Here’s a really interesting piece from Marketplace, talking about how shrinking opportunities to own big living spaces, coupled with decreasing costs of music production, are impacting musical styles. This is a good illustration of how decreasing production costs go far beyond the digital–ultimately, you need less capital of all kinds–including real estate–to be a producer these days. It also highlights a political element of producer culture. Because you need less capital to produce, more and more disempowered and oppositional voice have an opportunity to be heard–the emerging semiotic democracy…
I’ve been participating in a UNESCO online forum discussing open course content for about a week now (it has a few more weeks to go), and it’s quite interesting, though cacophonous. I’m really quite impressed with the range of initiatives out there–OER is a messy field, but aren’t most emerging ones? I’ve been trying to just track and sort out the issues being raised, and here’s a quick punch list. (Feel free to note any I’ve missed if you’re also following along):
• Access in developing regions
• Long tail distribution opportunities
• Interactivity and discussion forums
• Quality control
• Benefits to home campus
• The how not the what–technique rather than content
• Lifelong learning
• Certification-formal vs. informal learning
It’s dead on the list of things we’ve struggled with at MIT, which is good news. At least we’re not chasing phantom issues.
Brent’s comment on the last post is just one example that the tools I mentioned are emerging, and will be available. I don’t doubt that we can make a more seamless system, that an authoring environment that places content into more flexible formats will emerge. And as with all MS tools, the power of Word and PowerPoint is not that they are easy but that they are ubiquitous. Faculty members grew up with these tools, are used to using them, and know that they can e-mail them to almost anyone anywhere and know that they can be opened and accessed.
In all the discussions I’ve had about creating more unified educational technology environments, it all comes back to the issue of changing the culture and practices of educators. Compared to these challenges, the tools problems look very solvable. But once we’ve developed the new generation of tools, we have to do better than waiting for the new generation of instructors. And how to do that is not clear. Don’t get me wrong; I think it can be done. I’ve seen educators who are relatively unsophisticated in their use of technology adopt and succeed at using new tools, but we’re going to have to better understand the circumstances that lead to these successful transitions, and develop practices out of them that lead to cultural changes.
I have seen opencourseware publishing lead to aha moments for faculty–even a static presentation of teaching materials online is enough to highlight some of the benefits to instructors of having content online. Something as simple as an educator realizing they no longer have to arrange for photocopying and drag stacks of paper with them to the classroom can be very motivating. But the development of new tools is going to have to provide obvious benefits to educators and not just educational technologists if the new tools are to be adopted. And those benefits are going to have to outweigh the inertia generated the MS monopoly and the pain of learning new tools and systems.
So I’ll try to make this as much question as opinion, but I do love to hear my own thoughts… There’s been this consistent drumbeat for more integration between LMS and OCW environments, the argument being that you can move a lot of the open publishing work upstream and have the content entered into the system as instructors are creating their content, rather than collecting it after the fact and publishing it in a different system. Makes sense, but I’m having some misgivings. The two areas that seem to hold the most promise for reduction of effort are content entry and metadata entry. Both are relatively labor-intensive, and a big part of most opencourseware publishing efforts, and both seem to have issues in this integrated model.
Content entry first: I’d challenge the notion that you’d end up with a lot more information in the system (at least in formats like HTML and XML) than with current approaches, because LMS’s are such lousy authoring environments. When I’ve used LMS’s, I’ve put the bare minimum actually into the HTML templates of the system, and attached the rest as documents. For the distance learning course that became tOFP, I hand-coded the content in HTML outside of the school’s BlackBoard system expressly because I couldn’t bear to manage it within the web interface of the LMS. Until someone creates an LMS that is truly an authoring environment–one that doesn’t use a web interface–I doubt you’ll find educators entering a whole lot of information into HTML templates.
And metadata: When I taught my first class, I got the assignment the Friday before the semester’s start the following Monday, and so had three days to develop the materials. When I created the distance learning course, I was writing the text and doing the coding as the course progressed. I typically worked from about ten PM ’till one or two in the morning three or four nights a week. I bring this up not because I think it’s extraordinary, but because I think it is completely ordinary. These are the circumstances under which educational materials get created. Metadata is just not something I think most educators will want to address at two in the morning. Unless they are looking for a way to fall asleep.
