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OER Grounded Theory

Jones Barn where dynamite was found

Grounded theory1 consists of looking for commonly recurring patterns of activity and behaviour in order to understand how people and organizations work ref. Our project did not have the time to carry out an organized in depth indexation and taxonomy of observed behaviours of UAL academics in relation to their activities in relation to the design, development, sharing and reuse of learning resources. It is worth noting that, to the best of our knowledge, this kind of study on any scale has not been done before. This is notable because in over 15 years of UK government expenditure on technology enhanced learning the emphasis has been on the creation of digital learning content but there has been little apparent basic ‘market research’ about existing user behaviours and attitudes to sharing and reuse of learning resources. Instead, policy and strategy seems to have been based on sweeping assumptions that users are already sharing and want to share resources, Pollock, & Cornford, (2000) provide a useful analysis of the trend for rhetoric to replace evidence in e-learning development.

We adopted a skeptical attitude to the claims made by the e-learning ‘establishment’ that sharing and reuse of learning resources was a common activity amongst university teachers. Our own experience and that of our networks of colleagues suggested that this assumption was not always well founded and highly dependent on context. This echoes recent discussions in the OER community (UNESCO 2005, Chow, 2010) that while many open resources are being created not that many people are actually reusing them. Rather, the pattern has been that OERs are created in the in the developed world and consumed in the developing world – the MIT OCW initiative being a classic example.

Future Work

With economic austerity being the rule in the developed world there are now strong economic reasons for advancing the OER agenda ‘at home’– the open textbook movement in the USA being a classic example (Chow, 2010). But, for sharing and reuse to take off in the UK and elsewhere we think much more basic empirical research needs to be done into how teachers actually design, develop, use and share learning resources as well as into their attitudes and values in relation to sharing and reuse.

Systems Theory

Universities and Art Colleges are complicated organizations that can be both highly resistant to change and accepting any shareable representations of internal functionality. Modern systems theory can offer some help, to those engaged in these activities. It provides some useful analytical tools for identifying and understanding the dynamic relations between the different components of such organisations. Senge and Sterman (1994) develop this theme in the context of Organisational Learning - a concept, which is of growing in interest in the business world, it is worth briefly looking at some of their recommendations. They propose a 3-stage process for developing a better understanding of how an organisation actually works by the people within it:

“1/ Mapping mental models - explicating and structuring assumptions via systems models;

2/ Challenging mental models - revealing inconsistencies in assumptions;

3/ Improving mental models - continually extending and testing mental models.”

They make the important point that flaws in the understanding of how an organisation works cannot be corrected until they are made explicit, which is the purpose of the modeling exercise.

Future Work

Introducing OER activity into a university involves encountering and dealing with different mental models of how the institution is structured and how it works. These models can be quite varied and even conflicting, our experience has been that this has caused us to create our own ‘meta model’ that is capable of containing other models as reference points. This is important, because much of the work involved in introducing OER activity into a university is in dealing with cultural issues. We will need to articulate our meta model as we go forwards and test it out with users to see if it is of use to them, we shall need to bear on mind that this is a contested space internally and externally.

Benefits Realisation

The ALTO project had as one of its high level aims to link engagement with OER to a process of educational culture change across the institution. Under the guidance of the project director, we were encouraged to look for opportunities to embed the benefits of OER engagement at the UAL and at the systemic nature of the obstacles to longer term change that were involved. To do this the project team engaged with the institutional context early by holding a benefits realisation2 workshop with key UAL stakeholders; this has resulted in a set of simple ‘statements of principle’, which provided a sound foundation for the project ( The underlying driver behind the benefits realization managerial philosophy is that past experience in implementing change shows that many projects succeed in meeting their objectives but fail in making a lasting change on the host organization. A tendency that might be described as ‘tactically correct but strategically wrong’ or more prosaically as the ‘tick-box approach’ where participants lose sight of the big picture and fail to seize opportunities for fear of deviating from the plan – a mind set that can be prevalent in a public sector dominated by central planning and target setting. In the context of IT projects this tends to manifest itself in a top-down linear narrative that becomes entrenched very early on, often articulated by external ‘experts’, quangos and consultants, resulting in a denial of the lived reality of the people for whom the system is being designed to help. This in turn, not surprisingly, tends to produce inflexible software development methods (epitomized by the classic ‘waterfall’3 model of software development). These are well known problems in the software industry and the textbooks are full of case studies recounting famous project failures that met their objectives (Glass, 1997). The recent multibillion-pound UK NHS database system failure is a classic example of these trends combining4.

