A little piece of the open education puzzle

At the time of this writing it’s Open Education Week. The purpose of Open Education Week, coordinated by the Open Courseware Consortium, is to “raise awareness about free and open educational opportunities that exist for everyone.” That makes this a particularly good time to think about examples of open education and practices emerging in higher education. Ergo this post.

Having been engaged with the Open Educational Resource universitas (OERu) since its early days, I was pretty happy to see a small but important piece of the puzzle snap into place this week.  This occurred when a distance education student in our Open Learning Division who had completed an open course in the OERu received formal credit for this course by my university. The OERu course is AST1000 Regional Relations in Asia and the Pacific, developed as an open course built entirely from OERs. The course incorporates a “pedagogy of discovery” or “free range learning” as described by Professor Jim Taylor (Emeritus) from the University of Southern Queensland.


Learners can either engage with the course entirely on their own in any way they wish for free through WikiEducator, the MediaWiki-based home of the OERu, or work through it more formally and for credit by registering for the same course in a Moodle environment where the WikiEducator course content is replicated in real time in the LMS. While the course itself is free, students who wish to receive formal support and assessments pay a fee for these services.

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Overview of the OERu learning environment for AST1000

As transfer credit was not yet available for this course, a prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) evaluation was conducted by a qualified faculty member through my institution’s regular PLAR process. The process evaluated multiple elements including the course outline/description, qualifications of the instructor, assessment methods, relevant field of study, year level of the course content, and qualification for credit. The course met the required standard and the student received full credit for the course. Snap!

And so a small piece of the puzzle was added to the picture. But it’s not time to blow the trumpets just yet. There are many additional pieces that we need to continue work on. In fact, it sometimes feels like we’re also still filling in the picture on the puzzle box as we move from open content to open practices. Just a few of the pieces of the picture that we’re still trying to paint (and there are many more):

Cost. While the course content is free by the 4-Rs definition as described by David Wiley, i.e. free to reuse, revise, remix and/or redistribute, the optional instructor support and learner assessment cost was approximately a third of the cost of taking a full course at my institution. This is not an insignificant saving, but rather is getting closer to “free” in the sense of “free beer” or at least maybe cheap (but good!) beer. This will be an ongoing project for the OERu as it continues to grow.

Credit transfer. While the PLAR process was successful in gaining credit for our student, a longer term OERu concept has been that member institutions would assess and credit learners taking OERu courses that were provided by their own institutions and then use credit transfer among partners to spread the goodness around using well established protocols. In my own institution we are in the process of completing the evaluation of our open course contribution to the OERu, an adaptation of a previously developed first year art appreciation course that we forked from the Washington State Open Course Library via an adaptation from the Saylor Foundation. (A presentation on my research into the design aspect of this project can be found here.) Alternatively, one or several institutions may emerge that provide this service more broadly across the partnership. This takes time and requires an adjustment as well as some answers that can’t always be fully provided at this point. There is an element of faith in all of this – an iterative process of learning and sharing our experiences as we move step by step down this winding road.

Authentication. Because we knew our student, and a trusted instructor was providing support and assessment, there was little difficulty authenticating the student and the coursework submitted. However, for ongoing students more systematic and efficient approaches need to be found to ensure the identity of students when they are applying to a member institution for credit.

Multiple uses. The value-added from the development and open provision of OERu courses will multiply not only when more students are given credit, but also when partner institutions are able to treat the courses, where desired, fully as extensions of their own program portfolio. In this way internal and external students can mingle in multiple ways and for various purposes, gaining value from the exchanges and engagements that will occur.

There are no quick solutions, technologies, techniques or ed-tech VCs that will solve some of the challenges facing those who desire to see open education practices flourish in and among our institutions. What I like is that to date over 30 public post-secondary institutions and other open-minded agencies in this partnership are committing to working out these issues as educators, in a manner that respects and builds upon the experience, expertise and commitment to learning and students that is fundamental to the ethos of public higher education.

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An open agenda

Two years ago I attended the inaugural meeting of OERu (Open Education Resource university) founding institutional partners at Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin, New Zealand. I was excited at the prospect of meeting people from around the world whose institutions were willing to step out and sign on to such a nontraditional project. I was also keen to visit this charming country, as it was my first time there.

