Open, Education

This is a longish summary of a presentation I gave recently, covering why I was talking, the spectrum of openness, the ways of being open, the range of activities involved in education and how open things might apply to those activities. You may want to skim through until something catches your eye :)

Why I did this

When Marieke asked me to give a “general introduction to open education” for the Open Knowledge Foundation / LinkedUp Project Open Education Handbook booksprint I admit I was somewhat nervous. More so when I saw the invite list. I mean, I’ve worked on OERs for a few years, mostly specializing in technologies for managing their dissemination and discovery; I’ve even helped write a book about that, (which incidentally was the output of a booksprint, about which I have also written), but that only covers a small part of the OER endeavour, and OERs are only a small element in the Open Education movement, and I saw the list of invitees to the booksprint and could see names of people who knew much more than me.

However Martin Poulter then asked this on Twitter

and I thought why not take inspiration from that approach. I can say stuff, and if it is wrong someone will put me right; it’ll be like learning about things. I like learning things, I like Open Education and I like booksprints. So this is what I said.

I wanted to emphasize that Open Education covers a wide range of activities. It has a long history, which we can see in the name of institutions like the Open University, but has recently taken on new impetus in a new direction, not disconnected with that history, but not entirely the same. Being a bit of a reductionist, the simple way to illustrate the range of Open Education was to reflect on the extent and range of meanings of Open and the range of activities that may be involved in education.

The spectrum of openness

Shows a range of

A “map” of IP rights and freedoms to show people use and view the different “permissions” (some legal, some illegal), BY DAVID EAVES, from

A couple of weeks ago this discussion on the spectrum of open passed through twitter. At one extreme you have “proprietary”, i.e. the commercially licensed use of other people’s resources covered by copyright or patents. Is this open? Well not in the sense of Open in OERs, but it is more open than material which is covered by non-disclosure agreements or trade secrets, and “fair use” or “fair dealing” may sometimes offer an exemption to needing a licence. So it makes sense to start the spectrum of openness here. Then you move to more liberal licences, say Creative Commons Licenses with ND or NC restrictions, through Share Alike to the most liberal attribution-only (CC:BY) and unrestricted (CC:0) licences. And then you pass into illegal use which ignores property rights, for personal use, for sharing (piracy) or claims that something is what it isn’t (counterfeiting).

When using, sharing and repurposing resources, teachers tend to work in the part of the spectrum spanning from proprietary through to the ignoring of property rights. It is interesting to reflect that much technical effort has been spent on facilitating the former (think Athens, Shibboleth Access Management Federation, and single sign-on solutions for identification, authentication and authorisation), political effort on legitimising some of the latter (e.g. use of orphan works, exemptions for text mining) and educational effort on avoiding what is not legitimate. One of the benefits of the OER/Open Access approach is in avoiding effort.

The ways of being open

That all focusses on open access to and use of resources, but there are other ways of being open, seen in terms such as “open development” “open practice” “open university” and even “open prison” which all have something to do with who you allow to participate in what. There is much gnashing of teeth when this sense of openness gets confused with openness of access and use; for example complaints that a standard isn’t open because it costs money or that an online course isn’t open because the resources used cannot be copied. Yes you could spend the rest of your life trying to distinguish between “open” “free” and “libre”, but in real life words don’t align with nice neat categories of meaning like that.

I don’t think participation has to be open to everyone for a process to be described as open. As with openness in access and use, openness in participation can happen to various extents: towards one end of the spectrum, participation in IMS specification development is open to anyone who pays to be a member, ISO standardization processes are open to any national standardization body; wikipedia is an obvious example of a more open approach.

This form of openness is really interesting to me because I think that through sharing the development of resources we may see an improvement in their quality. I think that the OER work to date has largely missed this. And incidentally, having a hand in the development of a resource makes someone more likely to use that resource.

Activities involved in education

I think this picture does a reasonable job of showing the range of activities that may be involved in education, and I’ll stress from the outset that they don’t all have to be, some forms of education will only involve one or two of these activities.

The range of activities related to education.

The range of activities related to education.

