are mechanical and work basically on a binary operating system. Humans are biological and operate in a far more sophisticated way, capable of language creation as well as language interpretation, and use intuition as well as deductive thinking. Emotion as well as memory drives human behaviour, including learning. Furthermore humans are social animals, and depend heavily on social contact with other humans for learning. In essence humans learn differently from the way machine automation operates.

Unfortunately, computer scientists frequently ignore or are unaware of the research into human learning. In particular they are unaware that learning is largely developmental and constructed, and instead impose an old and less appropriate method of teaching based on behaviourism and an objectivist epistemology. If though we want to develop the skills and knowledge needed in a digital age, we need a more constructivist approach to learning.

Supporters of automation also make another mistake in over-estimating or misunderstanding how AI and learning analytics operate in education. These tools reflect a highly objectivist approach to teaching, where procedures can be analysed and systematised in advance. However, although we know a great deal about learning in general, we still know very little about how thinking and decision-making operate biologically in individual cases. At the same time, although brain research is promising to unlock some of these secrets, most brain scientists argue that while we are beginning to understand the relationship between brain activity and very specific forms of behaviour, there is a huge distance to travel before we can explain how these mechanisms affect learning in general or how an individual learns in particular. There are too many variables (such as emotion, memory, perception, communication, as well as neural activity) at play to find an isomorphic fit between the firing of neurons and computer ‘intelligence’.

The danger then with automation is that we drive humans to learn in ways that best suit how machines operate, and thus deny humans the potential of developing the higher levels of thinking that make humans different from machines. For instance, humans are better than machines at dealing with volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous situations, which is where we find ourselves in today’s society.

Lastly, both AI and adaptive learning depend on algorithms that predict or direct human behaviour. These algorithms though are not transparent to the end users. To give an example, learning analytics are being used to identify students at high risk of failure, based on correlations of previous behaviour online by previous students. However, for an individual, should a software program be making the decision as to whether that person is suitable for higher education or a particular course? If so, should that person know the grounds on which they are considered unsuitable and be able to challenge the algorithm or at least the principles on which that algorithm is based? Who makes the decision about these algorithms – a computer scientist using correlated data, or an educator concerned with equitable access? The more we try to automate learning, the greater the danger of unintended consequences, and the more need for educators rather than computer scientists to control the decision-making.

The way forward

In the past, I used to think of computer scientists as colleagues and friends in designing and delivering online learning. I am now increasingly seeing at least some of them as the enemy. This is largely to do with the hubris of Silicon Valley, which believes that computer scientists can solve any problem without knowing anything about the problem itself. MOOCs based on recorded lectures are a perfect example of this, being developed primarily by a few computer scientists from Stanford (and unfortunately blindly copied by many people in universities who should have known better.)

We need to start with the problem, which is how do we prepare learners for the knowledge and skills they will need in today’s society. I have argued (Bates, 2015) that we need to develop, in very large numbers of people, high level intellectual and practical skills that require the construction and development of knowledge, and that enable learners to find, analyse, evaluate and apply knowledge appropriately.

This requires a constructivist approach to learning which cannot be appropriately automated, as it depends on high quality interaction between knowledge experts and learners. There are many ways to accomplish this, and technology can play a leading role, by enabling easy access to knowledge, providing opportunities for practice in experientially-based learning environments, linking communities of scholars and learners together, providing open access to unlimited learning resources, and above all by enabling students to use technology to access, organise and demonstrate their knowledge appropriately.

These activities and approaches do not easily lend themselves to massive economies of scale through automation, although they do enable more effective outcomes and possibly some smaller economies of scale. Automation can be helpful in developing some of the foundations of learning, such as basic comprehension or language acquisition. But at the heart of developing the knowledge and skills needed in today’s society, the role of a human teacher, instructor or guide will remain absolutely essential. Certainly, the roles of teachers and instructors will need to change quite dramatically, teacher training and faculty development will be critical for success, and we need to use technology to enable students to take more responsibility for their own learning, but it is a dangerous illusion to believe that automation is the solution to learning in the 21st century.

Protecting the future

There are several practical steps that need to be taken to prevent the automation of teaching.

