Category Archives: Open Education

Making connections – Open learning Southern African style

On the second day of the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) Open Access conference last week, the penny suddenly dropped. From the start, the signs were good – the conference, which followed on from the SARUA Vice-Chancellors’ triennial congress, was, after all, focused on open access. The Chair of SARUA, Professor Njabulo Ndebele of the University of Cape Town, the Botswana Minister of Education, J D Nkate and the CEO of SARUA, Piyushi Kotecha, opened the conference with strong statements on the value of Open Access in their respective constituencies. This is echoed on the SARUA website which, unusually for a university association site, acknowledges the importance of dissemination as a core value and makes a clear statement of its commitment to Open Access both as one of its programme areas and as a core principle, as well as its policy for its own communications. The central statement is perhaps this:

Promoting Open Access for increased quality research, enhanced collaboration, and the sharing and dissemination of knowledge, is a central principle for SARUA’s work. The Association is already engaging with groups and networks of expertise and good practice locally and globally in order to support the development of Open Access benefits for HE.

At the conference, the comments of these opening speakers did not therefore appear to be glib statements of openness as a worthy value, but seemed firmly embedded in a recognition of the need to create equity for the developing world in its contribution to global knowledge. What emerged, particularly from Piyushi Kotecha, was a vision which could move SARUA universities on from the current post-colonial reliance on the North for standards for research competence, to a situation in which they could promote their own competence as knowledge producers. As Alma Swan commented later in the proceedings, she thought that, with hindsight, the Open Access movement should perhaps have named itself Open Dissemination, to get away from the implicit dependence on access to knowledge from the North-West that can sometimes emerge in development-speak. And it goes further than Open Access alone. Universities in the southern African region, Piyushi Kotecha went on to say, need to explore open research and open science in order to become research intensive in the next 10-20 years, making a contribution not only to global scholarly communications, but also creating links between research, teaching and learning, and ensuring the contribution of universities to socio-economic development in the region.

This is an enlightened view and if it does indeed underpin future policy initiatives by universities and governments in the region, it could well help move the SARUA constituency on from the contradictions and blockages that currently undermine the effectiveness of South African research dissemination policy, to a more effective role in achieving research impact. This could go some way to giving the region a leadership role on the continent.

This was great, but something continued to nag at the back of my mind. In the Minister’s speech and in some of the questions and comments from the Vice-Chancellors attending the conference, there seemed to be a slippage between Open Access as I would understand it – dissemination and publication systems that, as Alma Swan summed it up, are ‘freely available, publicly available and permanently online’ – and another vision that was only obliquely alluded to, of Open Access as access to universities for students. This question continued to hover as Amanda Barratt, of the UCT Law Library (which, incidentally, hosts Lawspace, the UCT law department repository) talked illuminatingly on open access and human rights and the failure of proprietary IP systems to deliver necessary development goals, particularly in an African context. Something began to crystallise as Andrew Rens, of the Shuttleworth Foundation spoke about Text, Hypertext and Rent Seeking, charting the differences between the linear and contained world of printed text and the fluidity of the read-write web, a clash, as he vividly put it, between ‘the fundamental concept of the web and copyright as a series of little buckets’.

More connections emerged as Johannes Britz, echoing what Amanda Barrett had said, spoke of the importance of education as a human freedom, citing the unhappy statistics of education and research on the continent. He charted the difference between the old information world in which richness had to be sacrificed for the sake of wide reach and the new digital paradigms in which we can combine reach and richness. However, 80% of the world lives, he said, where infrastructure is lacking for unbundled,digital information and education is therefore dependent on physical objects such as books. He brought this down to a moral issue – the bread principle, as he called it. If we can make information and distribute it for a very marginal cost, then we have a new economic model that could serve those deprived of access to education. This is a moral imperative, but IP gets in the way. What also gets in the way is the excessively high cost of telecommunications in countries like South Africa and many other African countries. This means, he said, that the moral agenda becomes a money agenda. The bottom line, he argued, is that access to information is a basic human right and information infrastructure is fundamental to making access work.

It all came together just after Derek Keats, of the University of the Western Cape, had talked about the ways in which web 3.0 could break out of the narrower confines on university walls and the covers of books, offering abundance rather than the limitations of a physical environment. In addition, social networking environments allow students to become producers as well as consumers of knowledge. This, he said, is a ‘rip-mix-burn’ environment that allows for the creation of cross-institutional or even non-institutional learning environments. The Vice-Chancellor of the Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique responded to this with considerable excitement. ‘I was in a dark tunnel’, he said ‘and now I can see a light.’ He explained that his perception of the scarcity/abundance argument was that in Africa we have an abundance of students and an abundance of thinly populated land. However there is scarcity of lecturers and physical infrastructure. Having listened to the earlier speeches and then bringing to bear what Derek had said, he could now see the potential for ICTs and Open Access to help a country like his. ‘We should go where the students are living, take the money that we would have used for infrastructure and reach them where they are.’ He could see, he said, how Open Access and social networking tools can fundamentally change attitudes towards teaching and learning.

