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Openness in Education: An Interview with Martin Weller

By Suzan Koseoglu, Aras Bozkurt / September 2018

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We continue our exploration of openness in education with an interview with Dr. Martin Weller, who is a Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University (UK) and the president of The Association for Learning Technology (ALT). Weller has been a prominent figure in the move toward opening up education and has published many articles and four books on topics related to open and online education, including The Digital Scholar (Bloomsbury Academic, 2011) and The Battle for Open (Ubiquity Press, 2014). He is @mweller on Twitter and blogs at

For more on openness in education, please see our interview with Dr. Bonnie Stewart.

Who is Martin Weller? Can you introduce yourself and your research interests?

I'm Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University in the U.K. I lead a research team called the OER Hub there, looking at the impact of open educational resources (OER), open educational practices (OEP), massive open online courses (MOOCs), etc. So, my research interests are obviously in the area of open education, particularly the impact of open practice, but also I'm interested in the changing nature of open education. I also write and speak about digital scholarship.

In The Battle for Open: How Openness Won and Why it Doesn't Feel Like Victory, you note we have reached a tipping point in openness, as it has "moved from being a peripheral, specialist interest to a mainstream approach" with the popularity and spread of different dimensions of open practice (for example, open access resources and publishing, massive open online courses, and open scholarship). You also say, "the application of open approaches in all aspects of higher education practice has both legitimacy and a certain inevitably" after this tipping point.

What would you say about openness in higher education today? Has anything changed since you published the book?

I don't feel a lot has changed since 2014 when the book came out; it's been largely a pattern of steady adoption since then. When I said it was now mainstream, that doesn't mean that every academic is now involved in the open movement, but rather that open approaches are now viewed as legitimate.

We have seen a steady growth in open textbooks, OER policies in Europe, expanding models of open access publishing, and continued engagement with MOOCs. None of these have suddenly transformed higher education since the book, but they have all continued to grow steadily.

I worked on a project recently for the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE), where we looked at the different models of open, online and flexible learning that higher education providers were undertaking globally (the final report is available here). It was a mixed picture, but nearly all the providers were engaging with openness in some manner, often for very specific, strategic purposes. So the various aspects of open education can be seen as components in a toolkit that are used as needed. For instance, some institutions want to reach a specific group of learners, so might use a MOOC, others want to focus on flexibility so might adopt OER in course production.

You recently coauthored "A Tale of Two Globes: Exploring the North/South Divide in Engagement with Open Educational Resources" in collaboration with Beatriz de los Arcos. Based on your experiences and findings from your recent research, what would you say about the north/south divide in openness? How global is the "Battle for Open?"

I am not really qualified to speak for the Global South, as I think living in the Global North you often don't notice the bias. But I would highlight two things: the first is that the Western open movement needs to be cautious about imposing its views, concepts and priorities on other nations. Providing OER and MOOCs as free education is great, but openness should not become a route through which a form of colonialism is realized. Working with local educators and experts to create open resources that are appropriate for that context is a more effective use of open approaches. For instance, the TESSA project did this very successfully creating OER for teachers in sub-Saharan Africa. The second point I would make is that open practice is a very rich and interesting area in a lot of Global South countries, as that ICDE project and the work of the excellent ROER4D team have uncovered. So, I think the Global North has a lot to learn from what is happening, and it's a shame therefore when I go to some conferences and nearly all presenters are from the Global North.

Your recent work with Katy Jordan, Irwin DeVries, and Vivien Rolfe ("Mapping the open education landscape: citation network analysis of historical open and distance education research") has gained a lot of attention. What has struck you most from that research?

Thanks for picking up on this, I enjoyed working on this small project a lot, and would like to expand it. The work grew from some research Viv had done, finding that older open education articles were rarely cited. In a conversation with Irwin and Viv, we bemoaned our impression that there is often a "year zero" mentality, for example with OERs and MOOCs, which doesn't build on previous work. Katy came up with this excellent methodology of citation analysis that allowed us to build a network of the citations in open education publications. This illustrated quite clearly what had been our general impression. Eight distinct areas emerged in the network, and there is very little cross referencing between them. The very clear delineation of these areas was probably the thing that struck me the most, for example the MOOC literature hardly references anything outside of MOOCs. I am sure there is a lot these areas can learn by broadening their horizons, which is what we hope the paper (and we also produced a beginners guide to open education) will start to do.