Earlier that year, Paul Stacey had written a reflection in which he imagined a University of Open, a concept that “synthesizes multiple ‘open’ initiatives into a common core operating principle that defines the university and the education it provides.” These initiatives included use of open source software for administration and teaching, building programs from OERs developed internally or elsewhere, adoption of open access publishing, implementing principles of open data and government, and use of open pedagogies.

One of the many comments was from Wayne Mackintosh of the OER Foundation, where he invited Paul to participate in an upcoming meeting in Dunedin. Work there had already been under way for some time to develop a likeminded concept, the OERu, which was intended to integrate multiple open practices under one roof. A discussion co-facilitated by Paul and Wayne was set up in BCcampus’s SCoPE to develop the OERu concept further and was followed by the most recent meeting of partners – the one in New Zealand I mentioned at the beginning of the post. A lot has happened since then.

Soon another meeting of OERu partner institutions will take place at Thompson Rivers University, my home institution. As before there will be options for both virtual and F-F participation. A discussion to plan the agenda is taking place in SCoPE again and is open to all. There is indeed much to talk about especially since the higher education landscape has changed so massively in the past two years.

Having an open discussion about the agenda is just one of many reasons I enjoy the OERu concept – gutsy, grassrootsy, based mainly on volunteerism, an authentic mission that is not driven by a profit motive, and a commitment to being open in as many ways as possible. It’s a refreshing change from the growing array of initiatives riding the “open-but-not-really”  bandwagon currently careening through the higher education landscape.

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OER as ecosystem

Occasionally you hear something that pops a cork in your brain, lets out some confusion and makes room for fresh insight. That happened to me at the UNESCO World Open Educational Resources Congress in Paris, when Neil Butcher of OER Africa responded to a question by suggesting that reuse of OER is in fact a form of new knowledge construction. That was a clarifying moment for me.

The very act of finding, validating and incorporating existing OER into a program or course requires skill, patience and dedication. Working through licensing and formatting issues is not easy. Either revising OER or building contextual content or learning activities around OER, or even providing translations, are themselves creative acts and contributions of value to learners and to an OER ecosystem at large. By undertaking these activities, reusers of OER are making a contribution to the OER movement.

As noted by several presenters throughout the congress, collaboration and constant improvement are key to the development of high quality OER. Every individual or agency that reuses OER is contributing to its improvement and extension. Even by the acceptance of OER as-is and reusing it without further modification, a vote of confidence is being placed in the resource, giving it more credibility for other reusers. Beyond that, the reuse of OER inherently expands the reach of the original development to new learners, a credit to the intentions of the OER originator. And the lessons learned by undergoing this process can be shared with others at events as large as the OER Congress, or as small as a local capacity development workshop.

I like to think of OER as surrounded by a community of users who continue to reuse and improve them, rather than as packages that are developed and then moved down a supply chain to the next user in a linear manner. I don’t think a producer-consumer concept of OER is compatible with the ecosystem model.

To those who get past the barriers we all face to create content and release it to be reused under an open license, even as a small, tentative experiment: well done. Not only are you addressing the needs of your own learners, but also you are providing an opportunity for others to build on and extend your work; and you are an inspiration for all of us.

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The challenge of OER

OER definitions vary greatly, but there are themes. The original UNESCO definition from 2002 (just celebrating its 10th anniversary!) includes ready access to educational resources, enabled by information and communication technologies. Other definitions emphasize other aspects such as the famous 4 Rs (reuse -redistribute-revise-remix), open licensing, and tools for interaction and collaboration. Elements can include full courses and components, textbooks, media, tests, and software as well as tools needed to access and reuse them. One proposed model supports courses delivered as a type of textbook that is based on self-study without a human instructor, with the use of automated support and feedback, quiz marking, and other bot-type support systems. When you add all these ideas together (and there are many more), the project becomes huge and can in fact overwhelm both the providing institutions and the re-using institutions.

