open & distance learning

reflections and ideas on open and distance learning

Category: educational technology

Ten years after: Running the rivers again

A little over ten years ago the BCcampus Educational Technologies Group (ETUG) held their spring workshop at Thompson Rivers University. Titled Running the Rivers: Challenging Currents in Teaching, Learning & Technology, the program included such topics as The Wiki in Post-Secondary Education, In the Moodle, and, presented by no less a luminary than Scott Leslie, Finding Free and Open Learning Resources.

Apart from its use as a metaphor, the “rivers” reference in the program title also acknowledged the flowing-together of the North and South Thompson Rivers in Tk’əmlúps, the local indigenous Secwepemctsín name for Kamloops, meaning “where the rivers meet” (as shown in this blog’s masthead photo).

Another convergence took place today at the same location, with a strategic framework planning session for open textbooks and related initiatives held on our campus. Ably led by Dr. Rajiv Jhanghiani from BCcampus and Kwantlen Polytechnic University, the session’s purpose was to combine multiple open educational resource efforts into one combined framework.

The threads being woven together:

  • The TRU student union (TRUSU) open textbook initiative, which has been under way for well over a year now.
  • The BCcampus Zed Cred program, from which TRU, along with two other institutions (Justice Institute of BC; KPU), has received grants to develop a zero-cost textbook one-year academic certificate.
  • Internal funding received by Open Learning from TRU to develop open textbooks.
  • The impending rollout of the first year of OERu studies at TRU.
  • Initiatives in the library to promote and curate OER.
  • The ongoing mandate of the Open Learning Division to provide open education to our students.

This was a big day for us, as we felt excitement and awareness build about our collective strengths combined to promote and expand the reach and benefits of openness in education. As the plan develops, it’ll be shared here and elsewhere for suggestions, and for others to use and adapt as they wish.

The Words We Use

OER17 The Politics of Open

The recent #OER17 The Politics of Open conference in London generated more discussions and blogging than most conferences I can recall. The conference blog roundup lists almost 60 links, and a number of those in turn curate or comment on other reflections and archives. It seems issues and questions that have been brewing in the OERniverse over the past few years came to something of a head during those tightly packed two days.

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The OERniverse explained

A quick scan of the titles reveals such words as serendipity, emotion, heart, privilege, voices, reflections, provocations, identity, personal, political, critical — terms that evoke matters somewhat beyond everyday understandings of open educational resources or practices. I myself didn’t escape the vibe, and had to find an outlet in poetry to begin processing that buzzing noise in my head.

A prominent theme in the discussions involved attempts to work the boundaries of openness toward open/critical pedagogy, extending past the perceived affordances of the 5Rs of Openness and other tools of open education practices such as Creative Commons licensing, which continue play a dominant role in open education practice. This theme has been in play for a while, and one of the more recent examples was Clint Lalonde’s blog post: Does open pedagogy require OER? That’s one of those maddening, deceptively simple questions.

OER-enabled pedagogy

Then, when I was in the middle of writing this post, David Wiley took a stand on the language of “open pedagogy” and “open educational practices,” setting them aside in favour of OER-enabled pedagogy:

OER-enabled pedagogy is the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical when you have permission to engage in the 5R activities. – Wiley 2017

This definition is consistent with Wiley’s historical explanation of the 5Rs. For instance, in contrast to the sample of terms from OER17 I noted above, we see language around permissions, permitted activities, free, unfettered, access, copying, personal ownership and control, along with functions that are typically associated with 5R content:

The 5Rs of Openness are about rights

– Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content
– Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
– Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
– Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other open content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
– Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend) [emphases mine]. – Wiley 2014

Wiley’s blog tagline “pragmatism over zeal” seals the deal, if you want to get real. Along with the legal/copyright aspects, practical questions of content formats, discoverability, availability to others, and so forth ensue from the 5Rs, as well as pedagogical activities such as non-disposable assignments and reorganizing or transforming content. Interestingly, a little less pragmatically and a little more zeal-fully, any pushback against onerous copyright restrictions in education comes with an underlying ethic of resistance. It’s about sharing, the commons, hegemonies of commercial publishing and textbooks and ed-tech companies. This battle has been going on for a long time and will continue until the sun burns out. The many good things that breaking down such restrictions enables include lower costs to students, more flexibility for faculty, and improved access to learning.

