I was really encouraged to hear from our CETIS13 keynote speaker Patrick McAndrew that next week’s OER13 conference in Nottingham is shaping up to be the biggest yet. In our Open Practice and OER Sustainability session Patrick mentioned that the organising committee had expected numbers to be down from last year as the 2012 conference had been run in conjunction with OCWC and attracted a considerable number of international delegates and UKOER funding has come to an end. In actually fact numbers have risen significantly. I can’t remember the exact figure Patrick quoted but I’m sure he said that over 200 delegates were expected to attend this year. This is good news as it does rather suggest that the UKOER programmes have had some success in developing and embedding open educational practice. It’s also good new for us because CETIS are presenting three (count ‘em!) presentations at this year’s conference :}

The Learning Registry: social networking for open educational resources?
Authors: Lorna M. Campbell, Phil Barker, CETIS; Sarah Currier, Nick Syrotiuk, Mimas,
Presenters: Lorna M. Campbell, Sarah Currier
Tuesday 26 March, 14:00-14:30, Room: B52
Full abstract here.

This presentation will reflect on CETIS’ involvement with the Learning Registry, JISC’s Learning Registry Node Experiment at Mimas (The JLeRN Experiment), and their potential application to OER initiatives. Initially funded by the US Departments of Education and Defense, the Learning Registry (LR) is an open source network for storing and distributing metadata and curriculum, activity and social usage data about learning resources across diverse educational systems. The JLeRN Experiment was commissioned by JISC to explore the affordances of the Learning Registry for the UK F/HE community within the context of the HEFCE funded UKOER programmes.

An overview of approaches to the description and discovery of Open Educational Resources
Authors: Phil Barker, Lorna M. Campbell and Martin Hawksey, CETIS
Presenter: Phil Barker
Tuesday 26 March, 14:30-15:00, Room: B52
Full abstract here.

This presentation will report and reflect on the innovative technical approaches adopted by UKOER projects to resource description, search engine optimisation and resource discovery. The HEFCE UKOER programmes ran for three years from 2009 – 2012 and funded a large number and variety of projects focused on releasing OERs and embedding open practice. The CETIS Innovation Support Centre was tasked by JISC with providing strategic advice, technical support and direction throughout the programme. One constant across the diverse UKOER projects was their desire to ensure the resources they released could be discovered by people who might benefit from them -i f no one can find an OER no one will use it. This presentation will focus on three specific approaches with potential to achieve this aim: search engine optimisation, embedding metadata in the form of schema.org microdata, and sharing “paradata” information about how resources are used.

Writing in Book Sprints
Authors: Phil Barker, Lorna M Campbell, Martin Hawksey, CETIS; Amber Thomas, University of Warwick.
Presenter: Phil Barker
Wednesday 27 March, 11:00-11:15, Room: A25
Full abstract here.

This lightning talk will outline a novel approach taken by JISC and CETIS to synthesise and disseminate the technical outputs and findings of three years of HEFCE funded UK OER Programmes. Rather than employing a consultant to produce a final synthesis report, the authors decided to undertake the task themselves by participating in a three-day book sprint facilitated by Adam Hyde of booksprints.net. Over the course of the three days the authors wrote and edited a complete draft of a 21,000 word book titled “Technology for Open Educational Resources: Into the Wild – Reflections of three years of the UK OER programmes”. While the authors all had considerable experience of the technical issues and challenges surfaced by the UK OER programmes, and had blogged extensively about these topics, it was a challenge to write a large coherent volume of text in such a short period. By employing the book sprint methodology and the Booktype open source book authoring platform the editorial team were able to rise to this challenge.

The great UKOER tag debate

After three years of innovation focused on the sustainable release of open educational resources, the JISC HEA UK OER Programme is drawing to a close and yesterday Martin and I went along to the final programme meeting in London. Phil wasn’t able to attend the meeting and instead posted the following e-mail to the oer-discuss mailing list:

Hello all, I can’t be in London today, so I’m kind of joining the end of programme discussion from afar. The last three years have been great. At one of the early planning meetings someone (Andy Powell, I think) said that one measure of whether the programme was successful could be the widespread recognition of UKOER / OER as an idea within UK F&HE and the existence of a community around it. I’m pretty sure that has happened, not just because of UKOER but we were there and helped. So well done all of us :)

But what now? The programme has always aimed at sustainable release of resources, change of culture and practice, not just a short burst of activity leading to a one-off dumping of resources. What will happen over the next few years by way of sustained release and which practices are sustainable? Also, of course, from a CETIS point of view, what technologies can help?

