Students’ piracy practices- accessing learning resources

Posted in General

In my previous life I worked in educational publishing- it was clear then what the job was – to produce and distribute educational resources as a contribution to student learning, and many dedicated educators did so. The business model was that the publisher added value (and the publishing process does add value) , owned the copyright and sold the product. In the last decade I have been actively involved in open education and open scholarship including open educational resources (OER). This still involves adding value through publishing processes, but no longer requires authors to sign over copyright to publishers but rather to provide permissions to users (including publishers who have developed different publishing models).

From the point of view of the student, open educational resources makes more sense, certainly financially. Yet the research shows that the take up of OERs by students is not as widespread as one would imagine.

Why not? Part of the reason, it seems, is that most students, in fact most people, regard the Internet as a space where free content simply exists to be found, and do not differentiate between legally available open content (OERs) and freely available content, which is not legally available, but is technically and socially available.

With this in mind, we undertook research to find out how students access learning resources, and particularly what their piracy practices are. How do they access resources (particularly books), do they consider copyright and what do they think about it, how do they make sense of what they do? The investigation formed part of a bigger study; of which part was a focus on  first year students, because they are the most likely still to be using textbooks. Through a survey answered by 1001 students and six focus groups with students in three professional disciples, we gained a sense of students’ piracy practices….

  • The findings from the survey show that students are accessing learning resources in both print and digital forms (i.e. not either /or) and that they are accessing them both legally and illegally without necessarily knowing the difference. They gave contradictory answers when asked what percentage of their resources were downloaded legally and illegally respectively, and notably only a fifth of students said that all their resources were legally obtained. The comment “we all pirate” was made several times.
  • It also emerged that accessing learning resources through a variety of sites requires a certain measure of expertise, that this knowledge was admired, and was unevenly spread. In this sense, the notion of a notion of a homogenous student body, the natural “digital native” is challenged.
  • Student attitudes to their actions includes amused distancing, through shifting responsibility to others or to the technology itself, as in, for example, giving agency to software –  “it’s Google’s fault
  • The face of piracy is generally one of matter-of- fact pragmatism. Some take a principled stance –  - ‘Is it unethical to want to be educated or is it unethical to charge so much?…- but believe that they are doing the right thing –  ‘… in my head, even though in my head I know it’s wrong, it’s just a technical thing. Substantively speaking, it’s the right thing to do…’ and “I am not worried about the consequences of illegal downloading. Worried about graduating”.
  • A distinction is made between books and other media forms (particularly music and films), and the educational aspect is considered central -different: “It’s about access to education: It is huge! It’s of the future of our country”.
  • An important distinction is also made between plagiarism and copyright, with plagiarism considered unethical and risky, while copyright is less of an issue -: “Otherwise, copyright, it does not even seem like an issue anymore….I copy everything…..But it almost seems like it isn’t copyrighted, it almost seems like it’s free for everyone.
  • A glimmer of an alternative perspective exists in the acknowledgement by some students of the existence and value of open content

The student voices are articulate, these quotes are a just taster. The paper used a practices approach for the research cognisant of the need to decentre the students as individuals, rather to explore and dissect their practices in context. Through the literature review and the findings, it is clear that there is a grey zone in the access of learning resources that is simply part of normality in a new communication and information order.

The full paper, ‘Student Practices in Copyright Culture: Accessing Learning Resources’ is in print in Learning Media and Technology, and will be available at

A post print of the paper is available at




Image from
CC0 Public Domain


The OpenUCT Guides – reflecting on the journey

Posted in General

We have recently published the fourth of the OpenUCT Guides; these are tangible outputs from years of work. In this blog posting, Michelle Willmers reflects on the journey.

OpenUCT guides: Introductory resources on scholarly communication

Academics all over the world face new challenges in terms of professionalizing their scholarly communication activity. Researchers and educators are increasingly required to adopt a strategic approach towards communications activity and promote the visibility of their work in order to encourage citation, foster collaboration, contribute towards development, demonstrate responsible scholarly conduct, attract students, and obtain funding in a highly competitive grant-funding environment.

This challenge is particularly acute for academics on the African continent who typically publish less prolifically than their Northern counterparts and do not have access to the same level of content-sharing infrastructure and support services. Open Access mandates enacted at regional and national level in the global North, combined with the imperative for developing-country scholars to address real-world issues in their work, intensifies the imperative for local scholars to take conscious steps in drawing more attention to their outputs and to present them in a way that facilitates engagement and re-use.

The OpenUCT Initiative was a three-year (2011–2014) research and implementation project at the University of Cape Town (UCT) aimed at supporting local scholars in the utilization of innovative scholarly communication approaches. Within this context, content curation and communication activities formed a central focus. Partnering with institutional support structures such as UCT Libraries, the Research Office, and Information and Communication Technology Services (ICTS), the Initiative worked with individual academics as well as research units and academic departments to promote scholarly communication activity. The Initiative also undertook numerous training and advocacy activities beyond the institution in broader academic forums.

Funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the Initiative built upon the work of a number of “open-focused” research and implementation initiatives that have taken place in UCT’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) and Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) since the early 2000s. The association resulted in a strong focus in both open education and open research activities, as is evident in the OpenUCT repository, a principal output of the Initiative now owned and managed by UCT Libraries. It also contributed to the innovative approach towards open education demonstrated in UCT’s Open Access Policy, to which the OpenUCT Initiative was a significant contributing partner.

One of the sub-projects of the OpenUCT Initiative was the Discoverability of African Scholarship Online (DASO) project, aimed at collaboration with African network partners to promote the discoverability of locally produced scholarship. Funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, this project aimed to excite participants around the importance and affordances of engaging with online visibility, provide specialist expertise, and introduce participants to the wide range of free online tools and databases that can be employed in boosting online visibility.

The work of the OpenUCT Initiative, and the DASO project in particular, is captured in new series of guides aimed at introducing academics to four key areas of scholarly communication activity:

Accessible and easy to use, it is hoped that these guides will provide a useful resource to those academics and institutional departments who wish to start engaging with these pillars of scholarly communication activity. While generated within the UCT context, the information contained therein is applicable to scholars anywhere in the world and can be adapted for local context. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike licenses the work is free for re-use and appropriation.

OERs – uniquely African drivers?

Posted in General

Are there any reasons for engaging with OERs that are particularly African? I asked this question of colleagues who lead OER initiatives from South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya *. Their responses?

That overall the drivers and issues are similar to other places, more urgent perhaps than developed countries, and much like other developing countries:

“There are not any distinctive possibilities for OER in Africa that aren’t also possibilities for say South America or South East Asia” (Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams, PI, ROER4D)

In general, I don’t think the issues are that much different – maybe there is just a greater urgency in African contexts given the resource constraints (motivation to use more existing content) and the extent to which African academics are out of the global loop of knowledge production (motivation to share more openly). (Neil Butcher, OER Africa)

This sense of urgency is of course particularly distinct, and it also accounts for the pragmatic attitude to OERs,  practical need as the driver,  rather than  the idealistic ones promoted elsewhere:

Most universities and most academics in Africa do not have the luxury to invest time and resources into anything, simply on the basis that it is ‘a good thing to do’ …If the use of OER will ‘solve’ an existing problem – e.g. lack of relevant or appropriate materials – then it becomes a no-brainer. (Catherine Ngugi, Director, OER Africa))

This point is extended to open online courses, which may be a form of OERs, but arguably will only have local value when they have obvious practical value and effect:

“Free online courses are not going to change education in Africa, not because of access or sophistication issues or even context issues… but rather because education in Africa and South Africa is a means to an end – the qualification helps to get you a job which puts food on the table. Until we can get verifiable accreditation right for free online courses I don’t think there will be much traction – on the other hand if institutions can invest in adapting the free online courses material and using it as a formal offering then savings in development and design can be allocated to other resources” (Kerry de Hart, OER Coordinator, UNISA)

But there are drivers for Africa; local context is important for OERs as is language :

OER pull factors include localise (language, examples) materials (Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams)

Indeed we have content to offer to the world:

We have unique cases/data to make available as OERs taking our interesting material to the rest of the world (Linda VanRyneveld, Director: Teaching and Learning, Faculty of Veterinary Science, University Pretoria)

“Push” factors include contributing local knowledge that has not been widely circulated to date due to the expense of printed materials  (Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams)

And last, but by no means least, the notion of the commons has cultural resonance:

Initially people seem a bit sceptical about OER because of the gains of copyright, and thus knowledge seen as commodity. In Africa with huge percentage of poverty and inequity, many are not able to access knowledge because they can’t afford it. However, I grew up in a communal African setting where almost everything is shared. Our folklore which was narrated with so much love and sense of duty by my grandparents and dad were rich and impactful. The advent of “civilization’ triggered production of knowledge in print and in a bid to make economic gain, that knowledge was hoarded and access to knowledge was now meant for the highest bidder.  I am enthusiastic about OER because I want to trigger a discourse on the need to harness African culture of communal living and sharing for OER. (Jane-Frances Agbu  Head , OER-MOOC Unit,  National Open University of Nigeria)

These tantalising responses are just tasters for a broader conversation, one that also includes other ways that local problems are solved, and online content engaged with.  Perhaps a panel discussion or symposium located in e/merge Africa, or eLearning Africa? A conversation worth pursuing? I think so.

Image: Martin Heigan, Stapelia clavicorona flower, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

* I asked this question when preparing for a talk for OEP Scotland, Grateful thanks to my colleagues for starting this conversation.

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, 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., Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)