If open is the answer, what is the question? #oer16

How would you answer the question above?

Please join the conversation by tweeting your response (using the #oer16 hashtag) or adding to the comments below.


From the New York Public Library (public domain)

Whether we consider ourselves to be open education practitioners or researchers, advocates or critics, wonderers or agnostics, our motivating questions regarding openness are likely to be different. For example, you may find that open educational resources (OER) and/or open educational practices (OEP) help you to address one or more of the following (very different) questions:

  • How can I help to minimise the cost of textbooks?
  • How can I help students to build and to own their content and portfolios?
  • How might we support and empower learners in building their digital identities and making informed choices about digital engagement?
  • How might we build knowledge as a collective endeavour?
  • How can we broaden access to education, particularly in ways that do not reinforce existing inequalities?

Or perhaps you’ve found that OER and/or OEP lead to further questions, particularly about institutional policies and practices.

Along with many others, I hope to discuss some of these questions at the Open Educational Resources conference next month — #OER16: Open Culture. I’ll explore these questions, and others, in my keynote and in conversation with Lorna Campbell and Viv Rolfe in an OER16 preview webinar hosted by ALT later this week.

Have you found open practices to be useful, for you and/or for your students? What does it help you to achieve? If open is the answer, what is the question? What is your question? Please join the conversation.

Postscript 11-March-2016: Many thanks to all for participating in this discussion, both in comments here in the blog and on Twitter (summarised here in Storify). I look forward to continuing the conversation with you all at the conference.

Postscript 23-May-2016: I shared a summary of this discussion in my keynote at OER16 – links available here.

Image: public domain image from the New York Public Library




32 thoughts on “If open is the answer, what is the question? #oer16

  1. Interesting questions!! There is a general need with undergraduates to create awareness about what digital literacies are and why are they so important to have in their academic toolbox. My impression is that the term ‘digital literacies’ is an academic term, a term we use when we share our research with scholars or when discussing some interesting post or article we found in the Web. But when I talk to students and ask them what digital literacies mean, the answer is most of the times: I don’t know! I think it has to do with x, y and z, but not sure. Or others say: I don’t have a clue!! This makes me reflect on the importance and the power of knowing. When we know what we need, we are far more able to get it than if we don’t know.
    If students would know what digital literacies are and how important they have become in nowadays society, as they already know how important it is to read and write, maybe they would be more keen and open to participate in workshops, research projects or the like that supports them to improve those skills. In my thinking, a way of improving those skills is by working together with students using an approach to teaching that encourages the creation of a personal learning environment which definitely will be a way to improve the literacies, learning by doing!! I will extend my idea a bit further in the #OER16 conference in my lightning talk, and I will share this idea in the webinar this Friday. See you there!

    1. Many thanks, Caroline. I’m looking forward to your lightning talk at #OER16. You’ve been working closely with students in your research on digital literacies and PLEs, so your perspective is especially interesting. As you say, supporting learners in creating their own PLEs requires much from us as educators, not least awareness of and engagement with students’ existing learning practices (rather than ignoring or devaluing them). Have you had any feedback from students about their current digital identity practices or their informal (beyond HE) open learning practices?

      1. Curious things that have appeared in the data:

        1) The majority of students have never reflected on their digital practice before. It took them some minutes to start. On the one hand, I think that the digital is the default mode for students, and you don’t think about it as we do not think consciously how we spend our day in an ‘analogue way’. I see it as a sign of the post-digital era (White, 2014), but in the personal space, not so in the institutional. We are in the midst of the transition between web-based tools and social media and the old applications we have always known (word, ppt and email) for work and study in academic settings.
        Prezi, a web-based application although very valued by students but not much used. They say they do not know how.
        THE HOW TO is very important!! Learning how tools work is not straight forward and they need to see the value for doing that extra effort.

        2) The resident-institutional quadrant in the V+R map of the majority of the participants 16 out of 20 is almost empty. No personal tools for their learning only the library, google scholar and the VLE to ‘take’ stuff but never to ‘give’ much. The platform that takes over all the activities is Google, but it is not for institutional purposes only. For me not having any personal tool for studying is an important aspect to consider.
        The digital identity is much stronger in their personal life and not in the institutional.

        3) All of them talked about needing support; the Web is ‘too big’, ‘too full of tools and stuff’ ‘overwhelming’. The ecology of abundance is having its effect on students and I would say on all of us

      2. replying to Caroline’s second comment here – Thanks Caroline – your research will be so valuable in casting some light on student practice on social and other digital media. I am no longer working in HE but had some very rich experience in running a module with colleagues for Y1 UG business students. We worked hard to combine theory and practice by embedding the learning activities in their degree subjects (Leisure & Tourism, Business Studies, etc.) and their personal use of social/ digital media – two areas they saw as unconnected. This slide http://www.slideshare.net/FrancesBell3/clipboards/frances-slideshare-clips?rftp=success_toast attempts to capture that. Whole slide show is at http://www.slideshare.net/francesbell/pkemtech
        We had some success and for me this was an extension of trying to encourage critical approaches and links between theory and practice that I had worked on throughout my time as a teacher and lecturer.

