Steve Jobs: Star of Informal Learning

The sad news today of the passing of Steve Jobs brings a deserved flurry of tributes and perspectives on his work. This morning, close to one-fifth of all Twitter comments had to do with Steve Jobs. American president Obama described Jobs as being “among the greatest of American innovators.” Besides the immense consumer appeal of the  iPad, iPod, and iPhone, there is the multi-faceted impact of Mac computers, and Jobs’ reinvention of film animation at Pixar. I would like to relate a personal story of how Jobs’ innovation both affected an industry and reveals the power of informal learning.

Steve Jobs in an early Stanford computer lab of Macs. Courtesy of The Seb on Flickr

When I studied computer programming in the 1980s, I worked on an IBM 360/370 with terminals. After graduation, I took a job with a printing company in Chicago and tried my hand at typesetting. My father was a printer; he used to set type the ancient way, with little pieces of metal held together in a mold. At my company, we used a new-fangled method called phototypesetting, a combination of computer tech and photography. I typed commands (which were strangely similar to html) at a terminal, pressed a few buttons, and out came the imprinted photographic paper dripping with fixing fluid, ready to be hung up to dry.

My husband was also from a family of printers. Once on a visit to their company, my mother-in-law showed me this little computer called a Macintosh. She demonstrated how she could set type in a wysiwyg environment, using both a keyboard and a mouse (which I could not get my head around). When I saw how simply I could select fonts and sizes and see the piece laid out on the screen, I had a feeling that everything was about to change. Indeed, the desktop publishing revolution was right around the corner, and everything did change.

The Mac was the first computer to pay any attention to typefaces. If you watch Jobs unveil the Mac in 1984 (worth a watch for many reasons), you can see how important he felt it was to get typefaces right. Jobs learned about typefaces in a college calligraphy class, which he attended after he dropped out of college. Without a degree yet with academic instinct, Jobs applied what he learnt and made it integral to the Macintosh. He famously insisted on quality design and beauty at every hidden level of all of Apple’s innovations.

First Macintosh showing off typefaces - from the demo video on YouTube

My current SCORE project about iTunes U as a channel of free learning resources ( has let me appreciate this public platform given to universities and educational institutions. It’s not all philanthropy; of course iTunes U shows off how nice multimedia looks on the various i-gadgets. And yet, my research into how iTunes U materials are used by ordinary folks has revealed their importance as informal learning resources. It’s almost as if Steve Jobs brought his academic experience full-circle, allowing lots of people to ‘audit classes’ even if they are dropouts or never accessed higher education.

Thanks, Steve, for a lifetime of innovation and inspiration.

Terese Bird, Learning Technologist and SCORE Fellow

Openness and learning design

In the last three years or so, the Carpe Diem learning design process has evolved – not only as a result of our own better understanding of it, but also as a consequence of the open educational resources (OER) agenda.

Carpe Diem is a creative, hands-on learning design process for academic course teams. It builds institutional capacity in learning design. It is not a ‘techie’ workshop on how to use certain tools. It has proven to be effective in the design and redesign of face-to-face, online and hybrid programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate levels at over 15 UK universities and internationally. Carpe Diem delivers a blueprint and a storyboard for the course, a set of peer-reviewed and reality-checked e-tivities running online, a model for further development and an action plan. The planner used during the two days is available as an OER under a Creative Commons licence.

Developing a storyboard is at the heart of the Carpe Diem process – it’s collaborative, productive and fun. When we populate the storyboard with content (‘content’ is never our starting point!), participants usually refer to two ‘default sources’ of materials: previous versions of the course and new materials that the course team will have to ‘write’. We then introduce the concept of OER and show a few examples. While some colleagues are now more familiar with OER than three years ago, many have not heard of these resources, the repositories they are stored in or the licences they can be used under. They are often surprised by the amount and quality of open, free material they can access and incorporate into the course, with and without adaptation.

I usually invite course teams to conduct a resource audit under five headings: 1. course materials they already have and wish to reuse (such as materials from previous versions of the course), 2. material from OER repositories ready to use as is, 3. OER they can use with minimal changes, 4. OER that need repurposing before inclusion in the course, and 5. what they need to create from scratch.

The figure below maps curriculum design against OER design and shows the types of enhancement that can be achieved during the planning, development and delivery stages of a course. The top-right quadrant requires significant effort (and delivers accordingly), while the bottom-left one constitutes rapid, ‘opportunistic’ enhancement at a minimal cost.

Designing for openness

Figure 1: enhancing the curriculum with open educational resources

The development of a critical mass of OER worldwide and the awareness that the OER agenda has raised across the higher education sector have been critical levers in the evolution of Carpe Diem as a learning design intervention. Thus, Carpe Diem today does not only meet its original collaborative learning design objectives cost-effectively, but raises awareness of and disseminates OER and open practices across disciplines and institutions.

