Impact on stakeholders

What was the impact of the classes on the various stakeholders?

In addition to developing and sharing class resources the class tutors have established and actively maintained/curated an active social media (especially twitter) network around the classes. This enables lively conversations surrounding their “learning objects”  – the interviews, podcasts, lectures, tasks and task-responses. These conversations together with the visitor stats/analytics for the class site – indicate high levels of Coventry student and external visitor participation (COMC Final Report, 2012)

There is clear evidence of positive engagement of both registered students and open practitioners in the open classes, but there are also more subtle indicators of the impact of the classes on a wide range of stakeholders. However, it is important to note that the open classes developed alongside other innovative activities both in the Media Department and at Coventry University, in the wider educational landscape and in a changing global context, so not all of these impacts may be solely due to the open classes.

 Institutional level
As discussed in the introduction, Coventry University was committed to open approaches from 2008 with open podcasts on iTunes U and an open repository.  The Vice Chancellor was supportive of open approaches and saw the potential for these to impact positively on marketing, particularly to an international student body. This kind of endorsement from institutional managers sends out clear messages to staff across the institution and is likely to have had an impact on the development of the open classes. The institution became the first of the new Universities to offer open podcasts and was ranked 6th in the whole of the UK. In 2010 the University was ranked at 85 in the UK league tables which has moved to position 50 by 20151. This may or may not reflect the Institution’s standing in real terms the University has moved 30 places in the last 5 years, which could be due, in part, to it’s higher profile, increased applicants for courses, and student satisfaction and attainment.

Although many of the open initiatives, including the open classes, have been developed over the last seven or eight years the institution has received significant media coverage since 2011. The open classes have received a lot of coverage, particularly in the photography media as the industry has widely recognised the work of Jonathan Worth and Matt Johnston. This coverage is as much about the changing media profession as about the classes but has highlighted developments in photography education and has raised the profile of Coventry University. Examples of the kind of coverage in mainstream press include:

In 2013 the Phonar-Ed project was recognised for outstanding innovation in the International Reclaim Open Learning Challenge and Symposium. This award presented an opportunity for the team to highlight their achievements and articulate the impact.

Since 2009 the classes have been variously remixed and re-written. The last ten-week iteration of phonar had over seventy people with editing rights on the schedule representing over 45 different Universities and the last iteration of Picbod was adopted, adapted and run independently by Matt Johnston applying his successes at turning [online] numbers into names and actions (with the The last iteration of Phonar had over 35,000 people come to the WordPress version of the class from 139 countries, we haven’t had resources to accurately record the Flickr, Soundcloud, Youtube, Google+ and Twitter environments though the classes thrive there also. Following Phonar2012 the students demanded their next class be run open and along the same lines – which Coventry University assented to – our proviso being that they (the students) designed it. Phonar2012 graduated with the highest percentage of First Class Honours in the history of the course. Reclaim Open Learning Challenge, 2013

The upcoming open Masters course (launching Sept 2015) and other Open BA courses in development are highly likely to raise the profile of the University even more as they will be groundbreaking in approach and content, compared to other similar degrees. The philosophy of the classes have supported the institutional strategy to engage individuals and communities who have traditionally not been able to access Coventry courses through geographical, financial or cultural barriers. The team in the Department of Media have demonstrated increased engagement, better results for registered students, and a significant increase in course applications and enrolments.

Departmental level

I do know for instance at a time when most courses in the UK, most courses in the UK, are experiencing a small drop, a smaller than everybody expected, but a small drop in application numbers, on average our courses have experienced about a 15-20% increase this year. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence, I think this is because of the approach that we’re taking, I think that potential students understand that what we’re trying to do is work in this way and that it is appropriate to the media environment now, so is that a cost or is that a benefit? To me it’s absolutely a benefit, but I couldn’t tell you how much it’s worth and how much I’ve saved, maybe at some point in the future we will be able to. Shaun Hides, 2013 Jisc on Air Radio recording – Delivering Free online courses – how open can we be?

There has been a positive impact on the standing of the Media Department within the University and the wider HE arena, having moved up 52 places in the Guardian League tables during the last four years. This reflects the success of the open classes and the wide scale interest in these approaches by the international community. The University recently funded a large-scale initiative to develop the Disruptive Media Learning Lab, which includes both a large and innovative physical space and a financial contribution to research and develop the experimentation with disruptive technologies and approaches to teaching within much the same ethos as the open classes. The new ‘open’ Photography MA was approved quickly and was described as the ‘most interesting proposal seen in a long time’ which reflects an acceptance at institutional level of the approaches developed by the Department.

