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OpenEd15 first keynote: Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill, eLiterate

5 min read

Phil and Michael, two of the finest edtech analysts about, jointly publish the near-legendary "e-literate" blog, which makes more sense of the LMS than pretty much anything. Apparently "one of them is the funny one, one of them is the good-looking one" - is that the same one, I don't know?.

The set up is Michael first, then some discussion, then Phil and some more discussion. Irritation rather than inspiration is promised, and the picture of Staetdler and Waldorf is highly apt.


Michael kicked off by problematising the use of the term "scale" as a way of measuring effectiveness. But it is the scale of the problem that determines what it is you are trying to do - open education attempts to tackle many problems at a number of levels. This conference is split between being a professional association and a movement - there are movement values being expressed, but is there a genuine will to activism.

Understanding the goal and the commonly held theory of change is essential for any movement. Drawing from environmental activism, examples were given at the state and local levels in order to address a national and global issue. Convincing political actors at a local and regional level can be as simple (but still as difficult) as them recieving 50 well-written non-form letters.

Drawing attention away from "conventional" models of change, and supporting genuinely new ideas that change practices, is a very difficult process - where a well-funded incumbent is advocating for incremental change this can feel like a difficult fight. But accurate and timely rebuttal of false messages around cost and quality - especially pointing out hidden subsidies where they skew the cost picture - can be hugely powerful. Messaging can be managed carefully to attract those that are interested but not activist.

Like General Electric building windfarms, sometimes we can see morally complex companies benefiting from activist pressure. Sometimes we need to find a way that makes them money to promote longer term, more human, goals. And sometimes the idealised (federated) solution may be less efficient than the existing monopolies.

Bringing in Phil Hill (a "passivist"?), it was noted that clarity makes for a hugely attractive argument. However letting non-desirable actors "win" an argument - and making common cause with surprising people - is very difficult for those newer to the movement. (I'm reminded of David Wiley's welcoming of the Pearson "efficacy" work, the right direction but the "wrong" actor). 

Open Education is an edtech innovation with a close natural fit with the concerns of schools and academics. Many of the earlier arguments have been won (in the US at least). But only a low (4-5%) of academics are using OER regularly in preparing classes. OE is a movement that *just makes sense*, but the impact is still low.

The example of using citrus to treat scurvy was cited as an example of a series of controlled experiments that pointed to a clear solution. But it took a long time before it was adopted by larger concerns - the diffusion time was much longer than expected. Similarly in OE, the awareness of OER is still low, with more than 2/3rds of teachers having no awareness at all. Examining the the motiviations of teachers in choosing material, it is noted that "cost" is a very low concern compared to quality and coverage of educational materials.

The LMS is notable as an innovation that has been successfully taken up, though few are as proud of their LMS as they are as their minivan.

Although students are beginning to spend less on textbooks, there is evidence that students are simply not buying the required textbook (with possible impact on their learning). First-generation students are generally spending more on textbooks than students from families with a history of higher learning.

There is an opportunity here to define OE goals to meet what students and faculty actually care about. Early adopters (generally those currently active in the "movement") have very different concerns and motivations from the mainstream - we need to support both.

Feldstein observed that the LMS parallel was a good one. Mainstream adoption is not a comfortable place for an activist - there are compromises and a sense of "selling out". But all the hard work has been done to prove the concept - the next step requires different arguments and different techniques.

In questions it was raised that the lack of interest in cost presents a very westernised perspective, in the developing world cost is a much bigger issue.  A number of ideals and goals are wrapped up in the idea of "open" and cost is a part of a much more complex picture - and it is possible to have regional and local goals that feed in to the wider activist movement.

In diffusion of innovation theory, the existence of an innovation is not enough to drive a social change. There is no magic disruption fairy. But most theories of activist innovation are predicated on volunteers - in contrast Pearson (say) have an army. Distributing the "cost" of innovation is very difficult - hence the ubiquity of volunteers and activists. But is this sustainable?