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My part in the battle for Open (universities)

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 25/10/2017 - 17:03

Last week I was at the ICDE conference in Toronto. Here I attended a meeting of the OERu, and gave papers on our OOFAT work, and reclaiming open history, as well as running a workshop for the GO-GN/Global Doctorate network. There was a common theme (beyond my bumbling) running through all of these, which was the nature of open, distance education.

Prior to Irwin and I talking about the work on reclaiming open history (I’ll blog this later), Ross Paul talked about the history of Open Universities and their future. He stressed the influence that the UK OU, and open universities in general had in higher education in general, in changing the narrative around who higher education was for, and how it could be delivered. But single mode universities now face an uncertain future. Our own Vice Chancellor has been writing about the impact that fees have had on part-time students. The approach to fees arises from a mindset that still sees full time, 18-22 year olds on campus as the norm, with degree completion the sole aim. The retired 65 year old, studying one or two Spanish courses for interest (say), isn’t well served by a model designed with the former in mind.

This, plus competition from other universities (in this open universities have been a victim of their own success), has created a challenging environment for the OU. This has led to much soul searching and significant reorganisation, which may be required but also creates an uncertain context for those working there. Many of my colleagues have left, or are looking for jobs. I confess, while I haven’t been actively looking for jobs, I’ve not NOT been looking either. But the combined effect of these discussions provided me with a mini-epiphany: The OU is my kind of institution, and I should stay and fight for its future (and open universities in general). You’ve got to believe in something, right?

The reason I believe in the value of a single institution provider (rather than distance ed being covered by a range of HEIs) comes largely down to scale: a large scale, national provider gives many benefits you simply don’t get when part time is devolved to lots of smaller departments in other universities. Those providers will hardly ever prioritise part-time, distance ed over their main cohorts, it is always a nice extra. A single, large scale institution provides some counter-balance to the dominant narrative and perception of higher ed students mentioned above. Scale also makes some things possible that are unviable when diluted, or at least operate better at scale: some niche courses can only operate at a national scale; expertise in distance and online ed can be focused (and, no, MOOC providers haven’t replaced this, they just have a range of more or less unicorn business models); student community and body; national employment initiatives (eg apprenticeships) support services; a national presence in international forums.

So whatcha gonna do about it Martin? I pondered this a lot (while running very slowly around the Toronto marathon, running a long distance is good for thinking, bad for hips). I’m going to borrow from Catherine Cronin’s work on sharing practice for individuals and repurpose it. Catherine suggests four levels: macro (global level), meso (community/network level), micro (individual level), and nano (interaction level). Putting these levels to work in how what I do can be shaped to a broader goal of helping the OU, I get:

Macro: Reclaim and refresh the broad Open narrative – I write a lot about open education in general, and how the OU sits in relation to this. As I’ve often bemoaned, there is sometimes a sense that open ed was created in the US with the invention of OER (or MOOCs). The work I’m doing with Irwin, Katy and Viv Rolfe on reclaiming the open history explicitly attempts to locate the different elements of open ed in a broader context. We are creating a starter pack on literature and through projects such as GO-GN I intend to not just raise awareness of open universities in this context but attempt to bring together the sometimes disparate research/practitioner fields. If I can be immodest, I think I’m well placed to do this sitting in the intersection of a lot of these communities, and there’s benefit on all sides to doing so. It might also help new OU staff also to understand where their institution sits.

Meso: Continue redefining what constitutes an Open University – the OU defined a model of what ‘open education’ meant. Over the years this has been tweaked and new elements have been added and emphasised. Open source software, OER, MOOCs – the OU has managed to stay abreast of these and adapt what it means to be an Open University accordingly. The next challenge to incorporate is open educational practice – how do we operate more openly, in terms of teaching, research, administration. I have a sense that whatever the OU tries to become, it won’t go far wrong if it has open values at the core. Without those it’s just a big provider and loses any sense of distinctiveness.

Micro: Advocate for OER use internally to the OU – the OU has been very good at creating OER (through OpenLearn), but less inclined to use it. I feel there is an opportunity through projects such as Open Textbooks UK to raise the profile of OER use within the OU. This has some practical benefits – reduced production of bespoke material, courses that can be adapted more readily, but also helps better locate the OU in some of this field which aids its profile.

