Educating Rita by Willy Russell, 1983

Current activity within open education can be characterised as having reached a beta phase of maturity. In much the same way that software progresses through a release life cycle, beta is the penultimate testing phase, after the initial alpha-testing phase, whereby the software is adopted beyond its original developer community.

Open education has now come to the attention of the mainstream press and traditional higher education, with the uptake of Open Educational Resources (OER) and with the advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). The participating masses can be likened to beta testers of these newly opened ways of educating. And, as with many recent software hits from Internet giants such as Google (e.g. Gmail), it is highly likely that open education will remain in a state of ‘perpetual beta’ development and testing, as we investigate and measure the impact of openness on education.

Funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the OER Research Hub (OERRH) is currently spear-heading the testing of OER hypotheses and is aggregating research findings through their OER Impact Map. The beta testing metaphor is also relevant to my research with the FLAX language project for the open development and testing of the FLAX Open Source Software (OSS). I have been promoting the FLAX OSS language system across different educational contexts (Fitzgerald, 2013), and I am now investigating user experiences of the software across multiple research sites in order to involve users directly in language collections building for further development of the OSS. I will be posting findings from this research on the TOETOE project blog throughout this year.

EPSON scanner imageAccording to publisher and open source advocate, Tim O’Reilly:

Users must be treated as co-developers, in a reflection of open source development practices (even if the software in question is unlikely to be released under an open source license.) The open source dictum, ‘release early and release often‘, in fact has morphed into an even more radical position, ‘the perpetual beta’, in which the product is developed in the open, with new features slipstreamed in on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. It’s no accident that services such as Gmail, Google Maps, Flickr,, and the like may be expected to bear a ‘Beta’ logo for years at a time. (O’Reilly, 2005)

Open Fellowship with the OERRH at the UK Open University

My first introduction to the UK Open University, henceforth referred to here as the OU, was when my Dad took me to see the film Educating Rita in 1985. It took two years to reach our picture house in provincial-town New Zealand, and I was just at that age – twelve going on thirteen – to appreciate this Pygmalion story of a woman breaking through the class barriers with an emancipatory distance education from the OU. My Dad also took me canvasing with him for the NZ Labour Party in those formative years, showing me first-hand that life for those in state-housing areas was very different from life in homes belonging to those who had been to university.

I never imagined that I’d be at the OU but I am now on my second fellowship here, this time as an Open Fellow with the OERRH based at the Institution of Educational Technology, and previously from 2011-2012 as a SCORE Fellow with the Support Centre for Open Resources in Education. When Rita’s character was a student at the OU in the early 1980s, open meant that admissions barriers had been removed from entry to formal study. This is still true today with the OU’s 200,000 registered paying students coming from a variety of traditional and non-traditional backgrounds. Nonetheless, this is still ground-breaking when we consider that most of the brick ‘n’ mortar higher education institutions of the world, including those with online learning offerings, still maintain strict admissions policies based on entrance examinations and prerequisites. Open has come to mean much more than this, however, with the rapid ascension of OERs and MOOCs. And, the OU have been no strangers to this rise in informal education as demonstrated in their longstanding work with the BBC through their Open Media Unit, and in leading a bevy of wide-reaching open education projects, including OpenLearn and now FutureLearn.

Open Education Awash with Venture Capital


Open for business by Libby Levi for via Flickr

Open has come of age it seems, with pathways to courses, the sharing of courseware code and access to research becoming increasingly free and open to learners; and with models for educational delivery and accreditation being experimented with on an almost daily basis by educators and institutions. Getting an education is one thing but coming up with sustainable and workable solutions for the world’s problems is increasingly understood as something outside of our reach and beyond the actual remit of education. While we discuss how to come up with the best business models for selling MOOCs and higher education to the masses, it might behoove us to ask how we can occupy eduction to evolve sustainable communities (human and non-human) on this planet rather than continue to commodify learning, teaching and research as products for an increasingly globalised world.

