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

1 comment:

Alan said...

The contradictory strains placed on universities by government, worldwide but especially in Europe, have become even more evident since publication of my work with Patrick Baert (2005) and Marten Shipman (2006).

Because public authorities have long been, and remain, major sponsors of academic knowledge creation and teaching, they expect the consequent products to be made public. The perception that nations now compete on the quality of their education, with new industries depending on a more knowledgeable workforce and knowledge-based processes, has reinforced the political desire for new knowledge to be distributed as widely and at as low a cost as possible.

But because public authorities – under budget constraints – have been cutting down their financial support for higher education, universities are under increasing pressure to turn their knowledge creation and teaching into private goods, and make money from selling them. So, among the most obvious developments, fees are charged for courses that were once available for free to suitably qualified students. An increasing number of academics divide their time between traditional free dissemination of ideas and research and 'consultancy' whose products are (initially) confined to the sponsoring company or public agency, for which they pay. And a substantial premium is charged for knowledge disseminated as academic books (compared with 'trade' books) and academic journal articles (compared with trade and 'practitioner' journals).

While making knowledge into a product, and charging for its production and dissemination, has helped universities stay alive financially, it invites a fundamental challenge to the traditional process of knowledge validation. Peer review – the assessment of knowledge on its own merits - must co-exist (or even compete with) a market test, of which researchers people are prepared to sponsor and what results they regard as worth buying. Even before 'production' starts, the decision on what should be researched and taught is determined by the likelihood of commercially useful results, as well as the inherent value of the subject area.

Against this background, the movement towards open courseware looks anomalous. Why, if they are ever more concerned to package their activities for sale and make sure the users and sponsors pay for it, should universities make more of their teaching material available free of charge? The trend is unmistakeable, especially in the US, where material from many of the top (public and private) universities is now freely accessible on the internet. It is similarly evident in UK universities, including the Russell Group. Although governments endorse this, they have hardly compelled it.

The open courseware movement (which deserves comparison with the open software movement) is partly driven by academics operating separately from any policy of their employing institutions. There is little to stop a university teacher, or teaching department, making their lecture material available through a faculty or corporate website if they wish. Clearly, if they are drawing on others' copyrighted material, there may be limits on how far this can be made externally available. But a complementary movement among academics has seen many of them placing a growing amount of copyrighted material on the wordwide web. This can even include portions or near-replicas of material that is elsewhere on sale by book and journal publishers – a process the ubiquitous Google is now eagerly promoting.

Despite its being (at least initially) a grassroots movement, open courseware may not be inconsistent with the top-down response that universities need to make to resolve the contradictory pressures noted above. Giving knowledge products away may not be incompatible with making money from knowledge products, for various reasonably explored by economists Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian – in a now-classic book which, symptomatically, is available almost in its entirety at

As record companies have eventually discovered, free downloads encourage people to sample material and, if the product is good, may raise rather than reduce the chance of their buying it. Making the back-catalogue available for free can also help gain attention for authors and artists and enhance the sale of their more recent work, a factor which (I hope) is working in Shapiro and Varian’s favour.

The scope for online provision to drive 'sales' is especially powerful for universities because of their traditional role in knowledge validation and accreditation. They and their professors can give away course material, in its entirely, without giving away other vital elements of the course (classroom help, tutorial discussions, post-lecture questions etc), or the prize at the end of the course (assessments, examinations and the award of a degree). Putting courseware on the internet, a relatively low-cost exercise once the material has been prepared for internal use, becomes a labour-saving device (students can go there for missed material) and a shopwindow to the wider world without giving away the final product that pays for the university and its staff.

But courseware made available online as a by-product of universities' conventional teaching may be a threat to the wider open courseware movement, which is seeking to develop new materials specially designed for online transmission and distance learning. As it’s a by-product and has cost less to produce, and especially if it carries the stamp of a prestigious university, courseware developed for a 'closed' course that is subsequently made open may draw away potential users of, and drain away production-side support for, courseware specifically designed for 'open' courses. A (very loose) analogy might be made with those who watch Premier League football matches on television rather than attending their local club’s live games, or big supermarkets that price certain popular items at a loss to undercut the local corner-store.

With luck, this is unnecessarily alarmist, and the analogies are misguided. Perhaps the growing availability of opened-up courseware will no more undermine the growth of specifically designed open courseware than the availability of cheap out-of-copyright classic works (in literature and music) undermines sales of newly produced works. Getting Ivy League and Russell Group profs to put their courseware online is also a valuable corrective to the articles their prominence enables them to place in the 'popular' press - which are often more polemical and fall outside peer review but, through name and affiliation, carry the same respectability as their academic work.

As a fan of open courseware about to start work for the UK's Open University, I believe the opening-up of traditional universities’ existing courseware can complement (and not compete with) the creation of open courseware for new, non-traditional university audiences. The existence of this risk, and the challenge in surmounting it, are symptoms of the strains universities are under as they take on an ever wider public mission with ever more thinly-spread public financial support.