Critical debates in open education OER18 Presentation

Highly selective reference list and further reading relating to this presentation

This presentation is really just the drawing together of a few threads of criticial voices about OER and OEP and not meant as a comprehensive view by any means. In doing so I hope to catch glimpses of the distance travelled and any opportunities to revisit things that have been said which could improve debates and practice. The following is a selection of thoughts I’ve had about the subject the weeks before the conference.


There is a danger that open could start going in circles, ever re-defining what it is, claiming an re-claiming territories because as a space it is still fighting for recognition? Imagine a world where open is now invisible, so embedded in individuals’ and institutions’ practices and policies – that it no longer became something to discuss, there wasn’t this feeling of constantly rolling a big stone up a hill, but never getting to the top? (Massive work has been done and huge achievements have been made, I don’t mean to undermine that. When you consider that this work has been done without the support of validation and recognition from the wider educational community, it is all the more awe-inspiring.) That conferences like this evolved into something else, with other concerns? This conference has evolved of course, that’s what’s so interesting about it. It’s agile and responsive to world events. Open educators take on the world.

So is most of the scepticism reserved for MOOCs – the structured, institutionalised, privileging-the-already-privileged, both in terms of institutions themselves and individuals? Is there a two-tiered criticism, with the individual teacher valorised? That’s a question I’d like to explore further.

Yet we’re still working with systems, flawed systems, built by flawed people, and used by flawed people.

Back when I engaged with debates in a previous institution about resuable learning objects and specifically about where they could be stored, findable and know-that-they-are-there-able, the issue of metadata came up. Now, I assume that metadata the issue has come up elsewhere, and hasn’t gone away. And licencing. The issue of helping people understand the differences between creative commons licences – these issues are still here. Yet in spite of best intentions, people don’t do as they should, they don’t adhere to the rules, or forget and ignore rules. Additionally our best intentions also lead us to bias and perpetuation of inequality. There is a sociomaterial aspect to open education which it seems to me we are doing our best to deny. We don’t have total control, precisely because it is open. Put technology and people together and there will be unpredictable outcomes, we are shaped by technology as technology is shaped by us. Individually and as a society.

Are the rules about open too restrictive, trying to predict too much of what happens when open education is taken up by those outside this tight-knit community, those who are not initiated? It struck me reading one of the essays by Raymond bundled under the Cathedral and the Bazaar, that the invisible rules of the hacker community were borne out of a tightly connected ecosystem with multiple transactions. That’s where norms and taboos were formed, and reputations were earned. I’d wager that within this conference it would be unusual to see slides containing unattributed images, whereas in other conferences it may be the norm. There are taboos on open education. There are norms. But society at large doesn’t really care about them as much as we do. And we can’t legislate for that (well, obviously there is copyright infringement legislation, but you get my point).

Incredibly useful work exists, like the lived experiences of educators explored by Catherine Cronin (2017), which demonstrates the complexity of people’s negotiation of the open. And perhaps work like this exposes as shaky the structures and categories that have been built to protect and promote good practice in open education. And this, in many ways, makes the dangers of bias and embedded inequalities so much more urgent – and really has to be addressed on a societal level. Because we know institutions love structure and rules and hierarchies and diagrams. As Oliver (2015) says, permeability is key. Maintaining operations within and outwith systems. Being careful not to prescribe too much.

Are these crises in ownership of ‘open’ more personal, more introspective of the open education movement itself, (possibly a bit insular), reflecting global issues through a smaller prism where we examine ourselves as both heroes and villains. As is our nature, publicly flagellating ourselves for not foreseeing the problems and inequalities our very work was engendering? The self as ‘misguided’ OER? I’ll finish with a quote from Helen Crump who places our humanity in a more forgiving position:

” Subjectivity is different to identity. It’s about how individuals are ‘subjected’ to outside forces such as economics, the law, society, the circumstances of history and the physical world in general, and consequently how they’re made subjects of these forces. From this perspective it’s not so much what kind of OER you’d like to be, but rather what kind of OER you can be.”

 

I can code

This is a response which I wrote to a blog from last November by the inimitable Sheila MacNeill entitled Why don’t I code?

Coding engenders a binary thinking which can extend beyond the code itself; it either works or there are bugs. What you are aiming for is to be bug-free. But this can lead to not considering the bigger questions.

It’s quite a relief to exist in a bubble where problems are puzzles that require a fix. What’s more, finding that fix is a pleasure; when it goes well, coding is hugely enjoyable. I think this may contribute to coders encouraging every one to learn to code.

Non-coders are hugely important – by asking the questions that coders sometimes forget to think about. By getting coders to explain why, by demanding.