  2. I’d probably answer it with another question – how do you define “open”? It’s has a bearing because during the OpenCred project I worked on with Gabi Witthaus, Grainne Conole and Bernard Nkuyubwatsi we looked at a range of open courses across Europe and discovered a huge inconsistency about how people defined open. Gabi and I (mainly Gabi) came up with five different levels:

    Value Descriptors
    0 Open only to fee-paying students registered at the institution delivering the course
    0 Open only to staff on a CPD course within an organisation
    1 Open to everyone who has specified prior knowledge/experience, on paying a fee
    2 Open to everyone on paying a fee
    3 Open to all but students are required to purchase prescribed course materials
    4 Open to all

    Obviously 0 level isn’t open at all (it just helps when coming up with a taxonomy to include all those that don’t qualify – defining the ones that do fit by ones that don’t) but we saw occasions of all of the other uses of the word “open” to describe courses.

    And of course some can be more than one at the same time, for example the one I’m teaching on at the moment is free to everyone to attend, but you either have to pay or be working at Brookes to be assessed. But correlating what open provides to a student with open made a big difference when the level of openness was taken into account.

    1. Hi Mark – many thanks for your comment. What a great point re: defining open, an ongoing challenge! Thanks also for sharing the scale you devised for OpenCred, a project which assessed course offerings across Europe. I am curious! What proportion of courses in your study were wholly open, i.e. open at level 4?

      This raises yet another question, of course: to what does the qualifier ‘open’ refer? I’ve referred in my post to ‘practices’ and ‘resources’, and you highlight ‘courses’. All are aspects of open education but with varying criteria for defining and evaluating the level of openness. As individual practitioners, we arguably have more autonomy regarding OER and OEP than open courses. For example, I can choose to use OER and/or open practices in the courses I teach, even those that are conventional academic courses. But this breaks down rather quickly also. Can course resources be released as OER? Can course communication take place in open online spaces? To what extent will the institution support my/my students’ open practices?

      As you say, many more questions. However, I remain interested in the motivations of educators who choose openness, at any level or in any domain. Thanks again.

  3. First thanks for this Catherine. I’d say OEP goes beyond the digital and encompases both technologies – analogue, digital, the lot; and attitudes and dispositions. But as for a questioned by “open” this might be one: what kind of exchange best serves the democratic purpose of knowledge construction? As you know I am apalled at how we, as academics, so easily acquiesce to the privatisation of knowledge in the sordid persuit of “career” and “reputation”

    1. Many thanks, Simon. “What kind of exchange best serves the democratic purpose of knowledge construction?” is a question that goes right to the heart of what we do and who we are as educators. It also highlights the fact that institutional change is imperative – openness cannot rely solely on individual ethics or practices. I am reminded of Freire and Michael Apple once again: education is an ethical and political act. Thanks Simon.

    2. That is a good point because it is precisely the opposite of what moves me, I am not after a career nor the reputation but for the sake of exploring the space of knowledge and trying to find an explanation for the new things I observe and that strike me. Reputation and career is the consequence of that. I feel always a bit as an outsider in that sense. It is contradictory because I am doing a Ph.D but really because I want to learn how to do research and not because the reputation. So knowledge construction, I would think, needs open exchange…in order to give us researchers that reputation of knowledge constructors for the public good. The system does not help in this, and I think that is where the contradiction arises

  4. @carolak Caroline, thanks for further elaboration on your research study. I look forward to your ongoing analysis and findings as they emerge. Your final comment is particularly salient – the ecology of abundance and students’ feelings of being overwhelmed. How can we use OEP to support students in navigating this? I expect that this is partly what you are exploring through the creation of PLEs. Valuable work, the very best of luck with it.

  5. Hi Catherine

    Thanks for opening this question out, and an interesting discussion so far ☺

    The question you raise about ‘How might we support and empower learners in building their digital identities and making informed choices about digital engagement?’ is important to me as an academic developer ( I work with lecturers and those involved in supporting teaching in higher education. )

    Caroline Kuhn’s comment that students don’t know/understand what it means to be ‘digital literate’ is a fair point – I wonder if their lecturers know what it is to be digitally literate?

