explorations in the ed tech world

same sounds-different meanings

#OER18 and some historical branches of open

I’m headed to #OER18 in a few days where I’ll be presenting alongside Viv Rolfe (with contributions from Tanya Dorey-Alias who sadly can’t be there) on the historical branches of open.  We connected about this last year, having a shared fondness for things that we forgot about open and it’s various branches or tentacles, and our short presentation will delve into a few of them namely open classrooms, open pedagogy, and self-directed learning.

As I stated in this post from a couple of years ago, Viv really kick started this at Open Ed a few years back, and it inspired me to look into the history of open pedagogy.  The interest in Paquette’s framing of this is the 70s seems to be substantial and is one of the most frequently visited posts I have on this little blog.  I worked with our library to get a copy of volume one of his book (not easy), where he expands on the topic in more detail than the article I shared.  I think it’s in the best interest of those of us exploring this topic to have access to this full volume, so I’ve scanned and posted it here.  Paquette Tome 1

It’s going to require a fair amount of cut and paste into Google translate but if that seems daunting it’s worth perusing the table of contents.



Decentralized structures and the innovation agenda

In a few of my posts on innovation, I’ve talked about the role that teaching and learning centres have in supporting an institutional innovation agenda, and where they can run into trouble.  In my last post, I argued that without proper prioritization, innovation can become an add-on watered down initiative that the centre is tasked with.

I also wrote in one of my earlier posts about finding  the innovators in the institution, who are likely scattered across programs and the importance of recognizing and building on what they are doing.  I’m essentially advocating for a bottom up and top down approach to innovation with a goal of healthy and meaningful convergence.

What if you don’t have a centre and function more as a decentralized structure? Can’t you just collect all the innovators and connect them with a community of practice and provide some funding?  Yes and no.  In my opinion, it depends on the level of institutional ambition for innovation.  Decentralized structures can work when projects are small in scale, don’t required specialized expertise, and economies of scale aren’t important to the institution.  They may provide Deans with more flexible resourcing and prioritization.  But they also introduce a certain amount of risk to the institution, and if innovation goals are ambitious, or if e-learning is being scaled up, there is a inevitable chain of events that follow.

First, as things scale up, Deans are tasked with finding more resources for people to bring on to support the activity. This almost always introduces a new silo structure within the institution and there is a limit to the roles and expertise you can bring on with the resources within a project, school or faculty.  The positions usually end up being the jack of all trades type, which can be quite efficient if your e-learning is of the bread and butter vanilla variety.  If the innovation agenda is looking for a significant shift beyond status quo, this type of structure becomes unrealistic to maintain since it is limited by the amount of resources and skills that can be obtained with those resources to meet the objectives.  Sometimes this gap is met with short term contractors (where collective agreements permit).  This can work if you have a long term relationship with the contractors, but again it introduces some risk and disadvantages. First, contractors aren’t always available when you need them. Secondly, reliance on contractors means you may be paying more and aren’t developing and retaining any long term, skilled capacity.

Eventually you may end up with 3 or 4 different mini and silo-ed centres scattered across the institution.  So what’s the problem?  First, you end up with a have and have not situation that begins to feel competitive over time.  Faculty or School A has more resources than Faculty or School B, so Faculty A can do more and scale up.  Importantly,  the silo centres, due to the minimal resourcing, are usually heads down in the day to day activities they support for the School or Faculty.  The innovation agenda of the institution (provided it’s been clearly defined) is no longer a priority.

It comes down to whose innovation agenda is it?  If it’s institutional, then you need a horizontal structure that works with Schools/Faculties towards that agenda.  If it’s a School or Faculty agenda, then the ambition will likely be smaller in scale  unless it has the resources to scale it up.  And if it’s a small institution with limited resources, it is very difficult to achieve economies of scale in a decentralized structure.



Prioritizing Innovation in the Organizational Structure

image from https://smithsmm.files.wordpress.com/2017/02/quote-featured.jpg It’s been a while since I wrote a series about the topic of innovation in higher education.  Here they are from 2015:

About those innovation jobs…7 Rules About Innovation

First steps in Creating a culture of innovation in higher education – Figuring out what innovation will mean

Removing barriers to innovation – the teaching and learning centre and third spaces

Some ideas for creating a culture of innovation

Considerations for ed tech and innovation

In preparation for being invited a second time (thanks Mark!) to facilitate a discussion on Institutional Organization and Support  in the Planning and Managing Technologies in Higher Education course,  I’ve found myself thinking about organizational structures and achieving higher ed innovation goals.  Since I lead a teaching and learning centre, I care a lot about the role a teaching and learning centre can have in innovation.  But I also recognize that sometimes centres can impede innovation and there are reasons why that happens.

