Of kittens and tigers in open education (#oped12)

In a blog post in 2003, George Siemens wondered whether OER, at that stage, was not just (yet another) cute kitten.  It is almost incomprehensible that one would find someone who does not love cute kittens, and therefore, by the time of the writing his blog, it was almost unthinkable that the notion of OER would not be supported by educational institutions, educators and students. In this blog Siemens expresses “a huge appreciation for OERs and hold out for the prospect that OERs will truly make a difference to people who most need them”, but he also expresses a number of concerns regarding OER such as questioning the rationale behind the move towards OER, the reality of the possibility that institutions would window dress while the basic underlying systems and structures of education would not change. Siemens (2003) also reflects on the impact  of the (mostly) hidden ideologies, pedagogies and worldviews embedded in OER.

After reading Siemens’ (2003) blog, I wondered whether OER is still (just) a ‘cute kitten’ ?  Is the open education movement still a nice-to-have public relations exercise or has the kitten grown up? Has the open education movement become a formidable tiger that we cannot (and should not) ignore? Almost nine years since Siemens’ (2003) blog, we need to reflect on whether the concerns he raised have been addressed, and more tentatively, what the future holds for open education.

The first issue Siemens (2003) raises is questioning the rationale behind the adoption of OER. Since 2003 the opening of education has become even more en vogue with major institutions opening educational opportunities, often with accreditation. How should we understand this? There is no doubt in my mind that many of the original reasons for supporting OER are still valid. For example the need to broaden access to education and specifically to higher education has become even more important, and OER has continued to grow as a branding and marketing exercise. There is currently a flurry of higher education institutions joining these initiatives or starting their own. One of these days we may even see a new ranking system on openness with institutions trying to outdo one another on degrees of openness…

Siemens (2003) also wonders whether the open education movement would be able to change the basic underlying systems and structures of education such as our pedagogies, our admission requirements, and our accreditation and validation systems.  I suspect it has. However, if we consider that education throughout the ages flowed from, served and perpetuated dominant power-relations and epistemologies, the important question to consider is whether the open education movement impacted on  and changed this ideological basis of education?The answer is not straightforward.

Let me start with the dark side. I don’t think the open education movement has made a significant or lasting difference in addressing the ideological basis of education as serving the interests of the powerful or impacted on the huge inequalities in the world – on the contrary. Never before in the history of humankind have there been so many permanently disenfranchised and dislocated individuals and whole populations.  This is not to lay the blame on the open education movement for not changing all of this. We should however never overestimate the potential of the open education movement to address and change deep-seated inter-generational geopolitical and socio-economic disparities. Call me cynical but I cannot foresee education, and open education for that matter, to make a difference to the embedded gender, caste, cultural, and economic injustices characterizing many (most?) societies. I can simply not foresee that open education will make a difference to the increasing religious and national fundamentalisms resulting in millions of people being uprooted and housed in refugee camps and/or caught in geopolitical and religious claims and counter-claims.

The above stands in stark contrast to the claims by, for example, Steven Pinker in his latest book “The better angels of our nature. Why violence has declined”(2011) – that “Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.” Even if these claims were not disputed by, for example  by Steven Aoun and by Peter Singer in the New York Times (October 6, 2011), I cannot help but look at Pinker’s claims from a developing world context in the Global South with increasing concerns I share with Zygmunt Bauman in his works “Globalization. The human consequences” (1998) and  “Wasted lives. Modernity and its outcasts” (2004).

In this respect, I would say that we should not overestimate the potential of the open education movement to make a lasting and significance difference to the injustices in the world. Having said that, there is also the reality of the cute kitten that has grown up to be a formidable creature in the field of higher and distance education.  While cautioning against overestimating the impact of the open education movement on changing engrained intergenerational disparities, there is no doubt that the open education movement is, currently, a game changer in the field of higher and distance education.

Some of the signs that the cute kitten has indeed become a formidable creature are as follows:

  • Open content is changing the way we develop curricula. Whether those with vested interests in academic publishing will ever let go of their power-bases is something to be seen. Open content has the potential to seriously disrupt what we prescribe for our students, and what we read ourselves.
  • Open (and free) admission to the courses offered by Coursera, EdX, Udacity and the Khan Academy is making learning accessible for thousands who were previously excluded from education and higher education.
  • Open assessment and accreditation has the potential to disrupt some of the foundations of education and higher education as elitist practice. While the ‘badges’ movement must still claim a space in the contested worlds of quality assurance and accreditation, the move to offering decentralised proctored examination opportunities have huge potential to dramatically alter the higher education landscape.
  • Open scholarship is increasingly becoming the preferred choice of many scholars and publishing entities.
  • OER as counter-narrative  is addressing concerns by many in developing world contexts by which scholars in the developing world can claim legitimate spaces in the production and dissemination of knowledge and ways-of-knowing.

