The 'open education’ discussion in the UK has been quite busy over the last few weeks.
Following the publication of the first draft of the Scottish Open Education Declaration in March, last week saw the publication of the Welsh Government’s report ‘Open and Online’, which represents another landmark in the development of policy on open education. The report is the work of the Online Digital Learning Working Group: made up of senior and influential people from Welsh higher education and chaired by Andrew Green, now retired but formerly National Librarian of Wales, who has posted some reflections of his own.
The working group, on which I acted as a professional adviser, was appointed to investigate the implications of recent and current developments in online education, particularly MOOCs and OERs. It was also asked to advise on policies which might exploit the opportunities arising and address any threats posed.
The rise of the MOOC
The group carried out its work during the spring and summer of 2013, at a time of particular volatility in this area. The publicity machines of the multinational MOOC platforms were in full flow and a number of prominent observers were predicting wholesale global changes to higher education.
Meanwhile, the FutureLearn partnership had just been announced and the first courses were in preparation. Nevertheless, reliable data on the impact and value of MOOCs and OERs was hard to come by - and still is. Against this background, the group took a measured and objective approach to understanding how these changes might play out in the Welsh context and I believe that a powerful body of evidence has been brought to light as a result.
Rather than becoming too preoccupied with either the technology or the uncertain business models involved, the working group chose to focus on some very specific areas where ‘open and online’ education might be poised to make an impact, including the ‘widening participation’ agenda, engagement with business and support for bilingual education.
In relation to the first of these, it concluded there is clear potential for open education to support widening participation in higher education. However, it also recognised that current cohorts in MOOCs are largely dominated by people with plenty of prior qualifications, while the barriers to accessing these courses are often much greater for underqualified people – the very people who could perhaps benefit most from exposure to open learning experiences.
Hype vs reality
I don’t think I am alone in finding a dissonance between the expectation and the experience, between the hype and the reality: this indicates a clear need for us to take a long and objective view. Tellingly, the report makes repeated mention of the capacity and capability of staff at higher education institutions to create and use open resources and has some valuable suggestions for enhancing and underpinning these.
Whether you take a utopian or an apocalyptic view of the future of universities (or perhaps some mixture of these two), there is a compelling case for building staff knowledge and understanding of the open agenda.
I believe that there is a generally good alignment between the findings and recommendations in this report and current activity in open education across the UK. Following the Higher Education Wales Declaration of Intent in relation to OERs of last September, a number of Welsh universities are becoming increasingly active in this area, for example by offering staff development to help lecturers to create and to use open resources.
In England, several universities are building on the work of Jisc’s UK OER projects; these projects are now complete, but the impact lives on. In a more specific and immediate development, Shri Footring, senior adviser at Jisc RSC London, has recently described ‘Learning Maths Online’, an interesting initiative aimed at bringing an experience of MOOCs to wider groups of learners.
As a starting point for anyone reading about OER and MOOCs, I would recommend the Jisc Inform article by David Kernohan, Jisc senior co-design manager, and Tom Mitchell, Jisc social media manager, and the links therein.
Those wishing to investigate the issues in greater in depth, or to remain current in the fast-moving area of open education, may want to join one of the JiscMail lists, such as OER-DISCUSS, or to join the new OER Special Interest Group of the Association of Learning Technology.
Please join the discussion! We need the input of sceptics and enthusiasts alike.