Happy diwali, keep the OER light shining.

Phil’s mail prompted Nick Sheppard to ask the apparently innocent question:

Possibly a silly question…but I should stop tagging new resources ukoer?!

This seemingly innocuous enquiry prompted the kind of mailing list explosion normally only seen on Friday afternoon, and it wasn’t long before the discussion had it’s own twitter tag: #oergate. I haven’t counted the number of replies but if the thread has reached double figures it wouldn’t surprise me. If you’re feeling brave, you can read the whole thread here.

Some colleagues were all in favour of continuing to use the ukoer tag, arguing that it now represents an active community which is powerful evidence to the sustainability of the funded programmes’ legacy. Others argued that continued use of the tag would muddy the waters for collection managers and make it difficult to identify resources produced through the funded phase of the programme.

Amber has now managed to capture the discussion in an excellent blog post UKOER: What’s in a tag?*. Although there is no conclusive consensus as to how to answer Nick’s original question, one thing that this discussion has clearly demonstrated is that there does appear to be a lively and active community that has grown up around the funded programmes and the ukoer tag, and that definitely has to be a good thing!

*Amber’s blog post was written with input from Sarah Currier (Jorum), David Kernohan (JISC), Martin Hawksey (CETIS), Lorna Campbell (CETIS), Jackie Carter (Jorum).

ETA It now appears that the #oergate debate borked JISCmail! It seems that the list exceeded posting limits or some such, and no further comments were posted to the list after 15.10 on Wednesday afternoon. I’m delighted to say that I got the last word in ;)

The Learning Registry at #cetis12

Usually after our annual CETIS conference we each write a blog post that attempts to summarise each session and distil three hours of wide ranging discussion into a succinct synthesis and analysis. This year however Phil and I have been extremely fortunate as Sarah Currier of the JLeRN Experiment has done the job for us! Over at the JLERN Experiment blog Sarah has written a detailed and thought provoking summary of the Learning Registry: Capturing Conversations About Learning Resources session. Rather than attempting to replicate Sarah’s excellent write up we’re just going to point you over there, so here it is: The Learning Registry and JLeRN at the CETIS Conference: Report and Reflections. Job done!

Well, not quite. Phil and I do have one or two thoughts and reflections on the session. There still seems to be growing interest and enthusiasm in the UK ed tech community (if such a thing exists) for both the Learning Registry development in the US and the JLeRN Experiment at Mimas. However in some instances the interest and expectations are a little way head of the actual projects themselves. So it perhaps bears repeating at this stage that the Learning Registry is still very much under development. As a result the technical documentation may be a little raw, and although tools are starting to be developed, it may not be immediately obvious where to find them or figure out how they fit together. Having said that, there is a small but growing pool of keen developers working and experimenting with the Learning Registry so expertise growing.

That cautionary note aside one of the really interesting things about the Learning Registry is that people are already coming up with a wide range of potential use cases. As Sarah’s conference summary shows we had Terry McAndrew of TechDis suggesting that Learning Registry nodes could be used for capturing accessibility data about resources, Scott Wilson of CETIS and the University of Bolton thought the LR would be useful for sharing user ratings between distributed widget stores, a group from the Open University of Catalunya were interested in the possibility of using the LR as a decentralised way of sharing LTI information and Suzanne Hardy of the University of Newcastle was keen to see what might happen if Dynamic Learning Maps data was fed into an LR node.

Paradata is a topic that also appears to get people rather over excitable. Some people, me included, are enthusiastic about the potential ability to capture all kinds of activity data about how teachers and learners use and interact with resources. Others seem inclined to write paradata off as unnecessary coinage. “Why bother to develop yet another metadata standard?” is a question I’ve already heard a couple of times. Bearing this in mind it was very useful to have Learning Registry developer Walt Grata over from the US to remind us that although there is indeed a Learning Registry paradata specification, it is not mandated, and that users can express their data any way they want, as long as it’s a string and as long as it’s JSON.

