Monthly Archives: September 2013

Of politics, China, SpongeBob and OER-chery

ALT-C logo

I arrived in Nottingham with minutes if not seconds to claim a comfy seat at the conference theatre and listen to the opening keynote of ALT-C 2013. Why is it that when they can’t find your conference badge you are immediately suspected of trying to sneak in without having registered? I tried to explain that my surname is often filed under A, or even L, instead of D, which is the obvious first letter of my surname, I think, but to no avail. I should have known better to present myself at the desk with time to spare for the unavoidable computer-says-yes check. Never mind, where was I? Ah yes, the keynote speaker to kick-off ALT-C this year was Rachel Wenstone, Vice-President (Higher Education) of the National Union of Students. I don’t have a problem with presenters reading from a script when they are good communicators and can deliver their talk with style and passion, but to me it felt slightly too ardfheis-y. She promised a political view of the prevailing culture of learning in higher education, and indeed she gave us one, and a model to follow: how learners and educators can shape the development of a new culture of learning through partnership; students don’t want feedback, she said, but a two-way conversation and space to collaborate. Mmmm have things changed that much since my years as a lecturer? I seem to recall (most) students favoured the give-it-to-me-already-chewed-and-piss-off attitude, thanks very much. Apologies if I sound a bit too cynical. You can listen to Rachel here, while the recording is available.

After that, we shuffled for the first of many times. I duly sat through John Traxler and his colleagues’ open debate on how TEL enables a response to “crises arising from the commodification, dehumanisation, corporatisation, globalisation and technologisation of education”; David Kernohan’s apocalyptic views on a broken education, and Paul Gentle’s on how leadership can make technological innovation work. It is always a pleasure to listen to Terese Bird and she didn’t disappoint: ‘China is harvesting your iTunesU’, is this a warning? I thought. Indeed the opposite, OER as ‘soft marketing’ and a piece of advice for those institutions interested in reaching out to Chinese students: upload your best resources to iTunesU!

For me one person stole the show on Wednesday: Sheila MacNeill was by far the most engaging speaker of the day, and probably the whole conference (barring Stephen Downes?).  I’m really sorry that Chris Pegler wasn’t well and her talk had to be cancelled, but delighted that Sheila was asked to move up her slot –had she presented on Thursday, as originally scheduled, our talks would have clashed and I would have missed a warm, funny and inspiring account of her experiences of using her blog, innovation in education and “the need for space for people to connect, reflect and share”. How often have you seen SpongeBob SquarePants make a stellar appearance at a gathering of learning technologists?

A quick note on my own presentation to share some of the evidence for the two hypotheses overarching our project: we already blogged about OER impact on student satisfaction and performance here, and on the meaning of openness here, so let me just refer briefly to our OERchery game. It had already gone very well at OER13, however I was worried that the allocated room on Thursday wouldn’t be the right space to invite people to get up and shoot a pretend dart at a pretend dartboard. The activity consists of asking members of your audience to place a marker on a board according to their view on how important is a particular hypothesis, and how easy it would be to find evidence to prove it.  It’s true that I bribed them with a badge, but this lovely crowd were happy to squeeze up and down the room and jump chairs to reach the wall where I had stuck the boards: I wish I could have recorded their conversations then, it ‘s a great activity to get people thinking and talking, as Chris Rowell tweeted (thanks @Chri5rowell!). Slides with instructions to play OERchery here.

And in fear of writing too long a blog post, I leave you to think of your abstracts for ALT-C 2014, which is to take place in Warwick, 1-3 September. Oh actually, don’t forget to try out Xpert’s tool to embed a CC license on your photos. Easy as  pie.

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Beatus ille

Photo by alles banane CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Photo by alles banane CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A quick Google-search on the benefits of OER for students will easily deliver a number of hits calling upon, for instance, their power to encourage more independent and flexible learning opportunities, and to facilitate exploration of materials ahead of enrolment, allowing learners to choose more wisely and also be better prepared. The JISC OER infoKit adds, amongst other, freedom of access and the international dimension that comes from being able to apply knowledge beyond the confines of one course. One would think that OER use comes as a ray of sunshine, but to what extent do OER increase student satisfaction?

As it is often the case, our research to date derives mostly from asking teachers about their beliefs on the impact of OER use on the students’ learning experience rather than asking learners themselves.  Even then, we have found that educators and learners don’t agree with each other: while the former are generally convinced of the goodness of OER, the latter are less solidly inclined to declare themselves entirely satisfied with open practices.

On the impact of OER on student satisfaction, data extracted from surveys conducted with two of our collaborations (OpenLearn and the Flipped Learning Network) make apparent this discrepancy. For example, 63% of educators using OpenLearn (n=31) agreed that open educational resources improve student satisfaction, an opinion shared by 85% of K12 teachers engaged in flipped learning (n=75). However, just 47% (n=54) of formal learners indicated that their satisfaction with the learning experience was boosted by their use of OpenLearn resources.

When we talk about OER in relation to student performance, the story repeats itself. If we consider improved performance in terms of an increase in grades, only 14% (n=16) of surveyed students indicated that they had achieved higher marks as a result of using OpenLearn. Educators, on the other hand, took a more optimistic stance: 44% (n=21) agreed that using OpenLearn leads to greater student grades, and 63% of K12 teachers (n=55) agreed that using free online resources in the flipped classroom contributes to higher test scores.

Our surveys also included questions to canvass non-grade related aspects of performance such as students’ participation in class discussions, their involvement with lesson content, etc. The results paint a similar picture of dissent, as the chart below shows.

Impact of OER use on non-grade related aspects

Impact of OER use on non-grade related aspects

Perhaps stronger evidence on the impact of OER use on student performance and satisfaction comes from those research studies that have been able to implement comparison points. According to the Bridge to Success Final Report, pass rates (A-C grades) from students taking the Succeed with Math (SWiM) course increased from 50.6% to 68.6%. To validate this data, the pass rates of a similar sample of students taking English or Reading (ENG/RDG) coded courses were also collected. In this case there was little difference in test scores between concurrent (69.5%) and following (70.3%) cohorts, suggesting that it is reasonable to consider students’ involvement in the SWiM course as contributing to their improved performance in the subject.

The Math Department at Byron High School in Minnesota tells another happy story. Pushed by financial constraints, math teachers committed to creating a textbook-free curriculum by 2010, as they adopted the flipped classroom model: a Moodle course served as spine for each classroom, where teachers embedded YouTube videos for students to watch as homework. Students not only welcomed the lighter weight in their backpacks, but also gave the approach the thumbs-up when it came to exam time: Math mastery danced from 29.9 % in 2006 to 73.8 % in 2011, and ACT scores from an average of 21.2 (on a scale of 36) in 2006 to 24.5 in 2011 (Fulton, 2012). One caveat needs to be raised, in my opinion: that teachers’ involvement in using flipped learning techniques is as likely to account for maximising learning as their use of OER. To throw a spanner in the works, further evidence on the substitution of traditional textbooks by open textbooks in the K12 science classroom does not corroborate an increase in students’ test scores (Wiley et al., 2013).

Although more research is needed to strengthen these findings, on the subject of open textbooks the achievements of OpenStax give resounding support to the link between OER and satisfaction: at the end of June 2013, OpenStax textbooks had been downloaded over 120K times, just over 17 million unique visitors had accessed the materials and 200 institutions decided to “formally adopt” OpenStax materials: over $3 million savings for students (OpenStax July Newsletter).

In the words of Horace, beatus ille qui exercet OER.