Thursday, 20 March 2008

Open courseware and the "skills" agenda

As promised, a short reflection on the "skills agenda" that seems to have been emphasised during the course of my discussions with policy-makers and think tank researchers.

I have found there to be a particular interest in the potential for open courseware to bridge the much-lamented “skills gap” in the British economy. So the logic follows, a system of open courseware targetted as is it at excluded minorities, adult learners and students at pre-university age, would go some way to 're-skill', 'up-skill' and 'up-knowledge' the workforce whose poverty of abilities is said to be responsible for endemic low productivity in the UK economy.

I consider there something insidious, condescending, even ignorant to the metaphor of the skills ladder, where the imperative is to upskill, reskill, downstairs flipskill until the abilities of the workforce better match the needs of the economy. When industrial, political and trade union leaders lament the inabilities of workers to adapt to a flexible labour market, to a quick turnover of jobs procedures and colleagues, I rarely hear any accompanying discourse regarding the content of the economy, the quality, craft and purpose involved in the types of work widely-available. With the political discourse repetitively airbrushing away such considerations as somehow politically unsayable, the question has become relegated to a mere management issue, of how to better motivate staff to care for their work and to innovate in an ever-changing business environment. In the absence of such oversight in people's work, terms such as 'skill', 'talent', 'opportunity', 'aspiration' get bandied around as instrumental terms for animating workers into grafting towards their values, terms alienated from their authentic roots, dessicated of meaning. It is from this perspective that the influential sociologist, Richard Sennett, has recently explored the lost notion of craft and the importance of a crafts-mentality in contemporary (and historic) work.

When I asked Sennett (a self-defining 'socialist') about his attitude to this matter at a recent talk (, he seemed almost to waffle his answer referring at best to the 'portability' of skills, and the 'normal rhythms of a dynamic economy' (this, albeit with David Willets MP, of beady eye and foulest breath, sat beside him). That said, Sennett spoke of what has thus far been the proverbial white elephant sitting around blindfolded, namely, that much of what is called 'retraining' and reskilling' for middle-aged workers whose skills have evaporated in one realm, is in fact the teaching of a new set of procedures that will in turn evaporate in a few years. Skill as euphemism for procedure, as semantically-detached from its formered satisfaction-guarantee – that of craft.

The importance of this observation is that where there are well-organised, user-friendly offerings of online university course materials, what is being imparted (when effective) is not simply a detailed field of knowledge and methods established over time by scholarly communities, but the disposition patience and values that better serve 'high-level' analytic and communicative skills – the intellects craft.

In open courseware, it is important to remind ourselves, there is no face-to-face interaction, and the learning of such crafting and skilling comes almost-entirely from whoever is sat down at a computer. Indeed, there exist studies demonstrating that technique is poorly transmitted over distance without face-to-face contact (e.g. Harry Collins, 1992, Changing Order)

In this context, the nuances of the package being advocated here are crucial – open certification could not and would not apply to those degrees in which kinesthetic (that is practical, hands-on, tacit) crafts are necessary, as in most Medical degrees. On the other hand, however, all that does not involve such learning, does indeed benefit from the personal supervision of lecturers at hand. Yet, while there exists no study to verify it, I would hypothesise that most of the effective learning and knowledge acquisition in lecture, video, slide and text-based courses happens in isolation, and with a significant proportion online. Here, the skills gained in university are either sufficient for graduates and economic 'need', or they are sufficient for noone, non-graduates with a lust for learning included. With visibility comes accountability and a driving up of teaching standards, and in turn, with visibility comes access and an opportunity to see exactly what students enjoying the 'privilege' of world-class university teaching are getting. If we are to carry these empowering terms with any confidence, without dessicating them entirely of meaning, then the path to open courseware and open certification must be cleared, with ideas about skill, craft and the graduate-as-jigsaw-piece recast in turn.

The policy-makers reflex has largely been to justify every well-intentioned Quango or initiative in adult learning, distance learning and widening university participation as referred back to the skills deficit, the service of public instutitions to private corporate demands. The higher education commons being proposed here would partially transform this relay of knowledge and skills, through adults, young people and the workforce they eventually enter in to.

One of the most effective critiques of 'access management' of publicly-funded information has come from a recent Treasury-commissioned report Models of Public-Sector Information Provision via Trading Funds (a more detailed advocacy of the Guardian's Free our data campaign - In this report, the authors explored the variety of economic opportunity costs and broader deadweight losses to society incurred by trading funds that do little to service or nurture downstream markets, that is, the value-added manipulations of raw public data. The same principle albeit on a larger scale still, I argue, applies to taxpayer-funded university course materials, and much of the academic research publication that builds upon it. And yet, in the 'knowledge economy' we inhabit, what is at stake here is not simply access to and re-use of the latest teaching and research from our publicly-funded institutions, but the very skills and crafts-mentality that would be supported more widely with a comprehensive and well-advertised offering of British open courseware, accompanied by the prospect of an Open degree to boot.


Collins, H.M. (1992) Changing Order: replication and induction in scientific practice University of Chicago Press

Newberry, D. Bentley, L. & Pollock, R (February 26, 2008) Models of Public Sector Information Provision via Trading Funds

Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman Allen Lane

Richard Sennett, David Willets MP & Laurie Taylor discussion of The Craftsman Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, February 11, 2008


Marcus said...

I wholeheartedly agree with you proposals for open access to course materials but there are a couple of points I would like to make on this issue.

Firstly in relation to how online materials relate to learning online. You state:
"On the other hand, however, all that does not involve such learning, does indeed benefit from the personal supervision of lecturers at hand. Yet, while there exists no study to verify it, I would hypothesise that most of the effective learning and knowledge acquisition in lecture, video, slide and text-based courses happens in isolation, and with a significant proportion online."

Most of those with experience of developing complementary online learning materials (to sit along side traditional learning practices such as lectures), blended learning (where methods are mixed) or solely online learning agree that merely producing online an version of what is provided in the class is not enough. Instead students must be made to a)engage with the material and, more importantly, b) engage with and collaborate with each other with each other.

Online learning is far more than replication of materials that are given to students in class.

Herein lies the problem or issue, properly designed online learning is not simply the dissemination of material available in other formats, rather it is learning that takes place in an online environment, such as a virtual learning environment. These VLEs can exist in web form but the materials for them need to be carefully designed to make use of the nature of the medium and to direct student's learning.

As such it requires proper design and administration. You can't just put things online and expect learning to take place, the materials have to be carefully designed, the interactions of students, with the text and with each other, must be guided, and the system has to be maintained. In short it costs a lot of money and hours to make it work properly.

Lots of courses are taught entirely online very well, but they cost a lot. Should these courses be free? Should part of the course be free? Should students pay just for the exams? and if so by this logic why shouldn't attendance at lectures and seminars be free with just the exams paid for?

Secondly, why only the Russell Group? Why not require all universities and colleges to do this? If it's going to be open, make it open.

Having said all this I do support you aims fully and i wish you the best of luck.

Marcus Leaning
Trinity College,
University of Wales

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