Those conversations are important. Coders are fixers – every problem is an opportunity. But just because you have the skill-set to fix, it doesn’t mean that you have the skill-set to analyse the bigger problem. Sometimes it is better that the problem is framed by someone who doesn’t have a clue what the answer could be.

I learned to code because I thought I wanted some kind of mastery over machines. Now I’ve come to realise that this is actually not possible – I am sociomaterially entangled with technology and my own agency is severely compromised by auto-playing videos of cats on YouTube.

What I do have is confidence. I can take an educated guess as to what anyone is talking about in most areas of technology. (As an aside, as a woman, somehow I felt the need to acquire a masters in computer science to exercise any authority in an area in which I’d been a hobbiest since childhood.) Learning to code trained me in systematic trouble-shooting and close reading of text. This of course is applicable to lots of areas of life, not just software development. Deciphering emails from colleagues is the first example that pops into my head.

Since I wrote this response I see that commentators on Sheila’s blog have come up with similar ideas about the dangers of losing critical thinking when the focus is on getting everyone to code. But there is a balance to be stuck. Yes, people have specialisms and everyone does not need to code, but the mysterious black box of technology needs to be made more accessible in its meaning and impact for society. This doesn’t have to occur at code level, this can happen through conversations between us all.

3 Approaches to Educational Research

I wrote this a few months ago as an introduction to my methodology. I’m not sure that I am still using all three, but I’d be interested to hear any comments on this opinion.

“It appears to me that educational research can be loosely groups into three overlapping approaches. Much educational research has been concerned with the quest for improvement or enhancement of current practices. As a result it strives to prove causality: pointing to student feedback, attainment or other quantifiable sources as proof of effectiveness of interventions. This quest for empirical research findings with practical application is also evident in qualitative educational research where interviewees are categorised by discipline or gender, for example, and generalisations extrapolated thence. It’s understandable that this should be the case; educators, and educational researchers, are creative problem-solvers seeking practical means by which to improve their teaching. Another strand of educational research is that which is informed by critical theories. Often utilising difficult philosophical texts and politicised concepts, this work shines light on previously unexplored areas and exposes privileges, neoliberalism and normative systems at work within education. The final approach, particularly apparent in the area of digital technologies, is a systems or network-based view. Borrowing from computer science, learning or knowledge is conceptualised as ‘connectiveness’ where people and objects form nodes through which information flows. While each of these approaches offer strengths and limitations to educational research, I propose to selectively re-purpose aspects of all three to build my research methodology.”

My PhD Digital Toolkit

 

As a technologist, I’m always on the look out for tools to make my life easier. I particularly like using ‘dead time’ like travelling productive. Before starting the PhD I looked at how I worked best and tried to eliminate excuses for getting on with things. With me excuses like “This chair isn’t comfortable” or “I can’t find information fast enough to hold an idea in my head” can be destructive to productivity.