In addition to this are the impacts on the people involved in the open classes. Although the classes were initially the result of several individuals bringing different skills, ideas and approaches there is now a loose ‘team’ of people who have reached a sophisticated understanding of open practice. One of the challenges for managers is to reflect on all the individual contributions and find ways to retain the innovative approaches whilst integrating it into everyday team practice. Whilst involved in the open classes the staff have continued to develop their own open media practices and their open educational practice. Several staff involved in the open classes have increased their own professional profile – through increased publishing opportunities, interviews, presentations and recognition from the wider community. For example, Jonathan Worth was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, has won an HEA national teaching fellowship and was also invited to comment when the European Parliament was discussing a change in copyright legislation. Matt Johnston has begun a PhD, secured a lectureship and has presented his own innovations – such as the Photobook Club at international events. Shaun Hides, Jonathan Shaw and Jonathan Worth have all secured key roles in the DMLL initiative. Pete Woodbridge devised and became leader of a new course BA Digital Media – which embodied many tenets of open-ness from the outset. These staff have become champions for the Department and the Institution although this has not been done in a managed way and not all of the publicity is highly branded as being from, or about, Coventry University. Individual staff members appear to maintain a high personal profile and have their own blogs which provide multiple channels to disseminate the open classes. This can, however, make it difficult to find information about the open classes if you are unaware of all the people involved.

As described earlier, trust has been an important aspect as individuals across the Department have worked together to create a community of open practice. The importance of this and the authenticity to those participating in this community is highlighted as being important for ongoing trust and participation.

That’s about us building that network, building that community, building that trust, if the things that we say in these spaces prove to be unreliable, not interesting, not challenging, ‘off the money’, then people simply won’t trust us, and they won’t stay in our networks. Shaun Hides, Jisc on Air Radio recording, 2012 – Delivering Free online courses – how open can we be?

Establishing and building on this trust was a challenge for Department mangers as there have been differing levels of staff engagement as the courses developed.

All were engaged, but this ranged from a profound and sophisticated engagement, to a tentative and testing approach. This was mostly evident in terms of their attachment to different mixes of media /platforms and therefore, how, and how intensely, they were ‘Open, and ‘Actively Open’ (our  distinction between simply making resources available online and making it possible to engage with the class through activities and/or dialogue or interaction). Further, staff engagement was predictably affected by the depth of experience they had with this approach. (COMC Final Report, 2012)

Because staff might be at different points of the adoption curve it can be difficult to share information and to mentor and support one another. Some other Media Department staff have also begun with more skeptical/critical stances with respect to “open”; but it is important to acknowledge that this is as likely to be engendered by their critique of the economics of online environments as it is out of any adherence to established pedagogies. This is where external funding can be helpful, as it may allow for more time for evaluation and reflection. There is evidence of strong mentoring between the teachers involved in the open classes, but also the open networked approach has supported wide scale mentoring opportunities from outside the Department. This external mentoring allowed for cross discipline exchange and supported continued innovation. A good example of this is the connection made between the US open class Digital Storytelling (DS106) and the Phonar/Picbod classes which have similarities in philosophy and approach. This lead to shared activities and an ongoing relationship to inform future work. Both initiatives were recognised in the Reclaim Open Learning Challenge.

There are increasing tensions for all HE institutions as external mechanisms such as RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) do not encourage collaboration and co-operation between or within Departments and the increasing Marketisation agenda could impact on cross institutional collaboration (Curran, P. J. 2000). These overarching values can be challenging as the notion of competition does not sit easily with open collaborative approaches.

One of the challenges for staff trying to innovate and change their teaching approaches is that they don’t know in advance what the value and benefits are – they may have a vision for what they want to achieve but it is not easy to articulate this in a way that will satisfy institutional managers who want to know what the outcomes will be in five years time. Adopting a more agile approach is challenging but also likely to be quite exciting as they discover the outcomes. This also highlights another challenge for the Department, because once these approaches are formalised they may become less interesting for staff who enjoy working in a more experimental way.

