OLNet Fellowship – Week 2 Reflections

So I’m a little behind on this (since I’m now in Week 3) but still wanted to jot a few notes down, as I had some fantastic discussions last week.

Meeting with JORUM – Using DSpace as a Learning Content Repository

One of the highlights last week was a trip to Manchester to meet with Gareth Waller and Laura Shaw of the JORUM project. Back when we started our own repository work in BC I liaised with folks from JORUM, setting up a few conference calls to share details on how we were tackling our similar problems, but we’d fallen out of touch, and facilitated through meeting Jackie Carter last January at ELI, this was a chance to renew the connections.

One reason I wanted to meet was that JORUM’s model is very similar to our own, so I wanted to see if my ideas on how to track OERs after they’ve been downloaded from a repository resonated with them, and whether they were already employing some other technique to do so. Turns out they were of interest and to date these are (as I had suspected) numbers they were not currently collecting but eager to have, so that was a useful vote of confidence.

But the other major reason I had for my visit was to learn more about the work they had done on JORUM Open to turn DSpace into a platform for sharing learning resources. It had been almost 4 years since I last concluded that while you could try to jimmy a LOR into DSpace, it wasn’t an ideal fit – DSpace “out of the box” really caters to the deposit and archiving of documents but isn’t optimized to deal with the specialized (read “arcane”) formats of learning content.

Which is why I wanted to see how the JORUM folks were doing it; sure enough, Gareth Waller has coded many new features into the product that make it a much better fit to handle “learning” content. While I’m not yet certain it provides a simple exit strategy out of our existing commercial platform, the work Gareth has done represents a big step towards that, and I would highly recommend any other institutions already involved with using DSpace specifically for learning content to contact him.

Planning for Succession – How to enable what comes after the LMS

The rest of the week was spent with my nose to the grindstone trying to code up the hooks to incorporate piwik tracking codes into resources uploaded to SOL*R. As a treat that weekend, I travelled to Cardiff, Wales, my old stomping grounds from my Graduate degree days, to spend 3 nights with Martin Weller and his family.

We spent most of the weekend biking around the city and a good deal of time in Llandaff Fields, near Martin’s home. On Sunday afternoon we did a large circuit of the park while Martin’s daughter was at riding lessons, and it was one of those settings and strolls that beg for epic conversation. And this did not disappoint. Two ideas in particular resonated with me.

The first was the notion of “succession” of technology, to borrow a metaphor from ecology. Martin has written on this a number of times before, both in articles and in his book on VLEs. But we were discussing it in the context of the recent acquisition of Wimba and Elluminate by Blackboard (as well as in light of my recent reading of Lanier’s “You are not a gadget” in which he discusses the idea of “technological lock-in” and “sedimentation”), so put a slightly new spin on it, I think.

Now metaphors can both enable and obscure, but to follow this one for a bit, one can look at the current institutional ed tech landscape as a maturing landscape where variety is diminishing and certain species becoming dominant. But far from reaching an ultimate stable climax, there are disruptors, the latest and possibly largest being the financial crisis. These disturbances open the opportunity for new species to flourish. But… unless we’re suggesting the disturbances are so large as to restart the entire succession process (which some indeed do suggest) we’re likely instead to see adaptations to this specific force, often in the form of seeking cheaper options.

So far, pretty conventional story – mature open source scoop some existing customers when the pricepoint gets too high. Except this is where I am seeing a real opportunity for the next generation approach to creep in (I’m pretty much going to abandon the metaphor here, as I’m no ecologist, that’s for sure.) Some of us have been enthused by the prospect of Loosely Coupled Gradebooks as a technology that can unseat the dominant, monolithic LMS. But to date, there have been only a few convincing examples, and it seems like a bit of a “can’t get there from here” problem (made worse by Blackboard’s predatory acquisition strategy.) Which is where the bridging strategy comes in – we need to take Moodle (and I guess Sakai though I am lot less keen on that prospect) and focus on isolating and improving its gradebook function; as it is, Moodle already represents a very viable alternative (as the increasing defections to it show), but as it is, it doesn’t represent a Next Step, nor will adopting it “as-is” move online learning in formal contexts further. But adopting it in combination with developing its gradebook functionality to ultimately become the hub for a loosely coupled set of tools. Maybe this isn’t that revelatory, but it became clear to me that a path forward for schools looking to leave not just Blackboard, but LMS/VLEs in general, goes through Moodle as it is transformed into something else. At least that seems doable to me, and something I hope to discuss with folks in BC as a strategy.

A new Network Literacy – Sharing Well

Throughout our walk, the second recurring theme was how, for both scholars and students, bloggers and wiki creators, open source software developers and crowdsourcers of many ilk, there is a real talent to sharing in such a way that it catalyzes further action, be it comments, remixes or code contributions.

