Oct 1, 2007

OpenED: An overview of initiatives

Week 5: Example Open Education Programs

This week I will discuss the following Open Education Programs

  • Open University (UK) Open Content Initiative
  • Rice Connexions
  • Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative
  • UNESCO Open Training Platform
  • National Repository of Online Courses
I will describe similarities and differences between them. I also elaborate on the idea of "quality" of the programs or resources they offer.

I will scrutinize the first three discussed open education initiatives according to a number of factors. These factors, not surprisingly influence sustainability in an open education program, such as an OCW. Wiley mentioned these previously, in OECD (2007) and Wiley (2006), and concern:
  • Organization; how the initiative is organized, which merely concerns the level of decentralization. Who manages it? How is support provided? Who are able to contribute?
  • Motivation; on how much intrinsic motivation does the project rely on to be successful? How is this motivation found and utilized?
  • Types of resources; what kind of resources are offered? What can be said about this?
  • Types of reuse; how are people intended to reuse the material, what are their possibilities, what kind of support is offered?
  • Funding & Revenue; in what way is the initiative bringing in money to be sustainable?
These issues more or less cover the sustainability issue, and will be discussed in this post. The factors influence each other; for example, the needed intrinsic motivation depends on the level of decentralization. There is, of course, not a single bullet-proof configuration, since the context of the initiative (the university, embedded technology, culture) is of paramount influence on the final configuration of an open education program. Not all initiatives are scrutinized according these factors; only the first three, after that only the interesting and remarkable issues are mentioned.

Open University (UK) Open Content Initiative. The Open University is open to people, places, methods and ideas. The goals of the OU itself are (i) promoting educational opportunity and social justice by providing high-quality university education to all who wish to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential; and (ii) striving for world leadership in the design, content and delivery of supported open and distance learning through academic research, pedagogic innovation and collaborative partnerships. With its OCI, it provides a large number of open learning resources for free. The Open University set up OpenLearn in 2006 to better understand the implications of open educational resources for the future of learning. By April 2008, 5,400 learning hours of content will be available online. It is an interesting initiative, because it has two different sites. One is called LearningSpace, and the other, more experimental for both the initiators as the users, LabSpace. In addition, the site offers a truly learning experience, by including instructional design in the resources. About the OCI, the university states the following:

"In October 2006 The Open University became the first UK university to provide free access to its course materials with the launch of an open educational resources website. For decades The Open University has transformed the lives of people whose background and experience barred their entry to traditional universities. The OU believes that open educational resources have the potential to dramatically increase the number of lives that can be improved through education, in the UK and internationally. Through OpenLearn it hopes to achieve this.
  • OpenLearn enables learners with limited experience and confidence to become better prepared for formal education.
  • It offers structured learning materials and tools to support teachers working with under-represented groups.
  • It supplies ‘reintegration’ level material for those wishing to return to higher education after time out.
  • It provides workers with an opportunity to upgrade their skill base and progress their career."
When it comes to the factors described above, the following can be said;
  • Organization: Interestingly, the LearningSpace is organized rather top-down and centralized, and resources are added by OU teachers, who are supported by the university. LabSpace, in contrary, enables users to change and add units. Both sites offer different tools, such as Instant Messaging, knowledge mapping, discussion forum, Flash-meeting, and personal learning journal. You can also rate each unit.
  • Motivation: The motivation needed for the success of the sites differ as well. LabSpace depends on the content of LearningSpace, since initially, the courses are copied to LabSpace. So initially teachers have to be motivated to put their content online, but they are supported by the university to do that. More intrinsic motivation is needed for the development of resources on LabSpace, since the users are not given any specific support or reward for their contributions.
  • Types of resources: As mentioned, a true learning experience is offered with full courses or single units, which sometimes include video-material. The materials are rich enough to be understood without recourse to a teacher, unlike Open Courseware materials.
  • Types of reuse: The user is intended to be able to use the material as-is, or download it for personal use/adaptation. On the LabSpace site users can contribute derivative works, and get a teacher status. There is software available that supports this, but physical support is not given to non-OU individuals. Some knowledge about Moodle (the Learning Management System used) is needed to be able to work with it.
  • Funding & Revenue: In total, a substantive grant of about $7 million (US) was given by the Hewlett foundation. Clearly, in the longer run, the OU hopes to interest users, so they will subscribe to a paid course of their interest. The initiative caused quite a bit of media attention, and new users worldwide, who are potential new students.
The content on the site, somewhat logical, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Licence. In Connexions (discussed below), where content is created in a wiki-way by anyone in the world, the works are licensed under the less restrictive Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Personal comments on the initiative
I think the initiative is great, offering numerous very interesting courses in a variety of domains. I must confess that I have watched several of their videos (on YouTube) and read through several courses this year. I hope they will get sustainable and find a way to offer more and more resources for free. Regarding LabSpace, if they want to tap into the vast pool of incremental efforts by individuals online, the tools they offer to support these activities must improve, it is too elaborate and difficult to change a unit, and on top of it, above all, it has to be done offline (download, change, upload). Connexions, in contrast, offers a very easy-to-use online tool to change courses, modules, and content. The ugly layout and slow speed of the website are more easily changed aspects (I reckon), but not less important.

