2011 OER or Year Zero?

The OER 2011 conference got off to a provoking start with the opening keynote, Towards the Triumph of the Commons, considering higher education’s potential to mirror the ugly effects of the process of enclosure that devastated the use of English common land in the late eighteenth century:

Once enclosed, these uses of the land become restricted to the owner, and it ceases to be common land.

The potential of Creative Commons to deal with the pernicious claim that knowledge can be ring-fenced was addressed by the keynote debating higher education’s ability to provide a public good or a private benefit. It was heartening to hear that someone so involved in the senior management of higher education could identify with the views felt by those currently working the common land:

education is not a commodity like a bar of chocolate or a café latté, which is physically consumed until there’s nothing left.

The lack of logic in such a zero sum conception of education was supported by the keynote’s citation of the views of Thomas Jefferson with regard to a more realistic portrayal of the creation of knowledge:

no one possesses the less because everyone possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me receives [it] without lessening [me], as he who lights his [candle] at mine receives light without darkening me.

Whilst the analogy effectively illustrated the delusion in treating education purely as a business transaction; it could have been expanded thanks to OERs’ ability to increase the brightness of the original candle via its sharing and re-sharing processes.

The conference’s final keynote also addressed the economic challenges facing contemporary higher education and it adopted a vision based on ‘BOTWOO’ (Building On The Work Of Others). Whilst the acronym is instantly forgettable the visible demonstration of its potential to model pedagogy thankfully was not and Supporting the teacher as learner explicitly demonstrated how OER can provide both clarity and efficiency for pedagogical deliberations. It is hoped that the presentation itself will become available for repurposing as it used extremely effective presentational devices to convey its message.

In between these two keynotes was a collection of papers that sought to address the conference’s themes. The width in themes provided numerous options in the breakout papers and therefore enabled a variety of benefits of OERs to be seen, such as encouraging conceptual analysis from students (e.g. OLI and REQUALLO) and also revealing their creative possibilities from tools such as Xerte).

The powerful aspect of OER with regard to technological wizardry was though most clearly seen by the highly innovative approach towards video resources as created by Learning from WOERK.

Whether it was the impressive presentation of these papers or the numbers of people who were seemingly being influenced by them, it was hard not to get carried away with the evangelical feel of the conference. Several papers referred to the ‘mind boggling’ numbers of people who used OERs (e.g. the 335,000 visitors, from 206 countries, to OpenLearn in March 2011) and such figures supported Martin Hall’s claim from the opening keynote that the OER movement should be now be  considered as ‘the new public university’.

However, the reasons why people were choosing not to study at this new institution were not put forward as frequently. Instead, the numbers of those involved in OER caught the eye and supported the belief in the distinctive nature of post millennium higher education students:

Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.

However, such views have been noted for their limitations and several of the papers’ presenters, similar to researchers at a Cascade Development workshop, were of the opinion that whilst ‘the new undergraduate’ may exist, innate digital prowess was not their identifying factor. These conversations queried the extent of students’ internet use and acknowledged the many barriers obstructing ‘openness’. Whether digital identities are influenced by social class is not known but the opening keynote’s citation of the views from the Minister of State for Universities and Science makes the decision in 2010 to treble tuition fees seem even more reprehensible:

The competition for jobs in the professions is like English tennis, a competitive game, but largely one the middle-classes play against each other

Therefore, the astounding numerical data illustrating the use of OERs should not be seen as the harbinger of a new era of unfettered access to higher education as it may be that victims of the 2008 capitalist meltdown are still paying the price.

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