open & distance learning

reflections and ideas on open and distance learning

Tag: open access

Forty years of openness: TRU Open Learning

Thompson Rivers University’s Open Learning Division, known informally as Open Learning (OL), is celebrating its 40th anniversary. OL has been around in different forms since 1978, when it was established as the Open Learning Institute  (OLI) in the province of British Columbia, Canada. OLI was inspired in large part by the model established roughly a decade earlier at the UK Open University, including the use of distance education print packages, educational broadcast television and course development teams and technologists to make education more widely available to those who were unable, for a variety of reasons, to attend a university campus.

“Telephone teaching.” Early display at the PNE promoting the Open Learning Institute.  Provincial Educational Media Centre, BC Archives.

OLI was established by BC’s  Social Credit government — known for its unique flavor of western Canadian right wing populism of that era — in part to address geographical isolation and other circumstances that prevented attendance at regular post-secondary institutions across the province. The advanced education minister at the time, Dr. Patrick McGeer, promoted the idea that broadcast media and other technologies could have an important role to play in higher education. Along with being an accomplished physician, neuroscientist and UBC university professor, as well as a controversial politician, he had an experimental mindset and advocated for an open sky policy promoting better access to satellite television signals, and built his own personal satellite dish out of plywood and wire mesh to encourage British Columbians to do the same in an act described in the provincial legislative assembly debate record as “a little civil disobedience.”

April 11, 1980. B.C.’s Minister of Universities, Science and Communication Pat McGeer holds part of the pressure-reducing regulator that is part of a compressed natural gas conversion kit – Vancouver Sun

While his push for an open sky satellite signal policy was perhaps related mostly to federal-provincial relations and an anti-regulatory mindset, his interests seemed to align well with the need for better access to higher education across BC. The complex and turbulent educational, social and political context of these early years is well told in a journal article by long-time open and distance education researcher Dr. Louise Moran.

My earliest work in open and distance learning was at the original OLI building, soon after it opened in a converted warehouse in Richmond, BC, where we designed and developed a variety of distance education course packages in course teams, burrowed among cubicles on the second floor of this industrial site, with airplanes roaring overhead in their approach to Vancouver International Airport. It was one of those areas where you could get your coffee and morning donut from a coffee truck that blew a loud horn as it rolled into the parking lot.

At the time we worked on Wang mainframe system terminals, plunking away on heavy monitors with flickering green screens.

Page from an Open Learning page layout guide

Our course teams consisted of instructional designers, content experts, editors, proofreaders, graphic artists, typographers, media specialists and technicians in the print shop. While our courses were largely print based – we paid a lot of attention to page layout and design – we also used video and audio cassettes, experimented with radio, and had access to late night television broadcasts.

Of course this was long before the introduction of the Internet;  courses went out through the postal service in pizza boxes, containing any or all of a bundle of bound booklets, manuals, textbooks, video or audio cassettes, and other such resources required to complete a course. Personal computers were even sent to students who were studying computer programming.

Since those early days, Open Learning has been through many changes, ups and downs, including a stint as the BC Open Learning Agency, which operated the BC Open University. These developments culminated in its merger with the University College of the Cariboo as part of the formation of today’s Thompson Rivers University. And that is where I returned around eight years ago to spend the latter part of my career in higher education and distance/open education.

Today Open Learning has 13,000 students online, and implements an impressive variety of open educational practices such as the use of OER including open textbooks, open access courses and programs, experimenting with open tools and pedagogies, asking for minimal prerequisites and residency requirements and supporting a highly regarded prior learning assessment and recognition policy.

This story could go on a lot longer, but I’ll just leapfrog to the present and conclude by congratulating Open Learning and its amazing faculty and staff for their huge contributions to learners and open educators in BC, across Canada, and around the world. I’m glad to have been part of it, both early on and most recently. May the next forty years for Open Learning be even better.

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.

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