    I work in a university and I am repeatedly asked questions about getting up and running with Twitter (How do I follow people, who do I follow? What’s the hashtag for?) While these questions get the digital ball rolling, what is essential is that people are enabled with a critical sense of what it means to be online, the benefits of being an educational persona online and that they develop the ‘capacity to contribute’ (Stewart, 2016) on social networks.
    In my research (still being written) I found that professionals in higher education have certain reservations to using social networks such as Twitter – some of the barriers were: time, feelings of confidence and self-efficacy in their professional area, knowing the rules of engagement within public social networks.
    So back to Caroline’s point – I wonder if digital literacy is enough? What about thinking of it as digital capacity building encompassing many avenues of development (literacy, technical, identity work….)?

    So back to me, and my role as an academic developer, and what I most enjoy about my work – I want to help build digital capacity of professionals working in higher education to enable them build their own PLE’s, from which they can build networks and then continue to learn from, thus enhancing practice.
    In short if professionals in higher education are empowered to work digitally (and openly) I think the likelihood is that they can also empower students with digital literacies while building digital capacity

    I hope your keynote is streamed Catherine, I would love to hear it ☺

    Stewart, B. (2016). Academic Twitter: The intersection of orality & literacy in scholarship? NetworkED Seminar Series, January 2016, London School of Economics, London, UK

    1. Thanks so much, Muireann. Your research sounds like an important contribution to our growing understanding of digital capability for staff and students, as well as for institutions. Your work with staff and Caroline’s work with students seem to complement one another very well. I agree that digital identity is a core element of both digital capability and open practices. Although initial questions may be about the mechanics of using Twitter (for example), we don’t have to dig too deeply to find ourselves at identity questions. Who am I sharing with? Who am I sharing as? How will I blend or separate the personal & professional? I’m excited about your work as you seem also to be exploring the link between the practices of academics and students. So much to be learned here – thank you for contributing to the conversation.

      The link to Bonnie Stewart’s seminar didn’t come through in your comment for some reason, so I’ve added it here. Bonnie’s work is a touchstone for my own work also 🙂 (thanks Bon!)
      Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4RSaG2iVKk
      Slides: http://www.slideshare.net/bonstewart/academic-twitter-the-intersection-of-orality-literacy-in-scholarship

    2. Interesting reflection Muireann. When I think in literacies, I do think in more than just using the tool. An important thing I found in my research is the need to exposure that students say they would like to have. It makes me think how important the tool is to get started. Isn’t there a simmilar aspect with literacy and the appearence of the book, -the iconic tool of the printing press era or the Gutember galaxy how McLuhan called it. I think the web is taken the place of the book in our Network galaxy or the Web galaxy, and maybe one can start with the tool and then go deeper with the critical thinking about the tool? Just thoughts…
      I am indeed working with the idea of PLE, so I am interested what are your views on that. How are you envisioning that process of building the PLE?

  6. Thanks Catherine for a great post and to commenters for varied and fascinating contributions. As I was thinking about the question “How might we support and empower learners in building their digital identities and making informed choices about digital engagement?” l connected with Caroline’s thoughts about digital literacies and Simon’s about ‘not just digital’. I was thinking about (young) people’s practice in adopting and deserting social media platforms as they morph into something that could be toxic or counterproductive. I don’t know enough about how and why they do this or how they engage with peers about their actions.
    What I’m wondering is whether the practice of digital literacy is more important than what we call it?
    And What is the relationship between critique and reflexivity in our day to day lives and the educational sphere? What do these have to say to each other?
    These seem like very old questions -at least ones that I grappled with during my career in education and still grip me now.

    1. Many thanks, Frances. What a great point about the practice of digital literacy being more important than what we call it. I had a wonderful conversation with Caroline recently about the words/terms we use that might simply get in the way when we communicate with others (e.g. digital literacy). Caroline and Muireann are doing important work in this area – I look forward to learning more from them. As for critique and reflexivity, I’m grappling with both of these now, as you know 🙂 Having moved from my position as an open educator to being a researcher of open practices, a critical approach is essential. This was always part of my practice, but is now more intentional and reflexive. Yet this critical, reflexive approach – much like the tensions experienced and described by the educators in my study (privacy vs. openness, personal vs. professional identity) – is negotiated on a continual basis.

      Just re-read the last line of your comment. Old questions, indeed! You’ve got me thinking, Frances – thanks 🙂

  7. Apologies, I’m late to the conversation and haven’t read all the contributions (busy start to a new semester). My first response was something like “What’s my default mode for learning?”. i.e. open isn’t something new and different from normal, it’s standard operating procedure. For all of the reasons that I’ve seen mentioned by others.

    Which has me wondering about how people define and understand “open” and why they think their default mode should be anything else? Are there truly good reasons for other modes, or is it simply because they’ve never conceived of anything different/like open?

