The Information Age of Things

After the dissolution of the Institute of Learning Innovation, the EMMA project was taken over by the University of Naples (Federico II), and Prof. Grainne Conole, myself and Dr. Brenda Padilla were contracted to create and run two MOOCs on the EMMA platform. I was responsible for “21st Century Learning” – a MOOC about innovation in pedagogy and related technologies since the turn of the century.

The discussions amongst participants generated all manner of questions. One in particular set me thinking. During the week on Virtual Reality, the question arose as to how different terms should be defined. The accepted definitions for these, and various related terms, have varied over the years, but I want to try and pin down some definitions. I’ve tried to create ones that relate to the experience, independent of any technology.

artificial reality
virtual reality
virtual environment
virtual world
immersive and not immersive
augmented reality
avatar vs first-person view

A contemplation
Let’s start with the question, “So, what’s wrong with ordinary reality?”

And I suppose the answer is, “Nothing.” Except that it’s a bit restrictive. I can’t fly, or teleport, I don’t have x-ray vision, I can’t swim to the bottom of the sea or visit Mars, I can’t shrink myself to an ant and explore a forest, I can only run so far without having to have a good lie down… you get the idea.

Now it may be that I have an over-active imagination and want to do lots of unreasonable things, but I don’t think so, because the last few hundred years has seen people using technology to extend their reality in all manner of ways. Since the 16th Century, if not before, there’s been a stage illusion called “Pepper’s Ghost”  where a sheet of glass is placed at 45 degrees across the stage, so that the audience see both through the glass – the main stage – and a reflection of a person or object off-stage – which can appear to float in mid air.

As soon as film was invented, people started to create images that weren’t real, such as the Cottingley Fairies from 1920 – photographs of paper cut-out fairy shapes that were believed to be real  And that was just the start of our love affair with the unreal. So many images we see nowadays have been adjusted, or “photoshoppped”, that people are starting to question whether we may now have strayed too far from reality.

In 1937 the Walt Disney Studios created its first feature-length animated film (with a quarter of a million hand-drawn images…): Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The first feature-length animation made entirely from computer generated imagery (CGI) was Toy Story in 1995. Even “ordinary” movies contain so many “special effects” that they are a long way from the reality that existed during their making.

Humans, it seems, are not satisfied with reality – at least, humans in modern Western society. But why? Damien Walter wrote an interesting article, leading to the question: “Do our fantasy worlds help us to escape, not from reality, but from our own limitations?”  Maybe so.

And now the escapists – that is, all of us – have technology so advanced it would, not so long ago be indistinguishable from magic (to misquote Sir Arthur C. Clarke), and so basic that in 100 years we will be called “primitive”.

So, let’s start at the other end and work backwards. What form will our escape from reality take in 100 years time? Ok. I have no idea. So let’s try a related question. What form would we like this escape from reality to take in 100 years time?

I’m sitting in an armchair, in a room at home. It’s a nice home, but really, I’ve sat in it quite a bit since I moved here. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could change the appearance of the walls at the touch of a button? No, at a voice command. “Make the walls light blue”, and now the walls look as though a painter’s been in. Except there’s no painter, and no paint, and if I turn off the piece of technology that’s making the walls look blue they’ll jump back to being cream.

What is this technology, you may ask? Well, we’re still 100 years in the future, and it hasn’t been invented yet, but please bear with me a bit longer…

How about, I don’t like walls at all. Let’s remove them. “Remove walls, create a country scene”. So, now there’s a coffee table in front of me, and then a sofa, and then a hedge, some trees, and a field of sheep. A robin flies down and perches on the edge of the coffee table. It feels like I’m sitting in the countryside. Of course, I know the hedge is actually a brick wall, so I’m not going to try and jump over it, and the sheep won’t wander into the room because, well, they are virtual sheep, computer generated, and the computer knows that small birds are pretty and sheep are, well, annoying.

