Tag Archives: reflection

From Ireland to the UK (and back): my open story

Featured image: Walton Hall by B. de los Arcos, CC BY-NC

Yesterday I took part in an online hangout organised by the team behind #101openstories, hosted by the wonderful Jenni Hayman. The initiative started a few months back when six fabulous women, all members of GO-GN, got together to invite the rest of us to tell our open stories. I’m sticking the recording at the end of this post, but to save Jenni the awful task of having to transcribe what was said, here is how it all started for me. In fairness, I’m also keeping a promise I made on Twitter, although I should have used my own account, not GO-GN’s. I got mixed up!

If I’m gonna tell this story properly, I have to go back to the year 2000 when I started teaching with the Open University. My background is in languages and at the time I was teaching Spanish at University College Galway (which then became NUI Galway). The OU, however, was distance education and a whole new adventure that got really exciting when from 2003, I think, we went fully online –I no longer met my students face-to-face but spoke to them once a month using a synchronous audiographic conferencing system developed in-house called Lyceum. It was fantastic. I loved every minute of it. (Remember Mattie the cat, Fernando?). By then I had moved from Galway to Dublin and was studying part-time for an MSc in IT in Education at Trinity College. It was my first excursion into doing research. See, teaching online posed new challenges: how different would I be as an online tutor? How would not having eye contact with my students affect the way I taught? The minor dissertation I wrote was then published as a chapter in a book available to purchase for £130.75 on Amazon. (I’m not even giving you the link). I didn’t know about open then.

Dublin didn’t quite work for a bunch of reasons, but upon returning to Galway and another semester of ‘traditional’ teaching, I wasn’t happy. I felt stuck. After getting a taste for doing research, I wanted more. I applied for a grant to do a PhD at the OU and got it. Hooray! That was probably the most significant moment of my career. It meant leaving Ireland though, for Milton Keynes, the town of roundabouts (I don’t know why they mention cows, I haven’t seen any). The horror! Don’t worry, I said to L, we’ll be back as soon as I graduate. Famous last words. Cue in financial meltdown, our Celtic Tiger caught having a nap. It would take us the best part of eleven years to return to Irish shores (I completed my PhD in 2009) and even now, I can’t say I’m properly back.

But let’s get on with the story. While PhD-ing, I was allowed to continue tutoring OU students; after all, they were the subjects of my research. One day, somebody asked: how would you like to share your teaching materials? The Department of Languages had just launched LORO, a repository of resources for language teachers, an online space that could be accessed by everyone. Here is the thing: if you were teaching beginners’ Spanish, for example, the OU would send you a CD containing materials that you could use in your online class, either as is or customised as you pleased. I had done a lot of that: had a look at what we were given, maybe used a resource without any changes once or twice, then adapted it according to what I thought had worked or not for my students; I had reused OU materials to build my own versions of screens and exercises. But I had no idea what the materials for the intermediate or advanced Spanish classes were, and even less of a clue what my colleagues teaching Chinese, Welsh, German or French were doing with their beginners. With LORO, that problem was instantly solved.

Soon I moved from being a user of the repository to helping others use the repository. It was also when I first learnt of Creative Commons licences. PhD under my belt, my next job was with the HEFCE-funded Support Centre for Open Resources in Education (SCORE), where my role was supporting anyone and everyone who was interested in using the OU’s Labspace (today OpenLearn Create) to set up an open course, for instance. I’m afraid at the time I didn’t think of it as the momentous event it probably was, but I was there when David Wiley himself shared with SCORE fellows his now lauded thoughts around the letter R.

Then came OT12, a MOOC on Open Translation tools and practices, and the SCORE Microsites, two collections of OER: one on research skills for international students thinking of doing their PhD in the UK; the other, for digital scholars.

At the end of 2012 I was appointed as one of the researchers with the Hewlett-funded OER Research Hub project, now Open Education Research Hub, and that was it, I haven’t looked back since. This post would get too long if I went into all that happened to us OERHubbers so maybe another time. Suffice it to say that there was ExplOERer and OEPS, and there is GO-GN (pride of place), bizMOOC and UK Open Textbooks. I’m not officially teaching any more; it wasn’t my own choice but because OU student numbers in the Republic of Ireland went downhill at such a speedy pace, that I was invited to volunteer for redundancy. (Blame, among other, the rise in fees and the demise of the ‘single module’ learner). But I’m still an educator, in a funny way, and I’d like to think that I’m still helping others think about open.

