The production of module content is central to Open University teaching. Inter-professional teams comprising academics, technologists, planners and media production specialists work together to create content with ‘gold standard’ academic, accessibility and production standards.
But quality comes at a cost. The production outlay for each module means that each course has to have a 5 to 10 year ‘shelf-life’ for return on investment. The lengthy lifecycle made sense in an age of stable knowledge. But in an era where knowledge is deep, specialist and with a short lifespan, it becomes untenable. A key question is how should professional practice in the Open University evolve to facilitate agile and responsive module production?
To answer this question an academic team, led by Dr Angela Coe from the Open University Science Faculty, have been rethinking and experimenting with the production of a Science module (S309). This has only been possible through the work and inspiration of an innovation team from the Open University Learning & Teaching Solutions led by Nick Watson, Stewart Nixon and Kristoff vanLeeuwen who initiated a project known as ‘Driving Disruptive Innovation (DDI)’ and then agreed to work with the S309 to try out this new production process. I was introduced to the team via my colleague Dr Sam Smidt who has been instrumental in initiating innovation aligned with the University’s Learning & Teaching ambitions. I met with Angela, Stewart and Kristoff to hear about the DDI/S309 experiment in March 2015 and to find out how the joint academic and LTS-innovation team have changed the production process, not only by evolving professional practice, but by shifting how they think about module production.
One way to understand innovation and change in professional practice using Cultural Historical Activity Theory. Activity Theory (AT) views human activities, such as the production of module content, as complex, socially situated phenomena. From an AT perspective, production activities are outcome-oriented, and driven by the motives of the production team. These motives give each activity a direction, purpose, and meaning (Engeström 2005, p. 312). Motives and activities are rooted in past experiences: the way module teams work now is influenced by how they worked in the past but also impacts how they plan future practice. In an inter-professional team inevitably there will be multiple motives and individuals have to negotiate the relationship of their own intentions with the emergent motives of the community. For example media specialists may have to redefine production standards or academics may have to rethink how they work as a team. These differing motives give rise to tensions in the system as a whole (Nardi 2005). From these conflicts it is possible to identify opportunities for innovation through the ways in which the system evolves from present to future practice.
Professional practice for module production involves team members (subject) creating the module design and content (object) using technological and conceptual tools (such as learning designs underpinned by pedagogic theory). Labour and actions are divided amongst the people within the team (roles). Each tool-mediated action is enabled or constrained, by the (implicit and explicit) rules that govern the broader social context of the Open University community.
The Open University module production process is organized by production teams of academics and media specialists and is governed by established rules and roles. Individual academics draft module content and send the text to a team of media specialists from ‘Learning and Teaching Solutions’ (LTS). The LTS staff generate images, format text and assemble these as educational resources. These resources are passed back and forth from LTS to the academics for fine-tuning until a final version is agreed. The production process typically spans several months and can be labour-intensive.
The S309 team aimed to improve production efficiency by devising a new workflow. Previously academics focused on writing text which was formatted by the media staff. Instead of delivering draft content to the LTS team, the Science academics now write text directly into an open, online platform (Open edX), formatting text themselves, under the guidance of LTS staff.
This change in workflow has dramatically altered the rules of production. Rather than working in separate buildings on campus, the team now works within a common online environment. The module leader – and everyone involved in module production – can observe how the course is developing in real time, noting any problems, gaps which helps with planning necessary amendments and additions. For the first time academics can directly view production progress – they now can read which themes have been ‘covered’ by others and how these topics have been written and presented. This change in workflow has not only impacted the rate of production, but necessitated a redefinition of media production rules.
Inevitable tensions surfaced as new forms of practice conflicted with the existing rules of production. Academics and LTS staff worked together to negotiate and define new rules around production standards. One example is the ‘gold star’ production standards which are a defining feature of Open University content. Media production staff conceded that ‘full production quality’ of video was not always necessary. They agreed that, in some circumstances, TV quality camera shots could be replaced with webcam video, as long as the media adhered to accessibility. These changes had significant impact on the roles and division of labour. Academics now edit educational resources directly within the open, online environment.
This shift for academics from writing individual sections of a module to working on a common object means that the academics and media specialists now work together around the module resources (as a ‘mediating artifact’). The group work together in real time, rather than passing the resource back and forth from the academic team to the LTS team. The module leader’s role has changed from ‘managing and chasing’ to ‘inspiring’.
Academics still retain responsibility for the educational quality of the module in terms of content knowledge, pedagogy and assessment. What is new is that they now write content directly into the online system. Should amendments become necessary during module presentation, academics can intervene and support student directly, rather than waiting for the next round of module production.
This change in their role has led academics to investigate and expand their practice. When they focused on writing the academics felt they had little opportunity to experiment with different approaches to teaching and module production. Now they carry out trials, testing content resources before the final version is embedded into the online environment. The academics described this change as moving from ‘tinkering with content presentation and formatting’ towards ‘creating assets and activities for student learning’. Academics described how their thinking around learning design has shifted from ‘how to put books onto the web’ towards reconceptualisation of pedagogy (‘I want to teach students online so how can do I do this differently rather than using print media?’).
LTS staff also described changes in their roles. Media specialists conventionally acted as quality control gatekeepers for the visual aspects of the content (text, artwork, video production). Their role has changed from ‘policing’ to ‘enabling’, or, in their words, ‘doing more of the good things and less of the blocking things’. They now advise academics on media production and provide training.
The LTS staff work with and learn from the Open edX community. They described how they learn from viewing open code. At the same time they use their expertise in distance education to teach other media support staff within Open edX.
One of the defining features of the innovation is the use of new tools (applications) within the Open edX platform. Viewing new applications helps the team rethink practice. New apps include a system for uploading photos from mobile phones, an ‘HTML cleaner’ polishes each of the webpages, various tools enable new forms of feedback to be given to students. Moving outside the normal work environment and using new tools has changed the rules and roles of production. The team have given up on meetings and instead hold workshops to enable people to share expertise (e.g. how to create a table using HTML).
The S309 team were enthusiastic about Driving Disruptive Innovation, describing it as ‘liberating’. Others from different departments want to get involved. But we can only discover the real benefits for the Open University through a systematic exploration of the process of innovation and how practice is evolving.