Wikimedia at the heart of open education

The photo shows Dr Martin Poulter presenting at the conference
Dr Poulter presenting at OER14

This post was written by Dr Martin Poulter

The UK has a flourishing Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. Educators, librarians, support staff and others are working to open up the culture and content of the education system. They are linked by face-to-face working relationships, and more distributed groups such as Open Knowledge’s Education Working Group or the  Association for Learning Technology’s OER Special Interest Group.

The main meeting point for the community in the UK is the annual OER conference, which this year was hosted at the University of Newcastle. Simon Knight and I attended this year, with support from Wikimedia UK.

Despite some big successes for OER in the UK, trying to open up academic culture from within can feel very much like a struggle. The OER advocates see themselves as a small minority working to change a massive, well-embedded system.

In Wikimedia, we have a different perspective. Open resources are not only freely available and in legal and technical terms are repurposable, adaptable. Our creations – Wikipedia and its sister sites – meet this definition very well indeed.

If Wikipedia is an OER, then the open education movement is not a struggling minority: in fact, we’re winning. It means the world’s fifth most popular web site is an OER; the biggest and most popular Welsh-language web site is an OER; and there are languages in which the only written reference work is an OER.

Over the years, the focus of the OER movement has changed from “open resources” to “open practice”. Rather than just putting educational material online, the discussions are more about how sharing, reuse and remixing can become a natural part of everyday practice. How do we involve learners in creating OERs? How do we take advantage of the explosion of open-access research outputs? How do we get students not just consuming educational materials, but critiquing, reviewing, and improving?

There are also questions about policy: does the open revolution require policy changes? What are the wider changes around the world that open education can bring about? An idea discussed at a past OER conference was a “National Learning Service”, free at the point of use to all citizens. How could this become a reality?

As Wikimedians, we have a lot to say about all of these topics. This has been the third OER conference with a Wikimedia UK presence. This time, thanks to the kindness of the organisers, we were listed as a sponsor organisation, among a diverse bunch from the Open University to Lego.

We delivered a workshop, a paper and a lunchtime free-for-all helpdesk where we were bombarded with friendly questions. We also injected a Wikipedian perspective into other sessions, reminding the OER professionals that Wikimedians are their fellow travellers.

The conference was also a chance to show the diversity of Wikimedia’s work. Everyone has heard of Wikipedia, but sister projects like Wikibooks, Wikiversity or Wikisource are less well-known despite being ideal platforms for some OER activities.

We’ve written up some outcomes and reactions on our wiki.  Simon Knight has blogged about the conference with some great insights (and photographs!) My workshop, about partnership with the Wikimedia projects,  is written up on-wiki for use in other events.

Within minutes of us arriving, one academic remarked what a surprise it was to meet us: until then, she hadn’t really thought of there being people behind Wikipedia. This is a common response: despite our open way of working, we Wikipedians, and the processes we use, are often invisible to the people who would most benefit from working with us.

If the people behind Wikipedia are invisible, then preconceptions about those people go unchallenged. It is easy to hear about the gender imbalance in Wikipedia contributors (much-discussed at the conference) and assume that Wikipedians don’t see this as a problem. We took the chance to explain what Wikimedia UK is doing about the problem and how central diversity is to our mission.

The invisibility means we are not yet automatically invited in to academic events. Wikimedia sites are seen as outside academia, even though many of the volunteer contributors are credentialed experts. We need to knock and ask to be let in, but when we do we get a very warm welcome. It’s a chance to put Wikipedia in the centre of the open education debate where it belongs and to learn from the innovators who are driving education forward.

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