Running down the diagonal you have the core processes of formal education (but note well: this isn’t a waterfall project plan, I’m not saying each one happens when the other is complete): policy at a national through to institutional level on how institutions are run, for example who gets to learn what and how, and who pays for it; administration, dealing with recruitment, admissions, retention, progression, graduation, timetabling, reporting, and so on; teaching, to use an old-fashioned term to include mentoring and all non-instructivist activities around the deliberate nurturing of knowledge; learning, which may be the only necessary activity here; assessment, not just summative, but also formative and diagnostic–remember, this isn’t a waterfall; and accreditation, saying who learnt what. Around these you have academic and business topics that inform or influence these processes: politics, management studies, pedagogy, psychology, philosophy, library functions, and Human Resource functions such as recruitment and staff development.

Open Education

OER interest tends to focus on the teaching, learning, assessment nexus at the middle of this picture, but Open Education should be, and is, wider. Maybe it would be useful to try to map where some of the other open endeavours fit. Open Badges, for example sit squarely on accreditation. Open Educational Practice sits somewhere around teaching and pedagogy. Open Access to research outputs sits roughly where OER does, but also with added implications to pedagogy, psychology, management and philosophy as research fields. Open research in general sits with these research fields but is also a useful way of learning. Open data is a bit tricky since it depends what you do with it, but the linked-up veni challenge submissions showed interesting ideas around library functions such as resource discovery, and around policy and administration, and learning analytics kind of comes under teaching. Similarly with Open Source Software and Open Standards, they cover pretty much everything on the main diagonal from Admin to assessment (including library). And MOOCs? well, the openness is in admission policy, so I’ve put them there. I suspect there is a missing “open learning” that sits over learning and covers informal education and much of what the original cMOOC pioneers were interested in.

How various open endeavours relate to  education to give open education.

How various open endeavours relate to education to give open education.


Brief reflections on Open Practice and OER Sustainability

Lorna and I ran a session at the CETIS conference on the topic of Open Practice and OER Sustainability, we had 10-minute presentations from ten brilliant people who have been involved in the UKOER programme each giving a view from their own perspective on the general problem of “what now that the Jisc money has gone?” It’s fruitless to try to summarise that in full, so what I will do is add links to presentations to the session page linked-to above and give my own very cursory summary of a few of the themes. Lorna has also written a summary on her own blog.

“Scratch your own itch”

One of the most telling comments on sustainability, from Julian Tenney talking about the Xerte project, was that a project would most likely be sustainable if it was about doing something that the people involved needed doing anyway. Not necessarily something that would be done anyway (though in Xerte’s case mostly it was), but definitely not something that was being done just because the money was there. I agree with a comment that was made that there is a problem with the way that Universities treat project funding in this respect (at least in research departments), always the emphasis is on chasing money, getting the next grant. There were many examples of what it might be that “needs doing anyway”, at personal, subject community, institutional, and national/sector-wide level, from the sharing of resources between humanities teachers using HumBox, extra mural studies of the Department of continuing Education at Oxford University, the institutional teaching and learning policy at Leeds Met University, FE colleges in Scotland working in ever closer union and student progression from College to University.

nickbalance(By: Nick Sheppard, Leeds Metropolitan University)

Nick Sheppard asked for a technical infrastructure to support these institutional and other policies. He (and others) asked for APIs and other links between repositories (and the rest of the web, I assume) so that the greatest advantage could be had for effort. Sarah Currier told us about the new offers from Mimas to make your OER effort “Jorum Powered” through a hosted repository, a web interface into Jorum, or by building custom applications using the new Jorum API.

But with technical infrastructure come technical requirements, David Kernohan was worried that these requirements are only bearable by an academic with help, and that once the Jisc funding goes that support will also go. Suzanne Hardy also touched on this.

by David Kernohan, Jisc. The teddy bear is an academic.

The concept involved here was identified by Yvonne Howard as relative advantage, the advantage of something has to be compared to the costs and the costs have to be minimised, as can be done through clever technology such as maximum use of machine created metadata.

