The 3 Bs of OER19… busy, brilliant, and blogtastic

storm clouds over the water
Another Storm Passing Nearby. Credit: Šarūnas Burdulis from USA [CC BY-SA 2.0] Source
Another blog post so soon? Whatever is the occasion, you may ask. The occasion was OER19 and it was an auspicious one indeed. It’s difficult to sum up such a diverse and packed event but for me, it was busy and brilliant. The warmth of the welcome in Galway and from our hosts at NUIG was echoed by the unexpectedly glorious sunshine. Making and renewing connections was both rewarding and challenging, given that I was surrounded by so many people I’d love to talk all day with. I was lucky enough to have conversations with many wonderful people, not least an array of GO-GN buddies. But of course, most of the time, there were sessions to attend, present, experience fomo about, and run to and from (especially when they turned out to be in The Other Place). And then, there were more sessions. Wonderfully though, although most of us have returned (re-exited as Jim Luke put it) to normality, reflections and conversations are continuing. The storm of blogging surrounding the conference, in addition to the deluge of tweets and of course the streams of sessions (and recordings that I am still catching up on – thank you ALT), is made possible by a community walking the walk of openness. Many OER19 posts are still being aggregated on the conference site.

The sense of a renewed enthusiasm for blogging connects with quite a few of the conference’s themes. Keynote speaker Kate Bowles mentioned that she hadn’t considered herself a part of the open education movement, but I know I am far from alone in being sure she is at least an honorary member on the basis of her open practice as a blogger of heartfelt, incisive and evocative stories of the struggle to do right by our students, our colleagues and ourselves in higher education. In their session on the Bonnie Stewart, Dave Cormier and Lawrie Phipps asked us to consider how we can make the web and therefore the world a better place, given that social media has turned out fairly anti-social, and Dave wrote a blog post, and tweeted:

And the post-conference blogging and commentary has, at the time of writing, gone all meta, with discussions of the possible/desired return of the ‘comment blogger’ as a result of Lorna’s conference reflections (see also tweets). This suggests to me that people in this community are serious about the idea that listening and responding are at least as important as saying something yourself.  Delightfully, this was also a key theme of this session I facilitated along with Caroline Kuhn and Suzan Koseoglu (plus there-in-spirit friends Aras Bozkurt and Sue Watling), during which Gabi Witthaus memorably said something like “before I reply I question whether what I have to say really adds value for the people reading it, or just adds to the noise“. This is an observation that stays with me, and even makes me wonder if I should be adding to the noise now, but then, signal/noise is also in the ear of the listener? In any case, given my past history of blogging about once a year, I hope I can get away with it.

I can’t possibly mention all the great sessions and people of OER19 but I did want to say that my overarching sense is that the confluence of voices urging us to examine, interrogate and bolster the why(s) of openness has become a roar. This ongoing trend towards criticality prompted me to revisit a discussion of the OER conferences in a 2015 paper by Sian Bayne, Jeremy Knox and Jen Ross (which I drew upon in a talk at OER17), which ends by making the point that the conference or more broadly, the OE movement,

in championing the ‘open’, simultaneously suppose[s] the existence of an education that is closed and inherently contrary to contemporary ideals of accessibility and equity.

While some suggestions in the OE literature may give the impression that the OER-enabled global utopia is moments away, this hasn’t seemed to me to reflect the actual perspective of the majority of people who embody the work of opening educational practices from day to day. I interpreted it rather as a salient challenge to OE (conference/movement/community) to question whether we should be recycling utopian rhetoric, or instead dialing it back and carefully considering how hard it is to make an impact and effect change in institutions and systems and broader societies. I took this not, in other words, as a rebuke to educators making their work open, but as a warning not to engage in a turf war for the moral high ground with people who do other work that is also hard and important. My observation over the last few years is that the OER conferences have gone from strength to strength from the point of view of those of us who seek critical engagement with the purposes, outcomes and lived experiences of openness, and with the stellar stewardship of Laura Czerniewicz, Catherine Cronin and team ALT, OER19 did not disappoint. Roll on OER20.


