Oct 24, 2007

OpenED week 8: Reflections

I have looked through some of the blogs posted in week 8 of the Open Education course, and made some personal reflections. These are described in this blogpost, which ends with an argument on how to reach sustainability by mixing commercial activity with educational activity and the creation of resources. Both social as economical sustainability are attained according to this value mechanism (if internal and external factors allow it, of course). Read and post your comments!

Jennifer Maddrell gives us a very nice overview of different OER setups, making a distinction between the effort done by the supplier of OER (centralized), and the effort done by the end-user or learner (decentralized). I think this is a pretty good distinction, although I would like to add that learner can be teachers as well. She explains that OER produced with a lot of effort by the supplier (most OCW projects), but with a low learner engagement might not be sustainable. Maybe MIT will be, because they are rich and will probably make some better and more interactive content in the future, but all the followers, including my university, will not. In the interview about the future of Delft OCW with Professor Wim Veen, he stressed two points: engaging materials and education and user involvement in the discussion about and creation of resources. The value of the OCW environment will increase with the engagement of the community being active in it. This will be accomplished with interactive and learner centered content, and the empowerment of users worldwide to contribute and discuss content, and to connect on the site.

She makes a mistake to say that UK Open Lab Space is an example of her "Blissful connections" model, the model where there is little supply side effort, and a lot of end-user engagement. This can be explained with the following short email-conversation I had with Patrick McAndrew (OpenLearn). I asked;

  1. Do you intend to commercialize the open resources, or involve sponsors in another way.
  2. Also, value-added services could be important for sustainability, what VA services do you have in mind for the project.
  3. What about lowering costs through collaborative authoring on LabSpace, does that plat any role?
Patrick answered;

In brief though to reflect current thinking I can answer your questions but the answers may change!

  1. No we do not intend to commercialise. We do not rule out advertising or sell through but more as interesting things to try than revenue. We do see that aspects of our work will attract further funding.
  2. Assessment, tutoring, certification, support for collaborative partners.
  3. WE are very keen to develop this capability to open up the value in LabSpace but not as route to lowering costs.
Another aspect of sustainability is being efficient in providing open content from OU content and bring the work we do closer to everyday work so that it is straightforward to do and also enhances experience for our producers.
Answer 3 shows that empowering users is not a way to lower costs for this project. The costs have been made already, yes, and publishing the LearnSpace content on LabSpace is done for free. But it means that you cannot build a business around this model without taking into account the LearnSpace: you need LearnSpace to fill LabSpace! Making this not a blissful place, but an expensive model, where "assessment, tutoring, certification, support for collaborative partners" form the basis for sustainability.

Connexions does empower users and adopts the decentralization of OER production (and therefore some engagement) with users as a means to lower costs. But the resources are not that interactive, and do not engage students to a high degree. A true blissful place, one that will undoubtedly reach the surface of the OER ocean one day, is an environment that includes manuals and tools, and some centralized and decentralized support, to enable any user creating or improving interactive content, and connecting with concepts and people.

Jon Thomas (Smart Marbles ) compares sustainability of OER with the business model of Ben & Jerry's:
Ben and Jerry’s has 3 goals: a product quality mission, an economic sustainability mission, and a social contribution mission. Each part of the mission must thrive in order for Ben and Jerry’s to remain in business. One can imagine an open education business following somewhat the same pattern. Focusing on a three-part emphasis of content quality, economic sustainability, and social impact.
He warns us as well to be careful with the comparison, because of the different properties of education and ice. Especially the non-subtraction of content compared to ice is mentioned as difference. I would also add that social value in OER is in most aspects the same as quality. Still, focusing on quality, economic sustainability, and social impact is right on target I think, because you can have high quality resources with little social impact, such as "Introduction to kitesurfing". A resource with more social value would be "Explaining and calculating the forces during kitesurfing", but I can be wrong. Jon explains that over time, Ben & Jerry's goal to be a charitable organization was not a hindrance, but ended up contributing to the business model itself.

He considers the VA-model the most interesting way to become sustainable, which is called the Segmentation Model by Wiley. I agree, I truly think that institutions can become sustainable by offering many different VA services with their open content, even more sustainable than not offering open content and relying on their old (closed) business model.