“It’s like MOOCs stole OER’s girlfriend”

footpathSo far I’ve mentioned advantages for many people but glossed over the fact that different people will see different advantages; they don’t and for that reason they will pursue different directions, as we have seen with MOOCs. Amber Thomas of Warwick University (but yes, the same Amber as was of JISC) described MOOCs and OERs as distant cousins who used to get on but are now no longer friendly for some reason. And it’s not like the O for Open in the two really stands for the same thing, as Pat Lockley said, their open is not necessarily our open. But, he asked, what is open? a footpath through private land or a National Park with the right to roam where you please (if you can manage to get there)?lakedistrict

(this last photo is mine and is covered by the CC-BY licence of this blog; the others aren’t and are used according to their various licences or permissions from their creators.)

eTextBooks Europe

I went to a meeting for stakeholders interested in the eTernity (European textbook reusability networking and interoperability) initiative. The hope is that eTernity will be a project of the CEN Workshop on Learning Technologies with the objective of gathering requirements and proposing a framework to provide European input to ongoing work by ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC36, WG6 & WG4 on eTextBooks (which is currently based around Chinese and Korean specifications). Incidentally, as part of the ISO work there is a questionnaire asking for information that will be used to help decide what that standard should include. I would encourage anyone interested to fill it in.

The stakeholders present represented many perspectives from throughout Europe: publishers, publishing industry specification bodies (e.g. IPDF who own EPUB3, and DAISY), national bodies with some sort of remit for educational technology, and elearning specification and standardisation organisations. I gave a short presentation on the OER perspective.

Many issues were raised through the course of the day, including (in no particular order)

  • Interactive and multimedia content in eTextbooks
  • Accessibility of eTextbooks
  • eTextbooks shouldn’t be monolithic and immutable chunks of content, it should be possible to link directly to specific locations or to disaggregate the content
  • The lifecycle of an eTextbook. This goes beyond initial authoring and publishing
  • Quality assurance (of content and pedagogic approach)
  • Alignment with specific curricula
  • Personalization and adaptation to individual needs and requirements
  • The ability to describe the learning pathway embodied in an eTextbook, and vary either the content used on this pathway or to provide different pathways through the same content
  • The ability to describe a range IPR and licensing arrangements of the whole and of specific components of the eTextbook
  • The ability to interact with learning systems with data flowing in both directions

If you’re thinking that sounds like a list of the educational technology issues that we have been busy with for the last decade or two, then I would agree with you. Furthermore, there is a decade or two’s worth of educational technology specs and standards that address these issues. Of course not all of those specs and standards are necessarily the right ones for now, and there are others that have more traction within digital publishing. EPUB3 was well represented in the meeting (DITA is the other publishing standard mentioned in the eTernity documentation, but no one was at the meeting to talk about that) and it doesn’t seem impossible to meet the educational requirements outlined in the meeting within the general EPUB3 framework. The question is which issues should be prioritised and how should they be addressed.

Of course a technical standard is only an enabler: it doesn’t in itself make any change to teaching and learning; change will only happen if developers create tools and authors create resources that exploit the standard. For various reasons that hasn’t happened with some of the existing specs and standards. A technical standard can facilitate change but there needs to a will or a necessity to change in the first place. One thing that made me hopeful about this was a point made by Owen White of Pearson that he did not to think of the business he is in as being centred around content creation and publishing but around education and learning and that leads away from the view of eBooks as isolated static aggregations.

For more information keep an eye on the eTernity website

Examples of good licence embedding

I was asked last week to provide some good examples of embedded licences in OERs. I’m pleased to do that (with the proviso that this is just my personal opinion of “good”) since it makes a change from carping about how some of the outputs of the UKOER programme demonstrate a neglect of seemingly obvious points about self-description. For example anyone who gets hold of a copy of the resource would want see that it is an OER, so it seems obvious that the Creative Commons licence should be clearly displayed on the resource; they would also want to see something about who created, owned or published the resource, partly to comply with the attribution condition of Creative Commons licences but also to conform with good academic and information literacy practice around provenance and citation. With few exceptions, the machine readable metadata hidden in the OERs’ files (such as MS Office file properties, id3 tags, EXIF etc.) are an irremediable mess, especially for licence and attribution information which cannot on the whole created automatically, and so are generally ignored. Also, the metadata stored in a content management system such as a repository and displayed on the landing page for the resource are not relevant when the resource is copied and used in some other system. So what I’m looking at here is human readable information about licence and attribution that travels with the resource when it is copied. Different approaches are required for different resource types, so I’ll take them in turn.

