OER Road trip

I’ve just returned from a fascinating fact-finding mission to the US on OER and online/distance learning. Spending time with colleagues from MIT, CMU, NSF and University of Maryland University College gave us an invaluable opportunity to gain insights into their experiences, attitudes and business/educational models for distance/online learning and their experiences of being involved with the OER movement. I travelled with David Kernonhan (programme manager for the current JISC OER programme) and we joined Malcolm Read ( Chief Executive of JISC) later in the week. I’m not sure if it was just a happy co-incidence, but during the week the Obama administration also announced a $50 million programme to create open resources for community colleges.

One of our first meetings was with Candace Thille of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Candace has been instrumental in setting up and managing their Open Learning Initiative (OLI). This programme has been running since 2002 and as with many other open initiatives received funding from the Hewlett Foundation. The main premise for the programme is to create new learning environments for individual/self study purposes. The overarching goal is to facilitate a “change of knowledge state” of the individual so measurable, student centred outcomes have been a key part of the design and development of the materials.

When developing the materials a rigorous design process is adhered too. Broadly speaking this encompasses a literature review the subject area, identification of available materials, and then research in the given subject area of both the expert and student views. This allows the design team (who include teachers/subject experts) to build a “big picture” view and identify the gaps between the expert view and the actual student experience. The results are then used as the basis to create materials which concentrate on the key areas of misunderstanding and provide self-paced study activities. Although originally seen as an open self study resource, the courses are increasingly being used by on-campus students and tutors alike . As students work through material feedback is automatically generated and so tutors are able to structure their f2f teaching time to better accommodate the actual learning needs of the whole class. The data is also used to refine/develop the courses as part of an iterative design process.

The “learning environments” are openly available on the web, but are not strictly speaking OERs, as you can’t download them and re-use/re-mix. The key to this programme is gathering feedback and using that to refine the materials. However they are exploring some models to allow some customisation of the materials which include a small fee to become part of their “academic community” and providing fee based assessments. Candace is also a partner with the OU here in the UK of the OLNet project which is looking at the issues surrounding community take up and use of OERs. Extending the design of the environments to include collaborative learning opportunities is also part of their development plans.

Our next meeting was with Steve Carson (External Relations Officer of the MIT OWC project and Mary Lou Forward new CEO of the OCWC. MIT is probably the most famous single OER project. However it was interesting to discover a bit more of the history of the project. MIT had been investigating the possibilities of distance learning. However after extensive investigations came to the conclusion that their wasn’t a viable business model for the MIT experience as an online experience. However the institution had publicly committed to having some kind of online experience and so the concept of allowing their materials to be openly available gained ground as a way of meeting that commitment and also resonated with the more public spirited philanthropic ethos of the institution.

Like all OER projects (and I know this is a key concern for the current JISC funded project) copyright and IPR was something that needed to be addressed at the outset. It was decided that the best model for MIT to adopt was that faculty owned their content, but they would licence it to the OCW project who could then make it open. Initially faculty members were paid a small fee to engage with the project and licence their materials to the project, but as it has grown this payment is no longer necessary.

Currency of materials is an ongoing issue, and at the moment the review period for a course is seven years – however depending on subject area this is flexible. The general ethos now is that the materials give a “snap shot” view of the course. The development team try to make the process of putting teaching materials online as easy as possible for faculty and the average minimum time spent by a faculty member is around 5 hours. Of course this is mainly to produce print based materials.

There have been a number of unexpected benefits to the institution including reported improvements in teaching and learning from on-campus staff and students; increased lifelong connections between students and the institution ( the class of 2008 donated around $50,00 to the project ) and the one I found most interesting – particularly given the standing of MIT as a research institituion – is the fact that faculty members involved in OCW have reported reputational benefits from releasing their teaching materials. The team are currently involved in evaluating the programme and hope to produce an extensive evaluation report later this year.

In terms of sustainability the programme is looking at various models. In costs c.$3.3 million a year to run and will soon have to become self sustaining. Substantial cost reductions have been made through savings in technology use such as outsourcing hosting services e.g. video on youtube which can them be embedded back into the site. The model the team described as being most close to their ideal would be one similar to the public broadcasting service in the US. That is a model which would allow for major gifts, some corporate sponsorship and some advertising/underwriting etc.

The OCW infrastructure is now been seen as having considerable leverage within the institution. Nearly every grant proposal has an OCW element built into it so that material can be released. Various outreach projects such as “Highlights for High School” are based on the basic material but customised for a specific target audience. The Board is also looking at ways of generating income from additional elements to the materials such as assessment and more interactive services. However no decisions have been made and their is a commitment to making sure that any such services would be consistent with the open ethos.

