UK HEIs and the OERu: Snog, Marry, Avoid?

Posted on July 7, 2012


LovebirdsLast week I gave a presentation at the Higher Education Academy’s 2012 Conference in Manchester, entitled ‘UK Higher Education Institutions and the OER university: Snog, Marry, Avoid?’ My colleague and TOUCANS data ‘reality checker’, Ale Armellini, co-presented with me and gave his take on the findings.

UK HEIs and the OERu: Snog, Marry, Avoid?

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The title is based on a BBC reality programme (Snog, Marry, Avoid?), in which people (mainly women) who use excessive body decoration, or dress in a way that is considered by the programme staff to be eccentric or provocative, are given a ‘make-under’, and public reaction to the ‘before’ and ‘after’ images is gauged via polls. Now I just want to be clear here that Ale and I were not drawing any parallels between the OERu and the shamelessly sexist underpinnings of this programme (although the tweets might have given a different impression ;-)), but we liked the title because it aptly sums up a current dilemma for UK higher education institutions that are actively involved in promoting OERs: should they get into bed with the OER university?
The presentation was divided into three parts:
  1. Background to the OER university concept
  2. The TOUCANS research
  3. Findings – UK HEI and the OERu: Snog, marry, avoid?
I will share the main points made in part 3 here. (If you’re new to the OERu concept and are interested in part 1, Background to the OERu concept, have a look at and this PDF. And for Part 2, you’ll find lots of info about the research process elsewhere in this blog – see the Contents page for quick links to pages of interest.)
In Part 3, I reflected on the data obtained via the survey and the interviews with UK HEI thought leaders. (See my earlier posts, ‘The devil is in the detail’ and ‘Fervent OERu supporters need to soak themselves in a bath of realism.’ for a flavour of what I said here.)
Ale then talked about his role as ‘reality checker’, in which he reviewed my raw data and my interpretation of it from an outsider’s perspective, to help me answer the ‘Snog, marry, avoid?’ question. He largely agreed with my findings, although it was probably evident to everyone in the conference session that my interpretation of the data was rather more optimistic, while his tended to draw out the scepticism towards the OERu concept that was lurking in the responses received. He and I agreed that there was certainly no sign of wedding bells in sight for UK HEIs and the OERu, and no indication of a desire to snog… That left the remaining default option, ‘avoid’, which we agreed was representative of many of the respondents’ attitudes towards the OERu, but we added a new option (BBC, take note…) of ‘flirt’, which seemed to cover the more positive and ‘sitting-on-the-fence’ responses given. (Ale naturally saw the evidence weighted more towards avoidance, while I saw significant amounts of flirting activity in the data. In fact, there even seemed to me to be a sense of ‘forbidden love’, where a relationship with the OERu was seen as highly desirable by academics, but supposedly considered taboo by their senior managers or regulatory bodies such as the Quality Assurance Agency.) Ultimately, this was a small-scale, largely qualitative study, with eleven interviewees and 42 survey respondents, and so the findings are necessarily somewhat subjective.
Ale noted several key concerns emerging from the data which seemed to explain the ‘arms-length’ attitude towards the OERu:
  • Student support;
  • Quality;
  • Assessment and credibility;
  • True cost;
  • Credit transfer difficulty;
  • Perceived devaluation of qualifications.
One of the questions we were asked after the presentation was whether there had been any difference between the kinds of responses received via the survey, where the respondents were primarily practitioners such as academics or learning design support staff, and the interviews, where the respondents were selected ‘thought leaders’ from UK HE institutions and JISC. The answer is that almost all the themes touched on by the interviewees were also addressed by the survey respondents, with the following differences in emphasis:
  • The thought leaders mentioned the restricting role of the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) as a major deterrent to collaborative provision, whereas the survey respondents mentioned quality concerns in more general terms;
  • The thought leaders focused more on the potential business advantages (such as marketing the institution) and risks (such as making a financial loss);
  • Some of the thought leaders dwelt at some length on the costs and complexities of credit transfer between institutions;
  • Collaboration with other institutions was seen as potentially damaging by many of the thought leaders, who made reference to the failed UK eUniversity (This article gives an analysis of the initiative and its collapse.)

Both groups of respondents had the tendency to elaborate on their reservations about the OERu concept when asked questions about the details of the concept (e.g. assessment mechanisms, OER creation and maintenance, etc.), but to make largely positive statements in response to the broad brush-stroke questions, such as ‘What is your view of the OERu concept for the HE sector in the UK?’

Thanks to pommewiki1 on Flickr for the CC-BY licensed photo of the lovebirds.