Sharing curation in Open Scotland

Open Scotland is moving to a new model of shared curation by a community of volunteers, modelled on the wonderful #FemEdTech. For each of the coming months someone has volunteered to write a blog post or two about their own part of the Open Scotland world and to tweet a bit. The hope is that this will enable a more active Open Scotland without placing more burden on too few people. As the volunteer for the first month in this new mode I thought I would reflect a bit on what I think that means.

Open Scotland is a voluntary cross sector initiative that aims to raise awareness of open education, encourage the sharing of open educational resources, and explore the potential of open policy and practice to benefit all sectors of Scottish education.

Open Scotland about page

“Cross sector” is key. That means Open Scotland is interested in all levels of education: pre-school, school, FE and HE, continuing professional development and all forms of lifelong learning, formal and informal. It also means engagement with teachers, learners, academics, technologists, lawyers, librarians, curators and others in the cultural sector, as well as institutional and government policymakers including politicians and civil servants. So, not only is Open Scotland cross sector, it is also multidisciplinary. But what does it mean to be so encompassing? What can we learn from other widely scoped activities, and what should we bear in mind when engaging with all those neighbouring communities and interest-groups?

Another multi-disciplinary community that I’ve worked with in the dim past is that around crystallography, and something caught my attention when listening to the podcast BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time programme on one of my crystallography heroes, Dorothy Hodgkin. It’s near the end, starting about 45mins in, leading to the following observations:

Georgina Ferry: “The culture of science today actually isn’t very like that*, and I was just rather interested to notice recently that Wellcome, which is the funder of […] a very large proportion of Biomedical Science in the UK today, has recently set up a new project to look at the research culture and to try to shift it in the direction of being more collaborative and kinder — they’ve used the word ‘kind’– and there’s really a sense that the way things have gone is just too far in the direction of being competitive, and I think Dorothy’s example shows that it is possible to do very great science without it having to be like that.”

[* Determining what precisely it is that science isn’t very like is left as an exercise to the reader]

Judith Howard: “I am pleased to say that crystallography is still like that. It is a very caring, sharing community. As we spoke earlier: we need each other, we need people who are good at machinery, computers, growing crystals, extracting the compounds from the biology in the first place. We do need collaboration. The ground that was laid by […] many of the early pioneers, that was the way that they worked. They needed help from each other; it continues that way. We work on completely different materials but we all use computers, often the same software, we’re sharing things and we are sharing advances. So if someone has an advance in one area we share it through our international meetings into another area, and we develop instrumentation by having ideas and sharing them and sharing them with the instrumental manufacturers as well.”

BBC Radio 4, In Our Time: Dorothy Hodgkin

We all know that historically not all parties have been kind when advances in crystallography have been shared, but there is something in what Judith Howard says that strikes true to me personally. For example, one of the first examples of open data / open science that I encountered was the Protein Data Bank, which has been running since 1971. I think the point about how, in crystallography, no one person will have all the skills and resources to solve a problem is one that is true more generally, it certainly aligns with the range and scope of Open Scotland that I outlined above, and I think her conclusion that we need collaboration is equally transferable. I took a look at the Wellcome’s Trust’s website for the work to which Howard was referring. I think it is this, Research culture: let’s reimagine how we work together. Interestingly, the reference I see to be kindness is where Robin Farrar, director of the Trust, he says “it can be hard to be kind“. That’s true especially in low-bandwidth communication such as Twitter, annual conference meetings, and papers and blog postings, limited as they are, respectively, by message length, infrequency and being essentially unidirectional. We really don’t need to add in any further toxic attitudes from overly competitive academics or vested commercial interests.

But it’s not easy. I think we do need a community that calls out errors when we see them; we do need to be careful not to amplify voices that represent interests that are at odds with openness, and that are abundantly capable of making themselves heard without our help. It means rewarding generosity. Making heard the voices that are too often silenced requires more effort than just providing a platform for everyone.

Open Education itself has a voice that needs effort in amplifying. It lives in close proximity to many other “opens”: Open Access, Open Source Software, Open Science, Open Data, Open Standards. All of these are of interest to Open Scotland, and we have a lot to learn from experiences in these fields, but I think we also need to assert that Open Education is distinct from those fields, especially when it comes to policy and strategic actions such as funding. Some of us have experience of programmes that have dealt with teaching and learning materials and research outputs within the same framework, where the research interests dominated. A conclusion then was that teaching and learning was not well served by being subsumed into programmes that largely focussed on research materials. In HE at least research is seen as more attractive and more prestigious than teaching (consider the phrases “research opportunity” and “teaching load”); the same can be seen in attitudes that lead to teaching money going research focussed higher education often at the expense of FE and life-long learning.

I don’t claim that this post represents Open Scotland’s view, if indeed it makes any sense to talk of an Open Scotland view, but I do welcome the Open Scotland Code of Conduct for shared curation which seems to be written to the same tune. I don’t have the answers to how Open Scotland addresses these issues, but I do look forward to it growing as space for collaboration, amplifying those voices that need it, and representing open education as an equal partner with other open endeavours.

Author information: Phil Barker is an independent consultant with Cetis LLP, working in technology to enhance learning and information systems for education. He specializes in Open Education, especially resource description and discovery.