I call my friend, and we have a chat. She’s sitting opposite me, on the sofa. Except she’s not of course. She’s sitting on her own sofa miles away, but it feels like she’s here, and – from her perspective – I’m sitting in a chair at her house. Of course, I can’t hand her a coffee, because she’s only virtually here – a telepresence – but that’s ok, because it feels as though she’s here, which is the main thing.

I’ve tried to create definitions that would fit this scenario just as effectively as today’s technology, so that the definitions describe the experience, not the technology.

artificial reality – coined by Myron K. Krueger, this is the broadest definition: anything that appears to be real – completely real and present, genuinely mistakable for a real, ordinary, physical experience – but is actually an illusion. We don’t really have the technology to do this yet, but we will, and sooner than one may think. The experience doesn’t have to be computer-generated, although that is our current best technology. The obvious fictional example is Star trek’s “holodeck” but I don’t want to get hung up on technology – we don’t need any specific technology for these definitions, they are about the experience, not the hardware.

virtual reality – artificial reality that is not completely convincing – it is apparent that something is amiss, or the presentation requires some imagination. So, for example, anything you need a screen to see, or some sort of head-mounted display that’s sufficient to remind you that something odd is going on, or objects don’t behave as real objects – pixellated, juddery, not fully believable. The experience is not “real” in some noticeable way. The big thing is that humans are very adaptive, and can gain a lot from experiencing reality in a non-realistic form – from feature films to Second Life.

virtual environment – sufficient objects using virtual reality to feel as though you are in a location, and the ability to move around that location. So, not just a virtual teapot, but a whole room. Or countryside. Or Mars. A virtual environment can include other people that one may interact with, usually represented by avatars – characters that don’t necessarily look exactly like the actual person (or look completely different, such as a cat). (I’ll talk more about avatars in a while.)

virtual world – a versatile virtual environment that appears to be, or is effectively, infinite. So, not just the one virtual space, but numerous different spaces, and usually the ability to create new spaces with virtual objects at will. Coming back to artificial reality, if technology ever reaches the point where it can create a virtual world indistinguishable from the real one (i.e. you can physically walk around and interact with non-existent things) then I would call that an artificial world.

immersive vs not immersive – this is really subjective, and depends on whether someone using this sort of technology reaches the point where they suspend disbelief and act – within reason – as though the experience is real. Clearly, this is easier with some experiences (e.g. a modern racing car simulator) than others (e.g. the “Pong” video game), but it also depends on the person as to whether they make the necessary imaginative leap from a virtual experience to a real one. (Of course, by my definition, an artificial experience wouldn’t require any imaginative leap, so would, by definition, be immersive – unless, that is, the person knows it’s artificial and deliberately treats it as not real).

augmented reality – this is where the real world and virtual (or artificial) reality are both present at the same time, like the robin on the coffee table. Microsoft’s HoloLens actually comes remarkably close to this (as we saw in the MOOC), despite still needing a lot of development.

avatar – computer-generated character that represents a person in a virtual environment. As in the book Snow Crash, the representation of people in virtual spaces will move forward significantly when actual facial expressions can be represented accurately in the virtual. Lindon Lab’s Project Sansar promises to go some way towards this  In the long run, I see avatars as becoming increasingly realistic to the point where they look like real people – although, like today’s avatars, not necessarily like the actual person.

avatar vs first-person view – in my opinion, following an avatar all the time is a hangover from virtual reality’s gaming past. In some of the interviews for the SWIFT project (where we created and trialled a virtual genetics lab in Second Life) I asked participants if they felt they identified with the avatar (a concept that seemed important at the time). Generally, I got the impression that participants thought this to be an odd question. Participants generally had the feeling that they themselves were doing the experiment – not the avatar, and not something they watched on video. Indeed, two of the interviewees said that the avatar just got in the way (obscured their view of the lab bench). So I would not refer to “first person view”, any more than I think of my reality sitting here typing as “first person view”, it’s just how I see the world – how I’ve always seen the world. As we move forward towards artificial reality, I think it’s time to leave viewpoint behind and just think about reality – what I see is how it is.