For starters, teaching and learner centres generally exist to support some aspect of the academic strategy or plan.  But academic strategies have a 3-5 year life and centres generally outlive academic plans.  If a centre has been in existence for a while, sometimes it evolves into a well-oiled machine where program reviews, faculty development, and the support and dissemination of good teaching practices are all part of the centre’s activities.  These are bread and butter activities that indisputably support ANY academic plan and therefore the prioritization of these kinds of activities can go unchallenged. Staff in the centre were also likely hired based on their abilities to support  these things and the centre becomes very skilled at doing them.

Ambitious e-learning or innovation agendas can throw a wrench into the centre’s well oiled machine.  For starters, the ambition doesn’t always match the existing resources and centres may or may not have the right staff to lead or implement the innovation agenda.  Secondly, without clear direction and expectations from the executive, centres may be tasked with doing innovation in addition to all the other excellent work they are doing.    What results is an initiative or two added onto the centre’s existing activities without the appropriate ground work required to have long term, sustainable change.

I’m of the opinion that ambitious innovation agendas actually require sustained and dedicated leadership and groundwork.  I’ve already written about what this means in terms of high level steps.  Operationally, something like expanding or shifting the ed tech infrastructure (very important) at the institution to meet the innovation goals usually  requires countless meetings between the centre’s director and the CIO or any technology steering committees, stakeholders,  and the executive.  Since e-learning innovation usually (hopefully!) results in innovation in program delivery, there are additional tie-ins with registration, student support, faculty development, and learning design.

So what’s the problem? If you are a well resourced institution you can create a dedicated centre focussed on e-learning and innovation  (ideally one  that is not divorced from the core centre)  to take on the agenda until it settles into a new normal.  But many institutions can’t afford to do this which leads to the centre being overloaded and the innovation being water-down or slight variations of status quo.

This is where I think centres and institutions run into trouble.  The institution has a role in being clear on the priorities and understanding what activities in the centre need to be parked in order to achieve the innovation agenda.  This isn’t to say that one can’t bleed into the other…for example there will likely be a faculty development component to innovation but I think it’s unrealistic for less-resourced centres to be doing scholarship of teaching and learning, indigenization, internationalization, and e-learning innovation concurrently (several of which are popular items on academic plans these days) .  You run the risk of being a jack of all trades and master of none and you may end up a teaching and learning centre that appears to lack focus.



OER in other languages – a project update of sorts

It’s been 5 weeks since I started the Other Language OER site and what started as  part whim, part experiment, part inspired by following the #opencon stream, has evolved into an itch that that gets me on a daily basis.  My goal was to post one OER per week from another language than English but after 5 weeks there are 12 OERs in 12 different languages, one of them submitted by someone other than myself (thanks @tomonagashima !)

The background and rationale for the site emerged from some longer deliberations and an even longer one over here  and I get that it’s really a very limited audience who might be interested in this.  But I’m learning a lot in my almost daily practice which incidently  feels like a 15 minute treasure hunt I try and do first thing in the morning.  Perhaps the biggest learning is that the resource itself isn’t the most interesting thing, but it’s how the resource is found, accessed, and ultimately what can be said about the broader OER landscape that is most interesting.

The first few posts were focussed on the resource itself and I wasn’t too explicit about my intention for posting it.  But every post has an intention and observation, so in more recent posts I’ve tried to include those, since that’s the interesting part.

For example, my first post was text modules for a grad course on India and the World, and the purpose of starting with this one was to demonstrate that if you wanted to teach a course in say, Indian or South Asian politics, why not extend a search to include regions of the world where they might have a particular insight that might not be available or visible to us in English.  Similarly, if we covet the Finnish K-12 education system so much, looking for K-12 material in Finnish seems like a great way to extend a search and build on their efforts.  Of course, obviously its difficult to transport a Finnish K-12 textbook into our own K-12 curriculum. First it has to be translated. Then it has to line up with our curriculum.  But if the potential of OER is truly in the remixing and adapting, then we need to set aside the difficulty of translation and localizing from other languages and practice what we preach where it makes sense.  In some cases, especially where there are already resources that have been created by recognized experts in recognized countries, it seems ludicrous to even bother starting from scratch.

Of course, the 5 R’s tells us that an open license opens possibilities for new educational practices (OER enabled pedagogy if you will).  What are the practices we want to see?  First of all, I’d love to see K-12 open textbooks in Canada for reasons I expressed here.  Imagine if an open textbook on Canadian History, for example,  could be remixed (rewritten?) by Indigenous educators.  Or imagine if students had to compare the North American chapter of an open Slovenian Geography textbook with their own high school Pearson edition?

