Takeaways from Milan

It has been a little over a week since I returned from the open education conference in Milan. Looking back on it, I think it was a valuable experience for me and a good introduction to the OER and open ed efforts being made by educators and policy-makers in Europe and Asia (there was only modest representation from Latin America or Africa). Much of the talk was oriented on social justice and equity and a great deal focused on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and on the recent UNESCO OER Recommendation, adopted at the 40th General Conference on November 25, 2019. Both these international statements can be easily related to BSU’s Sustainability Goals and focus on educational equity, and I’m going to begin referring to them more explicitly as I design my own courses and activities. The biggest takeaway from the conference, however, may be the rapid pace of change toward a much more decentralized educational system in which traditional institutions such as universities are decentered and greater student ownership and control over curricula and credentials become the norm. The three themes that seemed most prevalent in conference sessions and discussions were online education, MOOCs, and micro-credentialing.

Online education has been widely accepted as a solution for distance learning, but is increasingly seen as a way to enhance students’ learning experience. New technology enables interaction and automates many of the routine activities of running a class, freeing up both students and instructors to focus on the learning. For example, Moodle (one of the conference sponsors) demonstrated several new tools for collaborative learning and assessment. And the increased reach of courses offered in either standard or massively online formats improves discussion and student interaction by raising the number of participants. I’ve already experienced this in my own online East Asia course which has thirty students, triple what I’ve ever had in an in-person 3000-level course at BSU. Next semester I won’t have an online course, but thereafter I plan to lean into online with dual-listed upper-level courses in the summer and every semester for History majors, Social Studies Ed. Students, and High School teachers. And I’m looking forward to trying an online survey, beginning with People of the Environment in Fall 2020 and continuing with Modern World.

Massively open online courses (MOOCs) are much more of a dirty word in the US than they are in the rest of the world, possibly due to the way some American for-profit education institutions have misused the format. In Europe and Asia, MOOCs are to courses as OER are to textbooks. For subjects where there is a significant percentage of fact-learning, assessment can be automated fairly easily. Even when qualitative judgments must be made about discussion posts and forum interactions, vendors like Moodle are developing peer evaluation modules with AI agents that prioritize the evaluations of students who have earned high evaluations on their own work (while still allowing the instructor to have the final say), encouraging student collaboration in course management as well as learning. Even if we don’t decide to go all the way to the MOOC environment, there’s a lot we can learn from these courses and the tools they use to improve the learning experience.

Credentials are central to the power exercised by universities over students. There have been online sources for the highest-quality educational content for the last couple of decades, such as MIT OpenCourseWare, Britain’s Open University, and open learning initiatives at Stanford, Harvard, and UMass. Students can watch and listen to some of the best instructors for free, read open textbooks, and educate themselves in a wide variety of topics – but they generally can’t get credit for that learning. Colleges and universities are being challenged as the gatekeepers of credit, however. Micro-credentialing apps such as Badgr are gaining credibility. Badgr is currently used by more than 12,000 credentialing agencies in 100 countries. The NEA recognizes badges and micro-credentials, and several university systems like SUNY have pledged to lead the way in “High-Quality Micro-Credentials”. I attended a workshop on a new blockchain-based app being developed to allow organizations to decentralize credentialing. I suggested that individuals ultimately will want to own their own “personal wallet” of credentials (as well as other personal digital info such as their genome, credit history, medical history, and CV). Martin Dougiamas (CEO of Moodle) picked up that thread and said Moodle was working on a decentralized network for educators and students that he hinted might include some of these features. MinnState has just been through an extensive formulation of transfer pathways, which may be a good first step in a process of thinking about how we want to respond to this challenge.

As usual, I’m going to advocate for trying to be ahead of the changes and meeting them with a plan. I think my department’s shift toward offering more online courses for concurrent enrollment teachers (teachers in Minnesota who want to teach “college at high school courses” have recently been required to have at least 18 credits in the subject they’re teaching, in addition to education credits) is a great first step. It addresses our need to increase enrollment while giving us practice improving our online courses. Using more automated tools may take some of the pressure off instructors and allow us to focus more on quality interactions with students. And making our courses widely-visible models should help insure our relevance as residential universities begin to lose their position at the center of higher ed.

