Flexible Futures: The Big Questions

Posted in General

After a start much delayed by thunderstorms,  I went to Pretoria this week for two days to be the respondent for the University of Pretoria’s Flexible Futures Conference, the teaching and learning conference hosted by the University’s Department of Education Innovation. My brief was to respond to the presentations and discussions over the two days in terms of the Big Questions. It certainly meant that I was one person paying unadulterated attention throughout.

There was a mixture of inputs including international guests:  Sue Rigby from Scotland (University of Edinburgh),  Sherman Young from Australia (Macquarie University);  Wayne Mackintosh from New Zealand (OER Foundation); Catherine Ngugi from Kenya (OER Africa) and George Siemens from the USA (University of Texas). There was also a stimulating range of interesting presentations from the University of Pretoria itself sharing experimentation and emergent blended learning practices.

It was a well-organised and well attended conference (over 300 people) and taken seriously by the University’s senior executive who participated in the whole event. Rare in itself and noted by many as seriousness of intent.

I was asked to frame my response in terms of “The Big Questions”. Based on the inputs and discussions I was party to, I understood this to mean questions raised, implied, elicited or absent.

Here are the questions which framed the closing session:

1. How do we insert issues of inequality into all strategic plans and discussions?

2. What is our understanding of digital technologies?

3. How do we enable and manage change in research-intensive universities?

4. How do we negotiate the fierce contestations about online content that are raging?

5. How do we build the Learning Commons?

6. How do we keep learning at the forefront?

7. Are existing Intellectual Property Frameworks working for teaching and learning in a digital era?

8. How do we address digital critical literacies?

9. Do we have the capacity & expertise for successful online education?

10. What theoretical resources can we bring to bear to help us understand what is going on?

11. How do we research this “reactive stability”?

12. How do we manage the tensions?

13. How do we take the opportunities?

14. How do we ensure that advances in online education have a positive effect on educational practices in contact higher education institutions?

15. How do we identify forms of online education that best serve the fundamental social and economic interests of South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa?

My slides are here, and are, of course markers for more elaborated reflections.  I wonder how many of these questions are typical of all such institutional discussions.

Image: Thunderstorm over Johannesburg by Aquila, https://www.flickr.com/photos/aquilaonline/1751755/in/photolist-Sab4/ CC BY-NC 2.0


2014: Reflections of a sweet n sobering year

Posted in General


2014 in my working world was split almost evenly in half. I ended my three-year secondment to running the OpenUCT Initiative, with the launch of the OpenUCT Repository on the 31st of July – a satisfying finale – although the team stayed on to transition the work to the UCT Libraries (see the farewell blog). The following day I took up the position of director of the newly formed Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT), catapulting me back into the teaching and learning in higher education frontline. My blogging has been more intermittent than ever, but as we all stop for the summer break, it’s a good moment to reflect on a few key personal realisations about the year.

The bitter sweet victory of open access
That open access has become mainstream is hardly debatable. From being an unknown, on-the-edge concept which needed explanation, the term is now commonplace. But along with this mainstreaming there has been a shift as that concept segued from being the  vision of idealists who believed ( and still believe) in fair and equal access to knowledge production and dissemination to the language of bureaucracy as new policies quickly transformed great intentions into a mass of mind-numbing regulations. And now that commercial publishers have appropriated the term, many of my fellow academics have come to believe that open access equals “author pays” – a severe distortion of its values and intentions. The danger of an “author pays” approach of course is that it limits the potential of those who can’t pay to contribute to knowledge creation communities. (Participation in the global geopolitics of knowledge production is the reason why the launch of the OpenUCT Repository was a political activity).  So, the open access battle has been won, and it’s been lost, and it is evolving into new forms.

Online online online
Coming back into the teaching and learning arena, it has been striking to me how online teaching is so central to discussions everywhere I have been: institutionally, regionally, and internationally. Maybe it’s because I have been a bit out of the loop, but it seems to have crept up on us; or maybe it’s like fax machines in times gone by or social media in the contemporary space where there has to be a critical mass before an idea takes off. Online did not used to be something we took very seriously in traditional research-intensive universities, and now we do. There are still a few voices protesting the actual existence or role of online in higher education, but largely the questions have not been “if” but “how” and “in which circumstances?”.
Which has meant a focus on a whole set of competencies which are needed in abundance and which are in short supply: strategizing about online; managing online; learning design for online. And curation, developing critical digital literacies – the list is long. These are not necessarily new competencies, but reconfigured versions of existing skills, needed in new forms and needed in new quantities.  I realised this year after attending a summit for senior leadership in open and distance learning that online is quite new in much of that sector too. In distance education there is an extensive body of knowledge and experience which we need but there are very few who have deep knowledge of online and its iterations across various settings, especially the deeply unequal contexts in which we work.
There has been a wonderful upside. The shift to online, especially via those great Trojan horses, MOOCs, has provoked engagement with pedagogy and the makings of good teaching and learning in ways that educational developers have desired for decades. This is, quite simply, a good thing.

