Dimensions of Openness, #OER17 and an old podcast episode

tl;dr: I tried to pin down some thoughts from a podcast we recorded a while back and slipped into a comparison of OpenEd scenes in Germany and the rest of the world, especially the UK and the US. I then pulled myself together and even managed to link to my own work that I presented at #OER16

In the middle of December 2015 Markus Deimann and I invited Martina Emke as a guest to our podcast (we record the Podcast in German as it is our native language). While Markus and I usually just ramble on about what has been happening in between recordings (a theme we copied pretty much from the early concept of the mostly fabulous TIDEPodcast), we aimed to focus the discussion a bit this time. At the bottom of this page, I embedded the podcast recording.

At the time of the recording, the OER17 conference committee were still reviewing the submissions and it became pretty clear that this will be an inspiring conference which will send its delegates home with new perspectives, ideas and experiences on everything open in education. After last year’s OER16 which was themed around Open Culture, OER17 now tackles important questions around the Politics of Open. As many have noted before me, a theme that could not come with better timing.

Also, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research had just launched a program aiming to foster and facilitate production and use of OER in the German educational landscape. In short, a project called OERInfo is supposed to make OER in Germany more visible to educators and other stakeholders while a decentralised effort to qualify educators is undertaken within educational institutions. Leuphana University, where I am employed, is part of a joint project with two other German universities that combines an approach of Service Learning with the use of OER. This program by the ministry is very much focused on content as well as training of staff. More far-reaching concepts like pedagogy, connectedness, a shift of dynamics in the teacher-student relationship or learning in networks find only little, if any mention in this program. I think you can safely say that most experts and initiatives in Germany are content-driven, while also considering licensing and infrastructure to host and disseminate the content.

Both Martina and Markus (as well as myself) are among those in the German open education scene who are involved in initiatives and undertakings beyond German borders. Seeing this spelled out makes this statement even more bewildering, given that many in the German open education scene do not really aim to take into account what is happening beyond German borders. As I have noted before, it has always struck me a bit that so many projects and initiatives seem to lack any interest in the experiences others have made in their countries, with their strategies and policies. I do not buy into the “everything is different here” arguments that are made to justify this. Yes, there is a federal system in place, there used to be a law that only Germans can colloquially name “Hochschulkooperationsverbot” (literally: “prohibition to cooperate among higher ed institutions”; there are lots of German sources on this, this one is a good starting point I think) and the German educational system probably reflects the ideal of education as a common good much better than the UK or the US, at least with regards to Higher Ed. So, from a Higher Ed perspective, these are all factors for open education not to take off as quickly as in other countries and hence probably the slower implementation of projects in Germany. And any discourse around Open in education is prone to start off with content and resources. It is what people can put their finger on, it is what politicians can take pictures in front of (think interactive whiteboards in schools). Resources are tangible, a product with X pages (most likely a PDF) aimed at a certain target group that you can define in advance makes your life as someone responsible for funding easier.

To get back to the Podcast with Martina and Markus – I have wanted to write something on this episode since it was published – both Markus, Martina and myself reflected on the first meeting of OERInfo and the upcoming OER17. We quickly noted that any German discourse related to open education very much still focusses on content and questions of legitimacy. Going to an open ed or edtech conference in Germany, you will always find people who question the idea of open education in general. Some claim that they are open already. Last year, I overheard a comment of a librarian from a large German university who literally said: “Our library gives out passes to local residents. We have always been open.” She did not receive any pushback but merely enthusiastic nodding and I did not have the capacity to engage her in a conversation about perceived barriers, intimidation tactics of institutions, professors and, yes, also librarians, about the likelihood of someone with underprivileged parents to visit a university, and so on. The fact that this statement was voiced at a conference hosted by the German Social Democratic Party in the Bundestag only underlines that there is a long way to go for open education in Germany.