Of binaries and blends

Open and closed, digital and analogue, online and face-to face. Some thoughts on discursive dualism.

Image of acrylic colour dissolving in water, CC0, from
Acrylic colour dissolving in water. CC0. Source
Once upon that long lost decade of the 90s, I studied literature, media, and cultural studies, and went on to teach in these areas as well as more practical communication-related subjects. The theoretical debates, concerns and methods of these subject areas have continued to shape my thinking. Not least because of the profound impact of feminist theory on the study of communication and culture, something that I’ve especially carried with me is a sense that it is important to consider and question the terms we use, the way we define them, what we choose to exclude as well as include.These disciplines share an intensity of focus on the concept that communication is constructed, and attention to the conditions of production and consumption of texts. Feminists have also long highlighted the fact that discourses built on dualisms or ‘binary oppositions’ tend to valorise or privilege one part of each pair, creating a norm/other dynamic, and also that these binary pairs tend to ‘stack’ upon each other, combining in ways which transfer these dynamics across pairings and perpetuate privilege – consider for example how an understanding of human activity as divided along masculine/feminine lines is implicated in discussions of mind/bodywork/homeactive/passive.  
And so, fast forwarding to my current preoccupations with open and digital approaches to education, I’ve been curious about the ways in which we seemingly also carve up education’s imaginary territories using dualisms, such as open/closed. Already, following some investigation, this proves rather ‘non-binary’, but to introduce a further twist, often those of us who identify with the open education movement tend to be quite involved with digital methods and services. And it seems this can lead us into temptation to stack another favourite binary pair, digital/analogueonto open/closed. After all, as we know, that digital special sauce can make normal learning into ‘technology-enhanced learning’, and in the open education context apparently, it adds transformative flavour to open educational resources (OER), and surely makes massive open online courses (MOOCs) more delicious. Unfortunately, mobilising and layering these binaries in the service of arguing for something we think is good can embed problematic assumptions or implications. For this reason, I think it’s so important to acknowledge a history of educational openness prior to this current moment in which it is understood mainly as digital.
My thinking about this has been shaped by another context, during a rather more recent decade working at Birkbeck (‘London’s Evening University’), in which I occupied a slightly unusual position as a person supporting digital education, in a university which has tended to identify strongly with face-to-face mode as core to its offer. Mode is an interesting concept that we often seem to take for granted in higher education. Modes are terms which characterise the way in which learning and teaching is done, generally across a whole module or programme, at rather an abstract and generic levelface-to-face and distance tend to be positioned as polar opposites. And then, because it turns out that we need a term for everything in between, the inconvenient mundane reality of our practice, we call that blended. 
I recently had the opportunity to speak about some of this at the University of London Centre for Distance Education’s RIDE conference (see #RIDE2019 for tweets). My key argument (drawing on the Birkbeck context) was that actually, everything is blended, and reference to a nebulous and generic notion of blended learning hides a multitude of modes.
Birkbeck was established almost 200 years ago with an opening mission like the Open University’s, but the idea of face-to-face teaching (in the evening, of course) seems ‘baked in’ to the institutional DNA, sometimes obscuring the very real and everyday role of digital practices. And so returning to mode, we might say that while open universities now tend to be closely identified with distance mode, what makes them open is their widening of access to education, their inclusion of those who were otherwise excluded, whether teaching and learning take place synchronously or not, face-to-face in the evening or weekend, overnight via television, by correspondence, or over the web. So too with OER or MOOCs, it is not just the what, but the why.
Any move to open education is situated in a particular space and time; what is opened in each case is different according to purpose, context and participants. As Catherine Cronin notes, openness is “inherent in education“, so arguably all education represents a process of opening. For those of us hoping to explain the meaning and purpose of open education, this complicates matters of course. It doesn’t make much sense to talk about it as a binary opposite of closed, if there are degrees of openness, and different ways of opening. It’s tricky to avoid the implication of its repressed other of closed-ness, but perhaps a place to start is to frame open as more verb than adjective, more work-in-progress than reached-destination. 

