Does Open Access level the playing field in education or does it perpetuate the barriers to access?

In my OKHE1 blog, I painted a broad picture about how Open Access to knowledge and resources can enable wider access to Universities for those who may not normally attend. It seems apt that during August the whirlwind of exam results and scramble for University places coincide with the deadline for submission of this assignment. Once again the media and watchdogs will highlight the disparity between students from wealthier backgrounds and those from lower socio-economic group’s participation in third level education. I also discussed some successful initiatives where Open Access was used to develop skills and share knowledge. However, reading through other posts in this area has raised the question of whether restrictions to academic journals and allowing opening access to others creates a tiered quality of knowledge available to the public. Are we creating a supermarket wars environment where apparent budget quality products are being offered as a substitute to high end quality products? For my second OKHE blog I will explore this question further.

It is helpful to start making the distinction between Open Access Resources (OERs), Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Open Access (OA).

OERS allow educational practitioners to share learning materials, without copyright, collectively and use resources freely without cost.

MOOCS are online short university courses which allow learners to complete a course without having to attend campus or lectures. Appearing for the first time in 2012 as free entities they have expanded in number and breath and more frequently incur a cost to the user.

Open Access refers to unrestricted access to research publications.

Sharing of resources is an effective way to disseminate best practices, save time and lower costs. OERs developed by the University of Manchester have been used on the Advancing Access Website. Formed by a consortium of 24 Universities, these OERs, part of England’s National Network for Collaborative Outreach, help teachers advise students when choosing options and University courses.

We could examine the impact of OERs from 2 perspectives, firstly from that of the teacher and secondly from that of the student. My involvement with delivery of the academic assignment element of the Manchester Access Programme allowed me to move the process from paper and email based communication to Blackboard. Drawing on open access education resources in the form of the My Learning Essentials courses freely available from the University of Manchester, we collaborated with the e-learning team to adapt the content for a Post-16 audience. These courses were signposted to students throughout their time on MAP to support their learning experience. One of the most important benefits to students while on the programme is membership of the University Library. This gave students free access to all the resources available from the University including journals, articles and books to research their assignment topic. Both students and tutors cited these resources as being extremely helpful during their time on the programme thus demonstrating within my own working practice, the impact access to OERs can have.

University of Manchester Aspiring Students Society (UMASS) is an OER available to Post-16 students and their teachers providing advice and guidance with preparation for applications to University. According to the 2016 Widening Participation report there were 3195 active UMASS members. A library of subject specific OERs have been complied and are available to teachers via the University of Manchester website. These, created by researchers, academics and postgraduate students enable teachers to provide interesting activities and introduce topics to students which support the curriculum or explore areas outside the curriculum. The Children’s University of Manchester website is aimed at informing students and teachers about research and subjects being offered at the University. It attracted 1493064 visitors demonstrating an appetite for such activities.

Students from outside Greater Manchester can apply for a widening participation programme called the Manchester Distance Access Programme. This programme, as suggested by the name, is a remote programme with online support from tutors and academic staff. There are a number of differences both in eligibility criteria and programme content to that of MAP. Students are expected to write an academic assignment however, they do not have library membership and therefore do not have access to the resources MAP students have when researching their assignment therefore MDAS students may potentially need to pay to view articles they require — although in reality, due to the wealth of free resources available from the University, this has not happened. This though demonstrates a point; that there is the potential for students to be at risk of having restricted access to information when researching the same topic.

Massive Open Online Courses are the flagship distance learning tools which hold the potential to allow anyone with access to the internet the facilities to gain anything from higher level qualifications to learning enough language for your upcoming holiday. Jenny Kennedy’s Blog in OKHE1 made a salient point regarding MOOCs: on one hand MOOCs offer the chance to learn and sometimes gain qualifications in a subject, many provide valuable resources to students; on the other hand, the requirement to signpost and reference ‘Pay Per View’ sources can create an economic barrier to students. Do we then source alternative ‘free’ information and if so, how does the quality compare to knowledge which requires payment? A report from Mount Druitt University in Australia details a number of case studies where MOOCs were offered to students from a low participation area. Students benefited in respect of having developed knowledge and interest in potential post high school opportunities however, it questioned whether participation in MOOCs as a single entity would actually realise these opportunities without the formalisation of a qualification. Rita Kop and colleagues recently discussed the importance of support and dynamic facilitation in MOOCs. Educators need to be actively involved with their students online to provide support.

While MOOCs may purport to widen access current analysis would suggest that the tide is turning. Coursera has over 1700 courses running with 23 million registered users according to 2016 Analysis by Class Central. Worldwide, over 700 universities provide 6850 courses to 58 million students. However, a mere 4% of Coursera users who watch at least one lecture on their course will continue to completion. Monetization of MOOCs is emerging with paid-only content and courses being offered for the first time. Credentials are being trademarked to gain recognition and credibility and there is a move towards the corporate learning market where businesses will pay to allow employees to enrol on courses which will enhance their skills sets. With this trend continuing across the sector it seems a matter of time before MOOCs will only be available to those who can afford to pay to access them.

A review by Rebecca Bayeck reported on the demographics of MOOC users. 83% of MOOC enrolled students have post school qualifications such as a degree or a level beyond a degree indicating a lack of educational diversity i.e. participants are all highly educated. This is an interesting development and is an acknowledgement that the ‘openness’ of a MOOC is changing. A retrospective analysis by Emily Longstaff shows how the origin and evolution of Universities from inclusive entities to becoming semi commercial entities where higher education is bought and sold, appears to be mirrored by the current trajectory of the MOOC. However, the report concludes that MOOCs may be useful to widen participation in specialist fields. For example, more women undertake MOOCs than men and it may be proposed that MOOCs may be a useful tool to attract women to STEM careers where they are traditionally under represented. A report published by the Sutton trust in July this year also supports the view that MOOCs may create social mobility allowing individuals to reskill themselves in STEM areas as there is a growing demand for STEM Skills and jobs in this sector. The report also suggests MOOC providers may need to develop social mobility strategies. This is an interesting development and is an acknowledgement that the ‘openness’ of a MOOC is changing.