Telepresence – the experience of being somewhere in the real world other than where one is. Telepresence often refers to some form of videoconferencing, such as Edward Snowden’s TED talk but also extends to control of distant robots with various amounts of realism. From the perspective of other people at the remote location, the robot or video screen represents the person engaged in telepresence. The film “Avatar” imagines a highly sophisticated version of telepresence. From the experiencer’s perspective, telepresence is similar to virtual (or even artificial) reality, but the big difference is that the environment in which they find themselves is actually a real environment and, unlike virtual or artificial reality, may contain physical people, animals, etc. The difference is important: in virtual (or artificial) reality other people are not actually present so cannot be physically harmed, whereas the environment the telepresent person is in is real, and real harm can occur to the people in it (but not to the telepresent person, of course).

I think, over time, the need to distinguish between these forms of reality will diminish. We will get used to the idea of virtual objects and experiences being part of our lives, to a greater or lesser extent. A virtual robin on the coffee table will seem ordinary – it will just be a robin and a coffee table. Probably some slang term will appear for virtual objects. Maybe something like “Don’t bother feeding the robin, its holo”. There will be shops full of models walking around displaying the clothes, changing instantly to match what a computer decides nearby shoppers might like, and the shoppers will know that there are no models, but it will seem normal. There will be parks, and art galleries, and sports arenas that are just empty concrete spaces, but we will only know that if we ignore the trees and paintings and action in front of us, and stop and think.
It will be The Information Age of Things.


Dr. Paul Rudman, April 2016, Leicester, UK



Why I don’t use a smartphone

It’s 2014, I’m a learning technologist, and I don’t have a smartphone. Why? It’s all about real estate.

Randi Boice image on Flickr

Randi Boice image on Flickr

You see, when the iPad first came out, I knew it made sense for me. It hit the sweet spot of portability, compact size, battery life, and functionality, so I could do *most* of what I wanted to do on a computer but anywhere and anytime. I bought (well my dear husband bought it for me for Christmas) the 3G iPad generation one. That iPad has now been replaced by a mini wifi only, but I have a mifi device which gives me connectivity pretty much anywhere I can’t get wifi.

Meanwhile, everyone else was buying smartphones. But why did I need to be poking around on a tiny keyboard and looking at a tiny screen when I had my iPad? What about actual phone calls, you may ask? Well I do have a little Nokia which cost me 15 quid at a local shop, which I use for a grand total of 5 quid per month. So that 5 quid, plus the 10 quid monthly I pay for my mifi — total of 15 quid a month and all devices purchased outright so I’m not paying for those monthly.

There are occasions when it seems like I might need a smartphone. For example, Instagram. Have never done Instagram. I do enjoy taking photos with my iPad and my camera, and I have accounts on Flickr and Pinterest for some of these. Also Snapchat — have not done that one, as it seems to demand a smartphone. Another time I felt out of it without a smartphone was when I used Google Glass. Google Glass wanted to pair with a smartphone, or at least an official 3G-enabled tablet. My iPad with a mifi did not qualify. I had to borrow my boss’s iPhone to test Google Glass (slightly awkward).

One last thing: I’m a woman. I carry a bag with me pretty much all the time. Some of my clothes don’t have good pockets. So carrying an iPad mini is no problem — it’s with me all the time. Even when I go to a fancy party, I can fit my iPad mini and mifi into a small bag. So I guess it’s a big goofy that I carry 3 devices (iPad, mifi, dumb phone) instead of one… but I think I’m ahead in terms of money, and I have the real estate which I like. What do you think? Will I have to bite the bullet and get a smartphone?

Terese Bird
Learning Technologist, University of Leicester

How are 1st year Medical undergraduates using iPads?

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 08.19.51Since autumn 2013, the University of Leicester Medical School has been issuing each first-year undergraduate with an iPad. This is the first UK medical school to implement this kind of initiative.

Why did we do this? One of the main drivers was to solve the problem of having to print paper workbooks, which cost too much and then constantly need to be updated. Our solution was to simply format the workbooks into a nice shape for the full-size iPad, save as pdf, and distribute to the students via Blackboard. We then instructed the students to buy Notability (an app which reads pdfs and allows note-taking) and download the Dropbox cloud storage app, which works together with Notability and many other apps. We also instructed the students to bring their iPads to every class session. And then we watched what happened!