Weller’s position paper on the battle for open (2013) echoes concerns from open education advocates on the distortion of key principles for openness in education (see Wiley, 2013); as being sold downstream through the imposed economic value system of a booming online education market (Education Sector Factbook, 2012). The open-washing of the open education movement, in favour of capitalising on ‘open’ education at a massive scale, is being viewed in much the same way as green activists view the green-washing of the green movement, with our world’s most pressing environmental problems playing second fiddle to the big business of so-called green solutions:

When they start offering solutions is the exact moment when they stop telling the truth, inconvenient or otherwise. Google “global warming solutions.” The first paid sponsor,, urges “No doom and gloom!! When was the last time depression got you really motivated? We’re here to inspire realistic action steps and stories of success.” By “realistic” they don’t mean solutions that actually match the scale of the problem. They mean the usual consumer choices—cloth shopping bags, travel mugs, and misguided dietary advice—which will do exactly nothing to disrupt the troika of industrialization, capitalism, and patriarchy that is skinning the planet alive. But since these actions also won’t disrupt anyone’s life, they’re declared both realistic and a success. (Jenson, Keith & McBay, 2011)

Technology activists abound in support of the information wants to be free slogan from the 1960s. Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. …That tension will not go away” (Brand, 1987). Activism that is focused on the tension surrounding the freedom of information continues to grow, but what of activism that is directed at the tension between education wanting to be open and education wanting to be exclusive? Education wanting to be for life and education wanting to be for jobs only? When will we witness the scaling of massive buildings like the Shard in London by education activists – let’s call one of them Rita – in protest of formal education’s direct relationship with the limitations of commercialization? When will we raise the red flag on the global business of buying and selling education as an endgame in itself?


Subtitles errors: One climate reached the top by Gwydion M. Williams via Flickr

The purpose of education is going untested in real terms and the open education movement has only just begun educating in beta, as it were, by drawing on a pedagogy of abundance rather than a perceived pedagogy of scarcity (Weller, 2011). This shift in awareness and practice echoes Stewart Brand’s comments to Steve Wozniak, at the first Hackers’ Conference in 1984, on how information wants to be free due to the cost of getting digitised information out becoming lower and lower. The economics of learning materials (Thomas, 2014), following a recent discussion on the oer-discuss list about the progression from reusable learning objects to open educational resources, marks another useful distinction using Marxist terminology, between learning materials that have exchange versus use value:

In the discussions about whether content has value, there is often a question about whether content can be bought and sold, whether it is “monetisable”. In marxist economics that is the type of value called exchange value: where a commodity can be exchanged for money. There is another type of value: use value.  That is the extent to which a commodity is useful. It is about its utility, not its cost or price. I think most teaching resources can have a high use value both for primary use and secondary reuse, without that ever translating into an exchange value. They might be valuable but you can’t sell them. (Thomas, 2014)

It may be that Rita will draw on learning content and interactions from a variety of accessible places, including open publications and MOOCs, where ‘open’ equals free access only (for example, All Rights Reserved Coursera courses) rather than where open equals free plus legal rights to reuse, revise, remix and redistribute. It may also be that Rita will only begin to realise the use value of these educational resources – perhaps through joining Greenpeace or the Deep Green Resistance, for example – by synthesisng her contributions with those of her peers for the development of a learning community that is informal, networked and open. And, most importantly, where her developing awareness will actively challenge the perpetuation and escalation of global problems that are on a truly massive scale.

In critiquing open education, Audrey Watters, in her keynote address at the Open Education 2013 conference, also proposes communities rather than technology markets as the saviors of education:

Where in the stories we’re telling about the future of education are we seeing salvation? Why would we locate that in technology and not in humans, for example? Why would we locate that in markets and not in communities? What happens when we embrace a narrative about the end-times — about education crisis and education apocalypse? Who’s poised to take advantage of this crisis narrative? Why would we believe a gospel according to artificial intelligence, or according to Harvard Business School [Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation theory, 2013], or according to Techcrunch…? (Watters, 2013)

Multi-site Research into Developing Open Linguistic Support

Case Studies via Creative Commons

Collective case studies (Stake, 1988) will be presented via the TOETOE project blog throughout this year. Drawing on findings from a multi-site research study into developing open linguistic support with FLAX and the OERRH, case study research sites include: MOOCs, formal and informal English for Academic Purposes (EAP), and K-12 English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in a developing context.

