Sustainability and non-traditional practical work

Since I met Tim Drysdale last year we’ve spent some not-small amount of time talking about remote labs, and non-traditional practical work (NTPW) more generally (if you know Tim, you know he can *talk*). I’ve enjoyed the intellectual thrill that comes with learning about and thinking about a new and emergent area of edtech, as well as more about learning and teaching in STEM subjects. My brain has squeaked on the odd occasion. In a good way.

Tim has excellent ideas about pushing on from the dominant model of separate labs in multiple institutions to a more federated future, where equipment and experiments are pooled and shared across institutions. You can see more of his thinking as he builds it out on his shiny new blog.*

We’ve touched on a lot of different stuff in this context as we’ve blethered (edtech, pedagogy, authentic assessment, post-humanism, learning analytics, interface design, open source, LTI and more) and there’s quite the rash of blog posts I want to write to capture my thoughts before they are blown away like so much brain fluff.

animation of dandelion seeds being blown off a seed head, by way of a metaphor for my fleeting thoughts
Dandelion gif from

However, a tweet yesterday morning with a link to an article by Laura Czerniewicz reminded me of some chat about the opportunities that open source approaches offer for innovation in learning and teaching (h/t to Jenny Scoles here too), and also some thoughts about remote labs and sustainability prompted by Neil Selwyn‘s recent talk at UCL .

“But in this setting, the fall of the innovation dice is increasingly weighted to serve vested economic interests. It is therefore essential that universities enable and enlarge innovation spaces to expand the possible, and to do so with an agenda that serves social needs.” (Laura Czerniwicz, Innovation for the public good in a deeply unequal society – how South African universities should respond to digital affordances and the #4IR, University World News)

Throw in the rather dull task of getting a new Energy Performance Certificate for my flat too, and I am feeling compelled to make some vain attempt at pulling together the threads of my thoughts about sustainable practices and Tim’s vision for NTPW into a thing approaching coherence (to me anyway).

Economic Sustainability

In a sector of mixed capacity and resources, one of Tim’s main arguments about pooling and sharing NTPW activities is a simple one around reduction in the total cost of ownership. Sharing your excess capacity (because there almost certainly will be some – especially if we consider the different semester rhythms of northern and southern hemisphere institutions) just makes sense. Also, by sharing costs we can have nice things.

Non-traditional practical work is a niche sport – there are few commercial suppliers and a relatively fragmented market place. We’re both believers in and advocates for open source software however, so we tend to see this sort of thing as opportunity rather than restriction. There are strong sustainability arguments made for open source – the most obvious one being avoiding black-boxes and vendor lock-in, and the ability to ensure that the future direction of development stays aligned with the educational mission (rather than driving the educational mission towards other agendas – insert rant about rampant edtech speculation and market-making in here). In this space then is the potential to develop NTPW experiments and activities that are very closely aligned with specific learning and teaching contexts and desired outcomes, and that are open to interrogation and critique by virtue of not being black-boxes.

Open source doesn’t mean vendor lock-out though. Through the work I do as a Board member of the Apereo Foundation I see a vibrant and thriving community that’s enhanced by the presence of commercial companies that provide technical and professional services. Such companies are vital to promoting and supporting adoption, as well as contributing to the ongoing development of projects.

This is not the place to get into a free versus open debate, but I am going to give a solid acknowledgement that new economic models are needed in open source to support sustainability and diversity. As I’ve read more and learned about other remote or simulated lab examples I’ve been struck by just how much of it has involved building from the ground up. I’ve also seen at least one example of a shared remote lab initiative that has shuttered, after failing to make the transition from grant funding to being self-sustaining.

Which leads neatly into…

Community Sustainability

Building open source software is all very well, but tech is not enough. From my work at Edinburgh supporting open education activities, and my work with Apereo, I know that solid effort needs to go into building community in order to get change that sticks. A few years ago, I backed the Kickstarter for the Made with Creative Commons book and at the OER19 conference I went to Paul Stacey‘s session on open business models (based very much on his intro to that book). He characterises sustainability in open business models as:

Sustainability = Value + Social Good + Community

If we believe that remote labs and NTPW have value, and support social good (we do, btw, ‘cos education), then the other element that needs to be thought about is development of community. There is a fair argument to be made (I believe) for thinking about a network of pooled and shared experiments and equipment as a form of commons.