It’s well known that there is a rising flood of openly available course material out there – the litany of providers read not be repeated here. But now the question arises: to what extent are OER (and specifically full courses) being created for the institutions’ existing learners, programs and other contexts, and alternatively how many are being developed to meet criteria for the various aspects of OER as described in some of the definitions? How open are they in the wider sense? For instance, are they accessible in their latest versions? Are the source files available? Is all the copyright information available for the resources used? Are the referenced texts open, or at least current? Are pieces of the course (e.g. forum discussion topics, quizzes, activities) freely available, not locked up in LMSs? Is the course in a transferable format, rather than trapped in presentation or PDF files, or in classroom capture videos with references such as “make sure you hand in your essays by Friday” or other highly localized references? Are source files available for media and can it be assumed that the re-users have access to the tools to revise them if necessary? Does the course avoid embedded language throughout referencing the existence of markers, instructors, and peers? Are marking grids and rubrics available? The answer is probably not – and for good reasons: it’s enough work producing courses for our own learners let alone create other versions for open provision. I’m pretty sure that very few of us can answer in the affirmative.

“Doing OER” is complex and hard work, but at the same time the concept is right and we need to keep doing it and learning and sharing as we go. Hopefully we’ll get it right, at least enough to start building new opportunities for so many learners worldwide for whom the words “open” and “education” are as far apart as the North and South poles.

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Open Education Week – special event

Live Streamed Event: Designing and Assessing Engaging Learning Activities

In recognition of Open Education Week, Michelle Harrison and Melissa Jakubec from the Thompson Rivers University, Open Learning Instructional Design team will discuss their research on designing and evaluating engaging learning activities in the online environment.

As part of their departmental goal to develop learning experiences that are engaging and meaningful to students who are working in a distance learning environment, they have undertaken a research project to: (1) Create a set of promising learning design patterns that work in the organizational context and (2) Develop a methodology to evaluate learning activity designs/patterns so that they can be improved.

This presentation will describe their research context and learning design, results of early workshops and focus groups with instructional designers about learning activities, and survey results from learners on the effectiveness of learning activities in online courses. They will also describe their proposed methodology to help evaluate learning activity effectiveness and course designs at Open Learning and will relate this to research activity that could be done in blended or face-to-face environments.

There will also be an opportunity for live chat questions and comments.
Time: 11:30 AM Pacific time (UTC-8)

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Caution: Open course developers at play

Much has happened at the OERu since the formal launch meeting in November. In the open curriculum project, a series of public consultations through the SCOPE forum at BC Campus and subsequent discussions among partners have led to the selection of eight prototype courses for initial development. In order to support the open development and design stages, two online workshops were recently conducted through WikiEducator, OERu’s virtual home. The courses provided hands-on practice and experience with Creative Commons licensing, and with developing and formatting content in WikiEducator. The purpose of going though these steps is building capacity among partners and supporters in setting up prototype courses in an entirely open environment. We were fortunate to have leaders of such reputation as Cable Green of Creative Commons and Wayne Mackintosh of the Open Educational Resource Foundation.

WikiEducator provides the ability to revert, fork into different versions and collaborate in various ways in content development. And of course good coders can go under the hood and do a whole lot more. However, there are some helpful tools anyone can learn such as simple pedagogical templates, mechanisms for importing and/or creating Creative Commons licenses, and an Open Office plug-in that permits the export of basic document formatting properties into WikiEducator syntax. At present the LMS is always available for delivering the content extracted from the wiki, but a flame of hope continues to burn that we can either make better LMSs or move beyond them in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime we make do.

Equally interesting are emerging discussions and proposed models around learning design factors for open pedagogy. This is the next big challenge. While open and distance education has a long track record of practice in independent study, the past 20 years of collaborative and networked learning concepts and practices confront real challenges in the face of the “lonely” distance learner working through open courseware. Support networks of peers as well as potential volunteers and mentors are on the radar as well other creative ideas.

There are many challenges to “open,” not only legal but also in terms of technical issues as well as deeply embedded concepts of quality and governance in higher education that deserve careful consideration and dialog. We have much to learn from the free and open source software movement in terms of building powerful and sustainable communities around major projects.

A little over a decade ago, Eric Raymond wrote in The Cathedal and the Bazaar, “It may well turn out that one of the most important effects of open source’s success will be to teach us that play is the most economically efficient mode of creative work.” So far the work of OERu does feel like play, and if having fun is a good thing – then we’re not doing too badly!