Textbooks aside, there are other things I’ve learned from these past five weeks, some of them more obvious than others:

  1. Google translate is incredibly helpful
  2. Some languages, despite have a large population of speakers,  turn up no open resources (eg. Swahili).  Admittedly, this could be the fault of the searcher.
  3. Large pdfs don’t translate easily, as Google gets overloaded
  4. Some languages produce better translations than others
  5. If you want your OER to be reused, or simply translated, it really needs to be provided in multiple formats and not in a proprietary package (e.g. i-books that don’t download). Also, when said proprietary package company disappears, what happens?
  6. When a course is all text, there’s a fine line between a course and a textbook. Point being, if looking for an open textbook a repackaged open course might do the trick
  7. There are some great resources on sites that are dying a slow death, probably as a result of short term funding.  Reusing and mirroring are important to maintain the life of these efforts.
  8. There are some fascinating cultural insights you gain from looking at OERs in other languages.
  9. Lesser used languages may have the most to gain from being more visible due to open licenses.
  10. There are no shortage of ancillary resources out there for the STEM type disciplines. Cf. German , Chinese, and Portuguese
  11. We really don’t need any more math textbooks- those seem to be the most frequently encountered subject in my searches
  12. Some countries are doing open courseware really well. C.f Delft (Holland) and Hokkaido (Japan).

A final shout out to Alan Levine aka  @cogdog for creating the SPLOT template I use to create the site. It really is the simplest WordPress site you can have, and by allowing me (and anybody else who wants to)  to quickly upload and publish without logging in and futzing around, it actually makes doing this on an almost daily basis a possibility.  If you want to test drive it, grab an OER in another language and submit it over here.

OER and the language problem (part 2) – the status and function rationale

Critical scholarship ought to analyse the strong forces that are at pains to create the impression that English serves all the world’s citizens equally well, or those who uncritically assume this is so, when this is manifestly not the case. (Phillipson, 2001)


In my first post on this topic I put forward some high level statements on why I think OER has a language problem.  The “problem” may largely be one of awareness and as the movement evolves into its adolescence I think it will be increasingly important to surface the intersection of language, OER, and social justice.

My specific concern is with the uni-directional nature of OER from English to other languages.  English as a language holds considerable economic and social power, which has obviously facilitated its emergence as a global language.  This emergence is perhaps neither good nor evil, but carries with it some consequences that are worthy of consideration and have been documented for some time.  The positions on this topic range from moderate to extreme, with scholars like Tove Skuttnab-Kangas dedicating decades to topics such as language rights,  linguicide and the consequences of colonialism to more functional perspectives such as WF Mackey’s framework for understanding prestige, function, and status of language in relation to language vitality.

I was a grad student of Mackey’s at Université Laval in the 90s when he was already well into his seventies.  Mackey ran a internationally well known centre on research in language planning but also had been an advisor to many nations on language planning and policy, and as the story goes, had played an important role in shifting Quebec from English to French in the areas of education, government and the workplace in the 60s and 70s.  What was interesting about Mackey was that he was very academic about his approach, adopting a neutral stance that leaned on the science of language planning, and thus avoiding the inevitably polarizing debates that occur when language planning or revitalization is a topic.

This seems like a good place to start in attempting to be critical about the uni-directional nature of OERs.

Language Vitality = Prestige, Function and Status

In Mackey’s framework, the vitality of a  language can be thought of in terms of three buckets – prestige, status and function.  As he describes it “the essential difference between prestige, function, and status is the difference between past, present and future”.

Prestige:  depends on its record , or what people think its record to have been.  In some cases this is largely symbolic.

Function:  what people can actually do with the language

Status:  the potential for people do do something with the language, eg. legally, culturally, economically, politically and demographically.

“The functions of a language, as defined as what one in fact does with it, can be directly observed in the language behaviour of the population of any area. The status  of a language can often be modified by changing its functions.”

So what does this have to do with OER and open?

Status is also “what one can do with a language also depends on what  is available in it – books, films, and other cultural products (cultural status)” .  Demographic status is important in the cultural production since it is tied to economic power to some extent.  This is how Mackey relates the two in relation to literacy (note – he was writing this in 1976)

 ” the production of reading material – books, newspapers, magazines – whether undertaken by the state or by private enterprise, is an economic undertaking.  Literate people who can afford to produce and market books in their language promote it’s usefulness in as much as people buy and read their products.  Being economically dominant, their language is likely to be that of trade, commerce and industry, and as such a valuable language.  The same people can afford to travel and to invest, thus expanding abroad both their activities and their language “

It’s interesting to consider this quote by replacing reading material with OER, and situating it in a context of knowledge production and digital divide.  Importantly, the more functions a language has, the more status it will have. This is not a problem per se, unless it is being done at the expense of the other languages, which some argue is in the case of English (more on this in Ingrid Pillar’s book, see also Phillipson ).  We see this in the growth of academic publishing in English (and resulting inequalities), the   growth and availability of English language university programs in nations where English is not the traditional language of higher education, or in the massive English as a Foreign language teaching industry –  all are evidence of an increase in the function and therefore status of English.

