UCT’s open access policy: a culmination and a beginning

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Engagement with open education and open scholarship has been happening at UCT in an organic way for a long time, as  staff and students have been making their scholarship and their teaching and learning resources available freely online for many years. This has happened across the disciplines, with many individuals springing to mind: in Health Sciences – Juan Klopper, in Science – Ed Rybicki, in Humanities – Francis Nyamnjoh…. the examples are too many to mention. In addition whole groups, such as the physics lecturers, the gender studies unit or the computer sciences department have shared course material and research output in concerted efforts. In addition, over the last seven years there have been several projects supporting the open agenda,  starting with Opening Scholarship (with its broad view of scholars at the centre of a network with others scholars, students and the community), then OERUCT  and  OpenUCT and the most recent addition – the ambitious OER research project ROER4D.  The university’s open content directory has provided a home for open education resources since 2010.

During this time, the university’s senior echelons have made important symbolic commitments to the open agenda. In 2008 a Deputy Vice Chancellor  signed the Cape Town Open Education Declaration which is built on “the belief that everyone should have the freedom to use, customize, improve and redistribute educational resources without constraint” and in 2011 the Vice Chancellor signed the Berlin Declaration which seeks to “ to realize the vision of a global and accessible representation of knowledge [where] the future Web has to be sustainable, interactive, and transparent.“

In 2014 two events mark the culmination of this organic era of change and growth: the approval by UCT Council of an open access policy and the commitment of UCT Libraries to being the home for open online content going forward. Many project activities are becoming mainstreamed into existing and new positions in the Library which has made explicit its support for both research and teaching resources. The UCT Library is the formal owner of the open access policy, working closely with UCT’s Research Office and the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning.

The policy foundation for an ongoing emphasis on open education resources  is evident in the new  open access policy which notes

  • The widespread availability of open education resources, open content, open courses etc. from the global north is both an opportunity and a concern as there is an equally urgent need for local teaching and learning resources to be made freely available online.

Scholarship is understood to take multiple forms which cross research, teaching and learning. UCT encourages that all of these be made available, and will provide enabling conditions for the stewardship, preservation and discoverability of this content.

  • The University  encourages Employees and Students to make all forms of works of scholarship available … This includes (but is not limited to) essays, books, conference papers, reports (where permitted by a funder of the research leading to the report), educational resources, presentations, scholarly multi-media material, audio-visual works and digital representations of pictorial and graphical materials.

In addition, the policy requires UCT authors to deposit journal articles (or formally explain why they can not do so) and students will have had to deposit the final versions of their theses  and dissertations in order to graduate.

Policies are only as good as their implementation in practice (and too often they are meaningless or suffer empty compliance). With years of project-based activities, research-informed practice and individuals quietly doing good work as a basis for the future, UCT is an ideal position to meaningfully implement the excellent intentions and activities of its new open access policy. Good luck to us all!

Understandings of open access

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open access

How do people outside the university who work in education understand open access? As my daily experiences are skewed towards the open access and open education communities and towards those academics interested in finding out about open access, I was interested to get a broader sense of what educational professionals understand open access to be. When I was asked to give a talk recently to about 30 working professionals, I asked them to each write down what they thought open access is. About two thirds of the group did so, and I read some of their definitions and comments aloud before the talk.

What did they say? Certainly open access is associated with content being free, as the majority (but not all) mentioned the word “free” in their definitions. “Access is about being free” to view and free to see, and access is about “not having to pay”.

What is it that is free? For most this is free “information”, although three narrowed this specifically to free access to journal articles. Interestingly one person said the opposite – that “free” extended research content beyond the journal:  “Open access means research is no longer confined to journal publications”. One person said that open access is about free software (and then commented that this is very useful), and one included data in the list. Another wide-ranging definition said that open access is “Access to education, the internet and libraries “, thus extending access from content to education itself.

The issue of easy availability even filtering, was another thread, for example: “Every person can get information they need without any problem”, and  “availability of information to someone searching for it”. The definition “When information is gathered together and is easy to access” suggests that open access might be filtered to be suitable to the user.

One person suggested that open access gives users a “license to access documents that are not available to everyone”.  Those in the open licensing world will be interested to hear that licenses, selected by authors, are here understood to be owned by readers.