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Unwrapping the OER package in 2012

#oeru In one of the highlights of 2011 for me, I had the privilege of attending a two-day meeting at Otego Polytechnic in Dunedin, New Zealand to participate in formalizing plans for implementation of the Open Education Resource University (OERu). The meeting was attended by representatives of 13 tertiary educational institutions from around the world and 2 non-teaching institutions, together known as Anchor Partners. The Canadian partners attending were Athabasca University and Thompson Rivers University (where I work).

In addition, there were 148 registered virtual participants from 41 countries participating through live video feeds and microblogs, as well as others who were unregistered. Planned by the OERu Foundation in New Zealand and BC Campus in Canada, and sponsored by the Commonwealth of Learning and UNESCO, Pacific States, the goal of the meeting was to outline the first steps in the implementation of an OERu concept that had been incubating in various forms over the past few years. An earlier meeting in February 2011 had established the foundational concepts and “logic model” for the OERu, with preceding public discussions and consultations with the higher education community worldwide including open seminars conducted on BC Campus’s SCOPE site (SCOPE, 2011). The underlying reason for the establishment of the OERu was the expanding world of open educational resources (OER). The Open Education Resource University (OERu) foundation, a not-for-profit entity, was established to assemble a consortium of universities that could support and accredit learning undertaken through OER courses. That is, they determined to make low-cost education and credentials available to learners worldwide by contributing their own OER courses as well as repurposing other OER. This “parallel learning universe” (from Jim Taylor, 2007) was established on a logic model based on collaboration among partner universities; i.e., the provision of education institution services and support infrastructures.

The establishment of the OERu signifies a shift in the focus of OER from only content to include processes, both in the repurposing of OER as well as in the support mechanisms undergirding the learners’ engagement with the OER. While many OER are in essence publishing initiatives (although this is beginning to change, e.g. MIT), the OERu is focused on the multiple processes associated with online learning at the university level. The processes include curriculum planning, course design and development, pedagogy, student support, assessment and credentialing. Supporting these processes are community service by institutions and volunteers, new business models for OER education, technology infrastructure and student administration.

The OERu is not in itself a university. Rather, the intent is to build collaboratively, among the Anchor Partner institutions and others, a system of access to free open educational resources in the form of courses and programs offered through the university network, alongside possible user-pay optional services provided by the institutions including tutoring, accreditation and assessment of learning, and credible credentials. The OERu Foundation is structured not to provide courses or develop and administer educational policies. Instead, out of consideration for institutional autonomy, the OERu facilitates the collaboration of Anchor Partners and other participants in contributing their own open education resources as well as other available OERs, along with the application of their own internal educational policies in their interactions with the partnership and participating students who engage with their own universities. Thus it acquired the mantra of a “parallel learning universe” in that it was intended not to replace any of the functions of the partners, but rather to form a collaboration that would work alongside them and in which they can each engage to the extent and in the manner that works best for the individual institutions (Wikieducator, 2011). The seminal parallel learning universe concept was outlined in a paper by Jim Taylor (2007), citing recent studies that indicated a massive growth in the need for higher education worldwide, to the extent that two new universities a week would be needed just to satisfy the need in India alone. The increasing availability of free courseware online worldwide was seen as a vital key to improved access to higher education worldwide.

What does the new year hold for OERu? How will it play out? The model is still emergent and it could go many different ways. I for one am keen to see how this plays out and will provide updates here.

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Sweet convergence

There is a sweet scent of convergence in the wind, although the connections haven’t really been stitched together yet—at least not as far as I can see. But there is an underlying pattern of currents that, sooner or later, need to merge into something new and improved for making more learning opportunities available to more people in more ways—which means breaking down those many barriers and silos we all seem to love to create, nourish and defend in higher education. These thoughts emerged during discussions at the CONVERGE-EFQUEL 2011 conference in Lisbon, Portugal.

