“Open Education needs to talk to the passion of teaching”Name: Prof. Robert Schuwer
Position: Professor in Open Educational Resources
Expertise: Open Education, , , , , ,
Institution: Fontys University of Applied Sciences, School of ICT
Country: The Netherlands
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ORCID ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5756-5406
An interview with Prof. Robert Schuwer on 3 November 2021
In 2006 I was working at the Open University in the Netherlands (OUNL) and the then leading Dean of the University, Professor Fred Mulder, had the idea of publishing Open Education Resources as an experiment. There was a project he founded called OpenER, and he asked me if I wanted to be the project leader, so that’s how I got involved in open. From the first moment I was involved, it appealed to me. It was something where I could put my heart into it. I’ve really thought about it. I thought, why am I so passionate about this topic? After a bit of self analysis I think it’s because of my mother. She died eight years ago when she was 88 years old, but she was born in the former colony of the Netherlands, in Indonesia. By the time she came to secondary education there was a war with Japan and she didn’t have the opportunity to really study in secondary education or in higher education. She had the brains for it, so I thought, what if at that time Open Education Resources were around? Then she would have had the opportunity to still develop herself, and then I realized that at this moment there are still many people like my mother. So that’s really the origin of my ambition. But I don’t think I really realised that back when Fred asked me to do OpenER.
I think there is a lot to gain in this, not only for us in the Netherlands, but also in the Global South where access to high-quality learning materials can make the difference between living in poverty or making something of your life. The gaining of knowledge. Therefore, I find this movement so important. So I want to add my piece to it.
The OpenER project went from 2006-2008 and we published courses at OUNL and it was between four and 25 study hours which people could study for themselves. Some courses had the opportunity to take an exam and therefore they had to pay 50€ to do this and several dozens of people have done it. It was meant for lifelong learners. That was the target group because that is also the target group of OUNL. This gave people who are interested in taking a course, an official, paid program, at OUNL to see if this was something for them. So that was the aim of those courses, but when you publish a course with this aim, what you see happening is that these courses are used for many other occasions also, which was fine with us, of course.
So we did a lot of research around it, to find out what are the effects, what could be the advantages for OUNL, what could be the findings for the Netherlands, etc. and we learned a lot from the project. But it ended in 2008. Then I became involved in the national program Wikiwijs. This was actually, I think, the first national program in the world where the government had taken the initiative to develop a platform, in this case, for sharing and reusing Open Education Resources. Initially meant for all educational sectors, from primary education to universities. In practice, it landed mostly in primary and secondary education. It was a program for five years, and I was the project leader of one of the work packages in this program, and after that it became a service from Kennisnet, which is the counterpart of SURF for primary/secondary education. They are still developing it, so this platform is still being used by many teachers from primary/secondary education, but also in higher education institutions.
Four years ago I got involved in a project in Fontys University of Applied Sciences where Fontys was the project leader, and all 17 universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands which are offering a bachelor Nursing program were working together to create and share those learning materials for this program and collaborate in a professional community around it. I was involved, and I’m still involved, in setting this up and evolving this very rich project. We chose Wikiwijs to publish those materials. So there are approximately 1400 resources published for this project, and they are all available in Wikiwijs. The initial version of Wikiwijs was published in 2010 and over the last few years it has received many improvements and changes. But it’s still going on, and Kennisnet is one of the strategic services, so they will keep investing in it.
You just mentioned briefly that you did research on the benefits of OER from the start of your career when you were involved in OpenER, could you tell us a bit more about that research?
There are many advantages of a community, including drawing teachers in to connect with other teachers and making it easier to share materials, but it is also advantageous because publishing materials is one thing, but after one year, two years, those materials also need to be updated, upgraded, or perhaps they are outdated and should be removed. Someone has to do that. I think in that instance, the community could be valuable too.
