Saturday, September 29, 2007

OER Repositories

Open University (UK) Open Content Initiative

The Open University, being a higher education institution, provides higher ed content. This content is available in units, which are different size chunks, anywhere from a smaller amount of material that could be reviewed in just a few sessions or a workshop to what appears to be enough material for a full semester course. The materials have learning objectives and are rated from Introductory to Advanced in the level of the material they cover, but they do not provide any clear prerequisites that might be required to successfully meet those learning objectives. There are discussion forums dedicated to allowing for exchange of ideas among learners of the content.

Rice Connexions

Connexions is a repository of modules and courses (collections of modules). From what I understand about Learning Objects, these modules are basically just that. Each of these modules are quite small, and could be used alone or along with the rest of the course, or remixed in some other way.

Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative

The OLI exists of a very small number of full courses, with all the same material as a student taking the course at CMU, but without access to the instructor or exams. By paying, the student can earn credit by working with an instructor and taking exams. Both methods allow the student to track their way through their completion of the course if desired.

UNESCO Open Training Platform

The UNESCO materials, put out by the United Nations, is not so much focused on higher ed like many of the other OER repositories reviewed here. The OER in this case look more like continuing/distance education or adult outreach education. A byline on the site says they are "Advocating open content in non formal education." I suppose that nonformal in this case probably refers somewhat to the fact that this is not formal university material. A lot of it looked like material that could be very helpful in terms of teaching something people can actually use. I was a little worried, however, by a 10-year-old document covering the basics of getting on the Internet; some of the other information may not change as much in 10 years as that particular topic, but that one was extremely out of date.


This is one of the most well-known OER Repositories, but then again I am most familiar with USU OCW which is modeled after the MIT OCW. Again, we're looking at higher ed material here, and quite a comprehensive set of well over 200 courses published in the last 6 months alone and over 1700 courses altogether (compared to just under 100 or so total at USU). They look to be mostly full semester courses, including presentation of material, additional study materials, and exams. One course even had a pop quiz included. So the students reviewing the OCW content when taking the actual class at MIT might get an extra hint about when the pop quiz will come up. :) These are MIT classes, so a reasonable assumption might be that these are high quality materials.

National Repository of Online Courses

NROC OER consist of higher ed as well as high school level courses. They employ a staff of designers and evaluators to ensure the content consists of effective materials that follow accepted Learning Theories. NROC content is available for educational and nonprofit use for free, or for a price to commercial entities. Similar to the OLI described above, a small number of high quality courses are available.

Some of the differences among these repositories are terms of the licensing of content, the balance between quantity and quality of content, and tools for finding and working with the content.

One of the most useful features of any of these sites was in the Open University, where they have forums to discuss the materials with others that are there to learn the same thing. That interaction is key. Add onto that the myLearningSpace where you can track what you've studied, see what other people have been looking at the same materials as you, and be notified when new items are posted, and this one has to be tops.

If I had to kill one (or two), I'd have OLI and NROC take all their materials and post them to Connexions. I mean, I like the Open University's learning community better, but the fact that Connexions allows anyone to post their material is a bonus. Connexions has some tools for collaboration among authors, but I didn't see that on the learner side. Add the forums and myLearningSpace from the Open University to the collaborative development process of Connexions and that is the ultimate community.

The only thing that could possibly make this ultimate community better would be to take the enormous amounts of material from MIT and dump it by the truckload onto the community.

We'd have something to rival Wikipedia (or maybe we'd just be recreating their Wikiversity project).

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Open Education: Past, Present, and Future

Several years ago while working on my MBA, I worked with a group of 3 or 4 other students on what turned out to be a 100 page marketing plan for Aggie Ice Cream. A friend of mine wondered how we could write 100 pages about ice cream. Those 100 pages seem to pale in comparison as I try to compile the several hundred pages that I've been reading over the last few weeks on Open Educational Resources (OER) into a blog posting.

The three reports are: Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources (OECD), Open Educational Practices and Resources: OLCOS Roadmap 2012 (OLCOS), and A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement: Achievements, Challenges, and New Opportunities (Hewlett).

OECD is an organization of governments focused on discussing and promoting policies to encourage democracy and economic growth around the world. They collect data and make forecasts to assist member governments in making decisions. The OECD report is fittingly a survey of OER movement, how it has developed over the past few years and some of the current challenges being faced.

According to OECD, much of the OER movement is driven by Higher Education, with some of that coming from institutional policy and some from individuals providing content on their own. Whether it is individuals or entire institutions participating in the movement, the purposes for sharing seem to be similar: reduce content development cost, promote lifelong learning and encourage more to seek a university education, return content to the taxpayers that funded it, compete for the best students, and improve content through transparency, among others. As content opens up, the traditional role of a teacher as one who simply provides content to students becomes out of date. If the content is already available, the teacher must become a facilitator and collaborator with students.

