OUConf10 – Open Content (first session)

The OU is holding its annual internal Learning and Technology conference in the open this year. The theme is ‘Learning in an open world‘. It’s all entirely virtual, synchronously on Elluminate and asynchronously on Cloudworks. It’s been pretty lively the first morning, with around 125 people using multichannel communications. The Cloudscape for the conference is the place to start for all the information, and #OUConf10 is the Twitter hashtag.

I’m official liveblogger, so I’ve been taking notes and putting them there. I’m gathering them all together here on my blog to give a more linear view of what the conference seemed like for me.

Martin Weller – Opening Address

The OU was founded to be open to people, places, methods and ideas, and that still stands. We got lucky with the name – ‘The Open University’ has stood the test of time. Probably better than ‘University of the Air’.

If you were starting an OU now, there are lots of things that are open now that could be a focus – open source, OER, open courses, etc. Now the the idea of the open scholar – Gideon Burton; an agenda building up. Sharing as default is a definining characteristic.

Everyone says open-ness is nice to have. But once you take a closed route, many options are no longer open to you – you can’t get crowd feedback on a temporary version, so it can be more expensive. In an economic crisis, openness is a powerful argument.

Also a political dimension. Martin has decided to publish in and review for open-access journals only. Surprisingly many commercial publishers not keen on that approach.

Gráinne Conole – Rough guide to Cloudworks:

She is obsessed by Cloudworks – but you need a vision to take things forward. Have some excellent colleagues – Juliette, Nick, Rebecca – also working hard to take things forward.
If you want a mini-break, don’t go to Barcelona, go to Cloudworks!

It’s a place for sharing learning and teaching ideas. Developed about 3 years ago from an idea that there wasn’t a place for teachers to share and discuss teaching and learning practice and designs. Teachers wanted a space to talk to each other. Built site from scratch, and developed it in the light of the emergent use of the community that has grown there.

Basic object is the cloud, which are arranged in cloudscapes. Clouds are anything – a topic, a discussion, whatever – about teaching and learning. Many other features to keep track. Will be going open source this summer.

Who’s there? A range of people – all sorts, very exciting that it crosses boundaries. Existing spaces for niche communities, but not one that enables cross-boundary discussion for learning and teaching. And multi-cultural: Greek version, Spanish, Greek, German, Dutch discussions going on. 165 countries in there.

Gráinne gives a guided tour of the site. Events have proved to be a really good way of using the site – especially conferences. The OU conference, of course, but many others too, including International Blended Learning Conference 2010. Can now add gadgets – Simon will talk more about this later.

Clouds can belong to more than one community or Cloudscapes – so can create a cloud on, say, mobile learning, and that can go in several different cloudscapes.

Anyone can start a cloud, and once it’s started anyone can improve it by adding to it, or discussing it.

You can follow a cloud or cloudscape, and see the list of people who are also following it. That makes any activity there appear in your personal activity stream. Can also see who’s said they’re attending (if it’s an event), and how many people have viewed it. Can favourite it – a sort of social bookmarking.

Beneath the cloudscape view, you can see all the different clouds below. Can section up the cloudscapes.

The ELESIG community have moved some activities to Cloudworks, including a virtual reading circle. Can also do virtual desk research – Giota did an extensive review of the use of Web 2.0 in HE: set up a space, with clouds for each research question, put up her references, links and so on, and others came in and contributed – big benefit to all. Detailed report to come.
Another use – flash debates. First one was ‘Is Twitter killing blogging?’ which turned rapidly in to a big discussion. Spotlight debates too – as part of an EU-funded project called OPAL. Gathered case studies worldwide. Tom Brown and colleagues have done a review too.

Plenty of support available too; have an explore and use. She gives a guided pathway to explore the site. Create a cloud! Can be anything you like so long as it’s to do with teaching and learning … and nothing to do with football!


Martin picks up from the comments: Have any feedback on the interface, and user stats?

G: We have an admin panel to gather this. Distinguish between the core team and others. When started, nobody knew how to use it, so fostered social intervention. But now shifting away, site running away with other people using it. Periodic surveys, have a request for the UI since have a designer coming in again next week to tweak the site. Researching the site, theoretical idea about social objects, Goffman, collective intelligence. Evaluation and analysis of the site is core to what we’re doing. Want this to be shaped and guided by user behaviour. Can point to lots of papers!