Registered students
The students have been very engaged with each of these classes – it is difficult to quantify precisely, because numerous factors inform students perception of the value of any one class (most are subjective and all are experiential factors, which are necessarily affected by complex and multiple factors). Nonetheless, it is safe to say that these classes enjoyed some of the best module evaluations of the year and also produced some of the most interesting and exciting student work. For many students and more so in specific classes, there was little sense they were participating in an “Open Class”. Students were informed, but this ethos had relatively little value to them, what mattered was the quality and richness of the experience our approach enabled. In one case there was some anxiety over / resistance to the Open Class approach. (COMC Final Report, 2012)

UKOER Programme evidence showed that many students initially struggle with notions of open practice in relation to their courses, both in relation to making content they perceive they have ‘paid for’ available to others but also in sharing their own work created as part of the learning process. This requires a change in mindset around what exactly students are paying for and the development of a more sophisticated understanding by staff of student expectations and how they might expand these expectations beyond the notion of being fed content developed by experts.

However, in this class (Creative Activism) some Coventry students expressed concerns about external participants having access to the class. Their initial perception being that for ‘normal’ fee paying students – their “Paid for ” and “Open access” shouldn’t go together; also that their work should not be “given away. This was somewhat ironic given the value they also attached to the input of external contributors – who were not paid. These perceptions did shift through the class. It is notable that some of the same students were also not happy about the Activist stance of the module – there was clearly some difference of expectation about what their film-making direction should be and the team’s view that it should be informed by diverse experiences.    COMC Final Report, 2012

For the Department of Media at Coventry one of the key drivers of their work is in responding to the changing needs of media professions and ensuring that their courses reflect these. There is no question that the open media classes have offered students opportunities to consider these issues and to begin to develop their own professional identities and to start operating as media professionals in a global networked community. There are some extraordinary examples of how this overall approach led to individual students being offered opportunities that have launched them into exciting career paths, such as Joanna Ornowska whose work appeared on the cover of The British Journal of Photography, Marta Kochanek who secured an internship with New York photographer Annie Leibovitz and Oliver Sharpe who was spotted by DuckRabbit Productions. Not all students are going to have such immediate and dramatic opportunities but student blogs reveal an awareness of themselves as a twenty first century practitioner, make their work visible and identify the open classes as being instrumental in raising their awareness of this.

The photography course at Coventry University and especially the open classes have totally changed how I operate as a photographer. It’s made me think about how I define myself as a 21st Century practitioner and helped me understand the importance of networking in order to find or tell a story. It’s opened up my eyes to the quantity of online platforms which can benefit me professionally, and has really kept me reflecting on myself in the role of author and storyteller. As well as focusing on such online and digital tools, it has also promoted to me the idea of the importance of the physical artefact, something which has made a big impact on me and what I produce. The skills I have learned and developed from the open classes have given me the confidence in my work to distribute it and enter it into national and international competitions. From this I won an honourable mention in the non-professional photo essay and feature story category of the International Photography Awards and was also was selected to exhibit at the recent Brighton Photo Fringe. Sean Carroll, 2012
A good indicator of the impact of the open classes is the way that students have taken control of some activities and have been given the space, encouragement and support to generate new activities. This reveals a level sophistication in student understanding of the media as they identify some of the possibilities made possible by the open networked approach and take advantage of this to be creative and proactive.

 Although Worth had not built it into the course, the first cohort of Picbod students spontaneously decided to mount an exhibition of their own: “We had all these people joining the class online who were submitting pictures from all over the world. Very few of them were practicing photographers at that point. They were architects, librarians, undergraduates, musicians, printers, chicken farmers – a bunch of different people.” They were all pitching and sharing images, then the Picbod community decided to “show what they could do that an iPhone photographer couldn’t.” The community of learners was taking ownership of their co-learning because Worth gave them the tools, freedom, guidance, and encouragement to do so. Howard Rheingold case study, 2013

Some students developed an online photography magazine, and another went on to teach PhonarNation to primary school kids and mentor kids in the US. The open nature of the classes meant that students had an international platform for their work as well as opportunities to listen to and talk with leading photographers all over the world.

Approaching Phonar I had the ideology that the photograph was the same as the image, digital photography and video were completely separate mediums and the key issues involved with photography didn’t stretch much more than the limitations of commerce and commercial manipulation. However after being introduced to practitioners such as Fred Ritchin, Stephen Mayes, David Campbell and Shahidul along with many other contributors, I have been able to identify and reflect on the key issues associated with post-modern photography following the paradigm shift from analogue to digital. Rebecca Woodall – final reflection  –

 Over the last couple of years of the course, we have been told again and again about the importance of online networking through social media, websites and other forms of communication. Whilst I understood the importance of this, something which I didn’t understand as fully was the importance of building up a trust with these connections. This is something which I feel #phonar has allowed me to understand and develop in order to maximise the credibility of my online presence. Oliver Wood Final reflections –

Many of the final reflections and work produced during open classes contained some highly personal accounts which illustrate a high level of trust and confidence in expressing themselves in a completely open space.

