A welcome smack in the face on open courseware

So Richard Baraniuk’s talk on the Open Education Revolution was as good as I expected. And Richard himself perpetuated a trend I have been delighted to notice in this field, which roughly stated is that the more impressive and more accomplished the person, the more easygoing and devoid of ego they tend to be…

I have followed the Connexions Project for some time, so I was mostly familiar with the components of Richard’s presentation. But two revelations jumped out at me:

* That Connexion’s robust digital-to-print conversion features combined with advances in print-on-demand technology have allowed Rice University Press to rise from the ashes — perhaps there is a future for University publishing houses that is at least borderline sustainable.

* A legitimate criticism of the open education movement is that it favours institution-centric practice. Richard shared the story of a Houston-based music teacher whose innovative methods for teaching music theory in a typical year might reach the 15 or 20 students she was able to work with in person. Through Connexions, she has been able to reach a genuinely vast audience (Richard cited a total of 7.2 million views). And apparently her work is incorporated into public education syllabi around the world, including some in Mongolia. To me, a story like that suggests the potential of open education might genuinely be “revolutionary”.

I recorded audio of the session, though it’s not especially good quality. There was also some professional recording of audio and video done, hopefully I will be able to upgrade what is here soon.

This is an 11 minute excerpt from the Q&A, in which we discussed the hard realities of getting adoption of open courseware in a higher ed setting:

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And here is the unedited audio of the session:

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So between the session and other conversations I’ve been having lately (as well as some welcome indications of support from higher-ups here at UBC), I was beginning to feel some new motivation to make another push to get some kind of open courseware project rolling.

Then, last night, I was doing a round of web-trolling and came across this article by one of my heroes, Canadian copyright maven Michael Geist. Geist notes the success of the MIT OpenCourseWare initiative (Stephen Downes queries the numbers being bandied about), and the global reach of the OCW Consortium (it’s worth checking out the comments on Geist’s blog) — then he tears into a notable gap:

Yet it is also a story in which Canada is largely absent. The sole Canadian participant in the Open Courseware consortium is Capilano College, a relatively small school with 6,700 students located in North Vancouver, British Columbia. The rest of Canadian higher education — Toronto, York, UBC, Western, Alberta, Queen’s, Ottawa, McGill, Dalhousie, Waterloo, and dozens more — are inexplicably missing in action.

Failure to lead

While collective agreements may restrict the ability to mandate participation, every Canadian university should be able to identify a handful of professors willing to freely post their course materials so that the 10-course minimum can be met. Indeed, it is an initiative in which everyone benefits — enhanced reputation for the participating professors, name recognition and student recruitment for the institutions, and new access to knowledge for Canadians from coast to coast.

Canadians pride themselves in being one of the world’s most connected countries; however, the failure to lead on issues such the Open Courseware consortium and open access to the results of Canadian research suggests that we are still struggling to identify how to fully leverage the benefits to education of new technology and the Internet. Many of Canada’s top universities may liken themselves to MIT, but the near-total absence of Canada from the Open Courseware consortium suggests that there is still much to learn.

To which I can only reply… “OUCH!”

As an aside, while it is wonderful that Capilano College is moving in this direction, a half hour of investigation and emailing made it clear that as of now the extent of their activities is some internal discussion, and a pilot eduCommons page that is hosted by Utah State’s COSL, with no courses or content as yet. If that’s the standard for inclusion in the OCW Consortium, UBC might fairly claim to have gotten there more than two years ago.

If that sounds snarky, it isn’t meant to, really. I know all too well that the hard work is identifying willing faculty and other community members, getting the policy (especially IP) questions cleared up, having some kind of technical infrastructure and support in place. And you need to simultaneously engage the grassroots and get buy-in from the upper reaches of the institution’s administration. There are so many chicken-and-egg dilemmas that planning discussions often resemble a stoner study group in a poorly moderated philosophy class…

Yet a confluence of factors has me feeling oddly motivated to stir things up. In the recent past, I’ve argued that getting stuff up on the open web with an open license was enough. But the discussions I’ve been having here have me thinking there might be value in a more formal and programmatic approach. And I find myself wondering what it would really take to scrape ten decent open online courses together… (I wish it was as simple as Geist suggests.)

So I’m going to be making proposals around campus, drawing on the resources available on the OCW Consortium site (any other resources I should know about?)…

More importantly, I intend to contact as wide a range of people as I can here to get a sense of interest in the on-campus community. So if you are at UBC, don’t be surprised if you get an email. (And don’t be afraid to contact me!) And as much as I love to deride Facebook activism, I might see how useful it is to set up a FB group to gather and inform interested parties.

Few things are more invigorating than embarking on an impossible task. Anybody else up for tilting at some windmills?

