Panel: Robert Clougherty; George Veletsianos; Johan Fridell; Diane Salter; Rory McGreal
Panel: Robert Clougherty; George Veletsianos; Johan Fridell; Diane Salter; Rory McGreal

COHERE (Collaboration for Online Higher Education and Research) runs one of my favourite annual conferences. It is relatively small (around 75), the participants are mainly leading practitioners in online learning, and the sessions are excellent, usually encompassing leading developments in online learning, research reports, and extensive discussion from people in the front line of online learning. (Click here for a report on the 2012 conference.)

This year, the conference, jointly sponsored by the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education (CSSHE), and held at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Richmond campus in British Columbia, focused on ‘Open Resources, Open Courses: their Impact on Blended and Online Learning’.

The two main keynote speakers this year were Cable Green, the Director of the Creative Commons, and David Porter, the Director of BC Campus. Here is a summary of my closing remarks which aimed to review the conference (although I was able to attend only 25% of the parallel sessions – I can do any time, anywhere, but not yet two places at the same time).

To get copies of the slides of presenters, you will need to get a Dropbox invitation from Stacey Woods. I don’t have my own slides – just the notes below.

Creative Commons

This seemingly simple idea, of an ‘author’ creating a license enabling people to freely access and adapt copyright material, without charge or special permission, is one of the great ideas of the 21st century. This does not take away someone’s copyright but enables that copyright holder to give permission for different kinds of use of their material without charge or any bureaucracy. There is no real legal or technical barrier now to making educational material free. It does though require a particular mindset among both copyright holders – i.e. the creators of materials – and users – i.e. teachers and instructors who could use this material in their teaching. Thus the main challenge is one of cultural change.

The spectrum of Creative Commons licenses
The spectrum of Creative Commons licenses

Open textbooks

In some ways, open textbooks are a no brainer. There’s probably no greater racket than the school and college textbook industry (other than the research journal industry.) Often these textbooks are not ‘original’ work, in the sense of new knowledge, but carefully written and well illustrated summaries of current thinking in the different subject areas.

Students and governments, through grants and financial aid, pay billions of dollars each year on textbooks produced by people who are largely already employed in the public education sector (and who in any case are lucky to get 10% of any revenue generated). A student in Canada spends on average about $800 a year on textbooks, even more in the USA. In some subject areas, the cost is well over $1,000 a year per student.

Nothing seems more absurd to me than the sight of hundreds of students lining up for up to an hour every day for the first week of the semester at the UBC bookstore to buy their books. This is time lost studying. Cable Green pointed to research that shows that when first year math students have their textbooks from the first day, they do much better than students who often don’t get the key textbook until three weeks into the course. He also pointed to research from Florida Virtual Campus that indicates that many students (over 60%) simply do not buy all the required textbooks, for a variety of reasons, but the main one being cost. Indeed, students are often reluctant to take their books to campus in case they lose them (although he was referring to k-12 children here).

So why shouldn’t government pay the creators of textbooks directly, cut out the middleman (commercial publishers), save over 80% on the cost, and distribute the books to students (or anyone else) for free over the Internet, under a Creative Commons license? What’s not to like (unless you’re a publisher)? In his presentation, Cable Green came up with a great ‘vision’ for open textbooks: 100% of students have 100% free, digital access to all materials on day one.

So it was good to hear from David Porter that BC Campus is developing 40 open textbooks for first and second year university courses, and another 20 for two year college vocational and technical courses. BC is also collaborating with Alberta in Canada, and Washington State and Oregon, in the USA, to avoid duplication and to increase sharing of open textbooks. Explore the BC Campus web site: at the time of writing this post there are already seven open textbooks available, and perhaps more significantly, faculty from 20 of the 24 post-secondary institutions in B.C. are participating in the creation of open textbooks. Someone asked the question: what is Ontario (Canada’s largest province) doing about open textbooks? The answer to date is: nothing.

