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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Sustaining Innovation in Research: Open Education


Written by
Clare Sansom

The first, ‘Research’ day of the 2023 RIDE conference ended with a packed plenary session that sandwiched a fascinating panel discussion on Open Education Practices between two shorter items of particular significance for CODE: the award of the annual Roger Mills Prize and the launch of the first CODE book. 

Roger Mills Prize

Roger Mills was a long-standing and well-loved fellow of what was then the Centre for Distance Education (CDE), an innovative educator and a distinguished Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Open University. Following his death in 2016, the CDE set up an annual award in his memory for innovation in learning and teaching. Roger’s daughter Vicky, a lecturer in Victorian Studies at neighbouring Birkbeck College, was in the audience at Senate House to meet the winning team and co-present this sixth award. 

The short session was introduced by Mary Stiasny OBE, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, International, Learning and Teaching at the University of London. Mary mentioned that there had been seven excellent, varied applications for the award from academics representing six colleges of the University of London. The judging panel – CODE fellows Samantha Ahern and Leonard Houx, and Mary herself, with CODE director Linda Amrane-Cooper in the chair – were impressed by the quality of all applications but eventually unanimous in their choice of the winning one. The Roger Mills Prize for 2023 was awarded to James Findon and Francesca Cotier from Kings College London for a project entitled ’Team Based Learning in Psychology – from online to hybrid approaches’. Mary commented that this entry was ‘compelling, helpful and well-articulated’ with ‘practical pedagogical reasoning and results’ before, with Vicky Mills, presenting the prize.

James and Francesca then gave RIDE delegates a short introduction to their winning project. Team based learning is an active learning approach in which students engage with and apply core material in groups. It uses the principle of the ‘flipped classroom’ in which material is studied individually before the class and explored further during an active live session. The approach was developed as a face-to-face activity before the pandemic and adapted for online and then hybrid delivery.

Francesca Cotier and James Findon

A main concern over any flipped classroom approach is how educators can ensure that students use the preparation time well enough to make the most of the classroom-based activity. James and Francesca built regular testing into their programme to help achieve this. Each classroom session starts with an individual multiple-choice quiz (MCQ) to ensure that the students have gone through the material and are ready to engage. Students then repeat the quiz in teams of 5-6, conferring with each other and logging answers on scratchcards. Finally, they work through rather harder application exercises in the same teams. 

This can be replicated online using breakout rooms for the team meetings; as the sessions are then de facto open book, the questions are made slightly harder (further ‘up’ Bloom’s taxonomy of learning) than in the face-to-face version, and a strict time limit is imposed for each discussion.  In both online and face-to-face sessions, groups report their answers simultaneously followed by a whole-class discussion. The students’ reports of these sessions have been very positive and mean grades have improved, but care must be taken with the MCQ and application design and with the assignment of students to groups.

Keynote Panel: Supporting and Developing Open Educational Practices

The main keynote session took the form of a lively and engaging panel discussion with the overall title ‘Open in Action: How we support and develop open educational practices’. It was chaired by Jane Secker, a senior lecturer in educational development at City, University of London. Jane’s colleague Julie Voce, the head of digital education at City; Leo Havemann, a programme development advisor at UCL who is also studying for a PhD at the Open University’s Institute of Education Technology; Chris Morrison, copyright and licensing specialist at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford; and Melissa Highton from the University of Edinburgh completed the panel. Jane is a former Fellow of CODE, and Leo and Julie are both current Fellows. Melissa is also a keynote lecturer at RIDE 2023, with a talk on Wednesday entitled ‘Researching Blended Learning’. In 2018, Chris and Jane collaborated on the development of a board game about copyright in the context of scholarly publishing, The Publishing Trap.

Audience participation during the discussion was facilitated using the online tool PollEverywhere. Jane began the session with polls, first asking the question ‘How familiar are you with open educational practices’. Almost half the audience chose the option ‘Somewhat familiar’. She then explored how the term has been defined, quoting two published definitions. OEPs are…

  • ‘practices which support the (re)use and production of OER [open educational resources] through institutional practices, promote innovative pedagogical models, and respect and empower learners as co-producers on their lifelong learning paths’ (Ehlers, U-D. (2011). eLearning Papers, 23). 
  • ‘complex, personal, contextual, and continuously negotiated’ (Cronin, C. (2017). Openness and Praxis: Exploring the Use of Open Educational Practices in Higher Education. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(5), 15–34.)