Nano: Helping module design – using the hypothesis and evidence approach we developed on the OER Research Hub we are looking at examining hypotheses around OU course production and providing an evidence base that will help increase elements such as student retention.

That’s all I’ve got for now, and some need fleshing out more. I reach 23 years OU service next year, and the past week has made me realise afresh how much I value it as an institution. Maybe in the future they won’t want old timers hanging around saying things like “I remember when we used to do two weeks summer school every year” but for as long as it’s possible, I’ll  do my best to ensure the OU continues to provide a model for open education, and feel reinvigorated to do so. Of course, there’s a strong possibility that like a toddler ‘helping’ their parent with a task, the OU doesn’t want, or need my help, but there you have it.

 

 

Cellini’s blood of digital scholarship

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 12/10/2017 - 21:24

I was invited to Florence last week to give a keynote on Digital Scholarship. After the talk I had a walk around that beautiful city, and saw Cellini’s Perseus in the Plazza della Signoria. Looking at the statue with digital scholarship thoughts in my head, I regretted not having made it the springboard metaphor for my talk. It is, also I’ll admit, an attempt to irritate Jim Groom further with ridiculous metaphors. Like any great work of art Cellini’s Perseus can bear many different interpretations, many of them contradictory, and also suggest meanings that were never intended. So here is the talk I should have given: “Cellini’s Perseus – the Lessons of Digital Scholarship”.

The first of these is about representations of power, and more explicitly misogyny. If you’ve ever seen Cellini’s statue of Perseus you’ll know that it’s a visceral, dynamic, challenging piece of work. But it’s also a blatant representation of misogyny. Even at the time, Christine Coretti argues that the statue was intended to legitimize patriarchal power, and was in response to the growing power of Medici women. But further, the Medusa has long been a symbol of male oppression of female power. As Elizabeth Johnston argues the Medusa is a recurring theme, and can be seen as the original ‘nasty woman’.  Cellini’s statue was a major technological achievement, according to Cellini’s own account it was a Frankenstein act of insane, life-giving creation. This new use of casting allowed for a more realistic, vital medium, challenging the lifeless form of marble. This offered new possibilities, new means of interpreting and representing the world. But, as with online platforms we find that this new technology and representational form reinforced existing power structures, and indeed sought to legitimise them. When Rose McGowan is banned from Twitter while Richard Spencer continues happily it is easy to conclude that as with Perseus, so with Social Media.

The second interpretation is to view Medusa more straightforwardly as a monster, but one of our own making. When we look into its gaze, we are made inhuman. This is an obvious metaphor for the dark side of the internet. We created this platform and for all of its potential and positive elements, we have also unleashed the monster of trolling, fake news, alt-right, gamergate, etc. But Perseus can be seen as hope in this sense, we must slay the demons we have created by reflecting its own gaze back at it. The role of education is to act as Perseus shield in this respect, to develop literacies, tools and communities that use the communicative power of the internet as the means to take power away from the trolls.

The third lesson for digital scholarship relates to the famous blood of Cellini’s Perseus. Michael Cole has a whole article devoted to the discussion of the portrayal of blood, which was deemed shocking at the time, the John Carpenter gore merchant of its day. What the simultaneously realistic and otiose representation of blood flowing from the head and neck do is posit the viewer at the moment of death, the transition from the living state. The blood “reveals what life drains from the face and the limbs” as Cole puts it. In this Cellini’s Perseus reminds us what death really means. This continual connection to reality, to what our actions mean, how algorithms manifest themselves in people’s everyday lives is lacking from much of the ed tech industry. They all need a constant reminder like Cellini’s blood running through software coding sprints and venture capitalist huddles. It is the social impact of ed tech that we need to be grounded in.

Those are my (yes, tortuous) lessons for digital scholarship that can be found if you spend too long hanging around Florence with a head full of keynote and discussions. I’m sure given enough time I could extract some more. It’s a reminder to me to try and connect my talk with location anyway – or maybe not.