Only two people made the distinction between access and use: “Open access means access to resources without having to pay , may be able to use depending on copyright”. Another said the opposite, that there are “no copyright restrictions”  - that person also coined the delightful term of “ universal usage”. Other than these comments there was little mention of copyright, and none specifying open licenses or Creative Commons by name. One covered all bases by describing open access as “Free distribution of intellectual property”.

A particularly pertinent comment was one that stated that open access is “Information that is publically available and should also be understandable”. This is an especially valuable comment pointing to issues of epistemological access as critical to engagement and success in education.

Other definitions ? One person conflated open access with wikis- “Open access is a database that allows for works to be edited by others”. Another associated it with networks: “It is access to information across networks globally”. And interestingly, one person took a more ideological approach and focused on the movement “Open access is a movement…it is great because knowledge should not be at a cost

Why does this matter? Because as open access enters the mainstream of research and scholarly communication globally, it is important to bear in mind what is understood by the term, what assumptions are made and what discourses are implied. While open access is on the one hand an immensely simple concept, on the other it is confusing and difficult. Unlike Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass there is a lot to be said for a shared language and shared understandings of the concept “open access”.

Researcher practices in context: a framework

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Like many others, I subscribe to the fine discourse of open networked scholarship with its associated values of participation, engagement and transparency. I hold dear the possibilities of existing unequal forms of legitimacy and power relations in global knowledge production and dissemination being challenged through the enabling affordances of networked technologies.

Yet scholarly practices are firmly grounded in local realities. It was Castells, almost 20 years ago,  who described the opportunities and contradictions of a networked world so well when he said,  “Power, money, and information are primarily organized around flows which link up distant locales, and  unite them in a shared logic” . At the same time he noted “the variable geometry of networked integration and switched off exclusion of the network society translates into the juxtaposition between two spatial forms/processes: the space of flows, on the one hand, the space of places, on the other hand.” In short, “People still live in places, and construct their experience, their meaning, and their political representation around these places”. (Castells, 1996:469)

It is this juxtaposition that motivated us to explore changing researcher practices in Africa. Under the auspices of the Scholarly Communication in Africa Programme, the locally shaped – scholarly communication practices of scholars in four sites were surfaced; Namibia, South Africa, Mauritius, and Botswana. Scholars shared their experiences in thoughtful interviews with Cathy Kell, and illuminated the nexus between global trends and local realities.

How could these practices be described across contexts in nuanced ways that show the subtleties of social relations, users/audiences and forms of communication? A framework was developed using the heuristic of the research cycle with indicators at every stage. At the same time, researchers interviewed worked in different disciplines and it became clear that it would be more useful to categorise their research by the types of research projects undertaken with their associated practices rather than by disciplinary taxonomies. These five types were developed using Using Boyer (1990),  Griffith (2004)  and Cooper (2011).

The SCAP paper Changing Research Communication Practices and Open Scholarship: A Framework for Analysis  by  Catherine Kell, Michelle Willmers, Thomas King and myself has two parts: the first describes the framework and its foundations, locating these in the broader literature. The second applies the general principles developed to the 72 research projects which were described in the interviews (with the proviso that research projects was understood in a loose sense) . It is interesting that only ten of the 72 projects fell into the conventional “discovery research” category; sixteen could be categorised as “interpretive “. The many papers in the “applied” category are of  particular significance in the light of the role of consultancies in African research.

As we observe in the paper, it was striking how importance context is – the history and culture of each of the four institutions studied, and to a lesser extent the history and culture of the countries in which they are located. Even though these universities and the basic features of the types of research they engage in and research cycles that they go through share a  number of similarities in terms of overall geography, history and mission, their differences are sufficient enough to create significant diversity in how their scholars respond to the research endeavour. The framework provides a way of surfacing these differences while sharing rich experiences across sites.


Boyer EL (1990) Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. New York: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Boyer EL (1996) The scholarship of engagement.

Castells, M. (1996) The Rise of the Network Society.  Blackwell Publishing Ltd.: 469.