By their own report in several surveys, the students mainly used the iPads to read and annotate their workbooks, and to follow along in lectures, annotating onto pdf lecture slides. But it was beyond that use where things got interesting. Students worked together in small group sessions, discussing and drawing on paper, then at the end of the session photographing their notes and developing them individually later in personal study. Students created study groups on Facebook and shared documents and discussed. Students created flashcards of the names of muscles, for example, and tested their knowledge personally and in groups. Below is a list of apps which students mentioned in a survey, which they found useful, along with a brief description of what the app does or how students reported using it. After that is a further brief list of reported learning activities with their iPads.  I hope to report further developments on this initiative as it matures.

List of Apps mentioned by Year 1 Medical students and how they use

Notability – read, take notes on workbooks and lecture notes

Dropbox – storage space, keep their notes, serves as a go-between between some apps

Brainscape — create your own flashcards

Essential Skeleton – anatomy app

Teach Me Anatomy – anatomy app

YouTube – search for educational video

Essential Anatomy – anatomy app

Calendar – calendar syncs with university calendar

iMessage – direct message each other

Facebook – study groups

Adobe Reader – read workbooks and ebooks offline

Pages – opens Word docs, edit, save back as Word; create Word docs

Numbers – spreadsheets (to graph numbers and share in discussion with others)

MB Anatomy – anatomy app

Visible Bodies – anatomy app

Resuscitation – virtual patient simulator

OSCE skills – exam prep app

Anatomy Quiz – anatomy quiz

Simple Mind – mind map

Penultimate – handwriting app, saves into Evernote

Other interesting ways they are using their iPads:

Use iPad as a second screen – look at lecture slides on iPad, type notes on laptop

Use stylus and Penultimate to draw what they saw in dissection room

Use iMessage to share pictures and diagrams with other group members

Use Numbers to graph questions in group work

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, University of Leicester

Cool webinars for Open Education Week 2014

This year Open Education Week falls 10 March through 14 March 2014.  What is Open Education Week, I hear someone ask? Open Education Week raises awareness of the open education movement and its impact on teaching and learning worldwide. Open education encompasses notions of open educational resources or OER, open courses such as MOOCs, and other open practices.

Because the Institute of Learning Innovation is working on the EU-facilitated eMundus project, we are doing a special themed webinar on Friday, 14 March, at 11am until 12noon GMT. Our webinar is one of a series showcasing aspects of the eMundus project, which is (among other things) mapping out institutional partnerships in open education, such as universities which accept MOOC credits for transferring in, and the OER University. Our Friday webinar will look at the pedagogies of MOOCs. Check out  the poster below for more cool webinars you can join in during Open Education Week. With special thanks to Athabasca University for facilitating our whole series of webinars!

OER benefits for enrolled students

The open education movement has often focused on explaining the benefits of open educational resources (OER) and other open education initiatives to people beyond the reach of formal education — those who cannot afford it, who live too far away from schools, who cannot access formal education for any number of reasons. But in addition, current students benefit from the use of OER. This article by CK-12 Foundation gives good examples of how American schools are making OER work for students, largely through saving money on textbooks.

The Manufacturing  Pasts project (video above) was funded by JISC to digitise and mash up into learning materials artefacts from Leicester’s industrial past.  I had the privilege of working on the project. Now, a year on since the project ended, I can see that the work we did is benefiting current students in ways we did not expect. For example, I was just helping to teach a digital media session in University of Leicester Museum Studies department. The students are putting together museum displays with sound and video installations augmenting the photos and physical items. When we directed them to and the Manufacturing Pasts collection, and told them these were all CC-licensed, there was an audible sigh of relief that they did not have to hunt for copyright permissions as they must for other items.

