Archive for March, 2009

Licensing academic content

Monday, March 30th, 2009

One of the clearest lessons from Mosaic is how much content which may be used for learning exists on the open web through university domains, either in the websites of specific projects, individual academic initiative or other models.  However what is noticeable is that the vast majority of this material has no obvious licence or copyright statement attached to it.  It is a reasonable assumption that when academics put content on the open web, they think that they have shared it and made it open, and in reality for most use they have.  However attaching a licence such as Creative commons  allows for easier uptake. While in some cases this may be a deliberate omission, in most it is probably because they are unaware of these licences and what they mean, or they are aware of them, but don’t feel that they understand them well enough to implement them, or that they suspect using them may contravene IPR held by their university, and don’t know how to find out, so dodge the issue by not engaging with it.

It seems many of the barriers to reuse would be reduced if universities developed clear policies on licensing their exsiting web based outputs and applied it as broadly as possible across all their activities. This is happening already in certain domains – OERs and research outputs from an ever growing list of funders, but especially where universities are publicly funded, surely open licensing should be the default not the exception.

What is learning content?

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

One of our key findings from Mosaic is that almost anything can be learning content. Yes learning objects are great if they exist, but  in many subjects they don’t, or if they do in about the right quantities to make up about 30 mins of learning.  For our Ancestral Voices course we used about 3 items that the creators would have classified as learning objects, but managed to create a 100 study hours course out of approximately 200 items of pre-existing high quality content from a variety of sources including:

  • Academic articles
  • Media articles (BBC etc)
  • Pod casts
  • Fully online courses
  • Online textbooks
  • Assets – Images/diagrams/maps etc
  • Databases (especially archaeological ones)
  • Sites developed by enthusiasts
  • Academic sites (departmental and individual)
  • Academic project sites
  • Museum sites
  • Blogs

These were not in repositories, usually had no special meta data, but they were discoverable through informed browsing and Google searches. While some of these map very closely onto the sort of content used in teaching and learning for decades, whether online or face to face, many do not.  However what is clear is that, if correctly scaffolded by the course, any content can be learning content.  Many of the discussions currently underway on developing repositories and standards, or more generally on approaches to sharing OERs in the future, work on the assumptions that learning content needs separate considerations , extra metadata and unique locations, something our experience contradicts (see previous posts about this).

Work on discovering, representing and sharing learning designs in particular suggests this is a complex field, and also a very personal one – there is no metadata schema, or standard or representation which can encapsulate the particular value of a particular learning design or item of content to all comers.  Where the value of these lies is individually derived and context specific (See the Mod4L report  for a discussion of this space in relation to learning design in particular).  Thus while improvements to standards and metadata, and development of specialised repositories are not in themselves negative, it seems likely that any benefit accrued by these undertakings is outweighed by the barriers to sharing and discoverability imposed by the extra complexity.  Note that it has been frequently observed that one of the main barriers to academics sharing is not intent (in theory they are happy to do so) but rather the complexity of the actual practice (they are not sure how to, where, don’t have time to consider metadata).  Materials openly available on the web are already found and used (legitimately or not) all the time, tapping into these existing locations and networks, seems more likely to lead to success then additional infrastructure.

Reuse and digital literacies

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

As we have been writing our final reports for the Mosaic project it has become clear that our recommendations around reuse come in two main areas, those for people thinking of making materials available for reuse and those for people who are doing the reusing.  In the case of the latter it is becoming increasingly clear that both students and academics need  skills that they currently do not necessarily have, to engage with reused and repurposed materials, and that these skills are part of the broader subset that might be called digital literacies.Through our critical friend discussions it became clear that developing courses with significant use of external content had the potential to change the pedagogy of many existing courses.  It suggested a movement towards the development of online learning experiences that facilitate student interactions with existing content, their tutor and peers, rather than developing the ultimate content that will help your student learn.

A real skill for effective reuse, both for academics and students, is assessing digital information, and while these requirements have been brought to prominence by the growth of the web, much of the skill set involved in judging the value of sources has nothing to do with whether they are online or not.  We would aspire that all sources presented to our students should be critically assessed by them in the course of their study.  Thus, as part of the academic experience we want to build, not all content in the course is necessarily presented as perfect or right, but as something which gives a useful perspective on the topic being studied, in the context of a series of activities that scaffold them in making their own judgment about the materials presented.

There is more to digital literacy than just this, and I am following with interest the work of the LLiDA project which is looking at learning literacies in UK HE and FE, which they define as “the range of practices that underpin effective learning in a digital age”.  However it seems clear that for learning experiences made of existing content to really work, these skills need to be consciously addressed.