Future Work

Because of the factors described in this section it will be necessary to explicitly plan for the ‘unexpected’ in the project documentation to any funding agency, in order to create a ‘space’ in the planning methodology for deviations from the plan.

Socio-Technical System Design

Another major methodological influence on the project came from the socio-technical systems5 design tradition originated by researchers at the Tavistock Institute in London and described by Enid Mumford (1995) in a number of studies involving the effective introduction of technology in the workplace, originally in the context of heavy industries like coal mining after the second world war. This approach has since been adapted successfully for application to the introduction and adaptation of information technologies into the modern knowledge-based workplace. Notably by, Sharples (2006) as ‘Socio-Cognitive Engineering’ and Wenger (1995 & 2009) as ‘Communities of Practice’ and ‘Technology Stewards’. These approaches draw on traditional ethnographical approaches, where project fieldworkers interact with the groups under study to understand better how they work and live. This information is then used in the iterative construction of prototypes that are tested with people to understand how the tools and system may be improved. One way of describing this approach is that it is investigative and human-centred as well as contextually and culturally sensitive. This does not mean, however, that it is neutral. Sharples (2006), is explicit about the interventionist nature of this methodology i.e. it has a strategic dimension that is aimed at changing the way people interact with each other and their tools in knowledge working. Thus, user accounts and ‘official lines’ are not taken at face value and the aim is to seek to understand how people and organisations really work and function in relation to their stated aims in order to improve them.

Future Work

These approaches have a great deal in common with some of the classic approaches to product design as described by Don Norman (Norman, 1999) and Achille Castiglioni6 (Antonelli, 1997) and it will make sense to see our work as designing a suite of products to help teachers (and students) to design, develop, share and adapt learning resources.

Agile Software Development

An important influence on our methodology was that of agile software development1, which developed in reaction to the failure of traditional top down methods of software system development and management in the software industry to deliver usable and successful solutions to peoples needs. In this approach basic assumptions are questioned, problem areas are targeted early on and rapid early prototyping is used, continuous user testing and evaluation are also features of this approach to system design.

Future Work

Agile software projects, especially in the higher education sector, can become detached from real users and end up as interesting projects undertaken just for their own sake. To prevent this happening we shall need to have a strong end user focus, this will be achieved by regular meetings with real end users to test ideas and system prototypes. The project team will also have one or more ‘user advocates’ to represent user interests.

Physical and Political Spaces

In City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, Mike Davis (2006) describes the spatial politics and economics of modern Los Angeles and how architecture and city planning is used to control and influence the movement and congregation of individuals and groups to project and protect the power of ruling interest groups. In his analysis, Davis stresses the contested nature of ‘public space’ and the threat they pose to those in authority, resulting in the continual need to devise and implement means of observation and control over such spaces in order to respond to initiatives from below.

In terms of physical space, university education over the last millennia or so has been conducted in closed spaces exemplified by traditional campuses and buildings with strong regional and national connections to ruling social groups and their values. The pattern has remained remarkably consistent in the recent expansion of the university system in the UK through the 1990’s and 2000’s. This political and physical organization of universities has tended to preserve and perpetuate certain modes of education and cultural forms that produce conservative attitudes and highly entropic (resistant to change) professional and institutional structures and cultures. One example of this is the continued dominance of the physical university lecture hall /studio as the location of teaching. As Laurillard (2002) observes, the university lecture format was devised as a medieval lecture tool to efficiently transmit information in an era when books were expensive and in short supply. Yet the lecture format continues to dominate and universities are building ever-larger ‘mega’ lecture halls to cope with the ever-increasing size of classes (Shmier, 2011). There are two powerful drivers for this:

  1. The commodification of UK education, where the cost of teaching is transferred from general social taxes to individual payment, makes change more difficult as students and their parents demand traditional lectures because that is what ‘proper’ higher education is popularly perceived to be.

