open & distance learning

reflections and ideas on open and distance learning

Tag: Creative Commons

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.

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 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.

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Overview of the OERu learning environment for AST1000

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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