At the rate it seems to be going, my month here in Milton Keynes will be over in the blink of an eye, but my first week is coming to a close and I wanted to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned and experienced so far.
Community and Open Education
Two examples I came across my second day here really spoke to me about new ways of thinking about OER/Open Education in relationship to people and communities. The first is the iSpot project managed by Doug Clow, one of my colleagues here in the Institute of Educational Technology where the OLNet team from the OU is housed.
As Doug explained, the site allows people to post photos of they’ve taken of local species, and crowdsources their identification. The site has a sophisticated reputation system that awards participants and also identifies those with formal expertise in different fields and weighs their input accordingly. The OU have partnered with a number of BBC Television nature shows and radio programmes to popularize the site, so they are attracting an audience who then participate out of and existing passion and interest. The genius is To *then* weave OU courses into/around this community site and content, using it both as potential course content but also as a conduit for interested informal learners to find formal learning opportunities if they chose, and also interact and be supported in their informal learning community by discipline experts. When Doug described this to me my jaw dropped; it is so obvious yet really a brilliant turn. Too often in formal higher ed we have had the “build it and they will come” belief about our OER efforts, and when that hasn’t happened we’ve then shifted our focus to “building communities” around our content. But that is so wrongheaded. Communities exist already, and where they don’t, it’s not simply a matter of them forming around content, per se. By leading with a site that helped users scratch an itch they already had, however small, (“I keep spotting this bird in my back yard but I don’t know what it is”) and then building tools to support peer engagement and discussion, as well as personal identity and reputation, they’ve set the stage for community to form and share knowledge and only THEN weave formal offerings in and around this. It’s probably not perfect, but I think it offers strong suggestions as to how institutions can engage civil society in a way that leads to a permeable boundary between existing informal learning communities and formal learning institutions/scholars.
The second example was a bit different yet still inspiring. Another researcher on the OLNet project, Andreia Santos, gave a short talk on an initiative at the Brazilian university Unisul to experiment with ways to attract new learners through a mixture of Open Education, peer support and social networking. If I understood correctly (and I’m not sure I completely did, so I hope Andreia will see this and chime in with a correction or pointer to a longer write up), the university has begun offering access to a block of 10 courses, a mixture of open resources from the OU and themselves, within their own learning environment (so not just ‘content’ but a full VLE experience…). The part that tickled my fancy was that they do so during one of their “breaks” (in their case the Winter break that happens in June/July) and are in part marketing it to friends and families of existing students. This seems like a smart idea in that not only do they have stronger ties and so their message is much more convincing, but they themselves end up taking some of these courses to and because of their familiarity with the environment end up becoming a form of peer support. I understand that this year they have introduced a nominal fee but that students can take as many of the courses as they want and get a form of certificate at the end. Like I said, different than iSpot but still I think a strong example of interacting with community and existing ‘social networks.’
Repositories – some mothers do ‘ave ‘em
Another part of my experience so far has been to listen to talks on a few different repository projects that shall remain nameless. The learning here wasn’t particularly new for me, but it did continue to confirm beliefs I’ve long held about the weak points of this approach: that they typically do not tap in or reinforce individual motivations for sharing; that their model of ripping content out of its original context for download goes against the grain of the web (more on this soon, as part of my Fellowship work on “OER Tracking”); and that they are a solution begged by the questions of VLEs/LMS silos, sharing modeled on “publishing” and that is ony half-heartedly committed to sharing. But… the one good thing I guess is that it made me feel slightly better about my own work, that I’m not the only one who’d hit these problems nor had to learn the hard way that content doesn’t build networks that share, people do.
On being at the OU
If I haven’t already made it clear, it is a HUGE honour for me to be a visiting academic with the OU through the OLNet Fellowship program. This institution has been (and still is) a global leader in the field of distance learning and open education, and there is a tangible passion here for the belief that education can radically improve people’s lives for the better. The opportunity to be physically here for a month is even more special to me because on a day to day basis I work from my home office, and while I am surrounded by a global network of peers who I talk with daily, the chance to be surrounded by so many smart people passionate about open learning, as well as have access to some fantastic services on this lovely campus is one I will never forget. I’d be remiss if I did not extend a special thanks to Karen Cropper and Janet Dyson for helping me find my way in the first few days and make me feel really at home, and a special thanks to “Liam and the librarians” for broadening my social horizons.
There’s lots more to tell, especially around my specific project of tracking OERs outside of the bounds of the repository (which I think we’ve now got a plausible model of how to do) but I’ll leave that for another post. For now I’ll leave it that it is good to be back in the land of great cheese and delicious warm beer with so many rich opportunities to learn ahead of me.