  1. Educators – and in particular university presidents and senior civil servants with responsibility for education – need to speak out clearly about the dangers of automation, and the technology alternatives available that still exploit its potential and will lead to greater cost-effectiveness. This is not an argument against the use of technology in education, but the need to use it wisely so we get the kind of educated population we need in the 21st century.
  2. Computer scientists need to show more respect to educators and be less arrogant. This means working collaboratively with educators, and treating them as equals.
  3. We – teachers and educational technologists – need to apply in our own work and disseminate better to those outside education what we already know about effective learning and teaching.
  4. Faculty and teachers need to develop compelling technology alternatives to automation that focus on the skills and knowledge needed in a digital age, such as:
    • experiential learning through virtual reality (e.g. Loyalist College’s training of border service agents)
    • networking learners online with working professionals, to solve real world problems (e.g. by developing a program similar to McMaster’s integrated science program for online/blended delivery)
    • building strong communities of practice through connectivist MOOCs (e.g. on climate change or mental health) to solve global problems
    • empowering students to use social media to research and demonstrate their knowledge through multimedia e-portfolios (e.g. UBC’s ETEC 522)
    • designing openly accessible high quality, student-activated simulations and games but designed and monitored by experts in the subject area.
  5. Governments need to put as much money into research into learning and educational technology as they do into innovation in industry. Without better and more defensible theories of learning suitable for a digital age, we are open to any quack or opportunist who believes he or she has the best snake oil. More importantly, with better theory and knowledge of learning disseminated and applied appropriately, we can have a much more competitive workforce and a more just society.
  6. We need to educate our politicians about the dangers of commercialization in education through the automation of learning and fight for a more equal society where the financial returns on technology applications are more equally shared.
  7. Become edupunks and take back the web from powerful commercial interests by using open source, low cost, easy to use tools in education that protect our privacy and enable learners and teachers to control how they are used.

That should keep you busy in 2016.

Your views are of course welcome – unless you are a bot.


Bates, A. (1986) Computer assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education? Journal of Distance Education Vol. 1, No. 1

Bates, A. (2015) Teaching in a Digital Age Victoria BC: BCcampus

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Mason, R. and Kaye, A (Eds).(1989)  Mindweave: communication, computers and distance education. Oxford: Pergamon

McGugan, I. (2015)Why the Zuckerberg donation is not a bundle of joy, Globe and Mail, December 2

Noble, D. (1998) Digital Diploma Mills, Monthly Review http://monthlyreview.org/product/digital_diploma_mills/

Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas New York: Basic Books

Skinner, B. (1968)  The Technology of Teaching, 1968 New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts

Susskind, R. and Susskind, D. (2015) The Future of the Professions: How Technology will Change the Work of Human Experts Oxford UK: Oxford University Press

Watters, A. (2015) The Business of EdTech, Hack Edu, undated http://2015trends.hackeducation.com/business.html

Winters, M. (2015) Christmas Bonus! US Edtech Sets Record With $1.85 Billion Raised in 2015 EdSurge, December 21 https://www.edsurge.com/news/2015-12-21-christmas-bonus-us-edtech-sets-record-with-1-85-billion-raised-in-2015

Another perspective on the personalisation of learning online

To see the video recording click on the image

To see the video recording click on the image

I gave a keynote presentation last week at a large educational conference in the Netherlands, Dé Onderwijsdagen’ (Education Days). I was asked to talk about the personalisation of learning. I agreed as I think this is one of many potential advantages of online learning.

However, the personalisation of learning tends to be looked at often through a very narrow lens. I suggest that there are in fact at least seven ways in which online learning can facilitate the personalisation of learning. This is a blog post version of my keynote, which can be seen in full here.

Why personalisation?

Personalisation is one of the buzzwords going around these days in educational circles, like experiential learning or competency-based learning. Sometimes when I look more closely at some of the current buzzwords I end up thinking: ‘Oh, is that what it is? But I’ve always done that – I just haven’t given it that name before.’

However, I think there are good reasons why we should be focusing more on personalisation in post-secondary education:

  • the need to develop a wide range of knowledge and skills in learners for the 21st century;
  • as the system has expanded, so has the diversity of students: in age, language ability, prior learning, and interests;
  • a wider range of modes of delivery for students to choose from (campus, blended, fully online);
  • a wider range of media accessible not only to instructors but also to learners themselves;
  • the need to actively engage a very wide range of preferred learning styles, interests and motivation.

Clearly in such a context one size does not fit all. But with a continuously expanding post-secondary system and more pressures on faculty and instructors, how can we make learning more individualised in a cost-effective manner?

