“I don’t think education is about centralized instruction anymore; rather, it is the process [of] establishing oneself as a node in a broad network of distributed creativity.”Joichi Ito

As an educator involved in online learning I’ve noticed a change this year. I’ve had more conversations about online learning with colleagues who teach in classroom-based programmes – particularly about open online learning – than ever before. The growing interest in Khan Academy, MOOCs and Stanford University’s online courses has made many in higher education realise that clear divides don’t exist any longer. The boundaries are blurring between real and virtual spaces, formal and informal learning, teachers and learners. Open, participatory and social media are not just enabling new forms of communication, they are transforming learning.

Learning is changing, but what of education? A couple of blog posts this week questioning the value of going to university at all are probably just the first of many.

A number of colleagues and I have been discussing these issues, as practitioners:  the opportunities and challenges of open online education, the role of the university, and our role as educators. Following is an edited draft of my initial contribution to these discussions. Your comments and feedback are welcome.

The growth of open online learning over the past decade has been steady. Open content, often discussed in terms of OERs (Open Educational Resources), is defined as “materials used to support education that may be freely accessed, reused, modified and shared by anyone”. The key to OERs is that they are openly licensed and thus available for use by all. The argument for using OERs is clear: if every university teaches introduction to programming, for example, then why should we all develop materials to teach this? Why not use openly available, openly licensed, excellent material, and spend more of our time on activities such as engaging with students, developing improved assessment strategies, etc.

There are many excellent sources of OERs (Open Educational Resources), including the NDLR; MERLOT; MIT OCW; OU Learning Space; OER Commons; Khan Academy; Stanford University’s online courses and more.

In terms of open online learning, MIT OpenCourseWare, Khan Academy and other video-based resources can be characterized as 1st generation, while the recent initiative by Stanford University, among others, can be considered 2nd generation, in that it includes not only learning materials, but instructional design, a learning structure and assessment – providing an experience closer to that provided within formal education. Stephen Downes recently suggested that the next generation will be widespread use of OERs along with automated, analytics-based, competency-based testing mechanisms, or open assessment. Indeed, this is precisely what OER university (OERu), among others, is setting out to do. Other open initiatives such as MOOCs and Open Badges have further potential to disrupt traditional higher education. Over 2000 people are currently participating in the #change11 MOOC “Change: Education, Learning and Technology”. Mozilla’s Open Badges project, particularly the DML competition on Badges for Lifelong Learning, is currently gaining a huge amount of attention as well.

Our challenges as educators in the further and higher education sectors? Here are just a few:

Open resources – Most students are aware of open educational resources, and these are shared widely, e.g. Khan Academy, YouTube, MIT OCW, and the recent Stanford University online courses. As educators, what are we doing to create or link to relevant online resources for students? Creating screencasts, video lectures, audio or video podcasts (and making these openly available) or linking to OERs (and OER repositories) can supplement lectures and provide students with valuable material for study and revision. Just as we refer students to the best textbooks, journals and databases, we should link to excellent, relevant, online open educational resources. Our challenge here is to create and share material in new ways, learn to use different tools, and stay abreast of online learning developments.

Open, participatory and social media – Students use social media and social networks in many ways, not least to support their studies, e.g. DropBox, Google Docs, Facebook, Twitter. Once again, as academic staff, we must look to our own practice. Are we making use of tools such as social bookmarking, social networking, web-based applications, and online curation tools to model good academic practice and to share resources with students, and with one another? Not all student work must be submitted directly and privately to the lecturer – opportunities for openness, sharing and collaboration should be considered.  We are challenged to consider using open, social tools (at least sometimes) – instead of closed, 1:1 tools – in order to open up the learning process and make it more authentic.

Emerging technologies – In the 2011 Horizon Report, mobile devices and e-books are the most current of the emerging technologies identified. How are we addressing these trends? The Horizon Report lists examples of education institutions innovating in these areas for teaching, learning and research. Even if we are not at the front of the innovation curve, we must address these emerging technologies in our programmes in a coordinated way, and communicate to our students and others how we are doing that. For example, how are we making use of mobile apps, or making our own learning content available on mobile devices? How are we facilitating students in using open access or e-textbooks?

