CC BY-SA catherinecronin (Flickr), remix of original image CC BY Nadine Shaabana

Three months ago, I submitted and openly published my PhD thesis, Openness and praxis. The aim of the study was to understand whether, why, how, and to what extent individual educators used open educational practices (OEP) — with OEP defined as the creation, use and reuse of open educational resources (OER) as well as open pedagogies and open sharing of teaching practices. Since completing, I’ve presented and discussed this work with many other open and higher education researchers and practitioners (at OER18, OEGlobal18, NLC2018, and EdTechIE18, and here in the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at my own institution NUI Galway). My work in open education predates my embarking on the PhD, and one key question has motivated me from the start: What values, practices, strategies, and policies within higher education can best support students and staff, our wider (local, national, international) communities, and learning in the context of increasingly open, networked and participatory culture, and increasingly unequal societies. What follows is a slightly edited extract from the conclusion of my thesis — specifically the section on policy recommendations. Please note that the scope of my research study was one higher education institution in Ireland, although the work which I drew from was global in scope.

Open education in higher education: policy recommendations

The European report Opening up Education: A Support Framework for Higher Education Institutions (Inamorato dos Santos et al., 2016) makes a strong case for the strategic “opening up of education by higher education institutions” (p. 6) in order to address issues of vital local, national, and international importance such as enhanced workforce skills, access to job opportunities, community engagement, and personal growth of citizens. Open education is not only a tool for social change, however, but also of transforming higher education itself (van der Vaart, 2013, p. 52):

Open Education… nourishes a participatory culture of learning, creating, sharing and cooperation and it is therefore a vital and natural training ground for current and future researchers and educators, turning them into confident users and designers of open approaches in research and higher education.

The challenge for institutions is to engage with open education strategically, while also catering for an already broad range of institutional needs. Culture change is required. While higher education policy makers cannot effect such change, they can support, facilitate, and incentivise actions that encourage change in academic practices and culture (Corrall & Pinfield, 2014). Evidence indicates that institutional open education policies can act as enablers for OER creation and use (Corrall & Pinfield, 2014; Cox & Trotter, 2016; Lesko, 2013; Udas, Partridge, & Stagg, 2016). With these considerations in mind, my recommendations regarding institutional open education policy include:

  • Build on existing policy with a view to developing an integrated open education policy that encompasses open access, open educational resources, and open educational practices. In the case of NUI Galway, for example, the Open Access Policy has been in place for two years (National University of Ireland, Galway, 2015). This policy could be extended to include OER and OEP.
  • Expand open repositories to include both research outputs and learning and teaching resources.
  • Raise awareness for all staff regarding open education goals, policies, and resources available, for example: use, adaptation, creation, and sharing of OER and open textbooks.
  • Provide training for staff who wish to engage in open practices, e.g. OER and open textbook workshops, including legal advice and support regarding copyright and open licensing – ideally coordinating resources and activities across disciplines/departments, libraries, and centres for learning and teaching.
  • Encourage and reward open academic practice. At a minimum, engagement in open access publishing, open research, OER and/or OEP should be included in criteria for staff evaluations and assessments, and count towards promotion (see Anderson, 2009; Andrade et al., 2011; Corrall & Pinfield, 2014; Geser, 2007; Udas, Partridge, & Stagg, 2016; van der Vaart, 2013; Weller, 2014).
  • Draw on European and Irish open education policy frameworks (Inamorato dos Santos et al., 2016; National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, 2015; van der Vaart, 2013) and benchmark against exemplar open education policies at other higher education institutions (e.g. University of Edinburgh, 2016; University of Cape Town, 2011, 2014).

These points constitute a baseline for open education policymaking for higher education institutions. A similar list of recommendations could likely have been compiled early in the course of this research project based on extant open education research dating back over the past decade (e.g. Andrade et al., 2011; Geser, 2007; Inamorato dos Santos et al., 2016; National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, 2015; van der Vaart, 2013). Additional recommendations, listed below, arise specifically from the findings of this study on the use of open educational practices.

