OER14: Building Communities of Practice

My second conference of the academic year took me to a damp/foggy/sunny Newcastle upon Tyne to take part in an open education conference – OER14: Building Communities of Practice.  While my research interests aren’t specifically related to OE there is a significant overlap, and I’m not a fan of climbing into labelled silos where Open Data, Open Education, Open Scholarship, Open Science and Open Access (and all the rest) barely acknowledge each other’s interest.  It was a great conference, and I’ve come home full of ideas, with pockets full of Lego and a desire to talk about my research a whole lot more at other venues.

If I could just find a) Some more conferences to attend b) Can find sufficient funding to attend them!  Offers, suggestions, invitations very much welcomed – I’ve a lot to say on the various topics and could also use some long conversations with people about it all too.

Anyway, the conference…in brief(ish)!


Yes, another weekend cut short with travel – on an horrifically packed train from Newark to Newcastle.  Turned out that all the students were going back to uni that day and so there was barely room to breath, let alone stand.  Sit? Not a hope – 2hrs upright!  However, the journey was broken up with various people asking me questions about their rail travel…as thought I knew any more than they did.  The highlight was the chap who having hoped off the train asked me if we had stopped at Darlington. I said “Erm, probably”, as I couldn’t spot a sign, and he wandered off.  The train then departed…past a sign reading Northallerton.  Well, I’m guessing that these locations are all pretty close together…right? Walking distance and all that?


First night in a Travel Lodge, as all of the conference travel, fees etc were being financed by my own meager savings.  It was quite nice, even if the TV was crap and couldn’t keep a signal for more than a minute or so – let alone get the BBC.  Cheap.  Dinner: Tesco sandwiches and a scotch egg.  And about two bottles of pop (for the fibre).


The conference opened interestingly with Wendy Carr and Ollie Richardson, two students talking about education and the reasons why today’s students need more flexible study.  Not least for the increased number of part time, distance and mature students.  They talked about the disaggregation of modules from courses in a positive light, something I have an issue over  given the commodification of knowledge in an edu-factory kind of way, doesn’t sound like an especially appealing future for scholarship to me.  They finished by suggesting that by studying through “non-traditional” methods, future students would have less debt.  Really?  I have my doubts as private education would just looove to swoop in a extort major profits I fear.  Perhaps even bringing in micro-transactions ala the games industry’s freemium model.  “Boost your grades by 5% for just a £5 micropayment…”

Then we had the main conference keynote from Catherine Ngugi.  She talked of building communities of open practice through OER.  She has worked with OER Africa since 2008, trying to work alongside with African HEI faculties to show what they could do with OER.  She concluded that OER and ICT could be a powerful educational tool if used well, in that it supplements resource based learning, and opens up discussions about pedagogy and other tricky subjects.  She also stressed that she was keen to put paid to the view that Africa is merely a consumer, not creator of education.  She discussed how faculty teaching is rarely as prized as research outputs. Additionally, like in the Global North, many developing countries face pressure to focus on throughput and attainment in producing more and better trained graduates to serve the needs of the economy (all aboard the edu-factory conveyor belt!).  OER she explained has to serve to fill a tangible gap, going on to discuss some of the unexpected benefits as a result of OER such as medical discoveries.  She also considered if engaging with OER equates to open practice? Certainly she argued it will cause HE providers to take online learning more seriously.  It will help infuse HE with a complexity, and richness of ideas etc that should coalesce at the heart of any serious educational environment.

The first of parallel sessions saw me listening to three talks, the first of which was by Andy Lane comparing the social, economic and environmental benefits of MOOCs with closed online courses. He looked at the stance on policy in HE towards OER, explaining that there were different drivers; with widening participation and increasing access being two of them.  He noted that it seemed to be important the level at which people participate in HE, stressing that trends in GDP can be linked to HE participation (something the government with their rampant drive to convert HE into a tool feeding the neoliberal economy would delight in repeating).   He also explored how MOOCs compared with past experiences of mass courses educational courses from places like the OU.  He talked about an OU course in computing with thousands of people on it and fees of a few thousand pounds; although subsidised by the UK government.  Interesting when you contrast this with a similar MOOC the age profiles for participants are very similar, with around 3/4 being new to HE in both cases.  What was notable was that the international student base much was much larger for the MOOC course.  In terms of demographics the MOOCs drew in the well-educated, whereas the OU course drew in a much more diverse range of educational backgrounds.  Significantly there were much higher completion rates for the OU course, and this was attributed to their credit bearing nature – and hence a greater incentive to finish.

Touching on the environmental impact of HE, he noted that only OU had really looked at this as part of the SusTeach Project which looked at average energy consumption of students.  He asked if MOOCs be a test bed for less environmental impact?  I had to raise an issue (on twitter) that wasn’t the offsetting of energy costs for the uni just pushing it back onto the remote access points of the students?  I’m sure that unlike myself, and my very low power, environmentally balanced hand-built PC, most home students are running on inefficient energy hogs, that might mean there’s a greater environmental impact overall – just not at the campus end!

Next Nick Jeans talked about ALISON (Advanced Learning Interactive Systems Online), which had involved the examination of OERs from around the world and seeing how uptake of them could be encouraged.   ALISON had started in 2007 with just 3 staff through to 2010 when things started to expand, and now there are 30+ staff working on it.  He explained that there was less OER in FE, because resources were not available to create content.  Through using social media (e.g. LinkedIn) to share student stories, has seemed to be an effective approach at widening participation, although this had been mainly in the anglophone countries.  He noted that there had been some issues from users over the adverts that helped fund the system (similar to “free” mobile apps), although some suggest that they are less intrusive than they could be.  On the other hand advertisers like it the approach ALISON takes because they are only charged when ad click-throughs are effective.

