Critical factors

What critical factors led to the development of the open classes?

One of the most challenging issues for funders of innovation in education is how transferable the resulting innovations are to the wider sector, so it can be useful to identify which critical factors enable specific innovations, with a view to seeing if these can be replicated or are appropriate in other contexts. When summarising the critical factors to support open practice in the HEFCE UKOER/SCORE Review Report we began by considering the barriers to open practice and then moved on to discuss what supported both practice change and institutional change. If we look at the barriers highlighted in the UKOER Programme evaluation we see a range of operational, cultural and strategic factors that impact on open approaches. Lack of institutional strategy and support, lack of time to engage and innovate and lack of awareness of the benefits all emerged as significant barriers. UKOER projects (of which the Coventry Open Media Classes project was one) identified several ways to overcome these barriers, including activities around increasing engagement and awareness by staff and students, developing technical structures to support open practice and strong partnership approaches. Considering the critical factors to support open practice takes us away from focusing on the reasons why we can’t do something and allows us to consider aspects of our own context that could be open to innovation and change.

There has been significant interest in the open classes at national and international conferences and events so it is useful to consider what factors led to the development of these. No one single factor can account for such innovative approaches. These classes were the result of a combination of factors and serendipity played its part as the combination of the right people at the right time made things happen. The open media classes were not developed in a vacuum but were, and are, an integral part of a range of activities at Coventry that happened in parallel, such as the Research activities at the Centre for Disruptive Media, a series of open access and editable publications by Professor Gary Hall, the development of bespoke mobile applications, as well as collaborative activities with other art schools. These activities fed into and supported each other and generated a culture of openness and innovation.

As described in the introduction, the changes to open media professions and practice has had a significant impact on the course focus and content leading to a reconsideration of the educational needs of media professionals (particularly reflecting the impact of developments in open licensing/piracy, networking in a global context, and social media). This provided an opportunity for the teaching teams to experiment with new approaches. Alongside this there have been changes in the global and UK higher education landscape around open practices in research and teaching and the emergence of different models for open online networked courses. Whilst there has been a tendency for a focus on content and teaching resources, particularly in relation to Open Educational Resources (OER) there have also been changes in the education approaches from the ‘broadcast’ of content model to one of creative collaboration, curation and re-appropriation (Shaw, 2014). The Coventry open media classes have been an important part of this development in the UK as they have, in many ways, led the way by offering small scale models and solutions that allowed experimentation, highlighted successes and allowed for failure without huge risk.

At the very least there was an openness to change in the Department of Media that allowed these developments to happen. There was an acknowledgement that existing approaches were not as effective as they could be and a desire to improve the courses and the student experience. Another factor was the understanding that there was a very competitive marketplace where other educational institutions had developed their own niche – and a recognition that Coventry needed to do the same. Whilst they did not initially know precisely what changes were needed or how to achieve these, they knew that it was time for change. This led to bringing new staff into the team with completely different perspectives, and this is, without doubt, one of the most important factors that led to the open classes.  The appointment of Jonathan Worth, a professional photographer, who had been experimenting with new open models of practice and who had an extensive network of media professionals who were also challenging traditional models of publishing, brought a completely new perspective to the BA photography course. Jonathan was not wedded to existing traditional models of education and brought fresh ideas to the existing course.

An important factor here is that the Department was open to adopting ideas and practices from outside the traditional HE sector.  Although challenging this allowed them to question existing academic practice and enabled innovation and experimentation. This has led to a different approach to staff recruitment and the ongoing appointment of academics who are pushing boundaries of their own practice, which ensures an environment of innovation and challenge. This is a very brave approach as it is, potentially, much more difficult to manage. However it has meant that other staff have taken on the role as champions of the classes and the approaches, and is likely to be more sustainable than relying on one individual. The notion of charismatic leaders and academic champions did emerge regularly as a factor for success in the UKOER Programme but it also highlighted the danger of relying on one individual. For Coventry having several champions helps to take the classes forward into open courses and the addition of new staff brings new ideas. Other institutions can not, of course, replicate how this team came together but they can take on the key message around bringing individual innovators together to support creative responses to problem spaces.

In terms of wider institutional factors it is notable that Shaun Hides, as the Head of Department, took an Open Media Policy to institutional managers in 2009 and the effectiveness of this approach enabled the team to engage the then Vice Chancellor Madeleine Atkins in conversations around open practice. Early on the VC allowed some leeway for the team to experiment and later actively supported and encouraged the open classes and the team, shortly thereafter the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Student Experience also became a strong advocate of the Open Classes. So the initial element of risk was primarily at Department level and this initial low profile approach has meant that the institution was not concerned about high profile risk management (cf large scale MOOCs) which allowed space for innovation. There was evidence of some institutional openness to ‘risky’ change and innovation, which allowed the space for experimentation and, potentially, failure. Coventry University has a significant track record of supporting innovation around teaching and learning, which gave some context within which this could happen. This highlights how important the factor of trust is to support new practice. This includes trust from the institutional managers to allow innovative approaches, trust from academics that Departmental Managers will navigate the institution on their behalf, and most importantly trust in opening the courses to outside contributors. The latter was a risk in that it opened students to comments and feedback from potentially anyone and could have had an impact on what they felt willing to share. The team dealt with this risk by being responsive to students and providing alternatives (such as a closed forum) if demanded. The resulting conversations around openness and managing what they share is an important part of the class.

The one year funding available from Jisc (through the UKOER Programme) allowed the open classes to be developed further, but importantly provided resources to expand them and included time for evaluation and reflection. The latter is vital to allow staff to consider the full impact of their activities and to adapt and refine as appropriate. Being a funded Jisc project offers a range of support mechanisms, from important dissemination routes, the benefits of expertise (such as that around open licensing, evaluation, technical aspects), networking opportunities with other innovators and the chance to situate the project’s practice in the wider national or international picture.

See other findings: What kinds of institutional and departmental structures, strategies, policies and processes can support these models?  |  What kinds of support do staff need to implement these new open connected approaches?  |  Open classes curriculum design and delivery  | What was the impact of the classes on the various stakeholders?   |  How transferable are the models to other institutional contexts and subject disciplines?