Well, the majority of this research I’ve done in the last seven/eight years, because it was part of the Chair I’m currently heading and it was targeted mostly on the higher education sector in the Netherlands. So I’m interested in how we can make sure the majority of teachers are getting involved in sharing and in reusing learning materials. The resources are available, it is possible, but it is still not mainstream. When you ask an average teacher in a university or in a university of applied science about OER, I think the majority of the teachers will say, “Well, I’ve heard about it, but I’m not involved in it.” So that is one of the barriers. I studied what the barriers are, and I’m not the only one doing this research, it is done worldwide, and they all had the same barriers: lack of time, breaching copyright, uncertainty surrounding the quality of the resources, what’s in it for me, or why should I do it, what am I gaining? Therefore I find this recognition and reward initiative so important because then you can really also make a career in publishing good learning materials. Another barrier I found in the Netherlands was this idea that for every minute I’m involved in education, I’m not involved in research and that’s harming my career. I think it is necessary to at least partially answer the “what’s in it for me?” question.
I think one of the best ways to work with hesitant adaptors is to connect with what they are passionate about, which is teaching. So when we talk about their topic, how we teach it, how to get students active, then you see the fire in their eyes and they start talking and talking. However, when you have conversations with teachers about Open Education Resources, within a minute you are talking about open licenses and copyrights and all of those things and you see the fire diminish. They are not interested. So my approach is to talk with the teacher about their passion, about teaching. What I try to do, then, is find out what is hindering them. What hinders them from giving the perfect lesson? And from that information I try to analyse how I can help them with Open Educational Resources. Perhaps they say, “I want to get my students more active, and I don’t want to be the teacher sending all the information, I want the students to find information.” Okay, then they are talking about things which are called Open Pedagogy, so activities you can design in your teaching in which you involve students in Open Educational Practices, and using Open Educational Practices, or maybe publishing Open Education Resources. I found an interesting example at the University of Utrecht, it was a course I’d never heard of: dynamical oceanography, and the professor teaching the topic last year said I don’t want to do the same examination as I usually do, because it was happening fully online because of Covid-19. So he told the students they had to publish Wikipedia articles on their course topic, which is not new, it’s been done on several occasions around the world, but this was the first time I came across it in the Netherlands. So you can see that teachers are very creative in doing these things, and when you point teachers to those opportunities with Open Education and application, that is using Open Educational Resources or more, then you connect to their passion. You connect to how they want to teach and then you also have to then talk about copyright and etc, but then they know why they are doing it. It’s about underlining the possibilities of co-creation and other types of pedagogy to draw them in.
In a nursing project we did, we conducted research around why the teachers are involved, and we still have a lot to do after four years to get all those teachers involved. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the main reason was it was clear what’s in it for them. They started a whole new program with new topics, like E-health and so on, where every university had to develop learning materials and they had to develop it quickly. So they say, why not combine forces and do this? They have a program description which is the same for all the universities. They have the same terminology, so learning materials created at our university of applied science can also be used in other universities of applied science because the terminology they agreed upon, as well as the way it should be presented, which topic should be in the course, etc. Therefore, I strongly believe in not publishing materials as a teacher on your own, but publishing learning materials as a member of a community. Because your peers can help, they can give you feedback you may need. Teachers also hesitate and say they are not sure about the quality, but when you give them feedback, they get more sure, and then they are less hesitant to publish it. So that would be my advice: connect to their passion.
There are many advantages of a community, including drawing teachers in to connect with other teachers and making it easier to share materials, but it is also advantageous because publishing materials is one thing, but after one year, two years, those materials also need to be updated, upgraded, or perhaps they are outdated and should be removed. Someone has to do that. I think in that instance, the community could be valuable too. The community can see which materials have been added, or are missing, and decide who wants to create those learning materials, or maybe, who already has those materials and can share them. What you see happen is that in a lot of those communities, they start with a project grant mostly from external sources and then the money is spent, and the project has ended, after one or two years and then there’s no community. So that is one thing I’ve learned in this nursing project: from day one, we said we should build on this community, we should make sure that this community will last after the project money and the project is done. Now, we have the luck that we had two fundings, one for one year to start and then follow-up funding for the next two years, which was extended through now because of Covid, but after that 11 of the institutions involved said they will make a commitment to continue with this effort for five years on their own expenses. So each institution has committed, I think, 20,000€ a year to spend on this endeavor.
And still there are a lot of issues and we don’t know if this will still be alive. We still don’t know. We see that there is still a lot of life, but you have to work very hard to keep it alive and to involve more teachers to get a certain critical mass. But it has a lot of data, so it’s now about analysing data from the previous phases to see what we can learn from it, how we can approach this and what were the results and lessons learned that we can give to the community to make more of these initiatives where community-based Open Education Resources will be alive also after the project has ended. And that is one of the challenges.
