OERRH welcomes Giselle Ferreira and Alannah Fitzgerald

OERRH welcomes Giselle Ferreira  (third from right) and Alannah Fitzgerald (second from left)

It had been with some trepidation that I approached the OU campus on the first day of my visit. Two and a half years had passed since I moved away from Milton Keynes, so, naturally, I was wondering what might have changed in the place during this time. Unsurprisingly, it all looks pretty much the same, so I do not need much in the way of an induction.

As I arrive at the OERRH ‘headquarters’ in IET, I’m greeted by old as well as new, yet invariably friendly, faces. I can still find my way around the place, so initial, admin-related chats are relatively short, and I hook up straight away to the campus network. I’m surprised to see new IT security measures in place: access to the outside world is no longer entirely open, as it used to be. Having resolved to make no New-Year resolutions at the end of last year, I find myself resolving no longer to protest so vocally against the constraints on academic access to the Internet in my current workplace – a university that is part of a large conglomerate of HEI in Brazil, actually, the second largest over here, present practically across the whole of the national territory.

Large organisations do make for fascinating research arenas – but I shall avoid digressing (too much)…

Taking the budding, yet consistently growing, interest in OER in Brazil as a backdrop, I have been working on an attempt to ‘test the waters’ in my university regarding openness values and the potential of OER and OEP. This is a delicate topic, partially because of a local idiosyncrasy: debate on HE in Brazil is polarized regarding the role of private institutions, especially the for-profit group. Hypothesis 10 of the OERRH project is, in this context, a core question: does (would) participation in OER pilots and programmes lead to policy change at institutional level? This seems to have been the case at the OU following Stage 2 of OpenLearn or the MIT OCW, but could it possibly be, if not a rule, at least a possibility elsewhere, particularly in a context, at least on the surface, so different?

My work, conducted in collaboration with Laélia Moreira, a specialist in Educational Policy who is a colleague at the Post-Graduate Programme in Education where I work, involves two complementary aspects: (a) an institution-wide investigation combining the use of a questionnaire and focused interviews with representatives of the main stakeholder groups (management, academic and students); (b) the Research Atelier (site in Portuguese), an action research project, grassroots-type of OER initiative. The latter part of the work, focusing on the development and use of OER within the context of research training, took up much of the time available to this investigation in 2013. By the end of the year, we had managed to get our site up and running, had begun outlining a plan for its integrated use with our students (in courses and supervisions) and prepared a preliminary list of areas of investigation for the survey. To say that it has been hard work would really be an understatement, but again I´m in danger of digressing… At any rate, with this part of the work, we may also be contributing to testing hypothesis 5 – “use of OER leads to critical reflection by educators, with evidence of improvement in their practice”.

I strongly suspect that institutional development of OER initiatives must rely, at least initially, on widespread championing (hard selling?), and this is not a one-man (or woman) task. Perhaps our Atelier will serve as proof of concept, but it is early days. These points, however, came up in a discussion with Alannah Fitzgerald and Andy Lane. Despite espousing some common principles implied in varied conceptualisations of openness, I view myself much more as a researcher than a potential “evangelizer”, so I am confronted with some difficult ethical questions. Actually, I’ve long been thinking that OER do raise interesting ethical questions, but, since moving to Brazil, after nearly two decades in the UK, I began wondering if, particularly in Educational Technology and OER research, we might be downplaying cultural and contextual aspects to the extent of missing really important explanatory elements. There is certainly more to localising and adapting resources than simply translating them – and translation, in itself, is a hard task indeed – so I strongly feel we need more comparative research.

I had planned to bring the survey and interview data with me to the UK, but delays with data collection meant that I missed the window of opportunity that precedes the end-of-semester rush. Instead, I brought with me a number of questions, loose thoughts based on observational data and a review of literature in Portuguese, as well as a short presentation. I’m now working on formalising the data collected last year, as well as finalising the questionnaire to be used. Regarding this, the various discussions with the OERRH folks were quite helpful, as it seems that the questionnaire developed by the project researchers might just do the job I want, with the bonus of generating data in a format that can be more easily fed back to the project.

The most valuable part of my visit was definitely the opportunity to meet the researchers in the team on a one-to-one basis. Within the time available, it was possible to exchange not only information on our respective interests and current work, but, crucially, to identify synergies and possibilities for further collaboration. I was only able to take very little time away from my commitments in Brazil, resulting in a blitz visit that, nevertheless, was very interesting and, I believe, has every chance of resulting in further work and future collaborations.

On the one hand, we were able to identify some practical ways in which I can usefully contribute to the project’s evidence collection. One of the items in the to-do list I brought back with me came out of a conversation with Rob Farrow, who showed me the new site being developed for the project, which has the aim of providing a friendly and easy-to-use way of accessing and visualising the evidence being collected. Empirical work (indeed, any type of academic output) in the area of OER in Brazil (in Portuguese, actually) is scant, but I shall be sending Rob, shortly, a digest of relevant information available in the literature I have recently surveyed and listed here.

On the other hand, the conversations I had undoubtedly provided me with insights and new ideas for work I am currently involved in (or supervising). Rob (and, in another conversation, Bea de los Arcos) pointed me in the direction of a now finished OER project, the Ready to Research site. As I gathered from Bea’s description, one of the aims of the project was to try and put together a curriculum entirely out of OER. Having research training as the area of interest, the team did put together a nifty little site from existing resources – it really is a shame that this is no longer being maintained, but I shall be looking there for further inspiration for our Atelier.

Another potentially fruitful conversation was with Beck Pitt, who mentioned the work she is doing with librarians’ use of OER; she pointed me in the direction of the work of Danielle Paradis, who is doing a PhD at the Royal Roads University in British Columbia, as I mentioned one of my PhD students, who is a librarian and is interested in the use of OER in professional training for digital literacy support. Also, talking to Leigh-Anne Perryman, who has been working with the TESS India project, I think we were both left with the impression that there is scope for the type of comparative study I´ve long been interested in conducting, if we put together data sets such as the ones she and I are aiming for.

Finally, I must mention the excellent discussions with Patrick McAndrew, current Director of IET, with whom I had worked on in the OpenLearn project, and Martin Weller, with whom I had the pleasure of working all those years ago in the OU´s first online course, You, your computer and net. These discussions were opportunities to get broader perspectives on the OERRH project by two real forward-thinkers who are also hands-on developers, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to have renewed my links with them.

I must now get on with formalising what we´ve learnt already, organising material to send back to the OERRH team and prepare for the next stage of data collection!

Cover photo: CC BY-NC-SA by Fotos GOVBA