OER 11: naturally occurring is best

Last week I had the privilege of attending OER 2011, a conference dedicated to the study, development, and promotion of open educational resources. It was hosted by SCORE, through which I am studying iTunes U as an OER channel, which is the topic of my SPIDER study. In fact, I got the chance to do my presentation twice – “Is iTunes U a successful model of Open Educational Resource distribution?”

It was great to learn from those who have been working through the issues of open educational resource production, promotion and evaluation for years – for example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Open University. It was exciting to learn about unusual endeavours such as The Cosmonaut, a Creative Commons film produced through collaboration and ‘crowdfunding’ –anyone can donate a minimum of 2 euro to help, and all donors’ names will be listed as producers, with over 3000 producers and counting.

The take-home message for me, however, was the simple one that innovations of any kind are best implemented ‘naturally.’ For example, I have been looking at the iTunes U implementation of University of Oxford. Most of the offerings are podcasts of live lectures — audio recordings of events naturally occurring in Oxford’s academic life. They appeal because they display what is really going on at Oxford, and are produced at a reasonably low cost due to the naturally occurring factor.

Another successful model of naturally-occurring OER sharing is Humbox, a site where those who teach humanities can publish and share their teaching resources. A prolific Humbox contributor, Antonio Martinez-Arboleda, commented that Humbox made sense to him because his academic contract does not include research. And yet, he is an academic and so he must publish – but where? Humbox was the answer. It became natural for him to post his materials there as he created them, and others value and make use of them.

Here at Beyond Distance, our flagship OER project OTTER allowed us to establish an OER repository. Now what is needed is ongoing contribution of OER, which can happen best when instructors begin to naturally prepare their materials with open principles in mind – using Creative Commons images, and making sure about permissions from the beginning. We hope, through our current OER projects OSTRICH, TIGER, and SPIDER, to encourage good practice in OER creation, and for such good practice to become a natural part of what academics do.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist, SCORE Fellow, and Assistant Keeper of the Media Zoo

Motives for OER production and development

OERs have grown in popularity over the last few decades. A review of the OER literature shows different motives why institutions have taken up OERs. The following summarizes the multiplicity of motives behind OER production and development.

TELL motives

Within this motive, OER production and development is driven by a desire to provide access to information freely and openly. Wikipedia and PubMed are classic examples of the TELL motive for OER production and development.

SELL motives

This motive derives from making OERs available in order to ‘sell’ an institution and make it more competitive, e.g. student recruitment. Within the SELL motive, OER production is designed to increase visibility and reputation. The best examples are perhaps the MIT OpenCourseWare and OpenLearn of the Open University, UK. Both institutions have reported increases in student numbers partly attributed to OERs. Obama’s OER initiative is also motivated by a need to make America more competitive.

WELL motives

WELL motives are base on altruism. The key driver to OER production is benefit to those who for various reasons do not have direct access to higher education. WELL motives arise out of a desire to be socially responsible and promote inclusive education. A good example is OER Africa, which is working with many partners across the globe to support educational institutions across Africa.

CELL motives

CELL is about creating a community of learners around OERs. OLnet is perhaps a good example. Connexions and MERLOT are also good examples of OER development motivated by the need to develop learning communities.

It needs emphasising that the above categories are not mutually exclusive and it is therefore common to find institutions that fall into more than one category of why they make teaching and learning materials freely and openly available.

How would you classify the motive(s) of your institution for joining the OER bandwagon?

Samuel Nikoi

1 March 2010

President Obama joins the OER evangelism movement

I was stunned to learn recently that President Obama has become a convert to the open educational resources (OER) movement. The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported on plans by President Obama to pump over $500 million into freely available web-based courses.

Whilst the move by the Obama administration has attracted a backlash at the Annual conference of Distance Teaching and Learning, what is notable is that President Obama subscribes to the principles of open access to educational resources.

The fundamental objective of President Obama’s initiative is to make higher education freely available to all and not only to the privileged few. It is reported that whilst institutions such as MIT have been successful at the publication of over 19,000 courses made freely available online, the huge cost of developing an open educational course – $10,000 per course – has impeded progress at the community-college level with the result that a huge proportion of the college population is not being served by OERs.

The plan of President Obama’s administration is thus to open up higher education to all students and also pursue its goal of giving the United States the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. Reported benefits of the program include:

  • helping students explore new careers
  • improving retention of students
  • lowering the cost of a degree
  • spurring alternative ways of awarding credit
  • guaranteeing standards “whether you are in a more impoverished, under-served, or remote area of the country”.

There are many questions and challenges which are yet to be addressed such as whether new courses are necessarily needed, the cost of producing new learning materials, how to provide learning support for students in a self-paced learning situation and privacy issues of learning in an online environment.

The challenges notwithstanding, it is welcome news  – to OTTER especially – that OERs are attracting global political attention from the likes of President Obama.

Samuel Nikoi

More than just talking heads: Musings on some facets of online educational content

An article in last week’s issue of TIME magazine sang paeans about the growing trend of making available videos of lectures by academics free and online. Among other things, the article highlighted the pioneering work, inspirational teaching and resultant popularity of academics like Prof Marian Diamond (a neuroanatomist at UC, Berkley) and her lectures which are available online on Academic Earth.

This post will examine the imperatives of these enterprises and look at the possible impact of such initiatives. But first, we should perhaps take a quick detour through the historical growth of mediated teaching and content availability to put these developments in context.