Higher education ‘s hybrid eco system
Of course, there does exist expertise about online in the sector, and it’s largely in the private sector, the dominant players in online education until recently. Other than textbook and database publishers, private sector providers have not really had much to do with my world in a public university though. But this too has been changing as the business models in higher education have become more complex; the shrinking of government funding that has been happening in other parts of the world for a while has started to bite us now too. This affects my Centre in practical ways. Simultaneously, I am mindful that the general disaggregation of teaching and learning sees various components of Higher Education increasingly in the hands of private providers; not just content but now also support, assessment, examination, quality assurance etc.
This year we have had private providers knocking on our doors offering to sell us entire ready-to-go courses, and we are developing MOOCs on private platforms. This is at the same time as we have worked so hard to enable and promote a whole gamut of aspects of open education, especially open content. I have thought a lot about the implications, contradictions and possibilities, especially after attending the Apereo Conference in June where I got to see how the open access community has succeeded with a healthy diverse mixed economy and to wondering if and how this might be possible in higher education generally.
Is it possible to make work?  So many questions: where should the locus of control be; how do we ensure pedagogical coherence; how can  Southern perspectives and local insights carry weight in a homogenised global curriculum? With the premise that access is only meaningful if it includes structuring enablements for success, how can access for students be made possible in a hybrid ecosystem?

The perfect storm
More than one academic in forums I have been in this year has observed that 2014 has been the year of the perfect storm, with major tensions coming to a head in higher education. But I am reminded of my mother who used to say “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, the more things change the more they stay the same.  The landscape is changing and the shapes shifting, but the same values are being contested. Inequality and exclusion have morphed into new forms in higher education in recent time, but they are more present than ever. The main challenge for me in 2014 has been grappling with the extent, nature and complexity of the changing landscape while reading those changes through the lens of those old solid values: democracy, citizenship, access and equity.

Image of Shifting sands. Borghy, Morocco. Alba sulle Dune di M’Hamid. https://www.flickr.com/photos/53191561@N03/15481831460, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Global south scholars – get your content online!

Posted in General

Juan Alperin’s map of Web of Science documents mapped by author location is really scary. It’s a vivid representation that shows graphically the ballooning of the global north in terms of outputs. These are often described as representing knowledge, although whether knowledge is fairly represented by Web of Science articles is debatable.

Forms of user-generated content seem more promising, not so much about scholarly knowledge but because the Internet offers a more level field playing for participation, in that anyone can upload content, within their infrastructure constraints. The situation looks bleak for the global south. This graph of Google user-generated content  has Africa virtually off the graph.Images on Flickr are marginally more spread out although the dominance of the global north is clear.The situation on Wikipedia is equally stark, Unfortunately the map of collaborations between researchers echoes the inequalities of both formal research production and general content online.These are just a few of the images now available which visually dramatically portray the skewed nature of global content online. There are many reasons for unequal knowledge production related to social and economic contexts. Yet there is a great deal of existing content which would be valuable if it were more widely available and discoverable online, and in the first instance energy, time and money needs to be expended to digitise and curate those resources. While  deep and fundamental inequalities need ongoing attention, curating existing content has the potential to reshape these maps. And by reshaping these maps, there is the potential to reshape ideas, understandings and engagement with the world.

Images. L Juan Alperin http://jalperin.github.io/d3-cartogram/ ;  http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/sep/30/flickr-map-world;  http://stats.wikimedia.org/wikimedia/animations/requests/ ;
Flick, C, Convoco Foundation, Oxford internet Institute (2011), Geographies of the World’s Knowledge, Oxford Internet Institute, www.oii.ox.ac.uk/publications/convoco_geographies_en.pdf‎




Collaboration: What it Takes

Posted in General

At the launch of the OpenUCT repository recently I thanked 70 people by name. It’s a dangerous thing to do because one might leave out some one (and to my shame one name was written down on the sheet I held, but not said aloud when I got distracted for a moment).  It took a long time, but I had decided it was important to acknowledge every person who had helped, and that is aside from the ones I don’t know by name.