Cooper D (2011) The University in Development: Case Studies of Use-Oriented Research. Cape Town: HSRC Press. http://www.hsrcpress.ac.za/product.php?productid=2286

Griffiths R (2004) Knowledge production and the research–teaching nexus: The case of the built environment disciplines. Studies in Higher Education 29(6): 709–726

OERs and MOOCs: untangling “open”

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During Open Education Week, we at UCT were not the only ones taking the opportunity to discuss the differences and overlaps between MOOCs and OERs. Using a matrix I have previously showed the open content, online learning and MOOCs in terms of a range of dimensions including access, licensing etc. In our talk on OERs and MOOCs  my colleague Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams and I focused on bringing together the idea of degrees of openness as well as the continuum of formal-informal along which MOOCs lie as a type of online learning.

The discussion hinges on what is understood by openness. In the MOOC world, open means free access to join a course without any required educational or competence requirements. In a paper under review, we (colleagues Andrew Deacon, Janet Small, Sukaina Walji) have described the course provision landscape in terms of curriculum integration, and have suggested that MOOCs are in the online semi-formal to non-formal space, as illustrated here.

In the OER world, openness is more tightly aligned with legal openness and the permissions to use which have been assigned through various kinds of licenses.

MOOCs may be open in terms of access and lack of fees, but that does not mean they are legally open in other ways. Within MOOCs there are degrees  and types of openness in terms of content – learning resources and user-generated content being different, platforms, and the course itself  as a whole.

One could of course add other axes of openness- pedagogical openness for example.

With these two heuristics, we can map types and degrees of openness on the MOOC landscape, as per the following hypothetical example:

Mapping MOOCs’ openness

“Open” is deceptively simple, and, as in the case of OERs and MOOCs, it might mean quite different things. Worth untangling.

MOOCs: should the rest of us bother?

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We all agree that the Year of the MOOC is over and that the promises of cost effective new business models to solve deeply entrenched problems are turning out to be hollow. Turns out that MOOCs are serving an existing over-subscribed group of male graduates from the global north and that access to and for the world’s poorest countries has been low. Turns out the quality is as good or as bad as any other course.  (And we won’t talk about completion rates!) With the discourse largely about business models rather than pedagogical models, should we not shrug and turn away?

When one of the Founding Fathers declares defeat and says that MOOC are not a good fit for struggling students, and another says that MOOCs should get rid of “the massive and the open” should those of us dealing with harsh, resource-constrained, and historically complex educational systems and extremely diverse student bodies not just say “We told you so” and get on with slaying our dragons slowly and systematically as we always have done?

We weren’t the ones innovating in Canada and we didn’t get the capital to venture into something new and different, so should we even join the bandwagon at all?

Actually, yes.

MOOCs have been the lightning rod that draws attention to a whole lot of inter-related issues about online learning and about open education. They have become a kind of shorthand for all sorts of complicated educational matters (what we call “ingewikkeld” round here). So this is why I think that educators, researchers and universities in developing countries, and in the less well resourced parts of developed countries, should be thinking about and planning and conceptualising MOOCs.

  • Because engaging with MOOCs gives us an entry to talking about online learning and about learning and curriculum design with people with whom we have not had those conversations before. And many of us who have been working in the trenches know  a lot about these teaching and learning issues.
  • Because we consider MOOCs as one possibility in a whole basket of emergent online possibilities including open boundary courses, wrapped MOOCs, SPOCs and whatever else is coming into being as we try things out.
  • Because we are excited about the  pedagogical possibilities and look forward to experimenting in local conditions.
  • Because we do want access to all that interesting new stuff that is being made available freely online for those of us with the capacity to access it. It’s great being exposed to so much stimulating material so easily. And preferably we would like it licensed in ways that would allow us to adapt for local use.
  • Because we are fed up the global north’s domination of online content and  fear that MOOcs will only make that worse. So we want to get our own resources online.
  • Because we know that there are numerous topics – from archaeology to health to literature – of general international and niche interest that we are in the best position to teach and make widely available. (And it depresses us that the first MOOC on African cities is being offered by a French institution.)
  • Because we take that third university pillar of social engagement and community service really seriously. The development mission is a genuine imperative for many of us; MOOCs and other forms of online learning and open learning can serve that commitment very well.
  • Because being a late adopter means we get to benefit from some real and robust research, not just the hype of the early days.

We don’t believe in quick fixes, and we don’t think that MOOCs are the answer. But we welcome the opportunity to experiment and to add more strategies to our efforts to address local educational challenges.

Image: Giulia Forsythe, CC BY NC SA 2.0 http://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/7627096288/in/photostream/