We’re aware that the JLeRN Experiment were hoping to get a strong steer from the conference session as to where they should go next and I had hoped to round off this post with a few ideas that Phil and I had prioritised out of the many discussed. However Phil and I have completely failed to come to any kind of agreement on this so that will have to be another blog post for another day!

Finally we’d like to thank all those who contributed to a the Learning Registry Session at CETIS12 and in particular our speakers; Stephen Cook, Sarah Currier, Walt Grata, Bharti Gupta, Pat Lockley, Terry McAndrew, Nick Syrotiuk and Scott Wilson. Many thanks also to Dan Rehak for providing his slides and for allowing Phil to impersonate him!

The JLeRN Experiment

Towards the end of last year we reported that JISC had approved funding for the development of an experimental Learning Registry node here in the UK, the first node of its kind to be developed outwith the US. The JLeRN Experiment, which is being undertaken by Mimas at the University of Manchester, with input from CETIS and JISC, launched in early December. The JLeRN team is being led by Sarah Currier with the technical development being undertaken by Nick Syrotiuk and Bharti Gupta.

JLeRN / UK Contributors Learning Registry Hackday

The aim of this proof of concept project is to explore the practicalities of configuring and running a Learning Registry node and to explore the practicalities of getting data in and out of the network. The team are actively seeking any technical developers who would like to experiment with the node and, in order to facilitate this collaboration, CETIS and JLeRN are hosting a technical development day in Manchester on the 23rd of January. This event is aimed at developers contributing (or intending to contribute) data to the Learning Registry or hoping to build services based on the data it provides access to.

If you are interested in attending this event, you can register here. If you’re hoping to come along please also add a note to this Google Doc about what you’re doing, or hoping to do, and any of the issues you’ve encountered so far. If you can’t come along but are interested, please comment / leave a note as well.

JLeRN Blog

The JLeRN Experiment team have a blog (jlernexperiment.wordpress.com) up and running which they will use to disseminate regular progress reports, or as Sarah explained:

“to share all of our adventures, mis-steps, solutions, and creative ideas while working on the Learning Registry. It’s open notebook science in action!”

And the team have already been as good as their word. Nick has written a post on the Node of Mimas, a test node he installed on “a spare machine (he) had lying around” along with samples of the JSON documents the node outputs to illustrate what Learning Registry data looks like. And Bharti has posted a note on Some more exploring… which mentions the challenges of establishing a test node on a Windows Server 2008 machine and issues with getting Nginx setup correctly.

In parallel with the JLeRN experiment, CETIS will also continue to maintain a watching brief on the Learning Registry initiative in the US and will post updates of relevant developments on the CETIS blogs, so watch this space!

JISC Learning Registry Node Experiment

Over the last decade the volume and range of educational content available on the Internet has grown exponentially, boosted by the recent proliferation of open educational resources. While search engines such as Google have made it easier to discover all kinds of content, one critical factor is missing where educational resources are concerned – context. Whether you are a teacher, learner or content provider, when it comes to discovering and using educational resources, context is key. Search engines may help you to find educational resources but they will tell you little of how those resources have been used, by whom, in what context and with which outcome.

Formal educational metadata standards have gone some way to addressing this problem, but it has proved to be extremely difficult to capture the educational characteristics of resources and the nuances of educational context within the constraints of a formal metadata standard. Indeed it is notoriously difficult to formally describe what a learning resource is, never mind how and by whom it may be used. Despite the not inconsiderable effort that has gone into the development of formal metadata standards, data models, bindings, application profiles and crosswalks the ability to quickly and easily find educational resources that match a specific educational context, competency level or pedagogic style has remained something of a holy grail.

A new approach to this problem is currently being explored by the Learning Registry, an innovative project being led and funded by the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Defense. In a guest blog post for CETIS in March this year ADL Senior Technical Advisor Dan Rehak explained that the Learning Registry intends to offer an alternative approach to learning resource discovery, sharing and usage tracking by prioritising sharing of second-party usage data and analytics over first party metadata.