The privilege of risk

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 28/09/2017 - 13:57

Another of those values that has seeped into everyday life from start up culture is the cherished status of risk. You know the inspirational quotes people like to post on Twitter “the biggest risk is not taking a risk”, “those who will not risk, will not win” etc. And I get it, personally and professionally it’s useful to take risks. But I’ve also been struck by how this deification of risk is really a proxy for justifying privilege: I deserve it because I was willing to take the risk. But risk is itself, often a privilege.

The research that concludes that entrepreneurs don’t have a propensity for risk, they just have wealthy parents backs this up. It is less of a risk to start a company if you can be supported while doing so, and have fall back options. But it’s not limited to taking risks with your own career, it means they’re happy to risk other people’s welfare too. Sherri Spelic highlighted this piece in which a US senator talks about how he had no idea healthcare reform could be so difficult, and had no experience in doing it. But he went ahead and tried anyway. You just know that rhetoric around risk would have been bandied about, “we can only make great change by taking great risk”, that kind of thing. But of course, he wasn’t taking any risk. What he was risking was the lives of many americans. A senior manager once told me they loved risk, and I remember thinking, ‘but you aren’t affected by it’. They’d go on to a well paid job elsewhere, and not only would they be untouched by any failure of their risk but it would likely boost their status. They become a person willing to take risk, which has increased currency. This is not the case for someone who may be made unemployed in their late 50s with little chance of re-employment as a result of the change they sought to introduce.

Risk is also a privilege of age. When I worked on T171, the OU’s big elearning course, I did so without it being sanctioned by the OU. After it’s success John Naughton publicly praised the risk I’d taken in doing this, as I was on a temporary contract at the time and could have taken more secure routes to getting a permanent post. But while I felt flattered to be portrayed as brave, the truth is I was young, not yet married and didn’t have any idea that I should be doing anything different. I was naive more than courageous. I’m sure we all have similar stories. And yet, it is tempting as you get older to confer a status of glory to this, that is unmerited.

Risk becomes a vehicle by which privilege reinforces itself – only the privileged can take risks and only risk is rewarded. Which is not to say we should all be cautious and people or institutions should never venture to do unusual things. But I always have a suspicious antenna twitch when people glorify risk and ask “who was really at risk?”

What I learnt from being a student

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 22/09/2017 - 08:52

Yesterday I submitted the thesis for my MA in Art History at the Open University. I completed the MA in History a couple of years ago also, so I’ve had about four years of experience of being a part time student. At the risk of being like one of those ‘woke’ pieces where proper students will scream “yes, we’ve been saying that for years!’, here are some of the things I’ve (re)learnt, from the perspective of being an educator while also studying:

Everyone should do it – I don’t mean study a subject for career development (although that’s nice), the content isn’t the important part. Do it for the experience of being a student again. Particularly if you’re developing online or part-time study then definitely do it (and hey, we’ve got lots of nice courses at the OU in all disciplines).

Small stuff is big – for all the talk of revolutionary pedagogy, personalised learning, disrupted education, what really matters most of the time is the straightforward, everyday matters: do I know what I should be doing at any given time? Can I access the material? Is it clearly written? Can I get support within a reasonable timeframe? Is it set out so I can plan my time effectively?

Don’t design for the perfect student – I’ll be honest, I was not a model student. I was what is often termed a strategic learner. Partly (and a tad ironically), work pressure at the Open University meant my study on an Open University course was compromised. I needed to find the most effective path through a course (basically focussing on assessment). But that is not to say I didn’t get a lot from it, so ensuring there are paths through the course that don’t assume full capacity but are still rewarding is essential.

Engaging and challenging – apart from the small things mentioned above, what I also wanted from my course was for it to be challenging (in that it made you think about things differently, for instance the first block of the Art History course really dismisses the whole ‘lives of famous artists’ approach to art history, which is the naive view I had of it). And I want it to be engaging, in that there is enough there for me to dig into (without getting lost). I’ve mentioned before that I came to like assessment because this forced me to engage with the content and bring it together. So it’s not just about making sure as educators we cover topics A to E but also that the student wants to learn about them.

Give me a reason to interact – given my time constraints, I didn’t do much interaction in the forums. And this was fine with me, I was glad the course didn’t make lots of interaction compulsory just for the sake of it. But also without a major prompt to do so, it was easy to avoid interaction all together, and if this was my first time studying, that would be a shame.