M: Are the stats openly released?

G: In the papers. The admin panel isn’t public, but synthesised stuff released too. Papers in AJET on initial theoretical stuff, Networked Learning paper, Rebecca has a case study on Exeter’s use will be done soon. [Outline figures from Rebecca: 2727 users, 2740 clouds, approx 9000 unique visits per month.]

Marie Arndt: Only started using it recently, are doing H800 at the moment. Please could you simply distinguish between clouds and cloudscapes? Is it the content, or what it generates?

G: A cloud is the core object, could be anything – here’s an idea I did with my students. Or could be a question – I have 300 nurse practitioners, anyone good e.g.s of how to use PBLs. Or info about research project, or a tool – many clouds about Twitter and use for T&L, about iPad, Google Wave. Or about a research report. A cloudscape is simply a collection of clouds – clouds can be grouped together for a particular purpose. You might choose to create a cloudscape of technology tools you like, add clouds for the tools you like. A collaborative learning person might create a cloudscape about that. The conference cloudscape now includes lots of clouds that already existed. People ask why they have to learn new concepts – no way round, because it is a new practice.

Peter Scott – iTunesU
Project is not in itself about openness. Launched in with Apple 2 years ago, idea was to get OU materials out widely, not about making it open. All the material so far is widely accessible and in reasonable demand by the community.

None of this is specific to Apple – building back-end systems to reach many people through new channels. Channels could be YouTube, our own VLE, or when a new set-top box turns up. Future proofing.

Need to get metadata right, so have a back-end team working on this. So it’ll work for the Apple systems, and any others.
Http://podcast.open.ac.uk – main OU podcast site.
Also http://www.steeple.org.uk/wiki/Main_Page

Idea is to have a central core repository that feeds out RSS, but can feed it out in to iTunesU, YouTube, Miro, VLE, the web, wealth of open resources.
iTunes – although it’s closed system, people like it because it’s well integrated. Significant portion of downloaders of our stuff consume it on the move. In browsing their site, visual browsing is very important – so want to make our albums attractive and striking.

Mira suggests (in chat) that hardly anyone – say 14% – use mobile devices. But Peter says that in surveys of our users, significantly more than half always consumed their media on their mobile device – will publish this soon. (Russell Gurbutt says in chat that 98% of a first-year group had mobile devices.)
We produce small file sizes (to make easy downloads) – few people want the large file HD versions.

Apple have been in this channel for a long time. We’re not charged to be in the channel, and we’re promoted inside it. The browser is a simple web browser and only renders a small subset of HTML; HTML5 is becoming more important. Our content fits very well with this channel, and they’re doing nice things. Fun to work with an innovations company.

Have to make it visually striking. Not just American students browsing – wide range of students.

Closing on 20m downloads, by about 2m unique visitors. Warwick have 1m. Our stuff works well here.

All of our stuff is hosted in Amazon S3; Apple take some of the load too when things peak. Our internal systems wouldn’t cope. The Americans do show up very strongly, as you’d expect. Apple promote it to their own market in America. Graph of weekly downloads is very bursty. When you’re showcased by Apple, you get a lot of traffic. If it’s good stuff that you’re proud of, can get a lot of people interested.

Want to let OU students consume our media more intelligently. Apple say about half the universities use it primarily for their own students, not in an open way. We are exploring this. Will make sure it’s all available to our students in a variety of formats. It’s all RSS – some is secured, some isn’t. The private stuff isn’t freely available. Students may find this very useful, in addition to the VLE.

Are now adding a range of other services now. iPad is giving new ideas. Accompanying apps and so on for interaction. His vision is that if you have a nice mobile device, want OU students – and potential OU students – to have a nice experience of the OU on it. Android will catch up very quickly.

Mobile used to suck, but is significantly easier to develop for the platforms, huge enthusiasm. Was with 5000 Apple developers last week. Don’t care what platform, but pleased that Apple are bringing innovation to an easy-to-develop-for and exciting platform.

Lots of universities are taking this up. The platform doesn’t matter, designing an experience. Doesn’t care if it’s Android or Apple or what. Apple promising an ‘open’ video platform, and HTML5 as the core, as an open standard. Also ePub for books, which is another open standard. That helps with the other platforms too.