In contrast to these open initiative, our final visit was to University of Maryland University College where we met Nic Allen (Provost Emeritus) and Mark Parker (Assistant Provost, Academic Affairs). The student profile of UMUC is radically different to both MIT and CMU with many of it students being part-time and also from under-represented communities. Although a part of the public university system of Maryland, UMUC receives only just over 6% of its budget from public funding. So, it is very business orientated and relies on fees to generate revenue. A “lean and mean” philosophy which has at its core leveraging technology use has proved successful. Although currently the institution is not involved in developing OERs, it does see the open movement – including open accesss journals, as having a role to play in future developments. UMUC has an extensive portfolio of online courses from high school to doctoral level and has c.100,000 students worldwide. Since its inception UMUC has also been the provider of overseas education to the US forces and families. This traditionally has involved f2f teaching however this model – particularly with regards to provision to service personnel- is changing more and more to online delivery.

UMUC has developed a “students come first” culture in respect to all aspects development and running of courses. 24/7 being support is available for all aspects of online provision – from technical, library and tutor. Since 1992, the institution has developed and used its own LMS – Tycho (the current version being webTycho). In part this decision was made as at the time there was no off the shelf product that met their requirements and also they are in control of its development. Although not an open-source product, its currently development cycle can utilise web 2 technologies and use web-services to integrate with the usual suspects of facebook, youtube etc. There was also interest in the widget development work that Scott Wilson has been spearheading. All staff undergo a 5 week training course which a focus on pedagogy before teaching “live”. There is also a network of faculty communities of practice to support staff in developing their online teaching habits.

Mike explained that a key factor to their success has been that their model of online provision has been an integral part of the institutions’ course provision and has had to be self sustaining from the outset. It has never been seen a separate division, and so faculty buy-in has been there from day one. In terms of service provision some of the lower level technical support has now been contracted out to private companies but key services will always be provided by in-house staff.

So a wide range of projects and models however there were a number of key similarities that struck me including:

Seed funding: For OER in particular, seed funding from large foundations such as Hewlett has, and continues to be key for starting initiatives. JISC is now playing a similar role in the UK and hopefully current economic circumstances aside, will be able to continue to support an ethos of openness.

Production processes: Although CMU, MIT and UMUC have very different business models they do all have a basic production process. In the main this is quite similar to a print based editorial/publishing system. However, even more importantly they all have a dedicated team of staff to “put stuff online” – it’s not just left to academics. It will be interesting to see if similar teams are developed/utilised in the JISC OER pilot projects or if viable alternatives emerge.

Evaluation:Evaluation of OER is very complex and even MIT find it hard to track who/where and how their resources are being used. Unless you take a very diagnostic approach from the outset as OLI have, it is difficult to get accurate information on how your resources are being used. This is where perhaps community based projects such as OLNet can help the community come to some consensus about best practice around use of OER and help develop common evaluation strategies. In some ways the JISC one year pilot programme is almost too short to evaluate within its lifecyle, however the fact that projects have been asked to look at tracking their resources should in itself provide some useful data.

Enhancement: it may seem a bit of a “no brainer” to some of us who have been involved in online learning for a while, but the simple act of getting materials ready to put online does provide a valuable opportunity for reflection and refinement for teaching staff and so help to improve and refine the teaching and learning process. Both MIT and CMU did not realise just how much use their on-campus students would make of their open materials and the subsequent impact they would have on on-campus based teaching. As I mentioned earlier, MIT OCW now has anecdotal evidence that faculty can have unexpected increased reputational standing by being involved in the OER movement.

Sustainability: Although seed funding is key to getting things started, it can’t be relied on forever. Hewlett have already announced that they will stop funding OER projects in the near future and so sustainability needs to be considered from the outset. Perhaps a case of “an OER isn’t just for a JISC project but for life . . .” mentality is needed to be developed. Of course, JISC too should be extending the open ethos by ensuring that all outputs of its funded projects are openly available through creative commons licencing. Certainly from the experience of a successful online learning institution such as UMUC, making any online provision part of a central process and/or central to core business models and not a peripheral unit/practice would seem to be essential. Again it will be interesting to see what sustainability models/issues emerge from all three strands of the JISC pilot programme.

Ada Lovelace day

A while ago I pledged to write a blog post for Ada Lovelace day. The whole point of the day is to celebrate the role of women in technology. I was quite surprised by the reaction of some of my colleagues to the idea. Some people seemed to think it was patronizing – but I really do think that this is a great idea as we do still need to take every opportunity to celebrate female role models, particularly in technology there is still a male bias. I was listening to the Guardian’s tech weekly podcast the other week, and Suw Charman-Anderson (organiser of the day) was talking about the what her motivations were for organising the day. I think she summed it all up by saying “women don’t pimp their sh*t ” in the same way as men. So I’m going to indulge in a bit of pimping now.

