This is the final post on the OEPS blog before it transitions to an archive. As such I’d like to use it to reflect on the big themes that the project set out to address.
I joined the project following more than a decade of work in the Scottish widening participation scene and recent experience of exploring the use of open educational resources with organisations that support non-traditional students attempting to gain access to further and higher education.
OEPS was distinctive in foregrounding social justice and widening participation but I think I underestimated the challenge that this presented. The Open Education movement grew out of a belief that educational material should be a public good. And this belief has informed developments over nearly two decades. However, at the start of the project it was clear that there were very few points of contact between the Learning Technology and Widening Participation communities in Scotland. Although the latter community was beginning to grapple with issues of digital participation, knowledge of the affordances of open education or indeed of the existence of OER was very limited.
So for the project bringing people together from a range of different backgrounds was critical and we prioritised this in organising events and in targeting possible partners. We’ve written more about this elsewhere and the final project report provides a useful summary of this engagement.
As we developed a network of partners it rapidly became clear that, while the language of open education and the technicalities of open licensing were not well known, a broad range of organisations and individuals were grappling with the social consequences of digital technology. In the OEPS final report we note that
‘… in the last ten years there has been a historic shift in the way that society uses digital technology. Ownership of smart digital devices has grown rapidly. An OFCOM report published in 2015 found that 66% of UK adults owned a Smartphone, up from 39% just three years before. This has had an impact on culture, communication and self-directed learning. However, the links between digital engagement and the digital literacies required for learning are not straightforward. In 2009 the JISC report on Learning Literacies in a Digital Age noted that learners in general are ‘poor at deploying their digital skills in support of learning’. This remains the case for young people entering higher education direct from school and evidence collected during the OEPS project suggest that this is also the case for non-traditional students.’
It’s widely accepted that good practice in supporting students from a widening participation and student retention perspective should be part of the mainstream rather than an add on. Taken as whole I would argue that the experience of the OEPS project suggests that this is also true of good Open Educational Practice.
At the outset we were concerned by the skewed demographics of participation in Open Education, which suggested that historic inequity was being reproduced or even accentuated. Looking at open education through a widening participation lens, and working closely with non-traditional learners and with the organisations that support them, helped us develop valuable insights into the way that stubborn and persistent barriers to educational participation are expressed in digital environments. Digital technologies open up new possibilities and new barriers for students. In developing exemplar open courses with a range of partners the OEPS project provides evidence that these barriers can be overcome. Much more work is needed in this field but critical to success and at the core of good practice are a number of simple issues:
- Developing practice that puts student experience and student context at the centre.
- Understanding the challenges that non-traditional students face.
- Making the maximum use of co-design – involving practitioners and students in the process of making or remixing course material, study approaches and assessment.
- Maximising opportunities for social interaction and peer support in course design. Material delivered online can be used in a whole range of online and face-to-face blends.
- Holding firm to a belief that technology can support education but that it’s a means to an end and not an end in itself.
Taking all this on board in a consistent way would be a big step forward. Although not the whole story since, as Maha Bali outlined in her presentation at the final OEPS event, open is always mediated by power and privilege. I would argue that in the digital world that potential students inhabit addressing these issues is a necessity and not a choice if we are to meet the ambitious widening participation targets set by the Scottish Government. But if we can get it right the advantages will accrue to all our students.
 Learning Literacies in a Digital Age, Beetham et al, 2009 https://www.webarchive.org.uk/wayback/archive/20140614200958/http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/briefingpapers/2009/learningliteraciesbp.aspx#downloads