How do OER funded initiatives impact professional practice?

We, Allison Littlejohn, Lou McGill, Isobel Falconer, Jay Dempster, were commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to examine the impact of funded activity related to Open Educational Resources.

HEFCE activity in the area of Open Educational Resources includes the UKOER programme, led by the Joint Information Systems Committees and Higher Education Academy (2009-2012) and the Support Centre for Open Resources in Education, based at the Open University, UK.

This blogpost summarises preliminary findings addressing the questions:

  • What impact has the UKOER programme had on professional practice within universities?
  • Is this change sustainable longterm?

The analysis takes a life course perspective to examine how the environment impacts on the individual and, at the same time, consider niche-construction; how people alter their environment and co-evolution of the two into specialised organism-environment dualities.  This allows us to encompass the bottom-up impact of individuals on institutions and the top down effect of institutions on individuals, and the way each responds to changing practice in the other. The method and findings are outlined in more detail here, as part of the HEFCE review final report.

What impact has the UKOER programme had on open educational practice?

 We have evidence of changing culture and attitudes towards openness amongst people who participated in the UKOER programme. Openness is a philosophical position underlined by democratic decision-making and communal management by distributed stakeholders, rather than a centralised authority. In our study, some interviewees described openness as philosophy driving change within the culture and practice of professionals in universities in particular.

Problems were identified inhibiting the instantiation of ‘openness’ in some universities, often associated with organisational culture and difficulties with changing day-to-day professional practice and behaviours. Nevertheless, examples of changing work practices were pervasive amongst the people involved with the UKOER programme.  All interviewees had adopted some form of Open Educational Practice (OEP).

 A characteristic of Open Educational Practice, compared with conventional forms of professional practice, is that it changes the nature of relationships:

  • between academics and support staff, as people work in multi-disciplinary teams, sharing areas of expertise;
  • amongst academics, as teaching practice shifts from individual practice to cross-institutional and inter-institutional collaboration;
  • between academics and students, as teachers and learners (who may not be registered with a university) interact in new ways;
  • between academics and organisations (including the university where they are employed) as university activities open up.

a) Relationships between academics and support staff Creating and releasing open resources requires a range of specialist skills and expertise including shifts in mindset towards:

  • creating and using resources in open networks and with multiple (sometimes unknown) associates (resource users and/or collaborators).
  • adopting emerging open learning approaches which are sometimes at odds with current mainstream academic practices.
  • applying new copyright and IPR rules.
  • using a range of technical and hosting solutions, ranging from enterprise solutions (eg university repository) to social media sites (eg YouTube).
  • understanding the marketing potential associated with OERs.

b) Relationships amongst academics Open Educational Practices are characterised by collaborations which are.

  • Inter-institutional with like-minded academics who subscribe to the idea of openness.
  • Intra-institutional, often within discipline based communities of practice.

c) Relationships between academics and students Examples  of changing relationships between academics and students are:

  • co-creation of educational resources by students and academics.
  • new forms of interaction via social media sites.
  • connections with potential learners and collaborators around the world.
  • open, public engagement with users of educational content (who are not necessarily registered students) creating opportunities for non formal learning through the release of Open Educational Resources (OERs).
  • open marketing and showcasing resources.

d) Relationships between academics and organisations Open Educational Practices change the relationships between academics and organisations, whether their own university where they are employed or other public, private or third sector organisations. Academics have to change their practice to:

  • work with (sometimes unknown) people around the world.
  • attain global reach.
  • work across sectors(public, private, third sector).

Is change in professional practice sustainable?

We interviewed two managers from universities to consider activities related to Open Educational Resources and Open Educational Practices outside the UKOER programme. A critical factor for sustainability is when  institutions build on their existing strengths and set their journey along known pathways. There are obvious advantages in scaling up existing key strengths, rather than taking transformational steps. Respondents described benefits of Open Educational Resources and Practices that are aligned with long term sustainability as:

Increase in global visibility, the ability of institutions and/or individuals to orientate their knowledge and connect with massive numbers of people around the world, offered through the release of Open Educational Resources and though Open Educational Practices.

Changing interactions with other agencies In our study we sourced examples of how universities are interacting with agency groups – vendors, publishers, broadcasters, informal learners, other universities – in new ways.

 Opening up accreditation New accreditation pathways are being explored, though it could be argued that these directions are slight deviations from known accreditation.

Opening access Rhetoric around opening access tended to focus on access to educational resources. There was a view that the sector may be ‘on the cusp between managed media presence and unmanaged media presences’.

There is a view that non-alignment of open educational activities with mainstream university activity would be problematic and would slow down progress. This suggestion is particularly relevant in the climate of ‘survive and thrive’, in which most universities and college currently find themselves, which is not inductive for innovation and radical change.  

 Key findings

 The findings in this blogpost are part of a much bigger study that will be reported in January 2013. The sample size is small, which means that its difficult to reach definative conclusions. However,  we can say that we have evidence that suggests the evolutionary journey of academics who are employing Open Educational practices has many benefits. Associated with these benefits are some (yet unresolved) problems:

Firstly, a strong motivator for changing practice was the idea of working with like-minded people who work within the principles of openness. Communities of practice have proved useful environments for creating and releasing resources within a trusted group of colleagues. However, longterm these communities can become inward facing. Homogeneity may limit progress, as alliances form and persist amongst people with similar mindsets.

Secondly, although OER activity may have had an impact on the ways academics collaborate and think about ‘openness’, OEP had limited impact on changing the nature of learning and teaching in universities. There were a few good examples of open pedagogy but these were limited.

Thirdly, there is evidence of a shift in mindsets of academics towards ‘open pedagogy’ where students can set learning pathways and be the producers of content. However, progress in this area maybe inhibited by focus on educational content rather than learning activities. Change requires an even more fundamental shift focusing on learners’ ability to learn in open networks.

Fourthly, work practices and alliances changing as people occupy new territorial positions. Some circumvent perceived institutional limitations by staking out their own territories, occasionally attaining ‘celebrity geek’ status with thousands or tens of thousands of followers.  Multiple motivations around openness do lead to contradictions in the way practice is changing.

Fifth, we found reputation enhancement drives forward a shift in professional practice, the idea of leadership on OER/OEP seems at odds with the philosophy of openness being bottom-up.

Finally, benefits of scale have been achieved through linking OERs with popular social media sites. However, increased visability of resources which places pressure on academics to make resources public, possibly slowing down the resource release process.

Overall the study provides empirical evidence of emerging open educational practices through activities around Open educational Resources. However, evolutionary journeys appear to be highly contextualised. It seems that, to achieve sustainability, universities tend to journey to familiar destinations, building on what they are already doing. By following familiar paths institutions are bringing about change, though the change may not be as transformational as intended.

Thanks to everyone who contributed their time and ideas to this study – particularly our interviewees.