Some thoughts on ableism and ‘objectivity’ in academia

As gentle readers of my prior blog posts know, I make a habit of mentioning how I don’t post as much as I mean to; cue the passing of months, the tumbling of weeds. When I do post something, it’s normally because I have the feeling that I must express something, and yesterday has been one of those inspiring, depressing days that made me think, I need to write this down.

Yesterday the Ableism in Academia conference (@AbleismAcademia, ) organised by the wonderful Nicole Brown (and sorry to others that I am neglecting to mention) took place at UCL Institute of Education. This was something I knew Nicole was organising and had an interest in attending, and then suddenly tickets went like proverbial hotcakes and it was sold out. And then excellently, along with Kent and Manchester (and thanks to Mark Pimm, Sarah Sherman and my colleagues in the Birkbeck AV team), the Bloomsbury Learning Environment hosted a ‘breakout’ live stream of the conference at Birkbeck (where I work), so more people could attend remotely, but together.

And again knowing this was happening, I thought I must go to this, but then of course I worried about all the things I am not doing, if I choose to do something. I should be doing work, whenever I am not doing it I should be doing my PhD, or writing blog posts or occasionally perhaps I should see human beings in my life who are actually nothing to do with any of these activities. You know, that familiar sense of guilt tinged with panic.

Anyway I went along to join the live streamed session ‘for a while’, and then I stayed all day. The stories of the conference speakers were too compelling. They were talking about how much of a disservice we frequently do to our colleagues and students with our unthinking assumptions of able-bodiedness, either in failing to understand problems posed by things like flights of stairs, or the need to work or study remotely, or have a predictable schedule of part-time working. In expecting students to amass volumes of evidence of their disability on multiple occasions. Or in assuming that invisible or intermittent disabilities don’t really exist, or at any rate are not all that serious.

So the conference was about all these things which to some degree I expected it to be, but it was also in many ways also about the grind of working in academia, the depressing sense of how much worse this has gotten, for everyone. Phased returns to work were discussed in terms of the feeling of never doing enough, despite working almost all one’s contracted hours. Also, a speaker mentioned not being able to have travel to the conference funded by his institution, as it was not about his research, only about the lived experience of the human being who does the research, without which of course, there would be no research. There was a deep concern throughout the day, echoing the discussions around the recent strikes that I have seen on Twitter and had with colleagues, for the lack of dignity and decency in the contemporary academic workplace. This is an issue that concerns and that should concern us all, not only in seeking to be decent human beings, but as members of a community that is seeing policy driving us down this superhighway of metrics and markets, powered by the academy’s favourite fossil fuels, overwork and precarity.

The researcher in me was also struck by the frankly flabbergasting discussion of there apparently being a debate over whether disabled people are ‘biased’ regarding the topic of disability, and should not therefore be researchers of it. Are we still having that conversation, academia? Can we move on from pretending that we approach research objectively, as if as researchers, we simply stumble across a research problem we have no real personal interest in, and go, oh look here’s a gap in the literature that needs filling, I will just get my trusty intellectual putty, and I’ll have that sorted out in no time. Instead of pretending to objectivity, could we not aspire to honesty?


On starting the PhD

I know good advice. I used to be a writing teacher.  

On the all-too-rare occasions that I’ve blogged, references to my lousiness at blogging seem to have come up all-too-often. I seem to feel the need to pepper my reflective prose with mea culpas, because I actually really do believe in the value of blogging for getting woolly or amorphous thoughts out into a visible, shapeable form, and I admire many people who do it (probably on balance, more for what they have to say than sheer force of will in sticking at it, but both are vital).