This linked back to some of the things that Christina Lloyd, of the Open University, had talked about. She described the steps that the OU had had to take over the years to accommodate students who came to university courses without formal entry requirements. This needs very careful curriculum design, introductory courses front-loaded in terms of support – and with continuing high levels of support to meet student needs. Provision needs to be modular and very high levels of assessment are built in. When it comes to technology gaps, she said that she thought that Africa did not have to be held back by infrastructure limitations as it had already leapfrogged in its use of mobile technologies as part of its blend. What she said about the curriculum also resonated for Africa – that we need to maximise the potential of learning online through the use of social networking as part of student support.

This all suggests that in the context of higher education in southern Africa, open access, combined with innovative use of mobile
technology and a recognition of the transfomative potential of social networking, offers considerable potential to move research and teaching away from anachronistic hierarchical and locked-in models inherited from the colonial era. Open access can therefore mean not only improved research communications and a greater global contribution by African research, but the use of open education and social networking might offer great potential in under-resourced countries to provide access for greater numbers of students to a well-supported, relevant and effective higher education system.

The other end of the telescope

Judy Breck has acted as guest editor for a special issue of Educational Technology magazine on the theme of Opening Educational Resources. This issue has been mailed to the print subscribers, and is not available thus far online. However,
the publisher has given authors permission to reprint their own articles included in the issue. My article can be read here:
The Other End of the Telescope: Opening educational resources in a South African university.

This article explores the question of opening educational resources in the context of an educational technology unit, the Centre for Educational Technology at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa. It describes the impact of a high level of policy intervention for the transformation of higher education and of a diverse, multilingual student body, many with apartheid-inherited deficits in academic preparedness. In this context of very particular needs, the article questions the appropriateness of a focus on content alone, rather than educational process as it addresses particular contexts. Where content does become important is in the need to grow the volumes of Africa-relevant content, something that is inhibited by traditional publish-or-perish policies.

Open Sourcing Education

After weeks of intermittent rain, the sun finally came out – bright but chilly – for a gathering of open education activists from around the world, meeting at the Shuttleworth Foundation’s offices, set in beautiful gardens in the Cape Town suburbs. We were there to discuss the possibility of drafting a Declaration on Open Education Resources, The model for the exercise was the OSI’s Budapest Open Access Initiative, so influential in profiling and driving the Open Access movement over the last 6 years. The Cape Town meeting followed on from the workshop sessions held at the iCommons Summit in Dubrovnik in June (which are reported on by Mark Surman and Phillipp Schmidt on the iCommons blog), and sought to codify and consolidate the understandings of open education mapped out in Dubrovnik.

The workshop was supported by the Shuttleworth Foundation and the Open Society Institute and was attended by an impressive array of leading names in open education, from Mark Surman, who helped facilitate the workshop, Darius Cuplinskas and Melissa Hageman from the OSI Information Programme, Helen King, Karien Bezuidenhout and Andrew Rens from Shuttleworth, Phillipp Schmidt from the University of the Western Cape, James Dalziel of Macquarie E Learning, Richard Baranuik from Rice University, Paul West from the Commonwealth of Learning, David Wiley from Utah State University, Peter Bateman from the Open University, Delia Browne from the Australian Copyright Advisory Group, Werner Westerman from Chile, student textbook activist David Rosenfeld from the US PIRG consumer group, Lisa Petrides from IKSME – and many more. The proceedings, which were very interactive, were tracked in a wiki during the course of the discussions, as the facilitators used a number of workshop techniques to collectively map the terrain, agree on values, identify strategies and brainstorm the selling points of open education resources.

What came out of this meeting for me? First of all, a realisation that the OER terrain is very complex, from a number of perspectives. Drafting a statement is going to  be an even more complex task than the Budapest Initiative and it will need to incorporate the diversity that emerged across the education system, vertically and geograhically, in the course of our discussions. Most importantly, there are major differences between the provision of resources at different levels of the education system – not always acknoweldged in the OER discussions. At schools level, there are much stronger local differences, of language, curriculum requirements and cultural imperatives. At all levels, it was acknowledged that the provision of content on its own was not enough, but that process and educator support needed to be built in. A revelation was the emerging realisation that, although the emphasis tends to be on textbooks for the classroom, it is in providing resources and training in how to use them for teachers that might have the biggest impact.

