OER: the death of the solipsistic academic?

October 7, 2011


The challenge faced by the Open Educational Resources University is not translation, context or learning styles, it is not a question of interoperability of learning environments or granularity of learning objects, SCORM compliance or IMS standards; it is perhaps rather a question of academic identity. We have a lot of identify work to do.

I remember first meeting  Wayne Mackintosh at the Third Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning (PCF3)  in Dunedin, New Zealand, in July 2004, hosted by DEANZ, the Government of New Zealand and the Commonwealth of Learning (COL). The theme for PCF3 was “Building Learning Communities for Our Millennium: Reaching Wider Audiences through Innovative Approaches”. Wayne was convener of our thoughtful, diverse, varied and anarchic think-tank. We talked about kite-marks, quality standards, intellectual colonialism and poverty. The seeds of the OERu were visible then.

It is no surprise to see Wayne Mackintosh, Director OER Foundation, leading the initiative for Open Educational Resources University, OER university (#oeru). The initiative is raising some interesting critiques, and questions, which Tony Bates summarizes succinctly. But these are still issues of institutional norms, governmental process and sectorial quality assurance. I sense we are asking a lot of people.

There are people in the world who are good at facilitating learners’ encounters with new concepts and ideas, there are people who can enthuse, capture and motivate; and there are those who write, design, narrate and structure learning in meaningful ways. It is as often pride, as much as institutional conventions, that gives rise to academics’ conviction that they must fulfill all these roles. Whilst an academic was once the guardian, seeker, generator and clarifier of the codex of knowledge in their domain, they are now primarily its steward and pride is best placed in a more defined function.

That knowledge was once defined in terms of individual libraries, writings and musings suggests only that it was confined to the means available to communicate it. To consider it now practical, or realistic, for an individual to hold the key to a domain of knowledge is nothing less than a delusion born of vanity.

The world of knowledge creation, dissemination and propagation has changed radically in the last 30 years, and with it, academic identity. It is simply illogical, not to say inefficient, to expect a single academic to research, write, and teach all the content for their university courses. What the OER movement represents is a 21st century model of knowledge propagation, a contemporary revisioning of the master-pupil relationship, and a means of making learning accessible beyond the single, constrained, voice of the solipsistic academic.

For the faculty that make-up our institutions to accept their emerging role as validators of the learning that happens without them necessarily ‘teaching’ what is validated, and teaching what is validated by others….. that is a huge leap into the unknown, and that surely, is the biggest challenge facing the OERu.

Which Universities will shape the learning spaces of the future?

October 5, 2011

“In search of the virtual class: education in an information society” published in 1995 by John Tiffin and Lalita Rajasingham begins with a description of a girl climbing into her sensor suit and shooting off to a virtual waterfall for a geography lesson. Digital Immersion was the future. The description of the learning envisaged a different kind of learner.

As the learner changes to take a significantly more determinant role in their own learning process, in a world in which Choice is the defining quality of the consumer and therefore the product, the model of our universities must look like the model of our students.

Universities must accept that the very nature of the University will change as societal expectations of their function ( most evident in student expectations ) changes. Which Universities will be brave enough to shape the learning spaces of the future?

Last month I wrote a short piece about the way the SOLE model might be used to reconceptualise the physical and virtual spaces in which learning will occur in the 21st Century. There are other models, my suggestion is simply that you need the model first, that a conceptual model of learning provides a useful mechanism to debate and design the spaces we intend for our learning. If we do not then we, Universities, will end up describing a ‘what’ we offer the student but not the ‘why’, and as we surely all recognise by now consumers don’t buy what you make, they buy why you make it. “Give me an educational rationale for why my lecture theatre looks like this, why my VLE looks like this!”

What does that mean in practice? In 2009 I was fortunate enough to be invited to deliver the closing keynote at the Estonian e-Universities conference in Tartu, Estonia. I asked delegates to do a little foresight thinking with me, a little futurology. Not something particularly ‘big’ in the UK or New Zealand (where I worked a the time). In my scenario I described Trin, a girl born in 2009 in Estonia, and asked the audience to future-think with me what her educational life would be.

I had several points I wanted to share, that the academic qualifications she would study in 18 years time most likely did not exist today, that her career choices were likely to be more complex and ‘portfolio’ driven than today, based on evidential skills not qualifications and so on. In amongst this discussion was the suggestion that the very future of the educational spaces she encountered would change. My suggestion was that Trin would go to a school in 2020s, when it suited her parents who blended home-schooling with community-schooling to fit with their family scenario. That the school itself was built into the fabric of the community, in buildings shared with other community services, post-office, library, social centre for the elderly. The extension of this sees Universities being porous knowledge mediators not guardians of the book-tower. Universities that used to shape our epistemological universe will do so again, but as our universe changes and expands, so must our universities.

In the two years since 2009 I can see things already diverging from my future-think, but some things I’d suggest are still relevant and the SOLE model provides one way of interpreting and predicating this change. As we accord learners a more central role in the learning process, should we not be exploring spaces through the SOLE model, or something like it? Should we not be asking what spaces we need to engineer for students to help them fulfil the holistic experience the SOLE model represents?

The universities that will shape the learning spaces of the future are those that are able to conceptualise, visualise, the world in which this future learner lives. The campus has had it’s day.

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