Another way OER and open practice benefits currently-enrolled students is in the way some universities are launching MOOCs designed to help their own students. University of Northampton, for example,  has launched and is continuing develop a MOOC teaching academic skills (referencing, how to handle feedback, writing) — with a version for undergrads and a version for postgrads. These MOOCs require only about 2 hours weekly and are offered to students who have been accepted to the university, as well as any student already having begun to study. Academics who were already teaching these things to smaller groups of students have put together the online materials. It’s a bit early to conclude yet how well these MOOCs will help the student. I will check back with Northampton in a few weeks as I continue to gather stories of how open educational practices can and are helping students currently enrolled at the participating institutions. Please comment if you have such a story.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist & SCORE Research Fellow, Institute of Learning Innovation, University of Leicester

MOOCing for learning or MOOCeting for earning?

At the ALT MOOC SIG gathering in Southampton on 6 November, we were assured by Helena Gillespie, of University of East Anglia, that MOOCing is definitely a verb. I’d like to add a new one to the ever-increasing glossary of the MOOCosphere: MOOCeting. It is perhaps best explained by the image below:

Language of the MOOCosphere

Language of the MOOCosphere, G. Witthaus

It is clear that there have been two strands of MOOCs developing for some time now, and this distinction is often couched in the language of xMOOCs vs cMOOCs. Having previously carried out research into the Open Educational Resources university (OERu), which is dedicated to widening participation in higher education, I have become familiar with the language used to describe and bring into being a means of enabling everyone, everywhere, to get a fully accredited degree from a recognised institution by learning from openly licensed content on the Web. The key concepts that are at the root of the discourse here are: enabling massive numbers of learners with limited financial resources to get an accredited higher education qualification; reusing existing course materials; providing a basic level of support for learners to access the resources and navigate their way through them; disaggregating the provision of content, teaching and assessment for the benefit of the learners; providing assessment and accreditation at cost, and ensuring sustainability of the process.

The emerging discourse about the MOOCeting version of MOOCs, is, as the name implies, informed and dominated by institutional Marketing Departments. The primary question seems to be, “How will this benefit the institution?” Answers are speculative at this stage, but tend to centre on notions around “expanding our global footprint”, and ultimately recruiting fee-paying students by “converting” MOOC students into “real” students. To do this, the strategy is to develop MOOCs with substantial amounts of new, glossy materials, particularly video content. The quality of the content, both in terms of academic quality and high-tech multimedia quality, is seen as critical to the success of the project.

One thing both MOOC strands seem to agree on is that the MOOC explosion is innovative. Ultimately, it may happen that both strands move closer to one another in terms of the other dimensions too, as the apparent side-effect of institutional marketing might bring unexpected but valuable benefits to those institutions that are not explicitly seeking it, and the apparent side-effect of widening participation might actually turn out to be an important factor in the ultimate success of the MOOCs that are aimed at recruiting students with deeper pockets.

I have created a slide presentation containing more of my thoughts on MOOCs and some random factoids from these recent conferences:

Blog post by Gabi Witthaus

The best of Leicester: The Institute of Learning Innovation (ILI)

I am a PhD student who recently spent a six months in Leicester. My last night I had a wonderful time with two PhD students, Brenda and Grace. Brenda asked me what was the best for me in Leicester, and I replied, “ILI”, without hesitation.


International environment at the Institute of Learning Innovation

I came to the ILI on  April 1st and left on September 25th. Although it was not my first time abroad, it was my first time abroad alone. Yet, I never felt lonely. At the ILI, it was just like home. The ILI building is lovely. For me it was more than a working place; it was a comfortable place to stay with friends and family. People at the ILI made me feel love in this “family”.

In the ILI, there are two nice traditions. The first one is to send birthday cards. Even though I didn’t receive any cards as my birthday is in January, it felt very nice to write my best wishes in birthday cards for others. The second tradition is to have lunch together regularly. It was a good opportunity to taste dishes from various countries as everyone brought dishes from their respective countries.

Beside the friendly and warm atmosphere, there is another reason for me to choose ILI as the best of Leicester. It was a very important period in my PhD project. I got opportunities to present my work in postgraduate research conferences (University of Leicester and University of London), to get feedback from peers, to participate in seminars and workshops (ILI, University of Birmingham, University of Loughborough), to enhance my research skills and to network with people. I can really see I “grew up” rapidly in this six-month period and gradually found a clear direction for my ongoing research.