It made me vulnerable – and not in a cute puppy way. I am from a science background and so don’t have any art history knowledge. I was therefore winging it a lot of the time, and didn’t have the vocabulary or the depth of knowledge most of my fellow students had. I would have been reluctant to have been forced to display this scarcity of knowledge in the open, so I was grateful for a closed environment, and careful feedback from tutors to scaffold my learning. Having said that, I think some of the stuff I’ve written is mildly interesting, so maybe we could have found ways of sharing it more openly. But the important aspect was to be reminded of how vulnerable the whole learning process is.

Looking over those, I have a renewed appreciation for why education is often perceived as being conservative. I wonder how many radical educational change gurus have actually been students (particularly in an unfamiliar subject) recently? Which is not to say students aren’t up for trying something new, but often in a limited, controlled manner. And my take away as an educator is that we should focus on improving these elements rather than demanding their wholesale replacement (but that’s always been my line I guess). Also, breaking news – education isn’t broken, kinda works ok, and is rewarding. I don’t expect that’ll be a headline anytime soon though. Seriously though – as an educator, the best thing you can do is go study again. Mind you, I’m looking forward to spending my Saturday mornings just listening to vinyl and looking wistfully out of the window again.

When this is all over, we still have to clear up

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Wed, 20/09/2017 - 19:48

Let’s be optimistic (remember optimism?) and assume that US and UK politics will return to some sense of normality within the next five years, and, you know, actual competent politicians will run the country. Only then will we really see the damage of the current period. For a start, I worry about the mental health of people having to endure this period. Waking up to a new piece of insanity and attack on humanity every morning is wearing. Being perpetually angry, frightened, vulnerable, confused is just exhausting. When we’re in it you keep going, but like looking after young children or going through a painful divorce, it’s only afterwards you look back and think “how did I do that?”. A lot of people will carry the toll of this period for a long time.

Then there is the social cohesion impact. Families and friends have been pushed irrevocably apart in a way that normal left/right divides never achieved. This is no ‘on both sides’, the rhetoric has been pushed by the right to a point of no return. The new right portray themselves as brave, free thinkers, but I’m guessing the old right just knew you couldn’t push it this far – they knew there was no coming back if you did and from there no-one wins. You don’t go on a Nazi rally at the weekend, and then come in to work on Monday like it was an outing to the mall. And you don’t say you support someone who backs that rally, then move onto talking about the football. There are no gentle comedies waiting to be made of this era which portray family members initially arguing bitterly but coming to understand that each side has a point. When one side wants to deny you or your friends’ right to existence, there is no common middle ground.

And then there is the damage to democracy, politics, the media and the role of the public figure. If lying is just ‘meh’ now, what does that mean for any of this?

But from our perspective, what is the role of education after all this? I’ve talked about combatting the unenlightenment, but the whole role of education will be shaped by how we look back on this period. These are some of the areas we will need to address:

  • Educating network savvy students – dealing with fake news, engaging in meaningful debates, understanding the role of tech companies, data, privacy and the social impact of all this will be cross cutting. Computer science degrees can’t operate now without understanding how algorithms shape power, and social scientists can’t work without appreciating how platforms shape identity. Pick a subject and the social element of the network needs to be part of the curriculum.
  • Digital scholarship – I’ve been updating my digital scholarship talk for someone recently, thinking about what has changed since I wrote the book in 2011. Then it was a case of ‘hey you should try using this stuff, it could be interesting for education’. Now it’s more a case of ‘we have a duty to use this stuff to help shape its future’. That’s a very different context for an academic.
  • Public engagement – how do academics and universities help shape the public discourse and politics so that facts, truth, knowledge, experts and research are no longer dismissed as irrelevant?
  • Building platforms and communities – interdisciplinary work involving tech experts, psychologists, designers, social scientists etc must help inform the next wave of platforms so that they facilitate the sort of discussion and community we once hoped for on the open web.
  • Policy – helping shape policy that makes democracy functional again.

This is quite a big shift in education, far beyond the ‘let’s get digital’ mantra. Maybe that’s too much to ask for education, but we need to start looking to a time when we’re not just firefighting but actively learning the lessons from this period and helping to shape a more functional, and hopefully positive, future. Assuming there is still a world with people in it by then, of course.