What has stayed with me is how every single one of these 70 people genuinely played a part – I was not just “ being nice” . This is what it takes to get to the point of launching a good-looking functional repository containing some good varied content to start with. This is what it takes!

Even so, there are still bugs, and teething problems, and the team are getting great feedback, and ongoing processes are being set in place. This is before the the road show to the faculties has even begun, and the next round of engagement and contestation begins.

But this is what it took to get this far. This is what collaboration actually looks like- that word so easily and glibly written in funding proposals, strategic documents and miscellaneous reports. Next to each of the names listed below is an activity, or two or three. And linking all of those activities were all sorts of connecting activities that make up collaboration: ie  discussing, negotiating, compromising,  disagreeing, clarifying, refining, redefining, requesting, explaining, advocating, interrogating, questioning, interacting, reviewing, requiring, conferring, referring, deliberating, expounding, justifying, rationalising……the mediation of multiple perspectives and manifold interests.

True, it was not an out-the-box process or solution, but the technical developers got mention through just one name because that is only one (albeit critical) aspect of the work. Those rock solid technical requirements and the challenges of the diverse content types were embedded in the entire universe of the scholarly landscape, of representations of scholarship, in what the nature of scholarship is in terms of what it looks like and how these can be represented in a dynamically changing environment; and they were entangled in the relationships between subtle communications of institutional, disciplinary and multi-disciplinary identities.

For the outcome of all these negotiations to have any value, there must be shared understandings, and a vision, and buy in, and ownership. That is where so much of the work happens, and where the collaboration happens. It has been a humbling and salutary experience that has cast a light on what real collaboration really looks like. Easy to say but elaborately difficult to do.

OpenUCT Launch, 31 July 2014. Thanks to:

Stuart Saunders and the Mellon Foundation for funding and support.

Jo Beall, DVC at the time for sharing the vision and kickstarting the journey with us.

VC Max Price for backing the venture, DVC Research Danie Visser and DVC Teaching & Learning Sandra Klopper for owning the vision; Sandra Klopper for co-ordinating the process of setting an agenda for openness at UCT, Danie Visser for embracing the open access opportunities.

Colleagues in CILT who have been pioneers leading the way in vision and imagination and solid hard work: Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams, Glenda Cox, Stephen Marquard, Roger Brown, Eve Gray.

Colleagues from CHED generally especially Nan Yeld, Ian Scott and Suellen Shay for their support,  Lena Nyahodza for her solid work curating CHED scholarship.

Those involved in the VC Student OER Project so ably lead by Thomas King. The students-  Luyanda Dhlamini, Neil Berry, Boikanyo Modungwa, Chris Andersen, Bongani Baloyi, Rushikesh Alur.

Colleagues in Health Sciences EDU working on OERs. Sharing the journey, being advocates, solid work: Veronica Mitchell, Greg Doyle, Nicole Southgate.

Colleagues in the Library. Gwenda Thomas for recognising the possibilities and embracing the future with excitement and vision. Reggie Raju and Dale Peters for walking into their jobs, picking up and engaging with immediate effect and enthusiasm. Mandy Noble, David de la Croes  and Janine Dunlop, for solid hours of rigorous work mapping out the specificities that would enable the repository and discoverability  become a practical reality.

The Metadata Queen Pat Liebentrau, without whom nothing would be organised and found online. Jenny Wood and Yvonne Hertzog for meticulous  metadata work.

Colleagues in ICTS. Andy Duncan  – for asking the hard questions;  Sakkie van Rensburg signing the contract and financial support;  Andre le Roux – who took all the vlak and contributed so much;  Eugene van Rooyen – for general unfailing support including working after hours on a Friday night; Timothy Carr  – platform support and assistance well above and beyond the call of duty;  David Heyns – liaison within ICTS and change management; as well as Dirk,  Trevor and others in ICTS whose names we don’t even know  for patience and kind assistance.

Lieven Droogmans for diligence and answering every single email; his team at @mire for technical development (so much hidden complexity in that short term!);  Lyncode for the site design;  Rondine Carstens for design work – banner and buttons.