This research is primarily concerned with the sharing and reuse of online educational resources, primarily OER, for the development of online language education collections, and the user interfaces designed and developed in FLAX for accessing these collections. OER research instruments – surveys and interview/focus-group questions – will be re-used for the collection of data. The following OER hypotheses will be tested in relation to issues in designing open corpus-based linguistic support for MOOCs, and in relation to Open Educational Practices (OEP) for language materials development with teachers:

Hypothesis A – Performance   Use of OER leads to improvement in student performance and satisfaction.

Hypothesis E – Reflection   Use of OER leads to critical reflection by (language) educators, with improvement in their practice.

Hypothesis G – Indicators   Informal (MOOC) learners use a variety of indicators when selecting OER.

Hypothesis H – Support   Informal (MOOC) learners adopt a variety of techniques to compensate for the lack of formal support.

Hypothesis I – Transition   Open education acts as a bridge to formal education, and is complementary, not competitive, with it.

Hypothesis K – Assessment  Informal means of assessment (in MOOCs) are motivators to learning with OER.

Here with this research, we are proposing that OER, and potentially MOOCs, are increasing access to high quality online educational content for the development of language education resources, with some MOOC providers licensing their educational content under open Creative Commons (CC) licences as OER. English-medium MOOCs present a further opportunity for the development and uptake of language education resources that are derived from MOOC content to support academic English. For example, we can make language support collections out of course readings, lectures, blogs, student writing and so on. We realise that these are somewhat new areas in language education and we hope that the issues and resources raised in this research will help to bridge the world of open education with traditional language education.

This research is also supported by The International Research Foundation (TIRF) for English Language Education through a doctoral dissertation grant.

Open Educational Practices in the Context of Teacher Education and Language Resources Development


The Digital Scholar by Martin Weller, 2011. Click on image to access ebook.

New digital literacies are emerging with respects to the (re)use, design, development and distribution of OER in language education.  Research with language teachers from around the world, and with informal learners registered on MOOCs, will provide evidence for measuring and mapping the impact of open digital literacies in connection with digital scholarship (Weller, 2011). Surveys on OER use are being distributed to informal learners registered on MOOCs and to language teachers working in traditional classroom-based education.

Informal learner participants who have access to corpus-based linguistic support from the FLAX project, and the subsequent re-use of OER released by their professors in the development of domain-specific corpora, are being asked whether these open interventions have led to improvements in overall course satisfaction. An investigation into Coursera and edX MOOCs is being carried out where professors openly license and distribute lectures across a variety of third-party channels (iTunesU and YouTube) in addition to the MOOC learning platforms. As digital scholars, they are also engaging in regular academic blogging and podcasting for the creation of supplementary material and are selecting Open Access publications for assigned readings.

Although still in the early stages of data collection, those teaching participants who have responded to the survey have indicated that their use of OER has led to increased critical reflection and literacy with digital media, with evidence of improvement in language materials development practices. Teachers have also identified resource quality and flexibility for adaptation as being key drivers for their own (re)use and mashups in language teaching. Observing how OERs are produced and shared by digital scholars is also being identified as important for modelling new-found open digital literacies among language teachers.

Open Print and Open Digital Resources

I am writing this post form India where English is one of many Indian languages and where English-medium education is a one-way ticket to social mobility. In a previous post, Emancipatory English in India, I stressed the importance of developing scalable open resource options for teaching and learning English in an attempt to counterbalance the increasingly divisive situation where those without access to English language education and technology are at a grave disadvantage. Through another OER project at the OU, TESS-India, I met with the Institute of Education and Training (DIET) and their sister organisation, the State Council of Educational Research Training (SCERT) in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh (pictured below). I demonstrated collections in FLAX, showing the affordances of the software and we agreed that it would be useful to build an open digital collection to expand their current paper-based open English text books, and to include Hindi translations where desirable.


(left) Nand Kumar & Ajay Kumar Singh from SCERT and Deepa Tiwari from the DIET (2nd from right). Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India.

The following is an inspirational story from Bahraich, which is deep in the beautiful countryside of Uttar Pradesh, with peacocks and cranes nestled against the yellow flowers of the mustard fields.  Bahraich is about a 40 minute drive from neighboring Sravasti where Gautama Buddha spent 25 rainy seasons at Gandhakuti (the Buddha’s hut). This is also the site of the famous Anandabodhi tree under which the Buddha was said to have reached enlightenment. I had the great pleasure of visiting Sravasti and the Guru Kripa Divine Grace Public School in Bahraich, which was founded by Chavi (pictured below). Some years ago she taught her first students under a tree and now she has 1500 students with plans to open a further school for under-privileged girls.