The commons is not just about shared resources, however. It’s also about the social practices and values that manage them. A resource is a noun, but to common—to put the resource into the commons—is a verb. The creators, organizations, and businesses we profile are all engaged with commoning. Their use of Creative Commons involves them in the social practice of commoning, managing re-sources in a collective manner with a community of users. Commoning is guided by a set of values and norms that balance the costs and benefits of the enterprise with those of the community. Special regard is given to equitable access, use, and sustainability. (Made with Creative Commons)

It seems important then, if one wants to create a sustainable future of sharing and pooling NTPW resources, to attend to the business of building out a community who participate in shaping the values and norms that will govern this as a form of commons. There are economic sustainability issues to be considered as per above, but the primary driver of work in this area is to improve education, not to make profit. Money is “gas in the tank”. If social good is the driver, then what activities will build and sustain a community?

“Over and over we heard in our interviews how success and sustainability are tied to a set of beliefs, values, and principles that underlie their actions: Give more than you take. Be open and inclusive. Add value. Make visible what you are using from the commons, what you are adding, and what you are monetizing. Maximize abundance. Give attribution. Express gratitude. Develop trust; don’t exploit. Build relationship and community. Be transparent. Defend the commons.” (Made with Creative Commons)

We also need to consider that communities aren’t homogenous. Laura Czerniewicz’s article highlights examples of community activity in South Africa that seeks to directly address local context. A strong community can support not just sharing, but adaptation of NTPW resources so that they can continue to be tailored to local context and resist black-boxing.

“A recent initiative is the Deep Learning Indaba whose mission is to strengthen machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) in Africa and work towards the goal of Africans being active shapers and owners of these technological advances in AI, as well as to support transformation and diversity.” (Laura Czerniwicz, Innovation for the public good in a deeply unequal society – how South African universities should respond to digital affordances and the #4IR, University World News)

If we’re thinking about this as a form of commons, sustained by a diverse community, then I think it’s also worth considering Jim Luke‘s post yesterday on scale versus scope in a commons (he’s talking about OER, but I think it’s very relevant to what could be a collection of shared, re-mixable NTPW activities). Even more reason to consider community, governance, values etc.

Environmental Sustainability

I mentioned above that we work in a sector of mixed capacity and resources. Even more pressing is that we live in a world of dwindling natural resource.

In his UCL talk “A Brief History of Ed-Tech 1989 – 2049Neil Selwyn talked about stewardship of “Edtech in a post-climate age”.  A recent Vice article lays bare the fairly horrific environmental and human costs associated with Apple Airpods. One can extrapolate the arguments made in that article fairly easily to a whole range of technological devices.

Viewed through an lens of environmental sustainability, full utilisation of NTPW equipment resources becomes an ethical practice. Sharing equipment rather than everyone buying; sharing costs of maintenance to extend replacement cycles; reducing the need to travel to access such resources as a means of reducing environmental impact.

In things that have been written recently the argument has been made for remote labs on the basis that lead times to reconfigure estates / build new buildings are too long. However, my task yesterday to get a new Energy Performance Certificate was also the reminder I needed that new buildings have a big environmental cost.

Resource usage – from UK Green Building Council:

Being able to use existing buildings, and particularly being able to use spaces not suitable for humans to work in is not just an efficient cost saving in terms of estate management. It’s also an environmentally sustainable practice. New facilities don’t need to be built and existing spaces don’t need to be heated or lit in the same way. The UK Green Building Council states that 10% of total UK carbon emissions came from heating in 2015…

Sustainable Development Goals

All of the above is a mad dash through a mash-up of things we’ve talked about, written about and things that have flitted through my mind in the last 48 hours. Again casting back to OER19, I’m remembering Su-Ming Khoo‘s excellent talk on her project with Paul Prinsloo about the extent to which consideration of inequality can be embedded into quality assurance practices. In her talk she invoked the UN Sustainable Development Goals and that seems like a reasonable place to end this blog post too. Where then might pursuing an economically viable, environmentally sustainable, social-good focused commons of NTPW resources align? As a place to start I’m going to suggest the following:

* Yeah, I did make him start blogging. Yeah, I did make him use a SPLOT template for the Practable site. Yeah he got his hosting from Reclaim. I even wrote a blog post myself to get him started and tweeted research papers at him.

I’m no amateur at this.

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