Finally Deborah Ferns from JISC Legal talked about MOOCs and IPR, stemming from a recent briefing paper.  There was a lot of the old familiar info on copyright and 3rd party rights that I used to teach back in the day in this session.  Deborah’s point that licenses for resources at HEIs, didn’t automatically mean they could be accessed via MOOCs, as students on these were seldom viewed legally as “registered” at the HEI.  She noted that IPR issues need to be considered from day one in MOOC/OER production, which was something as a former OER IPR adviser on the Digital Leicestershire project I remember banging on about in project meetings (without much success/recognition at times from my collaborators).  An interesting side development related to FutureLearn, was that on their courses it was made clear that forum postings by students are all under (cc) licenses.

After lunch (and several declined invites to ride the 4D motion ride) there was a second batch of break out sessions.  I was charmed by Penny Andrews and went to her workshop talking about OpenCPD, which is a student/practitioner led effort to set up a series of bite sized professional training OERs.  It is a very laudable effort, even if I was a little surprised to find out I’d agreed to contribute something to it.  Couldn’t place what or when I’d said anything about this, but it sounded just like the sort of thing I’d love to contribute to!  It was a good session, and Penny’s enthusiasm for the topic uplifting – and practical.

The afternoon ended with a lively panel debate on how to solve issues around the community of practice.  Can’t say I walked away from this with any strong conclusions; although I was fascinated by the delegate playing (unsuccessfully) 2048 throughout the whole hour.  I kept wishing I could offer him some advice!  A quick trip to the hotel for a break, and then the conference dinner, which was excellent – and for some reason Lego-centric!


Day 2 kicked off with my chairing a session with three speakers.  Not really easy to make notes when you’re trying to actively listen!  All three speakers had something of interest to say, and I was impressed they kept going after the theme from the Blues Brothers blasted through the walls at one point (from a neighbouring session).  Think the one key thing I took away from this one, was I need to find a polite way to cut the Q&A short, as one of these nearly got out of control.  My thanks to Beck Pitt, Eleni Zazani, Pail Bacsich and Simon Cotterill for putting up with my chairing!

After a brief break I went back to a very sparsely populated session* where Tom Bartlett talked about CADARN Learning Portal, which he rather sheepishly admitted had £1.5m in funding – in contrast to many other projects at the conference who were running on shoestrings. CADARN use their blog to publish case studies on OER production at various institutions with aim to help support those building communities of practice; although he admitted it is about changing practice incrementally rather than drastically or all at once.  He noted that the teachers who work with them, tend to be picked from organisational technology enhancement teams, so for example are often VLE staff, but they also got some people on board who just had a thirst for open educational activities.

Next Lindsay Jordan (who I kept trying to remember if I knew already) spoke about about her module in OA practice, which was delivered to academics developing their skills in learning and teaching practice.   The module was funded through JISC and was used to help the teachers develop small OER projects and resources. The course ethos was to help-people to become more open as a starting point, but the course also provided a space for participants to experiment within a community of shared practice.  A community that could continue after they finished the module.  Finally for this session Vicki McGarvey spoke about open practice and innovation influence at Staffordshire university.

A long lunch back in the Life Centre’s central area followed, during which I took advantage of the 4D motion ride…which was rather fun, even if I did end up getting rather wet.  After this I listened to Lorna Campbell from CETIS talk about Open Scotland, which aims to open awareness to OE policy and practice north of the border across all sectors.  Interestingly despite a lack of large-scale funding for OE projects in Scotland, there is a real buzz of activity and projects.  One result of this environment has been the Scottish Open Education Declaration, redrafting the Paris one, which is provided online as an open document for comment.

After this it was me with my talk entitled Policy, Practice and Problems: UK University culture and responses to open access. With only 10 minutes there was only a very surface level of my work I could cover, but I was able to present some high level results for the first time.  Had some very encouraging questions and comments afterwards, although one lady did ask me more or less what they should be doing at non-university institutions to promote OA culture.  Not a question I felt I really able to give a comprehensive answer on in two minutes!

Finally Clive Mullholland talked about OER Developments in Wales, although he himself is leaving to work in Scotland shortly.  Wales he explained often does things differently just to be different, although it might not be the only country to make such a claim.  Noted a clash with the past WA Minister for Education and Skills (Leighton Andrews) and the HE sector, which had had an adverse affect on the whole region – in particular his drive to reduce the number of HEIs to 6.  After he was fired, his replacement Huw Lewis seems to be more interested in primary and secondary, rather than the tertiary education sector.  Clive went on to detail some of the battles at the highest level to get HEFCW and VCs in Wales to engage with OERs and MOOC initiatives, which seems to now be moving in a very positive direction.  An ethos they felt more comfortable with was releasing some, but not all, educational content openly which has resulted in the Wales Open Education Declaration of Intent as progress continues in a positive manner.

Clive finished off with a call to attend OER15 in Cardiff.  Count me in, I’d love to come to that – and present on yet more of my research!  Not to mention, I do love Cardiff a lot…

*I counted 9 people including the speakers and me.

Slides and full descriptions of all the talks are already available online, and videos of many of the main sessions will also be live soon.

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