Dr Alejandro Armellini
Senior Learning Designer
Beyond Distance Research Alliance
University of Leicester

Learning about Unisa and South Africa

My colleagues and I are currently in Pretoria, South Africa, to attend Unisa’s Teaching and Learning Festival 2011. We have been asked to put on a week of workshops, due to start tomorrow (Monday) morning.

Me at Unisa

Standing outside the festival venue

Last Thursday and Friday we attended the festival symposium, which had excellent keynote papers from George Siemens, Gilly Salmon, Catherina Ngugi and Ormond Simpson. The Unisa delegates appeared to take a lot from these talks, judging from the questions raised and comments made in the concluding panel session.

Like so many HE institutions, Unisa, an open distance learning university, is facing a crossroads.  Burgeoning student numbers (374,000 for 2011) has meant current structures are no longer able to cope. It is hoped new technology and new approaches may provide the means by which the staff can continue to offer an education with a national and international reputation (Nelson Mandela is a Unisa graduate). BDRA may pay a small part in this change.

Perhaps the memory of the cynical and depressing summer riots in the UK has coloured my thinking, but I feel South Africa is going places. The people seem pragmatic about the significant current problems (primarily based around inequality and poverty) yet optimistic about the future.

And there’s no question about the talent available here. On Saturday, Gabi and I, with mercurial South African educational technologist Maggie Verster, delivered a workshop on using OERs and social media for teaching and learning at Kliptown Secondary School in Soweto.

Maggie in full flow

The participants, both teachers and schoolchildren, were engaged, articulate and, especially in the case of the latter, more than capable of harnessing the new opportunities for social interaction and learning (accessed mainly through cell phones) offered by technology.

The Representative Council of Learners and workshop participants. Future Unisa graduates?

We’ve got a very hard week ahead, but I know we’re all looking forward to it.

Follow us and everyone else at the festival on Twitter: #unisa2011.

Simon Kear

Keeper of the Media Zoo

How will teachers make a living in the future?

When I was ten years old, I had a brilliant, inspiring teacher. She used to ask us: “Why do you go to school?” After a series of answers, she would give hers: “To learn how to learn”. I knew Miss Blencow (I don’t know the spelling) was a good teacher, because I liked her and we did all sorts of interesting, creative activities. It took me until somewhere around the start of my PhD though to understand fully what she was telling us.

I was reminded of this today when I read a blog post by Damien Walter entitled “How will writers make a living in the future?”. The basic premise is that the increasing availability of free information on the internet is devaluing the written work to a possible future where writers will not earn money from writing anymore, with a comparison to the Dark Ages where reading aloud was a good career for “…the priest who read from the bible only he could translate to his Dark Ages congregation.”

As more and more information fills the internet a proportion of that is well presented and easily used for self-directed learning. It is becoming less and less necessary to go somewhere and be “taught”. Learning how to learn – the new learning to read.

So what future for teaching? The future, surely, must lie in teaching children how to be self-directed learners, and in inspiring, motivating and supporting them as they learn.

I do hope that Miss Blencow, once of Stimpson Avenue Junior School, is around to see the future she helped create.

Paul Rudman, BDRA

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

Open Educational Resources from the Viewpoint of the Institution

On Friday 11 March 2011, Gabi Witthaus and I attended a SCORE event entitled ‘Institutional strategies for Open Educational Resources (OER) in the Open University Nottingham campus. (Gabi wrote about this event on the OSTRICH project blog with a slightly different focus.) Several featured speakers described their experiences implementing the production and use of OER in their institutions, including how they made the case to stakeholders. Among my take-home messages from each speaker:

University of Exeter – Tom Browne: When making the argument for OER, it is important to include the evidence of demand for OER. Open access academic work must be tied to institutional mission. Production of OER should be seen as scholarly activity within staff development. Exeter has now launched Open STEM, and while this initiative was specifically for STEM subjects, it sparked enthusiasm in humanities subjects as well.

Nottingham Tram (photo courtesy of Andwar on Flickr)

Oxford University – Melissa Highton:  The most successful OER production is built on existing workflow – Oxford academics were lecturing anyway, so a decision was made to just audio-record as they do it and make it simple enough that lecturers can do much of the process themselves. This is how Oxford launched and runs their iTunes U channel.  Although Oxford offers both audio and video lectures, their data shows that audio-only lectures get downloaded three times as often as video versions. To those who may still ask “why capture a lecture?” Melissa argued that a lecture is a unique academic event – this person will only be speaking about this topic or research in this way and with this audience today and not again, so capture it and allow any Oxford student to hear it, in fact, allow anyone to hear it. Melissa described a new skill for academics to become fluent in open content provision : open content literacy (releasing open learning material in an ethical fashion). Finally, she presented evidence of reuse: schools using Oxford lectures in their own teaching and finding it unnecessary to chop or rehash the lectures.