While openness is a strategic objective at the institutional level, it cannot be mandated at the individual level. Individual members of staff and individual students must be supported and enabled to engage in open practice, but more importantly, supported in making their own decisions about whether and how to engage in open practice. Some students, based on personal experiences or circumstances, or their marginalised position within society, their community, or even their class, may not be willing to engage in OEP. Some members of staff, based on their personal experiences or circumstances, or their personal or professional values, may not be willing to engage in OEP. The benefits and risks of open practices are continually evolving and are always mediated by individuals in specific contexts. Ideally, higher education institutions should engage in positive but sensitive approaches to open practices. Based on these considerations, I add the following recommendations with respect to open education policy:

  • Provide ongoing support to all academic staff in (a) developing digital literacies and digital identities, (b) reflecting on personal and professional values with respect to privacy, openness, learning, and teaching in an increasingly open, networked, and participatory culture, and (c) supporting students in developing these capabilities. Many openly available tools and resources exist to support this work, including Visitor/Resident mapping (Flynn, 2016; White, et al., 2014; White & Le Cornu, 2017); resources in the areas of critical digital literacies (Alexander et al., 2017; Brown, et al., 2016; Jisc, 2014, 2016), digital citizenship (Caines, 2017; Emejulu & McGregor, 2016), and web literacy (Caulfield, 2017); and the ‘negotiating openness’ model developed in the course of this research study (Cronin, 2018, Section 7.2).
  • Open educational practices (OEP) can be powerful means of enhancing learning and empowering students. While not all academic staff must be open, all should be equipped to advise and support students in developing critical network literacies and practices (relevant to their discipline/profession) in the context of their own teaching and/or with the support of other experts across the institution, e.g. librarians, educational developers, and learning technologists. The goal is to support students in becoming agentic and reflective disciplinary practitioners, and agentic and reflective digital citizens.
  • Promote a learning design approach. Academic staff in this study described the module and course design process as a largely individual activity. Academic staff described their efforts, for example, to ‘customise’ traditional teaching and assessment models. This approach is in contrast to a systematic learning design approach, informed by research in teaching and learning, which focuses on student development rather than ‘covering the content’ (this varies, of course, across disciplines). There seems to be considerable scope for promoting a learning design approach within which OEP could be considered and embedded.
  • Engage in collaborative policymaking regarding open education. Open education policies should be flexible and democratically formulated, with the input of academic, administrative, and technical staff, and students. In addition, those engaged in policymaking should consider how open practices could be used and modelled during all stages of considering, evaluating, and formulating open education policy.

The title of this thesis is ‘Openness and praxis’, based on Freire’s (1996) conception of praxis as “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed” (p. 126). This thesis is based on my consideration and analysis of rich descriptions of reflective practice shared by a diverse range of academic staff within one higher education institution. Open educators’ use of OEP is complex, personal, contextual, and continually negotiated – but so also is the consideration and negotiation of open practices by all academic staff. The recommendations in this chapter indicate possible ways that this research could be used, alongside other initiatives, to contribute to efforts within higher education to support students, staff, our wider communities, and learning in a time of rapid change on many fronts. Democratic, flexible, strategic, and critical approaches to open education are required.

* * * * *

As with anyone completing PhD research (particularly in open education), the word ‘conclusion’ seems apt for the thesis document, but not for the work itself which continues to evolve. I share this set of policy recommendations here as a basis for ongoing discussions, here at my institution and elsewhere. I’d like also to engage with other open education researchers to see how our policy recommendations compare. Here’s to ongoing conversations — and thanks for reading.

Image: Open CC BY-SA catherinecronin (Flickr), remix of original image CC BY Nadine Shaabana


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Andrade, A., Ehlers, U.-D., Caine, A., Carneiro, R., Conole, G., Kairamo, A.-K., … Holmberg, C. (2011). Beyond OER: Shifting focus to open educational practices. Open Education Quality Initiative (OPAL).

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Cronin. C. (2018). Openness and praxis: A situated study of academic staff meaning-making and decision-making with respect to openness and use of open educational practices in higher education (doctoral thesis). National University of Ireland, Galway.

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2 thoughts on “Open education in higher education: policy recommendations”

  1. Many thanks, Leo. Sorry for late reply – a consequence of some well-needed holidays 🙂

    In terms of this work, I know that it is in line with some of your own work. As always, I look forward to our future conversations. Good luck with your OEP research!

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