Dan set out the Learning Registry’s use case as follows:

“Let’s assume you found several animations on orbital mechanics. Can you tell which of these are right for your students (without having to preview each)? Is there any information about who else has used them and how effective they were? How can you provide your feedback about the resources you used, both to other teachers and to the organizations that published or curated them? Is there any way to aggregate this feedback to improve discoverability?

The Learning Registry is defining and building an infrastructure to help answer these questions. It provides a means for anyone to ‘publish’ information about learning resources. Beyond metadata and descriptions, this information includes usage data, feedback, rankings, likes, etc.; we call this ‘paradata’”

Paradata is essentially a stream of activity data about a learning resource that effectively provides a dynamic timeline of how that resource has been used. As more usage data is collaboratively gathered and published the paradata timeline grows and evolves, amplifying the available knowledge about what educational resources are effective in which learning contexts. The Learning Registry team refer to this approach as “social networking for metadata”.

The Learning Registry itself is not a search engine, a repository, or a registry in the conventional sense. Instead the project aims to produce a core transport network infrastructure and will rely on the community to develop their own discovery tools and services, such as search engines, community portals, recommender systems, on top of this infrastructure. Dan commented; “We assume some smart people will do some interesting (and unanticipated) things with the timeline data stream.”

The Learning Registry infrastructure is built on couchDb, a noSQL style “document oriented database” providing a RESTful JSON API. The initial Learning Registry development implementation, or node, is available as an Amazon Machine Instance, hosted on Amazon EC2. This enables anyone to set up their own node on the Amazon cloud quickly and easily. As CouchDb is a cross-platform application, nodes can be run on most systems (e.g. Windows, Mac, Linux). The Learning Registry plan to produce zero-config installers to simplify the process of adding nodes to the network with the aim that developers should be able to set up their own node within a day. These nodes will form a decentralised network with each participant configuring their own rules regarding access permissions and what data they gather and share.

Although the Learning Registry will encourage users to produce their own tools and services on top of the network of nodes, the development team have defined a small set of non-core APIs for integration with existing edge services, e.g. SWORD for repository publishing and OAI-PMH for harvesting from the network to local stores.

A key feature of the Learning Registry is that it is metadata agnostic; it will accept legacy metadata in any format and will not attempt to harmonise the metadata it consumes. The team have also developed a specification for sharing and exchanging paradata which is inspired by the Activity Steams format.

As a leading innovator in digital infrastructure for resource discovery JISC have followed the development of the Learning Registry with interest, and in keeping with our remit as a JISC Innovation Support Centre CETIS have fostered a strategic working relationship with the Learning Registry team. In addition to maintaining a watching brief on the project, participating in the technical development working group, and submitting position papers to the Learning Registry summit, CETIS have also liaised directly with the project’s developers and technical advisor and communicated relevant strategic and technical developments back to JISC and the community. The Learning Registry team have also engaged closely with the JISC, CETIS and the UK technical development community by participating in two DevCSI hackdays, contributing to several CETIS events, and attending a number of JISC strategic planning meetings.

JISC have now extended this innovative collaboration with the announcement that they will fund the development of a Learning Registry test node, the first to be developed outwith the US. The node will be developed at MIMAS with input and support from JISC CETIS.

In a press release JISC’s Amber Thomas commented,

“This international collaboration will see us contributing the UK’s expertise to the Learning Registry. We are working with Mimas and JISC Cetis to support the Registry’s vision of gathering together the conversations, ratings, recommendations and usage data around digital content.”

And Steve Midgley, Deputy Director, Office of Education Technology at the US Department of Education added,

“I am greatly encouraged by the collaboration and opportunity presented by our work with JISC on the Learning Registry.”

The Learning Registry project has already generated considerable interest in the UK. We believe that technical developers, infrastructure managers and resource providers will have much to learn from the JISC Learning Registry test node development and we hope that ultimately educational communities in both the US and the UK will benefit from this innovative project.

Further Reading