Text, e.g. office documents, MS Word, Powerpoint, PDF
Pretty simple really, you can have a title section with the name of resource creator and a footer with the copyright and licensing information. You can also have a more extensive “credits” page at the end of the document. Running page headers and footers work well if you think that people might take just a few pages rather than the whole document.
Example text OER with attribution and licence information. Note that the licence statement and logo link to the legal deed on the Creative Commons website.
Example OER powerpoint with licence and attribution information. Note how the final slide gives licence and attribution information of third party resources used.

Web pages
Basically a special case of a text document, the attribution and licence information can be included in a title or footer section, scroll down to the bottom of this page to see an example. For HTML there is a good case for making this information machine readable by wrapping the information in microdata or RDFa tags. Plugins exist for many web content management systems to do this, and the Creative Commons licensing generator will produce an HTML snippet that includes such tags.

ImagesExample of photo with attribution and licence information
Really the only option for putting the essentially textual information about licence and attribution into an image is to add it as a bar to the image. The Attribute Images and related projects at Nottingham have been doing good work on automating this.

A spoken introduction can provide the information required. BBC podcasts give good examples, though they are not OERs; also the introduction to the video below works as audio.

An introductory screen or credits at the end (with optional voice over) can provide the required information. See for example this video from MIT OCW (be sure to skip to the end to see credits to third party resources used).

Podcasts (and other RSS feeds)

As well as having <copyright> and <creativeCommons:license> tags in the RSS feed at channel and item level, Oxford Universities OER podcasts use an image for the channel that includes the creative commons logo. This is useful because the image is displayed by many feed readers and podcast applications. Of course the recordings should have licence information in them just as any other audio or video OER.

The Human Computer: a diversion from normal CETIS work

Alan Turing, 1951. Source: wikipedia

Alan Turing, 1951. Source: wikipedia

No, there’s no ‘Interaction’ missing in that title, this is about building a computer, or at least a small part of one, out of humans. The occasion was a birthday party that the department I work in, Computer Science at Heriot-Watt University, held to commemorate the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth. It was also the finale of a programming competition that the department set for sixth-formers, to create a simulation of a Turing Machine. So we had some of the most promising computer science pupils in the country attending.

As well as the balloons, cake and crisps, we had some party games, well, activities for our guests. They could have a go at the Turing test, at breaking enigma codes, and my contribution was for them to be a small part in a computer, a 2-bit adder. The aim was to show how the innards of a computer processor are little more than a whole load of switches and it doesn’t matter much (at least to a mathematician like Turing) what these switches are. I hoped this would help show that computers are more than black boxes, and help put add some context to what electronic computers were about when Turing was working. (And, yes, I do know that it was Shannon not Turing who developed the theory.)

So, it starts with a switch that can turn another switch on and off. Here’s a simulation of one which uses a transistor to do that. If you click on that link a java window should open that shows a simple circuit. The input on the left is at a Low voltage, the output is at a low voltage. Click on the input to set it to a High, and it will turn on the transistor, connecting the output to the high voltage source, so the output goes High. So by setting the input to high voltage (presumably by pressing a switch) you can set the output to high voltage. You’re allowed to be under-impressed at this stage. (Make sure you close any windows or browser tabs opened by that link, leaving them open might cause later examples not to work)

Turing didn’t have had access to transistors. At the time he worked these switches were electromechanical relays, a physical spring-loaded switch that was closed by the magnetic attraction between a coil and permanent magnet when a current ran through the coil. Later, vaccuum tube valves were available to replace these, but much to Tommy Flowers chagrin, Turing wasn’t at all interested in that. For mathematicians the details of the switching mechanism are a distraction. By not caring, maybe not even knowing, about the physics of the switch Turing was saved from worrying about a whole load of details that would have been out of date by the 1960s; as it is his work is still relevant today. This illustrates my favourite feature of Mathematics, which is that maths is the only subject where it is best not to know what you are talking about.

