Suddenly, Everything has Changed

Open Access logo - see

Today I'm writing about changing expectations.  We all have a particular world view or mental model based on past experiences and our internalized view of what constitutes "business as usual".  What happens when an event comes along that shakes that mental model to its core?  In UK HE we have had a whole series of such events of late, but I will single out one in particular - and it's not the new fees regime (or BYOD if you're an IT person :-)

Open By Default

The momentous change I refer to is the move to being "open by default", pretty much across the board.  Consider this edict on open access to research data from the EPSRC, that noted hotbed of radicals: (highlighting is mine)
Research organisations will ensure that appropriately structured metadata describing the research data they hold is published (normally within 12 months of the data being generated) and made freely accessible on the internet; in each case the metadata must be sufficient to allow others to understand what research data exists, why, when and how it was generated, and how to access it
Research organisations will ensure that EPSRC-funded research data is securely preserved for a minimum of 10-years from the date that any researcher privileged access period expires or, if others have accessed the data, from last date on which access to the data was requested by a third party
For more fighting talk, please see the EPSRC Policy Framework on Research Data.

Another key part of the move to openness by default is the opening up of research publications following the Finch report.  Historically it would have been difficult to track the cutting edge research in a particular area unless your institution had subscribed to the relevant journals.  You could live in hope that a few scraps of free content would be thrown your way, or maybe beg the author to send you a copy of their article.  Not ideal if you are an early stage researcher, and an insurmountable obstacle to ordinary folk.  [You might think that ordinary folk would rapidly lose any interest in published academic material if they were exposed to it - tell that to my friend who has a child with a rare medical condition and has me keep an eye out for new papers in the area by (ab)using our institutional journal subscriptions]

One might also say that there are some snakes in the Garden of Eden that is open access publication, since inevitably the traditional journal publishers are unwilling to roll over and die without a fight.  Here's a lovely video from Alex Holcombe that unpicks the much vaunted "Gold" model of open access publishing...

MOOCs, OERs and other intimidating new acronyms

Institutions like MIT, Stanford and the Open University have blazed a trail by making Open Educational Resources available.  This movement has led to new ventures such as MitX (and now EdX), Coursera and Udacity, and is itself the byproduct of a new model for teaching and learning - the Massively Open Online Course or MOOC.  Here's a nice video about MOOCs from Dave Cormier, a key figure in the movement:

This new model inverts the traditional approach to further and higher education by having huge classes with equally vast dropout rates and a peer-to-peer interaction model rather than the traditional instructor-learner relationship.  For those that want to pursue it, accreditation is now becoming a practical option, through a testing centre approach similar to IT certifications such as CCNA and MCSE.  It's telling to see both leading institutions and industry giants with test centre facilities such as Pearson embracing this new model.

Adapt to Survive?

The above notwithstanding, OER has a different sort of traction to open access publications and research data - right now there is no mandate that teaching and learning materials must be shared in the same way as research outputs, and it is expensive and labour intensive to produce course materials with high production values.  You could simply fling your existing materials onto the open web rather than sequestering them behind a Virtual Learning Environment, but this would be unhelpful and possibly self-defeating if it leaves people with a bad impression.

A case in point at Loughborough: one of our most successful OERs is the mathscard™, a simple piece of card packed with info to help A-Level students with their Maths.  Over half the schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland subscribe to the mathscard, and over 2 million cards have now been distributed.  We recently created a mathscard app, which has also been hugely successful - see below for screenshots.

mathscard app on common smartphone platforms

Perhaps more significantly, the approaches that work for online distribution and learner engagement with students that the lecturer may never meet in real life are often quite different from those that would be employed in a conventional face-to-face teaching session based in a classroom.  It isn't sufficient to simply point a camera (or a sophisticated lecture capture system!) at the lecturer delivering their traditional sage on the stage performance.  

Watch the videos from the likes of Udacity or the Khan Academy and you will see that they have been shot as short films in their own right.  They often feature the lecturer speaking straight to camera or using graphical devices such as video capture of diagrams, equations etc being handwritten.  It's a long way away from a video of someone standing in a lecture theatre talking in front of some PowerPoint slides.

The Wrap-Up

I would venture to say that the practices I have described above are second nature to academics working in certain disciplines.  For me the prime example of folk who are accustomed to sharing data sets, source code, pre-prints, presentation slides and so on has been people who are working on the technologies underlying the Internet and the Web - just look at the activities of the Internet Engineering Task Force, for example.  However, I am assured by my colleagues that there are parallels in a number of other areas.

If you are not already of this outlook, it will probably take some mental adjustment before it "clicks".  However, the benefits are not to be sniffed at.  See below for a recent presentation on exploiting openness to everyone's advantage from Brian Kelly.  Brian has many strings to his bow, including the most downloaded author in the University of Bath's institutional repository.

One final thought on openness that may be illuminating - can you imagine advocating the opposite?  Let's take that contrary viewpoint: (picture you are Mitt Romney here if it helps)
Taxpayer funded research should be locked away where nobody can get at it - there could be all kinds of trouble if people go around "researching" stuff.  You can always pay for the work to be done again if someone else needs the results...
Industry should not able to get at and exploit research outputs.  Research should be pure as the driven snow, and unsullied by crude notions of commercial gain.
Taxpayers have no right to see the course materials that they have paid for, created by the academics whose salaries they pay.
Makes its own case, really, doesn't it? ;-)

Martin Hamilton

Martin Hamilton works for Jisc in London as their resident Futurist.