Connection not protection

Beyond Distance is leaving our known shores for a brand new expedition. We are in the process of setting up the ‘The Learning Futures Academy’. One of its wings will be a new distance learning course in the Future for Learning. One feather in the programme will be the idea of learning from what gone before…hindsight leading to insight, and then of course to FORESIGHT.
Maybe over the summer you’ll have the chance to visit London, where like many cities all over the world, some historical figure’s past residence is noted by a blue plaque on the wall. Steven Johnson’s article in the 2009 summer RSA journal (A meeting of minds) points out however, that the Really Important places were London’s coffee shops, especially around 1650 to 1800. During the Enlightenment the coffee houses were the Internet of the day where within the ‘bizz-buzz’ whole new industries were invented as the idea seeds from many different professions cross fertilized and blossomed into critically important ideas. You don’t think so? Look it up! For starters how about the restoration of Charles II, Lloyds, Newton’s theory of gravity, the South Sea Bubble.
So what are the insight from the London coffee houses that help us at the end of the 1st decade of the 21st Century, who have the greatest opportunity to network, probably almost as equally caffeine fuelled? Well…no idea happen in a vacuum, open circulation of ideas and experiments, (they were compulsive sharers, withholding information for personal gain was unimaginable), Influence was critical (from the Latin root ‘to flow into’).
In the way that the London Coffee houses provided a bridge from the European Dark Ages through to the start of the Industrial Age, so I think we too should move forward their spirit through to the Cyber Age. We’re making some great steps with our Web 2.0 applications and with Open Educational Resources. Perhaps the Foresight is: Connection not protection .
Gilly Salmon

Creating to share; promises and pitfalls

Last week I participated in a seminar organized by JISC in Ormskirk. The focus of the seminar was creating and sharing digital content with emphasis on the promises and pitfalls of Open Educational Resources (OER). Representatives from the CETL on Reusable Learning Objects, SOLSTICE, ROCOCO, Q-ROLO, Open Spires and ReFORM spoke about their projects and took part in discussions about the future of OERs. I came away from the meeting with a feeling that whilst Open Educational Resources offer a lot of promise there is the need for a concerted effort to debate and find solutions to some of the drawbacks that threaten the potential benefits of these resources to the HE sector. Here are a few things mentioned regarding benefits and pitfalls:

• Economies of scale in terms of cost benefit analysis
• Improved access and better use of existing resources
• Innovation in the design of teaching and learning materials

• Copyright issues
• Institutional barriers in terms of existing curriculum processes
• Lack of local content repositories
• OER literacy i.e. the capacity of academic staff to create and share open learning resources

I was quite struck by the discussion on how to engage various stakeholders to maximize the benefits of OERs whilst addressing the pitfalls. What was missing in all the discussions was the role of learners in advancing the vision of the OER movement. The Edgeless University report has emphasized the need to engage students in the design of courses to better understand their needs and also determine when and how teaching and learning should happen in the future. Clearly, making OERs more sustainable will require not just institutional commitment to “openness” in teaching and learning, or overcoming copyright hurdles or changing staff attitudes towards “open learning design” but more importantly how we as OER practitioners draw lessons from student experiences in HE to improve the quality of our materials in order to motivate learners locally and international to use these materials.

Samuel Nikoi ( 24 July 2009)

“Learning Objects”, “Learning Units”, “Open Educational Resource” (OER): how synonymous are these terms?

In my previous blog I highlighted current challenges faced by the OTTER team of developing quality evaluation criteria for our OERs and also issues surrounding metadata.

This week another challenge has surfaced which border on questions of definition. Do the terms “learning object”, “learning unit” and “open educational resource” mean the same thing?

My colleague Gabi objects to the use of the term “learning object”. To her this arises out of a technicist view of learning. She prefers the term “learning unit”, which, in her view is a more recognizable term to learners and educators.

My colleague Simon on the other hand prefers the term “OER” which to him is more generic and encapsulates the essence of digital learning resources. If you ask me, I will say I prefer the term “teaching material” bearing in mind I come from a part of world where learning is very much an instructionally driven activity.

I have been reading various papers and discussions on this subject in the hope that I will get a much clearer picture. The IEEE definition says a learning object is “an entity that may be used for learning, education or training”. 

Boyle of the CETL for Reusable Learning Object is very critical of this definition arguing that making available standards for storage and description would not of itself bring about the target pedagogical goal of a learning object. He thus prefers the term “generative learning object” whose primary focus of reuse is not the specific learning object but the pedagogical design patterns that underpins the generation of the learning object.

The question which for me still remains answered is “What specific feature(s) of a learning activity makes it a “learning object” or an “OER” for that matter? Is this to be found in:

  • Whether the learning activity was “born” digital or adopted, transformed and given a digital identity?
  • The degree of interactivity in the learning activity which makes it engaging?
  • Availability in different forms of multimedia?
  • An object which is suitable for open content use on the web?
  • Or should it, as Steven Downes suggests, be defined as “a resource that is used for learning” (emphasising the idea that an OER is a useless construct if it is not used by someone other than the producer)

I am off to a workshop on Creating and sharing digital content next week Thursday 16 July 2009 at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk. Hopefully I will have some answers.

Samuel Nikoi ( 9 July 2009)

What can the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement learn from Indigenous Knowledge Systems?

Over the past few years there have been growing interests in Open Educational Resources (OER)  – see for example our OTTER project – aimed at making teaching and learning materials freely available with very few restrictions. OERs are based on the philosophy that knowledge is a public good and hence should be disseminated and shared freely for the benefit of society. OERs are also based on a vision of ensuring that each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge thereby promoting lifelong and personalised learning. What was once derided by Bill Gates as “a malevolent force bent on destroying the monopolistic incentive that helps support the American dream” has today gained the support and endorsement of many governments around the world.  To this end, there are a number of initiatives aimed at the development and use of OERs such as the open source initiative, open content initiative, open access initiatives and creative commons to mention a few. 