 My time on the photography course made me see my world and understand the way I learn, and perhaps how much of the population learns. It also taught me to believe in myself. I am dyslexic, and through my time in education it has been a battle. At Coventry University they helped me understand that dyslexia can be a positive attribute in this multimedia world that is being created by us around us. I learnt that reading and writing weren’t the only way to communicate and that visual language, audio and limited writing can for many people be an even better way of communicating. They taught me how to use images, sounds and video to tell a story. I might not be able to write a sentence or even read it, but I can communicate powerfully through the visual language. I have used sound, images and videos to document issues of personal interest to me and to help others understand better. Larissa Grace student

In fact some students shared incredibly powerful stories from their personal lives as part of the creative process that seemed to provide a cathartic experience to share traumatic experiences so openly. This was not anticipated but has occurred more than once during the open classes and raises interesting questions around why students might choose to do this and how to respond. The open community connected to the class responded in a highly sensitive and supportive way, emphasising the levels of trust that can be built in such a diverse globally distributed community. Yet in another class there were strong reactions against sharing on an open platform so the teacher responded by providing a closed forum to facilitate discussion.

As discussed earlier, an important part of the open classes is the notion of improving digital and media literacies. The nature of the classes develops digital storytelling capacity and helps them understand the notion of a digital professional identity, both important elements of digital literacy. Whilst visual and media literacies relate specifically to the course curricula these literacies are also relevant to other subjects and the open classes offer interesting exemplars that could be adopted for other subject disciplines.

There are also many issues around engagement of students with the open platform approach not just in terms of their digital literacy skills (fluency) – when digital literacy was not the focus of the class’ activities – but also their awareness of the changing Media and HE landscape, their attachment to old models of both, their resistance to collaborative learning,   COMC Final Report, 2012

The links to professional practice highlight the changing business models of the media industry with freelance models dominating and 60% of graduates go straight into employment. By the 2nd year of Media UG degrees students are often already established as freelance businesses. Student applications to the photography course have significantly increased and the course is noted as the ‘hardest course to get onto’,  although some of this is the result of wider constraints such as institutional limitations on student numbers, room size, etc.

Our experience is that students in the Media Department at Coventry benefit enormously from this manner of ‘Open’ working—which is partly how we justify it to the university. For example, students gain access to a vastly expanded range of resources; they have been given feedback and commentary by scholars and practitioners from all over the world; while the exposure of, and commentary on, their practical work has led to opportunities for projects, placements, and opportunities at levels beyond any previously available. (van Mourik Broekman et al Open education: a study in disruption 2014)

Online participants
However, and importantly, it is not just students at Coventry who benefit: in our own particular hybrid take on ‘blended learning’ classes on these courses are open online to anyone, anywhere, to participate in, add to the discussions and even rip, remix and mash-up. This applies to the schedule, lectures, lesson contents, exercises and assignments, recommended reading, recorded talks and interviews with visiting speakers (audio and video), RSS feeds, tag clouds and blog post archive, as well as a number of practical ‘how-to’ videos, all of which are available under a CC-BY-SA license. The use of blogs, Vimeo, Flickr, Twitter and other social media platforms means that participants—both the in-class (‘atoms based’), accredited, fee-paying participants and those taking these open classes for free remotely—can interact and contribute through discussion, feedback, suggestions, etc. In this way the syllabus thus becomes a ‘co-authored script’, curated by the academic team ‘but produced by the collective exchange and effort of the learning community’ (van Mourik Broekman et al Open education: a study in disruption 2014)

It is harder to generalise about the impact of the open classes on the online participants, which can comprise high level professional media practitioners, enthusiastic amateurs, students from other courses, potential Coventry students, Coventry alumni, educational practitioners or the general public from anywhere in the world. The fact that there are so many open participants, and that they keep coming back indicates significant buy-in to the open classes. Their participation is clearly evident from the hashtag use on social media sites such as twitter, flickr, vimeo and youtube, connections made in google plus and linked-in, blog posts and content produced in response to weekly tasks.The benefits of engaging in the open classes are slightly different for different groups but many of them demonstrate an interest and commitment to the concept of open practice. The open classes present new virtual spaces for participants to expand their professional networks, distribute their creative content and take advantage of new and different professional opportunities.