First, open content is boundless in its availability. It’s wonderful and it’s a mess. But we can’t not do anything about that as educators. More on that later. Next, alternative forms of credit and accreditation that can be given to other forms of learning than that gained in the standard university environment: Discussions that took place on outcomes-based learning made it clear that outcomes approaches are vital to moving beyond content- and credit-driven systems of recognition of learning. Third, user-generated content is receiving growing attention—i.e. content that is developed by students in a wide variety of courses and other learning contexts in such socially-shared areas as blogs and micro blogs, journals, podcasts, social bookmarks, wikis, shared videos and photographs, and many other formats—content of sufficient value that it could form content to be used by other learners. The pool is growing and increasingly we see learning communities consisting of instructor-developer-learner partnerships. Fourth is movements in quality that is defined by fitness for purpose and appropriatness for context; i.e. quality not as an “objective characteristic of a learning resource or a service, but … constituted as a specific characteristic of a context which in turn is made up through the realities of the personal, organizational, social and structural interactions of the stakeholders involved” (Thomas Kretschmer at the CONCEDE – EFQUEL2011 conference in Lisbon). There’s more–we have concepts of learning interactions that proceed on the following hierarchy: data-information-knowledge-wisdom-transformation (Steve Wheeler at the same conference), reminding us that content (data and information) is only the beginning. Up to data and information, scouring the Web is very much up to the task for learner. Building up towards knowledge begins to occur when there are reliable guides available or open courses with inbuilt pedagogical interactions. But when it comes to wisdom and transformation – the praxis of both knowing and doing – that is where higher education can continue to excel, if the convergence is allowed to continue and learning extends beyond the classroom and reaches into the world around us.
That brings us back to OER, the discussion and practice around Open Educational Resources and how they can be developed, discovered, used and revised. There is nothing new in the concept — but with the development of the Open Education Resources university (OERu), there is now a core of committed institutions (including, happily, mine) seeking to contribute a core of OER-based courses toward a coherent combination culminating at the degree level. This is wonderful news, especially for learners in countries that desperately need more higher education but can’t afford it. But to make it fly, we need to find the will and way to continue the convergence.

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Instructional designers on instructional design

It was extremely interesting to sit in on a group of instructional designers at a brainstorming session hosted by UBC’s Centre for Teaching and Learning a few weeks ago. Discussion themes centred on instructional design and included innovation and creativity; Web 2.0. and social media; mobile learning; learning environments outside of structured courses; and the future of instructional design.

This was obviously going to be pretty open ended discussion, with no beginning and no end. My impression is that trying to nail things down is a little like trying to survey buildings under construction while perched on the roof of a passing train where the track is being built just in time in front of the train—and no-one has the plans for any of this. Universities are under huge pressure to change, adapt and reinvent themselves out of an age-old tradition where the badges of success are still largely based on narrow definitions of learning and scholarship. Teaching is challenged by the massive influx into the classrooms of mobile devices that can confound the standard model of educational delivery. Distance education and e-learning are swamped with the potential of new tools, social networking and mobile devices. Enterprise systems retain their distinction as lumbering behemoths sucking in all light, energy and sound, and learning management systems keep swirling around the periphery looking for some way to land. Alongside, the very real issues of privacy and copyright legislation in a digital, post 911 era are just beginning to rear up into challenges so big they have the potential to block out the sun.

And yet…who isn’t having some fun with all this! It’s our job to stay with it – keep learning, testing, experimenting and in many cases muddling along to the best of our abilities. Further, we need our own communities of practice to keep us balanced, on track and maybe even sane. I think Tony Bates nailed it with this magnificent wrap-up of the session: “All these problems were solved in the pub after the meeting, but unfortunately no record was kept.”

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Data Soup: A Recipe

Tony Hirst of the Open University pretty much left us all with our jaws on the floor as he romped through a variety of methods to pull, claw, scrape, coax, tease and otherwise harvest structured and unstructured data from such varied sources as PDFs, APIs, HTML tables and other screen-scrapable pages, CSVs and other utilities – in a presentation at the Banff Learning Analytics conference – #LAK11. The data is imported/mashed up into Google Spreadsheets. It is cleansed to be consistent and comparable, and then queried, analyzed and visualized. As Tony put it: you then have a “conversation with the data.”

That is a nicely humanizing concept, a cherry on the cake of a home-made and ingenious approach to making a tasty soup from a handful of leftovers and wilted vegetables in the crisper. Assuming that the world will continue to be a messy place for a long, long time, we don’t have to wait for perfect IT systems and teams, along with a semantic web, to do some interesting and creative work in data analysis.

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