Thank you all!

Thank you all!

I would like to thank everyone at ILI for making my stay in the UK a beautiful, memorable period. Many thanks to Grainne and Palitha, your support and advice were crucial for making this productive research period possible. Thanks to David; having a regular discussion with you was one of my most enjoyable moments. Thanks to Terese; I enjoyed working with you in the 7Cs learning design workshop; you made me realize how interesting and important is the job of a learning technologist in higher education. Thanks to Gabi; your input was really valuable to my study. Thanks to Ming; your advice had a direct impact on my PhD life. Thanks to Paul; now I know more about the British culture. Thanks to Ale; your suggestion makes a future collaboration possible. Thanks to Brenda, Grace, Bernard, Oznur, Nada, Natalia, Tina, Tony, Marion and Alison; I am quite happy to become a member of this PhD student group.

I wish you all the best!

Regards, Nan

‘As I was contributing, I was learning’: an interview with Bernard Nkuyubwatsi

In this post I will reflect on the third of the interviews I carried out with OERu community members, as part of the case study for the POERUP project. (For background information, see my earlier blog post, ‘Three compelling voices from the OERu: a case study‘.) My interviewee this time was Bernard Nkuyubwatsi, a colleague at the University of Leicester’s Institute of Learning Innovation, where he is doing his PhD on the subject of open education, and someone who has engaged with the OER university in a voluntary capacity over the last few years.

Bernard Nkuyubwatsi (photo by Gabi Witthaus, CC-BY)

Bernard Nkuyubwatsi

The thread running throughout my interview with Bernard was the sense of his burning quest to facilitate access to higher education for people in his home country, Rwanda, through open educational resources. Bernard’s interest in this area stems from his personal experience as a student:

When I talk about openness … I refer back to my own experience. The way I gained entry to my undergraduate education was sort of through openness. They (the National Examination Centre in Rwanda) accepted non-formal learners to come and sit for national exams – the same exam that was given to formal students. Then after that, they didn’t base their decision on whether you were a formal or non-formal student. They based it on your results in the exam. So that kind of giving a chance to people who did not have a chance to go to formal school, I think people should have that opportunity, really.

According to Bernard, fewer than 4% of the population of Rwanda are able to participate in Higher Education. In order to enable access for greater numbers of learners, Bernard sees the potential value of OERs and massive open, online courses (MOOCs), but as he points out, the obstacles inherent in this route are considerable:

First of all, we need to know there’s a divide, if you like a ‘digital divide’. It’s not only in the OERu. There are people who have access to the Internet, and people who don’t have access.  People who have access will be able to benefit from them. And those people who don’t have access, I think they will stay behind. That’s what I see. And there are some limitations. OERu can contribute to providing educational opportunities to people who have access to the Internet maybe but don’t have access or don’t have a lot of money to pay for expensive schools, so it can help them learn cost-effectively.

We discussed possible ways of supporting those individuals who do not have access to the Internet. I suggested to Bernard that if there was an institution in Rwanda that had access to the internet, and could get suitable materials (for example from the OERu) and make them available to the students in printed form, that might be a solution to the problem. His straightforward answer here was:

Yes, if you did it that way, that would work. Using other media, not being restricted to the Internet, that would work.

The key here is the recognition that, while initiatives like the OERu have the potential to offer education to learners on a mass scale, many learners in the developing world will still remain out of reach of such interventions unless a local provider steps in to provide the physical and technological resources necessary. (The question of digital literacy skills is probably closely tied in here.) This may seem like an obvious point, but it fundamentally increases the challenge for individuals who wish to make a difference in less well resourced societies, something that Bernard was well aware of, and seemed undeterred by. When I asked him if his aim was to go back to Rwanda and build something open there, his response was optimistic:

Yes, that would be wonderful! It’s not always easy, but I’m very hopeful because, as I was saying, when you see there is aspiration there, and financial resources are limited even on the part of government for financing schools, so there’s a need to find alternatives to provide an education for people.