However, there were some cautionary concerns from some of the participants about open textbooks:

  • Elizabeth Murphy, from Memorial University, questioned the whole idea of textbooks, whether open or not. She saw textbooks as a relic of 19th century industrialism, a form of mass broadcasting. In the 21st century, students should be finding, accessing and collecting digital materials over the Internet. Textbooks are merely packaged learning, with the authors doing the work for students. Nevertheless, it has to be recognized that textbooks are still the basic currency for most forms of education, and while this remains the case, open textbooks are a much better alternative for students
  • others (including myself) questioned the likely impact of ‘open’ publishing on creating original works that are not likely to get subsidized by government because they are either too specialized, or are not yet part of a standard curriculum for the subject; in other words would it impact on the diversity of publishing? What is the incentive for someone now to publish a unique work, if there is no commercial reward for the effort (especially if you believe that open publishing will eventually wipe out commercial publishing, as I do)? Writing an original, single authored book remains hard work, however it is published.
  • although there is now a range of  ‘open’ publishing services, there are still costs for an author to create original work. Who will pay, for instance, for specialized graphics, for editing or for review? How can these costs be recovered? In particular, in what format (pdf, html, Word, ePub, xml, a wiki) should original work be created so that it can become interactive, easily re-purposed, and multimedia? Much more work still needs to be done to support the open publishing of original work in book format, at least – or is the book itself a relic of another time? If so, what does that mean for how knowledge is created, disseminated and preserved? (Answers on a – digital – postcard, please).

Although these are all important concerns, they seem to me to be manageable. Just getting a proportion of the main textbooks available to students for free is a major step forward.

Openstax open textbooks
Openstax open textbooks

Getting faculty to use OERs

Increasingly faculty are creating open educational resources, or making resources freely available for others to use under a Creative Commons license. There are increasing numbers of depositories or portals where faculty can access open educational resources. Faculty have a number of choices:

  • create your own digital resources, and make them available to others (there are plenty of guides on how to do this.)
  • take OERs selectively from elsewhere, and incorporate or adapt them into your own teaching
  • take a whole course from elsewhere (e.g. a MOOC) and provide learner support and teaching around those materials (such as San Jose State University is doing, or as in the Carnegie-Mellon Open Learning Initiative.)

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the take-up of OERs by instructors is still minimal. Diane Salter of Kwantlen Polytechnic University led a discussion on how best to get faculty to incorporate OERs into their teaching. Many of the suggestions made will be familiar to anyone concerned with change management in higher education: there was the discussion of the need for the move to be both top-down and bottom up; I argued the importance of these kinds of decision being made at a program level; faculty development and workshops are essential.

However, Keith Hampson raised a much more important barrier and that is how university faculty see themselves. They don’t see themselves as ‘just’ teachers, but creators and disseminators of new or original knowledge. Therefore their teaching needs to have their own stamp on it, which makes them reluctant to openly incorporate or ‘copy’ other people’s work. We can argue that this is absurd – we all stand on the shoulders of giants – but it’s the self-perception that’s important, and for research professors, there is a grain of truth in the argument. It makes sense for them to focus their teaching on their own research. But then how many Richard Feynmans are there out there? The problem is that OERs can easily be associated with ‘packaged’, reproductive knowledge, and not original work, changing faculty from ‘artists’ to ‘artisans’.

One practical step that could increase greater adoption of OERs would be some open course design templates into which OERs could be dropped, with examples, and places for instructors to add their own resources. These design templates could range from more didactic teaching somewhat similar to an open LMS (some of which exist already), to more open or more flexible designs where students find, analyse and apply open resources within an overall teaching framework. I would hope such templates would include spaces for student activity, and multimedia resources. This would take something like CoursePacker to the next level.

The problem remains though that even when faculty adopt OERs, they are often inside a closed teaching environment, such as an LMS. What the OERu is doing is opening up this whole process so that students can openly access whole programs and receive full qualifications from the participating institutions. In fact, the OERu was launched yesterday at Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops, British Columbia (more on this in another post).

The panel responding to David Porter’s presentation also raised several interesting points. While open education activities were reported from both Memorial University and the University of Ottawa, they tended to be outside actual course design, focused on library initiatives or open publishing in journals. Incidentally it seems bizarre to me that institutions are paying up to $3,000 an article for publishers to make the article open access within a journal, when the research has been publicly funded (what David Porter described as ‘openwashing’).

Ron Owston reported on the dead hand Access Copyright has had on using secondary sources for teaching, having taken York University to court over its interpretation of fair dealing. This is a must win case for Canadian universities and if York is successful it should sue Access Copyright for wasting the court’s time and the university’s resources after an earlier clear decision by Canada’s Supreme Court.

Ron also raised the question of the poor quality of much of the OERs available a the moment – reams of text with no interaction, course design, or media other than text, often in PDFs that cannot easily be changed or adapted. If OERs are to be taken up, they will need to be better designed.

Research and development on MOOCs

Ah, MOOCs. Funny how these came up. Well, there were some interesting presentations on this topic.