The critical question for the open movement to consider is what is gained or lost when we feed the function/status machine of English.  For example, is it a detriment to scientific knowledge or is it a response to an economic necessity?  Who benefits and who is left out?  Does open benefit when it is multi-directional or is the predominance of English as a global language facilitating our efforts? My assessment leans towards the former – hence this project on OER in other languages- but I’m aware more scholarship and discussion is required.  As a parting thought, consider Skutnabb-Kanga’s (2000) distinction between an diffusion of language paradigm and an ecology of language paradigm.

So What’s the Takeaway?

The story of French in Quebec in the pre-1960s revitalization is one of a local French majority where French lost status, function, and ultimately prestige to an English minority.  This was reversed through government intervention and language planning, but continues to be an area that English Canada has difficulty understanding but makes total sense from a Mackey framework perspective.   The important takeaway from this example is that the framework not only describes what is happening, but also gives us some mechanisms for shifting it if we choose.  We have some agency in the open community to care about language planning and insert it in our conversations about OER and social justice.


Language and the OER problem

I have about 3 posts I could write about this topic and eventually I might get to my 2 half-baked drafts and book reviews, but the topic is complex and multifaceted, so let’s see where this goes.

One of the shifts in OER movement that I’ve really appreciated has been the thread of declaring social justice as part of what we do in the OER space.  I’m hoping that as we evolve we can remember that social justice is inherently tied to language which has been so well argued in Ingrid Pillar’s recent book:  Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice.

OER has a language problem.

  1.  The majority of OERs are in English. This is both a barrier and an opportunity.

A major challenge for delivery of OER on mobile technology globally is that most currently available OER are in English, and learners in many countries do not read or speak English. However, some countries see students completing courses in English as an opportunity for them to learn or improve their English language skills. 

2.  It’s not as simple as translating from English to a local language.  This requires time, resources, and a fair amount of skill.

Revision also involves a substantial amount of thought into the process of localization. In the case of revision-as-translation, the linguistic concern is of primary importance. An often-ignored barrier to remix and revision is the English-language and western bias of the Internet and particularly OER.

3. A language problem was identified by UNESCO in 2012.

Encourage the development and adaptation of OER in a variety of languages and cultural contexts. Favour the production and use of OER in local languages and diverse cultural contexts to ensure their relevance and accessibility. Intergovernmental organisations should encourage the sharing of OER across languages and cultures, respecting indigenous knowledge and rights. (UNESCO, 2012)

4.  There are language technology limitations when it comes to OERs.

Connecting and creating resources depends on the availability of tools that have interfaces in local languages, which is not the case for much software. These are important barriers when considering who is remixing and the limitations a wide audience has in engaging in OER-related practices.

5.  We spend very little time searching, reusing, adapting ,and quite frankly, amplifying OERs that have been created in languages other than English.  No research to link to this, just an observation that is open to debate.

Fortunately, there are frameworks for looking at questions of language in relation to social and political contexts.  The one I’m most familiar with it W.F. Mackey’s which I recommend  as an easy to read introduction to his framework:  Determining the Status and Function of Languages in Multinational Societies.  This framework explains how #1-5 happens, and provides insight into how to shift it.

Ultimately, I’d like to put on the table two provocations:

  1.  Reusing and Revising OERs is an important proposition, but let’s not overstate the ease of doing this without considering sociolinguistic realities and the fact that this is currently a largely unequal transaction that favours English over other languages.
  2. Well resourced OER initiatives favour the creation and diffusion of OERs in English, as opposed to, for example, translating and localizing OER that originate in other languages.  Or supporting the language revitalization of lesser used, and possibly endangered languages as a result of colonization (e.g. indigenous languages).

A few moments from ICDE 2017 #worldconf17

I skipped Open Ed  this year to attend the ICDE World Conference  in Toronto.  The last time I attended ICDE was eight years ago  in Maastricht.  I brought my daughter, who was 5. She got sick in the bathroom 15 minutes before my presentation, then sat on the floor and did crafts while I presented.  (Somebody took  a photo of her which still lives in the conference archives. Check out that mom-purse full of kid stuff).  Of the things that I remember, the conference was held in a very nice venue but there was no food at all for the four days.

