open & distance learning

reflections and ideas on open and distance learning

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My summer vacation (and a few lessons I learned)

My unusually lengthy summer vacation of four weeks straight was a pretty rare thing. I don’t remember taking this much of a stretch of time off in many, many years. I got to do some cool, fun and relaxing stuff, as well as some things that were backbreaking but in the end satisfying. In the spirit of learning and reflection, here are a few vacation anecdotes along with some things (among many) learned along the way. Here we go.

In the cool, fun and relaxing category, Jean and I visited and stayed with our daughter and son-in-law in Eugene, Oregon. They met in their mid-teens when we took our kids (back then) camping down the Oregon coast. He was a high school student working at a go-kart track in Florence, and somehow he and my daughter struck up a conversation when we went for rides. They just hit it off, and he seemed (miraculously, in our view at the time) to be able to cheer her out of her teenage funk. They kept in touch for several years through ICQ and MSN (remember?), lost touch, and then about 10 years later re-discovered each other on Facebook and married two years after. They are both fabulous, and we now have a place to stay when we cross the border to spend time on the untamed and funky northwest coast of the USA. We spent some time lake fishing – and while the fish decided to hide, we saw birds all day long, e.g. bald eagles, large flocks of pelicans, kingfishers, turkey vultures, great blue herons, osprey, cormorants, buffleheads, and many more. We also found a small swimming hole under a bridge that reminded me of my childhood in northern British Columbia. The water was icy cold but exhilarating. We jumped in like little kids, skipped stones and jumped off rocks into the deeper holes. I took a mental snapshot of that moment to retrieve on the coldest, snowiest, slushiest, sloppiest day of winter when I again get to slip and slide my way up and down the Coquihalla Highway (aka Highway through Hell) to Kamloops, commuting weekly between my work there and home in Vancouver.

  • Lesson 1: We have absolutely no idea as to what one little chance encounter will do to profoundly change the lives of individuals, families, friends and others, forever.
  • Lesson 2: Nature is a major reset button for the soul. Don’t forget to get out there, as often as possible. (Except in winter, on the Coquihalla. Forget that.)

On the somewhat backbreaking side, this was also a good time to do some badly needed yard work. This included cutting down a chestnut tree in our yard that I had planted about 15 years ago. This work also involved taking the leaves and branches away for chipping, and then digging out the stump. Reason: We liked the tree, but in keeping with the Law of Unintended Consequences, so did the squirrels. After they took up residence in our roof, we had to have them humanely trapped and relocated. Little critters, seriously.

We also cut up and pulled out a massive hedge that had gone insane and overgrown with wild blackberries. As I was pulling up hedge roots, I kept thinking about rhizomatic learning (really). The roots wandered throughout the yard, some deep, some shallow, and some reconnecting in new ways in weird unexpected intersections. There were new shoots popping up all over the place, seemingly randomly, including one right across the yard and through our deck. There were also enough blackberries to make some blackberry-lime jam.

  • Lesson 3: To really get rid of a problem you have to get to the roots of it (ooh that’s so bad, sorry).
  • Lesson 4: Digging out stumps is really hard work. If you don’t have to, don’t.
  • Lesson 5: If you don’t get rhizomatic learning, dig up a hedge. It will help.
  • Lesson 6: Make jam from berries you picked. Every time you spread it on toast or stir it into your yogurt, you think about the time you picked the berries to make it. A very cool connection.

We went to Victoria, BC to participate in a Dragon Boat festival. Well…Jean participated, I watched. This ferocious team of paddlers, who call themselves Gift of Life, is amazing, made up of organ transplant recipients (including heart, kidney, double lung!), a kidney donor (Jean), a mother who donated her son’s organs after a tragic fatal accident, and other supporters.

In competition with about 50-60 other teams including cancer survivors, visually impaired persons, paddlers with MS, and able-bodied groups, they came in with a Bronze in their category. And then…celebrating afterwards in a nearby brew pub, we were told by our server that our drinks were paid for. She pointed to a customer at the counter. When we thanked him and asked why, he told us with a breaking voice that he was waiting for a double lung transplant and had received badly needed hope and inspiration from the team, whose purpose was spelled out on their jerseys. We were stunned, and to this day it still resonates.

  • Lesson 7: In a world where we see so much horrible news, suffering and despair, there is also so much to be impressed, inspired and even overwhelmed by.
  • Lesson 8: We can choose to be on the good side. This includes our rag-tag networks of ed-techies, open educators and other such gifted educators and thought leaders who still have the desire to transform things and make them better for others.
  • Lesson 9: If it works for you, remember to sign an organ donor card. It can give life to others and by the time the card gets used, you really don’t need those parts anymore.

More on the fun side, I reorganized my recording studio and now am fully digital. At the same time I still have my old Tascam 16-track reel to reel tape recorder. I tried but just can’t let it go; there’s something about that tape rolling that makes me feel warm inside, sort of like a sip of bourbon trickling down your throat. I’m now looking for a MIDI interface that can lock it to my digital audio workstation so I can have the best of both worlds.

Lesson 10: There’s no need to assume we need to throw away things that are old, or to avoid things that are new. We just need to find ways to get them in sync.

OK enough for now…this is getting too long. Maybe more next time.

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!

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.

OER in the land down under

Some smart planning placed the 3rd meeting of OERu Anchor Partners right after the Australian National Symposium on OER this week. That meant a number of non-Australian participants could arrive a few days early and participate in both events. Held in Hobart, Tasmania, the two-day Symposium kept us busy with an engaging mixture of keynotes, larger workshops, institutional showcases, and small group discussions with reports, all centred around successes and challenges in a variety of Australian OER/OEP programs and projects. Impressive numbers of Australian universities were involved in the program, including:

  • Wollongong
  • Southern Queensland
  • La Trobe
  • Charles Sturt
  • Western Sydney
  • Swinburne University of Technology
  • Deakin
  • Tasmania (host university)

Without doing justice to the full program, here are a few quick items that jump to mind from the two-day blur that we were treated to:

Elder Aunty Brenda Hodge‘s warm welcome to participants.

UTAS’s development and Senate approval of a TELT White Paper along with a set of  Curriculum Principles, both with values-based OER focus, and the building of open practices into teaching performance expectations. From the Curriculum Principles document: “We contribute to a vibrant community of practice who share, adapt and reuse high quality resources to enhance and extend our curriculum offerings.” (Like the sound of that!)

The use of OER, flexible and distance programs of the University of the South Pacific in the face of difficult technological and other challenges as recounted by Theresa Koroivulaono.

Doctoral student Mais M. Fatayer’s description of a model used to create a faculty/student community of practice within the classroom that creates and shares OERs for others to use.

Collaborations and knowledge building/sharing about open badges among a committed body of volunteers and agencies such as Mozilla, Creative Commons, MIT Media Lab, Jamlab, Open Knowledge Foundation, and NYU Steinhardt Shool work at P2PU as recounted by Delia Browne.

Christine Ewan’s consultation project with the Higher Education Standards Panel to advise the government on how quality practices may be affected by “disaggregation” in higher education, as with the introduction of credit for MOOCs, RPL and other such alternative methods of assessing learning.

Along with the advances in OER and OEP described in open sessions and small groups, the challenges faced in Australia will sound very familiar to anyone involved in this field. Challenges of understanding and promoting open licensing practices, funding, the need for new learning design approaches and models, finding and sharing OERs, the need to realign our institutions along more “open” lines are just a few examples. However, the sharing of experiences and ideas among participants at the symposium was highly encouraging and the signs are clear that we’ll all be hearing a lot more about OER/OEP in Australia in the months and years to come.

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.


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.

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.

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