Rewilding EdTech

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 11/09/2017 - 13:10

At ALT-C I was having a conversation with Amber Thomas about our mutual friend Ross MacKenzie’s interest in rewilding in Scotland. There are many different approaches to rewilding it turns out, but the two main ones are top down – reintroducing the big fauna such as wolves into a habitat, or bottom up, where you start at the bottom of the food chain and reintroduce small scale flora (and remove invasive species). Anyway, that’s my very basic understanding of it, my apologies if I’ve got it completely wrong.

This got me thinking that rewilding might be an idea we could take to ed tech. Much of the early enthusiasm around ed tech was that it was, as Brian Lamb used to characterise it, fast, cheap and out of control. But as it gained significance and a more central role in the university system it became more robust, and controllable. This is a good thing – students don’t want the system they need to submit an assignment at midnight to be flaky. But inevitably there has been a loss of some of the innovation that was prevalent when there were greater freedoms, as university processes and regulations have solidified around enterprise systems.

Rewilding offers a metaphor here, so I went searching to see if others had written about it, and came across this piece by Aaron Davis where he talks about rewilding education. In ed tech terms we would want to introduce tools into the ecosystem that would encourage some of the innovation we saw previously. But as with introducing wolves, it has to be done carefully, you don’t want tourists attacked and you don’t want students caught in frustrations with unusable systems. The two approaches to rewilding offer pointers here. A bottom-up approach might be to introduce some small scale, low impact tools, such as SPLOTs which encourage some of the pedagogic innovation, without becoming a system wide tool (as Jim Groom says, “let’s get small“). The more top-down approach is not to introduce a big system, but rather to tackle the policy issues – incentivise the use of such tools, make the IT infrastructure capable of supporting them, allocate resources and remove barriers. I’m convinced there’s a more interesting ed tech ecosystem out there.

A mixed data tools diet

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Fri, 08/09/2017 - 15:35

I was at ALT-C this week, and enjoyed Sian Bayne‘s keynote on using Yik Yak to explore ideas around anonymity, data privacy and ephemera. Sian made the argument that while abuses certainly happened on Yik Yak, the experience of Edinburgh students was largely a positive one, and one of the key aspects of this was the anonymity of the user. And non-persistent id anonymity in particular, so you didn’t have the same identifier every time, which adds to the ephemeral, temporary nature of the discussion. For students, and young people, (but hey, maybe for all of us), I can see how anonymity allows you to explore different aspects of your personality, as this is still forming. But also it just made asking questions and being open easier for many students.

Sian made the point that for companies that ant to make money selling our data, anonymity is bad news. They need to know who you are, and for you to have a persistent identity. She had a very nice summary which was along the lines of ‘when we promote the moral panic around anonymity, we are doing the work of data capitalism’.

Some of the questions afterwards concentrated on the benefits of not being anonymous, and downsides of anonymity. But I think this is to view it as an either/or. In reality those students using Yik Yak would have had a reasonable collection of tools (I’m not calling it a PLE), including Facebook and others that rely heavily on not being anonymous. What we might like to promote then is encouraging students to avoid a monoculture in relation t how platforms use their data and id. Imagine it being like a healthy diet infographic. Platforms could be colour coded as to how well they handle things like transparency around data, dealing with anti-social behaviour, user ownership of data, persistence of data, anonymity, etc. If you’re just using the big bad ones, it’s like being on a burgers only diet. A burger may be fine for some occasions bit you want to make sure it isn’t all your having. This would include university systems also, such as the VLE.

In the Virtually Connecting session afterwards Anne Marie Scott joined us from Edinburgh, and she has been writing some interesting stuff about platforms and ephemera. We discussed whether ephemerality might make anti-social behaviour more or less likely. It might reduce it in that trolls seek the notoriety of having their name known, and want to persistently attack someone, so if it disappears and they can’t find the same person, then the attraction is decreased. But then again it may increase it because the impact and risk is removed, it could be a way of trialling being a troll. I don’t know, and expect it would be a mix of the two, but it’s an example of how we don’t consider some aspects of platforms, such as how persistence might influence behaviour, and take them as just how things are. So I was grateful for Sian’s talk to remind me of how we always need to be examining these aspects.

