The future of open learning

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On 14th June I attended the future of edtech conference in London. I was on a panel looking at open learning. The focus was on How will open learning develop in the next 5 years? With sub-themes of:

  • Leveraging free-to-access information and content to enhance student experience and university reputation
  • Key growth through distance learning
  • Developing a sustainable business model to evolve digital strategies

The other panelists were Christina Preston, Professor of Education Innovation, DeMontfort University and Ajit Chuahan, Vice Chairman, Amity University in India. Our chair asked us to focus on the following area:

  • General comments about open learning
  • Challenges
  • How to embed Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL) into practice
  • How to get student involvement
  • Would open learning ultimately replace traditional learning and institutions
  • Concluding remarks and reflections

Open learning

Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offer fantastic opportunities for opening up education and to potentially supporting social inclusion and widening participation. UNSECO argue that education is a fundamental human right and therefore should be freely available. Despite the rhetoric and the hype around OER and MOOCs in reality OER are not being used extensively by students or teachers and MOOCs are predominantly taken by those who are already educated. New digital literacies, see Jenkins and JISC, are needed to harness the potential of OER and MOOCs. OER and MOOCs are examples of disruptive innovations as they are challenging existing educational provision, which is good, in that institutions need to think hard about and make clear what a student will get by attending that institution, and what their will their student experience will be.

 

Challenges

As mentioned above a key challenge is that students and teachers lack the necessary digital literacy skills to harness the potential of digital technologies. However there is also inertia in existing educational structures and a hesitance to engage in new practices. For research intensive institutions teaching is the poor sister, with research being privileged and rewarded. Furthermore there is a lack of understanding and clarity of how to recognise learning through OER and MOOCs. Models are emerging, such as: digital badges, certificates of participation/completion, and recognition through organisations like the OERu, but these are still in their infancy. An IPTS commissioned report, OpenCred, looked at models for recognition of non-formal learning through MOOCs. Another barrier is around pedagogies. Firstly most OER and MOOCs do not make the underlying pedagogy explicit. Secondly, it is not clear what pedagogies are most appropriate to support open learning.  For OER work that I did with colleague found the following barriers to uptake: i) the pedagogies of OER were not clear, ii) the difficulty of repurposing, iii) the lack of clarity of perceived benefits, and iv) a culture of academics wanting the create their own resources. For MOOCs two extremes have been cited: xMOOCs – which are essentially linear, individually focused and didactic and cMOOCs – which are about learning in a networked, social context; promoting connectivist learning. I have previously that this dichotomy is too simplistic and have put forward a 12 dimensional scale to describe MOOCs. Finally academics are skeptical of the benefits of engaging with OER and MOOCs and more is needed in terms of convincing them of the benefits.

 

Embedding TEL into practice

A number of strategies can help embed TEL into practice. Firstly incentives and rewards can be put in place to celebrate the development of learning innovations and TEL enhanced learning interventions. Secondly, appropriate Continuing Professional Development (CPD) opportunities and support. This can include workshops, learning and teaching conferences, show and tell sessions, informal brown bag lunchtime sessions to share practice, learn about fairs, and learn about guides on using different digital technologies. Thirdly, given the increasing importance of digital technologies in education, it is important to have senior management who have a good understanding of TEL and the implications for their institutions, so that they can put in place relevant TEL related strategy and policy. The recent Teaching Excellence Framework (TEL) despite being criticized is clearly an important driver for promoting and rewarding teaching, as is evident in the reaction to the just published results, as a recent Guardian article testifies. So fourthly, TEL should be an integral part of the metrics associated with TEF. Fifthly a pragmatic approach to use of TEL should be adopted. Starting with helping academics make better use of the core features and tools of the institutional Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Evaluation of VLEs consistently show that they are primarily used as content repositories, little use is made of the tools to promote communication and collaboration, or more innovative assessment approaches. For campus-based institutions more needs to be done to ensure physical spaces are technology enhanced. The Spaces for Knowledge Generation  project has developed a set of seven principles for designing technology enhanced learning spaces. Institutions also need to have in place policies on students bringing their own devices and should recognize the increasing importance of mobile devices for supporting learning anywhere and anytime. This also means approaches such as the flipped classroom can be adopted, where students watch content in advance, freeing up the classroom sessions for more student centres and active learning. Bradley Lightbody has a useful guide on this Finally there is the increasing importance of social media to enable students to interact with their peers, their tutors and the wider community. The OPAL initiative developed a useful instrument for helping institutions benchmark their OER activities and to create a vision and roadmap for their development.

 

Student involvement

One of the key benefits of involving students is that they can provide a fresh perspectives. Furthermore as they are actively engaged with learning they can often provide novel insights into what is needed. Two examples demonstrate this. The first is the SKG project which involved students throughout. One interesting focus was on getting the students to generate novel technology enhanced learning spaces both inside the classroom and externally. Professor Eric Duval involved his third-year students to creating learning analytics Apps for the second-year students. Students can be given access to learning analytics so that they can better manage their learning. For example, the App might tell as student ‘you appear to be doing all your learning on a Sunday, whereas research shows that it is better to spread it out over the week and do it in bite-sized chunks’, or ‘ you have spent 6 hours learning this week, whereas your class mates have spent at average of 10 hours’. The solar website  is a useful source of information and resources on learning analytics.

Will open learning replace traditional approaches?

No, more likely is that there will be a spectrum of offerings from free OER and MOOCs right through to the Oxbridge one-to-one tutorial set up. This means that students are offered a rich range of educational experiences and thy can make their choices based on the ways in which they prefer to learn. Blended learning and approaches which harness the affordances of technologies such as the flipped classroom will become increasingly evident and important. We are seeing a blurring of boundaries: learners/teachers, real/virtual and formal/informal. In addition we are seeing an unbundling of educationSome ask the question as to whether unbundling is the next disruptive innovation. In the futures students may not choose to do a full three-year degree; instead they may pay for: high quality resources, a guided learning pathway, support or accreditation.

Conclusion

OER/MOOCs are as they get us to think more about the learner experience and they challenge traditional educational offerings. However, more needs to be done to increase the uptake and use of OER and MOOCs. We need to better understand what new digital literacies are needed to harness digital technologies. There is a distinct lack of discourse on OER and MOOCs at policy and strategy level and this urgently needs to be addressed. We also need to focus more on the development of senior management who have an understanding of digital technologies and a vision for open learning. There are also financial implications; institutions need to understand why they are investing in OER and MOOCs. Importantly we are teaching students for an uncertain future, to do jobs that don’t even exist today. Therefore there is a need to go beyond knowledge recall to development of the skills and competencies they need to be adaptive and lifelong learners. John Daniels has stated that we would need to build a new brick and motor institution every week if we want to meet the demands of future learners, this is clearly unrealistic and therefore digital technologies and OER and MOOCs in particular are an important alternative.

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