But then too, this is part of a wider history around open/critical pedagogy and open educational practices. In a recent blog post Tannis Morgan delves into the history of openness with some fascinating examples (and with visitor comments that are worth a read too).

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Open education definition – Friesen 2009

Norm Friesen traces emancipatory and critical-pedagogical precursors of open education to the work of such figures as Gramsci, Benjamin and Friere, and offers a Venn diagram to illustrate intersecting aspects of open education. While copyright is an element, it links with other areas including technology and teaching and learning processes.

Among his key points: “Education generally, and open education in particular are about questioning the world and [its] parameters, and about changing them.” This statement could be seen as a fairly classic description of open/critical pedagogy, and stands in contrast against functionally oriented definitions based on OER.

The 5×5 Rs of Ours

Amidst post-OER17 ruminations in an Edinburgh taxi, Brian Lamb tossed out the idea of finding R words that would extend beyond the original 5Rs of Openness. Words with open/critical pedagogical potential. Resist. Reclaim. Renew. RRrrrrwhatever…. It picked up steam. By the time we arrived at our hotel, we decided to get serious and finish this project here and now.

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Hard at work in the office

Naturally, the best locale for such work is a pub, especially if you are in Scotland, and even more especially if it’s named The Advocate. And when Michelle Harrison dropped by, we were a full-on R-Team.

We excluded most R words that used “re-” as a prefix, since that could include almost anything. We turned to an online Scrabble dictionary to make sure we weren’t unintentionally bypassing useful words. Toward the end, we went through a fairly complicated process of sorting, gleaning, clustering, adding and erasing. There was an unusual amount of scribbled-on paper on the table, given that all three of us prefer to burn up bits and bites rather than trees. In retrospect, we were pretty methodologically sound, given the locale and its primary offerings.

RteamaAs we approached the finish line, we found that the emerging five groups of five words could be clustered into meaningful sequences — open/critical pedagogy learning design patterns, or at least prompts, if you will. For example, the column that starts with “respect” could be used to prompt a learning design of remembrance. Not remembrance in the manner of the reductionistic Bloom’s taxonomy, where memory (for crying out loud) is demoted to the basement of cognitive activity.

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Scribing the Rs

Not that. Think of remembrance as, perhaps, an approach to learning and teaching about Japanese Canadian internments, or the history of residential schools in Canada, or the Komagatu Maru, or so many other histories that call out for critical remembrance:

  • Respect. Begin from that place.
  • Recognize. Try to see it for what it is.
  • Relearn. Don’t stop at what was learned back in school. Dig deeper. Hear the stories.
  • Retell. Share the story with others.
  • Reconcile. Find ways to be part of the healing.

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Of course this list can change, and there’s no reason to be stuck on one letter. But it was fun to try. Can the 5Rs of Openness be helpful with this type of activity? Certainly. Can they be extended outside the permissions frame? I think so — it just means looking at them differently. So, there are Rs, and there are Rs. And of course, there’s the rest of the alphabet too.

The mighty portable practice studio

Okay, now for a slight change of pace. This is a little open music sharing for my friends and colleagues in the open education multiverse. For some reason, open education seems to go well with guitars, basses, voices, saxophones, drums, keyboards, synths, theremins and other noisemakers that can’t even be imagined let alone played by ordinary humans. Wherever any of us might meet up, it’s not always easy to find a place to Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out.

So, in the spirit of disruptive innovation, I’ve been testing a few ideas and gadgets, and it all came together when I discovered how amazing small Bluetooth speakers have recently become. Normally a load of guitar and bass amps, a drum kit, a PA system and other clunky gear needs to be collected, assembled into a special rehearsal space, and then dismantled after the fact, especially hard on us spindly-legged open eds and techs with our carpal tunnels and atrophied arms. So, introducing the Mighty Portable Practice Studio.