    1. Hi David – many thanks for your comment, in the midst of a busy time 🙂 Like you, a couple of people who responded on Twitter pointed out that their default mode is open – and that we could ask instead “why *not* open?” https://twitter.com/sheilmcn/status/706870462580654084 Amongst open educators, this may be understood. But it runs contrary to the conventional values & practices in HE, as those of us who espouse open practices know all too well…

      I took a short detour to catch up with what you’ve been writing in your blog and I see you’ve been writing about just these issues! I particularly enjoyed this post about OER & OEP: https://davidtjones.wordpress.com/2016/02/22/open-educational-practice-beyond-the-institution/

      I’d like to stay connected and to keep these conversations going. My current research is exploring the extent of OEP in HE, and how this relates to educators’ beliefs and values about teaching & learning, privacy, etc. I’m using a very broad definition of OEP rather than an OER-focused one. There’s much more work to be done here – but these questions are a great start. Thanks again, David.

      1. G’day Catherine, FYI, that earlier post was part of thinking through an idea for local grant application. I’ve just posted a summary of the application we put in. Definitely interested in staying connected, especially if the application gets up, but even if that doesn’t happen.

    2. Hi David and Catherine
      I have been thinking about “If open is the answer, what is the question?” since Catherine first posted this, and I like your idea about default mode. My thought was to turn to what Einstein said about simplicity but it turns out he didn’t exactly say what I thought he said http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/05/13/einstein-simple/
      Where I struggle with open is as an absolute – in binary opposition with closed. I can see that people working in OERs are rightly wary of openwashing and that being uncompromising can help combat this. I am more relativist in my approach – I don’t want to see newer teachers and researchers sacrificing themselves on ideals proclaimed by more powerful protagonists who don’t share the same risks.
      And where things start to get really tricky is in Open Educational Practice that is performed through a discourse that is never completely open. Someone, I forget who, spoke of the nexus of public and private , and that applies too to open and closed in discourse. Dave Kernohan once said “there is always a backchannel”.
      For me, it’s about the how of open (dialogue) in practice and what can help is consideration of ethics, power, reflexivity and very importantly humanity. So we can be as open as we possibly can but not so open that we thoughtlessly sacrifice our humanity to others. I have seen openness used to silence others. I don’t mean we shouldn’t speak truth to power. It’s just that the gap that can seem exist between the powerful and ourselves can in itself be complex and could do with unpicking. Let’s try to avoid openness shoring up groupthink. We aren’t going to get this ‘right’ first time – there’s work to do in OEP.

      1. What a wonderful contribution to the conversation, Frances – thank you. Power… our conversations so often return to power. Yet, it is so easy to ignore (for many) and is not discussed nearly enough in the prevalent discourse of openness. There are notable exceptions – I learn so much from the work of Laura Czerniewicz, Paul Prinsloo, Tressie Mcmillan Cottom, Sava Saheli Singh, and others, as well as your own work, Frances. Open can so often bias those who are already privileged. And until we can look honestly at this, and our own role in it, we won’t be moving open education in the direction of reducing inequality. That’s my aim – though I say that with some humility. I have much more to learn. As you say, we aren’t going to get this right first time. I have more work to do (not just on the PhD but in a larger sense) and I want to work with others who are equally committed to asking the tough questions, of ourselves and others. Thanks for adding such an important strand to this discussion, I appreciate it. May the questioning continue at oer16 🙂

      2. Frances, you are right as usual. Thank you, I find this critical stance very helpful. The ‘open’ is a broad field. It is not something that can be grasped and I worry that it may be made mysterious and exclusive. In reality, or at least in my experience, this is not the feeling I have. There are ‘good’ people driving this by and large! But you can see that the open could become a clique quite easily: it is complex and, for some, technology has a bearing on its many understandings.
        I have been reflecting on ideas of ‘control and ‘rights’ today in the discourse around openness. Forever an idealist, I worry that retaining rights over knowledge remains an acceptable discourse in open education.
        I see your comments as a reminder for us to work at being open and to avoid falling into the trap that not being closed means that you are being inclusive and pro-active in engaging others.

      3. Loving that opening sentence Andrew – but seriously I am maybe not as negative as I may at first seem. I am a newcomer to OERx but have had the privilege to work on the OER16 committee and to help organise reviews and I know at first hand what a great bunch OER folk are. What has helped me to understand what is going on with openness in resources and practices is taking a broader context than the goodness/badness of individuals and their actions. There was a great Special Issue in LMT last year (wondering how much it will be cited at OER16) that could make uncomfortable reading for some but has lots to offer. For example, in his paper http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17439884.2015.1051307 Chris Jones uses the idea of an assemblage to look at openness in context. In another paper, Lesley Gourlay talks about advocacy, a topic that I have reflected on a great deal since I retired. Critique can be hard to sustain when in an advocacy role – I know I have been there. Anyway let’s catch up over the next couple of days:)

  8. One might peer deeply into the well of internet machine and ask, “What is the fundamental unifying concept that even enables this network to function?”

    Each node says, I’ll pass on this tiny packet of info and send it to its intended destination, without judgement of its contents.

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