Friday, October 06, 2006

Open Courseware in a few clicks

Note: This article was originally posted in the Connect section on the Educause Web site, at: 
However, this address has since become inaccessible, so the post has been reproduced here as an archive with the same date and approximately the same time.

As the abstracts for poster sessions could have a maximum of 50 words, I've been posting here to explain in more detail the background behind my forthcoming poster session about WebLearn, the centrally hosted LMS at Oxford University, based on the Bodington software.

The last bit I need to talk about is 'open courseware.' This can have many conotations, but here it refers simply to course content has been made freely available to the public and does not require guest access or visitor login. Many academics were keen that their materials - especially in teaching - could be indexed by search engines, to help promote their courses. On the other hand some were concerned that Google would sneak into areas they thought were private, so we had to be sure of all exposed URLs and circulate that as a list beforehand.

Before April 2006, as with most VLEs you needed to press a 'log in' button to gain access to anything, which was felt unnecessary for those resources that were meant to be openly viewable. So the barrier was removed. Now if academics want to enable access for Google and friends, the general procedure - which applies to most resources in the LMS - is as follows:
  1. Log in.
  2. Go to the resource you wish to make public
  3. Click on the link 'View Access' at the bottom of the page.
  4. In the following page go to the pull-down menu 'Allow..' and select 'Public' to 'look at' this page.
  5. Click on the [Add] button to enact.
Here's an illustrative screenshot (minus mouse pointer):

illustrative screenshot of simple access controls in WebLearn

This is taken from my bookmarks area in MyWebLearn.  At the moment, it's private as only the system admin and myself can see it, but if I were to click the [Add] button, anyone would then be able to see it. 

With the fine-grained accesss, you can choose any selection of resources public, so you could have samples from one of more of the following, in any combination: from just one or two handouts or a lecture through a module, course or even a degree. Each time you grant public access, that resource becomes open, so if you make every course resource open you have open courseware. Just allowing access to content is not providing the same educational experience as an Oxford student, but there is actually scope for more than reading since many of the tools allow for visitor interaction - so you can have public surveys, open discussions with prospective students and so on. If privacy is needed, administrators (we call them 'Floor Managers') can create and manage additional user accounts.

For those interested in some stats, before opening up Google had indexed only about 100 pages (most of these URLs coming about via links from other sites). On removing this restriction opening up access, the number of pages grew steadily to over 10,000 pages and the Web access logs show a huge variety of searches landing up on the site. I monitored Google's crawling in some posts on its gradual exploration (with 2nd and 3rd posts - the latter wondering about internal/external searches).

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