How much is it bringing other people in? E.g. not traditional students? Do you have a breakdown? How it related to student signups?

Peter: The OU doesn’t do a lot in the market that people are downloading this for – we don’t have a lot of American students, and we don’t work for them – and about 1/3 of our downloaders are in the UK. So not many come through directly from iTunesU to OU study. But 2m have come to hear about the OU – open learning, new ways to learn.

Linda Wilks: How does your team encourage academics to put their materials on iTunesU?

Peter: We work hard with Faculties to see how to improve their content. KMi have led the charge, as innovators, now moving over to mainstream via LTS. Being led by Andrew Law in Open Media office. Just one of many channels – successful and cool one, is better with mobiles and audio than e.g. YouTube. Andrew’s challenge is to have an overarching strategy.

Chris: HTML5 – will it become a standard?

Peter: Apple good at forcing the market. Battle with Flash is depressing. Hope they work it out.

Patrick McAndrew – OLnet  one year on

(Chris Pegler was due to do SCORE presentation in this slot, but had problems with audio, so Patrick instead does his OLnet talk from this afternoon.)

Open Learning network – a research project, a sister project to SCORE, funded by the Hewlett Foundation. OLnet is looking at research aspect; SCORE is looking at the roll-out to UK Higher Education.

Has been a huge investment by the Hewlett Foundation in kicking off Open Educational Resource (OER) activity. Much less investment in research behind it. SCORE is looking at the practical side. With OLnet, trying to globally research it with Carnegie Mellon University.

Purpose is to establish how research can be supported, linked together, shared, etc. Through research projects, fellowships. Using and developing tools to apply our collective intelligence to understanding this.

Has been a very interesting period for OER, investment through JISC in the UK, even bigger change in US – OER are driving changes to the school and college systems. Before, OER were a mission in themselves – making things open. But now, it’s about what we can achieve now we have good resources available for free. iTunesU is an indication of what can happen – vast number of people can access this. How can this catalyse Deeper Learning?

Six areas where there are key issues.

First – how do you design for reuse in this new open world. Big change from a lecture.

Second – building and using tools for us and for others (including Cohere)

Third – accreditaiton vs recognition, changes in the education process. Interesting experiments in OpenLearn. P2PU, DIY U, people coaching themselves through the learning process.

Fourth – Content – has a special role, is an attractors. Huge numbers of people on OpenLearn, iTunesU – can lead through to using that to bring people together to act socially as well as working through the tasks. Reflected directly in to recruitment – OpenLearn has recruited students in a moderately large number – about 13,000.

Fifth – Global initiatives – OER Africa, UK, Netherelands, NZ.

(And I’ve missed one, I think, sorry.)

This leads in to a series of goals for the project – evidence, design, infrastructure, learning, etc.

Can see a model for how we might move in to other countries, rise of OER stars – OER goes beyond what you might expect in the first place. Culturally-related content is an issue, and a dominance of the cultural ‘West’; high-profile name universities – e.g. Oxbridge/Ivy League.

Role as researchers is to provide the evidence, only partly to see what the message is.

Much research activity underway. Looking at an Open Future – McAndrew, Scanlon and Clow paper on Educause.


Patrick: Picking up on international range – Interesting in Brazil that changes to copyright are making a difference. Have an investment in open source already. Makes it important to go beyond boundaries and go beyond comfort zone.

Non: Given the level of suggestiona bout sources do you think we still struggle with finding good quality OERs across these repositories and stores?

Patrick: Companion project called OPAL on quality. Mixed take – can overplay the quality label. Quality in the eye of the reader.

Moderated discussion in main room – How do learners use open content?

Diane Brewster: Curious as to whether students use open content for information or inspiration. Suspicion is the latter, not the former.

Martin: May be something in that. Like Wikipedia, Google, want something right now. Now have had the first phase of web, will people do more complex things? Weave together educational resources and put them in a meaningful context. Inspiration is interested. Has started doing Flickr photo-a-day thing; use Flickr already posted as inspiration.

Diane Brewster: Replacement for idea of inspiring lecturer – perhaps we’ve lost a lot of that in HE. But some of the OU content on e.g. iTunesU is quite inspiring. Informative too, but more to kick start me sometimes, put me in the zone to go on and learn more. The content not so important as the motivation.

