Guest blogger: Who is open education for? OER, MOOCs, and their subjects

Jeremy K. Knox  (University of Edinburgh)

Jeremy K. Knox
(University of Edinburgh)

In this guest entry, Jeremy K. Knox from University of Edinburgh examines the current open education resources (OER) and MOOC trends and some of the competing assumptions behind these developments. Furthermore, he highlights two important considerations this can have for educational research in the future. 

Jeremy K. Knox is currently working towards his doctoral degree at University of Edinburgh at the Moray House School of Education. His research interests are focused on critical posthumanism, and the relationship between current educational epistemologies and methodologies of educational research and digital culture.

Check also his personal blog where he writes about technology, culture and learning.  

‘Open education’ has emerged as a loosely defined, but influential theme in higher education, shaping institutional strategies and prompting major international policy. Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have surfaced at the vanguard of a movement that appears to be establishing itself around a call for widespread institutional transformation, driven by new digital technologies and premised on the idea that higher education is in ‘crisis’.

However, while gaining considerable influence, the idea of ‘open education’ remains significantly under-theorised, and themes of economic benefit, teaching efficiency and learner emancipation are tending to dominate the discussion. While important, these interpretations overshadow considerations of the ways that OERs and MOOCs are involved in shaping the learning subject. In other words, how is the practicing of open education implicated in the formulation of particular ideas about what it is to be human, and what does this mean for the project of education?

Since being formalised in 2002 by UNESCO, the loosely defined OER – used to classify any educational material that is made freely available online – have risen in prominence, recently inciting a public consultation from the European Commission on “Opening up education” (2011), and attracting significant research funding for the Open University in the UK, to the tune of $1.5 million from the Hewlett Foundation (Open University 2012).

However, if there is an OER ‘movement’, it appears to be envisioned quite differently depending on which advocates you decide to read. Enhancing educational practices amongst university faculty and students appears to be one such interpretation, where the advantages of sharing resources amongst communities of teachers are often discussed (for example Tosato & Bodi 2011), as is the ability to involve students in the co-creation of content (see Okada & Leslie 2012).

Proposals with seemingly less pedagogical foundations often receive more mainstream media attention. A recent article by Sir John Daniel and David Killion promote a decidedly economic rationale for OER, suggesting the rather impressive potential of ‘unlocking sustainable global growth in the 21st century’ (2012). Here the focus appears to be the ‘training’ of a ‘global workforce’, rather than the participatory activities of re-purposing and co-authorship advanced elsewhere. Preceded with an image of women appearing to derive from the Indian subcontinent huddled around a bank of computers, it seems pretty obvious who is on the receiving end of this emancipatory education. When Daniel and Killion ask ‘[i]magine what our global economy will look like when the estimated 90% or more of earth’s inhabitants currently locked out of high-quality post-secondary education and job training opportunities finally get a fair shot [?] (2012), we can detect the broader political and economic contingencies that shape open education, yet are rarely discussed. Daniel and Killion’s imagined future may indeed be viewed as emancipatory, but we must acknowledge that it is only so within a neoliberal capitalist system that strictly governs and regulates the kind of freedom one might have.

Aside from the problematic interpretation that people from the developing world are being requisitioned to resolve the economic problems engendered by the ‘West’, the OER project in general is one that formulates it’s participants as autonomous, self-directing learners, responsible for their own attainment. The influential OER University are promoting a model in which campus attendance is unnecessary and the entire educational experience derives from independent study. This second class education has no professional teaching support, yet, significantly, is to be assessed in the same way as traditional campus-based study. Thus, the OER learner becomes responsible for their own educational fulfilment in order to contribute to society, rather narrowly I suggest, simply as ‘human capital’.

The rise of the MOOC has stolen much of the open education limelight in the past year, and appears to maintain the rhetoric of self-directed emancipation through independent access to educational material. The characteristics of advanced capitalism seem to be thoroughly embodied in the MOOC: individualism, consumer choice, and the profit principle. Furthermore, the ‘massive’ enrolment numbers, often in the tens or hundreds of thousands, have inspired big promises, in the guise of ‘big data’ and ‘learning analytics’, calling for a new era of statistically-steered educational research.

The major players, Coursera, edX and Udacity, have pledged to make use of student-generated data to improve their platforms, with edX in particular emphasising the idea that learning analytics will be used to enhance not only future online education but on-campus provision as well. Less prominent in these debates are considerations of the ways that data collection, analysis and feedback frame the learning subject in particular ways. As MOOC data analysis is beginning to emerge, we are seeing the urge to profile, categorise and classify students. In recent reports from Duke University (2013), and the University of Edinburgh (2013), previous student experience or motivations are being surveyed, and these groupings mapped against measures of activity and performance. Classifications are also being derived with the use of complex clustering algorithms, such as the ‘auditing’, ‘completing’, ‘disengaging’ and ‘sampling’ categories identified by Kizilcec et al. (2013). These analytical approaches entail two important considerations for the future of such educational research.

Firstly, a disaggregation and reduction of the learning body into patterns of information, from which substantial decisions may be made regarding an individual’s progress and abilities. As further research solidifies particular student classifications, questions must be asked about how they will shape course design, learning activities and individual feedback. In this MOOC future, education is no longer about the disciplining of bodies, as in Stephen Ball’s Foucauldian reading (1990), but about the farming of the data trace. Secondly, algorithmic processes constitute a further automation of educational activity, a trend reflected in the programmed multiple choice assessments typically utilised in MOOCs. It is crucial therefore that continued research acknowledges the increasing entanglement of human and non-human agency in MOOC practice. The software and code that will play an escalating role in making decisions about who we are as learners must not be rendered invisible behind increasingly slick user interfaces, or assumed to display a definitive and undeniable truth about the kind of people we are. They must be visible, accessible, and contestable. That would constitute a real ‘open education’.