Important for me was the issue of local production and cultural diversity. The OER debate has moved on from the early days in which, all too often, an easy assumption was made that the provision of quality content from the North would solve problems of access to knowledge in one easy move. Interestingly, there was some agreement among the workshop delegates, not only that there needed to be globally distributed OER development and collaborative partnerships for adaptation and translation, but that sustainability was perhaps to be found in partnerships with commercial entities in new business models for the production of learning materials.

Brainstorming on what the world of education would look like in ten years’ time produced some really exciting visions of a very changed education system, much more lateral, much more distributed, but one in which the role of the teacher as mentor remained of vital importance. As James Dalziel said, “If we get open education right, we can change the world.” Although there was disageement on a number of issues and some robust debate, what emerged in the end was a manageable terrain, where the disagreements could be built into diversity, rather than being disruptive of the consensus that was reached. The most contentious issue turned out to be that of the kinds of licence that would be appropriate and that would signal true openness. This is something on which consensus is going to need to be reached over the next few months.

The availability of technology in the poorer countries of the world is a major concern and it was clear that this would need to be addressed if the vision of this group was truly to be a global one. Also, the interrelation between open access and open source software is important in education provision, given the role of delivery platforms and content repositories and the need to provide maximum support for teachers and learners.

The next steps? A draft declaration will be drawn up by Mark Surman, working with three ‘stewards’, Ahrash Bissell of CC Learn, Delia Browne, an IP lawyer working for the Copyright Advisory Group of the Australian government and  James Dalziel from the E Learning Centre of  Excellence at Macquarie University, also Australia. This will then be circulated to the broader group for feedback before being more widely canvassed. High profile supporters from academe and the educational world will be sought as champions for the initiative.

As Darius Cuplinskas said, “We’re about to launch a wave of creative disruption.” I am looking forward to it.

Lively debate in Cape Town

A free education world explored in a fortress by the sea

iCommons has a talent for holding its conferences in beautiful places. Last year it was Copacabana Beach in Rio. This year we met in Dubrovnik, in the Revelin fortress on the edge of the centuries-old city walls. Very different to Rio, but some similarities – an intensely blue Adriatic sea, muggy heat, a laid-back atmosphere. But there the similarities ended. Dubrovnik is very much a European city, perhaps even surprisingly so, given its location on the far edge of a Mediterranean culture. In some ways it feels more Germanic than Southern, with its pristine city walls in blond stone, impeccably restored after the war with Serbia and Montenegro, and its gleaming polished marble streets in the old town. But then there are the villas climbing steep hills behind the old town, the patches of brilliant colour from flowering trees, the grape vine pergolas over sea-facing terraces, the scent of pine resin over cafe tables and the olive green foliage of the islands – all this is decidedly southern.

The conference rooms in the Revelin fortress were all in blond stone, with vaulted stone ceilings, soft light and shadows. Ironical perhaps that this was the setting for an often passionate discussion about the nature of free culture, often anarchic, never boring. It is hard to capture the spirit of what was this year a diverse event, from deep intellectual discussion to presentations by free culture radicals, to the workshop sessions of the Open Education stream. This challenged the formal conference structure of the rest of the Summit, with its more rigid panel discussions, where expert opinions provided a framework of authority and response. Instead, the nature of Open Education was explored in what some speculated might be a subversive symbolic setting, the Lazar-house set on the rocks over Dubrovnik’s most fashionable beach.

The discussions led with gusto by Allen Gunn revealed a wide diversity of views from a global patchwork of people. What emerged was the capacity to reconcile the sometimes extreme dogmatic views about what constitutes Open Education, whether the dogmatism be free content, open source software, collaborative communities, or whatever. The workshop context allowed discussion of these diverging views and, above all, the emergence of a much more complex and pedagogically-informed
tapestry of the potential that could be offered by Open Education in a variety of geographical and educational contexts. It is much more than just content, the participants agreed. Also, they concurred, there has been too little attention paid
to informal education and lifelong learning, the possibilities offered for mature learners.

The process was sometimes anarchic – go to Steve Foersters blog on the speed-geeking session on the iCommons website, or look at the podcast of the workshop participants acting out open education as a flight of geese. As is familiar to many educationists, a collaborative workshopping process like this one can be playful, but the results are often more serious and complex that earnest discussion can be. Perhaps this is a model for future Commons conferencing (along the lines that I believe Sakai has taken). This has opened up a blog discussion on the iCommons site – it will be interesting to see where this leads.

The workshop participants commented rather acerbically that the panel discussion on Open Education held in the main stream of the conference did not contain one teacher. But was acknowledged was that this was the one stream that produced a
series of concrete recommendations and projects for tracking in iCommons 2008 in Tokio.

There is a plethora of blog articles on the new iCommons site – see the education track on the iCommons blog for a wide-ranging discussion of the issues.