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Centre for Online and Distance Education

People-Powered Innovation: Disruption or Cooperation?


Written by
Clare Sansom

Martin Weller, the director of The Open Education Research Hub at the Open University, needs no introduction to the audience at RIDE. He has worked in open education for many years, chairing the Open University’s first fully online course in 1999, and is known throughout the world as an expert in the field. In his keynote lecture at the 2020 conference, presented virtually from his home, he turned the theme of the meeting on its head by contrasting disruption in education with open practice. 

In his keynote lecture at the RIDE 2020 conference, presented virtually from his home, Martin Weller turned the theme of the meeting on its head by contrasting disruption in education with open practice. When technological change brings disruption it can be destructive, he explained, citing the example of the huge photographic film company, Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy after digital photography had overtaken film. In contrast, open innovations can be introduced more gradually and cooperatively, with a clear end in mind.

He illustrated this general point by presenting his own ‘personal journey’ through open education, starting with the beginning of the Open University 50 years ago. Its mission, to be ‘open to people, places, methods and ideas’ has hardly changed since the 1970s although the technology it uses to achieve this has changed out of all recognition. That is not to say that ‘online’ isn’t attractive and important to students: that very first online-only OU course in 1999 attracted about 15,000 students, many times more than anticipated. As such, it might be described as a predecessor of a MOOC, almost a decade before the term ‘massive open online course’ was coined.

By the early 2000s, the virtual learning environment (VLE) had become a vital part of many universities’ (and, indeed, some schools’) teaching, but until Moodle was released in 2002 the only reliable VLEs were commercial and expensive. Moodle is a flexible open enterprise system that can be used in many different environments and ways, and, crucially, as an open resource it is completely free. The idea of the open educational resource – a freely accessible, Creative Commons licensed piece of text, media or software for learning that can be adapted and re-used – was another ‘open’ development that has been widely adopted.

Drawing on this vast personal experience, he summarised the benefits of openness but also some pitfalls to avoid, including cultural imperialism – the idea that the US, and the West more generally, are and will remain at the centre of online education, and the danger of academic ‘gig economy’ workers underselling their services or even working for free. The list of benefits he offered was much longer: open education encourages sharing by default, collaboration, adaptation and transparency, provides a route in for new voices and even, perhaps, a route to social justice. 
The lively question and answer session was again facilitated using PollEverywhere, and not surprisingly the most popular question concerned the topic at the top of everyone’s minds: coronavirus is perhaps the ultimate disruptor, but ,might this disruption lead, one day, to benefits for education? Martin suggested that the enforced pivot to fully online teaching was, at the very least, proving an excellent example of active collaboration, and that openness was even more important at such a troubling time.