Here is the #101openstories recording from July 24th, 2017, with Anne Algers, Martin Weller and myself.


From Chile, with love

Universidad de Chile

Photo: CC BY-NC celTatis https://flic.kr/p/piiCLb

I’m intrigued. The façade of the Universidad de Chile on Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins in Santiago displays a huge banner with a quote from Nicanor Parra, the anti-poet: “Don’t stop being a flea in the minotaur’s ear”. The university celebrates Parra’s 100th birthday recalling part of the speech he gave at the opening of the academic year in 1999. I haven’t read Parra, I’m not familiar with his subject matter but if I had a guess at what the quote means I’d think of the role of a critical university, standing up to the relevant powers with its own voice and annoying the hell out of the establishment. And maybe I wouldn’t be too far off. In a letter to Luis Riveros, Parra’s signature reads ‘Académico de la muela del juicio’ –Academic of the Wisdom Tooth. So irreverence counts, be it flea-style or of a more dental nature.

Staying on topic, it’s exasperation that sums up my participation in the VI Congreso Iberoamericano de Pedagogía, hosted and (dis)organised by Universidad Católica Silva Henríquez and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. Where do I start? No abstracts. No time keeping. No information. No place to display conference posters. No conference proceedings. No wifi. No substance. And who the heck schedules a tour of Valparaíso, UNESCO World Heritage site, to coincide with presentations? Had I not hitched a lift back to Santiago with two Chilean academics who agreed that Silva Henríquez could have done a much better job, I would have been happy to suggest that sending a spy over to Europe to learn how to organize a conference was a damn good plan. Oh nasty. Me retracto de todo lo dicho. I take back everything I said. Not.

On a different note, it’s been interesting to learn that getting an education in Chile is extremely expensive, regardless of universities being state-owned or private. Werner Westermann, who leads one of ROER4D’s sub-projects, tells me that attrition rates in his institution reach nearly 50% in first year, partly blamed on students seriously lacking basic learning skills. His study of the effectiveness of OER use to improve freshmen’s mathematical and logical thinking is the only initiative I know of that relates to open education in the region. Surprising. I can’t think of a scenario where OER and open education make better sense.

Cleaning our way to a monster dataset

In February of 2013 the newly put together OERRH team completed the humongous task of creating a bank of survey questions which would be one of the main research instruments to collect data around the project’s eleven hypotheses. Bear one thing in mind: at the time, each of us was working with a different collaboration –OpenStaxSaylor AcademyFlipped Learning Network,OpenLearnTESS-IndiaCCCOER, etc.; initially, each collaboration was allocated a different hypothesis, which also meant a different pick of questions from the survey bank and a different version of the survey. I’ll give you a couple of examples: our collaboration with the Flipped Learning Network originally focused on teachers’ reflective practices so flipped educators never answered questions on the financial savings of using OER; students using OpenLearn were not asked about the impact of OER on teaching practices; informal learners did not have questions that related to formal studies, and so on. In addition, collaborations had a stake in the research and input in the design of their survey: questions were discussed further, tweaked, piloted and tweaked again ahead of launching. All in all, we put together 18 different questionnaires. The idea was always there to merge all data into one massive file (what I called the MONSTER) that would allow us to undertake comparative analysis. What follows is the official record of how I laboriously coded, recoded, corrected, deleted and cursed (a bit) through the OERRHub surveys in order to have a squeaky clean dataset.

SurveyMonkey and SPSS don’t talk to each other that well

Every researcher knows that there are errors and inaccuracies that need to be ironed out before you commit yourself to analysing quantitative data. We are all human, right? On this occasion, for the first complication that came my way, I’m gonna blame the software: when exporting data from SurveyMonkey as anSPSS file, your variable labels and values will get confused. Let me explain: say you want to find out about OER repositories, so you create a list in SurveyMonkey and ask respondents to tick options from it to answer the question ‘Which OER repositories or educational sites have you used?’. If you expect the list to appear as variable labels in SPSS, it won’t. Instead, the software will repeat your question in the Label box and use the name of the repository in the Values box with a value of 1.