I mentioned Fred Mulder as the one who got me into this field in 2006. Fred was also involved in Wikiwijs, he was in the steering committee around 2010 and he said it will take 20 years before this whole movement will be mainstream. Now, we are now about halfway and I think he’s right.
It may take 20 years because there has to be a change of culture, and that is going very slowly and you have to make these changes occur on all levels. It should occur on the level of the teacher support, but also on the level of the policymakers, who should also see their role to make a policy on OER and to have a vision on OER. And then that needs to be translated into implementation, for instance, like a recognition and reward scheme, for making careers and for rewarding teachers who are doing great things in this. It is all very complex.
Do you see a librarian as a person who could manage a community, who could play an important role in that or should we leave that to the teachers themselves?
Librarians have a role also in the community. What role is it? It can be leading although I think that is less important, but they should play a role regardless.
I think librarians have an important role in the whole field. One of the barriers which is always mentioned from teachers is lacking support, or not being an expert on copyrights, and needing assistance with these things, including tasks like uploading learning materials, which also means adding metadata. That’s sometimes something a teacher is not fond of, and also is not an expert on. However, that’s a skill which is typically available among librarians. So we need to develop processes in which a librarian can take their role in supporting the teachers, because it’s teamwork. Librarian is one part though, you also need the IT expert because, especially when you develop more advanced digital learning materials, like simulations or whatever, there’s also IT issues in it, and there you need an IT expert to support you. You also need an educational designer, designing the digital learning materials so that it is sound, also from a pedagogical point of view. That’s a profession in itself, and all in this complete team should be involved.
Librarians have a role also in the community. What role is it? It can be leading although I think that is less important, but they should play a role regardless. That’s also what you have seen in this nursing project, that each librarian took their role to support the teachers in sharing their learning materials. Librarians can also be very great advocates for OER.
Yes, I think so. We are currently running an innovation program in the Netherlands, the accelerations plans for education with ICT and there’s one topic in it about digital open materials. They have their own jargon and they call it “zones” and each zone has a captain, so I’m the captain of a “zone”, but actually you can also call it a project and I’m a project leader. Last year our “zone” created a vision document. A vision about digital learning materials: open, semi-open, close, also commercial learning materials. We have written some statements about this, vision statements, which, in 2025, should be realised. We’ve also established some building blocks and these building blocks are both for the technical point of view, the policy point of view, etc. One of the authors for this was a head librarian, and we also had feedback groups and librarians were active in that as well.
In the Netherlands, both the research universities and the universities of applied sciences work together in UKB and SHB, and under this umbrella there is a working group, Librarians Open Online Education, and they do those things we mentioned earlier, advocating, getting teachers aware about what’s going on, but also helping teachers. They are developing all kinds of resources to help, they give workshops about all those topics, and so they are a very, very active working group.
What are the key benefits of this Nursing project for the people that use it? Or could you say, okay, these are the benefits that we can distinguish that really stand out?
Several. First are the more useful ones which you always hear: it’s efficient; because then I can use learning materials which I don’t have to create myself; I save time with it; I learn when I collaborate with others to develop new learning materials, etc. Those are the regular benefits. But there’s also a very important one that was mentioned many times by participants in the nursing project: it gives us a nice way to “look in each other’s kitchen.” So basically, when you get to see how other institutions are offering their program and what they are doing for kinds of activities.
