Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Open courseware and the audit culture

Having got this crazy project under way now, and having received reams of feedback from a variety of academics up and down the land, from differing teaching disciplines and research fields, I should like to comment on this project's intended impact on them.

The obvious fears of open courseware are as follows:

  1. That the institution of open courseware, putting course materials freely available online, under open terms, will represent a workload burden too far. With the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) occupying inordinate time and effort, detracting from and deteriorating actual teaching and actual research, the intrusion of video cameras, microphones, scanning equipment, content management systems, and the increased demands on server space would constitute an encumbrance too far.
  2. That moves towards open access scientific and scholarly publication would cut off an important revenue stream for academics, particularly those working under tight department budgets.
  3. That open courseware and open access research publication would inhibit what Patrick Baert and Alan Shipman (2005) describe as the Humboldtian conception of the university (this is the autonomous, self-governing university, accountable only to itself, and immune to class and corporate intrusion, with no obligation to produce commodifiable knowledge).

What is evident, is that analyses of current trends within academic teaching and research, and notions of accountability and trust, the place of university in society, are all at stake in an open courseware/open access system, with the opportunity to rethink the efficiency of university's accountability mechanisms, and the academy's position within the broader economy of knowledge, not to mention the famed knowledge-based economy.

The contention of the Open Teaching, Learning & Certification project, is that both university teaching assessment, and university research assessment, can largely be made from a distance, via the online portals of university offerings being advanced here. This is to make positive assertions regarding the effects of visibility on academic assessment, on internal transparency within tenure/promotion processes, and on effective teaching within universities.

The benefits of an open courseware system in teaching assessment, and pedagogic quality can be summarised as follows:

  1. A centralised hub of British open courseware, at the unregistered domain, http://www.ocw.ac.uk/, would enable a central point of reference and collaboration for teaching assessment to take place (quite apart from enabling any citizen that chooses to, to make use of their tax-payer funded, high-quality learning materials). With specialised open courseware teams at universities organising this publication and visibility, many of the administrative burdens of the RAE can potentially be lifted, freeing up time and resources for the core business of academics, of developing skills and knowledge in research and teaching.
  2. A centralised hub would possess the added benefit of enabling lecturers and course organisers to more efficiently share best practice, driving up standards where they are not high, and reinforcing them where they are. Past experience of being taught often constitutes the basis of training for lecturers, seminar chairs and producers of course notes in a variety of subjects. Here, a site complementing the QIA's Excellence Gateway would operate not as a self-conscious showcase of 'excellence, 'world class teaching and research' or any other well-meaning platitudes, but as a straight online provision of what peers are up to, with the onus on individual academics as to their use of such materials.
  3. Plurality of provision is key to the Open Access package being advanced here. The wider the range of teaching styles, of methodological/theoretical emphases, and of pedagogic structure, the better the matching to student's learning style, not merely to non-enrolled learner, but to those in face-to-face education looking elsewhere to explore the margins of other syllabi in their fields, as well as separate or related fields. The ability of a course-organising academic to prescribe a course of study remains unchanged. What does change is the range of prescriptions available to the student, maximising the chances of a rigorous and efficient learning experience.

What Alan Shipman has diagnosed elsewhere as the increasing professionalisation, proceduralisation and intellectual distance of academic life (Shipman & Shipman, 2006), is now the subject of fundamental review within the party policy research infrastructures, across a range of think tanks with differing concerns. While state and public demands for accountability and assessment have increased, so has mutual trust been eroded between citizen and state, state and academy, and between academy and citizen. The growing audit culture and corporate capture of knowledge-producing institutions has seen on the one hand, academics increasingly frustrated away from teaching and research endeavours by the demands of audit, while on the other hand, a public assumptive about the limited way their higher education materials are made available, in their personal development, and in commodity purchase. The initiation of a comprehensive open courseware and open access offering would establish the condition of possibility for an alternative mechanism of quality control in assessment practices – a mechanism whose directness and lack of intrusion, whose visibility and precondition of trust, would bring added efficiency, access and respectability to the economy of knowledge between state, academy and citizen.