As it happens, the wonderful OER researcher Leigh-Anne Perryman had a solution in her bottomless bag of tricks: the question design in SurveyMonkey had to be amended for future respondents to have the option to tick either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for each of the repositories on the list. To sort out the damage with any data already collected, what needed to be done was manually input the name of the repository in the label box, and give the variable a value of 1=yes and 2=no. Tedious but easy to fix.


Editing the survey questions to include a yes/no answer also served to remedy another software mishap: the fact that SurveyMonkey does not differentiate a blank answer from a ‘no’ answer when downloading results as a SPSS file. On this occasion, the required fix wasn’t quick. I closely inspected the data case by case: if the respondent did not choose any of the options in a particular question, I considered each a ‘missing’ value; if the respondent ticked just one option, the blank answers were recoded into a ‘no’ value.

Another curious instance of having to recode data was spotted by Beck as the two of us marvelled over having responses from a total of 180 different countries in the world: I can’t recall whether this was a default list in SurveyMonkey but for some reason Great Britain and the United Kingdom were given as separate choices. Obviously, these had to be combined into one.

Correcting human errors

I put my hand up. The OERRH surveys aren’t exactly short and sweet. As a result, and this is my own take on the matter, the data suffered. In some cases, respondents provided the demographic information but did not answer anything else; they were deleted from the final dataset. Exact fate met those who selected all options in one question, despite being mutually exclusive –I find it hard to believe that someone is studying in school and getting a degree while doing a postgrad at the same time, don’t you?

I’ve decided that for some respondents it must have been easier to provide an answer in the comments box than reading through all the available options; what other explanation can you find for a teacher who answers the question ‘What subject do you teach?’ by writing ‘Engineering’ in the ‘Other’ field instead of ticking that from the 17 items at his disposal? Duly noted and corrected.

In other cases, for instance, respondents would leave unticked ‘MOOCs’ when asked about what type of OER they use, but then add as an open comment that they studied with Coursera or EdX. These had to be corrected as well.

Although written in English, the OERRHub surveys were distributed world-wide: it is difficult to anticipate where people might find the language a barrier, but here is an example: we used the word ‘unwaged’ to inquire about employment status; several respondents left the option unmarked, but indicated “Unemployed” or “No job” in the comments field. Again, these cases were corrected accordingly.

Merging data

Cleaning data is always painstaking work, especially when you are handling thousands of cases, but let’s face it, it is also mostly uncomplicated. What could have been if not avoided at least attenuated was the trouble that I saw myself in when having to merge the data from the eighteen OERRHub surveys. As days went by, the monster dataset grew fatter and fatter, but my love for my colleagues (and myself) grew thinner and thinner. Why? It is true that each of the individual surveys had to be customised as per collaboration but we researchers were a tad undisciplined: there were unnecessary changes to the order in which options were presented, there were items added and items subtracted, and wording altered without consultation. All this made data merging more time-consuming, cumbersome and fiddly than it should have been.

All is well that ends well though. We have a clean dataset that comprises of 6390 responses and is already producing very interesting results. Here is one of the lessons learnt: if you are dealing with multiple researchers and multiple datasets, nominate a data master: one to rule them all and bind them, although not in the darkness. Darkness is bad, open is good.

Goodbye Mars: FlipCon14 reviewed


Photo: CC BY-NC celTatis


Have you ever heard of a microburst? Me neither, yet it seems that my trips to the US happen to coincide with freak meteorological conditions. Last year, Claire and I were the closest we’ve ever been to a tornado; this year it was a microburst. A what? Wikipedia to the rescue: “A microburst is a very localized column of sinking air caused by a small and intense downdraft within a thunderstorm”.  Mad. Crazy. Un-be-lie-va-ble. Result: a sizeable chunk of dearest Route 228, without which I would never have made it to Mars, was closed off and my arrival in Pittsburgh was delayed by whatever time it took the shuttle van to bypass the microbursty mess. Forever. Twice.