The video is a short demo of how the pieces fit together and what it sounds like. Yes it’s a little sloppy and out of tune…all intentional, meant to resemble real live jam sessions (…cough…). I pre-recorded several tracks in place of having live musicians help out, but either way it will work fine. Any suggestions for improvement or enhancement are most welcome. And…pardon the hat…I was doing this between handing out Halloween candies at the door…

A slacker’s guide to OER

I just finished writing the first draft of an online module that is part of a larger multi-university faculty and staff development program in online and distance learning for a developing region in the world. I have been lightly involved with this project for several years, largely because I believe in its longer-term value; i.e., to build capacity in providing locally developed learning opportunities accessible to educationally underserved and remote learners.

It made sense to try to build the module content as much as possible from open educational resources (OER), leaving me more time to focus on other pieces that help to foster engaging learning experiences. The focus of this module was administrative processes and systems integration for the implementation of online learning systems at a large scale in higher education institutions. Apart from finding content at appropriate levels of complexity and avoiding overly corporate examples, the foundational material of this module seemed pretty generic to me.

I started off with that time-honored, highly academic and rigorous approach known as “just poke around and see what comes up.” What did this look like? I suppose I should be embarrassed at how simple it was. I made up a list of key terms and started to search. Apart from a directory of open access journals, I didn’t go to any other directories, repositories or collections of links to open content. I just used Google, Google Scholar, and Google Images. BTW this isn’t intended as an ad for Google; I was just following the easiest possible path that appeared in front of me in the moment.

I was looking for chunks of relevant content that I could whittle into shape for my module. For each section I searched specific topics using key terms (information systems; business processes, systems integration, workflow analysis, process documentation, and perhaps 15-20 others). I usually combined these terms with either “open course” or “open textbook” along with, occasionally, “higher education” or “online learning.” This was not a highly scientific approach and I’m sure any research librarian could have done ten times better. But it still worked for me.

Interestingly, combining my search terms with “OER” led less to openly licensed content in my search term areas, than to material about OER implementation processes. But that’s not what I was after. It was just a reminder of how far we are from a semantic web. (Serendipitously however, that search did produce one useful resource related to OER that I could use as an example of workflow mapping. This was by Lisa J. Scott from Heriot-Watt University, who is a hero not only for putting her content online under a CC license, but also for having a resume with many interesting ed-tech type projects including JISC’s now-parked  UKOER initiative – and  for the fact that she is a 4th Dan karate blackbelt as well. A triple hero, then.)

The open content search-by-poking-around was both simple and productive, leading me to several open textbooks in which I could search for chapters, sections and graphics that were very close to what I was looking for. The two main resources that kept popping up were Saylor Open Textbooks and BCcampus Open Textbooks. I also found helpful material in a Saylor course and in the University of Georgia’s Global Text Project. A cluster of interlinked Wikipedia articles led me to useful schematics from the Wikimedia Commons. Google’s advanced image search with usage rights selected as “free to use share or modify” provided plenty of openly licensed images. Also, going to the page that hosted an image often provided yet other leads, a little like the ancient days of finding a specific book in the library stacks, and then browsing the adjacent areas to find other relevant titles that somehow got missed in the card catalog search. (Yes I used to do that…I suddenly feel so old…).

A major weakness of this method, however, was Google’s algorithms. Searching from Canada unsurprisingly invoked a built-in algorithmic bias toward western resources. It took some intentional effort (i.e. introduce the names of specific countries into the search string) to start to see the many resources that would help at least to some small extent balance out the western bias. Shockingly I didn’t have to put “Canada,” “USA” or “Europe” in the search strings to get those former results…

