Sunday, November 26, 2017

How open? How flexible? It's not so simple

We use words like open, free, flexible and personalised and assume that are positive and desirable. Who doesn't want to be described in those terms? The problem is that in practice these concepts can prove to be very complex and the effects can sometimes be counter-productive. Moving from the highly structured world of traditional education to flexible, open and learner-centred education based on digital media is a rather daunting process that requires a complete overhaul of your practice and theoretical base.

A new post by Martin Weller (possibly the most cited person on this blog), Maybe more isn't better, questions the concept of flexibility. It sounds great but the question is when does flexibility turn into chaos.

The second assumption is that “People want more flexibility”. Again, this seems obvious, and indeed may well be correct in many instances. But at the EADTU conference I was struck by a presentation from Rieny van den Munckhof, from the OU Netherlands. They found that, echoing some of the sentiment around personalisation above, that their previously highly flexible model (start any time, take exam when you want), was in fact, too flexible. It worked for highly independent learners, but they’ve switched to a more structured approach. This has improved retention and allowed for more interactive pedagogy.

Flexibility depends on perspective. Increased flexibility for the learner may cause headaches for the teacher or the administrator and has to be balanced between the different interested parties, otherwise it can backfire. Flexibility must be introduced in small measures and everyone needs to learn to deal with it. I've also experienced courses where we tried so hard to offer full flexibility that most learners simply didn't understand the course structure (or possibly the lack of it). A certain degree of flexibility, but within a given overall structure, would seem to be the answer. Total flexibility generally results in confusion.

Openness is another concept that sounds so good but becomes complex when you try to implement it too quickly. I believe that the use of open educational resources and practices can radically improve teaching and learning as well as making quality education accessible for all. However the road is bumpy and traditional practices are hard to break, especially when they offer the comfort of trusted structures and routines. An article from the Norwegian public service TV channel NRK last week (Norge kaster bort millioner på noe elever og lærere ikke vil ha - Norway wastes millions on something neither pupils nor teachers want) gives plenty food for thought for those of us who promote OER and OEP. Since the article is in Norwegian I will paraphrase the main points.

Norwegian schools have for several years collaborated in building a national OER repository, NDLA, where teachers' resources are tagged, linked to the national curriculum and used in schools all over the country. This has lead to many schools using NDLA instead of traditional course books. Now an increasing number of schools and local authorities would like to revert to course books and are critical that the open platform has to a certain extent become a monopoly that marginalises publishers and other suppliers of digital resources. Some teachers and pupils see a clearer structure in traditional course books and find them more reliable than collections of resources created by teachers.This is very understandable and a weakness with OER is that teachers need to be very skilled in finding the right resources for each lesson instead of simply moving on to the next chapter or module of a published course book. Pupils too need to learn how to find and use these resources and this process takes time. Maybe the Norwegian model needs to be revised and there must still be a role for professionally produced course literature (printed and digital). Hopefully the two models can find a happy medium.

So we maybe have to be more careful with words that sound so beautiful but have many hidden consequences. It's a question of how open/flexible/free is appropriate in any given situation and realising that there are many layers in each concept. In certain circumstances it may even be best to be closed, restricted or rigid.

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