Seven roads to personalisation

I can think of at least seven ways to make learning more personal. In my keynote I discuss the strengths and weaknesess of each of these approaches:.

  • adaptive learning;
  • competency-based learning;
  • virtual personal learning environments;
  • multi-media, multi-mode courses and learning materials;
  • modularisation of courses and learning materials;
  • new qualifications/certification (badges, nanodegrees, etc.);
  • disaggregated services.

There are probably others and I would be interested in your suggestions. However I recommend that you look at the video presentation, as it provides more ‘flesh’ on each of these seven approaches to personalisation.

An overall design approach to personalisation

Personalisation of learning will work best if it is embedded within an overall, coherent learning design, In my keynote I suggest one approach that fully exploits both the potential of online learning and the personalisation of learning:

  • the development of the core skill of knowledge management within a particular subject domain (other skills development could also be included, such as independent learning, research, critical thinking, and 21st century communication)
  • the use of open content by students, guided and supported by the instructor
  • student-generated multi-media content through online project work
  • active online discussion embedded within and across the different student projects
  • assessment through personal e-portfolios and group project assessment.

Such an ‘open’ design allows for greater choice in topics and approaches by learners while still developing the core skills and knowledge needed by our learners in a digital age. Other designs are also of course possible to reach the same kind of overall learning goals.

The role of the instructor though remains crucial, both as a content expert, guiding students and ensuring that they meet the academic needs of the discipline, and in providing feedback and assessment of their learning.


With knowledge continuing to rapidly grow and change, and a wide range of skills as well as knowledge needed in a knowledge-based society, we need new approaches to teaching that address such challenges.

Also because of increased diversity in our students and a wide range of different learning needs, we need to develop more flexible teaching methods and modes of delivery. This will also mean understanding better the differences between media and using them appropriately in our teaching.

Making learning more personal for our students is increasingly important, but it is only one element in new designs for learning. There are in fact many possibilities, limited only by the imagination and vision of teachers and instructors.

Reading between the lines: the ‘intangibles’ in quality online teaching and learning

Teaching needs empathy, intuition and imagination, as well as technical competence.

Teaching needs empathy, intuition and imagination, as well as technical competence.

Contact North has organised a series of four webinars highlighting the practical advice and guidelines offered in my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. The first webinar took place last week on September 29. It covered the first five chapters in the book, which discuss:

  • the implications of the major changes taking place in education
  • epistemologies that drive approaches to teaching and learning
  • different teaching methods and their appropriateness for developing the knowledge and skills needed in a knowledge-based society.

The aim of the webinar was not to cover the same ground as in the book,  but to provide an opportunity for participants to raise questions or comments about these issues, which was what they did. I received and answered nearly 30 different questions in the one hour. You can access the recording here: https://contactnorth.webex.com/contactnorth/lsr.php?RCID=67ca245af5fa7a21546ba37e10f306ba

In particular, there were questions about the importance of passion in teaching, whether learners today are really different, how to engage passive learners or introverts online, how to get students to take responsibility for learning, how to get students to collaborate online, and lastly whether cognitivism is an epistemology or a learning theory. I did answer all these questions briefly within the webinar.

On listening again to the recording, though, I was struck by the interest or concern of participants for what I would call the intangibles or the more human aspects in teaching and learning, such as the importance of passion in teaching and learning, dealing with learners’ ‘readiness’ or motivation to learn, building relationships between online learners and instructors, and how to encourage/develop interaction, discussion and collaboration between learners.

This brought home to me that for most instructors, teaching is not just a technical activity that can be categorized, systematised and computerised, but is a fundamentally human practice that requires empathy, intuition, and imagination. These are qualities that cannot be automated.

The next webinar, which will cover chapters 6-9 on media and technology selection, will be on November 3, 2015. For more details, click here.


Book review: A History of the Open University

The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had one myself).

The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had a few myself).

Weinbren, D. (2105) The Open University: A History Manchester: Manchester University Press/The Open University, 274 pp + notes, £18.99, C$31.61, US$22.30 (paperback edition)

Why you should read this book

From the book cover:

This analysis of the Open University’s precedents, personalities, politics and pedagogies contextualises learners’ experiences and illuminates the change in the values of our society, our ideas about learning and our use of a variety of media.

