No – it’s not Anita Ekberg in front of the Trevi fountain – it’s Rory McGreal!

The LINQ 2013 conference, held in May in Rome, Italy, addressed the issue of innovation, quality and digital resources (in particular, OERs – open educational resources). The conference was co-organized by the University of Duisberg-Essen and the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

The focus of the conference, according to Christian Stracke, one of the main conference organizers, was on the interaction between the internet, globalization, innovation and quality in addressing ‘post-crisis’ educational needs.


Keynote speakers on the first day included:

To see an abstract of a paper and to access copies of the slides, click on the title of the paper above.

The second day was given over mainly to parallel sessions. For the full program, click here. For the slides accompanying each presentation, click on the title of the talk.


It’s impossible for me to do justice to the richness of the presentations, especially as I was pretty jet-lagged the whole time, but here are the main points I took away from the conference (for my comments on each of these points, see below):

  • Europe has a serious employment crisis, especially for young people. António Silva Mendes, from the European Commission, pointed out that in Europe the 7.5 million unemployed youth between the ages of 15-24 and the 6.5 million unemployed people between the ages of 25-29 represent a loss of 153 billion euros or nearly 1.5% of GDP. He argued that the EC was doing its best to ensure as much as possible that skills offered by educational and training institutions match the needs of the labour market. In particular there is a need to improve the quality of vocational teachers, as this has the biggest impact on quality outcomes. The EC is looking at ways to open up education through the use of OERs and improving ‘digital competencies’, and helping create online communities of practice for vocational teachers. It is also aiming to build partnerships between employers, educational and training providers and other agencies to help better match training to desired learning outcomes.
  • Jay Cross talked about how the nature of work has changed and the implications for the education and training of adults.He listed ten interesting core skills now needed in the workforce. He claimed that adult workers get 70% of their learning experientially, 20% from others, and 10% from formal education (not sure how he came to those figures – I must have been asleep at that point). He ended with a strong plea to focus as much on happiness at work and in life as on formal training, as this is more likely to lead to in depth learning.
  • Lettmayr provided data showing that those with higher levels of education and training had lower levels of unemployment, that there are many adults in the workforce (or unemployed) with low levels of education/training, and the older you are, the less training you get (tell me about it). Thus not enough attention is paid to adult learning.
  • Ignasi Labastida provided a fascinating presentation on the effect of copyright laws on the sharing of information in Europe (apparently the laws are much more restrictive there than in Canada, especially regarding fair use/dealing). He argued for greater use of open licenses such as those operated by the Creative Commons, but there was currently too much fear, concern for protecting individual academic’s rights, etc., that was inhibiting more open approaches to sharing educational materials in Europe (although I’m not sure that it’s that much different here in North America).
  • Rory McGreal was in good form, as usual. In educational creationism the lecture model in which the professor reads and the students listen (or sleep) is posited as the ideal form as Plato and the other ancient Greek idealists might have posited. On the other hand, educational Darwinists recognize that evolutionary change is driven by real world developments. As more and more of the world’s knowledge becomes accessible to anyone with an Internet connexion, the need to physically go to a special place, whether it be a classroom or a reading room is no longer a requirement. Rory then went on to give his usual impassioned speech about the need for free education through open resources and open education and a blistering attack on copyright. He then looked at the opportunities offered by new technologies such as mobile learning to make educational available to all.
  • Fred Mulder briefly covered the development of open education initiatives from the first open universities through OpenCourseWare, OERs and finally MOOCs. However, open education requires open services and open teaching efforts as well as OERs. He introduced the concept of 5COE (not sure what that is) then described the pan-European OpenupEdMOOCs being developed by the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities.
  • Miguel-Angel Sicilia finally gave a presentation on interlinking open educational resources through the use of metadata (technological conventions to make data available to machines). By this time jet lag had set in and I was fast asleep (my apologies.)
Ancient gate in Travetere, Rome

Evaluating the quality of digital resources

I actually changed my talk after the program was published, to focus on the evaluation of the quality of digital resources and open education, as this seemed to fit better the theme of the program. (That’s a problem of agreeing to speak and giving a title and abstract several months before being fully aware of the aims of the conference – that was my fault, not the organizers – so ignore the program title and abstract and focus on the slides).

I in fact used my ACTIONS model to assess the comparative quality of MOOCs, OERs, Open Universities, and ‘closed’ online credit programs. I then tried to assess each of these type of initiative, in a qualitative way, by looking how well example programs within each of these categories matched the following criteria:

  • access
  • costs
  • teaching functions
  • interaction
  • organization
  • novelty
  • speed and security

I ‘rigged’ the scoring to show that ‘closed’ credit online programs could still score higher than ‘open’ forms of education.

My main point is that access, although important, is not enough. Learning has to take place, and quality standards need to be met. (To clarify, open education is highly desirable, but it needs to be good quality open education). By focusing solely on open digital resources, we may forget that there are other critical elements that are needed for education to be successful.


The conference was also used to launch the International Council for Open Research and Open Education, an attempt to bring together two worlds with similar values that have up to now operated relatively independently. The aim is to set up a non-profit organization with no membership fees, relying entirely on volunteer contributions. More details can be found here


This interesting conference brought together mainly European and North American proponents of open education. In North America, ‘open’ education has been heavily pushed by private foundations, such as the Hewlett Foundation, while in Europe the European Commission and the Open Universities are leading the charge. In both cases, though, it is more a push or supply-driven approach. There was almost no discussion or presentations on models for incorporating or supporting OERs in credit-based programming for instance. Course design around OERs was hardly mentioned. Data about actual take-up (other than ‘hits’ to web sites) was lacking.

Also (apart from my session) there was little discussion about how to measure the quality of OERs – or even whether this was important – despite the theme of the conference. But is it enough for materials to be open? We need to get beyond the library concept of free access to resources (which of course is valuable in its own right), and talk about how such valuable resources can best be used.

Lastly, I have to say something about the need to match learning outcomes to the needs of employers. The problem in Europe is NOT a lack of qualified workers; there are just not enough jobs available. Sure the jobs that are available go to the highest qualified, but the problem is not educational, it’s economic. Turning out even more highly trained workers for jobs that don’t exist is a recipe for revolution. Austerity may bring short-term gains to the economic elite, but in the long run it could destroy the whole system. Are you listening Angela?

Graffiti in Rome


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