I  remember being impressed by how  it was very international.

Back to this year.  I’m not sure where else you can have the convergence of distance eduction, open education, OER, and online learning all at one conference.  I learned that ICDE has been around for 86 years which is quite remarkable and perhaps underlines the important roots of distance education.

I attended a session at every time slot, listened carefully, and with one exception, didn’t take any notes.  I’m left with memorable moments, although every session was excellent and deserves to be mentioned.  The organization was impeccable, the food was plentiful and delicious, and the hospitality was outstanding.  Maxim Jean-Louis stood at the exit of the conference and was there to personally shake the hands of all 1400 participants from 95 countries who attended. Very classy and an incredible act to follow.

For starters, I appreciated that most of the sessions I attended, including keynotes, were largely panels and no PowerPoints.  This was refreshing.  The Day 1 keynote panel resonated with themes of agency, equity, education for good (Stephen Downes wrote a great summary. The Day 2 keynote panel not so much. In fact, I felt like a toddler being chastised for not playing nice with the mean kids in the sandbox.  From this panel I remember that ‘students don’t care about privacy’, and that higher ed needs to talk and learn from private sector providers and training types ’cause they know stuff. (For the record, we regularly attend DevLearn, the most vendor driven corporate training conference I can think of, and most of us in the public higher ed sector have no doubt spent countless hours reflecting on tensions and questions of public and private).  A note for keynote speakers at international conferences – be careful about gross generalizations that are relevant to your national reality, especially if said keynote panel represents collectively one country.

I should add that the vastly different keynote panels was probably a stroke of organization genius in presenting us with two vastly different flavours of discourse. This is healthy, even if it made me uncomfortable.

Some other memorable moments:

I learned from a Stephen Downes presentation that he has a sense of humour that I really appreciate, even if I didn’t understand where his head was with AI.  He was very witty.

I attended a Tony Bates session on quality in online learning thinking I was already fairly knowledgable on the subject and ended up taking pages of notes. Tony has a great conference summary over here.

I learned that Brazil has an incredible website of more than 60 open, short course modules for continuing professional education for doctors, in Portuguese and Spanish.  Unfortunately, I’ve been trying for DAYS to get registered because one of the fields requires something called a CPF, but they have been friendly and are working on it.

I learned that Canada is falling behind in some areas I don’t want to mention here, but let’s just say that some federally funded health education projects are largely uninspired.

I learned that my former UBC desk mate, Adnan Qayyum, is a research rock star and now occupies Michael Moore’s former professorship at Penn State.  His comparative international education work is fascinating, and one of the tidbits I can’t stop sharing is that 50% of Russian Higher Ed students are in distance education.  That’s a lot of potential OER, if we can move to bridge the distance education as OER gap.

I learned that the ROER4D is a fantastic research project that I need to dig more deeply into and continue to follow.

As I do when I go to conference cities, I try and check out a gallery or two. I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario and got my fill of Group of 7, and ‘discovered’ David Milne. But a highlight was checking out the newly opened Galerie de Bellefeuille where the nicest private gallery employee I have ever encountered (thanks Ray!) led me around the works and pleasantly and unpretentiously chatted art.  This included pulling up Drake’s page on my instagram  to show me the bedazzled buddha he had purchased the day before.  In case you’re intrigued, it looks like one of these.



Looking back at a rejected ELI 2010 submission

In the spirit of ed tech history, I was reminded in a roundabout way of a rejected Educause submission Mark Bullen and I submitted in 2010. We’d been researching and writing about the absurdity of the Net Gen discourse for a couple of years by then, Mark’s Net Gen Nonsense blog was already a well established resource for collecting and disseminating on the topic, we had a peer reviewed article published, and more than an handful of presentations on the topic.  Interestingly, I recall that being on the other side of the Net Gen discourse fence felt like being the weirdo at a party full of cool kids, and I know that Mark had his share of fielding comments on the blog and even f2f at our institution in an environment where Net Gen, Digital Natives and Millennials were the rationale for pretty much anything ed tech.

At our own institution we had some lessons learned about Net Gen-ing  ($$$) your ed tech  infrastructure to respond to the Digital Native phenomenon.  So when the ELI 2010 call about Learning Environments for a Web 2.0 World came around, we thought we had something to share. End of story.  Historical artefacts below.

Our Submission

This session will focus on the importance of making evidence-based  learning environment design decisions. We will argue that key design decisions in higher education are increasingly being influenced by  unsupported claims about the nature of learners. These decisions can be costly, can alienate learners and instructors, and can have a negative impact on teaching and learning.