Despite the florid writing in the publisher’s blurb, this is an accurate summary of the importance of this book, which should be read by anyone interested in open learning, distance learning, equality of access to higher education, changing pedagogies, the role of media in teaching and learning, the politics of creating radically new institutions of higher education, how higher education has changed in terms of value and purpose over the last 45 years, and, most important of all, how open learning can truly transform the lives of individuals.

What the book covers

The book is in four parts, which I will briefly summarise.

Part I: Creating a university of the air

This part covers the origins of the university within the socio-political context of Britain in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is a fascinating story in itself, of how a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and Jennie Lee, his Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Education and Science, drove through their vision of a technocratic university for the masses, how the original vision was modified from a University of the Air to a multi-media university, and how the university survived a change of government which brought Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives to power in the year that the OU opened. This is mandatory reading for policy wonks interested in how to bring about radical change in higher education.

Chapter 1 provides a broad overview of the challenges, developments and successes of the university over its 45 years existence. For those without the time to read the whole book, this chapter provides a useful encapsulation of the main points covered later.

Chapter 2 provides a more detailed account of the creation of the university, covering the political, socio-economic, pedagogical, and media components. It should be noted that many commentators believe that the Open University was ‘the most original innovation in 20th century British higher education’ and a ‘national treasure.’ This chapter helps to explain why.

In this part of the book, Weinbren captures well the social and political conditions, and above all the idealism and philosophies, that underpinned the creation and establishment of the Open University.

Part II: The first two decades

It is one thing to create a new institution; it is quite another to make it work. Indeed, the author notes that other attempts at innovation in higher education, such as the UK Open Polytechnic and the OU e-University, failed dismally after being created.

This part looks in detail at the governance and administrative structures, the role of academics, tutors and counsellors, the pedagogical models, the use of media, and the regional structure.

Weinbren points out that the intention from the start was to develop a degree-granting university with the highest possible academic standards:

Jennie Lee was adamant that the OU should be comparable to other universities in terms of its academic standards, rather than merely representing an educational second chance for the marginalised.

One reason for the OU’s relatively quick acceptance by the rest of the UK higher education sector was the high quality of the course materials which were used extensively by professors (and students) in the other universities. Another reason was the widespread engagement of academics from other universities as tutors or external examiners, who were often initially surprised by the quality of work produced by OU students.

Weinbren addresses particularly well the challenges the OU faced in terms of scale and the need for learner support for students working alone all over the country. (The OU started on day one in 1971 with 25,000 students and has grown since to 150,000 undergraduates and 30,000 postgraduates in 2014, with almost as many taking non-credit courses or modules.)

Weinbren, like the OU itself, struggles with integrating the competing pedagogical philosophies of behaviourist approaches to the design and development of high quality, mass-produced, course materials, and  learner-centred approaches based on face-to-face tutorials and summer schools. Overall, though, he emphasises that the fundamental pedagogical approach of the OU is focused on students developing personal meaning through interaction not only with course materials but also with faculty/tutors and other students, both face-to-face and later online. He describes with clarity how the often changing and complex learner support systems worked.

This chapter also explains why the Conservatives under Mrs. Thatcher continued to support the OU, despite concerns from some Ministers and the national press about ‘Marxist bias’ in its publicly available materials (especially the broadcasts). Thatcher had little time for traditional universities and saw in the OU a chance for reforming and galvanising the higher education system, especially with regard to improved cost-effectiveness.

This chapter also discusses the rapid development and changes in the use of media at the OU, with broadcasting over time playing a less direct role in teaching, greater use of recorded media such as cassettes, and the development of home experiment kits for science and technology courses.

Part III: The OU since the 1990s

This part is much influenced by the many changes since 1990 in the overall higher education system in Britain, and the consequent attempts by the OU at adaptation and accommodation to such changes. The key change has been the shift from direct government funding for teaching and learning to funding largely through student fees supported by loans (the OU now relies almost entirely on student fees), and the attempt by governments (both Labour and Conservative) to introduce more competition between universities and a more ‘market-oriented’ approach. This has resulted in the OU being treated as just any other university by government, rather than the special and separate treatment it received in earlier years.

Also over the past 45 years, the whole HE sector in the UK has expanded rapidly, making access at least theoretically more open to a much higher proportion of the population. Another important development has been the increased use of online learning by conventional universities. Together these have eroded some of the unique differences and advantages of the OU over the rest of the system.