The Barnaby Principle

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Sun, 03/09/2017 - 11:55

There is often discussion about getting more working class (or at least not very middle class) pupils into university, including debates about lower entry level requirements for state school pupils, first in family scholarships, and the intention (whether you agree it worked or not) by TEF to consider POLAR and widening participation agendas. It’s not always easy being a first generation/working class student, particularly at elite universities, but there does seem to be some recognition that they represent a group who may need more support or encouragement (this is particularly problematic in areas such as medicine, which are pretty much a closed club for the privileged). The assumption seems to be though that once you’ve been through the university system, we’re all equal then (or all equally middle class).

I had a couple of experience in the past year which reminded me that this is not so. As I’ve mentioned before, I was first generation to uni, comprehensive school educated, via Hatfield and Teesside Polys. And even now, as a senior (hey, who are you calling senior?) academic, the imposter stuff still lingers. Even at a famously egalitarian institute such as the Open University, when I first joined I was aware I hadn’t been to grammar school, not attended a Russell Group university and had somewhat oikish tastes (sport, lager, horror movies, indie music), although I feel this has altered a lot over the intervening twenty odd years (and I’ve become more middle class, I drink wine now and like art now and everything). But this stuff hangs around, your frame of reference can still feel wrong. Take this recent scene – I am out at a meal with academics from other universities, and they are ALL discussing their favourite regattas. I mean, not only should I have been to a regatta (I mean WTF even is a regatta?), but I need to have been to enough of them that I have a favourite one?

I want to stress that I don’t think that class diversity is more important than other perspectives on diversity, and indeed diversity agendas are not in competition with each other. I think once you adopt a diversity attitude it benefits all. But with social mobility pretty much ground to a halt in the UK, and higher education often promoted as a solution (although the stats are questionable), then I would suggest that having more staff, particularly at a senior management level that demonstrate that principle and understand the needs of working class students is something universities should seek to promote.

I’m not convinced this needs a quota system, and I think other diversity agendas have priority, but it would be interesting to see what proportion of university senior management come from working class/first generation students/post 92 university backgrounds. Until we have such data I offer the following metric: I was in another inter-university meeting not long ago, and there were two men named Barnaby in attendance. I would suggest that if you have more than one Barnaby present then you probably want to look at the class representation.

A USB port for informal learning

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Tue, 15/08/2017 - 15:01

I’ve been part of a team working on an unusual (and dare I use the word, innovative) course at the OU. It’s called ‘Making your learning count‘, and the unusual thing about it is that it doesn’t really set out to teach a particular topic. Rather it seeks to recognise the learning that people bring with them from informal means, such as OER and MOOCs. There are several challenges in this. Firstly, we can’t just formally recognise all possible OER, so we have to get students to do something to demonstrate their learning. But then secondly, having gone for this broad approach, as opposed to just accrediting a specific MOOC say, you then have to make any activity generic enough to cover people coming in from diverse domains.

The approach the team have taken then is to base it around 9 tasks. These focus on developing a learning plan, producing a means of communicating your learning to others, making interdisciplinary connections between subjects, and developing peer assessment and digital communication skills. They’ll be guided by their tutor in this, but I think it’s hopefully one of those courses where the diversity of knowledge people bring is a key benefit. You get to see connections between your subject and by explaining your own one to others, consolidate your own understanding. At the end of it students will then have converted their informal learning into 30 points of OU formal credit. Obviously we hope they go on to study with us further, but even if not, it helps legitimise that learning and hopefully make the prospect of formal study at some point less daunting.

At the moment it’s focused around OpenLearn as a pilot, but in its approach I see it as part of a solution to a thorny issue that has circled around OER, MOOCs and informal learning, which is how you help people make use of that knowledge acquired elsewhere. Approaches to this include challenge exams (as practised by Athabasca), more flexible degree programmes (for example the OERu’s first year free study), or giving credit for specific MOOCs (eg the OU and Leeds with FutureLearn). We’ve always had recognition of prior learning (RPL), but to be honest, this has often been so complex and costly to realise that you were better off just studying the courses.

