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Exeter at ascilite 2009

Ascilite conference, Auckland, New Zealand, 5th-9th December 2009

Some personal reflections by Tom Browne

The motivation to attend the ascilite conference, and our means of funding, was that the University of Exeter is currently engaged in a JISC-funded project to explore the potential of an institutional repository for open educational resources (OER). Further details on our project, called Open Exeter, are available at:

Dissemination is a vital part of our project. Given the strategic importance that the UK government, and through its agencies, i.e. HEFCE, JISC and the HEA are placing on OER, I wished to identify an international outlet to promote our work. I presented twice (on entirely different agendas) at the ascilite conference in 2008 in Melbourne and was very impressed by its international outreach and also the very close synergies between academics and professional support.  In part, the latter is due to the Australasian contractual models, which encourage a much closer partnership between such staff.

Exeter and OER at ascilite
I was therefore very keen to attend ascilite again in order to raise awareness of Open Exeter, within the context of our place within a current stream of JISC funding and UK government motivations and drivers.  The 2009 ascilite conference was in Auckland, New Zealand and the theme was ‘Open Places, Different Spaces’.  I thought we could identify OER as potentially a new ‘learning space’.   With Matt Newcombe, I wrote a paper which went through a rigorous peer reviewed process with three referees and it was accepted with minimal modifications. The paper is available at:

Browne, T.J.& Newcombe, M. (2009).  Open educational resources: A new creative space. In Same places, different spaces.  Proceedings ascilite Auckland 2009.

Additional OER presentations
Despite not being a major theme,  there was one parallel session that had an OER focus.  There were 3 other related presentations in our session.

  1. An examination of learning design descriptions in an existing learning design repository.  Shirley Agostinho, Sue Bennett, Lori Lockyer, Lisa Kosta, Jennifer Jones and Barry Harper Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong. Primarily a reworking of the workshop I attended the previous day (details below).
  2. New design approaches to repurposing open educational resources for collaborative learning using mediating artifacts. Yannis Dimitriadis, School of Telecommunications Engineering, University of Valladolid, Patrick McAndrew, Gráinne Conole and Elpida Makriyannis, Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University.  Again, there was some overlap with the workshop I attended the previous day.  Grainne made a strong case for employing LD in relation to OER. Despite high expectations and the significant funding and support, OER have not been adopted widely.  She argued that making the inherent design of OER more explicit will make them more understandable and hence reusable, and that offering a small set of simple patterns will encourage new ways to interpret OER and inspire re-purposing.  Staff do not fully understand what OER are and therefore they cannot effectively reuse them. Similarly, learners do not have the skills to select appropriate resources for their own context.  Thus, making the design of resources explicit is of potential value to both teachers and learners.  LD can help to capture the essential characteristics of the design and these can be employed to communicate e.g. the learning objectives, activities and outcomes associated with the resource more clearly.
  3. New beginnings: A report on the ALTC Exchange, version 2. Patricia Treagus Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC).  Patricia noted the challenge of how to ascertain ‘quality’.  I had a useful conversation with her afterwards and she brought my attention to a paper that was presented at ascilite 2008 – A peer review model for the ALTC Exchange: The landscape of shared learning and teaching resources, see: This research was commissioned by ALTC. It is an excellent exposition of the pros and cons of various models that could be employed to determine the quality of OER.  As yet ALTC has not yet decided upon which model to use. Apparently, the closest they got was a star rating system which was abandoned in their second version ‘due to general scorn of that Web2.0 system’.  Trish is the Exchange User Support Manager for ALTC. ‘Exchange’ is very roughly equivalent to the UK’s OpenJorum. It’s worth browsing to see what they have. You can register at :

Workshop on Learning Design
I attended a pre-conference workshop on Learning Design. This was run by Sue Bennett and Shirley Agostinho from Wollangong, Australia and Grainne Conole, from the OU, UK. Their ‘pitch’ was to get us exploring particular learning designs that they hoped were sufficiently generic, and explore how they could be used in a scenario of our choice.  I decided to work on a learning design that focused on PBL and needless to say I attempted to construct a scenario employing OER.  I found the exercise reasonably positive and it restored my faith in the potential of LD, which in recent years has come in for some strident criticism. Simplistically, I constructed a scenario whereby a small team, as part of their group work in solving a defined problem, would tease out relevant OERs, re-purpose them to address their assignment.  Their final sharing could be a co-generated and re-purposed new resource that could be deposited in an OER.  My ‘light-bulb’ awareness was that in any staff development, we should begin by focusing on the ‘demand-side’ aspects of OER, as part of the sensitization process in making staff aware of the potential of OER.  This reflection also draws upon an internal workshop we held at Exeter last November, where arguably we jumped in too deep on the supply side issues.

Grainne’s contribution to the workshop was to promote Cloudworks and related tools, in part as a pedagogic wrapper in the way that we are already planning to do in Open Exeter (see:

Throughout the conference there was in fact much on LD as a means to promote good L&T practice. Some was rather prescriptive and during questions it was often considered to be a flawed approach, though in some instances this related more to the tools being used than the principle.