Connexions. This initiative dates back to 1999, so even before the MIT OCW initiative. Richard Baraniuk, and some others had a vision of creating an online space where anyone can contribute, share and collaboratively create scholarly materials. Connexions is a place to view and share educational material made of small knowledge chunks that can be organized as courses, books, reports, etc. Anyone may view or contribute:
  • authors create and collaborate
  • instructors rapidly build and share custom collections
  • learners find and explore content
Their Content Commons contains educational materials for everyone — from children to college students to professionals — organized in small modules that are easily connected into larger collections or courses. Modularity and non-linearity is an essential quality, which represents our brains and our learning much better than for example Open Courseware, or textbooks. The software, the content, and the whole philosophy is open. Collaboration happens in workgroups, and by co-authorship and maintenance. Users can suggest changes to modules, or derive a copy and start a differentiated module. Uploading from different formats is easy, and translated into the XML language that enables flexible reuse and remix of content. The content is, as mentioned, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. The reasons for this license are explained here.

It is my favorite initiative. Not because it is finished, or perfect, but because this initiative in my eyes really has the greatest potential for growth and sustainability. It enables users to make connections between granular chunks of knowledge, and combine them into some personalized learning experience. It also empowers users to contribute in a very easy and intuitive way. In addition, users can create lenses that make it possible for institutions or individuals to include a certain quality level on resources.

Regarding sustainability the following.
  • Organization: Truly bottom-up approach. Contributors can be anyone, and the support is all online, by anyone as well. Tools are in place to improve and adapt resources, and to support users.
  • Motivation: The CC Attribution license is chosen so authors are attributed for their works. The barriers of participation and contribution are quite low (because of the easy-to-use tools), so less motivation is needed for that.
  • Types of resources: Modules can be aggregated into courses, and can be considered learning resources, and allow learning without recourse to a teacher or the contributor. I have not seen a lot of media-rich content, which is understandable, because contributions are not sponsored.
  • Types of reuse: Reuse and remix is the foundation on which this initiative builds. People can derive copies, suggest changes, make their own content, all very easily.
  • Funding and revenues: Besides initial funding from the Hewlett foundation, Connexions shows particular interest in relations and partnerships with non- and for-profit institutions and universities. Little money (close to nothing) is needed to create and publish educational materials. The software is open source, and maintained in a similar fashion as the Content Commons. The money is spent on technological infrastructure, improving access, R&D, and marketing.
As said, I am impressed with the initiative for the reasons of scalability, the technology and the overall philosophical foundations. Still, a number of issues are eligible for improvement. For example, the layout does not appeal the least to me. My opinion is that if you want to promote collaboration and communities, the website itself should feel home, and personalized. Its start page must show relevant information, friends and colleagues, people online, newest blog or forum posts, scribbles, personal messages, etc. It should feel like my personal webpage, where I can add, change, and see resources, connect to others, and discuss. I want to connect to others in communities, not just collaborate in workgroups. Regarding the ability to discuss modules: it is on an external site (USU Open Learn Support), which is not good either. There are quite a bit of things that I miss, such as rating and favouriting modules, social factors as explained above, inability to share modules with others, little multimedia support (it seems as if you cannot embed external multimedia: just upload and embed), and more. The underlying technology and principles seems alright, but the appearance of the site is a bit awkward.

In a nutshell, it is a nice site to make resources, but not a true Web 2.0 site where it is easy to connect and collaborate with people. Still, I see a great potential, if they keep on developing and create great tools, such as the the mentioned lenses.

Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative. I encountered the Carnegie Mellon OLI about a year ago, and immediately used it. I was impressed by the great visual and multimedia aspects, the good setup of courses, and overall appearance. I had a French girlfriend at the time, so I spent some time improving this beautiful language with their free online French course. The course was of very high quality: it included videos, spoken text, short assessments, and normal texts to guide the learning and improve my skills. When you create an account, you can keep track of your scores, and make personal notes.