1. Learning environment design decisions should be based on sound  research

2. Educators need to be much more critical of claims about the nature  of learners and their needs

3.  Educators need to distinguish between the different types of  research (academic, proprietary, government) and understand the  implications of using these types of research

Understanding our learners is critical to making informed learning environment design decisions. However, there has been a largely uncritical  acceptance of the Net Generation discourse which suggests that today’s learners are fundamentally different than previous generations and that we  need to make radical changes to learning environments to accommodate  these differences. But an analysis of these claims reveals that there is little solid research-based evidence to support them. In fact, the sound research  suggests that generational differences are not significant. We will analyze the research and present data from an ongoing international research  project to argue for a nuanced approach to learning environment design.

Run, Computer, Run: The Mythology of Educational Innovation


When I was prepping my keynote for CNIE, I encountered some interesting quotes taken from a 1969 collection of essays playfully entitled Run, Computer, Run: The Mythology of Educational Innovation written by Anthony Oettinger.  There are literally no copies on the interwebs that I could find, but I was able to interlibrary loan a copy, ran out of time, digitized a copy, and in the interest of important history I’m sharing it here:   run computer run 1969.  I haven’t had to photocopy an entire book since about 1998, so the 25 minutes at the copier flipping pages and pressing the Start button 150 times may have been a bit tedious, and may have resulted in a few skipped pages.

I’m still going through this publication, but here are a few things I’ve noted:

I’m still going through this publication, but here are a few things I’ve noted:

  1. The Forward, written by Emmanuel Mesthene, Director of the Harvard University Program on Technology and Society, comes in at four pages and is a marvellous time capsule of ed tech in 1969.
  2. Chapter 4 is a surprisingly current and relevant description of the properties of educational devices,  which Oettinger positions as “devices in a broad sense, encompassing the poeple and the organizations serving as agents of change. Novelty  and glamor are not the only properties of educational tools worthy of note or sufficient to make them valuable for teaching.”  Oettinger goes on to outline some of these properties which include flexibility and adapatability, amount of resource required, reliability and maintenance, complexity, and so on.

The publication is a bundling of chapters and case descriptions coupled with observation and a bit of research.  Its thesis is somewhat clear, but there is lots of room for critique.  Fortunately, the book was considered important enough to result in at least eight reviews (of which six that I could actually access) that ranged from balanced and favourable (4) to mixed or scathing (2).


Norman Kurland Review

Peter Rossi review

Oettinger is still alive according to his wikipedia page, and I think it would be pretty fascinating to hear an interview on his thoughts on how far, or how little we’ve traveled since 1969.


Innovation in Higher Education…and other blasts from the past

I had the pleasure to be a keynote at CNIE 2017 in Banff last week, 14 years after first attending the very first iteration of this conference in the exact same location. This year’s theme was Exploring our past, present and future, which could not have been a more perfect theme to talk about a topic I’ve become quite interested in over the past year.  Last year I began looking into the past of concepts like open pedagogy/pédagogie ouverte  and delving into this past has really helped me gain some perspective on how we are currently talking about open.  Preparing for the CNIE keynote gave me a great opportunity to delve  more deeply into the past of other concepts such as innovation, ed tech, and open in particular.

The point of this presentation was to take a journey to the past, the 1960s and 70s for the most part, and talk about current day open, ed tech, and  innovation in relation to the past.

We started with the Then or Now game. I put up 4 slides of different quotes from 1960-present and you had to guess whether the quote was from the past or present.  As expected, this wasn’t an easy one to guess, the point being that a lot of the past rhetoric on open, ed tech, or innovation sounds very familiar to those of us who’ve been in the field for a while.  You can see the quotes in the slide deck, but the references for those slides follow:

  1.  The Erosion of Innovation in Higher Education, 1970. ( A dissertation written by the future president of Buffalo State College, or was it really written by Gail, his wife?). note: you need access to pro quest to access this one, full citation here:JOHNSTONE, DONALD BRUCEUniversity of Minnesota, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1969. 7001794.

2.  The automated university: bots and drones amid the dreaming spires, 2017

3.  Technology and Education: who controls?, 1970


And my personal favourite:

4.  Radical Innovation in a Conventional Framework: Problems and Prospects, 1977

The point of the Then or Now game is that there are many recognizable tropes in those quotes, and what I learned in looking at 1960-1980 is that for every gushing Chronicle or Ed Surge article you can find a 1960s or 70s equivalent.  Of course, there is both great comfort and room for critique in that observation.