OLCOS is a project aimed at promoting the production and use of OER in Europe, targeting producers and users of such content, educational institutions that support them, and the technology developers and researchers who facilitate the sharing of OER through their innovation. The OLCOS report agrees with OECD that the shift to OER will bring along with it a decreased focus on a teacher-centered classroom, but points out that any change to the system will take time and sustained focus and effort by educational leaders.

As teachers begin taking a constructivist approach, allowing students to remix and reuse content, individual students will begin taking an active role in their own education, building on their existing knowledge and schema. There is much still lacking in terms of seamless support from technology to support collaboration; wikis do a good job in certain applications, but are not feasible in others. There are legal issues to deal with to allow a range of usage and remixing of content, as well as the unwillingness on the part of some educators to make any kind of change to how they have always taught. Creative Commons is a possible solution to the copyright issues, and a new reward structure may help with some of the traditional educators' unwillingness to integrate OER into the classroom.

The Hewlett Foundation is a grantor organization dedicated to addressing social and environmental problems and thus assist grantee organizations make positive contributions to society. The report to the Hewlett Foundation was the one that most drew me in. Although it focuses mainly on projects that have received Hewlett funding, that covers a lot of ground, since so much money has been made available to many organizations to encourage the growth of the OER movement. I liked seeing the specific projects that have been funded and the impacts they are making.

The Hewlett report provides a balanced view of the featured projects, pointing out that there are successes as well as items to keep working on. An interesting concept here is the meta-university, perhaps something along the lines of the WGU, where content may be provided from any number of sources, but then some central assessment or organizational structure exists to provide direction and verification of skills. An important consideration in providing open content is accessibility of that content through mobile devices or in remote locations.

To me, the most interesting piece of the entire OER movement has to do with an increase in direct participation in the learning process by students. Students will learn better as they take the time to invest in their own education. In addition, we should see more of the legal issues worked out as music, movie, and publishing industries fight to maintain copyright control while becoming increasingly irrelevant as the technology to share content becomes increasingly simple and available. The path ahead is long and filled with resistance, but change is already happening and will continue to happen. Hopefully the movement reaches critical mass (if it has not already) before some boneheaded senator is duped by lobbyists into passing legislation that cripples the growth that is already starting. Given the international nature of the OER movement, it seems likely to withstand the resistance that is to come.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Pedagogy vs. Andragogy

In a class recently, we were discussing a constructivist environment for learning, and I made a contrast between constructivism and pedagogy. The professor looked really confused, and it only took a moment for me to figure out the problem was with my use of the word pedagogy. Defining pedagogy generally as the study or practice of instruction and tools the facilitate such, my statement definitely did not make sense, since constructivism is a theory/tool used in learning.

I modified my statement, substituting something along the lines of "a traditional classroom approach" instead of the word pedagogy, but I'm not quite so sure that was necessary. I think of pedagogy as a contrasting theory with andragogy. Pedagogy is traditionally an approach for teaching children and andragogy is a relatively new approach for teaching adults. Pedagogy is generally teacher-centered, with the teacher deciding who should learn what when and how. Andragogy is learner-centered, allowing learners to direct how learning occurs.

Andragogy brings with it a few principles, popularized by Knowles, which point out that adults, unlike children, have much life experience which allows them to more immediately contribute to a discussion, and because of that experience and the busy lives they lead, adults prefer problem-based learning that is applicable to their lives. Following an andragogical approach, a teacher becomes a facilitator of learning, providing materials and resources and keeping discussions in the right direction, but stays out of the way to let learning happen.

Taking andragogy to an extreme, some have suggested the term heutagogy as completely self-directed learning. I suppose my teaching myself how to put up drywall, texture walls, lay tile, and replace light fixtures as I've been working on renovating our bathroom has been a heutagogical approach, in addition to being very slow. (Of course, my slowness has not necessarily been due to heutagogy itself as much as a lack of time with work, school, scouts, and other family things taking precedence.) I could have taken some classes at the tech school in town or found a mentor to work with, but I've survived by using the internet and reading the little pamphlets at the home improvement stores as well as some trial and error.

These approaches need not be restricted to some set line, so when a person turns 16, he or she moves to a new class that uses andragogy instead of pedagogy. Andragogy can be used with children, and pedagogy with adults, just depending on the preferences and experience of the learners and the type of material being taught. As adults, we like being in control and a pedagogical approach is where we're most comfortable whether we're teaching children or adults, but are we willing to step back and let the lunatics run the asylum to some extent?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Patterns of Understanding

I just read a paper about Open-ended Learning Environments [Land, S. M., & Hannafin, M. J. (1997). Patterns of understanding with open-ended learning environments: A qualitative study. Educational Technology Research and Development, 45(2), 47-73.] which discussed using software to design a roller coaster, in addition to some resources to learn about some of the principles involved to help them design one that doesn't crash. It was open, in that students could play with the simulator and just see what happened and were free to use or not use the other resources to help them out. It was a case study, discussing the experiences of the four students involved, to see how much they would learn without being directly taught or guided by an instructor. I haven't read as many qualitative studies as I have quantitative studies, but this one seemed a bit more organized and well-planned than some qualitative studies I've seen. There was definitely a methodical, scientific approach in everything, from choosing the participants to the method of coding their actions and responses, while retaining a case study approach.