When I say my lousiness at blogging I am mainly referring to the pathetic (in)frequency of my output. I tend to write quite slowly. Ideally, I would edit every syllable before it gets to the page, then edit some more. The posts that make it to the point where I click ‘publish’ have passed quality control. Others have been abandoned in those dimly lit cryosleep chambers of my computers where unwanted pieces of writing remain drafts forever (or until catastrophic systems failure). And of course I know that the point of blogging (or indeed, writing drafts and notes that will turn into ‘real writing’ later) is to get ideas down, rather than to perfect their expression. I would say that to anyone who asks. I know good advice. I used to be a writing teacher.  

All this is how it’s always been. What’s changed now and prompted my return to this apparently favourite theme is that I am now, officially, finally, doing my PhD. So I am going to try and change my relationship with blogging and drafting, and put some half-baked ideas out there. Deep breath. Here goes.

student ID cardSomething I was musing on today is this early stage of the project involves quite a bit of trying to work out what I should be doing, instead of just doing stuff. This requires a new approach. I am used to having projects on the go, and chipping away, work and life permitting, and getting them done eventually. This has been working for me, I’m comfortable with this! But now I need to be more strategic. Given that I’m studying part-time, I am aware of the danger of thinking ‘I have plenty of time’.

On the other hand, some things do take time and working out what is part of the PhD and what is related but not really part of it might well be one of them.

I would say watch this space, but you might be there a while.

A new chapter: ‘Open Educational Resources’

Having decided quite a while ago that I needed to set up a new blog, I didn’t have quite the right impetus to do it until now. My old one has been more about work-in-general, whereas this one should focus on work-in-progress, specifically in the open education space. My hope is to put digital pen to paper more often to discuss developing ideas. So this new blog is a new chapter in that sense for me, but the main point of this post is also to mark the publication of a literal new chapter, which I am excited to share at last. I will also take this opportunity to say a few thank yous and explain the approach taken.

The chapter is actually described by the publisher (Springer) as a ‘living reference work entry’ and it is part of the volume Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory, edited by Michael A. Peters. Markus Deimann, the section editor, invited me to contribute this entry on Open Educational Resources (there is an open access manuscript version available here). I was honoured to be asked, but quickly realised that this was not as straightforward a task as it sounds. Should it be a history of OER, explore differences in definitions, consider the various strands of related research? I started making notes, reading, writing, and rewriting, but the chapter was slow to form. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and it seems to me that the same might be said of an apparently solo-parented article or book chapter. This is certainly true of mine, but perhaps I am just lucky to have had the support and guidance of friends near and far. Specifically I wish to thank Dawn Marsh for her fine-toothed comb, Joana Barros who always tells me when I don’t make sense, as well as Javiera Atenas and Catherine Cronin, who are always so generous with their thoughts.

I have also been assisted on this journey by others who didn’t necessarily know it at the time. A few months ago I listened to an excellent podcast from Tara Brabazon (in conversation with Steve Redhead, Sunny Rue Chivaura and Glory Gatwiri) prompted by the anniversary of an early work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the book Policing the Crisis. In the podcast Tara mentions that the book investigates ‘the career of a label’, in this case mugging, and about how this influenced her own PhD research, in which she looked at the career of the label youth. And this got me thinking about how one of the things that greatly interests me in this nebulous and wonderful field of open education is what we might call the career of the label open. And this also fed in to my thinking about the question: what would I want to tell someone about OER, if they were going to start learning about it by reading this?

And so, in this short chapter, rather than attempt a comprehensive literature review or history of OER, I tried to give some sense of the career of open in education – the idea that this term has historicity and contingency attached, that the educational resource with an open license attached to it is a relative newcomer. I also wanted to reflect the more recent turn towards discussion of Open Educational Practices (OEP) and signal why this is an important development, rather than simply a ‘rebadging’ of OER. For me, this means exploring the benefits of thinking about OEP as a lens for studying and transforming practice, rather than as a list or collection of practices considered open. I am looking forward to returning to this theme in an upcoming conference paper at OER17 which will be an opportunity to reconnect with many more of the people I haven’t managed to name above, but who also keep encouraging me to ask open questions.