Back to this thing of turning a voltage signal high or low by turning a voltage high or low.

Two transistor AND gate

Two transistor AND gate

That may be underwhelming, but put two of these next to each other and something interesting happens: the output will only be High if both the inputs are. In other words the output is High if both input 1 AND input 2 are high. That’s mathematics: a simple logic calculation. You can try it out in the simulation. You can also try other arrangements that show an OR logic calculation and an XOR calculation, that is an exclusive OR, the output is high if on of input 1 or input 2 is high but not both. We call these circuits logic gates. Remember to close all windows and browser tabs when going from one simulation to another.

This is where we leave electronics and start using the audience. My colleague and I each had a flag and we gave everyone in the audience a flag. We were the inputs, they had to be logic gates; they had to raise their flag if she AND I both raised ours, or if she OR I had a flag up, or if she or I, but not both of us raised a flag (the XOR calculation).

The next trick was to show how these logic calculations relate to adding numbers together: A+B = S. First, of course, the numbers must be represented as binary with a low voltage/flag down equivalent to the digit 0 and high voltage/flag up equivalent to the digit 1. And we have to do the addition one digit at a time, starting from the units. Adding the first digit, the units, is easy enough. 0+0 = 0, 0+1=1, 1+0=1, 1+1=0 with 1 to carry. Think of that input 1 + input 2 = output, where the output can either be the digit for the sum or the digit to carry. For the sum, the output is 1 if either input 1 or input 2 is high, but not both, so S = input 1 XOR input 2; and we carry 1 if = input 1 AND input 2 are 1. The second and subsequent digits are harder since we need to add the digit from each number and the carry, but it’s not too difficult.

We can use logic gates to do the calculation for each bit of the addition. The circuit looks like this:
You can hopefully see how bit one of the sum if the XOR of the inputs for bits one of the numbers A and B, and the carry to the calculation of the second bit is the AND of these inputs. Again there is a simulation you can try, you might need to stretch the JAVA window to see all the circuit. Try 1 plus 1 (01+01 = 10 so set inputs A1 and B1 High, A2 and B2 Low to gives Output S1 Low and Output S2 High). And 2 + 2 (10 + 10).

We implemented this circuit using our audience of flag-wavers. We put pupils on the front row to be the inputs, pupils on the next row to be gates 1-4, and so on, making sure that each one knew at whom they should be looking and what condition should be met for them to raise their flag. We ran this three times, and each time it worked brilliantly. OK, so we could only add numbers less that 3, which isn’t much computing power, but given another 35 people we could have done eight-bit addition. And I’m pretty sure that we could have managed flip-flops and registers, but we would need something like 10,000 pupils to build a processor equivalent to an 8086, so the logistics might be difficult.

Using Turn-it-in to track re-use of OERs…

…isn’t really worth the bother–a simple web search seems to work better.

I’ve wondered, somewhat idly, whether Turn-it-in (t-i-n) may be a useful way to track whether and OER has re-used on the more-or-less open web. T-i-n is plagiarism detection software, it is designed to detect plagiarism in student work by looking for resources with the same content. Simple idea: just put your original into t-i-n and see whether any resources out there have been created using it. So I used a briefing I wrote on the LOM in 2005, which we later submitted as a wikipedia article on Learning Object Metadata. Selecting a chunk of text from the wikipedia article, putting it in quotes and searching for it finds quite a few verbatim copies. But when I asked a colleague who has access to t-i-n to look for a copies of the briefing, t-i-n found four with high match values: which to be fair is enough to meet the t-i-n use case of showing that a significant amount of it had been copied (in this case to the web), but not much use for tracking the re-use of an OER.

Anyone tried anything similar?