The real highlight of the interview for me was where Bernard talked about the social learning he had experienced in the OERu:

Well, it was like, if I say open, but open in which sense?! … First of all, it was flexible. I was not required to join the community, but I joined and I contributed. I was not asked by anyone to contribute. I contributed when I felt, oh I have something to contribute. So I did not have to force myself to write something, as for example, in the case of classes where you have to write something because you are required to. So, that kind of freedom to contribute when you have something. And that’s what I would call original or kind of natural learning, the learning that comes from me as a learner. But also as people were discussing, they were high professionals… as I was contributing, I was learning sometimes. And when I contributed, people came and they responded to my ideas, challenging my ideas and challenging some other people’s ideas, and that’s the kind of learning I enjoyed, you know participating in the community. And I think that’s where I have been able to really kind of create a, not network, not only create it but maintain it, because I’m still connected with them.

An elegant description, I think, of the kind of learning that the OERu is intending to promote for learners when it launches later this year.

Many thanks to Bernard for taking the time to have this very inspiring conversation with me. (The full transcript of the interview is available here.)

Blog post written by Gabi Witthaus for the Institute of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester.

CC-BY licence

‘In the OERu, education is something that grows as it shares’ – an interview with Haydn Blackey

Further to my earlier blog post about the POERUP-OERu case study, and the highlights from my interview with Wayne Mackintosh, I would like to share a few highlights from my interview with Haydn Blackey. Haydn is Head of the Centre of Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the University of South Wales, and is responsible for liaison between and the OERu (Open Educational Resources university).

Haydn Blackey (image from USW website)

Haydn Blackey (image from USW website)

The University of South Wales is the new name for the former University of Glamorgan, which recently merged with the University of Wales. They were the first UK university to take the innovative step of joining the OER university. (While senior leadership of UK universities has been watching the development of the OERu network with interest, their engagement has been characterised by a wait-and-see attitude and a concomitant reluctance to join the consortium. For a summary of the issues involved here, see my blog post from the TOUCANS project ‘UK HEIs and the OERu: Snog, Marry, Avoid?’ Since USW joined however, the Institute of Technology of Sligo in Ireland has also become an anchor partner, so this may be gradually changing.)

As in the interview with Wayne Mackintosh, the notion of widening participation in higher education is a central theme in Haydn’s responses to my questions. This is clearly a key principle for him on many levels – personally, from the perspective of his institution, and from a national perspective:

The purpose of the OERu is to make use of open education as a way to make a significant contribution to social change and development internationally, and I think what attracted our institution to the OERu… was that sense of giving back to the community, and … widening access… You know, we have eight times more widening-access students at our university than any other Welsh university does… That’s why… particularly in the context of Wales, where we have a Labour Party government which would be to the left of the Labour Party in England, [and] while we’re a small nation right beside a very large nation and so on… there’s a sense in which Welsh institutions are encouraged to take a much more egalitarian perspective on the engagement of learning and teaching than might be the case in a more market-dominated model, which might be more prevalent in England… The OERu is our route into a community of people who interact with those sets of values and context on an international scale rather than just on a local one.

Haydn elaborates on this point when I ask him whether the purpose of the OERu is clear to all members:

I think the institutions that are committed to [the OERu] are committed to it exactly because of that philanthropic contribution to the development of education that is genuinely open and is genuinely world-wide. I’m pretty certain they wouldn’t be putting their names against it without that.

And again when I ask him whether OERu members have any special sense of group identity:

I do think that the majority of people who are part of the OERu are… there… because of its value sets, that sit aside from the value sets around the venture capitalist approach to education. There is a view about education as something that grows as it shares in the OERu, which you don’t get the sense of from participation perhaps in other things which are more focused on what value you can gain… I think the OERu holds some of those values quite strongly, and people who belong would feel that they would want to be emoting those values.