The two main items discussed in the paper were the differences in how students applied prior knowledge while forming either informal or formal hypotheses and the extent to which students followed a methodical approach in testing those hypotheses. There was little interaction with the learning materials that were available, with one student confused and frustrated with the lack of an "answer" in the materials as to what combination of horsepower, weight, hill height, and turning radius was "best".

Each student had different ideas of what was successful. For one, the fact that the coaster did not crash meant that it was successful. For another, if the coaster was as close to crashing as possible, but didn't, that was successful. There was not a clear explanation of how students performed on the quizzes, other than one student who answered a question correctly, but in practice actually acted in a manner that would suggest a lack of understanding of that concept. It would be interesting to compare the performance of these students to others that were taught the same concepts in a traditional classroom environment, but that is not done in this paper.

One interesting quote from the conclusion of the paper was that "the effectiveness of the constructivist environment relies heavily on the learner's task management and decision-making processes." Of course, this is somewhat of a loaded observation. If the effectiveness of constructivist learning environments is in question, and we are immersing students who have been trained in a dichotomous student/teacher banking environment (teachers depositing knowledge into student brains), as challenged by Freire and Dewey, it is hardly surprising that students may be lacking in some of the skills that would allow them to keep themselves on task and make effective decisions.

A few times when I have come in as a new Scout leader for a group of boys that have been oppressed and controlled by the previous untrained Scout leader, and I begin to allow the boys to make their own decisions (since they are supposed to run their own program with ideally minimal guidance from their leaders), chaos ensues. I assume this is the case, because when given a little bit of wiggle room, which they have never experienced before, they go out of control because they don't know how to handle the freedom. It takes some time to reign them back in, and eventually they learn to cope with freedom, which may be more difficult to deal with than oppression. I also see similar issues in my work with CIL here on campus. There are many ways for students to prepare for the CIL tests, whether coming to formal classes, attending informal demonstrations, reading on their own, taking practice tests, or just trying the real tests. There is no set "best" way to study and no particular deadline that all students must meet (although individually there are deadlines, such as applying to a program, registering for a class, completing graduation paperwork, etc.). We often see students that follow a less than methodical approach of simply taking a test without preparing, and after they fail it, they immediately take the test again, apparently hoping they'll guess just differently enough to pass the test.

So do constructivist learning environments fail because of inherent problems in the process or because we have trained students (and been trained ourselves) that the teacher's job is to stand in front of a classroom expounding and exhorting while the student's role is to sit there and bask in our glory, soaking up the knowledge that we spew forth? Obviously that statement is a bit over the top and is not meant to say that I believe constructivism is the answer to everything, rather that it is difficult to create a study that can untrain years of practice by both teachers and students in a traditional pedagogical environment.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Is Education a basic human right? Should it be mandatory?

This is an interesting set of questions to think about. It becomes one of those where there become so many layers and exceptions to the rule that it makes it difficult come up with a clear answer. Andreas' blog posting points the contrast between systems that implement education for nefarious purposes and teachers that thrive and make a difference in children's lives.

I believe that I agree that education is a basic human right. Whether it should be mandatory to a certain level, well, that depends. Education means so many different things to different people. Tomaševski's articles really made me stop and think about how different our situation here in the US is compared to other countries. We're debating here about NCLB, charter schools vs traditional public schools, and vouchers for helping students attend private schools, but rarely if ever do I hear an argument that schooling should go away all together. That is, culturally here in the US (although there are portions of the country that do not value education) it is generally a given that education will make us better, and we simply argue about the manner in which to implement it. I really hadn't given much thought before to how to handle young boys that herd sheep in the mountains far away from any sign of civilization. Who am I to say what education, if any, will help that boy? Or will it hurt him? Will he be outcast in his society because a Westerner came in and told him that he needs a Western education? Is his education, being out in nature, surviving on the land, communicating with his animals, learning to read the sky and the water, worth any more or less than the PhD I'm working on?

In the case of the girls who become worth less when they get married at an older age because they put off marriage to go to school, a burden is placed on the parents for trying to educate their children, so who should blame them for conforming to their society's reward structure? Certainly many great people have made sacrifices in spite of great pressure around them and have gone on to make a difference in the world. But is a person unsuccessful because they didn't change the world or because they conformed to society's expectations?

Of course, education is one of those things where you don't know what you're missing until you become educated, then once you have become educated, it's somewhat too late to decide that you'd rather not be educated, a paradox in line with the Observer Effect. Rising literacy rates and the availability of education have led to improvements in medicine, communications, travel, efficiency in production, and a better understanding of the world around us, but does that mean that everyone has to take advantage of such? I hope that the opportunity is made available to all who wish to receive an education, but I don't believe that mandatory education is necessarily the answer in all situations. It does seem to be a difficult line to draw.

I think I've asked more questions that I've answered.