At the end of April, I had the opportunity to participate in two back-to-back events related to open education: the Open Courseware Consortium (OCWC) annual meeting in Ljubljana and OER14, the United-Kingdom based annual conference on the subject. Together, they provide a good insight into the state of open education in Europe (with one caveat: in both cases, the focus is on higher education – which is particularly obvious with regard to the OCWC, which is a consortium of academic institutions from around the world).

(A technical note: At the Ljubljana meeting, the OCWC announced a re-branding, and has changed name to Open Education Consortium (OEC) – the main argument being that member institutions have today a whole portfolio of educational resources, that goes beyond just Open Courseware – thus the brand was becoming misleading).

Here are my main insights and take-aways:

Opening Up Slovenia. THe Slovenian Ministry of Education announced during the conference in Ljubljana that it will launch a domestic „Opening Up Education” initiative – mirroring the EU-wide „Opening Up Education” initiative launched by the EC in autumn 2013 (Press release of the Slovenian Ministry of Education). The approach is promising, since the European initiative provides a strong basis for OER as a key element of a general educational strategy (as well as a generally good and sustainable model for modernising school systems through the use of ICT). Yet currently the Slovenian strategy is limited to general goals and directions for action – we need to wait and see, whether a strong OER development and support model will be introduced in the strategy. If that’s the case, the idea of national strategies matching the EU-wide initiative is to be applauded.

There are MOOCs of all flavours, including „open MOOCs”. Massive Open Online Courses were one of the dominant subjects in both conferences, but in particular at the OCWC meeting. MOOCs seem to be the tool of choice for a broadly understood „open education”. This obviously is a case of open washing, from my perspective (and that of most OER activists). The fact that OCWC declared that it will champion „Open MOOCs” proves the point – why do you need to add „open” to an acronym that already hides „open” within it?

The fact that MOOC resources are not open has been troubling OER advocates for some time now. Indeed, with the concept of OER so well developed by now, it is a pity that it has not been employed by creators of MOOCs. The fact that these are mainly commercial, educational startups partially explains this choice – as business models around open educational resources are still not well developed. While it would have been better if these popular educational tools were open (in the full sense of the term) from the start, the strategy that OER advocates face is simple: a valid, sustainable model for „open MOOCs” needs to be implemented – following the path taken by Open Access advocates with regard to journal publishing.

And it is good to learn that open MOOCs do exist. The OCWC has awarded three open MOOCs with its annual ACE award. STill, the most impressive open MOOC I learned about is the DS106 MOOC on digital storytelling. I recommend that you have a look at it, if you’d like to see what truly open, and at same time very creative online education can be about. Let me just mention that the organizers use an online radio as one of the preferred communication channels for their learning community.

Policy work is hard work. It is always interesting to attend an event that addresses open issues, but not in a crowd of open activists – but rather a community of educational practitioners, form whom open resources are but a tool, and who vary in their support for OERs. For them, policy matters turn out to be less interesting than practical, technological or pedagogical issues. Yet at both conferences there was a small but dedicated community of policy practitioners. I became aware of several new and interesting developments, including: the OER initiative in Alberta, the MoU on OER signed by three Canadian provinces (Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan) and the report presented to the Welsh government by the Online Digital Learning Working Group.

Of these initiatives, the one that is most worth highlighting is the Scottish Open Education Declaration, which is currently being drafted by Open Scotland, a grassroots initiative bringing together OER advocates. The declaration is open in character and the authors or soliciting feedback on the current draft – please leave your comments! It’s good to see another country, in which an OER advocacy alliance is developing.

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Photo: Lorna Campbell, CC BY
While it is not surprising that participants find the subject of national policies quite abstract and seem to not fully appreciate their significance – I was surprised to find little discussion on institutional policies for OER (which could be particularly successful for higher education / academic institutions). Again, a comparison with Open Access is obvious – and the reason that OER policies are not implemented might be due to the fact that we have not yet identified as clear pools of resources (and associated production workflows) as is the case of journal articles targeted by OA advocates.

I had an opportunity to present Creative Commons work on OER policies. I organised a workshop during which we discussed best standards and strategies for implementing such policies, looking at examples from the Cape Town Declaration, through the Paris Declaration and a range of domestic documents, to the recent language used in the European „Opening Up Education” initiative and the associated Erasmus Plus program. Here are the slides for the presentation I gave at the beginning of the workshop, „Defining OER policies for public content, and bringing them to life„.

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Photo: Simon Thomson / OER14, CC BY

At both events, people to whom I talked about policy work agreed that a dedicated event for the „policy wonks” in the OER community is needed. I heard the same comments after our policy event in the European Parliament. A full day devoted to policy debates is something I hope we can organize in the coming year.

The OER divide between K-12 and HEI. The interesting thing about the OER model is that it spans two very different educational systems: the K-12 / primary and secondary schools on one hand, and the higher education institutions on the other. On one hand, the goals and the transformation obtained by opening up resources is the same in both cases. On the other, these are different institutions, differently funded, with different pedagogies. It is interesting that the European „Opening Up Education” initiative spans across this divide, and adds to it vocational training and adult / life long learning. The OER model is in general terms independent of these differences – the general rule for making resources available, also for reuse, is always the same. But communities of practitioners clearly draw a line. In particular, institutional policies will be very different in each case, due to different institutional models.

Openness: a value and a tool. OER advocates are used to talking about openness in value terms. And as a flipside, sometimes take the impact of open for granted. Or even run the risk of being dogmatic about the advantages of open. Many of the talks at the two events served as a useful reminder, that for many practitioners openness is a tool. One of many in their toolkits – sometimes the favourite, sometimes not. And their goals more often have to do with creating modern, effective and high quality education, rather than simply making it open. Mike Sharples, Academic Lead of Future Learn made this point very clearly in his presentation, when he said that toolkits, rather than simply OERs, are the resource that can modernize education. He gave an example of a sensors app for smartphones, with which students can conduct citizen science experiments.

This serves as a reminder of how important evidence is for policy work. And for this reason I appreciated a lot presentations by the OER Research Hub team at the Open University, which is running the best, to my knowledge, impact assessment research on OER. THe Hub was rightly awarded the 2014 Open Research Award of Excellence.

And accepting the fact that not every practicioner needs to be as passionate about open education as the advocates are, it would be great to see open standards (and in particular, strong open licensing norms) considered an obvious and necessary element of every such toolkit.