University of Nottingham – Steve Stapleton:  Their university saw the social responsibility of publishing OER, showcased in their work with OERAfrica. Steve’s presentation emphasised improving student experience by focus on open content – academics became more conscious of quality because they knew the material would be open. The University of Nottingham will now feature information about their open content in the university prospectus and observe any effect on their marketing. Steve concluded by mentioning Nottingham’s new ideas: U-Now and a university Flickr account.

There were also excellent presentations on work by University of Cape Town to create and provide OER–even allowing lecturers to upload their own material to the repository, similar to a ‘pride of ownership model’ at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Delft University of Technology reported a definite increase in the number and quality of international PhD students after publishing courses as open, as well as faculty satisfaction with their improved reputation as a result of OER publications.  It was these academic benefits of OER which I believe should be particularly persuasive for institutions considering OER publication. I will be looking at these benefits and related impact specifically as I examine iTunes U in the SPIDER project.

Terese Bird

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

Is OER repurposing overrated?

In the UK there has already been a wave of funding to encourage the launch of repositories of open educational resources (OER). Our own OTTER project was funded during that initial wave. Now, attention has turned to ‘cascading,’ sharing practice, and evaluating impact of OER. Our current OSTRICH and TIGER projects are working in these areas. For the project I am working on, SPIDER (Sharing Practice with iTunes U Digital Educational Resources),  I am gathering evidence of individual use of iTunes U-distributed material.  So far, I have discovered quite a bit of such evidence. I find occasional evidence of someone using this material in teaching, and so far no evidence of anyone adapting or repurposing. From a technological viewpoint, iTunes U material does not lend itself easily at all to repurposing, and some universities do not even release iTunes U material under Creative Commons license anyway.

But even amongst true OER repositories, where much effort may have been put into making files editable and easy-to-repurpose, it is not clear that these qualities are being exploited. In my own recent discussions with educators interested in and working with OER, this point has come up again and again.

Photo courtesy of eldan on Flickr

On 10 December 2010, Amber Thomas wrote in her blog post ‘Rethinking the O in OER’: “There’s a spectrum of use, reuse and repurposing, as it applies to academics and other sorts of users. We shouldn’t overweight the use case of academic repurposing.  Maybe use is good enough for the majority of people.”  In other words, perhaps ‘the repurposing and reuse of OER by those using it in teaching ‘ is somewhat overrated.

I could agree with Amber except in one respect. At a seminar at the Open University this past December (read my blog post about it here), I heard from a group of educators from Ghana that it is often very important to adjust OER to fit a new cultural context. Pedagogically-sound material can be rendered nearly useless by differences in cultural context. The projects mentioned above, along with those being done at the Open University, MIT, and many other institutions, have much yet to discover in the area of reuse and repurposing of OER.

Terese Bird

Learning Technologist, Assistant Keeper of the Media Zoo, and SPIDER PI

Kabul academics and students excited about OERs

I have just returned from a four-day workshop in Kabul, partly conducted jointly with Dr Dave Humphreys of the Open University. The workshop was hosted by the British Council and the University of Kabul’s Geology Department, and funded by DfID as part of two projects – DELPHE (Developing Partnerships in Higher Education) and INSPIRE. It was planned in response to requests from Afghan academics for support in curriculum development. Dave’s part of the workshop focused on curriculum design principles and procedures used at the OU, and mine focused on an introduction to open educational resources (OERs).  For the two OER-focused days, there were approximately 30 participants altogether, including six students from the Environmental Protection and Disaster Management faculty, several Geology professors, three researchers from an NGO called AREU (Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit), and academics from a range of Higher Education institutions in and around Kabul representing a variety of disciplines, from Agriculture to Fine Arts to Medicine to ICT.

OER workshop, Kabul

OER workshop, Kabul

In the workshop we discussed the concept of OERs, and participants explored some of the major multi-source repositories such as JorumOpen and OER Commons, as well as the OU’s OpenLearn and the University of Leicester’s OER site. The academics and students spent part of the workshop searching these sites for OERs that might fill gaps in their various curricula. We then discussed how they might use OERs in their teaching (or learning, in the case of the students). The focus was primarily on the reuse of OERs, and included a discussion around the various permissions granted by Creative Commons licences.

