“How can we do better? How can we meet the needs particularly of those who are marginalized?”Name: Catherine Cronin
Position: Strategic Education Developer
Expertise: Critical approaches to digital and open education
Institution: National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education
More info: Home Page Twitter Video
ORCID ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9266-7598
An interview with Catherine Cronin on 27 August 2021
Can you tell us a bit about your work with Open Educational Resources or Open Pedagogy more broadly?
We wanted our work to be targeted at what people needed, particularly what librarians, teaching and learning professionals, teachers and students felt was needed.
I work with the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education here in Ireland. The National Forum, for those who may not know, is a small academically-led body that works across all higher education institutions in Ireland, leading and supporting the enhancement of teaching and learning. My area of work is Digital and Open Education; I’ve been with the Forum almost three years now and much of that work has been in the area of Open Education. The National Forum, from its inception in 2013, established that all National Forum-funded projects, any resources produced within those projects, must be openly licensed so that they can be shared across the sector, adapted, re-used, and so on. But there wasn’t a deep and wide understanding of open licensing, so some of those resources were put up on WordPress sites etc, but very few were actually openly licensed. When I came to the Forum at the end of 2018, that [awareness re open licensing] became a big part of my work.
The National Forum has developed a set of resources, but we didn’t do that on our own. Before embarking on development of resources to support building open capabilities in higher education, we met with a group of librarians, teaching and learning professionals, teachers and students to help us chart the way forward – because, as you know, there are many questions that can be asked and supports that can be provided in the area of open education. We wanted our work to be targeted at what people needed, particularly what librarians, teaching and learning professionals, teachers and students felt was needed. So we developed the National Forum Open Licensing Toolkit and a guide to help people choose an appropriate open license for their work. Then, as a team of four, including yourself (Celine Peignen), Angelica Risquez and Claire McAvinia, we developed an online resource for Using OER and OEP for Teaching and Learning that aims to support individual students and staff, but also the key people within institutions who are doing that [support] work. We see our work as happening at a number of different levels.
How did you come to be involved in Open Education?
When I encountered Open Education for the first time, it was a good fit. The values of Open Education are around access, equity and open pedagogy, fitting very much with the work I had been doing.
When I encountered Open Education for the first time, it was a good fit. The values of Open Education are around access, equity and open pedagogy, fitting very much with the work I had been doing. I started intentionally using what I would now call Open Educational Practices around 2009-2010, shortly after I started using Twitter and connecting with other educators globally. For several years I taught a second-year module in the BSc Information Technology programme at NUI Galway; I collaborated with educators (starting in 2011) in Ireland, the UK, Germany, New Zealand and Spain – working to connect our students. Obviously you have different time zones and term-times and so on, and we had different students taking different courses in different disciplines. But we were all working to help our students to create media and openly licensed digital resources. Through that [work], we were able to connect students so that they could access one another’s work, remix it, riff off it.
That was very exciting, helping students to develop those skills. I learned through that work a lot about the complexities of things like digital identity and privacy. I found myself speaking, often with other educators, about the work my students were doing and the work of other people – danah boyd, Bonnie Stewart, (thinking of people doing this work in the early 2010s) Martin Weller, Tracy McMillan Cottom, Audrey Watters – and I realized that Open couldn’t become part of the culture of an institution unless it was embedded in strategy and policy. I wanted to do that work. So I started my PhD in 2013 in the area of Open Educational Practices; I finished in 2018 and then came to work with the National Forum. I consider myself at heart an open educator and open researcher; the practice informs the research, living in the world informs the research. I know the title of this series is Open Champions, but I often say that I consider myself a Critical Advocate for open – advocating for open knowledge and open institutions, but knowing also that, as I found in my research, openness is always complex, personal, contextual and continually negotiated.
Have librarians supported you on your Open Education journey?
The skills and knowledge that librarians have around information literacies, media literacies, digital literacies, copyright licensing, navigating a wealth of information – that’s all the bedrock of Open Educational Practices.