Jane then asked the audience to answer a similar question – What do OEPs mean to you? – by submitting one-word answers to PollEverywhere. The largest words in the resulting word cloud were ‘access’, ‘free’, ‘resources’ and ‘sharing’. Despite this positive outcome, however, most delegates either came from institutions with no current policy for supporting OEPs or were unsure if they had one; a mere 3% of delegates knew that their institutions were creating one. A question about whether OEPs had been embedded in staff development activities yielded a similar negative response.

Left to right: Melissa, Chris, Julie and Leo

This led into a series of very short presentations by the panellists, each describing practical examples of OEPs at their own institution.

Jane and Julie began by presenting a module in Digital Literacies and Open Practices that has been running at City since 2018, as part of an MA in Academic Practice. This course explores two topics, digital literacy for staff and students, and the concept of digital scholarship. Since late 2020 this course has been run entirely online, and it features a series of open webinars and a course blog that anyone can contribute to. Many of the students are health professionals and their blog posts explore the transformative impact of ‘open’ on the study and practice of healthcare. Julie has been expanding the techniques taught in this module into staff development workshops, and she explained that her main current challenge is expanding this to reach more staff at City.

Melissa focuses on introducing and supporting OEPs at Edinburgh at the institutional level. Her team is working ‘on an industrial scale’ to shift huge volumes of the University’s teaching materials onto the open web with Creative Commons licences, so they can be used by anyone. This is driven by institution-wide policy, but it doesn’t need to be: an individual department or school could adopt a similar initiative without institutional buy-in. She is also involved in staff support and training in, for example, using Creative Commons licensing. The materials are already very widely used internationally, and the policy Is designed to support the University’s global reach and to link to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Chris explained that his work at the Bodleian on copyright and licensing has developed from previous work developing a copyright literacy strategy at the University of Kent. This is not strictly an ‘open only’ strategy, although open practices play an important part in it. Since moving to the Bodleian, he has been heading up an open scholarship support project. Oxford now has a digital education strategy that explicitly supports open educational practices.

Finally, Leo described how, in his view, open education policy – at the institutional, national or even international level (e.g. through UNESCO) – can enable (or otherwise) open educational practices. Suggested policies included written policy documents at different levels; strategy and guidance, digital infrastructure and training. The practices supported range from single open educational resources through complete courses to open universities and the development of a wider ‘culture of open knowledge production’. He summed up with the thought that policy can only enable open practices if the initiative is tackled in a holistic way.

The panel session ended with a lively discussion. Jane suggested four initial questions:

  • How open is your online and distance learning: and how open can it be?
  • How do we make and support individual discussions regarding whether, why, how and what to share?
  • What type of support has the greatest impact?
  • How do we know that what we are doing works?

Further questions raised by delegates included how the developments in artificial intelligence discussed in the morning session affect open resources, and how we should counter institutional reluctance to support staff who want to release their teaching material under open licenses. Jane’s concise and useful answer to this final question was ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’.

This discussion led seamlessly into a final, short session: the official launch of CODE’s largest and most ambitious open educational resource yet, a full-length scholarly book.

CODE Book Launch

Online and Distance Education for a Connected World – known colloquially within the Centre as ‘the CODE Book’ – was written and edited by a total of 36 authors including many CODE Fellows past and present and their colleagues and collaborators. Work on the book began well before the pandemic, but its comprehensive coverage of the pedagogy and practice of online and distance learning is of even greater relevance in the post-pandemic era of online and hybrid provision. The book has now been published by UCL Press and, true to the open philosophy of the Centre, soft copies are free to download.

The reception held to formally launch this book was co-sponsored by UCL Press and attended by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, Wendy Thomson. Wendy congratulated Linda and the CODE Fellows for producing such a comprehensive, timely and important book and for the success of the Centre more generally.

Group picture of CODE book authors

Linda then addressed the question of who the book is aimed at. She suggested that it was research-led and practice-informed – ‘just as the RIDE conference has been today’ – and so highlighted three separate groups of likely readers:

  • Managers and policy makers: those who make decisions about when and how how online and distance education is to be delivered.
  • Practitioners: the academics and support staff who get the stuff done.
  • Researchers in online and distance education, and those who are involved in evaluating it.

She concluded the book launch – and the day’s proceedings – with notes of thanks. These took in the book’s authors and editors, many of whom were in the room; the technical team; ever-efficient CODE administrator, Mark Beesley, who would be retiring at the end of RIDE; and the book’s publishers, UCL Press for co-sponsoring the reception. Finally, and paradoxically, she thanked COVID: the pandemic had delayed the book but forced its co-authors (and the whole of CODE) to rethink what we do and why, and so improved it considerably. It should prove a valuable resource for almost anyone involved in online education in our connected world.