The Battle for Openness - Pre-#EDEN15 Conference Interview with Martin Weller

March 10, 2015 by EDEN Secretariat   Comments (0)

, , , , , , ,


Steve Wheeler's interview with Martin Weller


Now and then, I have the privilege to interview some great thought leaders in the field of education. I usually feature them on this blog under the banner of 10Q - ten questions. This time, I'm very happy to interview two of the keynote speakers for the EDEN 2015 conference, which will be held in Barcelona. In a few days I'll post my interview with Jim Groom, but first, here's the conversation that ensued when I caught up with The British Open University's Martin Weller.




1)      You’re currently professor of educational technology at the British Open University. What first attracted you to working in education/teaching/research, and why are you still there?

I joined the OU in 1995 just as the web was taking off. It was a very exciting time, as we were exploring the possibility of using the internet, particularly in distance education.  My field was ArtificialIntelligence, but I started experimenting with online tutor groups, producing web pages, etc and migrated into educational technology (as many people did). I chaired the OU's first big elearning course in 1999 with 12,000 students which really demonstrated the potential for elearning. I've stayed in it because it changes a lot and there are always new developments, eg I've been through VLEs, web 2.0, blogs, social media, learning objects, OERs, MOOCs, etc in this period.

2)      You wrote a book on being a digital scholar in 2011. What is digital scholarship, and why is it so important for educators?

 I see digital scholarship as a shorthand really for the intersection between digital technology, the internet and open practice. The intersection of these three offers many opportunities for changes in every aspect of scholarly practice. In the book I took Boyer's 1990 categorisation of scholarship as being discovery, integration, application and teaching, and demonstrated how each of these scholarly functions could be transformed by digital scholarship.

3)      In your experience, how has education changed over the last ten years – and have those changes been good?

I think it's a good news, bad news story. Sometimes it can seem that not much has changed and education (higher education in particular, which is my area of focus) has been very slow to realise the potential of new technologies. Sometimes this is appropriate, for instance not getting swept up in the latest silicon valley hype, but other times it's just a dismissal of any change. But I think this can underestimate a lot of the change that has taken place. It's gradual, and occurs alongside traditional practices - so we still have lectures and campus universities, which might lead you to think nothing much has changed, but parallel with this the role of blended and elearning has become mainstream practice. And we've seen a lot of innovation in the area of open education.
As to whether it's a good thing or not, I've just written a whole book exploring some of this in The Battle for Open, so it's difficult to say in a short answer. Generally I think the use of new tech has allowed education to be more flexible, and opened it up beyond the traditional notion of what constituted a university student. But there has also been some terrible hype about new developments, and technology can also been seen as a route for commercial interests to undermine the role of the university. So, it's a mixed picture. 

4)      Open online provision of courses has seen a surge in popularity around the globe with Openlearn, Futurelearn, and others. Will the bubble burst, or will this momentum be sustained? What are the success factors?

I think the hype is definitely over. But that is often when things get interesting. I think many MOOCs (and MOOC providers) will struggle to find a sustainable financial model in their current guise. But also the genie is out of the bottle in some respects. We will see them adapted and modified, but what the MOOC interest has done is raise the profile of open education and elearning in general, so increasingly universities and governments will look to this as a model.

5)      What is your response to the criticism of MOOCs (e.g. large scale dropouts, superficial learning)?

I think it is easy to be snobbish about MOOCs. It's nearly always a good thing to have people engaged with learning - it's better than having a population sitting around watching reality TV for instance. But equally the MOOC proponents have to take those criticisms seriously. MOOC dropouts are a real issue - at the Open University we've known for a long time that students really require a lot of support if they are to succeed. This is particularly true of the sort of learners you might want to reach with MOOCs (people who cannot access normal higher education for instance). If MOOCs are only good for experienced learners then they won't offer much of a solution.

6)      There has been at least 20 years of research into online learning, and over 40 years of research into distance education. How much of this is relevant to MOOCs, or are they a game changer?

They're a game changer in that they have made people who make decisions and have funding pay attention, but in teaching and learning terms they offer very little that we didn't know already. Apart from some of the more experimental ones that employ connectivist or rhizomatic approaches for instances, they are fairly limited in terms of pedagogy. It has been mildly entertaining to see many of the MOOC companies making 'discoveries' of things that we have known for ages (eg that students require support). But I think they have raised the profile of elearning, particularly with the entrance of prestigious universities into the area, and that changes the whole landscape.

7)      What do you think will be the next big thing in education? Will we see something new that will transform the learner experience, or simply more of the same?

I don't do predictions anymore! I think it's been a while since we've had a real 'big thing'. MOOCs made a lot of noise, but compared with the impact of the web 2.0/social media developments of the late 00s this was quite small scale. I think we are entering a phase of many different technologies becoming more sophisticated and more integrated into education eg mobile learning, social media, learning analytics

8)      What three things should educators be made aware of right now?

I think the general move to openness - MOOCs, OERs, open access, digital scholarship, open data - all these things are part of a bigger picture.  Related to this the nature of academic identity online, and how that relates to traditional practice. Analytics - good and bad uses of this.

9)      What will be the main theme(s) of your keynote at EDEN Barcelona?

I'm going to explore some of the issues around the battle for openness.  

10)   What gets you out of bed in the morning?

My two dogs need to go out the back garden and let me know :)
I feel very fortunate to be in a field (educational technology) and living through a period that it witnessing such rapid and large scale change. Regardless of what you think of MOOCs for instance it was fascinating to watch how they came from nowhere and saw such rapid growth, and then criticism. Being able to both participate in this field and be a recorder, researcher of it is exciting.
Read Martin's blog, the EdTechie | Read the related MOOCs vs OER Roundtable | See other keynote speakers of the #EDEN15 Conference
Photo courtesy of Martin Weller

Creative Commons License
10Q: Martin Weller by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.