Absolutely! I would add [to my previous response] that when it comes to the concept of The Commons, I found myself thinking that some things were possible by seeing what others were trying and sharing. Those people may not have been in Higher Education, some were in Primary or Second level education, and in other countries. The notion of The Commons was the light that went off for me. I was learning from taking part in some of the early cMOOCs and seeing what people were sharing on Twitter, then I tried things. I realized that I had learned from others’ sharing, so I needed to share my own work also. Librarians were a big piece of that. Obviously, librarians here in Ireland, like yourself (Celine Peignen, Deputy Librarian at Athlone Institute of Technology, Ireland) like the Institute Librarian at NUI Galway who understands, and has for some time, the importance not just of Open Access, but linking Open Access with OER (these are often two different domains, Open Science and Open Teaching and Learning).
The skills and knowledge that librarians have around information literacies, media literacies, digital literacies, copyright licensing, navigating a wealth of information – that’s all the bedrock of Open Educational Practices. The most exciting, productive and successful initiatives are often where librarians are working in partnership with students, teaching and learning professionals, and people teaching in various disciplines. I have observed that happening in other countries: Canada, the US, South Africa, the UK – and it’s happening very much in Ireland now as well. I applaud it and am so excited to be a part of it.
Who would you say has benefited the most from Open Education, including your own previous work?
It isn’t just about sharing what we make and what we do, but about seeing and learning from what others are sharing, particularly on a global basis.
We highlight three pillars: increasing Access, enhancing Equity and improving/enhancing Pedagogy. Access and equity, we start there. We often talk about access for students – to open textbooks or open resources – but an important question is: which students will benefit from Open Educational Resources or Open Textbooks the most? We should aim to help the most marginalized students – students who may fall out of the system due to high costs, take a break because they can’t afford to study a particular program all in one go, and then lose access to institutional resources, lose access to their [institutional] email, lose access to publisher-accessible textbooks, and so on.
It’s something that’s been reawakened in the time of Covid-19, the pandemic. I think we’re all involved in these discussions in our institutions and organizations. Whatever any of us may have understood about inequality before March 2020, we know a lot more now – within our institutions and organizations, and also globally. So how can we not think, particularly if we work in publicly-funded institutions, about opening the work we do so that students can access it, and being inclusive of students, all staff, the communities we live in, and obviously wider communities – pushing the boundaries of open.
It isn’t just about sharing what we make and what we do, but about seeing and learning from what others are sharing, particularly on a global basis. So, for example, not just elite institutions in the Global North sharing with the world, but what are others – students, scholars, citizens – producing and sharing openly elsewhere that can expand our understanding of the problems we all face, of the world and of our disciplines? That’s really where the power of open comes in.
What do you see as the key successes in the Open Education movement so far?
There were reports for years around awareness of OER among staff and students in higher education, saying things like only X% of higher education staff who teach know about Open Educational Resources… but through the amazing work of UNESCO, Creative Commons, Open Education Champions and critical advocates globally over the last 20 years, that’s changing. I think we’re reaching a critical mass. Again the experiences of the past 18 months have facilitated many of those conversations in terms of the potential benefits of OER and OEP in this particular time that we’re living in.
I often link this to other movements for social change – for example, civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights – in that when you’re living in a time of change, it seems like there’s a lot of disparate things going on. Sometimes people disagree about the way to go forward. For example, someone wants to make legal changes, they feel that is the most important thing; someone else thinks marching in the streets is the most important; someone else thinks making things free is the most important. There’s a set of values that are shared among most people who are working in Open Education, and I see a collective progress emerging. For a lot of us, it drives us to keep going. Again, even a few years ago, all [higher education] institutions in Ireland had Open Access policies but none had an OER policy. Now, people are talking about this. We have expertise and infrastructure around Open in our institutions: how can we leverage that to facilitate using OER and OEP within our institutions, now that the benefits are more widely understood? I think we’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s obviously still much more to do.