University PVCs  Murray Leybrandt and Mark New for recognising the possibilities, sharing the vision and being prepared to be gueanea pigs. Also Haajirah Esau for solid work on the P&I pilot .

Colleagues in Law IP Unit Tobias Schonwetter and Caroline Ncube for unfailing advice and expertise .

Colleagues in RCIPS especially Andrew Bailey enthusiastically working on the legal aspects of open licenses in contracts.

Colleagues in the Research Office for providing space, inserting us into their programmes, backing the open agenda, being engaged in the debates – Marilet Sienaert, Rob Morrell, Lyn Holness, Mignonne Breier and others.

Those involved in the Launch :  Blythe Edwins & Kevin Bennett & co; Theresa Schoeman, Wesley Barry and Marilyn Wilford for marketing and IT support ; Sukaina Walji  for social media and Tinashe Makwande for videography.

The contributors. This is ALL  about academics , the staff and students at UCT. There would be no repository and no point without the work done and resources produced. So many have been on this journey with us, Ed Rybicki a backer right from the beginning.  I will only mention the award winners by name for now -  Gina Ziervogel,  Matumo Ramifikeng,  Juan Klopper – but every UCT scholar in this repository is an award winner. This whole venture is all about the outstanding scholarship and teaching resources produced at this university.

The OpenUCT Team: a small team at the heart of making it happen. Meticulous, dedicated, passionate, going beyond the extra mile, without whom nothing would ever have happened. In different configurations at different times: Michelle Willmers, Sarah Goodier, Kyle Rother. Also Patricia Chikuni who helped at short notice and Shihaam Shaikh who laid so many solid foundations. Thank you all.


Realising a vision: the launch of OpenUCT

Posted in General

On the 31st of July 2014 was the official launch of the University of Cape Town’s official repository. It was opened by the VC, Dr Max Price, who ceremoniously cut a ribbon. It was a significant event marking a complex process of collaboration and negotiation between a very wide range of stakeholders across the university, and including technical, policy and advocacy work. But what is it all for? It is just a repository, and unusually beautiful as it is an object (yes!), that is not the reason for all the fuss.

The repository is a means to several ends: showcasing; preservation; visibility; discoverability; legally open content; a contribution to learning and a contribution to meaning making and knowledge creation in a globalised world.

It cannot be disputed that UCT’s world class scholars have produced impressive and extensive research and teaching resources which should be showcased and deserve a good-looking and easily navigable site which users can browse. Those beyond the university have the right to access and use the scholarship of UCT as a (largely) publically funded university.

The advantage of the resources being curated within the university library is that they will be properly preserved by information specialists whose raison d’etre includes taking care of scholarly content so that it can be used and found well into the future. Unlike in other sites, this preservation will continue to happen even as individuals leave and move on.

Visibility and discoverability are linked. In an age of information abundance, resources need to be seen and they need to easily found. In the scholarly terrain where research funder policies require that outputs are made available open access, it is an urgent imperative that scholarship and teaching resources from the global south are made available online. This means that expertise in search engine optimisation and related competencies are essential when it is known that users regard the more highly ranked search results as more relevant, and that convenience and immediate click through to full text are typical user requirements.

At the heart of the university is knowledge creation and dissemination. As online content becomes ubiquitous and the primary source of finding resources, those resources take on a powerful role in shaping what is known and what can be known. Through being available online and through technical algorithms some content becomes visible and through being visible gains legitimacy, while other content remains invisible and is deemed illegitimate. While content does not equal knowledge, new forms of multimodal content and ubiquitous content change the ways in which knowledge is created as well as which knowledge come to be regarded as normal and acceptable. Online content consolidates existing power through normalisation.

Finally, as students increasingly turn to the Internet for learning resources, the fact that most online content is created in the US and other northern countries creates a disjunct in the need for local contextualised content which can support meaning making in specific locations. Thus there is a need for local teaching resources to be made freely available online for the benefit both of students within the university and those beyond.

These are lofty ambitions and fine objectives, and certainly they cannot be realised by one single university repository. But this repository is one essential part of a necessary and growing infrastructure that provides the foundation for a vision that sees academics and students from all parts of the world equally represented online and in a good position to participate in global knowledge co-creation and learning possible for all.

My slides from the Launch are here. A related post is on UCT’s open access policy: a culmination and a beginning .