MOOCs are being developed and released to support University Applications. For example, amongst the 16 study skills courses offered through FutureLearn, The University of East Anglia offers a MOOC through Future Learn called ‘Preparing for University’. A search on Coursera reveals over 1000 courses offering Pre-University advice. Courses of this manner are being mooted as being useful additions to University applications, showing tangible demonstrations of interest in a particular area. FutureLearn reported that 92% of students believed doing a course would benefit them. However the motivations appear largely to help with UCAS applications and interviews rather than interest in a particular subject. MOOCs aimed at the post-16 audience could also be mistaken as marketing tools for particular courses, in the same way as taster days at universities allow potential applicants to experience a course on site. Research supports this view: a survey carried out by Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson and the Sloan Consortium in 2013 produced a number of interesting results. Student retention is significantly lower for online courses than for face-to-face courses. Over 50% of respondents cited their objective when using MOOCs was to increase institution visibility (27%), drive student recruitment (20%) and reach new students (5.8%). Surprisingly in 2013 a mere 2% of respondents used MOOCs to explore cost reductions and even fewer (0.4%) were interested in using MOOCs to generate income. However, there is income to be generated from successful MOOCs. The University of London had 45 expressions of interest in a degree course from students who completed one of their Coursera supported MOOCs. If these were to convert to paying students the revenue generated would certainly exceed the average cost of producing a MOOC.

While the focus of this blog is the question of whether Open Access can truly increase social mobility or widen access to higher education, it is difficult to separate this topic from open access research. If research is hidden behind pay walls or institutional membership then the resources available to the public have limitations placed upon them. The next section of this essay describes some of the economic models which underpin the publishing industry and looks at how these are adapting to competition from Open Access Journals.

The term ‘fake news’ has crept into our vocabulary this year and while it may be unpalatable it has raised awareness that facts need to be checked, and people are becoming more sensitive to the drivers behind information being presented to us. Similarly, peer review acts as a barrier or safeguard for academics when researching. Peer review tells the reader that the work has been critiqued and scrutinised before being accepted for publication, therefore validating the information within (Ironically I have used a link to Wikipedia to reference the term, Wikipedia being an example of open access information which can be frequently unreliable). Martin Eve in his white paper ‘Imagining Tomorrow’s University’ argues that researchers are conditioned to publish in venues which may not have open access agreements in place. The ‘publish or perish’ environment of academic career structure can dictate where papers are published in order to have the biggest impact. He lists a number of recommendations for Institutions to adopt to encourage open research practices.

To allow peer review many publishers are beginning to apply Article Processing Charges (APCs). The cost is shouldered by authors, funding bodies or institutions and not by the people wishing to access the article. There is still a business model but the student is sheltered from economic barriers. An example of this is Public Library of Science (PLOS). The ethos is built on transparency in peer review and a willingness to share information and work efficiently. There are a number of channels researchers can use to make their publications Open Access. Gold access is where papers can be accessed freely via a publisher’s website or supplied via (APCs). Green Open Access is where published work is made available via institutional repositories or a post peer review version, an embargoed version or there are no APCs to pay. The figure below taken from the HEFCE website explains the pathways of the various forms of OA.

The University of Manchester is committed to the adoption of Open Access and has published a factsheet which summarises its position. To circumvent the financial barriers to students and researchers wishing to access information many 3rd level institutions have invested in repositories. The University of Manchester has invested in the creation of a repository into which researchers can submit their post peer reviewed work. The repository allows open access of its contents to students. In this manner the quality stamp of peer review is accessible to those who require it. HEFCE and University of Manchester policy require that peer reviewed papers must be Open Access. The OEDC Directorate for Science Technology and Industry catalogues the policies OEDC countries have initiated to promote open Science. 25 of the 27 countries listed have repositories and archives in research centres and governments. The number of OA polices is increasing annually.

The impact of these initiatives is evident in the number of Open Access articles being published.

Open access publications are growing as illustrated in the figure below.

The dissemination of knowledge through Open Practice brings a value in a variety of areas. Martin Weller in his discussion around the Advantages and Disadvantages of Openness highlights the interplay between these. Sharing of knowledge in an altruistic manner can increase profile, widen participation and invite innovation and collaboration. However, being ‘open’ can also lead to vulnerability with security and privacy, with the identity of authors presented to the public and the development of online personas. Consideration to the advantages and disadvantages of using Open Knowledge and working via open access routes must be given regardless of the reasons for using them.

The purpose of this blog was to provide a critique of Open Access and the potential role it can play in allowing movement on the social ladders and enabling people to participate in higher education. Established publishing companies are finding models to facilitate the provision of open access whilst generating revenue. Publishing research and sharing resources incur costs which may be absorbed by institutions rather than individuals thus allowing free access to users. The research supports the notion of a significant shift towards distance learning and the expansion of MOOCs globally. It is clear that institutions need to develop social mobility strategies to ensure MOOCs and distance learning do not become elitist. MOOCs may enhance the opportunity for professionals and adult learners to study with flexibility and access subjects and skills traditional courses would prohibit. The technologies allowing sharing of information are developing and changing rapidly which means the future for open access learning is indeed exciting and may provide opportunities we can only imagine about. Taking this forward using the knowledge gained from this module, I, along with colleagues in the Division of Nursing Midwifery and Social Work, are developing a strategy to create OERs and identify Open Access Resources to improve student recruitment to Health Care courses from under-represented demographics.

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