I am very fortunate as I get to work with some really talented, inspirational people (women and men) everyday. I do really believe that the small JISC world I inhabit is a great model for equality. However, there are still more male developers than female and I’d really love to see a few more proper geek girls. So today, instead of just choosing one person to write about I’d just like to take a few minutes to celebrate all the great women I work with, read about and admire in the field of educational technology – too many to mention but you all know who you are – the extended sisters of CETIS. To all of us who have been the only, or one of the few females in meetings (particularly at standard bodies meetings), let’s keep going and hope that more females come onboard. Of course I do have to make one exception and say a big thank you to Lorna Campbell for being a mentor, role model and all round great gal pal :-)

Let’s celebrate today and hope that celebrating the lives and work of women like Ada Lovelace will help inspire us all (women and men) and the next generation too.

Ada Lovelace day – sign up today.

“I, Sheila MacNeill, will publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same.”

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Entrepreneurs, innovators, sysadmins, programmers, designers, games developers, hardware experts, tech journalists, tech consultants.

Go on – you know you want to – let’s hear it for the girls :-) More information is available here.

Opening up the IMS

Via Stephen Downes OL Daily I came across this post by Michael Feldstein about his recent experiences in IMS and around the contradiction of IMS being a subscription organisation producing so called open standards. This issue has been highlighted over the last 2 years or so with the changes in access to to public versions of specs.

Michael puts forward three proposals to help IMS in becoming more open:

    “Eliminate altogether the distinction between the members-only CM/DN draft and the one available to the general public. IMS members who want an early-adopter advantage should join the working groups.”

    Create a clear policy that individual working groups are free to release public general updates and solicit public input on specific issues prior to release of the public draft as they see fit.

    Begin a conversation with the IMS membership about the possibility of opening up the working group discussion areas and document libraries to the general public on a read-only basis.”

Getting sustained involvement in any kind of specification process is very difficult. I know I wouldn’t have much to do with IMS unless I was paid to do it :-) Thankfully here in the UK JISC has recognised that have an organisation like CETIS can have an impact on standards development and uptake. But the world is changing particularly around the means and access to educational content. Who needs standards compliant content when you can just rip and mix off the web as the edupunkers have been showing us over the last few weeks. I don’t think they are at all “bovvered” about needing for example to convert their videos to Common Cartridges when they can just stick them onto Youtube.

Here at CETIS we have been working closely with IMS to allow JISC projects access to specifications but the suggestions Michael makes would certainly help broaden out the reach of the organisation and hopefully help provide the development of useful, relevant (international) standards.

Latest poll results

As a follow up to the recent JISC one day conference “Using Learning Resources: Transforming the Educational Experience”; I thought it would be interesting to see what the SIG thought of some of the common themes coming through from the day about potential areas for funding and what the community thought priorities should be. Once again there was a great response to the poll – so thank you if you voted.

Perhaps unsurprisingly developing more user friendly tools for creating and sharing learning resources was the clear winner with 63% of the votes. I think this reflects how much people in the SIG just want to get on and develop more ways to create and share – in particular activities, designs and assessments. This contrasts with the more strategic views coming through at the event where discussions around engaging middle management through developing business models and providing clear IPR/copyright guidance were coming to the fore.

The results were as follows:

*developing more user friendly tools for creating and sharing learning designs 63% (27 votes)
*developing more ‘open’ approaches eg a JISC equivalent of OpenLearn 19% (8 votes)
*developing use cases for middle management 5% (2 votes)
*developing clear IPR and copyright guidance 5% (2 votes)
*Other: open call for evaluation and research projects; Re-using and rejuvenating existing resources; Re-use/Rejuvenation of existing content; Finally doing something for FE
(43 votes in total)

More information about this poll is available from the EC SIG wiki.

Future Visions (thoughts on the Intrallect Seminar)

Last Friday I attended the Intrallect Future Visions Seminar in Edinburgh. The brief for the four speakers was to look no further than three years forward, anticipate advances in technology but focus on the the benefits that people involved in in education will see as a result of these advances. The meeting venue had the advantage of having an interactive voting system, which meant there was a good level of interactivity for the audience during the presentations.

Martin Morrey of Intrallect kicked the day off with a look a the repositories space. He began by reflecting on some of the common assumptions of the 90’s. Remember when we all believed that the future lay in intelligent tutoring systems with structured, well catalogued, adaptive content . . . Well as we all know the reality hasn’t quite been like that. Systems aren’t really that intelligent, and we’re still struggling with the issues (both technical and pedagogical) of creating adaptable, reuseable content. The rise of google and social tagging have also challenged our assumptions about metadata use and creation. So what is the short term future for repositories? Well, Martin put forward the case that in the next three years repositories will be much more configurable. He envisioned single systems supporting a range of object types. Services will be in place for identifier registration, there will be a range of vocabulary application profiles, license registries and common authorisation and authentication services. Content will be able to be easily be reached and consumed by a range of learning systems which will be able to give users a variety of views of content.

