TEDx Leicester – Open and Connected Learning: Transforming School Practice

TedxLeicesterI was delighted to be invited to speak at the first ever TEDx Leicester. I looked at why open and connected learning is a critical priority for the schools sector, and looked at some of the exciting work taking place in Leicester’s schools relating to digital literacy. Leicester is currently causing a stir internationally in terms of open learning – my talk explained what Leicester City Council has been doing in the schools sector, and why:

Leicester is a large and diverse city in central England. I work for Leicester City Council, where I lead on technology for one of the country’s biggest school building programmes. As well as the huge investment being made in ‘bricks and clicks’, we’ve been working with our school communities to transform educational practice through open and connected learning. We’ve also been working openly, sharing what we’ve found and the resources we have created online under Creative Commons open licenses so that teachers, schools, and councils across the UK and internationally can benefit – and ultimately, so that all our learners can benefit.

There is no doubt that in the UK and many other countries the internet is now a mainstream site of everyday activity. Currently around 40% of the global population have access to the internet. This means that many of us are working, learning, and living in digital as well as physical environments. We post pictures of our children, we build and develop our personal, professional and learning networks, we find romantic partners and fall love, we buy and sell goods, provide and access services.

In many countries in the world the local percentage of the population who go online online are in the majority – so much so that in these countries we now talk about digital divides, and digital exclusion. There are lots of reasons why the minority populations aren’t online in what we can characterise as digital societies – including poverty, disability, and literacy.  The mainstreaming of online spaces as sites of social, cultural, economic and political sites provides all kinds of new opportunities – but also risks exacerbating inequality amongst those who aren’t able to take advantage of new, digitally mediated forms of contact, communication and collaboration.

Globally, digital inclusion is not just about functional technology skills and access – it’s also about the confidence and knowledge to critically engage in online environments – or, digital literacy.

There are different ways to describe digital literacy. The definition I use most often is functional technical skills + critical thinking + social engagement = digital literacy. There are quite a few definitions of digital literacy about at the moment – mine has the advantage though of being one of the shortest ones.

Digital literacy is important because social, political and economic participation is important – the ability to contribute to, and to shape and change our communities. The House of Lord’s recently published report ‘Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future’ (2015) recommends that digital literacy should be regarded as a necessary life skill, along with literacy and numeracy. The report cautions that not doing so constitutes a significant risk to individuals and to the UK, of missing the many opportunities afforded by digital technologies.

Digital literacy is also situated in practice. When we think of other essential skills – numeracy for example – it’s easy to understand that every one of us benefits from a basic level of numeracy, and that we’d find a lot of day to day management of our lives extremely difficult without this. If we were to take up a career as an accountant, or a chemist, we would of course need additional, specialist numeracy skills.

Similarly, digital literacy is important for all citizens. Everyone benefits from a basic understanding of finding, evaluating and managing information, being able to communicate and collaborate, being able to buy goods and access services, and being able to keep themselves and their data safe online.  For some groups, for example those supporting learners and learning, specialist and specific skills & knowledge are obviously going to be an important part of their professional practice.

In the context of publically funded schools, staff confidence and knowledge of basic digital literacy is particularly important, since most will be supporting some digitally excluded young people. Schools have critical role to play in ensuring no sixteen year old leaves compulsory education without the skills, knowledge, and confidence to make use of technologies to support and enhance their ability to learn and work, and their social and political participation. For some of our learners, schools may be the only place where they see digital literacy practices being modelled, and are actively supported in the creative, safe and effective use of technologies.

For the last few years, I’ve been working with Professor Richard Hall from Leicester’s De Montfort University and Lucy Atkins on the DigiLit Leicester research project.  In partnership with the 23 secondary and specialist provision schools in the city’s Building Schools for the Future Programme, we identified the key areas of digital literacy for school staff. Based on these key areas, we created a survey which has been carried out city-wide over two consecutive years. The data collected has helped us to identify the strengths and gaps in digital literacy practice, in individual schools and across the city. These strengths and gaps can be taken as indicative of other secondary schools and specialist education provision across the country. We’ve responded to the findings by carrying out a range of projects designed to consolidate and promote our strengths and address gaps. All of the resources from the work we and the schools have done has been openly licensed.

One of the gaps identified by the data relate to finding and creating digital resources – a key, everyday activity for school staff. We’ve identified that a healthy culture and spirit of sharing and reuse does exist, and that this sharing is characteristically informal. One of the reasons for this marked informality is a lack of confidence and knowledge around Intellectual Property Issues as they relate to digital resources. In particular, we found a significant lack of awareness of copyright, and open educational practices and approaches – particularly in relation to open licences and open education resources (OER). For example, the majority of staff have not knowingly come across or used Creative Commons licensed resources.  It’s likely that this is typical of school staff working across the UK, and certainly colleagues I have compared notes with across Europe and the US have indicated that awareness of OER and the opportunities they afford schools and learners is a cause for concern.