  2. The dominant educational philosophy supporting undergraduate education was developed to meet the needs of a small elite (the children of the medieval aristocracy).

Meeting the challenge posed by i) is difficult where the prospective students and their families see college education as a part of the socialization process for middle and upper class youth and those aspiring to join these groups. This is much less of a problem for other demographic segments (to use the language of neo-liberalism) where students have more pragmatic aims. In that situation, branding and product development are capable breaking free of the lecture model. The open and distance learning sector as exemplified by the Open University in the UK and the University of Phoenix in the USA draw on a well established educational tradition going back to the correspondence courses of the 19th Century.

The challenge posed by ii) is a bit trickier. Laurillard (2002) approaches this by suggesting that the model of undergraduate education in the UK be changed from the idea that students and teachers are jointly constructing new knowledge in a domain. Instead, she asserts, students are in fact learning knowledge that is new only to them, and that the aim of teaching is to bring student understanding up to a level where they can participate in a cognate community. In this educational model, new domain knowledge is only encountered and created in postgraduate education.

The underlying educational philosophy governs how technology may be used in the educational process. Peter Dicken (2010) provides a useful insight into how our different conceptions of knowledge affect how it can be shared; he splits knowledge into 2 types:

  • Codified (or explicit): the kind that can be expressed formally in documents, plans, drawings, software and hardware etc

  • Tacit: deeply personalized knowledge possessed by individuals is virtually impossible to make explicit and communicate to others

As Dickens observes, this distinction is fundamental to understanding the role of space and place in the technological diffusion of knowledge, with tacit knowledge having a very steep ‘distance-decay’ curve, while codified knowledge can be projected relatively easily across time and space. But, Dickens also cautions, this distinction can change in a number of ways that can make tacit knowledge more easily exchanged at a distance. One way that springs to mind that may be used to communicate tacit knowledge is the use of rich media, such as video or animations, that convey a sense of ‘being there’ and can have a persuasive rhetorical power to convey not just ideas and concepts but also affective and cultural factors (Laurillard, 2002). Another, more radical, observation is that in higher education much tacit knowledge perhaps isn’t really tacit at all. Rather, the assertion that the knowledge involved is tacit may be a strategy to preserve the mystery and exclusiveness of the ‘secret garden’ of formal education. Jennifer Moon (2002) provides a good example of the latter in connection with her experiences as an educational developer in the UK, during the 1990s citing the anguish that the requirements to create clear learning outcomes caused to some university teachers.

The ideas that learning [and by implication teaching] can be described at all can generate quite amazing angst….At the time, there were still lecturers who would say, ‘I don’t want to think in advance about what I am going to teach. I will decide when I get in with the class.’ The same lecturers would also say that they would decide on the assessment when it came to the end of the term or semester, and that they did not to discuss levels or standards because they would know a good or bad piece of work when they saw it.”

(Moon, 2002, p 9)

Future Work

We will need to be aware of the contradictory and paradoxical nature of universities engaging with the open education agenda. In many ways universities represent an education model based on scarcity and elitism while the open model is based on abundance and equality of access. There are clear parallels here to the underlying contradictions of neoliberal economics where, despite great and increasing wealth and productive capacities, human society is marked by increasing inequality (Harvey, 2007). The potential of open public spaces (both physical and online) to act as a conduit for social change are considerable, as Davis (2006) observes. Linking universities to such spaces and engaging with OERS can be seen as both extending the reach of the traditional academy and at the same time subverting it and, potentially, reforming it. In the process, institutions that are so place-based as universities run the risk of exposing practices and values that make little sense to the outside world. But, as prestigious institutions they can also project their brand and values into an increasingly global education market. Sharing OERs can act as a valuable and low-threshold way of joining global collaboration networks as the Open University has found (Lane et al, 2009). Engagement with the open education agenda can also act as a powerful driver for cultural change in university teaching practice by reducing insularity and opening the door to innovation and collaboration with others, both internally and externally. What kind of cultural change is a key question that needs to be clearly articulated if institutions are to benefit from involvement in the open education agenda.