10 thoughts on “A welcome smack in the face on open courseware

  1. The key for our (University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Center for Distance Ed) involvement is going to be in figuring out and creating quality open courses.

    The MIT project is great, but a LOT of those courses are just a syllabi and maybe a few pages of notes. Somewhere between that and the emptiness of projects yet to get off the ground has to be a sweet spot that people can really use.

    The way to get faculty interested, in my opinion, is by facilitating their openness in teaching in general… lead the willing into the open space, a bit at a time, and eventually real open courses are a much smaller step.

  2. Brian, about 12 months ago I was starting to feel like we were running out of courses to put in our OCW. I was having a hard time finding faculty members willing to put their courses online. Then, I started poking around faculty pages. I realized that many of them placed lecture notes, audio lectures, ppt slides, etc. on their own personal sites.

    I found that these faculty, the ones already sharing their material, were much more open to the idea of placing their content on our OCW site. It helped that we had 50 courses already up, so they didn’t feel like they were doing something ‘strange’, but most of them were very willing, some even excited, to share their material to a wider audience.

    So, as you begin to beat the bushes, may I humbly suggest exploring that route. We have found probably 15 courses in this manner.

  3. I wish you’d all consolidate your efforts and get onto the likes of Wikieducator, Wikiversity or LeMill.. truly OPEN source and not just “free” (mind the Non commercial hey) available…

    Connexions is great in its use of CC BY imo, but should consolidate I reckon and load its stuff (as a copy perhaps) into the wikis…

  4. “And I find myself wondering what it would really take to scrape ten decent open online courses together… (I wish it was as simple as Geist suggests.)”

    How do you mean? Open 2 browser windows next to each other; open a new grazr reading list in the left hand one (http://grazr.com/edit if you have an account/are logged in) and a feed course browser in the right hand one (e.g. http://grazr.com/read/psychemedia/bf242a91 )

    (or install the firefox grazr sidebar widget to edit the new reading list)

    Drag whole programmes, courses, or links from the right hand window to create a new course/reading list in the other.

  5. Chris, that’s been an approach many at UBC have followed as well. The more I think about this issue, the more it seems to me to be about the power of a brand… which as a hook to get a commitment from a broad range of stakeholders may not be a bad thing.

    Marion, those are excellent suggestions, thank you. I’ll likely be bugging you and your colleagues on such matters a fair bit in the coming months. One asset I see going into this project is a fair-sized community we have already built up who are cool with sharing via weblogs, wikis, etc…

    Leigh – I hear what you are saying about that approach, and those are great projects. Unfortunately, that ‘branding’ issue comes up again. I sometimes get frustrated by the psychological tendency to prefer a sense of ‘ownership’ or identification even over shared materials, but it’s something that’s there and I feel I have no choice but to work with it. BTW, we are doing some monkeying with the MediaWiki presentation layer that might enhance its visual appeal as a course engine.

    Tony – my use of “scrape” might have muddied things. I meant it in the sense of getting ten courses digitized or otherwise put online with an open license. But Grazr is indeed a nifty feedreader editor (thanks for turning me on to it via your blogging) — you can bet that whatever means we use to publish open courses will have full RSS feeds (at least, if I have any say in the matter).

  6. All interesting stuff but how about observing the CC license of the image at the top of the page. After all,it may be the best creative work on this page, and you do talk about clearing up IP issues.

  7. @John – you can bet we’ll be in touch!

    @Frances – Well, I gotta get some decent creative work in there somehow… I re-presented the image by pointing at its Flickr location in the code, and the image is backlinked, so anyone who clicks on the image will be taken to it (as per Flickr’s terms of use). I know that standards of attribution vary but I’ve always thought clear backlinking qualifies. (This points to the requirement of those who use CC license to specify how they want to be attributed, which nobody ever does…)

  8. There are lots of other countries missing. At least you guys are doing something about it.

    I am posting from Cracow, Poland, where I have been looking at open source learning to help with the development of educational materials and teaching of entrepreneurship and leadership to young people.

    Part of the challenge is that lots of organisations have yet to “get” the concept of open source and decentralised content creation, nicely described here by Charles Leadbeater at TED:
    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/63

    A lot of cash strapped European universities still are looking to make revenue out of their IP and copyright.

    I am looking at ways to use the social networking sites (Facebook etc) to bringing school kids/students together with their alumni to work on development of content becomes instrumental in creating real world interaction.

    For example a parent does a presentation and workshop on what their job is like and the kids involved give their feedback that is enhanced by the fact that they know it will be available to a global audience via Connexions

    The content is enhanced by real world student teacher interaction in areas where the traditional educational materials are not that strong.

    It is going to be incredibly valuable to developing countries to get more and more access to developed country content.

    finding ways of solving the problem of how to teach and interact in this context (Skype?) will
    just take it to the next level

    regards from Cracow

    Richard

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