In terms of hardware, I bought a new desktop 6 months ago. I even ripped out the CPU and case fans and replaced them with silent ones to reduce noise. And I bought a laptop tray to make working on comfortable chairs/sofas more feasible when I get sick of sitting at a desk. Actually, I’ve been experimenting with standing at my desk, but that’s probably another blog post. I also bought a handheld scanner for £30 which I’ve already used to scan selected pages from library books and documents that have been given to me in hard copy.
But it has mostly been software. Some of it is for my tablet (Google Nexus 7 inch), my smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S3) and for my desktop and laptop (both Windows 7 64). Being an Android and Chrome user, Play store apps and Chrome apps work well with my general Google ecosystem. Most of which are free but I did spend money on the following:
  • Evernote premium: no limit on uploads, offline notes, search with PDFs and no distracting flashing ads. £35 per year
  • Scrivener: Writing tool for structuring, writing and revising. I haven’t used it that much yet, but I know I’m going to need this for a thesis. £29
  • ezPDF Reader: A very flexible PDF reader for Android with good annotating functionality, night mode and voice reading. £2.50
  • Simplemind Pro: A mindmapping (desktop and Android app) which can sync to Dropbox. £3.76 (app) £31.55 (desktop software)
Everything else is free or a trial version.
Dropbox is a no brainer. It sync files across computers and devices and makes the USB stick redundant.  I have 50gb space, most of which came for free with my Android devices but I’ll probably shell out when that space expires. It’s become too useful to me. I also use it in conjunction with other applications. For example, Mendeley. Although I will be watching it like a hawk since it was bought by Elsevier, I can’t get over the usefulness of Mendeley sorting out my mess of articles into neat folders and renamed files. I have set up a system whereby I store both my PDFs and the Mendeley database files in Dropbox which allows for me to access the up-to-date files on any device. It was very important to me that any annotations I made on my tablet synced back seamlessly. It can be very frustrating searching for the version of an article where you’ve made annotations. This system can get unstuck if I accidentally have Mendeley open on two devices and Dropbox starts to create conflicting versions. It can take a while to sort out and I know I’m using Mendeley in a way which is not supported by the company. For me, the benefits outweigh the risks. Let me know if you’d like more information on doing this (it involves doing a little bit of register editing).
Reading is a big part of any PhD so I’ve got a few tools which help me reduce my excuses not to do it. On the desktop I use Adobe Acrobat Pro (an old version) and use highlighting and commenting tools. For my full note taking I use Evernote with the name of the article/book for title and ‘reading notes’ for a tag. You could just use the free Adobe Reader for highlighting and commenting but I like being able to use the character recognition tools for my scanned documents. Having all text searchable is invaluable.
I’ve experimented with some fast reading apps (both Chrome and Android). These  flash one word at a time at a pre-defined pace in order to train you out of ‘sub-vocalising’ and therefore, in theory, you can read more quickly. While I find them good for light reading like blog posts or news, I don’t think I’ll be using them for scholarly reading. I am quite a fast reader already and sometimes I find myself re-reading academic texts because I’ve read too quickly to completely understand. To slow down my reading (and to drown out the noise of the driver’s radio on the bus to Glasgow), I sometimes read while simultaneously listening to the text being read. I’d recommend trying Ivona TTS (text to speech) which can be installed on a smartphone. It can read back any text in a compatible app (such as ezPDF Reader) in a reasonably human voice.
For task management, I have been using Nozbe task management Android app and desktop app. It’s got a nice interface but my trial has expired and I’ll probably not pay a subscription. I’ll think I will return to Google Tasks and use 3rd party apps to access them on my mobile devices. I’ve never completely nailed using task managers. Maybe it’s just me, but I always have a bunch of tasks at the bottom of my list that never get done which does my self esteem no good. On my desktop I use Sticky Notes to have small chunk of info readily accessible. I’ve been using them for my Athens login for the past month.
For time management and motivation I’ve been using Rescue Time which is both a desktop and mobile app. It monitors what you are doing. You can categorise activities (Mendeley = v.productive, Facebook=v.distracting) and you get a score at the end of the day, overall time and a breakdown of how you spent you time. You can compare days and try gaming yourself to do better. There’s a premium version but I’m finding the freebie does enough for me. So far today I’ve been online for nearly 8 hours, 76% which was productive, which is pretty good going for me. For the times I need to get my head down, I use the Clockwork Tomato Pomodoro app on my phone which switches it to airplane mode for 25 minutes, then rings a bell for a 5 minute break. It has a lovely interface and records your stats. It’s quite satisfying to see those purple bars add up on my weekly calendar. As with all these things though, it’s only useful if you use it honestly.
Finally, there have been a few reports lately about the effect of using a screen before going to sleep at night and how exposure to blue light is detrimental to falling asleep. Coincidently I have been using f.lux for a few years on my desktop. I used it originally because I dislike having a bright white screen when using artificial light. But it turns out that f.lux is perfect for warming up those harsh blue tones. It changes the colour on your screen subtly at sunrise and sunset. I heard a review for Twilight for Android and realised it did the same thing, so I have that running on my phone and tablet. It has a distinct red hue but it’s easy to turn off if I wanted to see something in truer colours. It’s a shame I can’t scientifically prove that they’ve helped me get to sleep quicker, as I think I’m pretty tired most nights anyway.
And on the subject of getting to sleep there is one other digital tool, though not directly related to doing the PhD, it helps me relax: audio books. I subscribe to Audible and fall asleep every night listening to a book. I don’t really feel I can afford to pick up a book for pleasure time-wise any more but I find audio books a great way to fill in some dead ‘pre-sleep’ time and it takes my mind away from all the things I need to do. I’d recommend Proust’s In Remberence of Time Past, Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Joyce’s Ulysses.
I’d love to hear about any other tools people use to help with their studies.