Dr Dave Humphreys with Prof. Naim Eqrar

Dr Dave Humphreys with Prof. Naim Eqrar

Predictably perhaps, there were some technical obstacles that threatened to derail the whole event – the biggest culprit being an awfully slow internet connection that repeatedly cut out and became slower and slower as the morning wore on every day, grinding to a complete halt by lunchtime – apparently due to the fact that colleagues in Europe were just firing up all their computers at that time of day… The other significant problem was the limited software on the computers being used, rendering some file types (e.g. docx) unopenable.

Searching for OERs

Searching for OERs

Despite these challenges, the response from Afghan colleagues was overwhelmingly positive. A few comments from the participants will give a feel for their enthusiasm.


“I was amazed to see this invaluable treasure that we can access so easily.”

“I liked that now we can solve some of our problems with these kinds of sites (OER repositories)… that you gave us… Also I want to say that this is one of the most important parts of education that everyone should know about.”


“When our teacher is planning to teach us about a particular topic in a lecture, I will search before the session for OERs on that subject so that I am well prepared.”

“This is better than a Google search (for learning materials). It’s more relevant.”

“I’m going to use OERs in my free time.”

There was also a great deal of interest – particularly from the students – in producing OERs locally and in collaborating on the translation and repurposing of OERs from elsewhere in the world.

Afghanistan may be war-ravaged and beset by all the infrastructural problems typical of developing countries, but this group of academics and students is focused on building an empowering education system for its people, and they believe that OERs have a role to play. I have come away from Kabul feeling extremely humbled and inspired by this experience, and full of renewed optimism about the potentially useful role of OERs in the global education community.

Kabul street scene (thanks to Dave Humphreys for the photo)

Kabul street scene (thanks to Dave Humphreys for the photo)

Posted by Gabi Witthaus, 28 Feb 2011

An OER workshop in Afghanistan

We are very excited that Beyond Distance has been given the opportunity to collaborate with the Geology Department at the University of Leicester, and with Dr Dave Humphreys from the Open University, in running a workshop for academics at the University of Kabul in Afghanistan at the end of February. Dave and I have been working together on the programme  on curriculum design, including a focus on the incorporation of open educational resources (OERs) into the curriculum, which we will facilitate jointly.

The workshop is part of an ongoing series of networking activities between universities in the UK, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as part of a project called DELPHE (Development Partnerships in Higher Education), led by Prof. Mike Petterson from Leicester, and supported by the British Council and DfID. (See Mike’s blog posts on an earlier visit to Kabul here.)

According to the DELPHE project plan:

This project has great potential to focus upon some key British Council and DfiD development goals – especially in education, good governance (at an institutional level) poverty alleviation (through development of highly skilled people, and assistance with economic development, e.g. through increased knowledge in mineral resources).

We are thrilled to have this opportunity to contribute to a very meaningful project, and I’m very much looking forward to finding out from colleagues in Kabul about the usefulness (or otherwise) of OERs in their context.

Watch this space for an update from Kabul in a few weeks’ time…

Gabi Witthaus, 4 Feb 2011

A day with ‘Northampton Tigers’

Recently I had the opportunity to spend a day with our TIGER (see note below for a description) project partners at the University of Northampton. I took part in their course development event.

Our Northampton Tigers are currently developing teaching and learning resources that can be released as OERs (Open Educational Resources) for the benefit of the wider academic and practitioner community. The subject area covered within the TIGER project is Interprofessional Education (IPE) – a Higher Education level programme of studies undertaken by professionals that you and I meet when we are in need of health and other forms of care (nurses, care professionals, paramedics – just to name a few). The focus of Interprofessional Education is for these different professionals to learn about each other’s roles and develop efective collaborative practices.

I observed many interesting aspects of course development that were unique to developing OERs and especially for OERs for Interprofessional Studies.

An obvious, but often under-rated point that needs due attention is that developing OERs is a much more complex and sophisticated process than that used in developing course material for distance and e-learning. This is especially the case, as Northampton Tigers showed me, in a subject area such as IPE where the course development team includes both interprofessional academics from universities and practicing professionals from hospitals and other communities gathering together to develop a set of teaching resources that are relevant for both national and international academic and practitioner communities. Copyright issues and ethical considerations of using images and other media are just two of the many aspects to consider in OER development.

As we are involved in the TIGER project in the next coming months, we will be able to report on the actual processes involved in developing OERs from scratch and from existing traditional e-learning courses. So, watch this space!

Meanwhile you can visit the project website at to learn more about it….

Note: TIGER (Transforming Interprofessional Groups through Educational Resources) is an Open Educational Research project funded by the UK Joint Information Systems Committee and led by the University of Northapmton in partnership with De Montfort and Leicester Universities.

Palitha Edirisingha
2 Feb 2011

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