I had a hit list of people who are changing the world of photography and I rang them up and went to see them. They were interested because of the nature of the project, because of the other people in the group, and got very excited. Again I was putting a community together, one of passionate and committed people. Jonathan Worth, 2011

Utilising external contributions means that the open classes are never static, as the direction of conversations and contributions can be steered by the participants themselves. Links to other open classes such as DS106 means that participants might mix and match activities across classes and some content could have tags that are relevant to two different classes. This results in highly fluid and diverse content and always leaves room for surprises and serendipity for both registered students, staff and open participants.

One challenge for the Department is how far they decide to manage or support activity outside scheduled classes. Open participants can come to class activities at any time or could continue to use the hashtags as appropriate but this is challenging for staff who may be devoting energies to other more traditional classes.

There have been several spin-off activities that are not badged as Coventry University activities but it may not always be clear to people how far they are linked to Coventry staff. So for example the PhonarNation (Jonathan Worth) youth photography class and the Photobook club (Matt Johnston) are not badged as Coventry University activities. It is likely that there will be overlap for online participants who may get involved in supporting or participating on these kinds of linked activities.

Other educators
As part of the UKOER COMC project the Department attempted to engage some colleges in the open classes, but this surfaced several challenges for this type of educational institution

External collaborators outside HE, with little or no experience of OER have been extremely difficult to engage with. The least successful aspect of the project has been our attempt to engage with local colleges.  We have made bridgeheads with a small number of Phoenix Partner Colleges – especially Finham Park School and Calunden Castle School,  but this has required high-levels of F2F commitment and (almost) ‘bribery’! Beyond accessing the individual class contents – which after the meeting to set the contact up is almost impossible to identify – there has been almost no active participation in the classes. Team members visited the Colleges, walked-through the class sites discussed potential uses, emphasised the open and free nature of the content, resources and networks. The only ‘cost’ to these participant for enhanced access to the classes and additional support was that they put some comments on the classes and especially the core COMC  project pages. In the event none did so.  This experience highlights the barrier that exists on our part on the transition from ‘broadcasting’ modes and on the part of potential external participants if they arrive at the class after its development  COMC Final Report, 2012

There was also a nervousness within colleges about using social media networks and no culture of using such networks to collaborate. Given the strictures of the current national curriculum and the increasing pressure on achievement of results in a narrowing list of subjects for league-table purposes, this reticence is not surprising. This finding was reflected by other UKOER projects and highlighted challenges around institutional use and control of technologies, traditional cultures of ‘broadcast’ teaching and more centrally controlled teaching institutions.

Responses to the classes from the HE sector have generally been very positive and some academic staff are considering how they might adapt or adopt some of the approaches used in the open classes. Simon Lancaster is Professor of Chemical Education at the University of East Anglia (EUA) and a National Teaching Fellow who has been inspired by the open class approach. Simon has authored open educational resources and contributes to EUA MOOCs but is well aware of the challenges of making elements of traditional courses truly open. He has adopted the hashtag approach (#phonarchem) to encourage people to celebrate everyday chemistry using photographs.

“Phonar was an immediate inspiration to me. Chemistry is a highly visual subject and every chemical reaction a story. #phonarchem is our attempt to celebrate chemistry and recreate something of the #phonar community.” Prof Simon Lancaster, Interview January 2015

Although Chemistry is a very different discipline it is refreshing to see that some of the open class approaches may be transferable to other subject areas.This is particularly pertinent if we consider that all subjects have stories to tell and can make effective use of open social media to do so. The links with the US Digital Storytelling course (DS106) has already been noted and there are some interesting affinities between the two:

  • originally traditional campus based courses that benefitted from being made open in quite revolutionary ways
  • developed trusted commited open communities and even have members that straddle both
  • provide exciting alternatives to the MOOC models that currently exist
  • emphasise creativity and artistic devices to tell stories
  • have charismatic, high profile people leading and driving developments who already may have links to other innovators and networks of proactive people in their field
  • elicit sometimes passionate and reverential responses in other educators who admire the
  • innovative, almost anarchic approaches
  • encourage ownership by all participants and allow directions to be changed
  • committed to open licenses that enable and actively encourage reuse and repurposing
  • recognised by the Reclaim Open Learning Challenge
  • use aggregated wordpress sites as hubs to aggregate content using hashtags
  • see online elements of the classes as an augmentation or enhancement of physical aspects, not a replacement

See other findings: What critical factors led to the development of the open classes?  |  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  |  How transferable are the models to other institutional contexts and subject disciplines?