A question of OERiginality

The latest animal to join the technology-in-education zoo at the BDRA is the OTTER (Open, Transferrable, Technology-enabled Educational Resources) project. This project is focused on releasing a range of learning materials from the safety of the University’s walled garden into the big, wild, World Wide Web, in the form of OERs (open educational resources). The OTTER project is one of a number of soon-to-be-launched JISC-funded projects involving the development of OERs.

I have had conversations about OERs with various colleagues in various different places and educational settings in recent years, and have noticed that the subject often seems to generate heated debate.

Firstly, there’s the question of why to produce OERs at all: why offer something free when you can charge for it? For some people, the conversation ends there – they simply can’t see the point. And you won’t persuade them by talking about contributing to the common good. (Although in my view, that’s a perfectly valid argument.) But you might just be able to convince them that by publishing your materials free of charge, you are expanding your reach, making your name known, and thereby potentially increasing your prestige. It worked for MIT.

Then there’s the question of how: how to package the resources in such a way that other people can access them, use them, modify them and so on. For some people of a technical bent, this is what it’s all about, and they will suddenly launch into an animated monologue about the intricacies of SCORM conformance and standards for interoperability, trackability and so on.

The usual consequence of mentioning the word SCORM (which stands for Sharable Content Object Reference Model – in case you were wondering), and its attendant details, is that the eyes of most people in the room will glaze over, and at this stage, the conversation often just fizzles out. However, it might occur to someone to mention the word ‘granularity’, at which point things will get really heated: How small is a learning object? How long is a piece of string? It’s incredible how agitated people can get about these questions.

Then, if everyone is still on talking terms after the granularity debate, someone is bound to casually mention that they would never use OERs in their own teaching. This is likely to be greeted by at least a small chorus of agreement. For many of us, originality is at the heart of our value system. The thought of deliberately going out looking for course materials produced by someone else is anathema. We believe we owe it to our students to give them learning materials that are soaked with the sweat of our long hours of original work, illustrating our unique take on the subject.

Perhaps the time has come to ask ourselves how helpful this approach is, in this age of learning 2.0. Are we perhaps doing our students a disservice, trying to feed them home-grown food – running ourselves into the ground milking the cows and tending to the chickens, when we could just go to the co-op and pick up a bottle of milk and a dozen eggs, and then put some creative energy into working out how best to combine them?

A shift from ‘subsistence farming’ in education towards a more organised, cooperative approach to knowledge production and sharing might enable us to direct our energy towards new areas, freeing up time for us to think. And who knows what might happen when more educators have more time to think. 

By Gabi Witthaus

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

DIUS @ Media Zoo

Trusted readers of my contributions to the Beyond Distance Blog may have noticed that until now my blog posts have not mentioned my work in the Media Zoo. Well I thought it was time to include a piece…

Those of you who are familiar with the Media Zoo and the approach taken will know that it has proven to be an important mechanism for disseminating the cutting edge research undertaken by the department to both internal and external markets. So we were pleased to welcome Martin Williams and John McLaughlin from the Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills (DIUS) to the Media Zoo for a discussion on how to successfully integrate learning technologies into teaching practices and how these may impact upon the student experience in the immediate to long-term future – which coincides nicely with our newer research projects – CALF (Creating Academic Learning Futures).

Following an interesting discussion with some student representatives that highlighted some positive and negative aspects of the institution (which may be reflected upon in later posts), the focus of the discussion changed to technologies, our other research projects, but maybe more importantly, our strategies for institutional change.

External visitors are important if we are to continue to raise the profile of the Media Zoo nationally; the visit from DIUS follows on the back of other important visits from the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), the Royal Air Force (RAF) and recently a visit from the Joint Information Systems Council (JISC).

So what is next for the Media Zoo? You’ll have to wait until I write again on Sunday 5th April!

Keeper of the Media Zoo

Annotating podcasts

I came across some technical development work on podcasting that might be interesting to both teachers and students.

As we know, podcasting is becoming quite an appealing technology for educators – the easiness of creating, accessing and using them and many more. However one of the limitations of a sound or a video file is not being able to index sections of a podcast or to insert comments on the media file.

Mike Wald, Shakeel Khoja and their colleagues at Southampton University have looked at this issue and, with funding from JISC, have developed a system called Synote (http://www.synote.ecs.soton.ac.uk/) to improve the usability of sound and video files. Matthew Wheeler and I shared a seminar session with Shakeel at a recent JISC conference where the colleagues demonstrated Synote tool.

As the Southampton colleagues mentioned, approaches such as tagging can help us to find podcasts related to a particular interest, it is difficult to find specific locations within a podcast using tags alone. Synote system is a bookmarking and annotation system for audio and video files. So for example, a tutor can insert comments (as text) on a podcast produced by a student as part of assessment. Students can insert their own notes on podcasts; these can then be shared with their peer groups as additional resources for learning.

From the range of questions raised by the audience at the JISC conference I can see that there is some really good educational uses of Synote to improve the approaches to using podcasting for learning.

Palitha Edirisingha, 17 March 2009

Disruptive Technologies

Those of us who attended the JISC “Next Generation Technologies in Practice” conference at Loughborough, or maybe followed the event on Twitter, may have been taught a new phrase last week, I know I did – “Disruptive Technologies”

Those of you who have already heard of this term may be laughing at those of us who, until this point have never heard of it, and when you read on you will kick yourself because the number of examples in our field in recent years is endless…

A disruptive technology or disruptive innovation is a technological innovation that improves a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically by being lower priced or designed for a different set of consumers.

Disruptive innovations can be broadly classified into two:
• A new-market disruptive innovation is often aimed at non-consumption (i.e., consumers who would not have used the products already on the market);
• A lower-end disruptive innovation is aimed at mainstream customers for whom price is more important than quality.

An example that jumped into my mind when I thought about this were the new ‘Netbooks’, you must have seen people tapping away in meetings, on the train and at other events – these are a type of laptop computer designed for wireless communication and access to the Internet which enable web browsing and e-mailing. Netbooks rely heavily on the Internet for remote access to web-based applications and are targeted increasingly at cloud computing users who require a less powerful client computer.

Can you think of any other examples, not just within the educational field, if so reply with a comment!

Matthew Wheeler
Keeper of the Media Zoo

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