All of these are valid approaches and I think we’ll see more of them. I see our course as the first of this type for the OU, and as well as allowing OER based study to come into the university context, it can be adapted for specific needs and projects. For example a version might allow recognition of sector training, corporate learning, as well as different levels, specific disciplines or providers. So, I see it as a big old USB port sticking out of Walton Hall, saying ‘insert learning here’. It’ll be interesting to see if it gets many takers as it’s still quite a difficult concept to convey, but one that will be increasingly useful I think.

Sci-Hub and the Rebecca Riots

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Mon, 07/08/2017 - 15:38

Going on one of my extended, and tenuous analogy skits, you are warned.

In order to consider recent developments in open access publishing, particularly Sci-Hub, and #ICanHazPDF I’m going to go back to, where else, a set of rural riots in 19th Century Wales. The Rebecca Riots as they were known, were a series of protests and disturbances in South-West Wales concentrated in the period 1839-1844. The target of the protests were usually toll-gates, which were demolished by large crowds during night-time raids, although toll-gates were seen as symbolic of a wider series of grievances. The leader of the crowd would be dressed in women’s clothes and be referred to as Rebecca, although who fulfilled this role would vary depending on location. The origins of the name were biblical, from a passage in Genesis 24:60: ‘And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them’. Over 200 such incidences occurred during this period, causing the Government to mobilise the army and extra police. These were largely ineffectual in preventing the protests however, as the movement had popular local support, and retribution was threatened against informers. The increase in tolls constituted the main cause of vexation amongst the populace, it’s important for our analogy to see this as the final provocation in a long line of injustices. Other issues were also gathered under the Rebecca umbrella, including the imposition of workhouses, absent landlords, and suppression of the Welsh language. The outcome of the Riots was a commission that largely ceded much to the protestors, and sought to improve conditions. The riots are popularly interpreted as a statement of Welsh identity and of rural protest.

The authoritative account of the Rebecca Riots is that of Williams. Although the riots can be interpreted as a straightforward protest against an increase in the number of toll gates and their respective tolls, which had a particularly damaging effect on farmers who needed to transport lime to improve soil, Williams provides a comprehensive account of the multiple causes that led to the riots. These include a decaying gentry system that did not represent the people; a language barrier; poor treatment by the judiciary; a lack of agricultural innovation so the soil became depleted; the strong Methodist nonconformist influence; and perhaps most significantly, extreme poverty. This combination of factors created the environment wherein the increase in tolls proved to be a catalyst for protest.

The toll gates were owned by different groups of trustees, depending on their location. The first protest where Rebecca was seen occurred in 1839, when toll gate contractor Thomas Bullin erected four new gates, specifically to increase profits from lime traffic. The gate at Efail-wen was destroyed in May, a week after opening. Then on 6th June a mob of some 300-400 destroyed it again, and a week later the Maes-gwyn gate. The persistence and scale of these protests led to soldiers being drafted in to keep the peace. This was largely unsuccessful as a tactic as on the 17th July a crowd again assembled at Efail-wen, and here the leader was addressed as ‘Becca’. On the 23rd July the Whitland trustees, who owned the tolls held an emergency meeting and the four gates were revoked. This stopped the immediate violence but set a precedent, which would lead to the more widespread and persistent protests of 1842-1844.

The 1844 Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry for South Wales, established to examine the causes of the disturbances, identified five contributing factors: the turnpikes and their mismanagement in the affected areas; Tithes, in particular the Tithe Act of 1836 which made payment in money, rather than in kind, compulsory; the New Poor Law of 1834 which led to a loss of control; Magistrates Clerks Fees which varied widely and could be ‘unreasonably high’; the Country Rate which increased and was occasionally put to inappropriate usage, although abuses were deemed to be ‘greatly over-rated’. In general, although there was some criticism of the rioters, the commission interpreted their actions as arising from an intolerable set of conditions.

Which brings me onto Sci-Hub, and other acts of rebellion against proprietary access to academic publications. There are a number of parallels I find interesting. Firstly, although we can criticise a specific form the rebellion takes, as with Rebecca, a number of factors have accumulated over time to make some form of rebellion almost inevitable. Of course, an academic not being able to access a paper is very different from poverty stricken farmers, in the 19th century, but some of the grievances are similar.

