open & distance learning

reflections and ideas on open and distance learning

Tag: OERu

Ten years after: Running the rivers again

A little over ten years ago the BCcampus Educational Technologies Group (ETUG) held their spring workshop at Thompson Rivers University. Titled Running the Rivers: Challenging Currents in Teaching, Learning & Technology, the program included such topics as The Wiki in Post-Secondary Education, In the Moodle, and, presented by no less a luminary than Scott Leslie, Finding Free and Open Learning Resources.

Apart from its use as a metaphor, the “rivers” reference in the program title also acknowledged the flowing-together of the North and South Thompson Rivers in Tk’əmlúps, the local indigenous Secwepemctsín name for Kamloops, meaning “where the rivers meet” (as shown in this blog’s masthead photo).

Another convergence took place today at the same location, with a strategic framework planning session for open textbooks and related initiatives held on our campus. Ably led by Dr. Rajiv Jhanghiani from BCcampus and Kwantlen Polytechnic University, the session’s purpose was to combine multiple open educational resource efforts into one combined framework.

The threads being woven together:

  • The TRU student union (TRUSU) open textbook initiative, which has been under way for well over a year now.
  • The BCcampus Zed Cred program, from which TRU, along with two other institutions (Justice Institute of BC; KPU), has received grants to develop a zero-cost textbook one-year academic certificate.
  • Internal funding received by Open Learning from TRU to develop open textbooks.
  • The impending rollout of the first year of OERu studies at TRU.
  • Initiatives in the library to promote and curate OER.
  • The ongoing mandate of the Open Learning Division to provide open education to our students.

This was a big day for us, as we felt excitement and awareness build about our collective strengths combined to promote and expand the reach and benefits of openness in education. As the plan develops, it’ll be shared here and elsewhere for suggestions, and for others to use and adapt as they wish.

Well, I did it…

Well, I did it. Pulled the pin, as they say. After more than seven years at Thompson Rivers University’s Open Learning Division I’ve put in my letter. I’ll be done sometime in January 2018, though I’ll be off campus by November. I hate to call it retirement because that seems to imply golfing (which I don’t do), watching TV and/or doing nothing at all (both of which I also don’t do). Seeing what “retirement” means to people like Tony Bates makes me nervous…I could never live up to that superhuman level of energy. So I use that term with some qualifications. I am turning 62 this year and feel like it’s time to try some new things, but no longer full-time. In my career I’ve worked in the once-reputable book publishing industry (Prentice Hall), for the original BC Open Learning Institute, UBC, the Justice Institute of BC, the Certified Management Accountants of BC (now CPA), and, finally, circled back to Open Learning, which had since been merged with TRU after several iterations in between. I’m not sure how I got here, given that in my early teens I wanted to build race cars and motorcycles. Life can be weird.

Some good things have already come my way, including teaching for Royal Roads University, which I’m really excited to start in a few weeks. I get to work online with a group of graduate students learning about the use of technology in higher education. I will continue some of the open education research I’m currently involved in, and of course I want to spend more time on music and recording, something I feel I’ve neglected for far too long.

I’ve been interim Associate Vice-President at TRU for close to two years now. I started on at TRU as Director of Instructional Design which then expanded to all of Curriculum Development. Over this time some key moments have been getting my blasted PhD finished, increasing my network of amazing colleagues around the world, participating in the OERu project, co-editing an open access journal, and working side-by-side with the one-and-only Brian Lamb, who continues to be a wonderful colleague, friend and inspiration. I’ve gained many new colleagues and friends at TRU and I’ve really appreciated working with the instructional design team in Open Learning including department Chairs Melissa Jakubec and Michelle Harrison. I’m hoping to maintain an affiliation with TRU to enable more project work and research.

My former job has just been posted. It’s a great job and we worked to expand the scope and combine it with program delivery, which means all online teaching in Open Learning. The position is titled “Director of Curriculum Development and Delivery,” and it’s a good one. Please check it out or pass the tip on to a qualified individual you know. I want to leave this thing in good hands and someone out there, maybe YOU, is just right for it!

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.

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.

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!

Unwrapping the OER package in 2012

#oeru In one of the highlights of 2011 for me, I had the privilege of attending a two-day meeting at Otego Polytechnic in Dunedin, New Zealand to participate in formalizing plans for implementation of the Open Education Resource University (OERu). The meeting was attended by representatives of 13 tertiary educational institutions from around the world and 2 non-teaching institutions, together known as Anchor Partners. The Canadian partners attending were Athabasca University and Thompson Rivers University (where I work).