Benkler explains that modularity and granularity is an important aspect of peer production. He explains that encyclopedias are much easier to collaboratively edit and create than textbooks, because the latter requires internal structure and coherence. Antonio Fini asks whether the encyclopedia model would be more sustainable for OER. I think that is a valid question, but he does not elaborate more on it, which is a pity. I would say that making the creation of OER as learning objects (without coherence) lowers the barrier, and therefore increases the sustainability. It could also have lower value for those individuals (or companies) seeking a coherent set of learning objects. This value can therefore be added and form the basis of a business model, for example the creation of On-Demand courses based on freely available OER. The non-commercial clause that is attached to the could be problematic then.

Rob Barton remembers us to have a look at the Open Source community, and points out that their experience is much greater than ours (the OER community). Acknowledging the difference between software and OER, he makes a good point in how content does not differentiate the value of a university. This was also mentioned in my previous post, with interview with Professor Wim Veen about the future Delft OCW environment: "The value of the Open Educational Resources site is not determined by the content that is placed on it, but by the community that is engaged in it." He gives a rather funny (or sad?) example of how reputation (or value) is seen:
After Boise State University's perfect season, capped off by a win over Oklahoma in a BCS bowl, a survey showed that the national recognition for their football team had a positive impact on the school's reputation for academics and research (although the two are probably not related). There will always be something else to differentiate schools on, but it does not appear to be the content taught in the classroom.
And he concludes with a good point, which is pinpoints exactly the most important thing to focus in order to reach sustainability of an Open Education Program.
If the content becomes free, where does that leave degrees that are based on mastery of that free content? That one is going to have to wait for another day, but I imagine it will come down to paying for the actual differentiating features of an institution.
Acid Scorpio takes the advertisement model as one to consider, and extends Google initiative to make mobile services (calling, messaging) free, and paid by advertisers:
Imagine then if you will a "Google-U" university. Going for a Psych degree or certificate? Taking a Psych 101 course? Information is aggregated from all across the internet about all the topics you'll need to know in order to complete the courses required. Click to access the first course, watch an Ad. Download that diagram, advertisement must be watched first. All aspects of a course could be commercialized in order to allow for a sustainable business model. For a while you were able to get dial-up for free as long as you watched / read advertisement in between websites. Google is also intelligent enough that it could suggest products / services relevant to the information you are looking up. Google-U could be used to draw people in to view yet more pages that use Google's Ad-words engine.
I think that advertisement will play a role in offering OER, but not a large one. The commercial influence of companies or institutions will be much more intrinsically linked with the OER system and resources. What does that mean? Well, this advertisement model is based on the following transactions:
  • Commercial institution gives money to sustain OER environment; and
  • Commercial institution recieves audience towards he can direct commercial offerings.
This is a rather limited view on sustainability, something Acid Scorpio admits as well. The problem with this model is that the value of the content will diminish with the increase of commercial activitity. Another problem is that if you want to allow reuse of this content, the reuser could offer this content without the advertisements, making it more attractive than the original, which means that advertisers will not be happy. The only way to do this is through a search or aggregation machine that is superior, I guess.

A more elaborate, and possibly more sustainable way of mixing commercial activity and OER is to follow a similar, but distinct transaction:
  • Commercial institution (or agent) offers or organizes learning opportunities: internships, challenges, symposia, etc.;
  • Commercial institution helps develop resources; and (in return)
  • Commercial institution is able to make network with and make use of experts and students.
You see that there is hardly any advertisement needed, and that commercial activity can even increase the value of OER, rather than decrease it. My opinion is also that commercial activity creates opportunities for practition, because it usually forms the last link to valorization of knowledge. It should therefore be intrinsically linked with learning, and OER as well.

I have written an article a year ago on a "value mechanism" that should make educational settings not just engaging, participatory, valuable, but sustainable as well. This mechanism, picture below, can be seen as a mechanism that will make a sustainable OER environment as well. It is very simple, but the more complicated stuff concerns the criteria to make this mechanism work.
In short, it works as follows. A person (anyone: teacher, student, worker, hobbyist, etc.) is interested in some domain or specification, and finds a relevant community, or creates a relevant network. This network consists of people with specific knowledge, able to teach and help this person. After being introduced to the subject, the person can make him/herself valuable in the network, by sharing and applying his specific knowledge. By being active he/she improves the network, and his or her online identity or status. Being a network, with network characteristics, this improvement will attract more people, who potentially can increase this network even more. Some of these people are looking for opportunities to make money out of the innovation done in the network, or just want some advise on specific subjects. Through flexible employment mechanisms these people might also be interested in hiring smart persons in the network, trustworthy persons. This trust and smartness is translated in the online ID of any person, and combined with specific characteristics of the person it will make searching for the right person easy and effective. By providing services for the network, paid or non-paid, value is created for both the person as the network.

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