A reflection for open education week

It’s open education week, lots of interesting events are happening and lots of reflections being made on what open education means. One set of reflections that caught my eye was a trio of posts from Jisc programme managers David, Amber and Lawrie: three personal attempts to draw a picture of the open education space to answer the question “what is open education and how does it fit in with everything else?”. These sprung from an attempt “to describe the way JISC-funded work is contributing to developing this space”. They are great. But I think they miss one thing: the time dimension. By a stroke of good luck, Lou Macgill has recently produced an OER Timeline which I think represents this very nicely. (Yes, I know that there is much more to education than resources, and much more open education than OER, but it’s resource management and dissemination that I mostly work on.)

Maybe it’s a sign of age, but the changes in approaches to supporting the sharing of content is something that has been interesting me more and more of late. Nearly two years ago Lorna, John and I produced a paper for the ADL Repositories and Registries Summit called Then and Now which highlighted changes in technical approaches to JISC programmes that CETIS had helped support between 2002 and 2010. The desire to share resources had always been there, the change was from a focus on tight technical specifications to one which put openness at the centre. This wasn’t done for any ideological reason, but because we had an aim, “share stuff”, and the open approach seemed the one that presents fewest obstacles. I tried to describe the advantages of the open approach in An open and closed case for educational resources.

The timeline helps me understand why we are doing OER rather than some other means of solving the problem of how to share content, but that is just one aspect. What I really like about the open approach is that it creates new possibilities as well as solving old problems. So as well as a timeline of solutions what we should have is a timeline that shows what we are trying to do, one which shows the changing aims as well as the changing solutions, and that I think would show a trend to Open Education.

The hunting of the OER

“As internet resources are being moved, they can no longer be traced.” I read in a press release from Knowledge Exchange. This struck me as important for OERs since part of their “openness” is the licence to copy them, and I have recently been on something of an OER hunt, which highlights the importance of using identifiers correctly and of “curatorial responsibility”.

The OER I was hunting was an “Interactive timeline on Anglo-Dutch relations (50 BC to 1830)” from the UKOER Open Dutch project. It was recommended at a year or so ago as great output which pretty much anyone could see the utility of that used the MIT SIMILE timeline software to create a really engaging interface. I liked it, but more importantly for what I’m considering now I used it as an example when investigating whether putting resources into a repository enhanced their visibility on Google (in this case it did).

Well, that was a year+ ago. The other week I wanted to find it again. So I went to Google and searched for “anglo dutch timeline” (without the quotes). Sure enough, I got three results for the one I am looking for on the first page (of course, your results my vary; Google’s like that now-a-days). These were, from the bottom up:

  1. A link to a record in the NDLR (the Irish National Digital Learning Resources Repository) which gave the link URL as (see below)
  2. A link to a resource page in HumBox, which turned out to be a manifest-only content package (i.e. metadata in a zip file). Looking into it, there’s no resource location given in the metadata, and the pointer to the content (which should be the resource being described) actually points to the Open Dutch home page.
  3. Finally, a link to a resource page in JORUM. This also describes the resource I was looking for but actually points to Open Dutch project page. The URL for Jorum page describing the resource is given as the persistent link–I believe that the NDLR harvests metadata from Jorum, so my guess is that that is why NDLR list this as the location of the resource.

Finding descriptions of a resource isn’t really helpful to many people. OK, I now know the full name and the author of the resource, which might help me track down the resource, but at this point I couldn’t. Furthermore, nobody wants to find a description of a resource that links to a description of the resource. I think one lesson concerns the importance of identifiers: “describe the thing you identify; identify the thing you describe.”

This story (and I very much suspect it is not an isolated case) has significance for debates about whether repositories should accept metadata-only “representations” of resources. Whether or not it is a good idea to deposit resources you are releasing as OERs in a third-party repository will depend on what you want to achieve by releasing them; whether or not it is a good idea for a repository to take and store resources from third parties will depend on what the repository’s sponsors wish to facilitate. Either way, someone needs to take some curatorial responsibility for the resource and for the metadata about it. That means on the one hand making sure that the resource stays on the web and on the other hand making sure that the metadata record continues to point to the right resource (automatic link checking for HTTP 404 responses etc. helps but, as this post on link rot notes, it’s not always that simple).

By the way, thanks to the incomparable David Kernohan, I now know that the timeline is currently at