Education by radio has been in use for close to 80 years, particularly in areas of sparse population and paucity of formal institutions providing education, for instance in remote farmsteads in the Australian outback or across America – again in remote, rural settlements or regions where trained instructors were not available to teach specific subjects. Scholarly analyses categorised such interventions as ‘radio instruction’ which supplanted formal means of education delivery

In the UK the OU used radio programmes for the discussion of course materials, alternative viewpoints to those contained in the printed materials, source material for analysis and for performance e.g. dramatization of literature. The OU, in close collaboration with the BBC, of course has a rich history of both radio and television programming and a lot of this is currently accessible via the BBC-OU’s Open2.net portal.  Academic examination would term this ‘radio education’ as this complemented the formal delivery of education provision.

Instances from the developing world include the Indian government’s experiment with the Countrywide Classroom, initiated in the 1980s, which ran on the national network of India’s state broadcaster for almost 20 years. Depending on where the individual learner was on the educational (and sadly, social and economic) ladder this initiative both supplanted and complemented available formal education.

The Countrywide Classroom now taken the form of three dedicated television channels focussed on higher education – Gyan Darshan run by IGNOU, the technology channel Eklavya and Vyasa channel (the new avatar of the Countrywide Classroom). Further to this, plans for a countrywide high-bandwidth network for interconnecting premier institutions presents new and exciting possibilities for upgrading the quality of higher education. This network, it is claimed, could ‘virtually annihilate distance’ and more importantly kick-start a movement for developing high quality technical content to support university students in any region on-demand.

It is the ‘anywhere’ and ‘on-demand’ – alongside the ‘previously inaccessible’ – features that also underpin newer initiatives like MIT OpenCourseWare. Initiated as a project in 1999, aimed at determining how MIT should position itself in the distance learning / e-learning environment, this became a new model for the dissemination of knowledge and facilitating collaboration among scholars worldwide, while contributing to the ‘shared intellectual commons’ in academia.

Starting with 32 courses in a proof-of-concept pilot in September 2002, the MIT OCW had published over 1800 courses by 2008 and these resources were being put to a range of uses by the over-54-million visitors to the portal divided among educators (17%), students (32%) and self-learners (48%). By making their educational materials openly available, it remains to be seen whether MIT can demonstrate that by giving away such materials it does not threaten the value of an MIT education, or that there may be something in the educational process that cannot be captured by being in class.

However, MIT’s former president Charles Vest maintains that the OCW materials ‘could improve teaching methods, regardless’. As stated on their portal, the OCW does not grant degrees or certificates and neither does it provide access to MIT faculty, nor do materials necessarily reflect the entire content of a course.

It should be also borne in mind that MIT’s OCW and the Open University’s OpenLearn, both of which use existing material from their respective institutions, use only a portion of it and it has even been suggested that the materials have been ‘thinned down for online consumption’.

The main challenge in implementing such initiatives was not faculty resistance, but rather the logistical challenges of determining ownership and obtaining publication permission for the massive amount of IPR items that are embedded in the course materials of MIT’s or the OU’s faculty, in addition to the resources required to convert the material to an online format.

However, most recently both commercial and non-commercial platforms have entered this arena. In March 2008, YouTube launched an education hub called YouTube Edu, dedicated exclusively to videos from over 100 higher education institutions that broadcast through channels they have set up on the site. YouTube’s reasons for positioning itself possibly involves revenue (as the Edu hub has room for one or two advertisements on its pages), social relevance and perhaps is also egged on by the rivalry that YouTube has with iTunes.

Since 2004, over 170 institutions have offered content free to the public on Apple’s iTunes U, which was originally set up as a means for education providers to distribute content exclusively to their own students. The partnership has led to a win-win situation for Apple, with universities deploying a cost-cutting distribution tool, and Apple’s products become must-haves on campus.

Academic Earth – one of 26 companies profiled in BusinessWeek’s feature on ‘America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs’ – was founded with the goal of giving ‘everyone on earth access to a world-class education’. Their aim is to ‘build a user-friendly educational ecosystem’ that gives internet users around the world the ability to easily find, interact with, and learn from full video courses and lectures from the world’s leading scholars. Academic Earth’s attempt to bring the best content together in one place and create an environment in which the content is remarkably easy to use and user contributions (users can ‘award’ lecturers grades!) make existing content increasingly valuable and uniquely tagged for later or new users.

And online content is not limited to academic courses and lectures. TED.com (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds and has since then become ever broader in scope, where the conference now hears from the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes. TED.com then makes the best talks and performances freely available to the public. The more than 200 talks include the thoughts of pioneering technologists like Sir Tim Berners-Lee and celebrity social crusaders like Bono. An exposition by Prof Sugata Mitra, who some might remember from the Learning Futures Conference 2009, is also featured here. Click here for a futher, blogged discussion on what TED.com does and how some users are using the content it provides.  

What then are the pros and cons of such trends?

For institutions the online content attracts prospective students, keeps alumni connected and encourages innovation; and such benefits outweigh concerns about cost, intellectual property and supposed devaluation of elite degrees. With the advent of commercial providers, however, the spectre of the commodification of knowledge – whatever one’s views on it maybe – cannot be far away.

For individuals, if one assumes access to the internet as ubiquitous (which it is not, since only 5.6% of the population in Africa have access to the internet compared to 74.4% in North America), the possibilities of growth in learning online are endless. Knowledge, in its virtual form at least, is free to a few users.

Jai Mukherjee / 22 April 2009

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