We have recently participated in the Elluminate session “OERs Across Sectors” on April 12th 2011, led by Lou McGill from the UKOER Evaluation and Synthesis project (the recording of the session can be accessed here). The three speakers (that includes us – you can access the presentation from our slideshare account) discussed the ways in which OERs are used by (HE in) FE students, their tutors and institutions. Within this blog, we have previously covered issues of relevance to our HE in FE academic partners, such as for instance high teaching workloads and very little time to devote to undertaking research (33 hours of release for scholarly activity is all you can expect in some places). At the same time, during the Elluminate session, as much as possible we tried to explore not just the differences between HE/HE in FE but possible synergies and attempted to Highlight the contributions of HE in FE institutions when it comes to teaching and providing support to students. yet another theme which came up during the session was that of power relationships, not only when it comes to the boundary between HE and HE in FE, but also more broadly conceptualised power differences between producers and users of content, students and tutors. There are further contradictions between teacher-centred pedagogic models prevalent at higher education institutions and the ethos of open education which calls for a more learner-centred and decentralized approach. Finally, there are a number of tensions embedded within the ethos of open education, including questions around access and who might be marginalised in the context of OER production/creation/release (especially if you take a more business-model like approach to OERs).
Questions around power relationships were quite prominent on the agenda of the most recent meeting of the project team, where we tried to critique the concept of the cascade framework itself (importantly, our involvement in the OER programme draws on a critical social science perspective on the processes of sharing digital educational resources!). After all, the problem with cascade as a metaphor is that it is unidirectional and you cannot really cascade above and if you are being cascaded to that might imply having less power within the process. That critique is also related to a question on what are the conditions under which individuals take risks with their pedagogy and in the climate of heightened student expectations most academics cannot really afford to take those risks. Those aren’t really new concerns, as demonstrated in this quote from the one of the partners in the OER pilot project:
Another point anthropologists make is where ‘power’ lies in this process. Once something is produced, finalised, packaged, presented, given, put in a repository for all to see, it all comes down to who has the power to decide what gets given to whom and when. The production is hidden, and the inequalities within are mystified. (…) Who has access to the materials and why? Are these ‘places of access’ free to all? What is the relationship between the funding bodies that set up projects like OER and universities that use these? Who is making these decisions? How are the objects produced and exchanged? Are our disciplinary subjects (and the teachers and students in these disciplines) getting a sense of empowerment with these projects when they use them?
It will be interesting to see what questions our current partners will come up with, especially as they are now working through yet another reflexive task, where this time they get to explore, among other things, power relationships as they relate to the project within the framework of peer review. At the same time, I would like to make a parallel between our efforts to make explicit the power relationships inherent to OERs and the attempt to explore the tacit nature of pedagogic description in the context of “opening up” teaching resources. This happens to be a topic for the forthcoming OER2011 conference presentation as part of the symposium on Research Methods OERs in the Social Sciences, where I am presenting a paper on OERs in the social sciences and the tacit models of resource creation. After all, the ways in which resources are used in a teaching context are often unrecorded and to re-use material effectively and repurpose it as an OER, such tacit understandings might have to be revealed and made open. My suggestion would be to extend this approach should to exploring power relationships in the context of the OER programme.