Open educational resources (OER) and, more recently, open educational practices (OEP) have been widely promoted as a means of increasing openness in education, with implied social benefits. Thus far, such openness has been restricted by OER provision typically being supplier-driven and contained within the domains of higher education (HE), often comprising universities’ release of a limited range of existing, sometimes dated, digital content. Furthermore, this content can be hard to find, with a low awareness of the existence of OER outside HE.
Seeking to explore ways in which OEP might achieve greater impact beyond universities we conceptualised a new ‘public-facing open scholar’ role involving academics working with online communities outside HE to source OER to meet their specific needs. To explore the potential and viability of this role we focused on the voluntary sector, which we felt might particularly benefit from such collaboration. We examined 50 representative communities for evidence of their being self-educating (thereby offering the potential for academics to contribute) and for any existing learning dimension. We shortlisted four communities for detailed evaluation; each of these was found to be self-educating and each included learning infrastructure elements, for example provision for web chats with ‘experts’, together with evidence of receptiveness to academic collaboration. Our findings indicated that there was considerable scope for the role of public-facing open scholar. We therefore developed detailed guidelines for performing the role and are currently piloting the concept with a further online voluntary sector community. To date, our pilot findings indicate that the role of public-facing open scholar is viable and well-received. However, the pilot process, conducted in a community where all participants are necessarily anonymous, has also highlighted the need to be aware of the impact of privacy constraints when choosing a community with which to work.
The implications of our findings are wide-ranging. Voluntary sector online communities offer one platform for the public-facing open scholar to realise the transformative potential of open education, raising awareness and increasing the use and re-use of OER by people outside HE. However, the scope for the role is not limited to the voluntary sector. Furthermore, whilst we have concentrated on the role of the individual academic, institutional dimensions are also relevant. For example, the public-facing open scholar role has the potential to help UK universities to satisfy their Public Benefit Reporting requirements under the Charities Act 2006 by supporting ‘specialists in higher education [in] listening to, developing their understanding of, and interacting with non-specialists’ from the public’ (HEFCE, 2007). Universities which formally recognise such activities as a component of academic output may, in turn, be seen as performing a new institutional role of a ‘benevolent academy’ which takes seriously its responsibilities to civic society.