But like any new initiative, the development of OERs has not been without challenges, not least the question of copyright and licensing which is seen as a core element that supports use of open learning resources. All over the world copyright laws are designed to legitimise and protect individual intellectual property by granting to the creator of original work exclusive economic and moral rights for a certain time period in relation to their work before the work is put in the public domain. The law requires that the idea or knowledge to be copyrighted be captured in a tangible, substantive and fixed form. Thus materials which are intended to be made freely available to the public through open learning platforms must first be cleared by right owners, usually, but not exclusively through creative common licences. Whilst creative common licences are useful for “opening up” resources for public use, the terms and conditions under which such resources are licensed can still be restrictive, for example, where materials can be accessed but not altered. This raises concerns and questions about whether “open educational resources” are indeed “open”.  What is understood by the term “openness” can also differ from society to society. In collectivist societies, the way ideas emerge, how knowledge is developed, processed, validated, stored, and shared are remarkably different when those found in individualistic societies.

Those who have looked at the world from the point of view of organised science have dismissed indigenous knowledge, found mainly in collectivist societies, as pre-logical and irrational and have downplayed such forms of knowledge, which exist within and have been developed around aspects of local people’s lives. Indigenous knowledge as a fixed corpus is co-generated through participatory and consultative processes of learning that come via observation and experimentation. Such Knowledge is dynamic, continuously being enhanced and adapted to suit local needs. It is stored not in repositories but expressed in stories, songs, folklore, dances, beliefs, language and occupational practices. The knowledge is shared not through learning management systems but through local learning systems and micro processes of networks and interaction among groups connected by kinship, friendship, community, religion and practices all based on the participatory principle. To this end, indigenous knowledge becomes open not through the expression of knowledge in a form that is saleable in the marketplace but through considerations of cultural integrity, reciprocity and presentation. Within collectivist societies, knowledge has always been seen as a public good, rather than a source of private/individual profit. It is thus treated as a kind of community-owned intellectual property developed by all, available to all and for the benefit of all. Certainly there is a lot that the OER movement can learn from the participatory principle of indigenous knowledge systems.

Samuel Nikoi ( 7 June 2009)

Globalisation and open educational resources

A few years ago (2003) I wrote a monograph for the Commonwealth of Learning on the impact of globalisation on education, including distance education.*

At that time the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was master-minding international negotiations aimed at opening up of trade in services. GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) has been complemented by the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The US, Australia and the UK were the countries most likely to benefit from greater access to students living and studying in other countries – and probably still are.

The complex, contentious debate on the impact of GATS on education has yielded important policy questions for governments and institutions, especially those interested in online and distance learning. These include:

• Should private or publicly funded education and training from abroad be encouraged to supplement publicly funded on-campus provision?
• Should public funds be made available to pay for education and training provision by public or private foreign companies?
• How should private or publicly funded education and training from foreign providers be regulated, bearing in mind GATS?
• Will the poor be able to afford education and training offered by public or private providers from abroad under GATS? If not, who will assist them?
• What policies and incentives would turn poor students into a market for education and training?
• If education and training from abroad is offered mostly or entirely online, what help can students expect from their home government in gaining access?
• Will individual governments recognise, and will accreditation bodies accept, foreign education and training curricula without any adaptation to match national cultural values?
• How will individual governments prevent foreign education and training providers from offering below-standard courses leading to worthless certificates?

And perhaps pre-eminently important:

• How far can national policies, priorities and culture be protected in a more
open market (than at present) for services such as education?

GATS has not been in the news recently, but it is not likely to go away. What is known as the Doha round of GATT and GATS negotiations has been difficult and very drawn out, with no final outcomes as yet.

The worldwide financial crises have had a tremendous impact on many countries’ willingness to allow foreign services to enter their territories and, for some Western countries, on their ability to export these services. The global downturn is likely to affect governments’ capacity to sustain current levels of public education provision, however. In a few years’ time there may be unprecedented opportunities for private enterprise to offer out-sourced services. There may also be a de-liberalisation of attitudes regarding open educational resources (OERs): proprietors of intellectual property may be even keener than they are now to protect their rights rather than giving them away in order to benefit poor countries, let alone rich ones.

What do you think will happen on this front?


*Globalisation, education and distance education, accessible at:

A romp of otters

‘A pew of church mice’, ‘a conflagration of fireflies’ and ‘an exaltation of larks’ are just three examples of the rather unusual collective nouns that the English language has to offer us (Lipton, 1977). Beyond Distance already boasts a colony of (Adelie) penguins, a pack or route of wolves, a gang of elk, a badling or a team of ducklings and various other collections of friendly animals in the Media Zoos. We were unlucky not to get a flight of swallows and a bask of crocodiles!

The latest addition to the Beyond Distance family has been a romp of otters. The one-year JISC-HE Academy-funded OTTER project (Open, Transferable and Technology-enabled Educational Resources) has just started. OTTER is one of the 7 funded projects under the institutional strand. It will deliver processes for the effective deployment of open educational resources (OERs) at Leicester and will provide exemplars from 9 areas equivalent, in total, to 360 credits.

In addition to colleagues from all participating departments and units, our romp of otters includes information science, copyright and IPR experts, learning technologists, learning designers, researchers and experienced project managers.

We’re embarking on a new and exciting project. Our otters will encounter many challenges, which might include shivers of sharks, shoals of piranha and even blasts of heartless hunters. But our brood of researchers (including a ‘lapsus’ of linguists) will deliver a handsome set of OERs for the benefit of the largest collection of users.

Alejandro Armellini
April 2009


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