Martin: True. Get inspiration from good Slideshare or YouTube – it’s about creativity, seeing what you can do. Ran a project on trying to get people to produce digital outputs. Best way was to show cool stuff people had done.

Simon Buckingham Shum: Distinction between inspiration and content might not be clear. As people mix things together, they become more personal and useful. An OER at the moment was designed by someone, for someone else (probably). But as more comes online, and people weave more threads through them – statistically there’s a better chance that there’ll be something that suits you. A prediction that we might see this happening in the years to come.

Michael Lower: Do you think that teachers will need to develop new skills? Telling students how they could use OERs, rather than letting them find them for themselves. Giving some guidance. Teachers having responsibility to help learners find and use content.

Simon: In one sense, teachers and educators already send students out on to the web. Some teachers might avoid their responsibilities, but it is their job to create a meaningful learning task.

Michael: Made an initial foray with podcasts. Was very focused on his students, but they found it unclear how to fit it in with their learning. Becomes more acute when resources not made specifically for them.

Simon: Tension between learner and educator-defined journeys? I don’t see one. OU learners want someone to have crafted a learning journey for them. But the social web lets people see they can take other routes. Will say more this afternoon.

Marie Arndt: Example of daughter being asked to ‘research’ on web. Question of how we train our students to use any content from the Internet – being selective, not just gobbling it up and accept it as fact. Use it as a resource, that they have to think about and use to develop their own thinking. Gently but firmly guide students.

Simon: We are trying to teach about a topic, but also how to be scholars, citizens who can contribute in a constructive way. Want to develop these skills alongside disciplinary knowledge.

John: Hard to disagree with that.

Frank Rennie – Using OER for course design

Martin: Frank Rennie is the Indiana Jones of rural development

Images to show about making HE available where you are. sideCAP – staff innovation in distance education in the Carribean and [some other countries]. Looking at supporting universities – Fiji, Mauritius and somewhere else.

Looking at OER in particular. Many of these university sectors, there may be a main institution, but if it cost anything at all, they couldn’t afford it. So move away from customised/bespoke products to software that’s free, and to OER. Then contextualisation of those, to make them relevant.

There are two camps. First, adoption of resources for education – some luddites won’t use them no matter what. Early adopters who will use them no matter what. And bulk of people in the middle. Secondly, for OER, the vast proportion of people using them use them as-is – download them, or link to – and just customise what they do in the classroom or VLE around that. They don’t modify; they may ignore part of the whole thing. A smaller proportion of the users take it and modify or customise. And an even smaller group will then create their own and make them available.

Four components of what a learning situation is about – tutorials, peer-to-peer discussion, assessment, and certification/award. But they can be provided in all sorts of different ways and ends. And they all benefit from improved resources at the base.

One key thing from sideCAP – identifying how you create courses using OER. There are hundreds of thousands of OER, but fewer courses. Made a flowchart, to show it’s important to retain a broad focus at the start – don’t narrow options at the start.

To create a course: Start wide, see what’s available by searching widely. Write wrap-around materials. May find that you don’t have enough specificity at that point, so then add your new materials to localise/make specific. Only then do you decide what the bigger issues are about how it’s to be hosted/what format. Sets the conventional methodology upside down – where you’re specific at the start and do a lot of the writing. 20 years ago you had to write the textbook to start. But not now – only write the bits that are not available in the quantity or context that you want.

They created a course to demonstrate this process. What does it mean in practice? Course on climate change and sustainable development and rural areas.

Went through the process of course creation, then put on UHI VLE – Blackboard. But just have one link – to a wiki where all the stuff is. Blackboard supplies all the surrounding facilities (internal links, discussion, etc), but the main teaching materials are elsewhere. Used WetPaint as a wiki. So people who want to add things can do so if you give them the password, everyone benefits. Very practical solution. But breaches internal security procedures since is an externally-hosted site.

The course is available on wetpaint, OpenLearn, and in a printed report, and OpenOffice, and on a DVD for places where their online access is patchy or lowband.


Martin: Having worked on those projects, interesting cultural attitudes to reuse. Had feeling that people were quite resistant because they had to fight hard to become a professional academic, so reusing was undermining that.