WideWorld Ed

WideWorld Ed is a new Canadian, online open education platform, the main driving force behind which is Jenny Heyman, who gave an interesting presentation at the conference (declaration of interest: I’m on the Academic Advisory Board). Its first MOOC is a six week course: Online Instruction for Open Educators, which opened on October 14. The instructors include some famous names: Terry Anderson, Athabasca University; Dave Cormier, University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI); Bonnie Stewart, UPEI; Jenni Hayman, Wide World Ed; and Sean Gallagher, Wide World Ed. Interestingly, sponsorship for the course comes from Desire2Learn.

WideWorld Ed’s mission is to deliver well-designed and effective online courses and open education resources to diverse learners around the world. In particular it hopes to attract course providers from Canadian institutions and organizations, a Canadian edX.  In particular, I can see a real market for NGOs, charitable institutions wishing to get better outreach for their services, and public institutions seeking wider audiences.This is a brave start-up effort, and I hope it gets the support it deserves from Canadian universities and colleges, venture capitalists and other sponsors. Now if we just had a Federal Department of Education to put some money behind it…..


Athabasca University’s research on MOOCs

Marti Cleveland-Innes gave a presentation on Athabasca University’s research program examining MOOCs, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This is just starting and the aim is to address the research gap by evaluating MOOCs, and how they impact teaching, learning, and education in general. There has been an rfp for proposals administered by Athabasca University, and the successful applicants will be presenting their proposals at a forthcoming conference at the University of Texas Arlington December 5-6

Research into students’ experience of MOOCs

George Veletsianos, who recently moved from the University of Texas at Austin to Royal Roads University, BC, and who is a leading researcher on emerging educational technologies, has also been conducting research on MOOCs, from the learners’ perspectives. George’s take on MOOCs is interesting. He sees the MOOC phenomenon as a result of chronic failures in the post-secondary education system (I’m not sure if he was talking generally, or just the USA). Among a range of failures he cites the lack of impact of educational technology research on course design, and the failure of educational technologists to make any impact on practice (ah, well, there’s a lifetime’s work down the toilet). It’s hard to disagree with him, though, given his results from interviewing MOOC students: that MOOCs suffer from a lack of course design, that instructor’s presence during the course (beyond a recorded lecture) is important, etc., results that to be honest are highly predictable from the research that was done before MOOCs were launched.

But is that the fault of educational technologists, or computer science professors who blindly failed to do any literature research into online learning or how students learn, or even talk to educators before launching their products? Talk about arrogance and ignorance combined, especially given Keith Hampson’s comment that the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative, based on cognitive science research and best instructional design practices, generally leads to a minimum of 25% improvement in student performance when colleges follow their approach (results also found by Carol Twigg’s course redesign studies.) To re-quote G.K. Chesterton, it’s not that research into educational technologies has been applied and failed – it’s never been applied by most instructors. That’s because we don’t train them in teaching, not because we don’t disseminate the results.

It’s great that both Athabasca and George are doing research on MOOCs. This is sorely needed. However, they are applying evidence-based research and rational analysis to a phenomenon that is political, emotional and largely irrational. For a true understanding of the MOOC phenomenon, we probably need a socio-cultural analysis, so their research could easily end the way that George has portrayed previous research into educational technology: ignored, though it is highly relevant.

Is open education becoming a tool of the right?

So here’s my socio-cultural analysis, for what it’s worth.

The reason that MOOCs have received such media hype is because the USA in particular has been destroying its own public higher education system through budget cuts and an unwillingness to pay taxes. If elite universities can deliver MOOCs for free, why do we need crappy state universities? The risk is a sharply divided two tier system, with a relatively small number of elite universities catering to the rich, and the masses going to MOOC-delivered courses with state universities providing minimal and low cost learner support for such courses.

This would be both a social and economic disaster, because it would fail to produce learners with the high-level skills that are going to be needed for good jobs in the the coming years – unless you believe that automation will remove all paid jobs except for a tiny elite (is this the hidden agenda?).

It should be noted that even for credit-based online program, content accounts for less than 15% of the total cost over five years; the main costs required to ensure high quality outcomes and high rates of completion are spent on learner support, providing the learning that matters most. The kind of MOOCs being promoted by politicians and the media fail spectacularly to do this.

We do need to be careful that the open education movement is not used as a stick by those in the U.S. (and elsewhere) who are deliberately trying to undermine public education for ideological and commercial reasons. Open content, OERs and MOOCs do not automatically lead to open access to high quality credentials.

In the end, a well-funded public higher education system remains the best way to assure access to higher education for the majority of the population. Having said that, there is enormous scope for improvements within that system. Open education and its tools offer a most promising way to bring about some much needed improvements. That is my main take-away from this excellent conference.



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