The focus of CM OLI is on instructional design, formative evaluation, and iterative course improvement based on results. Innovative features include cognitive tutors, virtual laboratories, group experiments, and simulations. The resources are open for anyone to use, but CM-students have access additional services and formal evaluation. The initiative itself is an experiment for cognitive designers as well, who try to improve the courses themselves, but also to contribute to a growing understanding of effective practices in online learning environments. Constant evaluation is done on different aspects, such as the relative effectiveness of the courses, their underlying pedagogical rationality, the soundness of the assessment strategies and tools, and the features that make unique effective online learning.

Through the initiative, CM tries to create communities that in the end will be partly responsible for the development of the resources. These are, therefore, created in a modular fashion to enhance the reusability. The courses that are created are then made freely available to individuals, and for little costs to institutions. With the initiative, CM tries to branch off into a new direction of open educational resources, through the enhancement of the quality of instruction and the provision of a model for a new generation of online courses and course materials that teach more effectively and appeal to students more powerfully than anything in existence today.

Organization, motivation, resources, reuse, funding model
The initiative can be compared best with the LearningSpace site of the Open University (UK) Open Content Initiative. The difference is that the site looks nicer, resources and assessments much more professional. Similar to LabSpace, CM strives for communities that will be involved in developing resources, but it happens on a much more closed manner (probably through closed communication channels).

Another interesting difference is the way the project is funded. I do not mean the funds given by normal foundations, such as the Hewlett foundation (in this case: Mellon foundation and others). I mean that there are companies and institutions funding a specific domain of study that is relevant for the industry they operate in. Another interesting aspect is that they offer created content for a small price to institutions and instructors, meanwhile offering students the content for nothing, which is interesting. Instructors get the opportunity to use the resources with only their own students, but they need to pay for
that service.

I like the resources on this site, they really are sound, and compared to resources on Connexions (not to mention MIT OCW), of great quality. Apparently, the courses can be modularized, and localized by instructors, but after payment. Because the offered resources are of such quality, I think this business model will work. The interest of companies and institutions can be a bit higher because of this, making it more probable that they will donate to make resources in the domain they operate in. There are, I think, quite some value-added services thinkable. The scope of this initiative will remain quite low, since the production and maintenance of the resources, and the evaluation is costly. As long as it keeps on creating high-quality resources, the initiative may become sustainable. But quality is a highly contextual concept, and in this ever-changing world, just that context is changing rapidly.

Open Training Platform
UNESCO Open Training Platform. On this website free access is offered to existing free training courses, specifically to enhance and support development within specialized user groups (such as policy makers, educators, civil servants, farmers, etc.) and local communities in developing countries. The guidelines, learning and teaching resources, which address practical needs in the social, health, and economical domains can be used for self-learning, teaching, and other non-commercial purposes.

The first thing that is catches the eye is the type of resources. The site is a referatory, meaning that, contrary to the above, the resources are made and to be found outside the website. It is very similar to MERLOT, where these referred to resources can be peer-reviewed in discipline communities. The UNESCO Open Training Platform enables the user to submit trainings, subscribe to certain disciplines (and their resources), bookmark resources, and review materials.

Quality is an important issue, since anyone can contribute trainings. Quality assessment happens in a distributed fashion as well through rating and reviewing resources. This function did not appear to function well. The most important critique I have on the site is that there is no way to interact or connect with other people... what a pity. It will probably be more attractive to users to contribute and participate in making it a better website of higher quality if they can connect with others, when others can see their contributions, interests, ask questions etc. There are so-called communities, but the only "members" are the linked resources.

MIT OCW. The flagship open courseware initiative, the largest provider of open courseware worldwide, the first and the most well-known. The project started in 2001, and their goal of having published all their courses online by 2008 has been attained. Through OCW, MIT tries to express in an immediate and far-reaching way its goal of advancing education around the world. It has set the example for many open courseware initiatives worldwide, including the current OCW project at my university. Their resources concern courseware from different disciplines, such as Architecture, Engineering, Science, and Economics, but also Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. There are translations in different languages, such as Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, French, etc.

MIT OCW is an incredible resource. It more or less covers all the courses at this great (in size and name) university. Still, I ask myself, does it really appeal to me? To me as a learner, it does not to a high extent. Still, the largest user group are my kind: self-learners. Does it mean that there is some value in the resources I did not see? Or that for educators the resources are even more useless?

To me, courseware is boring and not mine. It offers a glimpse on the course, the syllabi, notes taken, exams given, assignments, and sometimes even video lectures. But the site is intrinsically static, and above all, the separate coursewares show the vision of one educator or a few. The resources cannot be reassembled and sequenced in a way more appropriate to my or other people's use, because they are neither granular or flexible (in an XML format, such as Connexions). Some courses offer good resources, but many of the courses do not. There is no way to know the quality of a course other than really seeing and trying. Personalization, contribution, rating, giving feedback, connecting to other users, favouriting courses, making and sharing personal collections, are not included in the options of the website. Actually, the only option available for the user is "Sit back en watch/read". Oh yeah, you can discuss courses, but again on an external site, again the USU Open Learn Support website.