One of the major contributions which Haydn sees the University of South Wales making to the OERu community is in terms of the sharing of their expertise in accreditation of prior learning with other consortium members:

Accreditation of prior learning, particularly learning that might have happened in the workplace, is something that we’ve built a whole raft of experience in. And as a widening access institution over the years … where we might have people who have over 30 years of experience but no qualifications beyond getting their school-leaving certificate … and so we’ve spent quite a bit of time and energy developing systems that accredit learning that takes place in employment, that accredit learning through flexible approaches which aren’t simply credit sharing in the kind of European Credit Transfer approach. And certainly in the dialogue that we’ve been having with the [OERu] network with that set of questions, when the wiki raised those, it was interesting to see that our contribution was actually quite a long way through that journey, where many of the American, Australian and New Zealand partners were beginning to explore the possibility, but it certainly hadn’t become part of what they already do.

If you’d like to hear more about the University of South Wales’ participation in the OERu, please see the full transcript of my interview with Haydn. Many thanks to Haydn for giving of his time to participate in this study.

Blog post written by Gabi Witthaus for the Institute of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester.

CC-BY licence

The OERu is smart philanthropy: interview with Wayne Mackintosh

As a member of the POERUP project team, I recently had the good fortune to interview Wayne Mackintosh, founding director of the OER Foundation and coordinator of the OERu OERu network, for a case study about this community. (For more about the POERUP case studies, please see my earlier blog post.) In this post I will share a few highlights from the interview.

Wayne Mackintosh (by Jane Nicholls: CC-BY)

Wayne Mackintosh (by Jane Nicholls: CC-BY)

The first theme that runs through the interview is the fact that the OERu is fundamentally a philanthropic initiative, and that it aims to widen participation in higher education:

The purpose of the OERu is to provide free learning opportunities for any student in the world who wants access to tertiary education, using courses which are solely based on OERs, with the option to acquire a formal assessment services from any of the OER anchor partners, which would typically be offered on a cost-recovery basis.

The second strand running through the interview is the link that Wayne makes between this philanthropic underpinning, the identity and cohesion of the OERu community, and the likely sustainability of its activities:

We are first and foremost a philanthropic collaboration. What we are aiming to do is to widen educational opportunity through the agendas of social inclusion or the missions of community service of our individual partners, and that is central to what we are doing. We are a philanthropic initiative, but it’s smart philanthropy in that the lessons learned from our members through being part of this network can be ploughed back into the mainstream delivery on their own campuses. But the core identity is one of widening access to education using OERs… One of the top reasons for our partners joining the network is one of widening access, and for us that is the core differentiator from any of the open online course initiatives that are out there. We are philanthropic and that’s the reason why we will succeed. In short, we don’t have to figure out how to pay back 20 million dollars of venture capital.

And further, on the subject of sustainability:

The OERu, since its inception, has been designed for sustainability. In terms of fiscal sustainability without reliance on third-party donor funding, we are 60% towards achieving our breakeven threshold, so we only need to recruit an additional 15 partners to be self-funding. But at that point the model becomes extremely interesting because with any additional partners above the breakeven threshold, we have money to reinvest in the commissioned development of OER university courses, and… there will be an incentive mechanism built into the system. So for example, you could have a scenario where the institutions that have completed their two-course contributions will get voting rights on where the money is spent on developing the next courses. And there’s no way that a Coursera or Udacity would be able to compete with that model economically.

Wayne’s dedication to the OERu concept filters through his every utterance, and considering the time (by his own admission, roughly 80 hours per week) and effort he clearly puts in, it was very encouraging to hear him say:

This is the most rewarding experience of my entire career. It’s a return to the core values of education and to share knowledge freely. At the heart of every educator is this passion to share knowledge; it’s [given me] the ability to share this passion. You know, working openly we can achieve great things. It’s been the most rewarding experience. I wouldn’t change it for the world!

If these few quotes have whet your appetite for more from this inspiring thought leader in open education, you can read the full transcript of the interview with Wayne Mackintosh.

Thanks again to Wayne for participating in this study.


Blog post written by Gabi Witthaus for the Institute of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester.

CC-BY licence

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