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Exploring new ways of being open

Module by: Ken Udas. E-mail the author

Summary: Martin Weller's contribution to the OSS and OER in Education Series. In this post, he discusses the Open University’s attempt to create an open API-based social networking system for learning.

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Author - Martin Weller, "Exploring new ways of being open". Originally submitted October 14th, 2008 to the OSS and OER in Education Series, Terra Incognita blog (Penn State World Campus), edited by Ken Udas.

When the Open University (OU) in the UK was founded in 1969, ‘open’ had a rather specific meaning in education. It meant open access, and this was realised through part time study and open entry. In choosing the term ‘Open’ the university’s founders chose wisely as it is a term which has, if anything, gained in currency. When we think of openness in education now we probably think of open source software, open educational resources, open APIs, open journals, etc. In this post I want to highlight how the OU is embracing these different forms of openness, and to make the argument that it is doing so through technology projects. In this sense, openness is not just a technical or pedagogic decision even, but rather a fundamental mindset, and one which we need to continually reinterpret in the light of changing technology and society.

I will concentrate on the project I am currently directing, SocialLearn, which aims to build a social network for learning. This project comes on the back of two other major OU ventures, namely the OU adoption of the open source platform Moodle as its learning management system, and the OU’s Hewlett Foundation funded open educational resource initiative, OpenLearn. My colleague Andy Lane will talk about the latter in detail in his post, which will be posted on this blog soon after mine. The adoption of Moodle was significant for the OU for two main reasons: firstly, it signaled to the education community that we believed open source was a robust and sensible option; secondly, it gave out a strong message that the OU was still current and willing to take risks. In this sense it was as much a political decision as a technical one.

SocialLearn is the latest in these types of initiatives. Its aim is to develop a social network for learners, which is based around an open API, thus allowing any application to write to it. In this sense it could be one form of the almost mythical ‘eduglu’ that binds together a range of third party applications to create a Personal Learning Environment. What is perhaps more intriguing, though, is what will happen when we can mine the social graph data to help structure a learner’s experience. When a learner creates a goal, similar goals, relevant resources, and potential third party offerings (eg mentorship, tuition, formal courses) can all be assembled. The system, in effect, can do much of the filtering process that is currently performed by an educator (although it does not seek to provide the support or expertise of the educator, filtering is only one function). The potential of this is that the currently top-down, restricted curriculum is democratised. People learn about whatever is of interest to them - in effect we have an open curriculum.

Currently the project is under development, with a beta launch planned for early 2009. As well as the technical development, which is being informed by pedagogic theory, the project is also developing new business models, on the assumption that truly open education will need to find sustainable models, if the conventional funding from governments does not apply. The project is seeking to understand how socially data driven learning can be used to support alumni, informal (or leisure) learners, and those seeking career development. The current support and accreditation practices we have in higher education will need to be rethought to meet the needs of these groups in society at large and SocialLearn can be viewed as the OU’s means of understanding, and influencing, these changes.

In undertaking all three of these projects the OU is seeking to remain relevant in a rapidly changing society. The projects are both a means of developing a new profile, but also of understanding how learners behave and what their needs are in a digital society. But they can also be seen as a means of reinterpreting what open means - from Moodle we have come to understand how to operate in a large open source community and from OpenLearn we have investigated what an open approach to content means, both for the institution and learners. From SocialLearn we hope to understand what openness means in terms of subject area, technology and business models.

I’ve presented these endeavours as a positive action, but they are not without risks or significant issues. Is a university the best place to create a social network site? Does this type of activity lead to the commercialisation of education, or is it a response to it? Can learners really learn effectively in this manner? Does it mean learners are challenged less during the learning process?

In thinking about the issues, my general view is that higher education needs to adapt to remain relevant to a society which is changing rapidly. I want to avoid accusations of technological determinism by suggesting that digital technologies themselves are changing society, but they are facilitating new types of behaviour and communication. As Clay Shirky says in Here Comes Everybody, ‘when we change the way we communicate, we change society.’ But, I do have a concern that if we begin to disaggregate higher education, we will lose some of the subtle benefits the existing model provides to learners, educators and society itself. Although I feel that the OU, and other educators around the world are right to pursue these new models, occasionally the words of British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg come to mind: “The temptation to take the precious things we have apart, to see how they work, must be resisted, for they never fit together again.”

Comments

1. plefrere - October 15th, 2008 at 7:32 am

“When a learner creates a goal, similar goals, relevant resources, and potential third party offerings (eg mentorship, tuition, formal courses) can all be assembled.”. A crucial question is who controls the system doing the assembling. If a university is at the center of the system, that looks like business as usual.

Another approach is to put students at the center, able to decide whether and how to make use of a particular institution’s offers and services, as part of a mix of personalized services, based on open standards, that can include P2P and informal learning, and can augment today’s open educational resources. That approach is new. It is called a Responsive Open Learning Environment. Responsive means personalization. Open includes all the things mentioned in the post. From 2009, expect to read a lot, across the world, about Responsive Open Learning Environments.

