Policy and Open Education - less boring than you might think

When I hear the word “policy,” a little part of me dies. I come to my aversion honestly; I have participated in University Senate policy debates, I have had to wade through the legalese of proposed policies, I have contributed to the interminable discussions that revolve around the trivial (comma placement) and the important (university governance structures). 

So it felt like an out-of-body experience when I proposed to Jenni Hayman, organizer of eCampusOntario’s Open Education Fellows webinar series, that we do a seminar on policy obstacles to open education in Ontario. (“What on earth am I doing?” I thought to myself. “Did I really just propose such a boring topic? Who on earth would want to attend that?”)

It was a surprise, then to see 36 people sign up for the webinar we held today. Not everyone showed up, of course - nice to see some people came to their senses! - but even so, it says something about the interest in deepening the involvement with open education in Ontario. In fact, judging from the discussion that took place during the webinar, I think it says three things.

The bottom up approach keeps hitting a ceiling

At every conference I’ve attended on open education, the phrases I’ve heard most often are “bottom up” and “top down.” (Well, other than “where can I get a drink?”, but you hear that at any conference.) 

So much of the activity and energy associated with open education comes from the grassroots, the bottom of the higher education food chain. Students advocating cheaper or free course materials; instructors deciding they want to engage with new kinds of learning materials; teaching centres devoting time and effort to workshops on open educational resources (OER) or Creative Commons licensing. 

There’s no doubt that this has raised the profile of open education, but the obstacles to participation in it are still formidable. As we pointed out in today’s webinar, the stigma that make individual instructors shy away from open education are all too real. Some fear criticism of their teaching approaches or exposure of their own mistakes. The professional culture, in turn, is influenced by this trepidation; if there is skepticism about the quality of OER, there will also be skepticism about an instructor’s involvement with it. That attitude is a big disincentive that causes many instructors to pause before investing any time into adopting or creating OER. 

The top down approach - institutional policy - is needed. Now.

Simply put, these innovative educators need more robust institutional support, and that support comes in the form of policy. Institutions need to provide sound and sustainable structural support for these open education activities. Without it, the innovation is in danger of drying up, and the innovators are in danger of becoming resentful.

Without strong institutional policies supporting open education, innovation is in danger of drying up, and the innovators are in danger of becoming resentful.

At the webinar we heard about some institutional steps in the right direction. Nick Baker, Director of the Office of Open Learning at the University of Windsor, pointed out that the university’s Senate had endorsed language supporting of OER, and that open education was even making a wee bit of headway in their tenure and promotion practices. Just the fact the Windsor has an Office of Open Learning should be a reason for open educators to take heart.

Bottom up approaches are innovative - can top down approaches match that?

Michel Singh from Collège La Cité in Ottawa made the very good point that awareness is at the centre when the bottom up and top down approaches meet. At La Cité they’ve instituted a very smart way of capturing the OER that is more common at Francophone colleges due to the lack of publisher interest in producing French language materials. As instructors there prepare to retire, they can participate in a legacy project where they are given some course release to prepare OER that can be handed on to their successors. This is a brilliant combination of bottom up innovation with top down policy to ensure the sustainability of that innovation. 

When you hear about activities like those taking place at La Cité and Windsor, it almost makes you think that working on policy can be an exciting and thrilling adventure. Almost. 

Slides from today’s webinar, and a short list of literature on some of the topics discussed, are available here.

This is the sixth of my nine contributions to the eCampusOntario 9x9x25 challenge.