In addition, there were 148 registered virtual participants from 41 countries participating through live video feeds and microblogs, as well as others who were unregistered. Planned by the OERu Foundation in New Zealand and BC Campus in Canada, and sponsored by the Commonwealth of Learning and UNESCO, Pacific States, the goal of the meeting was to outline the first steps in the implementation of an OERu concept that had been incubating in various forms over the past few years. An earlier meeting in February 2011 had established the foundational concepts and “logic model” for the OERu, with preceding public discussions and consultations with the higher education community worldwide including open seminars conducted on BC Campus’s SCOPE site (SCOPE, 2011). The underlying reason for the establishment of the OERu was the expanding world of open educational resources (OER). The Open Education Resource University (OERu) foundation, a not-for-profit entity, was established to assemble a consortium of universities that could support and accredit learning undertaken through OER courses. That is, they determined to make low-cost education and credentials available to learners worldwide by contributing their own OER courses as well as repurposing other OER. This “parallel learning universe” (from Jim Taylor, 2007) was established on a logic model based on collaboration among partner universities; i.e., the provision of education institution services and support infrastructures.

The establishment of the OERu signifies a shift in the focus of OER from only content to include processes, both in the repurposing of OER as well as in the support mechanisms undergirding the learners’ engagement with the OER. While many OER are in essence publishing initiatives (although this is beginning to change, e.g. MIT), the OERu is focused on the multiple processes associated with online learning at the university level. The processes include curriculum planning, course design and development, pedagogy, student support, assessment and credentialing. Supporting these processes are community service by institutions and volunteers, new business models for OER education, technology infrastructure and student administration.

The OERu is not in itself a university. Rather, the intent is to build collaboratively, among the Anchor Partner institutions and others, a system of access to free open educational resources in the form of courses and programs offered through the university network, alongside possible user-pay optional services provided by the institutions including tutoring, accreditation and assessment of learning, and credible credentials. The OERu Foundation is structured not to provide courses or develop and administer educational policies. Instead, out of consideration for institutional autonomy, the OERu facilitates the collaboration of Anchor Partners and other participants in contributing their own open education resources as well as other available OERs, along with the application of their own internal educational policies in their interactions with the partnership and participating students who engage with their own universities. Thus it acquired the mantra of a “parallel learning universe” in that it was intended not to replace any of the functions of the partners, but rather to form a collaboration that would work alongside them and in which they can each engage to the extent and in the manner that works best for the individual institutions (Wikieducator, 2011). The seminal parallel learning universe concept was outlined in a paper by Jim Taylor (2007), citing recent studies that indicated a massive growth in the need for higher education worldwide, to the extent that two new universities a week would be needed just to satisfy the need in India alone. The increasing availability of free courseware online worldwide was seen as a vital key to improved access to higher education worldwide.

What does the new year hold for OERu? How will it play out? The model is still emergent and it could go many different ways. I for one am keen to see how this plays out and will provide updates here.

Sweet convergence

There is a sweet scent of convergence in the wind, although the connections haven’t really been stitched together yet—at least not as far as I can see. But there is an underlying pattern of currents that, sooner or later, need to merge into something new and improved for making more learning opportunities available to more people in more ways—which means breaking down those many barriers and silos we all seem to love to create, nourish and defend in higher education. These thoughts emerged during discussions at the CONVERGE-EFQUEL 2011 conference in Lisbon, Portugal.

First, open content is boundless in its availability. It’s wonderful and it’s a mess. But we can’t not do anything about that as educators. More on that later. Next, alternative forms of credit and accreditation that can be given to other forms of learning than that gained in the standard university environment: Discussions that took place on outcomes-based learning made it clear that outcomes approaches are vital to moving beyond content- and credit-driven systems of recognition of learning. Third, user-generated content is receiving growing attention—i.e. content that is developed by students in a wide variety of courses and other learning contexts in such socially-shared areas as blogs and micro blogs, journals, podcasts, social bookmarks, wikis, shared videos and photographs, and many other formats—content of sufficient value that it could form content to be used by other learners. The pool is growing and increasingly we see learning communities consisting of instructor-developer-learner partnerships. Fourth is movements in quality that is defined by fitness for purpose and appropriatness for context; i.e. quality not as an “objective characteristic of a learning resource or a service, but … constituted as a specific characteristic of a context which in turn is made up through the realities of the personal, organizational, social and structural interactions of the stakeholders involved” (Thomas Kretschmer at the CONCEDE – EFQUEL2011 conference in Lisbon). There’s more–we have concepts of learning interactions that proceed on the following hierarchy: data-information-knowledge-wisdom-transformation (Steve Wheeler at the same conference), reminding us that content (data and information) is only the beginning. Up to data and information, scouring the Web is very much up to the task for learner. Building up towards knowledge begins to occur when there are reliable guides available or open courses with inbuilt pedagogical interactions. But when it comes to wisdom and transformation – the praxis of both knowing and doing – that is where higher education can continue to excel, if the convergence is allowed to continue and learning extends beyond the classroom and reaches into the world around us.
That brings us back to OER, the discussion and practice around Open Educational Resources and how they can be developed, discovered, used and revised. There is nothing new in the concept — but with the development of the Open Education Resources university (OERu), there is now a core of committed institutions (including, happily, mine) seeking to contribute a core of OER-based courses toward a coherent combination culminating at the degree level. This is wonderful news, especially for learners in countries that desperately need more higher education but can’t afford it. But to make it fly, we need to find the will and way to continue the convergence.

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