open & distance learning

reflections and ideas on open and distance learning

Tag: distance education

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.

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!