Openness – In most undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, students are encouraged to examine their digital footprint and digital identity, and to consider the value of building a deliberate, positive, digital identity. This is a core element of digital literacies. Our students are visible to us online, and we are visible to them. As academic staff, are we open and positively visible online, as professionals? Are we modelling academic values in virtual spaces? The best way to share and publicise open educational resources is through the use of social media and social networks, e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Google+, blogs. In order to communicate and share our work and our values, our challenge is to consider our approach to openness – as individuals, as departments, and as universities.

Again, I welcome feedback and would be happy to hear from anyone who is currently engaged in similar discussions at their own institution. If you are at NUI Galway and would like to join in this discussion, please get in touch. I can be reached at catherine.cronin[at]nuigalway[dot]ie.

Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 yobink

6 thoughts on “Distributed Creativity: open education and challenges for higher education”

  1. Hi Catherine,
    I agree that the conversation is evolving in education. I so much like the idea of the OER movement and do try to include it in as many faculty training sessions as I can. I think our development of any personal learning network has to now include these options.

    The problem we (instructors) run into is the time involved in staying current with all these resources. I don’t know about you, but at our institution, faculty are expected to do 2 1/2 jobs and stay current and publish and present…and, oh yes, teach! all at the same time.

    I am constantly hearing that technology is the way to enable easy access to all this information. Yet, I sometimes feel so overwhelmed by the exponential growth in tools and apps and other resources to add to my list that I often forget to use everything I have. While the technology world is a truly exciting place, sometimes, I just need to turn off the “noise” of technology and talk to someone face to face.

    As for the “emerging technologies”, I think many creative individuals have emerging technologies that are not part of the Horizon report. I often wonder if those with the largest marketing accounts can drive the “emerging technologies”. Are we at the mercy of the largest tech firms and are we losing out on innovation coming from other fronts that are not as heavily funded? Who is left out of the equation when purchasing power is the only factor that matters?

  2. Hi Mo – thanks so much for your comments. Time is indeed such a limiting factor. In these stringent times most of us are required to do so much more with fewer resources than before.

    My own PLN and use of a few selected tools have helped me to be more creative and productive (e.g. social bookmarking, Twitter, Dropbox, Google Docs). I can’t assess and test every tool but I listen and learn from my colleagues (be they down the hall or time zones away) and my students, and then make choices. I don’t consider myself a “tech evangelist”… I don’t think that everyone has to use Twitter or Delicious or any particular tool. But I do think it’s important for us as educators to find ways to share online, and openly, with our colleagues and students. This enables learning in so many ways. Even the simplest online social practices (such as commenting within blogs like this) enables information sharing and development of ideas and opinions, forms part of our digital identities, and becomes a resource for others, including our students.

    Re: emerging tech – lots of issues there! I agree with you that the term should be unpacked and not simply accepted at face value. Power relations are never far away in discussions of technology, are they?

    Related to these ideas, there will be an interesting discussion led by Kelly Coate (NUIG) & Lesley Gourlay at tomorrow’s Society for Research into Higher Ed (SRHE) Conference — “Researching the Digital Academy: questioning the myth-makers, the mockers and the messiahs”. You might like to check out their Prezi: http://prezi.com/iikhcrgftoh_/srhe11dig/
    Thanks again for comments, Mo… keeping me thinking 🙂

  3. Great blog post, very timely for me as I’m currently experimenting a lot with using tech tools to enhance learning and trying not to get too frustrated when things don’t go as planned.

  4. Many thanks, Evelyn. We are all learning as we go; accepting that is half the battle. Best of luck with your plans. Based on what I’ve seen already from your website, your students are fortunate indeed to have such a talented and adventurous teacher. 🙂

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