Sunday, November 12, 2006

Post poster reflections: openness and open courseware

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.

It's already a month since Educause 2006 finished and it feels like it happened only a few days ago.  However, that's time enough for me to stand back a little and reflect on why I went in the first place and particularly what - if anything - has emerged.

One of the main reasons for my attendance was to promote Bodington through the poster session.  A bit of rush at the last minute, but eventually my colleagues furnished me with enough to weigh me down - laptop, CDs, posters, leaflets etc, resulting in a pot pourri presentation - lots to see, but perhaps not so coherent (this was at the end of the session and remarkably two Thornton mint chocolate creams remain).   If I ever get to do another poster, I shall endeavour to bring someone with me because once the doors opened, there was a constant flow of people, so no time to take a look at the other stalls.

I had various conversations, distributed lots of fliers about the Bodington 2.8 release, gave a few demos of the system, and handed out quite a few WebLearn bootable CDs.  What about the topic 'From Personalized Learning to Open Courseware: Learning Management Systems Can Be Flexible'?  I didn't receive a single query about personalized learning, which I found a bit surprising, though it may be that the term has been much more widely promoted in the UK than elsewhere, because of high level UK government support.

However, the title got spotted by a group from the OpenCourseWare consortium, and several of them came over, curious to know what I was presenting and seeing an opportunity for another member!  I subsequently attended their panel session and came back to the UK with plenty of enthusiasm.  However, since then my enthusiasm has waned as I consider a number of issues.

  1. Institution backing
    OCW requires institutions to participate.  In Oxford that means going through various committees etc. That would require considerable impetus and, I expect, take a long time to progress...
    With the already highly distributed nature of the University, it seems to me more natural for departments and their staff to make their own decisions as to whether or not to offer such materials online in such a way.
  2. ResourcingJoining OCW is not a trivial matter - institutions devote FTE staff to it.  MIT who pioneered OCW got started with Mellon funding and the Open University's OpenLearn received a large grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
    Resources will be needed on an ongoing basis to maintain the content so that it doesn't fall out of date.  Contributions don't need to be on a large scale (10 courses minimum), but it will need explicit resources.  Having said that, one could be optimistic about financial support for Oxford's sharing it's academic wealth.
  3. IPR and commercial exploitationIf this is an institutional venture, then decisions are taken at institutional level and that includes IPR.  It's not an area I know much about, but my general impression is that as something becomes institutional, there are more processes, they become more formalised and generally have a higher order of complexity.
    Further, within the institutional sphere, we are expected to give due financial consideration.  We have Oxford University Press, which is publishing more content in electronic format.  One means of doing this is to produce content in IMS standard packages (e.g. SCORM and IMS Common Cartridge) to accompany some of its books.
  4. Alternative open publication meansI think this is a key issue.  This year has seen a dramatic growth in institutions joining OCW, so it may be tempting to project exponential growth, but the numbers are still small.  OCW is very particular about what qualifies as OpenCourseWare, in terms of IPR and what constitutes courseware, whereas when I was using the phrase 'open courseware' for my poster, I was really just addressing the question of enabling delivery for Web-based course content that is not closed!
    Assuming the institution does want to publish openly, then are there suitable alternatives that may be cheaper?  At the institutional level, in the UK there is JORUM an online repository for teaching in FE and HE, a free service.  However, it's only open to staff at these participating institutions, and the content is more granular than a course and sits outside by any particular institution.   Also, it appears that the outputs are not that considerable as Andy Powell wonders how well used it really is

With the rise of Web2.0, I'd recommend consideration of the relative merits of lightly structured informal versus more heavily structured formal processes.  It depends what you want to achieve and the effort that you are prepared to put in.  An academic might wish to share knowledge, grant more opportunities for others to learn, but also to connect with others in the field and build up a peer publishing community; whereas a marketing department might see it differently as a chance to enhance the institution's image and attract more students, and give it the edge over competitors.  These views do have some aspects in common, but the processes, and especially the nature of involvement, are radically different.  I see the former as more self-directed and organic, whereas the latter is predisposed to central co-ordination and may impose too many formal hoops to go through.  However, would the latter keep a better shape and endure better in the longer term?

I think both approaches can work: the debate around the academic integrity of Wikipedia highlights the importance of authoritative sources, quality control etc.  However, successful publications of the Web have in recent times been characterised by rapid organic growth achieved by making things simple and easy to participate.
There are other issues, but I think there's already enough for a few teas and coffees.  It's not so straightforward as I initially thought.

Answers can be sent on a postcard to ... or else comments are welcome. :-)

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