Frank: Varies widely from country to country. In Nepal, will cheerfully tell you there’s no such thing as copyright in Nepal. In other countries, place a lot of faith in the master or senior person there, who doesn’t then want to lose face by looking like they don’t know about something. Their knowledge of educational technology may be weak. Need to encourage people to step on each others’ shoulders. So project began about cultural shift. Less problem with adopting materials from the Internet – the biggest and most frequent hits for OER, open degrees, etc – comes from India, Thailand, rest of Asia, not Europe/N America/Australia.

John Pettit: How do you identify quality in resources? And (Juliette question) lack of appropriate content was the main issue.

Frank: So much material out there it’s staggering, frightening. Now we’re trying to use a new application of technology with an old etiquette. Haven’t made the shift in to that. It’s quite different to reuse, share. His children think nothing of sharing images, videoclips and so on. Last thing they think about is copyright. We have been inculcated by idea that copyright is sacrosanct. Copyright is actually a barrier to getting information out there and shared. Worries less about books and slides being copied than people who want them not seeing them. Relates to quality question – Martin and I have had discussion about big-OER and small-OER. Big-OER is institutional, small-OER done on the fly, very quickly. Has to meet in the middle. Question about institutions recognising the change in etiquette. Need to embrace OER creation and sharing, get best of both worlds: institutional support, peer review – but doesn’t stultify or stagnate.

edevUOD: Interested in thoughts about reliability of open source material, and how that should feature in the pedagogical design.

Frank: Very broad question. We spend a lot of time in academia, from primary level, teaching kids and students how to recognise quality in print materials. If we’re training people how to recognise these resources, need to start a long way back. How to recognise a good quality website is really hard, never mind a good OER. Simply getting a report on what websites are useful and why on a topic from students can be hard. If you search for farming and agriculture, will get very different results. Get mediocre value in the middle where it’s fudged. In creating digital material emphasis has to be on sharing and opening up. In sideCAP, the resources page was them trying to filter down resources useful for OER that are tried-and-tested as a first base to go to. Repositories, how-to guides, etc. It’s only by reputation and reuse that we establish a hierarchy of usefulness. This approach can shrink the time to produce a course – only 2-4 weeks, rather than many months building it from scratch. Some clever Amazon-recommendation system, or rating system for resources, would be good. But copyright stands in the way by blocking access.

John Pettit: Tension between hierarchy and self-directed learners.

Wendy Maples: Interested to hear it reduces time to make a course. Can see how that might work if you’re a single academic working alone on a course, trying to create something small. Other thing – the reverse, the creation of online/open educational resources. How small universities might feel in the face of the volume of material created by big institutions like the OU. Have immense power in what we can accomplish, much resource to go in to these. Small institutions don’t seem to have that. Small OER versus big OER?
Frank: Small institutions are not prohibited. Too often we’ve spent vast sums of money on Rolls-Royce resources, but they become useless quickly because things move on. So argument for producing something less polished but immediate – good quality enough to be used in that context, and has an immediacy. Not suggesting that less used stuff should fall off the bench, but less good quality stuff. See this happening – the inter-institutional sharing of material to make broader, wider, deeper resources than either could make themselves. We over-anguish about producing e.g. TV-broadcastable quality. That has a place, but can get things on YouTube that are much more grainy and stilted, but illustrate the point very well. Working with Iceland and Sweden on materials for their areas; contextualised differently, but the general material the same and the pedagogy very similar. We can use things if we come off our high claims. Sometimes we have an over-dependency on specialist resources.

Wendy: Agree with much of this. Getting learners to do informal or formal learning pulling things together themselves from OER. To what extent can we ask students to do that on a regular basis? What we as educators offer is platforms to enable them to engage with the wider world of information. Bit different from personal learning activities. But effectively creating their own courses. They’ve always done this – choosing the bits of what chapters to read, discussing with their peers. This is an opportunity for recognising this.

Frank: Yes. Similar process to 10-15y ago, when student had trouble with a textbook, have a discussion, send them to another book on same topic. On Academia.com there are good lectures, but also some ropey things of people writing on a blackboard for an hour – deemed to be quality only because it comes from somewhere important. Fine line. Also chunking things too big – e.g. whole lecture or nothing but. Small snippets can be very useful. TED talks are like this – small, snappy.

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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

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