By using a ROLE, people can learn about whatever is of interest to them. And source each element of their learning, to hit their personal criteria (eg “I want to cut my education costs by 50% yet obtain internationally recognized and highly rated qualifications, whilst studying in ways that I enjoy, at times to suit me, with people I will like; find me the best mix of mentoring, tuition, formal courses, informal learning, social networks and accreditation”). It will be interesting to see how open business models evolve to make use of ROLE features.

2. Ken Udas - October 16th, 2008 at 8:16 am

It would seem to me that the notions around disaggregating higher education are really providing different opportunities for engagement, and are not really about taking something valuable or precious apart. I am wondering though if I am missing something. Would anybody be willing to expand a bit on the relationship between the objectives of SocialLearn, specifically and Responsive Open Learning Environment (ROLE) more generally, disaggregation of higher education, and what might be seen as a threat to the traditional western university? That is, what might we see change?

3. plefrere - October 16th, 2008 at 8:40 am

I can’t speak for SocialLearn itself. But more generally… it’s likely that social-learning systems (whether SocialLearn itself or ROLEs) will include low-cost/no-cost seamless access to “as if we are in the same room” virtual-participation systems, allowing students to drop into face-to-face seminars and lectures (virtual presence). This makes possible a return to the valued ways of the original western universities (eg Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, Sorbonne), which allowed students to move freely between each university, learning from a mix of the best scholars. Much as Steve Jobs describes in his famous Stanford commencement address (it’s on iTunes). That “free-range” or “drop-in” or “open access” approach to teaching and learning is aided by disaggregation. But if universities move to working in this way, they must be able to track who is using which services, and develop a business model that fits a disaggregated world. Likewise, free-range students may need support in engaging with a “community of scholars”. So a ROLE will necessarily provide a wide choice of open services to help them to develop and maintain their online identity, to seek guidance, to learn to cooperate / share / become members of a community, and to build trust.

4. andreasmeiszner - October 17th, 2008 at 11:35 am

Hearing words like API and open standards, though important, in combination with words like “new” and in the context of the soon to come educational killer application makes me always being scarred that we end up with yet another tool / toy.

We have myriads of good cases at the web that show that vivid learning environments and communities are successfully working by using simple yet mature technologies, meanwhile all of our attempts within traditional educational settings haven’t taken up as we hoped.

Learning is to a great extent a silent process and silence is difficult to be displayed and shared at the web. But the same web also show us how this silence can be made visible i.e. by people either actively discussing and developing a joint goal, or by sharing their thoughts within open unstructured debates, or by posting questions and receiving answers. Bringing content and tools to people is certainly helpful, but is not the most important thing to break silence, to scratch an itch, or to stimulate participation and engagement.

Additionally and talking about “open learning environments”, at least if it is to be “open”, also means that words like “students” become vague so we need to be clear to whom are we actually referring and for whom are we doing all of this: our students (for whom we bear the responsibility), fellow institutions’ students (for whom someone else bears the responsibility) or free learner that just scratch an itch?

Within our traditional educational systems all our attempts going open or taking advantage of collective knowledge are somehow condemned to fail and this might be something to work on first. Is this the reason we keep on focusing on the technology side and develop large numbers of “yet another thing”, though we learned over the past decade that others do a much better job on this “out at the web”?

This leads me to 2 questions:

  1. What would we actually do with e.g. a ROLE once we created the ultimate “open” socio-technological system? Could we use it within our current educational system? Or would already the law prohibit us doing so to protect our students? More importantly, could we even test and pilot it during the development time with our students? Or with the students from others? On a large scale, to make sure it would be accepted and functions e.g. as a p2p system? How “close to the market” would such a system be after 4 years development? Seeing that this is a large scale 6.6 Mio Euros project I assume that it should be used successfully after market introduction by millions of people, having been tested over a year or to with thousands and experimented with community building and how they impact the system, but how could this work being applied in traditional educational systems?
  2. Why not using existing technologies and focusing on the organizational side, to see what’s working and what not, and “let the system grow in an evolutionary way” by responding to actually identified needs, bugs and opportunities?

We can see at the web that humans leverage information, act as information broker, provide support and help each other, create and remix things, tag them, question them, improve them, and ultimately do this for a particular reason be it learning, work or fun… And IMO they are doing a fairly good job on this.

A simple bulletin board can be turned into a vivid learning community, as long as there is a motivation and reason for a diverse group to engage at it.

We have already for quite some years all those free tools at hand, but yet we haven’t managed to apply them in the right way. If we are to “go open”, and not just use “open” as the trendy word it became, we might need to understand first how the web works and what’s proven to work out well and to create similar conditions within an educational setting and than keep on going to improve and enhance it step by step.

But you might have taken this all into consideration and it is just me being scared by the wording or the way I interpret them, which gives me the idea that the focus is once again on new technologies.

Best, Andreas

5. davidmcquillan - October 20th, 2008 at 9:59 pm

Hi all,

I’m interested to know how open SocialLearn is.

