open & distance learning

reflections and ideas on open and distance learning

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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).


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.


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.


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.

I can feel it kicking

It sounded like this. That’s the clacking of a typewriter operated by a London street poet I hired on a recent sunny afternoon in the Bankside district along the Thames. I was just feeling inspired do something creative in that moment, even if it meant outsourcing the work. After all, I had just visited the Tate Modern gallery with several wonderful colleagues, strolled by the Globe Theatre of Shakespearean fame, and attended the fabulous #OER17 conference in London. But also I was a little jet lagged, which made my poet’s appearance the perfect answer to my creative urges. All he needed from me was a title, and I gave it to him after about two seconds’ thought: “Being Open.” The title came naturally, emerging out of the endless discussions many of us engaged in during and after the conference.

After alternately gazing into the sky and clacking on the typewriter, he tore the sheet from the typewriter’s carriage, read it aloud, and then handed it to me. He seemed quite pleased with it. As for me, I was delighted.


Being Open

It captured the right things for me. It fluidly blended boundaries of openness and genesis. It hinted at the promise of careful transparency. It recognized the necessity of opening up to and hearing from others, and suggested new life, new things to come. It seemed perfect for the moment, especially given the boundary-stretching discussions about openness we experienced at #OER17.

I’m sure others will see more, less, or just other things in this poem. But I can feel it kicking.

Ed tech really matters: A reminder

A moment ago I followed a link in a Tweet by Stephen Harlow which he posted in response to a query regarding a learning repository:

The link points to an archived 2004 blog post by Alan Levine that includes a discussion between him and Bruce Landon. This caught my attention, not so much because the topic of the discussion is still very much relevant today, but more so because of Bruce Landon himself. This is Dr. Bruce Landon, a brilliant cognitive psychologist, researcher, college teacher and ed-tech aficionado who was also a close acquaintance of mine at the time of that post.

Back then both we worked in ed tech in neighboring institutions, he at Douglas College and I at the Justice Institute of BC. We collaborated on several ed tech projects, and also he was particularly devoted to increasing accessibility of educational web resources for the visually impaired. I’m sure some ETUG members of that time remember his presentations and challenges to all of us to do better in this area.

Shortly after this time I moved on to something else and, as can sometimes happen, we fell out of contact with one another, not by intent but rather by changing circumstances. The last time I talked to him was when he kindly provided me a reference for the doctoral program that I was just starting.

The link to this eleven-year-old blog post prompted me to look him up, and I learned from a local news item that some years ago Bruce suffered a serious stroke and has been undergoing a long period of rehabilitation. The article also linked to a YouTube video of a recent electronic speech by Bruce to students at Douglas College, which I struggled to view through blurred eyes:

As surprised and saddened as I was to stumble across this news via this strangely circuitous route, it was also humbling and inspiring to see how Bruce is now himself using the very types of technologies he advocated for in his ed tech work. It just reminds me that in spite of the many frustrations we run into, ed tech work really does matter – especially with a reminder that we need to remember accessibility in our work. Thanks Bruce for your inspiration, and I’ll be dropping by soon to reconnect!

Care, or empty chatter – what will it be?

It’s an hour before noon at work on Dec. 24th, and the few people left in the office today are slowly winding down before the office closes at lunchtime. In a cubicle down the hall several children brought in by their parents for the morning are giggling and having fun, while a little farther down the cutest puppy ever is yipping away in an editor’s office. Home-baked goods and chocolates are everywhere. Upstairs on the next floor a potluck lunch is starting and I’m about to head up for a final snack and some friendly chitchat with my colleagues in Open Learning.

Communities everywhere gather around the sharing of food

Communities everywhere gather around the sharing of food

I’ve always appreciated the sense of community in my workplace. Underlying the day-to-day routines I see a lot of collegial respect for learners wrapped around an overtly shared passion for making learning more accessible for everyone.   The atmosphere and ethos are something I never want to take for granted because they grow in communities based on respect, caring and trust. And trust is, seemingly paradoxically, a force that is both incredibly strong and binding, and incredibly fragile once it is broken. I remind myself that one can never understand the breadth of experiences that others have of the same place, and that is the scary thing. The break can happen anywhere, not just over there, but also over here, where we live. Right here. Today.

Against this setting I think about the deeply troubling events that have come to light in the media over the past week at the Dalhousie School of Dentistry, and sadly know that this is only one instance of something that is so much more widespread throughout our society. The sickening trauma to the women who are directly involved, and more widely among all who experience misogyny in countless ways in their day-to-day lives, seems unfathomable. And in this case, as in so many others, incalculable damage has already been done to many and will continue for the foreseeable future, with even more far-reaching effects to come. Communities of all kinds are left shattered.

All our programs, innovations, technologies, papers, presentations and everything else we do in ed tech and open education are empty chatter if we don’t understand that the core of our projects is respect, caring for one another, and building communities. We need to tell ourselves this, speak up boldly when we need to, stay alert, and continue to explore how we all can do our part to both nurture and model that core ethic among our ourselves and our students.

Learning about learning design with learning designs

It was quite an experience to be in a classroom in Otago Polytechnic with the power trio of Sue Bennett, Shirley Agostinho and Lori Lockyer along with a cluster of very obviously experienced curriculum developers and learning designers at #Ascillite2014 in Dunedin, NZ. The workshop, “Learning design techniques and tools,” was a hands-on session in which participants mined a selection of provided sharable learning designs to address learning design challenges of our own making by means of design sketches using a set of basic symbols and notations. After preliminaries, participants paired up for 20 minute design sprints and reported back an array of extremely interesting and creative design representations that addressed some fairly complex design problems.

The history of learning designs as patterns that can be represented in some way and then shared with others either to copy or to use generatively as inspiration for new designs goes back to the early 2000s, when learning object enthusiasts started running into brick walls. I.e., these objects are pretty and all, but how do we string them together into meaningful sequences? And if learning objects are to be more than just simple media resources, how is their implicit learning design to be described using metadata? Many sharable learning design initiatives came and went over that period and it would take more than a quick blog post to recount those stories here. I think many of the initiatives became entangled in debates about learning design models and metadata, and in concurrent efforts to tie learning design representations to complex design tools including those that would produce digital learning pathways with runnable code, that simply weren’t sufficiently usable and nuanced to allow for the types of adaptations that are made when learning designers work generatively off others’ documented designs. A brief overview of learning design issues can be found in the Larnaca Declaration, which was promulgated in 2012. (While “Declaration” seems a little somber for a discussion on learning designs, I do love Larnaca and I can’t think of a better place to proclaim one.) One item in particular of note in the Declaration is the concept that learning designs themselves can (and do) become OERs for others to use repurpose.

Back to the workshop: I appreciated the simplicity of the sharable learning design concept as implemented in the session: low-tech tools used to spark collaboration and quick design sketches by experienced designers and developers. The process brings to the foreground a lot of interesting questions such as, Ok here’s an artifact created by learners – what now? Is it just a make-work project for points? Where does it go? Where and how could others use it? What activities do we build around it? What support is needed  and where would it come from? How is it connected with the bigger purpose of this learning event? Where are the gaps in this design?

Design sketch

Beyond the immediate design setting, I can also see how such design representations can be used to mentor novice instructional designers and faculty in the creative practice of learning design, expose how the various pieces need to interconnect, and provide a mechanism to consider and discuss which technologies may be most helpful in the implementation of the designs. With the design challenges facing educators engaged in emerging approaches and technologies, more than anything we need creative learning design methods and tools based on sharing and collaboration. And ideally, ones that are simple, intuitive, inspirational, lightweight, sharable and open.

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.

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.

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.

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)

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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