Howard Rheingold uses the term “Collaboration literacy” as one of the 5 new network literacies he proposes, and I guess, barring any other contender, that it’s not a bad term, but it does strike me that there is a real (and teachable) skill here, one that many of us have experienced; either in the “lazyweb” tweet that is so ill-conceived that it generates no responses at all, or often in envy marvelling at bloggers who manage to generate deep discussion on what seems like the barest of posts, yet one which clearly strikes the right note. “Shareability”? Ugh, right, maybe leave it alone, I mean do we really need another neologism? Still, it does seem worthy of note as a discrete skill that people can increasingly cultivate in our networked, mash-up world.

OLNet Fellowship – Week 1 Highlights

At the rate it seems to be going, my month here in Milton Keynes will be over in the blink of an eye, but my first week is coming to a close and I wanted to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned and experienced so far.

Community and Open Education

Two examples I came across my second day here really spoke to me about new ways of thinking about OER/Open Education in relationship to people and communities. The first is the iSpot project managed by Doug Clow, one of my colleagues here in the Institute of Educational Technology where the OLNet team from the OU is housed.

As Doug explained, the site allows people to post photos of they’ve taken of local species, and crowdsources their identification. The site has a sophisticated reputation system that awards participants and also identifies those with formal expertise in different fields and weighs their input accordingly. The OU have partnered with a number of BBC Television nature shows and radio programmes to popularize the site, so they are attracting an audience who then participate out of and existing passion and interest. The genius is To *then* weave OU courses into/around this community site and content, using it both as potential course content but also as a conduit for interested informal learners to find formal learning opportunities if they chose, and also interact and be supported in their informal learning community by discipline experts. When Doug described this to me my jaw dropped; it is so obvious yet really a brilliant turn. Too often in formal higher ed we have had the “build it and they will come” belief about our OER efforts, and when that hasn’t happened we’ve then shifted our focus to “building communities” around our content. But that is so wrongheaded. Communities exist already, and where they don’t, it’s not simply a matter of them forming around content, per se. By leading with a site that helped users scratch an itch they already had, however small, (“I keep spotting this bird in my back yard but I don’t know what it is”) and then building tools to support peer engagement and discussion, as well as personal identity and reputation, they’ve set the stage for community to form and share knowledge and only THEN weave formal offerings in and around this. It’s probably not perfect, but I think it offers strong suggestions as to how institutions can engage civil society in a way that leads to a permeable boundary between existing informal learning communities and formal learning institutions/scholars.

The second example was a bit different yet still inspiring. Another researcher on the OLNet project, Andreia Santos, gave a short talk on an initiative at the Brazilian university Unisul to experiment with ways to attract new learners through a mixture of Open Education, peer support and social networking. If I understood correctly (and I’m not sure I completely did, so I hope Andreia will see this and chime in with a correction or pointer to a longer write up), the university has begun offering access to a block of 10 courses, a mixture of open resources from the OU and themselves, within their own learning environment (so not just ‘content’ but a full VLE experience…). The part that tickled my fancy was that they do so during one of their “breaks” (in their case the Winter break that happens in June/July) and are in part marketing it to friends and families of existing students. This seems like a smart idea in that not only do they have stronger ties and so their message is much more convincing, but they themselves end up taking some of these courses to and because of their familiarity with the environment end up becoming a form of peer support. I understand that this year they have introduced a nominal fee but that students can take as many of the courses as they want and get a form of certificate at the end. Like I said, different than iSpot but still I think a strong example of interacting with community and existing ‘social networks.’

Repositories – some mothers do ‘ave ’em

Another part of my experience so far has been to listen to talks on a few different repository projects that shall remain nameless. The learning here wasn’t particularly new for me, but it did continue to confirm beliefs I’ve long held about the weak points of this approach: that they typically do not tap in or reinforce individual motivations for sharing; that their model of ripping content out of its original context for download goes against the grain of the web (more on this soon, as part of my Fellowship work on “OER Tracking”); and that they are a solution begged by the questions of VLEs/LMS silos, sharing modeled on “publishing” and that is ony half-heartedly committed to sharing. But… the one good thing I guess is that it made me feel slightly better about my own work, that I’m not the only one who’d hit these problems nor had to learn the hard way that content doesn’t build networks that share, people do.

On being at the OU

If I haven’t already made it clear, it is a HUGE honour for me to be a visiting academic with the OU through the OLNet Fellowship program. This institution has been (and still is) a global leader in the field of distance learning and open education, and there is a tangible passion here for the belief that education can radically improve people’s lives for the better. The opportunity to be physically here for a month is even more special to me because on a day to day basis I work from my home office, and while I am surrounded by a global network of peers who I talk with daily, the chance to be surrounded by so many smart people passionate about open learning, as well as have access to some fantastic services on this lovely campus is one I will never forget. I’d be remiss if I did not extend a special thanks to Karen Cropper and Janet Dyson for helping me find my way in the first few days and make me feel really at home, and a special thanks to “Liam and the librarians” for broadening my social horizons.

There’s lots more to tell, especially around my specific project of tracking OERs outside of the bounds of the repository (which I think we’ve now got a plausible model of how to do) but I’ll leave that for another post. For now I’ll leave it that it is good to be back in the land of great cheese and delicious warm beer with so many rich opportunities to learn ahead of me.