Will it be available for the students of other institutions to use?

6. Martin Weller - October 21st, 2008 at 1:48 am

@Ken - I think disaggregation may come in many forms. You can view current higher education as a convenience bundle: it puts together content (lectures, selected books/articles), support, assessment, and a cohort to study with. That’s quite a powerful bundle and worth paying for. But elements of it begin to fray - content for example can be easily found and assembled (but the sequencing is still valuable), support could be paid for as you need it (PhD students offering it online for $20 an hour), and a cohort could be assembled on the fly (think the neighborhood in LastFM). Assessment, in a form that is recognised by society, is probably the key component holding these together - society still knows what a degree is. But if that became unbundled you could see how the other elements might be picked off - both by businesses, but also by technology. I’m not proposing this as desirable, just a possibility now in a way that it wasn’t before.

@Andreas - you make an interesting point, openness is a state of mind, not a shiny new technology. But I’d argue that the technology is partly how you realise that state of mind. In the case of sociallearn the aim is to allow you to integrate these simple existing technologies in a learning context. Also, as you suggest, there are elements of the business and/or pedagogic model that are currently not realised, so the project is simultaneously trying to implement these/

@david - the idea is that it’s open to anyone to use, but also that other institutions may take and install a customised version.

7. Ken Udas - October 21st, 2008 at 9:16 am

I have been giving some significant thought to the idea of independent learners “scratching an itch,” as Andreas describes it, the notion of disaggregation, and openness as a pedagogical intent. My thoughts have been further stimulated by an email I received from my daughter last week. She is 14 years old, is living in a Scandinavian country and has shown aptitude and interest in science. She has identified an intellectual itch to take upon herself “independent study” of biology and turned to the MIT Open Courseware site for some content and some structure for a course of study.

As her birthday is coming up, she decided to ask that I make a birthday gift of the recommended textbook for the open biology course. Unfortunately the textbook was not open (perhaps another discussion). I, of course, have happy purchased, and will forward the physical text to her.

So, she will have a “course” that has been designed with the full complement of objectives, learning outcomes, assessments, etc. providing some structure to her learning. She will also have some content in the form of the online course and the textbook. What else though might she need to make the best use of her efforts while engaging in self-study and improvement? What would she have received if she were doing this within the context of a traditional learning environment (university)? What if she wants to formally apply her independent learning to a University sanctioned curriculum in the future? How can she access those things that she finds valuable relative to her personal development aspirations?

Off the top of my head, here are some of the things she might get if she were studying in a traditional manner at a university:

  • An assigned professor/tutor (facilitation and support)
  • A peer group (formal and informal social learning opportunities)
  • Assigned credit for demonstrated knowledge (external motivator, recognition and portability learning, etc.)
  • Student services/support (tutoring, library & research services, etc.)

I would assume that all of these could be very valuable. So, as an independent learner and user of open courseware, how might she access these valuable services? Is SocialLearn and ROLE intended to support independent (life long) learners like my daughter (who I am sure will study at some time at a university) or is it principally about opening opportunities for learners who decided to study at a university?

So many questions… my last one is:

Can we disaggregate the university for independent learners, but not fragment the experience?

8. davidmcquillan - October 21st, 2008 at 3:48 pm

Thanks for that Martin.

I’d be interested to test-drive the environment, as I’m sure would some of my collegues here at Otago Polytechnic, New Zealand. Could you please let me know when it’s available? david AT tekotago.ac.nz

Cheers

9. Summary: Exploring new ways of being open | Terra Incognita - A Penn State World Campus Blog - November 4th, 2008 at 9:40 am

[...] “Exploring new ways of being open,” the 24th installment of the Impact of Open Source Software Series, was posted on October 14, 2008, by Martin Weller. Martin Weller serves as Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University in the UK. He chaired the OU’s first major online course with 15,000 students, was the VLE Project Director and is now Director of the SocialLearn project. His interests are in elearning, web 2.0 and the implications of new technologies for higher education. He blogs at edtechie.net. Thanks, Martin, for a great posting! [...]

10. » Para qué es la Web: Más docentes deberían hacer esto…- OLDaily octubre 15/08 El Blog Boyacense: El sitio de referencia de tod@s l@s boyacenses - November 12th, 2008 at 4:08 am

[...] Bueno si se trata de criterios personales ¿no se deberían llamar “entornos personales de aprendizaje”? [L][C] [...]

11. Systems for Supportive Open Teaching | Terra Incognita - A Penn State World Campus Blog - November 26th, 2008 at 4:26 am

[...] over lately. They also follow on well from the recent contributions from Martin Weller around exploring new ways of being open and Cole Camplese on embedding student [...]

12. Summary: Systems for Supportive Open Teaching | Terra Incognita - A Penn State World Campus Blog - December 30th, 2008 at 7:19 pm

[...] again, special thanks to our recent contributors, Martin Weller, Cole Camplese, and Andy Lane. I will ask a few more guests to participate in the OER and OSS [...]

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