“The crisis facing higher education in our nation has been mentioned so often that I fear we may tend to consider it an old story. It is not.“

In 1963, where this quote is from, it turns out there actually was a crisis in higher education in the 60s and 70s. What we learn from reading about this time period is that the drivers for the crisis, perceived or real, are not dissimilar to today.

For example, there is a pressure of numbers- in an OECD report in 1968 Change and innovation in higher education pointed to the pressure of numbers (changing demographics) as a result of growth in population and demand for greater equality – for example, I was surprised to learn that in UK between 1961 and 1968 24 new universities were created.

Also noted is the driver of scientific and tech progress: “new disciplines must be introduced; boundaries between the old ones become artificial; the rapid obsolescence of existing technologies has to be taken into account”.  Those same drivers appear in this Huffington post article from 2015.

I then continue with more echoes from the past including:

  1.  Disruption 1960s style: “ there is a chorus of exhortations – articles beginning ‘Higher Education should’ or ‘must’”. From 1967 – Innovation: Processes, Practice and Research p.38.
  2. No shortage of buzzwords and technology solutionism: “technological revolution” is a term “used with great abandon and little definition”. From 1968 Educational Technology: New Myths and Old Realities.
  3. And no shortage of skepticism – the newest trend becomes embraced or critiqued:  “in spite of or because of its obscure meaning, individualized instruction is held up as a panacea for the ills of education”– 1968: Educational Technology: New Myths and Old Realities
  4. And of course, the obligatory tech as distraction reference: “Kids who are used to having blaring transistor radios around hem every waking moment have trained themselves to ignore anything coming into their ears, and therefore hear very little of what comes out the the earphones they we are in the language lab” : 1968: Educational Technology: New Myths and Old Realities

One of the greatest higher education innovations was the Open University. I find it curious that during the MOOC mania, there was little discussion about how open universities were a real solution to a demographic/accessibility/education massification problem, AND they actually provided students with real credits in a meaningful education “currency”. The OU UK was established in 1968, and many other open universities followed. Here in Canada, as a result of the Quiet Revolution, there was the establishment of a new higher ed system called CEGEPs in Quebec in 1968, resulting in 46 new 2-3 year colleges that were accessible and largely free.  The scale of higher ed expansion at this point in time is mind-boggling.  In a period of 10 years, 28 other open universities were established around the world.

In 1979 John Daniel writes somewhat retrospectively on this phenomenon in Opening Open Universities:  “They are designed to serve working adults, usually without any academic prerequisites for entry, and they involve the delivery of instruction at a distance. Best known of these new institutions is the Open University of the UK, which has identified some 29 other universities around the world which implementthe open university concept in various ways. For most of these universities, adult off campus students constitute the sole or primary clientele”.

Here in Canada, in 1972 a task force on the Télé-Université reported that the establishment of TELUQ should address these challenges.

— Lifelong learning

— Real accessibility for all.

— Social development.

— Needs of working population.

— Greater mobility of knowledge.

— Wide use of new media and techniques.

— Rethinking the learning situation.

— Taking account of people’s prior life experiences.

— Reduction of unit costs

What is striking is how incredibly ambitious this list is.

In comparing our current day solutions to changing demographics, population, tech change, accessibility, to those of the 60s and 70s, where there drivers were very similar, it is notable that in the 60s and 70s the open universities had very ambitious agendas.  Today, it appears, we lean on MOOCs and OERs to address our higher ed problems, and we are certainly asked to buy into a rhetoric of disruption.

What is interesting, however, is that in the 60s, disruption meant actual student protests and disruption on college and university campuses around the world.  Today, it means the creation of new tech products, that will somehow solve higher education problems.  This is the innovation conversation of today that many of us in the ed tech field are familiar with. As this graphic from 2015 shows, the sample of the ‘ed tech players’ are for the most part LMS or MOOC platforms. 

And we are breathlessly reminded that this is a growth industry.

Keep in mind there has always been an education market.  In 1966-67 it was estimated to be worth 48 billion dollars in the US, second only to defense. Today the ed market, however defined, is second only to heath care in the US.

The question is, how much of what we are doing is recreating the past.  To this, we can look at Open Pedagogy as a possible example.

When I began looking into the origins of open pedagogy, I didn’t find many references in the English literature, but found a body of work in the French literature that dates from the early 70s, associated with Claude Paquette, a professor at UQAM.

Open pedagogy in its current day form has been argued to be the pedagogy that results when open education resources (as defined by the 5R permissions) are used. Along with this definition are the 5Rs as articulated by David Wiley.

Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content

Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways

Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself

Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other material to create something new

Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)

As a result, this is a content focussed definition, and  Wiley has since reframed his definition of open pedagogy as OER enabled pedagogy.

