open & distance learning

reflections and ideas on open and distance learning

Category: open textbooks

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.

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.

OER and guitar – they rhyme, sort of

About 10 years ago I put out the word among a few musician friends that I was looking for a decent quality but relatively inexpensive 12-string electric guitar. It’s something I seldom use but from time to time there’s just that particular sound that you want, and then of course you have to have it. The truth about 12-string electric guitars that most of them are horrible to play and many don’t stay in tune very long no matter how hard you try. It’s not easy to find the right one. Within a few weeks, by word of mouth, I was introduced to a local guitar tech who had just what I wanted in his rack of guitars, and at a price I could live with. After the deal was done, he asked me if I’d be willing contact him first if I ever planned to sell it. With a wink he was asking me for for first dibs, mainly because his instruments were more than commodities; they were individual things he cared about. The understanding was informal, non-binding; he just liked know to that the large numbers of guitars he bought and sold over the years were safe, pampered and well fed wherever they might have been adopted, and that they would go to another good home when it was time to pass them along. I ran into him not too long ago and let him know I still owned and appreciated the guitar. He immediately knew which instrument I was talking about and acknowledged my update with an approving grin. I’ve heard similar stories to this from conscientious people who sell or re-home pets such as dogs – they don’t just forget the animals after the transaction is complete.

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It’s not that a story needs a point, and in fact I like this one just the way it is. But also this story came to mind over the past few weeks when my colleague Naomi Cloutier and I were conducting a small research project in preparation for an OpenEd 2015 presentation in Vancouver.

As part of our data collection we conducted video-recorded interviews with a number of faculty and staff in our Curriculum Development department at TRU Open Learning, all of whom are involved in some way with developing, editing, producing and/or implementing BCcampus open textbooks in online courses in our development shop. The interviewees included three instructional designers, two editors, a video producer and a production technician.

We wanted to learn about their experiences working with a number of open textbooks that have been either incorporated into our online courses alone or in combination with the OERu, or edited and produced in our shop. They all expressed their appreciation for the flexibility of working with openly licensed content and told us that they found it meaningful to be part of a project to better serve students and faculty. But one of their main concerns was how these textbooks would sustain over the longer term. After all the work done to develop and use them, what would keep them alive, updated and flourishing?

Now back to the guitar story: in the same way that this loosely formed group of musicians keeps an eye out for the instruments they circulate, I wonder if we would want to see a similar ethic of care for open textbooks. There are many methods and models for releasing open textbooks into the open ecosystem, and with that I think there needs to be at least one person, or better yet a small community of persons or organizations who actually care about one or more specific open textbooks that they’ve been involved with. They keep a benevolent eye on where the textbooks are going, where they’re being used, and when they’re in need of a little TLC, as well as encourage others to take them over and run with them in the same way. Over time creating and maintaining open textbooks and more broadly OER are hopefully becoming part of a natural process of meeting one’s own needs while also doing the things necessary to make it available to others.There is a certain amount of intentionality needed to put an OER, or open textbook, out into the big wide world and have it flourish. To adapt a Nigerian proverb, it takes a village to raise an open textbook.

That village, in the case of open textbooks, may well be communities of developers, faculty, institutions, organizations and others who care about the open textbooks they develop or adapt. Beyond any technical, staffing funding and other solutions and models, they will be very important to the future of open textbooks.

 

 

 

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