And so it was that FlipCon14 came and went. This is how I saw it.

While the US soccer team mourned what would have been a mighty win over Portugal, Molly Schroeder kicked off inviting us all to live in beta: try things out, if they don’t work, bury them in your educational graveyard (like Google’s graveyard) and move on. The only expectation of living in beta is that you learn something.

An hour later I was happy to join World Languages teachers claiming their rights in a flipped world dominated by Science and Math. Flip Spanish. Flip English. Flip Mandarin. Flip grammar. Flip culture. Make it real. My kind of conversation.

Katherine McKnight’s talk had the gravitas of the research-savvy: effective videos need to be guided by theory of learning, and thus there are personalization principles, segmenting and pre-training principles, cognitive overload and so forth that translate into practical advice for teachers: show your face in your videos, provide information about key concepts before lessons, break recordings into manageable bites, include a continue button –students don’t know when to pause, apparently. All common sense, if you ask me. And what about length? Research says that anything longer than six minutes becomes a feat of endurance for college students –I chuckled, not Game of Thrones.

Irma Brasseur-Hock’s presentation was a disappointment. I was expecting to hear more about the results of the survey and focus groups that the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning conducted last year, but instead she rushed through her demographics (which incidentally match what everybody knows now, that most teachers flip in Science, in high school, have little experience in flipping but a lot in teaching) and hardly commented on the research questions: what are the biggest challenges that flipped educators face, how do they make and/or choose videos, has the flip changed what they do in class, what recommendation do they have for other teachers? Zilch. Is the data available anywhere? No, you have to wait for the publication; if it ever comes, I think to myself. Sigh. Instead she was keen on showcasing an online module they are launching in the fall, a how-to guide for flipped educators that focuses on teaching students with learning differences –and by that she meant not only under-achievers but also talented kids. Their idea is to take the research and create a teacher-friendly product; why are they so keen on sharing the (free) product but not the research?

On Wednesday, Taylor Pettis didn’t go deeper into the information that has already been shared in this infographic, when he talked about the growth of  flipped learning in the last two years. A bit of discussion followed, but since all present very much fitted the Sophia profile, there was little new to take away.

And then back to the plenary. If you haven’t heard it before, yes, Jon and Aaron’s talk is inspiring, it’s public speaking at its best, but FlipCon14 was the fourth time I heard them speak since January 2013 and to be honest, if you can’t come up with something new in a year and a half, then Houston, we have a problem. Yes, teachers took the floor to tell us wonderful stories about how the flip has changed the lives of kids, one kid per teacher, three, four, five truly wonderful stories but to me it’s time to renew the discourse. You need the research, guys, policy makers want crunch numbers; the individual stories are good anecdotal evidence but, heart-warming as they are the first time you hear them, it’s one kid amongst millions.

Which is why it was disheartening to see that immediately after, the research round table was poorly attended, and the only concrete idea that emerged was that the scope is there to create a peer-reviewed journal of flipped learning.

After that I decided that the research strand was exhausted for me, or rather that I was exhausted by the research strand so I moved for a bit of action to Kate Baker and Troy Cockrum’s session on flipping canonical texts. Yes, you can flip without videos, fantastic! Here was yet another open invitation to share resources and support each other. Why do I have to read this, Mrs. B? Because it relates to your life, dude. Reading the Declaration of Independence as a break-up letter shows the brilliance of these teachers to make English palatable to students who don’t judge a book by its cover but by its thickness. Tip: disguise it as a digital book, they’ll never know how long it is.

And then it was time to say goodbye, to deliver flowers, thanks, prizes and 5-5-5 resolutions: what are you going to do in the next five days, five weeks and five months? asks Jon Bergmann. Write this blog. Think. Read. Think again. And write more, I hope.

Finally, my biggest hug to Kari Arfstrom who steps down from her position as Executive Director of the Flipped Learning Network after two and a half years of tireless work, amazing energy and elegance. I’m delighted that she is moving to better things, but I fear that the open movement loses her strongest ally in the ranks of the flipped.

FlipCon15 in Michigan in July. ¿Qué será, será…?