(2nd from right) Chavi and teachers at Kripa Guru Divine Grace Public School. Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh, India.


Open Linguistic Support in the Context of Open CourseWare and MOOCs

When it comes to the development of open linguistic support for the world of Open CourseWare and MOOCs, we are still very much educating in beta with language learning and translation technologies. OER14 and the OCWC 2014 (Open CourseWare Consortium Global Conference): Open Education for a Multicultural World are fast approaching and this year at the OCWC in Slovenia the focus is very much on multiculturalism with the following presentations addressing multilingualism in OpenCourseWare:

Openness and massiveness are also popping up as themes in key Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) conferences this year. CALICO 2014 is entitled, Open, Online, Massive: The Future of Language Learning? and EuroCALL 2014, CALL Design: Principles and Practice, will have a keynote from leading open education researcher and practitioner, Eric Duval. The EuroCALL call for papers also included the following in relation to openness in language learning:

  • Preparing and delivering open educational resources, open courseware and open online courses for language learning
  • Designing for open and independent online language learning

I will be representing the FLAX project at EuroCALL (see below), and CSEDU 2014 (the International Conference on Computer Supported Education) in Barcelona with direct reference to providing language learning support in the context of MOOCs.

MOOCs are becoming popular educational vehicles through which universities reach out to non-traditional audiences. Many enrolees hail from other countries and cultures, and struggle to cope with the English language in which such courses are invariably offered. Moreover, most such learners have a strong desire and motivation to extend their knowledge of academic English, particularly in the specific area addressed by the course.

Online courses provide a compelling opportunity for domain-specific language learning. They supply a large corpus of interesting linguistic material relevant to a particular area, including supplementary images (slides), audio and video. We contend that this corpus can be automatically analysed, enriched, and transformed into an information resource that learners can browse and query in order to extend their ability to understand the language used in a course, and help them express themselves more fluently and eloquently in that domain.

To illustrate this idea, an existing online corpus-based language learning tool (FLAX) is applied to two Coursera MOOCs in the area of virology entitled, Virology 1: How Viruses Work,  and Virology 2: How Viruses Cause Disease offered by Columbia University.

It is important to note that MOOC learners are not registered as language learners; rather they are learners registered for domain-specific MOOCs. The virology MOOC from Columbia University is based on mastery learning (Bloom, 1984), whereby course content builds from week to week, requiring learners to master previous course content before progressing onto subsequent course content, and where assessments have been matched to this mastery approach to learning with weekly quizzes building toward a final exam. There is a great deal of experimentation currently taking place with MOOC offerings in terms of the educational theories and approaches that underpin the range of MOOCs being hosted by different institutions.

Critiques on MOOC methodology and resulting terminology have already bifurcated into two camps (Daniel, 2012): xMOOCs, based on traditional modes of instruction and often embedded within proprietary learning platforms and; cMOOCs, based on connectivist peer-learning approaches (Siemens, 2005) and often developed within open source learning platforms.

In future, further MOOC collections will be developed to demonstrate how FLAX can assist with mastery approaches to learning and assessment like those employed in the virology xMOOCs as well as with more constructivist approaches to, for example, supporting peer learning and assessment in cMOOCs. This can be achieved through the development of ESAP collections that are based on the prevalent genres of a particular MOOC for the purpose of analysing key linguistic features and for modelling text types to assist learners with developing productive English writing and speaking skills to meet the learning expectations of specific MOOCs. For example, collections can be derived from: expert written texts and lecture transcripts, student written texts and seminar discussion transcripts, and peer-review texts.

This proposed model for building FLAX collections out of student-generated and student-selected content also supports the connectivist approach to delivering cMOOCs that promote the aggregation of crowd-sourced content for collaborative peer learning. It is anticipated, therefore, that MOOC language support collections in FLAX, with their automated functionality based on sophisticated data-mining and text-analysis software, which also enable the aggregation of crowd-sourced and linked resources, will be of interest to the wider stakeholder community engaged in MOOC delivery, support and accreditation, including: learning platform developers; instructional designers and e-learning support teams, and; educators and learners.

