30 November 2014

Opening up Open Educational Resources

I attended The Open University in Scotland’s (OUiS) annual residential staff development event held at Tulliallan Police College this weekend. Alongside my work for the Arts Faculty (see previous post) I am a project worker for The OUiS Learning Development Team.

Much of the work I have done in the last two years has engaged with our Open Educational Resources (OER). At Tulliallan, I presented with a colleague on use of The OU’s OpenLearn materials in Skills in the Workplace workshops we've delivered on behalf of Scottish Union Learning

OpenLearn provides free online educational resources which includes some samples taken from The OU’s modules. The origins of OpenLearn and its intentions are explained here

Opening Educational Practices in Scotland (OEPs)
I was keen to hear about other OER projects. The first session I attended of the Saturday programme was delivered by Pete Cannell and he spoke about his and Ronald Macintyre's work on the OEPs project.

Projects like this one strive to find means of engaging non-traditional learners, one of those often-used educational terms. I don’t know what the collective noun might be for this group  (suggestions below?); an 'innovation' of students perhaps? We most frequently hear it used in the sense of non-traditional higher education students, and that is certainly the pool that The OU has drawn from for many years. We’ve done and continue to do it well. It works on both sides too, making the teaching work both rewarding and unpredictable. There is always scope to improve beyond the current remit/target are of who we engage and support to study to as high a level they can, through either our own or other providers courses.

Students versus learners and user perspective
I’ve been thinking about the difference between a student and a learner. It is interesting that a student is primarily defined (dictionary definition) as someone in formal education linked to an institution, whereas a learner is primarily defined as someone learning a skill. Does that mean that all users of an OER such as OpenLearn are students rather than learners, as the courses are linked to a university and follow a fairly traditional structure? Are we engaging students or learners?

I think OERs should focus on learners first and students second. Knowledge is for all and we must not be precious about what should be confined to formal, institution-based learning. 

OERs can offer a route to learning without it feeling like it is education. While OERs filter through to social media and other networks to pique interest we are a long way from knowing what the perfect online learning portal is and rapidly tiring of the word ‘hub.’ New frameworks are still emerging from traditional higher education teaching methods and this could put users off, making them think it’s not for them. Massive Open Online Courses (known as MOOCs) such as those on FutureLearn might well be the latest big thing but they still offer a fairly traditional model of university learning for fairly traditional students. It will be interesting to see the statistics and critique of MOOCs in the coming years.

Creative versus ‘traditional’ use of OERs
Ordinary folk are searching the web for resources that bridge the gap between a library book and full-on official learning, which they can access as suits them. An OpenLearn module that I contributed to, Rural entrepreneurship in Scotland, has reached a high number of users despite no official launch. OERs can be more formally used to reach even wider networks  this might be through heavy influence in partnership working or by more organic means.

While an OER can and should be written and set free, Pete Cannell asked those who attended his presentation if we knew of any creative use of OERs. Creative is the key word. These are resources we can adapt and incorporate into teaching in its many guises.

We think about how an existing OER might be used by employers and we limit ourselves. We revert straight to: "They could get all staff to complete it as Continuing Professional development!" Could such as top-down approach be the death of a suite of OERs? Once your manager tells you to do something it becomes more work. It’s not about discovery any more and it’s not about you finding information. It’s about you being told what you have to learn. A barrier goes up.
“Whether it’s a five minute exploration or a 50 hour expedition into learning that you’re after, you’ll find it on OpenLearn.”
My thoughts are that the key words are exploration and discovery. OERs give people the freedom to learn under their own terms. I think OERs offer the privacy to study that people often can’t get elsewhere. Someone who is ‘just on their tablet’ might in fact be doing anything, perhaps even heaven forbid! – studying something just for the heck of it. We must provide learning for people without always thinking of formality and what the outcomes and destinations might be. We need to be like a bookshelf.

OERs and teaching practice – example of an adapted OER
OERs also provide ready-made resources for tutors at various levels which myself and my co-presenter Khadija Patel covered in our Tulliallan presentation, OEP: Using OpenLearn to support teaching.

I talked about teaching session plans adapted from OERs, using the example of an OpenLearn course which I have used on Skills in the Workplace workshops with civil service staff. Tying this with practical exercises takes an online, more ‘traditional’ looking learning resource, brings it to life and may break down some barriers to formal learning. It is not just about easy to use teaching resources, it is about removing the “that’s not for me” aspect of OERs.

Worth noting is that the OER Working in groups and teams is an adapted extract from a level 3 module. I have used this with very mixed groups, including some participants with no experience of further/higher education. While third level courses in specific fields will usually contain subject specific terminology, what I like about this particular OER is that is uses minimal specialist language yet shows learners that they have the critical thinking skills needed to study at higher education level.

After an initial icebreaker activity, and talking through the OER I give out group work tasks which students then have to evaluate their input to, in the context of the OER. This is also a good session to help a tutor understand group dynamics when working with a group for a short amount of time. 

I also made people get up on their feet to try the practical activities out at Tulliallan, as I like nothing better than a tactile conference presentation and a lively face-to-face workshop! And it meant that some of my recycling got reused before it made its way to the Tulliallan recycling bin…

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