I’m at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis today, participating in a group for the Open Textbook Network to define specifications for a new OER authoring and publishing tool they’re going to develop. But I’ll be back Friday, and I’ll start talking to folks in my program and on campus about these issues.

#EdTech Podcast

Another thing that happened at #OEGlobal19 was I met Martin Dougiamas, the developer and CEO of Moodle. I think he introduced himself as “Martin from Moodle” when I first met him in the breakout session I attended on blockchain (that’s him sitting beside me in the third photo I included in the prior post). So I didn’t really get clued into who he was until later. We proceeded to have an interesting discussion about blockchain and bitcoin, and I agree with the position he took that what we really need is not just an academic credentialing system but a full-on identity management system that will be owned and controlled by users. Something like the system Neal Stephenson described in his latest novel, Fall, or Dodge in Hell. I think if we don’t own and control our data (including things like our genomes), then someone else is going to. Monsanto is already running around the world patenting the genes of landrace varieties of crops they find in seed banks. What’s to stop a health care corporation from trying to assert proprietary rights to our genetic info in the name of efficiency or research?

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In any case, I was impressed with Martin’s apparent desire to look beyond the immediate opportunities provided by Open Ed, toward developing a hundred-year plan for improving education to make the world more sustainable. Next day, I attended his talk, which had a little info about Moodle in it but was much more about the UN Sustainability Goals and the role of Universities as models of a better world. THIS is the type of thing I like working on, including the belief that the work I’m doing everyday is pointing in that direction and continuing to try to align my daily teaching more with these types of big-picture goals.

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So I’ve started listening to Martin’s Open Ed Tech podcast, which is available wherever you listen to podcasts. The concept is that as he travels around the world in his capacity as Moodle CEO, Martin will record short interviews with the people he meets. I’ve listened to the first one so far, and it had several cool moments. One idea that raced by quickly but stuck in my head was that technology enables (or should enable) learners everywhere to decide what they need and want to learn to be the person they want to be, and then go to their closest local higher ed institution to have that need met. This combination of global and local jumped out at me. It fits with some things I’ve been thinking about making my own content more applicable to wider audiences. I think the next five years or so will be very full of people trying to work out the roles, competencies, and value-adds of different educational systems and learning-delivery technologies. It could be a very disruptive period or a very hopeful one, depending on how we approach it. Probably it’ll be both, for different people. Like William Gibson said, “the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Impressions of #OEGlobal19

I began writing this while sitting in the gate area waiting for my 12:15 boarding of my flight from Malpensa airport in Milan to New York. I thought that would be a good moment to begin reporting my impressions of the weeklong stay in Italy and the three-day Open Education Global Conference that ran from Tuesday to Thursday. I’m revising and publishing these first impressions on Thursday, December 5th, a week after the conference’s final day.

I met a bunch of interesting people and very much enjoyed the conversations and networking. The executives running the conference were friendly and I guess I’d say approachable. They also, however, seemed to be having other conversations and VIP interactions that didn’t really have much to do with the rest of us, especially the attendees who were there for the first time. When I mentioned this to some Europeans who had been to the event for several years but were not part of this executive group, they suggested this is a somewhat typical feature of European interactions. The other American first-time attendee who was part of this conversation agreed strenuously that there seemed to be something going on that wasn’t for those of us sitting at the “kids table”, suggesting this wasn’t just something I was imagining.

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I did get a chance to describe my first impressions, when Chrissi Nerantzi handed me the mic during the opening meeting on day two.

There seems to be a bit of a class system in the OE Global world. A bunch of what I’m calling the VIP executive group were members of international commissions. Several were actual UNESCO open education executives. One of the keynoters, Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams, had helped write the Cape Town Declaration. She was very nice and gave an inspiring talk about equity and social justice; so I don’t imagine she was intending in any way to exclude anyone from conversation.  The people who had been leaders in passing the recent UNESCO OER Recommendation were also at the conference. So these people were legitimate executives and movers of the OE world. However, it still felt a bit like there were two conferences going on, and many of us were just spectators rather than participants at one of them.

The people I interacted with were mostly from Britain or the US, due largely to the language barrier. The conference was conducted entirely in English, but even so I guess it was just easier for people to hang with fellow speakers. I met several Europeans living in England who were comfortable speaking English all the time. I also met some native Brits and an Australian. And a bunch of Americans, including two from Minnesota whom I’d never met before. Kind of crazy, going to Milan to meet someone from Brainerd or Minneapolis!