Before this project started, you had to make an appointment because maybe you didn’t know people in the other institution and now all those barriers are gone. You saw each other live, in physical meetings before Covid, or you saw each other in online environments before Covid (and especially during Covid), and you could make appointments. So you could see how other institutions were doing it with no barriers. The participants in the project mentioned that as one of the big advantages, a better awareness about quality materials because it was one of the barriers teachers always mentioned, not being sure about the quality of materials. But what do they mean by quality? What do they consider good quality? Then it has a kind of implicit feeling and you can’t communicate about it. So what we have done, and that was one of the lessons I learned from Wikiwijs, to find out the criteria your learning material should have before we publish it. And that was one thing where a librarian could also put a check on it: is it good content, good quality content? And they have managed to make that very concrete, to really say, “this should be in it, this shouldn’t be in it.” That gives the teachers more confidence because they create learning materials and they can really check and feel confident about when they are sharing it. It took six months to make this model. We created a small group creating the first version of this model, then got feedback from the teachers because it should be for all teachers, and then the process was done several times. And what I consider also another big benefit of this project, was that the institution adopted this quality. Not only for the materials they share but also for the materials they wouldn’t share. So it became part of their workshops and teachers who were new in the introduction program learned about this quality model. So this quality model is a living thing. Each year it is evaluated and some requirements are found to no longer be valid, or perhaps need to be more strongly defined. It’s now in its fourth version and each year there is a new version based on experiences with these institutions.
And another thing is sustainable business models with a fair position in the role of publishers. Publishers are sometimes seen as evil, but the publishers have a lot of experience in parts of this process. We should involve them in the process with a fair role and position both for publishers and content creators.
First, I think the open movement should be more open. What I mean by this is that Open Educational Resources has a very strict definition. It should be openly available, and it should have the five R’s (reuse, retain, revise, remix, redistribute) of using OER. But for teachers, much more openly available materials without those 5 R’s are also very interesting. For example, MOOCs, when they came to rise in 2011/2012, I was at a conference in the US and there was only talk about MOOCs as something which was not open because it had no Creative Commons License, or it had poor didactics, etc. And I thought, no, this is not fair because first, for teachers, it could be very worthwhile. They can reuse a MOOC as part of their program without having the need to adapt it, so they don’t need the Rs. And also for learners, because learners do not necessarily need these five Rs or Creative Commons licenses because they only want to learn the material. That’s what I mean by we should be more open; you should be open to pushing OER as part of a larger ecosystem, where the other parts are also very valuable, even if they are not so open.
When I give workshops to teachers and we look at Wikiwijs and other similar platforms, I also teach them to look for OER, or openly accessible learning materials in other platforms. So for instance, most teachers use Google, and you can use Google advanced search to look for Creative Commons licensed material, but you can also look at platforms such as Class Central, which is, to me, the search portal for MOOCs. Typically teachers don’t care about whether it’s open or not open, they want to know: what do I do with these materials? And if they then want to adapt the material, then they should care about the license, but if they don’t want to adapt it then they don’t need to care, and that is one part of being more open. The other part is, when teachers want to share, they often keep it within a small community, but it really could be a stepping stone toward sharing material with the world. And I think there should be more understanding for this part. If teachers start by sharing with their peers that could ignite momentum to sharing materials more widely. I think there is a lot of improvement already, but I think the open world comes from the very narrow view where they consider everything which is not as open as the definition of Open Resources to be bad.
And another thing is sustainable business models with a fair position in the role of publishers. Publishers are sometimes seen as evil, but the publishers have a lot of experience in parts of this process. We should involve them in the process with a fair role and position both for publishers and content creators. And publishers should be paid for that, of course, but a fair amount, and the rights should be open so publishers can take a role in collaborating with the public institutions for creating open learning materials. I know in the States that David Wiley is doing a lot of work in that area, and he pointed me in this direction, so I’m inspired by him in this aspect, but I think there is a challenge for the open community. In the Netherlands, we are now taking steps that we’re trying to convince board members to take a role in it and do the negotiating with the publishers on this part. We were inspired by what has been happening in the last couple of years in the Open Science movement in this regard.
One thing I also want to say is that there needs to be more attention for OER adoption in TVET, and TVET is for technical and vocational education and training. We have done a study a couple of years ago for UNESCO, together with a colleague of mine, Ben Janssen, about what Open Educational Resources can mean for this area. And what we found out was that a lot of research and a lot of efforts are pinpointing or focusing on higher education, especially in the Global South, TVET is much more important. In 2018, the World Bank published a report where they compared low income countries and high income countries and 90% of the population in low income countries, which is for the most part what we now call the Global South, doesn’t have higher education. So when you focus so much on higher education and openness in higher education then I think you find the divide between the haves and have-nots will be larger instead of be smaller, and you want it to be small. You can make it smaller by using Open Education Resources.
Copyright: Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0 Licence SPARC Europe
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