Five days to go to my PhD and already I’m procrastinating

I have 5 days to go to starting my PhD. And, rather unbelievable as it sounds, I’ve already been procrastinating. The summer was going to be a time for me to get ahead in my reading: get a good grip on the basics of what I need to know before the pressure of the 3-year clock starts. But I have managed to waste quite a bit of time thinking about the logistics and practicalities of doing the PhD. What should my study set-up at home be like? Where will I be doing my reading? How will I take notes while I’m reading? (As a techie, this question generated hours of excited thoughts: reading on a tablet while writing on a Bluetooth keyboard connected to a second screen…or should I get a get a laptop? Ah, that means it’s time to drool over laptop specs.) The software I should use: Evernote, Dropbox, Mendeley, Scrivener, mindmaping apps, Pomodoro-type apps, Rescue Time and many, many more. All of this was far more enticing than confronting the great edifice called “Everything I don’t know about my topic but should”.
Then there are the blogs and books about doing a PhD with their seductive titles and time-sapping content. At some point I’ve got to stop reading about productivity and just do it.
As a result of this reading, I think I can stab a guess at a few things that will happen over the next 3 years:
  • I will forget that I already know stuff and have been a professional in this area for years and begin to believe that my student status means I know nothing.
  • Anxiety about new areas for me, such as methods and methodology, will stifle my ability to understand, or even worse, my ability to perceive that I understand.
  • I will worry that I have missed something.
  • I will worry that my area is too wide.
  • I will worry that my ideas are too shallow.
  • I will worry that I don’t understand my supervisors’ advice and get the wrong end of the stick.
  • I will cease to see the connections between my reading and my research.
  • I will begin to hate my own writing.

I have started some reading but I’m picking away at things and not really sure how best to organise my notes and cross-reference things. I know I have to start writing. The bottom line is I haven’t even started yet and it feels overwhelming.
So from my reading and previous experience of myself as a student, I have collated a random list to refer back to when things get rough. It’s my PhD rescue remedy:
  • Write all notes and ideas down.
  • Write anything, even a blog post to get rid of the useless thoughts that are getting in the way of real work.
  • Read or write for 3 minutes, then see if you want to carry on.
  • Read or write for 25 minutes, then see if you want to carry on.
  • Never question your ability to do a PhD. You were not born ‘able’ or ‘not able’, you have to make it happen yourself. Don’t let negative thoughts about your so-called “intrinsic self” set limits on what you can do.
  • Confusion is a natural state. It means you are learning and changing.
  • When in doubt, talk about it. I’m lucky to have a PhD veteran in my partner. Use him.
  • Be careful not to get too caught up in the details, whether it’s tagging your references or cataloguing minutiae. Be careful of sapping time activities.
  • That said, there will be time to go down some rabbit holes. Just make sure they are worthy ones that contribute to your knowledge about the wider area of your topic.
  • Set deadlines and chunk up your tasks. Your plans and timetable will change, but just keep being realistic.
  • Be mindful of what your head is trying to do to muck this up.
  • Finally, from How to tame your PhD by Inger Mewburn, “If you realise your will is flagging, your inner marketing department has to call in pizza for the engineering department and get them doing overtime.” In other words, do what you can to get it done.

Youth Theatre and Technology-Enhanced Learning

Last night I attended a reunion of an organisation I was part of in my late teens to early twenties. The ethos of  Dublin Youth Theatre and what it gave me and countless other young people remains with me and I would argue it is a continual influence on my work, despite a career shift away from the arts and theatre.

It is easier to describe DYT as what it is not. It is not a stage school. It does not ‘train’ young people in becoming actors. But equally it does not treat theatre as a superficial “bit of a laugh”. Theatre is the medium through which DYT enables young people from all backgrounds to find their voices and express themselves in a supportive but, crucially, critically aware environment. DYT also creates superb theatre to watch. And the voices people find are not always in performing. Mine wasn’t. I was a playwright and a director. I went on to direct professionally and set up and ran my own theatre company.

Theatre is an old art form. Learning through digital technology is not, unless you include counting on your fingers as “digital technology” I guess. But when I first read about affective learning having higher impact on memory and social constructivism’s role in personal knowledge building, it all resonated with my experiences as a theatre practitioner. Theatre is a collective experience and being there with other members of an audience creates a dynamic that is unique to that performance.Yet members of that same audience can come away with different interpretations and responses to the play. So it is with a student’s experience of online teaching. There is a line to tread between giving the individual freedom of choice and building a community of learners who feed into each other’s learning, just as an audience can feed itself when, for example, laughter becomes contagious.

And the parallel goes beyond seeing learners as ‘the audience’. At the very heart of DYT was an inherent respect for young people and what they had to say. Paddy O’Dwyer, the founder of DYT, last night put it perfectly when he said “every young person is seen as an artist”. That is to say, a contributor with something to say and a unique voice in which to say it. And, most importantly, they will be listened to.

Is that not a way to view learners; as artists, each of whom have their own history, voice and contribution to make? Self-expression can lead to self-actualisation and there is no reason why an online environment could not be the medium. Theatre, like the academic world, has its conventions which, more or less, should be observed. But ultimately enabling learners to gain confidence and find their voices online gives so much more than mere knowledge in a subject area.

In the grand scheme of things, theatre does not often feel like it is doing truly important work, however the work of Dublin Youth Theatre and other youth theatres with a similar approach really is transforming the lives of people. I hope, in a some small way, my work in enabling staff and students to engage with technology-enhanced learning, is also having a transformative effect.