It seems like talking about content and infrastructure first is a non-avoidable process. However, taking into account conferences like OER17, 2016DML, their protagonists and themes, and partaking in the discussions facilitated by networks like Virtually Connecting or the Global OER Graduate Network, it seems like German open education decision makers are not looking ahead the way they should. Another example for this is a joint project of all public universities in Hamburg called Hamburg Open Online University – sorry, as far as I can tell there is still no English website available (!). Many in Germany, when asked to reference a project that approaches open and digital education in Higher Ed differently, point to the HOOU (no university project without a proper acronym). The HOOU, of which I used to be a part as an employee of the University of Technology over the course of the last year, just finished its first project phase and what differs here, compared to other German (national or federal level) approaches, is the strategic positioning of a region. Yet again (and many might see this coming), the main output of this project seems to be an OER repository dedicated to hosting content that was produced in Hamburg. At least, that’s what one will be able to point their finger at (as far as I know, the platform is not open to the public yet). Also, some content is and will be made available to the public, all under the label of the HOOU – the focus on Hamburg does not make collaboration with institutions beyond Hamburg any easier, to say the least. This displays the strong focus on content and infrastructure of open education projects in Germany, even though some protagonists tried to stress the importance of pedagogy, awareness, practices, stakeholder involvement, and change management. And I can’t let this pass without pointing to the brilliant video “The Plight of OER” by Pat Lockley, who points out what happened to the British OER repositories once their funding dried out.

Just to be clear: I am not trying to demonize any approach in Germany that deals with open education and OER in Germany, on the contrary. I am however, criticizing any open education project that was planned and implemented without looking to experiences in other countries and without taking them into account. Look at the context of these projects, talk to the project management (most people in open education are nice and approachable), ask about stakeholder involvement, about funding, about documentation of results and processes, also ask for opposing views, and so on. It will expand your horizon of open education beyond content, it might lead to more sustainable projects for a wider group of learners. Simply replacing proprietary content is not enough.

I do not think that this, like pretty much anything else, is a black or white issue. In practice, it is pretty rare to discuss or implement open learning, connected learning, social learning without references to content. And content and infrastructure might be great entry points to a discussion around open education. Too many protagonists in Germany, however, relax and claim their work done once they have promoted openly licensed content. Some even claim that they are only interested in things that scale (content and infrastructure). To not think beyond that is a mistake and to ignore conferences like OER17, 2016DML as well as the communities and networks that form around them is a potential waste of (taxpayer) money.

During the podcast recording, Martina mentions the paper In Search for the Open Educator: Proposal of a Definition and a Framework to Increase Openness Adoption Among University Educators by Fabio Nascimbeni and Daniel Burgos. Here, content is one of the four dimensions on which an open educator operates and this reminded me of work we have presented in a workshop at OER16.

In the workshop, we identified six drivers of openness (although some claim to have seen 18 drivers spelled out on our slide):

  1. Governance, policy and Administration
  2. Participation, engagement and outreach
  3. Technology, infrastructure, and production
  4. Ownership, sharing and accessibility
  5. Content, curriculum and courseware
  6. Pedagogy, learning and collaboration

The point of our workshop was to identify these activity fields. As a single educators, but also as an institution, a department or as a policy-maker, you can use these drivers of openness to map your strategy. The examples we give in our slidedeck are also meant to exemplify why it can be hard or even dangerous to only approach openness from one direction, with one driver in mind. Thinking of openness with only content and access in mind can lead to mind-numbing and boring outcomes in the best case. This is not to neglect, though, that content and infrastructure make for good entry points to a discussion around digital and open education. Please do get in touch if you would like to discuss the drivers of openness in more detail. I also made a Storify after the workshops I co-facilitated at OER16 and at the DMLL in Coventry.

Now that I have managed to link to some of my own work in this post, I will leave it at that for now. Please do let me know if you have similar of vastly different experiences with regards to the dynamics of open education and its fixation on content, but also on national or regional limitations. I’d love to hear theses stories and I already look forward to OER17, the inspirational keynotes and the thought-through workshops that the organizers of this fine event have curated for us.

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