Recently as part of an Open University wide exploration of digital strategy I had cause to reflect on a question that is often obscured within the discussions on what social and economic contribution free and open educational content makes.

Diana Laurillard has asked on a number of occasions (the most recent I have seen was at the ALT SIG on MOOCs), if free and open HE level education is the answer, what is the question.

She thought the question was, what can we do to ensure middle class well educated professionals have access to free Continuing Professional Development (CPD)? I paraphrase of course but this the very nub of the issue, an issue which causes angst for education providers whose strategy, culture and norms see education as a common good.

This angst arises from the way variations in access to and use of digital technology alters people’s ability to access those technologies – social inequality; with the price of unequal access becoming ever more acute as access to affordable goods and key services becomes increasingly “digital by default”. It is a question of social justice, and the factors that distance people from the digital world are not too different from the kinds of factors that distance people from education. These themes are ones that people in the Widening Participation community might recognise, from confidence, to “not for the likes of me”; from low income (as a cause and effect), to low levels of educational attainment.

As internet connection, and device availability, has increased it is tempting to pretend some of these issues have gone away; or that it is something that is only experienced by older people and refuseniks. However, while the first divide (the connectivity divide) is being overcome we are seeing the emergence of a “Second Digital Divide”, the participation divide. Let me provide you with an example from some work I was doing on energy in social housing. When you visited a home they were all connected through numerous devices to the internet. Yet many participants still had card meters, did not use price comparison websites, nor saving tips like paperless billing. The benefits of being online were not realised. Of course we helped people realise those benefits, albeit a small number of people in discrete geographic locales.


Picture of beautiful lake with border collie gazing into the water

Figure 1: Something’s in the Water: Perpetually waiting for free open and online to transform educational opportunities

The point is, just like the adoption of the devices themselves the benefits offered by the internet are often not realised by those that need it most. Does this sound familiar? If we look at the educational profile of those accessing free and open online materials it is clear these people are the “educational haves”. I have worked for the OU for about a decade now, and even as we embrace the online world we tread softly, a tacit recognition of the potential for excluding the already excluded. Thus even as we run towards the challenge presented by digital inclusion, we are often also in retreat. In part for me this is because we have tended to simplify digital inclusion, looking at infrastructure, or using overly facile simplifications like “Digital Natives”, and have not taken on emerging work on use and participation divides. Of which the recent GO On “heat map” is a useful example. Partly it is because we have not been willing to grasp hard onto the challenge, the challenge of being digital advocates, of saying it is not acceptable that the benefits of being online accrue to those well-educated early adopters. A failure to articulate a narrative about access to and use of online and free and open materials is a matter of social justice; in part because of the benefits of being online often slip away in overblown promises of a world just around the corner – a revolution perpetually waiting.
As an OU employee I am probably drifting dangerously “off message”. However, I am not just talking about the OU I am talking about HE and free and open resources more generally. Online free and open have been in a constant state of becoming a revolution, of always being about to change the face of education, of being just about to democratise access to, and creating, a new world where everyone can access education. But it has not, and while it may be round the corner again, I think it probably isn’t. It isn’t, because at present it seems to be reproducing the inequities in access and use it has the potential to overcome. In part this relates to underlying inequalities within society and in part it relates to the structure and process of HE itself. For me these are issues we need to grasp tightly if we are to ensure that the benefits of free open and online education is realised in a just and equitable manner.

Big questions, and I know I have muddied the waters around online open and free. But I thought it was useful as a means to stimulate discussion. Discussion is what we are looking for in the flexibility and technology strand at the Widening Participation Conference, HE: Transforming lives through life-wide learning on the 27th and 28th of April 2015 and I look forward to receiving your submissions which are due on on the 27th of November 2015.


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