Firstly, the riots occurred when the Toll owners became excessively greedy. Up until that point farmers had paid a reasonable toll, but these were increasingly interpreted as means of making more and more money. Some instances would lead to a farmer crossing three tolls within the space of 100 metres or so – if you have to do a return journey to fetch lime for your soil, that’s six tolls just to start your work. Similarly, the introduction of big deals, increased profit margins, and increased costs. Secondly, the toll owners were often absent, English and uncaring – any connection between the gentry and the local population had been lost. This reflects also the decaying relationship between academics and publishers, what was once seen as mutually beneficial and supportive is now viewed as remote, highly commercialised and predatory. Thirdly, there was sufficient local support from the community. It is undoubtedly true that there was intimidation involved to stop people informing, but generally the movement could be successful because the local population backed it. Fearing an uprising similar to that seen in Ireland, it was this popular support that most scared the Government. In academic terms also the practice of sharing articles is now seen not as something done by a rebellious, or technical clique, but widely supported by general practice. Lastly, the farmers in Wales were responding to changing economic climate around them. They were missing out on the benefits of the industrial revolution (transport links bypassed them for instance), working soil that was increasingly poor quality and facing the imposition of a draconian new Poor Law. While obviously very different in degree, academics on increasing precarious work contracts, operating in an austerity driven economy and threatened with excessive punishment are feeling similarly aggrieved and less likely to look generously upon the wealthy owners.

The message here is that when suppression failed, the authorities were ultimately forced to concede the grievances were valid, and a more equitable arrangement was ultimately established. Tolls are pinch points in historic change and we are witnessing this now in the digital era. It’s not always pretty, but as one commentator said of the Rebecca mob that descended on a toll, it is a ‘romantic and fearful sight’.

The Golden/Dark Age of what?

The EdTechie Martin Weller's Personal Blog - Thu, 03/08/2017 - 14:09

One of the rewarding things about being in ed tech is that because it’s very fast moving you get to act all wise with very little experience. I mean, I started in this in 1995, I’ve been through interactive CD-ROM, electronic tutor groups, intelligent tutoring systems, elearning, VLEs, virtual worlds, elearning standards and metadata, learning objects, personalised learning, OER, blogging, web 2.0, PLEs, MOOCs, intelligent tutoring systems (again), open textbooks, personalised learning (again), learning analytics, and a whole bunch more. To do the same in another discipline I’d have to be approximately 250 years old.

When I reflect on this I’m struck by two sides of the same notion: we don’t realise often the implications of where we are currently (which is not to say people don’t like to try predictions, ed tech is full of futuroligists). An example is that, like many people, I passed my tenth anniversary on Twitter this year. Half jokingly, but also with a tone of regret we bemoan how friendly, open, exciting twitter was in those early days. Remember the first time you met someone face to face who you’d only known on twitter? Sava Singh rightly points out that being able to moan about how Twitter isn’t as good as it used to be is a form of privilege. But even accepting this, it is definitely a different type of place now. Similarly, people often talk about the ‘golden age of blogging’ as if was in the fifteenth century and not around 2006.

Which led me to think, what might we look back on in ten years time and consider 2017 the Golden Age of? Not much comes to mind, but perhaps it is the start of a social awareness around the power of online media, after the shitstorm of 2016, the acceptance that this is not peripheral anymore and thus a critical perspective that goes beyond “Use it/Don’t Use it”. Or maybe it’s just the Golden Age of Instagram, which I still kinda like as a social space.

The flip side of this is, what are the negative aspects that might spread out? There has always been unpleasant corners of the internet – some of these remain very unpleasant, but confined to those who seek them out. Others spread beyond their community of nastiness and infect society as a whole. The alt-right, gamergate, 4Chan pits are an example of this – people such as Audrey Watters warned us that this behaviour wasn’t confined to just a group of spiteful nerds, and she was right. Trump is the end game of all that behaviour and it doesn’t get much bigger at expanding beyond your chatroom than that. So if we are in an unrecognised Golden Age of something, we are also probably in the early phases of the next major social problem (although to be fair, most of them seem pretty much out in the open now). Islamic extremism, alt-right – these bubbled away in dark corners of the net for years and then spread into everyday life. What’s the next candidate?

Of course, I’m also wise enough now not to have any answers to these questions, but simply to pose them to you.