The OU has responded to these changes in a number of ways, including:

  • expanding its international reach, especially but not exclusively in the rest of Europe;
  • the development of continuing education courses and modules;
  • more diversification regionally to respond to national political devolution;
  • contracts with non-commercial agencies, such as the National Health Service, as well as commercial organisations
  • leading the charge to quality assurance processes;
  • moving increasingly to online learning, and in the process, reducing dramatically the high-cost summer schools and face-to-face tutorial support; and integrating the role of counsellors with that of tutors;
  • increased use of learner-centred and project-based learning;
  • creation of open educational resources, such as FutureLearn and BBC/OU programs aimed at the general public.

Although Weinbren does a good job of covering the increasingly diverse and wide-ranging activities of the OU in the years from 1990 to the present, the OU’s unique role and place in the UK HE system becomes inevitably more fuzzy and its future direction less clear. However, the same criticism could apply to the whole of the UK HE sector, which seems to be increasingly forced back to a highly selective and tiered system, by government policies based on a more commercialised and employer-focused view of higher education. The OU’s place in such a system is by no means clear.

Part IV: Half a century of learning

This is a truly wonderful chapter about the student experience at the OU and lets students speak in their own words. This chapter helps explain why the OU is such an iconic component of British culture, and why it is so loved by students and staff alike (it consistently comes out top in student satisfaction in annual surveys of British universities). More importantly, this chapter clearly demonstrates how the OU has changed millions of students lives for the better.

Weinbren looks at several aspects of the student experience. While the OU has a very broad mix of incomes and occupations, it has opened up higher education particularly to working class families, students with disabilities, prisoners, those without high school qualifications, and above all to women. In this sense it is a truly open university, offering not just opportunities but also qualifications and realistic chances of success for everyone.

Weinbren illustrates how important the OU has been to women, particularly in the early year of the OUs, in terms of personal development and increased self-esteem. The importance of summer schools for engaging students and making them feel part of a university community is particularly well described. I also read with great interest how the OU enabled both Republican and Loyalist prisoners in Northern Ireland ‘to develop political confidence and an understanding of methods other than violence’, some going on to become politicians following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Above all, this chapter provides an excellent antidote to the current market-oriented and functional philosophy of higher education now so prevalent in Britain and elsewhere. If you can read only one chapter, this is the one.

Personal reflections on the book

The OU was a very important part of my life for 20 years. I was one of the first staff appointed in 1969, and I ended up doing at one time or another research and evaluation into the educational effectiveness of different media (including the BBC television and radio programs), designing and writing course units, marking student assignments, directing summer schools, and attending endless meetings about policies, directions and the use of media. I left the OU in 1989, partly because I was frustrated that it wasn’t changing fast enough, particularly with regard to the use of online learning. It’s hard for me then to be objective in reviewing Weinbren’s book and even more so in assessing the contribution of the OU to higher education.

Nevertheless, the book captures wonderfully my lived experience of the OU, especially the student response. Weibren has blended together an impeccable range of resources, anecdotes, events and above all personal contributions from academics, staff and students at the OU into a well-written, captivating chronicle that reflects the spirit as well as the history of the OU.

There are criticisms, of course. At times, it becomes a hagiography of an institution (if that’s possible). Weinbren does describe the many criticisms of the OU, but always provides a contradictory positive contribution to offset each criticism. In particular, he could have been harsher about the OU’s increased bureaucracy and sclerosis as it has become older. True, there have been many innovations, for instance, in the use of technology, but changing its cumbersome and now outdated course development system has proved to be extremely difficult. Although it was one of the first institutions to adopt online learning, it has been a real struggle to make it a central rather than a peripheral part of the teaching system.

More importantly, Weinbren does not look into the future, yet there are surely lessons for the future from his book. The OU is facing an almost existential crisis, with many competitors, a very difficult financial situation, and massive changes and innovation going on elsewhere in the UK higher education system. What is the role of the OU in the 21st century? In what ways can it continue to provide a unique and valuable contribution? What teaching model will best meet the needs of its students in the 21st century? This is probably another book altogether, but Weinbren is particularly well placed to ask and address these issues. As I say to Ph.D. students, the conclusion is your chance to let rip and say what you really think now you have established your credentials. It’s a pity that Weinbren did not take this opportunity, but he has probably other means to let his views be known.

These though are minor caveats. Weinbren has undertaken an extremely challenging task and met the challenge superbly. I hope you will enjoy the book as much as I have. More importantly, there are very important lessons to be drawn from this book about the nature of university education, equity, and government policy toward higher education.