What becomes interesting is when we contrast the current day open pedagogy, centred on the permissions surrounding content, with open pedagogy of the 1960s where learner emancipation, not the use of OERs, was the goal of open pedagogy. Claude Paquette outlines 3 sets of foundational values of open pedagogy, namely:  autonomy and interdependence; freedom and responsibility; democracy and participation. For me, this is a much more ambitious definition of open pedagogy, focussed less on the how and more on the actual goal.

So what happened?  We can perhaps look to the 80s for some clues, although I spend less time in this era of the literature and there is more work to be done here.

The first hint I found is from Patricia Cross, speaking about community colleges in 1981:  “the message seems to say that the old ideals of the 1960s that used to excite and inspire, albeit midst frequent controversy, are gone, and new ones have not yet emerged”. She describes the emergence of a plateau “between 2 periods of high energy and a sense of mission in the community colleges” and notes that the early ideals have receded. In this article, she compares ‘should be’ goals at a 10 year interval and notes particularly the decline in the should be goal of accessibility, a significant decline in esprit de corps…mutual trust and respect among faculty students and administrators.

We also can see the emergence of corporate-speak applied to higher education as exemplified in this quote from 1982:“institutions of higher education lag behind most other sectors of the economy in their capacity to improve productivity”.  This article, which was published in Journal of Higher Education – is entitled The Impact of Organizational and Innovator Variables on Instructional innovation in Higher Education .

There are some interesting examples from the graveyard of dreams that also demand us to pause and ask how we came so close to getting it right.

Consider, for example, the case of the Earth Sciences department at St. Lawrence University. In 1977 Bill Romey (same author of the blobs of jello quote) writes: “An opportunity arose to implement a new program in a conventional academic department of geology and geography at St. Lawrence University. Would it be possible to bring about extensive change from within a conventional department in an old-line, conventionally oriented liberal-arts school? ”

The change Romey describes includes 10 or so characteristics of the new program that would have considerable appeal by current day standards.  These include:

  • Independent project work at all levels, for all students and faculty, would replace all standard courses.
  • Students would evaluate their own work.
  • Students would keep portfolios of their own work as an alternative means of showing what they had accomplished. There would be no more examinations of conventional types.
  • Students and faculty would participate fully and equally in the governance of the department.
  • The department was to run as an open organism with free access for everyone in the university, whether or not they were formally enrolled for credit.
  • Each person would function both as a teacher and as a learner.
  • The faculty accepted responsibility, in cooperation with the students, to create and maintain a rich and stimulating learning environment for the benefit of all.

Romey describes the evolution over a few years, and notes that conventional thinking is starting to creep back in but for the most part the department is operating as described above.

If you go to the department page today you will see there appears to be no essence of this spirit left and the now Geology department adopts a structure not unlike many other universities.  In fact, the only hint of this former time can be found on the academics page, where some amount of program customization is referenced, but this comes across more as academic strategy-speak than real.

It’s important to underline that there were lots of these types of idealistic experiments happening on campuses across North America (see the chapter on Recent Developments, p.10, for a good description of this) –St. Lawrence not the only one and it would take some work for somebody to dig in and explore how they look today.  Also notable is that there were several threads of open across concepts such as individualized learning, open enrolment, and open classrooms, to name a few.

Fortunately, there are also some examples of things that have only gotten better with time – in 1970, MacManaway writes what can only be described as flipped learning 1970s style – provide students with the lectures scripts for private reading and use the classroom time for small group discussion and assignments.

What the past and present version of ourselves shared was a common desire for teaching, learning, and student success. And this is where I think current day higher education can innovate with openness.  Of course, openness is often associated with Creative Commons licensing.  But increasingly I’m less interested in potential of CC licensing and more in the question of Open as a means to what? I feel like our 60s and 70s counterparts were much more clear and explicit about this question.

In this section of the presentation I describe some examples where I think we can clearly answer the question, Open as a means to what?  These include:

  1. BCcampus as providing the higher education sector in BC as a means to collaborate.
  2. The BC Open Ed Tech Collaborative
  3. The beginnings of a WordPress Cooperative as a new model for doing things together
  4. Some JIBC examples of open for the public good:  eg. Fentanyl Safety , which was recently written up in the Atlantic
  5. An international collaboration between JIBC and University of Guadalajara where early discussions and contract language included a CC BY NC license.
  6. JIBC’s work in developing an open textbook Zed Cred/Zee Degree in Law Enforcement Studies
  7. Virtually Connecting

If I can note anything about this journey to the past, it’s that the 60s and 70s literature is not dull reading…many of the articles linked above are written with incredible candour and passion, and there are plenty of LOL moments.




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