A positive thing about the project is that, because of its sheer size, there are some nice sub-projects, such as iLabs, MIT TechTV and several others. Also, the variety of domains and resources make it a place where you will likely succeed in finding something in your liking. Whether you can use it as you want remains a question.

All the content comes from teachers, and flows through a centralized office, where copyright is cleared, and possibly adapted. It is quite an expensive workflow, and the average costs for publishing one course on the website is $10.000 (Wiley, 2007), which is about one hundred $100 laptops for kids. For such an expensive and popular project it is a pity, and such a waste, that they do not use the enormous amount of users (+2million a month) in a more efficient and effective way. Imagine having a huge library, with different departments, and within these departments, specific domains. People here are only able to see the things they are interested in, but they cannot see each other. Offering a hardly used external discussion forum makes me laugh and cry at the same time. The internet is not made to be quite, it is not a library.

Concerning quality; MIT makes sure that the resources are clear of copyrighted material, but the quality is not always as good. First of all, courses are not updated very regularly. Secondly, more than once I have seen PDF files with hardly readable and less understandable handwritten lecture notes. What is the point, please??! In conclusion I must say that the initiative is great, but that its full potential is far from reached.

National Repository of Online Courses. This beautiful resource is the only one new to me. But a very pleasant surprise, with media-rich and high quality learning resources. The NROC is a growing library of high-quality online courses for students and faculty in higher education, high school and Advanced Placement. This project, supported by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, facilitates collaboration among a community of content developers to reach students and teachers worldwide. Most resources are made and maintained by developers of online-learning programs across the USA (in collaboration with NROC), and have to meet certain standards of scholarship, instructional value and quality criteria to be published in the repository. The offered courses are designed to cover the breadth and depth of topics based on generally accepted national curricula and can also be customized within a course management system. The NROC courses include video, animation, still graphics, simulations, text and audio. The website mentions that courses also focus on student activities, interaction and collaboration that take advantage of online communication tools, but I have not seen any examples of that. The range of subjects is limited to US History, US Politics, Physics, Calculus & Algebra, Religions of the World, Environmental Science, and Biology.

It is an initiative similar to the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative, because it offers institutions to publish courses on their systems at little cost. The difference is that the initiative works with several institutions and companies in the USA, whereas CM is the only institution providing resources on its site. More interesting are the membership options (for institutions, consortia, and systems) the NROC offers to sustain its activities. Members (fee ranging from $3000 to $25.000) get access to special services and people. The following is offered:
  • Collaboratively developed (Social Authored) high-quality, online content that is beyond the financial resources and development capabilities of any individual institution;
  • Unlimited access to NROC content, customizable by faculty for any online or classroom use;
  • Professional development support and training workshops, webinars, and asynchronous events;
  • Online journals for publishing research, case studies, and white papers;
  • Access to expert developer, technologist, faculty, and administrator Network partners;
  • Priority status as NROC subject matter experts, contributors, and reviewers.
As can be seen, it is intended that users can customize/reuse/localize content, but are also able to contribute to it through social authoring.

The NROC also partners with publishers of education textbooks offering them powerful and direct marketing possibilities on their HippoCampus. Resources are licensed depending on the intended licensee. In case of commercial vendors, they are licensed fee-based, for publishers use-based, and in case of non-profit organizations, for free.

Wrapping up... A lot can be said about these different initiatives, but let's focus on quality. First of all, what is quality? Is it in the eye of the beholder, like beauty? Or can it sometimes be clear to distinguish what quality is, and what not? Regarding the online educational resources discussed, I think the latter. I think resources from the National Repository of Online Courses, Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative and Open University (UK) Open Content Initiative are of high quality because instructional design , multimedia, and assessment played a part in the creation of them. These "high-quality" resources enhance the user experience, and therefore the learning. But this is not the only criterium, no, you can look at the initiatives at a different perspective, which can be the empowerment of the user. The Open University (UK) Open Content Initiative and Connexions have taken the right direction, allowing the users to change and contribute materials, and connect to other users. Still, the potential of this has not yet been reached, as I have discussed above.

1 comment:

  1. another point on the OLI initiative by Carnegie Mellon: I spoke with Joel Smith on the OpenLearn 2007 Conference (OU UK), and he mentioned that the greatest amount of requests concerns not the content, but for the experts that are responsible for the course materials. proves that the segmentation model (with value added services) is a viable way to address a project's sustainability.