The Reusability Paradox was not as big a problem as we sometimes make it out to be; any interpretation that explains it as an iron law needs to be challenged. A vast amount of the material I came across was reasonably generic, probably a natural feature of that specific field of study and practice. Contextualization, first in its more trivial sense, consisted of such things as changing “organization” to “university” and “business process” to “administrative process” for educators averse to business jargon. Secondly, in its more meaningful sense, contextualization took place though the use of case studies, which I located mainly in a number of open access journals. By including regional and country names in my searches, I found some very relevant and locally grounded research with a potential to enhance the open textbook and open course content. With the content students could learn about widely disseminated theories and models of practice, and then engage in thinking about and discussing what did and didn’t work in local or regional projects as discussed in case studies. They would then use this knowledge to analyze their own specific situations. Interactions between generic content, local research and the learners’ specific situation seemed to me to provide plenty of potential material for engagement. I’d be most interested in hearing how others handle this issue.

As a dedicated slacker, I was happy to see that my overall approach was much easier than writing my own content, and I estimate I remixed and revised the content in less than half the time it would have taken to write it from scratch. Further, the very process of scanning and selecting content that I could then freely repurpose gave me access to much more expertise than I have on my own, and I could scoop it in good conscience without taxing my paraphrasing skills to the limit. Combining pieces from various sources gave me a very quick overview of different approaches and biases, which helped me to reshape the material in a more informed manner than would have occurred by working on my own. I now look forward to the peer review this newly mixed material will receive.

The other challenges I did encounter were mostly at the nuisance level. As I copied and pasted chunks of text and graphics from Word and PDF documents into my own project, some embedded formatting from the original was difficult to get rid of until I pasted the content into a text editor and converted it to plain text. That solved most problems except for the occasional document infested with those atavistic “carriage returns” that had to be removed manually. (If anyone has a tested and proven solution, please let me know. There are plenty of suggestions online, but alas so far no go for me.) There was little need to mess around with image conversions; a simple screen shot levelled everything into a universally usable PNG file. Almost too easy.

Open textbook projects and open courseware (and there’s not always that much difference between them, from what I’m seeing) seem to be covering off an increasingly wide swath of basic content that I would describe as academic tofu – useful material that can be taken up whole or chopped up as needed, seasoned and stirred into a tasty meal with other ingredients. We need to keep those developments going. Open access journals are, to my thinking, a key piece in finding contextual material based on current research, especially case studies, that can be matched up with the content. And finally, individual scholars, academics and practitioners who develop their own pieces in their work and put them online under an open content license provide an endless variety of condiments that can be added to the meal.

Without a doubt things could be done in many different and better ways, but at least this worked for me and, as far as my own practice is concerned, there’s no turning back.

For a fistful of Doing Something Good dollars

I was browsing the Help Wanted pages of Twitter for part time work in preparation for the impending collapse of higher education and was thrilled to find a great opportunity. Unfortunately it didn’t promise pay in any currency other than Doing Something Good dollars, but it had the potential to keep me busy so I could forestall playing my guitar in front of the local supermarket with an upturned hat on the sidewalk. Which was good enough for me.

The task at hand is participation in a most inspiring project started by Dr. Valerie Irvine at the University of Victoria. The purpose of the project is to interview and gather the stories of long-time (in Internet years) scholars and practitioners in open education, with “open” being defined more by what it has meant over a stretch of several decades than solely by the definitions (both legitimate and mutant) that have emerged more recently. We’re talking the PM era (oh, sorry, pre-MOOC) and of course before Silicon Valley recently invented Ed Tech; e.g.,

“Education is one of the last industries to be touched by Internet technology, and we’re seeing a lot of catch-up going on,” said Betsy Corcoran, the chief executive of EdSurge, an industry news service and research company (NYT Jan 15, 2015).

We’re talking about veteran educators who were committed to getting education out of the classroom and beyond, mainly with the assistance of educational technology as it has developed over a much longer period than ed-tech investors seem to recognize. Our goal is to track down these educators, interview them on camera, curate the videos and share their thoughts, experiences and wisdom with everyone.

So: Fair warning. You know who you are. Wherever you are, we’ll be knocking politely at your door and asking for an interview. Or…look us up and talk to us. It’ll be fun, I promise, and you too will be rewarded with a fistful of Doing Something Good dollars!

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