You have been working at The Open University (OU), the U.K.'s largest public distance learning university, since 1995. What are some unique challenges you are facing today compared to the past?

These probably apply to all single mode distance universities and not just the OU. The first big challenge is that we no longer have a monopoly on flexible education. In many ways the open universities have been victims of their own success. Other providers now offer blended, part time, online, and flexible modes of study whereas they generally used to just offer the traditional face-to-face, full time undergraduate degree. So, there is a lot more competition out there within the sector.

In the U.K., at least, a second big challenge has been the introduction of student fees. This has had a dramatic impact on part-time study across the sector, with something like a 50 percent reduction in students. Often part-time students are trying out study, or have other commitments and so the idea of taking on debt is a significant barrier. More broadly, this is an example of the third challenge in that often the metrics, performance indicators, fee structures, and general context of higher education is modeled around the concept of the "traditional" student, i.e., an 18-22 year old studying full time on campus. Part-time and flexible education doesn't fit well with these measures, and so is often either ignored or doesn't fare well. For instance, the metrics used for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in the U.K., really don't work for the OU, and many of those used to compile league tables have inherent bias in them towards more traditional provision.

But it is worth noting that it is also a time of opportunity. Despite the measurements and regulations working against open education, at the same time there is an increasing recognition from Governments and employers that online, flexible education is important in a digital economy. There are also lots of opportunities around the use of technology to make the experience better for learners.

What would you say the most pressing barriers are in the use and adoption of OERs?

Awareness remains an issue. When we surveyed educators about whether they used online resources, most said they did but these were YouTube, Khan Academy, and maybe Ted Talks. The OER repositories didn't feature. So helping discovery is still a big factor. Also some educators still have concerns about quality. These are largely unjustified I feel, but the sense that "if it's free then it can't be good" does persist.

What do you think about the open access choices (green access and gold access) some journals provide to authors?

They're okay, I'm not against gold access in principle, but the amount that is charged for the APC (article processing charge) is important. Many publishers charge thousands of pounds for one article, making it difficult for many people to publish, and also taking significant sums of money out of higher education. I work with an open access publisher, Ubiquity [Press], that charges about ?400 per article, which covers the costs involved. This is a much more collaborative, sustainable model. For example, I co-edit a journal (Journal of Interactive Media in Education) that we publish through Ubiquity and my university covers the fees for three issues annually, so it is free to authors. This is a relatively small sum, and the partnership with Ubiquity means we don't have to maintain journal software ourselves. I am interested in new models of publishing. For instance, the Open Library of Humanities has established a library partnership model whereby partner libraries pay an annual fee which subsidies the publication of a number of journals. This shift to paying to produce open access content rather than purchased copyrighted material is one that I think will expand.

Any exciting future projects?

I'm keen to develop and expand our GO-GN network. This is funded by the Hewlett Foundation, and is a global network of Ph.D. researchers in OER. Often they are the only person in their university researching this field so the connection to a global support community is invaluable. It has been a great success and very impactful for those involved. But it is limited by our capacity; so finding ways to expand this is our next step.

We recently conducted a project introducing open textbooks into the U.K., and this is an area that has great potential, not just for higher education but schools and informal learning, so I am looking to expand this approach.

I want to continue to explore the history and evolving nature of open education, and also educational technology more generally. I wrote an article on the past 20 years of edtech recently based on a blog series. I am looking to expand this, maybe into a book or set of resources.

About the Authors

Dr. Suzan Koseoglu is an Academic Developer (Research and Development in Technology Enhanced Learning) at Goldsmiths, University of London. Koseoglu holds an M.Ed. and Ph.D. in learning technologies. Her area of expertise is online learning with an emphasis on open and networked scholarship and socio-cultural aspects of learning in further and higher education contexts. Koseoglu's recent research focuses on openness in education, exploring open educational practices and the intersection of power and pedagogy in hashtag communities.

Dr. Aras Bozkurt is a researcher in the Department of Distance Education at Anadolu University, Turkey and in the Department of English Studies at University of South Africa. He has an M.A. and Ph.D. in distance education. He conducts empirical studies on online learning through resorting to critical theories including connectivism, rhizomatic learning and heutagogy. He is interested in emerging research paradigms such as social network analysis, sentiment analysis, and data mining.

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