In conclusion: The ‘cute kitten’ Siemens referred to in 2003 has indeed grown up to disrupt the higher and distance education landscape. The OER movement has changed some of the basic underlying systems and structures of education such as our pedagogies, our admission requirements, and our accreditation and validation systems. In 2008 John Steely Brown, in the Foreword to “Opening up education” wrote that we are facing an “unrelenting velocity of change” (p.xi).  Though the open education movement has, indeed, changed higher and distance education, the potential of the open education movement to make a dent in inter-generational geopolitical and socio-economic disparities must still be seen. I, for one, don’t hold my breath…

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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8 Responses to Of kittens and tigers in open education (#oped12)

  1. I was wondering, in relation to the five bullet points you listed towards the end–how often do you see professors/teachers using OERs? What do they use? I’ve worked with quite a few professors in Canada and the U.S. as an instructional designer and research manager (mostly in humanities and business), and none of them actively seek out OERs. The institutional incentives aren’t there and I get the sense that most of them would find the task too time consuming anyway. Is the perspective different from your vantage point?

    • Thanks for the response. You raise an interesting and somewhat troubling point re the use of OER by faculty/academics. Just a few thoughts:
      * Many academics would rather produce OER than use them. Possibly this can be attributed to a number of factors e.g. knowledge about existing OER, seeking out and adaptation/contextualization of OER may actually take ‘just as long’ as writing an OER from scratch
      * The ‘fame’ and institutional reward systems of producing content are still rewarding production of content and not the reuse and adaptation of concent. The production of content is seen as more original than using and adapting OER. In my opinion the latter takes more originality and creativity, but institutions and faculty don’t see it that way.
      * Many faculty has links with publishing houses and they form mafia-like consortia producing content and then having it prescribed a number of universities. Not only is this lucrative, having one’s work prescribed, pushes you up a few notches in the esteem of your colleagues
      * we still see our value proposition as the production of content and not the mediation of learning, student support and accreditation.

      Despite the above negatives, there are some signs of my institution changing e.g. there are plans to make it compulsory that all new course developments or revision of courses should first investigate what OER exist before prescribing or developing new materials.


      • Not sure if you’ve read this but there’s a somewhat related blog post by another #oped12 participant Anne Hole: http://annehole.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/process-and-products-thoughts-on-oped12-week-2/.

        I agree it’s more likely for academics to produce OERs rather than use them. It’s a shame though that they may not seek out OERs even when they could really use them.
        Many faculty in North America are now being asked to design fully online courses for which they have to develop very comprehensive instructional content and assessments. As I commented on Anne Hole’s post, often they have difficulties because they don’t have much time and they’ve never had to put their teaching and/or lectures into various digital formats. I think OERs could really help them out but as you said, most institutions and faculty probably don’t consider adaptation to be original or creative.

        It’s fascinating to learn about the plans at your institution–thanks.

      • Dear Ya-Yin Ko – thanks for the response. Apologies that I took so long to acknowledge your post – but I had a hectic week!

        Thanks for the reference to Anne Hole’s blog – I will defintely have a look!

        Thanks for the engagement. Paul

  2. FrankOUNL says:

    -1- Because there are OER-organisations, all other HEI’s are influenced because students can approach them free through electronic media;
    -2- Knowledge is power (Sir Francis Bacon, Religious Meditations, Of Heresies, 1597); although OER will not change all the problems you mention, free information and knowledge can help.
    -3- It is not OER, but accessibility to knowledge which is one of the major problems; knowing that there is a world outside in which violence, rape and religious misuse is not common life will help people claim there human rights (with or without a revolution)

    As you yourself said earlier, it is not Facebook and Twitter causing the Arabic Spring, but people acting on information they found on Facebook and Twitter.

    Let’s hope more people will act…………………………………………

    • Frank – thanks for sharing these three grat points. Great stuff.

      I must confess that the dynamics and complexities of geopolitical politics often override and neutralize information and knowledge. As many of the recent atrocities have shown (e.g. Rwanda and now in Syria) it is not that we don’t know, but our ability to act is impacted upon by forces outside of our control. Sometimes even having the latest information on atrocities committed, does not cause action.

      In a previous paper at the 14th ODeL conference in Cambridge in 2011 I referred to the work by John Gray and stated:
      “In following Gray (2004), I believe that there is no basis for the wide-spread belief that progress in knowledge and science will necessarily result in a more just and compassionate society. Gray (2004, p. 70) warns that knowledge and science cannot (and will not) ‘end the conflicts in history. It is an instrument that humans use to achieve their goals, whether winning wars or curing the sick, alleviating poverty or committing genocide.’ And: “Accepting that ‘knowledge is not an unmixed good; it can be used as much as a curse as a blessing’ (Gray 2004, p. 70), I soberly accept the impossibility to achieve universal, economic justice and equal opportunities for all. The history of humankind provides ample evidence that any such hopes are without any foundation.

  3. Pingback: Promises of Open Educational Resources | About Education, Economics and Policy

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