Educational Spaces

Perhaps the biggest reason for teachers (and their institutions) to be involved in OER creation and sharing is the improvement in teaching quality that this may bring. Biggs (2006) and Ramsden (1992) both make the point that everyone has an implicit personal theory of teaching and learning and that the first step in the process of improving teaching is to start to externalise these internal conceptions in order to change them and learn from others. In his influential book, Learning to Teach in Higher Education, Ramsden (1992) outlines three theories of teaching in HE that co-exist and build upon each other in a hierarchical manner. They also nicely represent the stages a university teacher progresses through as their pedagogic expertise improves, as well as providing useful ways of analysing the proposed and actual uses of technology to support teaching. These three theories see teaching as concerned respectively with:

  1. Delivering content

  2. Organising and supervising student activity

  3. Teaching as adapting to circumstances and context in order to make student learning possible

From this perspective much existing OER activity is currently to do with level 1. Addressing level 2 may be possible by developing sharable lesson plans or learning designs and design ‘patterns’ as developed in the field of architecture by Alexander (1979), the European E-Len project gives a nice introduction to this field2 and in the UK Laurillard and colleagues at the Institute of Education in London have been researching this area’3. But, externalising and sharing knowledge at the third level of Ramsden’s model can be particularly tricky in practice-based subjects like Art and Design that are often highly dependent on cultural context and teachers personalities. In many ways this is a classic example of the problems of dealing with tacit knowledge; how can we represent and share such knowledge and share it, and even assess it?


De Corte (1990) provides a useful general description of the nature of the knowledge needed to underpin expertise in a domain that is also useful to frame a discussion about how to share it:

  1. The flexible application of a well-organised domain-specific knowledge base, involving concepts, rules, principles, formulae and algorithms etc.

  2. Heuristic methods.

  3. Metacognitive skills

  4. Learning strategies that learners engage in to acquire the preceding types of skills.

The field of design studies may help us in developing ways to share the heuristic and metacognitive aspects of such expertise. Donald Norman (1999) has written a classic account about this in The Design of Everyday Things, there are some important ideas in his text quoted below in relation to understanding the nature of the pedagogical knowledge of teachers. Norman makes a strong and useful case for the understanding the situated nature of such knowledge:

A major argument [in this book] is that much of our everyday knowledge resides in the world, not in the head. This is an interesting argument and, for cognitive psychologists, a difficult one. What could it possibly mean for knowledge to be situated in the world? Knowledge is interpreted, the stuff that can only be in minds. Information, yes, that could be in the world, but knowledge, never. Well, yeah, the distinction between knowledge and information is not clear. If we are sloppy with terms, then perhaps you can see the issues better. People certainly do rely upon the placement and location of objects, upon written texts, upon the information contained within other people, upon the artefacts of society, and upon the information transmitted within and by a culture. (Norman, 1999, p. xi)

Future Work

The educational benefits for engagement with the open agenda are strong and need to be made explicit going forwards. It is precisely the situated, embedded, tacit and ‘craft’ aspect of teaching in mainstream art and design that needs to be comprehended in order to both understand and improve it. By engaging with OER creation and sharing, especially with a combination of rich media and practice-based accounts as exemplified in Process.Arts, we effectively open a door into this hitherto secret garden of educational practice. There is plenty of research support for this approach; Wenger (1998) calls these accounts ‘boundary objects’ that enable different communities of practice in the same subject (and even between subjects) to communicate meaning across the boundaries of different contexts. More recently, Conole (2008) and colleagues in the UK Open University and elsewhere have called these kind of resources ‘mediating artefacts’ for their ability to carry pedagogic meanings across institutional and national boundaries. Lastly, Paivio (1986) makes a good case for the inclusion of rich media in such artefacts as a way of aiding understanding, as part of his ‘Dual Coding’ theory.

3Overview of learning design patterns from Diana Laurillard



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This text, OER Grounded Theory, by Team ALTO (John Casey) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. There are alternative licensing options available.