Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Overcoming cultural agoraphobia - the making of OpenLearn

Transcript and slides of my Gikii VI talk in Gothenburg.
Overcoming Cultural Agoraphobia
View more presentations from rcorrigan.
(Apologies for inaccessible links on slide 12 - behind OU firewall)

A case study in overcoming cultural agoraphobia

I’m going to take you through a whistle-stop tour of the development of the open education resource (OER) platform at the Open University.  In reality it’s a more complex story than I’ve got the time to tell, so forgive me if I skim over parts you’d like to have more detail on. We can cover some of them in the Q&A at the end.

My guilty Gikii past ranges from tales of warring monks and Maxwell’s demon on the Internet to algebra with tiddlywinks but on with the story.

52 years ago CP Snow stood up in the Cambridge University senate and gave his “two cultures” lecture outlining the damaging divide between “literary intellectuals” and natural scientists which was interfering with our capacity as a society to deploy science and technology for the public good.

50 years on James Boyle articulated an, IMHO, equally important divide for the 21st century – the clash between the desire for openness and unfettered creativity and the desire for control, order and lock down.  Interestingly you find Snow’s two cultures on both sides of the Boyle divide.  Additionally, Boyle suggested, we are mostly culturally agoraphobic – inclined towards order and control.

For those of you who don’t know the Open University, we’re the largest university in the UK with about 200,000 students and we do supported open & distance learning. We create, write, publish and produce all our own textbooks and multimedia materials and these are specially designed for students studying at a distance i.e. not on a traditional bricks and mortar campus. The OU is deeply committed to open education and social justice and our courses are open to anyone – there are no entry qualifications.

This video from our YouTube channel will give you a rough idea what we’re about.

Cue video.

Around about the year 2000 a few people at the OU thought we needed to get into the OER game and approached the then Vice Chancellor (VC). He was quite taken by the idea and even supplied some funding to start a small project in the area.  That was a really interesting project and had a sound set of principles but for a variety of reasons didn’t take off. Then Creative Commons (CC) was founded and MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) was announced in 2001, the latter then launched with 50 pilot courses in 2002. So OERs were on the education agenda.

In 2002 the first CC licenses were released and the OU got a new VC  and I wrote a short online netlaw course based on Larry Lessig’s book The Future of Ideas.

This is a screenshot of the welcome screen. A version of this course is still available at the link shown.  The best bits were the cartoons I commissioned from a talented artist by the name of Tony Seldon.  Some colleagues, who are not lawyers, liked my abridged guide to Lessig for 6-year-olds.

We ran the course for credit for a couple of years but only got 400 students so decided to discontinue it in 2004.  Around that time the VC had some informal contact with the Hewlett Foundation which had been involved in funding OCW at MIT and were particularly impressed by the quality of the OU’s educational materials. She asked a senior management colleague to find out about open source and OER and he was briefed by my friend and colleague John Naughton, the OU Professor for the Public Understanding of Technology, who some of you will know as the internet correspondent for the Observer newspaper.  At the time the OU was also going through major re-branding and futures planning exercises. 

So as an institution we were exceptionally busy with standard operational processes and planning for the future.  Serious professional business ideas were the order of the day.  Hence we were pretty much too busy to think deeply about giving our stuff away for free.  After all the bulk of our income is derived, as per conventional universities, from student fees and the government grant that each student attracts.

Meanwhile a few of us decided the Lessig course was too important to be archived inaccessibly and, since we were no longer signing up revenue generating students, thought it would be a good idea to make it available openly under a CC BY-NC-SA license.  This gave the material a new lease of life after I announced it on various forums and listservs and we actually had more visitors to the site within a couple of weeks of openly releasing it than we’d had formal students in the two years the course ran for credit.  It was a really interesting experiment.

Then it became known amongst the OU senior management that I’d released the material CC.  There was concern and interest (probably in equal measure and sometimes from the same people). It was also becoming evident in the OU that the Hewlett Foundation were very serious about putting substantial funding into OERs. So even though we were busy as an institution a combination of factors came together which resulted in the OER question becoming an important one at senior level in the OU.  And the environment was right for an institutional discussion on the matter. 

But it also meant, three weeks into my little CC experiment, I was asked by the OU hierarchy to take my netlaw course site down; until we worked out if we wanted to be in the OER game at all and if we did then it could be incorporated in a proper OER site if and when that happened.

We did then have a mature institutional debate on the subject of OERs.  A task group was formed to look into it and reported to Academic Board and Council in the summer of 2005. Genuine questions were raised about sustainable business models for OERs. The task group advised we could neither fully commit to putting all our material online for free nor completely reject the idea. And in principle if we were going to do it we should do so on a big scale. Broadly speaking, though there were concerns and opposition, when we went through the process of talking and thinking about it, the idea of an OU OES received a lot of support.

We agreed to explore the idea further with the aid of a $250,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation. We then sent them a proposal for a next generation, “robust” and “scalable” OES in November 2005. The HF got 5 reviewers to comment on the proposal by December 2005. Their main issues were
  1. that we were potentially being a bit ambitious in our desire to make 13,000 hours worth of material available in two years.
  2. and  we were considering using a bespoke license similar to the one developed by the BBC at the time for the BBC archive.  At the time the Hewlett Foundation were open to debate about CC licensing but asked us to think about whether it would be the right way to go. Now they are committed to CC.
We put in a revised proposal in January 2006 saying we could do it in 2 years and we would run with a CC BY-NC-SA license.

In February 2006, the Hewlett Foundation Board agreed to fund an OU OER to the tune of $8.9 million.

OpenLearn was subsequently launched in the autumn of 2006 with 900 hours of content.  It’s since expanded to iTunesU and YouTube etc.


Firstly you need to understand I’ve only given you a brief outline of the story.

Secondly James Boyle was right when he said we’re naturally predisposed towards cultural agoraphobia. Hey I remember thinking “that’ll never work” when Jimmy Wales started Wikipedia.

But that natural cultural agoraphobia we have as individuals also becomes part of the psyche of the institutions we work for and belong to.  Even open institutions like the Open University, dedicated to open education and social justice.

Thirdly, it can be difficult, when there are other institutional priorities but sometimes you’ve just got to break through the logjam and get a rational and mature discussion going both to air the genuine concerns – what is a sustainable business model for OERs? – and to shine a light on our cultural agoraphobia as individuals and as institutions, public and private.

Fourthly even when you have exposed the cultural agarophobia don’t expect everyone to abandon their preference for control over openness. The process is a success if you’ve got people to seriously consider their position in a deep, rational and mature way. After all openness is not a panacea and no one has yet really cracked the sustainable business model for OERs.

The final lesson is that the internet is great, web 2.0, 3.0 and who knows what else is to come in terms of modern communications tools, are all great. But it is the people that make a difference.  Whether that is in building OERs or demonstrating on the streets against hostile regimes through the Arab spring, putting people in touch with people is what changes the world.

If you have been, thanks for listening.


PS From August 2009 to July 2010 there were:
•             over 1.5M video views on OU YouTube channel
•             17.2M downloads from OU on iTunesU
•             3.1M unique visitors to LearningSpace and
•             Just under 0.25M exploring multiple pages on Open Learn 

Update: lots of interest in the abridged guide to Lessig for six-year-olds.  Links to audio and transcript here. Also I neglected to put a link to the Open Source Teaching Project in the slides, so here it is.

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