The content of the talks I attended was about evenly split between the type of detailed study report you’d expect at a disciplinary conference, more general conceptual talks, and talks that revolved around a specific technology (or app) that is being offered to the open community. My own talk was one of the general conceptual ones, and I think it came a little too early in the schedule to be completely successful. I followed the first keynote, which was about a similar topic with a lot of ideas I was able to call back to. I heard the same themes echoed throughout the following two and a half days, and it might have been better for me to present my talk to people who had already been through the thought process. As it was it seemed a bit like a summary before the narrative.

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Enjoying myself at a session on advancing OER in institutions, which had been the subject of my own talk the day before.

The one thing I’d change about the conference might be to add some panel discussions so folks doing the same sort of work in different parts of the world could bounce ideas off each other and spectators could see a topic dealt with all at once rather than over and over again in individual sessions. There was some talk about the idea that the movement is stuck in unproductive loops of discussing issues like textbook cost for too long. I think this is partly a function of new cohorts of people entering the movement; talking about reducing textbook costs when that’s a brand new idea is exciting and worthwhile. The veterans are more than ready to shift the discussion to wider issues like equity. I was very impressed with the gentleness with which Rajiv and Robin made that turn at last year’s “E”ffordability Summit – even moreso in light of this week.

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Preparing to argue about blockchain and identity in another breakout session with distinguished participants.

I wondered while sitting in Milan how much attention the UNESCO Recommendation was going to get in the US? The sentiments and ideas in it are certainly relevant, but there seems to be a bias in America that UNESCO doesn’t really apply to us. I’ve noticed over the past few days that David Wiley has called attention to the shift from the very open, 5-Rs definition of OER that was present in the drafts of the Recommendation, to the wording of the final draft that was adopted on November 25th. Wiley called attention to the watering down of the right to retain open texts to merely the right to access. As he argued when he added the 5th R of retention to his list in 2014, retention is actually crucial to making all the other rights actually function. I’ll be following the argument over amending the Recommendation closely, and I’m very curious about the thought process and negotiation that went into the change from the 5-Rs definition of OER in the draft and the much more restrictive wording of the final.

The Politics of OER

And here’s a 25-minute video (it’ll probably run slightly longer in person) of my Honors Lecture I’ll be delivering this evening about the “Politics of #OER” where I consider what I’ve learned from each of the constituencies, after setting the scene with those Trustee meeting slides I presented this morning: 

Easy update for Lithium!

One of the best things about OER texts is they’re easy to update. This week I’m teaching a unit in my American Environmental History course on mining, using an chapter from my text called “Treasures Underground“. It begins in Potosí where the Spanish Empire got much of its silver, talks about the gold and silver rushes in the western US, and then moves on to oil before returning to the effect of minerals on foreign policy in an increasingly globalized economy. The examples I used in the text (which I published last year) were oil in Iran and copper in Chile — and the two US-supported coups that toppled democratically-elected governments in those nations.

Today I added an additional example, as it seems democratic elections in Bolivia have been subverted this week in another coup. So ironically, the chapter now begins and ends in Bolivia. Evo Morales, the country’s immensely-popular indigenous president, has been forced to step down and has sought asylum in Mexico slightly over a week after pushing back on the rapid, foreign-controlled development of Bolivia’s lithium reserves.

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This is the slide of Morales and the Salar de Uyuni (Bolivian source of lithium) I’m adding to my lecture this week. I’ve also added these images to a new conclusion for my OER chapter.

Lithium is a key element (along with cobalt) in the rechargeable batteries that run cell phones, computers, and electric cars. The price of lithium has about tripled since 2015, and Bolivia has about 43% of world reserves (Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia between them control about 75%). Although advanced car companies like Tesla are rapidly reducing the quantity of lithium in each battery cell, other car companies that buy off-the-shelf battery solutions are likely to use much more. And everybody is trying to get into the electric car business right now.

One of my goals in this course (which is actually called “People of the Environment” and is a required “sustainability” course at Bemidji State) is to connect environmental history with the world my students face today. What better way to bring the story of mineral resources to the present than with breaking world news? It’s great that the OER tools I’m using enable me to react rapidly and incorporate this into my chapter. This is a strength of OER we should talk more about in our advocacy.