What do you think still needs to be done for open education to truly take hold? What's left to be done?
I’ve mentioned it already, but [it’s] recognizing the importance of strategy and policy to embed and facilitate these practices within institutions, within higher education as a sector.
As much as we may agree that things are further ahead now than they were, the challenges that we face are growing at the same time – the pandemic, climate change, rising inequality around the world, rising authoritarianism, surveillance capitalism, all the challenges within higher education itself. I think the key is to keep reminding ourselves about how we can work from the values, the conceptual foundations of openness: the values of sharing, participation, co-creation and partnership, the value of knowledge as a public good, the knowledge society concept. As Audrey Watters says, the most pressing challenge is to keep the large view, to keep reassessing what we’re doing. So, are we working to reach these larger goals? How can we do better? How can we meet the needs particularly of those who are marginalized? Because people are becoming marginalized in new and different ways all the time. So yes, focus on licensing, focus on open textbooks, absolutely, but help people connect to the ‘why’ in these larger values of Open. I think that’s our most important work.
So, what does that mean in practice? I’ve mentioned it already, but [it’s] recognizing the importance of strategy and policy to embed and facilitate these practices within institutions, within higher education as a sector. For example, I found in my research that the lack of policy in any particular area speaks very loudly to people. So a lack of OER policy means that you will always have a few people who will be engaged in OER and share OER, but there will be a majority who may say: I don’t really think that’s enabled by the institution, what if something goes wrong, a whole host of such questions. If we want to embed a culture of openness, institutions must address this in mission statements, institutional strategies, teaching and learning strategies and policies. I think that’s really important. Also… reward the use of OER and OEP in promotion criteria, and listen to students.
Those are just a few ways. These are avenues that I see certainly for my future work – continually listening, continually asking how we can do better to meet the challenges because they’re changing all the time.
We do have to convince at higher levels that this is the way forward, so there is still a lot of reassuring to be done and reinforcement of the benefits of OEP and of OER. The fact of quality OER being available, that we know that we're getting good material and that those resources can be used,this reassurance helps but has to be there, would you agree?
Yes, and one of the advantages of open education becoming more mature is that there are exemplars of practice – how this works in different kinds of institutions and different contexts – that are openly published, that we can share to help bring people along. We can use the good practice of our colleagues in other places to help move things forward.
What are your plans for the future of Open Education?
My three-year term with the National Forum is coming to an end at the end of December. It’s truly been some of the most rewarding work I’ve done in Digital and Open Education: being able to work on a national level and collaborating with people nationally and internationally. It’s been wonderful. I’m working on new plans for 2022 and beyond, and won’t be working within an institution. I am partnering with another friend and scholar of Open Education and Higher Education on a research and writing project. I’ll be doing some more community-focused work. I see a huge need for Open Education in specific marginalized communities here in Ireland; I’ll be doing some of that work, again partnering with people. And I’m leaving a little bit of space just to imagine what else might be done.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Well, I will say that in the last two work moves I made, one of the most remarkable things I found was that they weren’t as cataclysmic as some moves I’d made earlier in my career. Working in Open Education, our networks are global. So when you work in one institution, then go to work in another institution or organization elsewhere, your network moves with you. That’s very comforting and satisfying, because I know I’ll be liaising and working with many of the people I’m working with and collaborating with right now. It’s another reason why I feel Open Educational Practices are so important to model and to help students to develop. One of the most important things for students to bring from their studies and institutions is not just their qualifications, but an understanding of how to assess and engage in various digital and open ecosystems. They will encounter and engage in these in their work whether they are a social worker, lawyer, IT professional, or whatever. To start developing some of those networks and skills so that they can take those with them – I think that’s a real obligation of higher education at this time, in the highly networked and participatory culture and unequal world in which we live.
Copyright: Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0 Licence SPARC Europe
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