There are many reasons why it’s important for us to address this gap in digital literacy. School staff are modelling practice for learners every day, typically in physical classrooms but also, increasingly, in online environments. Ensuring the schools workforce is confident and well informed about basic copyright issues, including the use of open educational resources, provides an opportunity to support learners by demonstrating great practice that we shouldn’t be missing out on.

While it’s great news that the majority of school staff in the UK have embraced a culture of sharing and reusing resources, the informality of this sharing ultimately limits and localises benefits – benefits that could be that could be more fully realised through open licensing. It means that staff and schools very often don’t get credit for their work – in turn making it harder for others to contact them and develop collaborative practices. Staff and schools may find their work being used and reused in ways that they aren’t happy with. Sharing and promoting work publically is also fundamentally limited if that work contains elements that the author doesn’t have permission to include and hasn’t accredited appropriately.  For example, if I’ve created a great, high quality and effective resource, which contains an image I’m not sure if I have the rights to use, or an activity that was informally adopted from someone else’s shared work, I am going to be less inclined to attach my name to that work and make it publically available for others to use. Schools can and have been fined for publishing images and using other resources online that they don’t have rights to. Being confident about the content of resources, including web pages, and properly attributing any content we have built on, means that they can be made publicly available and promoted – many of our staff and schools are producing amazing work, that they should rightly be proud of, that could be used and built on by other educators locally and globally to support learners.

The other key drivers with respect to this area of school and school staff digital literacy practice are the ones that get mentioned again and again – time and money.  Open education licences and practices have a long and established history. Creative Commons, the leading provider of open licences globally, was established in 2001, and there are somewhere around 900 million CC Licensed works currently online. UNESCO adopted the term ‘open education resources’ (OER) in 2002. Schools and school staff can’t take advantage of the existence of OER and openly licensed materials if they don’t know about them.

Imagine the time and money that could be saved if instead of 70 staff individually creating resources to support the same learning objective, resources were pooled and developed collaboratively, so that time could be spent instead on refining model resources to best suit the needs of learners. The reality of the situation is actually staggering in terms of the numbers of staff currently struggling in silos with very limited capacity and resources, with this situation being replicated across and multiplied by the whole of the curriculum. In this context, it becomes a practical matter of urgency that we take a fresh look at how schools and school staff globally work with, create and share digital resources, and how open and collaborative working practices can better support our learners. Open licences, which build on top of existing copyright frameworks, provide a clear indication as to how resources can be used – providing legal and practical foundations for the development resources and of collaborative approaches.

In Leicester, we’ve been taking the first steps on this journey. Working with Dr. Bjorn Hassler and Helen Neo, and with our school staff acting as critical friends to the project, we’ve produced easy to understand OER guidance for school staff on what open educational resources are, how to find them, how to develop and accredit them, and how to create and share them.

As well as ensuring the guidance is as practical as possible, we’ve produced walkthroughs for staff to demonstrate how easy it is to change and enhance current practice by using OERs. For example, we’ve created simple guides to finding and accrediting openly licensed images on the photo sharing site Flickr, to enhance resources, presentations, and web pages.

The work we’ve done is not just about supporting staff in tapping into the great range of resources out there, but to encourage and support them to contribute to open education by creating and sharing their own OER. In order to do this, we’ve had to take a look at Intellectual Property and employment laws. In the UK, as in many other countries, unless there is a specific agreement in place, your employer is likely to have ownership of the intellectual property rights and copyright of the work you produce in the line of your employment. This doesn’t just apply to school employees, but it’s worth addressing in the case of public employees, particularly those who are producing educational resources. I believe very strongly that where publicly funded educational resources can benefit others than the group of learners they have been created for, they should be shared openly. This ensures we get the best possible value from the work we are doing, and helps to put in place the working practices we need to establish to put an end to the wasted time and money we are spending on duplicating resources locally.

To facilitate this, Leicester City Council has given blanket permission for all it’s school employees to openly licence the educational resources they are producing for work. The council employs the majority of teaching staff in the city, but there are several types of school where the governing body is the legal employer – for example, academies, trusts and some faith schools. To support these schools we’ve produced model local OER policies that can be adopted and adapted to support their employees. The policies, guidance and resources can all be downloaded from our schools website and are openly licensed, so they can be used, adapted and reused for free. They have already been adapted for the university and further education sectors by Jorum, and are being translated into French and Portuguese by the African Virtual University.

I’m very proud of the start we’ve made across the city to introduce and embed open educational practices and resources, and I very much hope that other cities, regions and countries will benefit from and build on our work here –  please do enjoy, use and share our work, and help us to open and connect educational practice.

About Josie Fraser

UK-based Social and Educational Technologist, currently working for Leicester City Council (Local Government) as ICT Strategy Lead (Children's Capital). I support schools across the city in making effective and innovative use of technology to support learning, teaching and whole school development.
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