Open Linguistic Support in the Context of Formal and Informal EAP

The use of corpora in language teaching and learning has maintained a place in research and materials development, although the uptake of corpus-based resources and approaches in language learning hasn’t been overwhelming, as discussed earlier in Radio Ga Ga: corpus-based resources, you’ve yet to have your finest hour and in Cutting out the middleman in Data-Driven Learning. This relationship between the use of corpora in formal and informal language learning can also be evidenced in the current FutureLearn MOOC on Corpus Linguistics: Method, Analysis, Interpretation offered by Lancaster University. This MOOC reuses content from the free corpus linguistics summer schools usually offered by Lancaster and is reaching a far greater audience than those few who could attend the on-site summer lectures. Further events include the Teaching and Language Corpora (TaLC) conference and the BALEAP Corpora and EAP Professional Issues Meeting which will take place in June and July this year.

More so than ever we have increasing access to a range of authentic open content online (lectures and podcasts, e-books/textbooks, research publications, blogs, wikis etcetera) and free and open online tools for their linguistic analyses. Designing easy-to-use interfaces for the use of these linguistic tools is a key requirement for their uptake by non-expert users, namely: learners, teachers, subject academics, instructional designers and language resource developers.

Within the contexts of both formal and informal EAP, we are proposing that OER are increasing access to high quality online educational and research content for the development of powerful domain-specific language collections that can be further enhanced linguistically with the FLAX OSS. FLAX uses the Greenstone digital library system, which is widely used OSS that enables end users to build collections of documents and metadata directly onto the Web (Witten et al., 2010).

FLAX offers a powerful suite of interactive text-mining tools, using Natural Language Processing and Artificial Intelligence designs, to enable novice collections builders to link selected language content to large pre-processed language databanks, including collocations and Wikipedia databases and the live Web. For instance, the Wikipedia Miner tool (Milne and Witten, 2013) extracts key concepts and their definitions from Wikipedia articles to related words and phrases in language collections built in FLAX. The development of wordlist and keyword interfaces also allows learners to analyze the range of vocabulary used in a specified document, including the General Service List (West, 1953), the Academic Word List (AWL) by Coxhead (1998) and Off-list words that are often domain-specific (Chung and Nation, 2003).

The use of domain-specific corpora is a growing trend in language teaching and learning (Stubbs and Barth, 2003; Gabrielatos, 2005). An open methodology, that is being trialled at Queen Mary University of London in collaboration with the OERRH, will demonstrate how applying open corpus-based designs and technologies can enhance open educational practices among language teachers and subject academics for the preparation and delivery of formal courses in ESAP. An ESAP collection in FLAX is being developed for students taking a Critical Thinking and Writing in Law In-Sessional course at Queen Mary and for those following the Law Pathway on the 2014 summer pre-sessional programme. This corpus and the open educational practices employed to build it will be presented at EuroCALL 2014.

A further ESAP collection is being developed by PhD students at the OU who are from Brazil and are currently carrying out their field research into various aspects of educational technology at the Knowledge Media Institute (KMI). Their supervisor, Ale Okada, is an OER researcher and has encouraged her doctoral students to crowdsource a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ESAP collection (see Charles, 2012) in FLAX that will assist with their real-world English research writing and spoken language needs while in the UK. An open multilingual book on OER and Social Networks was developed by Okada at KMI  can be downloaded for free.

Both collections will include transcribed lectures, academic blog posts and Open Access research publications in the target domains of Law and Educational Technology. Among other aspects of language, these corpora in FLAX will provide an excellent context in which to study collocations, a notoriously challenging aspect of English productive use even for quite advanced learners (Bishop, 2008; Nesselhauf, 2003). The software also identifies “Lexical bundles” used in the target collection, which are multi-word sequences with distinctive syntactic patterns and discourse functions found in academic prose and lectures (Biber & Barbieri, 2007; Biber et al, 2003, 2004). It is anticipated that this open methodology for domain-specific language collections building will be of value to wider academic language communities across formal and informal education, with outputs available in the form of OSS and OER. Further updates on these developing ESAP collections will be posted here via the TOETOE blog.


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