Next we had Anne Eastgate, Director of the BBC Jam project. Anne gave an overview of this £150 million (yes, that’s right 150 million) 5 year project (2003-2008) development project which is producing freely available content for 5-16 year olds in the UK. Many of you will be aware of the controversy this project created when it was first put forward, with many commercial companies worried that this project would give the BBC an unfair advantage in the sector. To allay some of these fears, the project has been limited to producing material for 50% of the curriculum, but is still facing major hurdles from both the EU and the UK government in getting all the content it is producing online.

Although the content is freely available via the BBC Jam website, it has been restricted to a UK only service. The material has been produced using SCORM 2004 so it can be used in learning environments;. However reuse of the content is restricted to the target age range, so although much of the content maybe of use the the FE and ACL sectors, they wouldn’t be able to get a licence to run the materials in their VLEs. The BBC is currently negotiating licence arrangements with local education authorities for school use. The licence arrangements are primarily to ensure that the content is used with the appropriate age range of learners there are no additional charges for the content.

Despite the political problems faced by the project, content has been developed and is available now. All the content has been developed taking a learner centred approach and from the demo we were shown it is really engaging and interactive.

Colin Milligan, of the University of Strathclyde (currently project manager for CDLOR project) then looked at issues of identity and personalisation. Currently there is no one definition of personalised learning, however most people would agree that it is learner centred, flexible and customisable. The changing landscape of the education sector with growing numbers of part-tme students and the increase in informal learning has lead to the recognition of a need for new ways of measuring achievement. These changes go hand in hand with the developments in the online world and how people are adapting to those changes. For the first time we are faced with students who are coming to University with access to richer technology in their homes (or in their pockets) than are provided by many institutions – who needs a university email account anymore?

Colin took us on a whirlwind tour of the Web 2.0 landscape, outlining the potential that webservices can have for education by allowing more learner control over access and organisation content, as well as more flexible and appropriate collaborative tools for content creation and sharing eg. netvibes, flickr and zoho.

Changing the system is obviously not going to happen overnight, but with more students coming into higher education who have been working with say a portfolio system in schools maybe one driver for change which institutions will not be able to ignore.

The last presentation of the day came from Chris Pegler of the OU who looked at new learning activities and what will we want next? Chris took the opportunity to remind us of the challenges that we are still facing in e-learning. Although the potential is there for lots of positive additions to the learning landscape we are still being held back by other factors, technical and more importantly social. I particularly liked her question ‘is it rude not to look at someone when they are talking to you?’ – unsurprisingly the audience very much agreed with this statement, But when we start to think of this in a learning situation does this still apply? Should students always been looking at a lecturer? Is ‘continuous partial distraction’ acceptable? How many meetings do we all go to and sit and check our emails? Why should we expect students to be any different?

Using the kit in our pocket can also lead to its own set of challenges such as finding common programmes which everyone has – the lowest common demoninator, but these might not necessarily be the most appropriate for the learning activity.

Are we in danger of creating a new digital divide between the students who have 24/7 online, broadband access and those who don’t? Traditionally online success has been measured by the quantity of messages posted – is this really relevant? Increasing our students are working on a just in time basis so don’t have time to read/post lots of messages. Should we looking to synchronous activities more? This is something Chris is doing in her teaching. Web 2.0 technologies give a huge amount of choice, but do students want (or indeed need) that level of choice?

All of the presentations were engaging, raised lots of questions, though of course not all of the answers.
I felt it was a really good, stimulating day – well done to everyone at Intrallect for organising it.
Presentations from the day are available from the Intrallect website.

Techscape – a user-friendly blog about web 2.0

This may not appeal to everyone, but shinyshiny (the people who bring us perhaps the best blogs in the world – well, my world anyway – including shoewawa, and the girls guide to gadgets, shinyshiny) have launched a new blog on web 2.0 developments call techspace. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on this as I have a feeling it will bring some user-friendly information about developments but with just the right geek factor so I can talk a bit of the web2.0 talk:-)


At our conference session one of the many topics we covered was aggregation. Brian Kelly recommended an aggregtor called netvibes. I’ve been having a play with it this morning and it seems pretty cool. I’ve got feeds from all the CETIS blogs now on it and links to del.icio.us, flickr, the weather (most important as it has been so awful the last couple of days). This is my first attempt at aggregation and I was surprised how easy it was. Thanks to Adam for explain how to get the RRS feeds for all our CETIS blogs – bascially if you view the source code of each you’ll find a link href=”http://blogs.cetis.org.uk/name_of_blog/feed/ which you can use to get a feed. So now mash-ups here I come . . . .