While the question of open access journal publication, self-archiving, and the open access research movement in general are strongly defined and limited by the presence of the major commercial publishers - restricting access and profiteering off taxpayer-funded research - the question of open courseware is much simpler. With visibility, comes transparency, and where there is such transparency and visibility, the conditions in which teaching standards, norms and risks are engendered can be changed irrevocably. (see John Thompson's work on media for countless historic examples, 1996, 2000) The effects of visibility on face-to-face education, and on the audit culture in general within academia are designed here to be emphatically positive, both for students and academics, for the process of accountability and the broader citizenry that open courseware is intended for.

New mechanisms of accountability are rendered possible by the World Wide Web and free open-source web tools that can transmit and organise teaching and research materials at negligible cost. Furthermore, the opportunity of showcase, for universities, departments and individual academics, are considerable. The recently launched open courseware offering from Yale University points firmly in this direction.
http://open.yale.edu/courses/ While still limited in its course provision, its standard of organisation and range of media make it a case in point. In the few days since its launch, Yale have established partnerships with teaching institutions around the world, including with Jimma University in Ethiopia:

This project impels academics and government to recognise the scope and magnitude of what can be achieved here, the various developments and aspects of which will explored in the posts to come.

Stick with it, it gets better!


Baert, P. & Shipman, A. (2005) Universities under siege? Accountability and Trust in the Contemporary Academy European Societies 7 (1) 2005: 157-185

Shipman, A. & Shipman, M. (2006) Knowledge Monopolies, the Academisation of Society Societas

Thompson, J.B. (1996) The Media and Modernity: a Social Theory of Media Polity Press

Thompson, J.B. (2000) Political Scandal: Power and Visibility in the Media Polity Press

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Open Access introduced

I suppose I'll start here then!

This blog is intended to track, from start to finish, a research and advocacy project focussed on persuading the Brown/Labour government to implement what I will describe as the Open Access package of policies. The two key principal policies are:
  • An instituted centralised hub of British open courseware from Britain's Russell Group (and contributing) research universities, at www.ocw.ac.uk. Open courseware constitutes a freely-accessible, IP-cleared, online publication of a university's full catalogue of under- and post-graduate course materials - syllabi, reading lists with links to open access papers, course notes, video/audio lecture notes, slideshows, past exam papers, assignments etc.. The pioneering university in the provision of open courseware is MIT, whose entire course materials can be found at ocw.mit.edu

  • Complementing a high-quality and pluralistic British open courseware offering, I will be advocating a new kind of university qualification - an Open degree - whereby citizens can pay a premium fee and take the same exams as do existing students in enrolled face-to-face learning, with certificates signifying information about the specific courses examined on. This would be targetted, via a high-profile public information campaign, at adult learners, excluded minorities, and students at pre-university age.
The underlying economic and social basis for such policies are:
  • A growing public demand for a tangible return on their investment in higher education. The current taxpayer return is based on the idea of new graduates unleashing their human capital and higher skills on a grateful underskilled non-graduate population. I argue that there is no basis, in evidence or justice, for this view, and that in an age of digital infinite abundance, all citizens should be able to see and use what they're paying for.

  • Expanding access to the World Wide Web, and the negligible cost of making course materials freely available changing the scarcity assumption that has long reigned over the question of higher education course provision, to an assumption of abundance.

  • The growing influence of new analyses of intellectual property and innovation, identifying considerable opportunity costs and deadweight losses from the imposition of restrictions on quality learning materials, as well as the proprietary control over much publicly-funded research publication.
There are, inevitably, a wide range of benefits, risks and resistances that would be associated with these ideas. The project is designed to explore and develop many of these benefits, and to succesfully manage or placate all of the risks. In the posts that follow, many of these will be explored - from objections from some students, academics, and the major commercial publishers involved in academic publishing - to benefits for individual and communal development, for social mobility, for existing face-to-face students and academics, as well as for international relations and towards a more just lifecourse structure.

In the posts which follow, I will provide updates on the realisation of these goals, as well as cover related developments in the movement towards open education and open certification. Any comments or queries will be happily answered.