  1. In the 1st keynote, Scott Diener gave a presentation on 2nd life that might nearly make me lose my scepticism. But as an aside, he commented on the OER movement.  He noted that there are 60 million replications of basic stuff such as Introduction to Statistics. He argued that there is no competitive advantage in everyone creating their own such ‘basic’ courses.
  2. Mark Nichols gave a keynote on the Wisdom of the Crowd. He argued that we often fall into the trap of embracing some paradigm then surround ourselves with voices of agreement. This can be exacerbated by online activity, where we invariably just talk to people ‘like us’.  Mark’s main angle was against what some regard as the superficiality of participatory learning, which is thought to lack the depth and ‘learnedness’ that a University should be promoting.  Maybe just my antennae, but we should take care not to turn OER into yet another bandwagon.
  3. Grainne Conole gave a keynote entitled New digital spaces – pushing the boundaries into the unknown; trajectories of user behaviour in new frontiers. It was a substantial pitch for Cloudworks, which she argues can help make sense of the array of new and ever changing digital spaces. She noted the shift from ‘the web as a content repository and information mechanism to a web that enables more social mediation and user generation of content’ (my italics) and she allied that to a multiplicity of sharing and networking contexts.  Content is distributed, everything is miscellaneous and there is little point in attempting to categorise it.  For this wealth of participatory content, we now have highly both individualized and group means to aggregate what are otherwise fragmented digital assets.  She argued that we neednew ‘digital literacies’. The combination of framing digital assets within a Web 2.0 world has been called ‘object oriented sociality’ (see Engeström, 2005 ref in Grainne’s paper).  Grainne also noted the tension between ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ / ‘cult of the amateur’ and the potential demise of expertise and summarized this tension as authority versus experiential learning.  Again, through my blinkered vision, we must take care how we pitch OER.

I attended a symposium entitled : Complex spaces for learning: theory and practice in design, co-design and re-design. Grainne (never missing an opportunity!) has provided a really helpful cloudscape – see: The symposium was led by Peter Goodyear (Sydney, [previously Lancaster], Yael Kali and Sue Tickner. Various gems that I noted:

  1. Students will and should be more actively involved in reconfiguring their own learning. How do staff co-design with their students? Think of students and teacher co-configuring activity relationships. This extends the concept of self-regulation: activity relationships and tools/resources. Guidance (if any) should be about not just managing activities but also the social interactions and how to make good choices about tools and resources. In discussion – allow students to use whatever tool they prefer, otherwise we spend too long explaining the ‘set / enterprise’ tool.  This raised in my mind another active tension, i.e. that between the centre and the periphery in what tools are promoted / used.
  2. Think now of activity-centred design – design cannot be content focussed, it must be on what the student does. It’s the alignment between the desired learning outcomes and the activities we want the students to engage with. A key element of the design challenge is designing the student tasks.  Remember that learning is physically and socially situated and personal technologies impinge upon both.
  3. As the locus of control shifts during the shared assessment process, there is also a greater appreciation that all learners are teachers and teachers continue to be learners.  Students co-construct teaching resources in groups using whatever the available technologies/resources they choose.
  4. We should reuse student artifacts as resources for future learning. We are guilty of throwing lots away.
  5. Generic graduate attributes – some ‘tools of trade’ are mastering technologies relevant to globalised knowledge. So we should make time in the curriculum to learn how to use them.

Tangentally relevant was the paper Positioning university students as leaders of the learning process within a peer e-learning environment.  Neil Harris, Griffith University, Maria Sandor, University of Skövde. They presented their research findings on the experience of university students as leaders of the learning process, particularly in the context of discussion forums.  Neil aimed to position students at the centre of such an online peer learning experience.

The following 2 papers may have some relevance for our employability agenda.

  1. Supporting the co-generation of work-based learning designs. Martin Jenkins, Phil Gravestock, University of Gloucestershire.   In this JISC-funded project, they are attempting to bridge the mis-match between academic jargon and the disparate jargons of different workplaces to ascertain how workplace experience and expertise could map onto university ‘levels’. The U/Gloucestershire, in partnership with the University of Winchester and Pebble Learning Ltd (producers of a popular e-portfolio), is developing mechanisms and tools to enable such approaches, including the development of a vocabulary to bridge occupational and academic standards and a toolkit to support curriculum planning.
  2. Improving graduate attributes with online teaching resources: A case study in IT management. Alan Sixsmith and Andrew Litchfield, University of Technology Sydney. The paper outlined the UTS Work-ready Project which aims to improve graduate professional attributes and work-readiness.. The project makes available online teaching and learning resources to support the integration of Work-Ready Learning Activities (WRLA) into the existing curriculum. The WRLA’s are contextualized for each profession’s workspace to maximise relevance for both students and academics.


  1. I helped out a little bit on the JISC stand at the exhibition.  Lisa Gray was doing a roaring trade in giving away many copies of a range of JISC glossies.   They are highly regarded.  But they did not have any copies of their glossy on Learning Design!
  2. Routledge had a stand at the conference exibition. I picked up a free copy of Technology, Pedagogy and Education. Oct 2008 17(3). It is a special issue on self-regulation in a digital world. (It is possible you can only access this file if your institution subscribes to this journal, which Exeter presumably does). The introduction notes ‘The stimulus for this special issue is twofold: the increasingly diverse nature of learners and the incipient opportunities and issues they entail, and the changing nature of delivery of learning as digital technologies become commonplace.’  As ever, through the lense of my conference blinkered vision, I found the thrust of this special issue to be at the centre of our current debates regarding how OER could be incorporated into our curriculum.

And finally …
As I finish writing these notes on a bitterly cold day, with several inches of snow having fallen, followed by black ice and having had a mild prang in my car on my way to work yesterday– (ice and curb stones = bent steering rod+),  I’m dreaming wistfully of those early summer days in New Zealand last month.  As I shake myself out of my reverie I return to the main thrust of my musings – that although OER was barely a minor theme at the conference, much of what I followed at the conference confirmed to me that in order to translate OER from mere ‘stuff’ to something much more useful, we need a sensitisation programme for both staff and students and a radical view of how our L&T practices need to be modified to embrace OER.   At Exeter, we are just beginning to build awareness of OER into our HEA accredited programmes of staff development. Small beginnings, but a start.

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