So here’s the question: There are undoubtedly some efficiencies to be had in more integrated systems, but is it really the holy grail? Are there tools right around the corner that will allow educators to create content in HTML and XML as seamlessly as in Word or PowerPoint? Can we automate metadata collection to the point where metadata is no longer an extra thing that never gets done? Or should we be looking for efficiencies under the assumption that educational materials will always emerge from heterogeneous technology environments?
I’m really pleased today to add the first non-me addition to tOFP anthology: a fine story by a fine friend, “Tickle Torture,” by Tom McNeely. Outside of my wife, Tom is the best friend I made while at Emerson, and certainly the most talented writer I encountered. While in graduate school, Tom published a story, “Sheep,” in The Atlantic Monthly, that won recognition as one of the top 100 stories of the year (1996, I think) and was later anthologized in Best New Stories From the South. It was also included in the 20th Anniversary Issue of that anthology. “Tickle Torture” was another of the stories he was working on during that period, and was later published in Ploughshares. I’m honored he’s chosen to include it in tOFP’s anthology, and I’m certain there’s a lot I could learn from close attention to this story.
<rant>*I fully confess to having drunk the Apple Kool-Aid. I resent having to do anything in a PC environment, and feel lost in the world on days–like today–I forget my Shuffle (which has tOFP site master copy and my novel on it, in addition to my music). I may however, be unable to forgive the company if I hear “rip-mix-burn” applied to the creation of educational materials one more time. Mix in terms of creating educational materials just isn’t like putting together a mix CD for your girlfriend. One of the best observations I’ve heard about OCWs recently is that through the course and curricular structures, they show that people are still making extended and complicated arguments, that the world hasn’t completely disintegrated into sound bites. Sure, complicated arguments draw on prior works, often extensively. But they connect them, critique them, dissect them and debate them. I’ve had students turn in papers that were cut-and-paste jobs, and they don’t make for thoughtful essays. I’m not sure why people imagine teaching materials might be created in this way.</rant>
* from David’s joke.
One of the best things about my job is that I get to come home most days and feel pretty good about the work I do, feel like maybe I’ve helped somebody somewhere to improve their life. I had dinner tonight with some of the students from MIT student groups coming back from summer work in China and Africa, and I have to say I feel humbled by the work they do. We asked them to speak to a visiting committee about the impact of OCW on their work–both provide instruction in the regions where they work and have adopted OCW as a tool. Their glowing words about OCW were invaluable, but their stories of the work they do are the amazing part.
The group working in Africa described how they thought the most important thing they could do was to help the brightest people in the region develop self-study skills using tools like OCW because it would be a generation before there were enough qualified college-level teachers to meet the needs for education in standard classroom settings. The group he works for is entirely student run, with only a single faculty member as an advisor. One of the other students in the group was so inspired, he started a second organization that brings together Palestinian and Israeli teens to work on collaborative problem solving. Truly things to feel good about at the end of the day.
So here I go, conflating my thinking on producer culture, comments by John Seely Brown and the challanges of understanding how OERs get reused by educators. Brown, in both his presentation at an Educause event and USU’s COSL Conference, discussed how some online communities of producers operated through what he described as distributed apprenticeship (I’m pulling the term from my admittedly shakey memory, but this is the phrase I took away). He gave open source projects as an example, in which people join the community by lurking on the periphery, learn from more established members of the community, and move to the center by making increasing valuable contributions.
I’m going to make the crazy suggestion that we think of the users of OERs not as an “audience” or “consumers” adapting content made avaiable for their secondary use, but as a community of producers creating educational materials that both help them to develop their understanding of their field and also help them communicate it to very specific audiences they serve. The point being that a large part of what they are seeking in OERs is not the what, but the how. How did this other educator approach the topic? What techniques were used to communicate the material? In what order were concepts presented? How do assignments build on one another? I know this specific content won’t work for my students because it has the wrong X, but I can create something like it with the right X, and learn something new about the subject and how to teach it as I do.
I’m sure there will be significant use in which content is repurposed directly or in modified form, and I’d guess over time, concensus will coalesce around formats and conventions that will make this easier. But too much thought about the what can push aside the how, and conversations I’ve had with educators from the Middle East and Asia indicate to me there is a tremedous amount of interest in how you foster creative and critical thinking. Sure, it’s nice to have the content, and know that it’s from a reputable institution, but schools want to know how to approach their students in ways that encourage more than rote memorization. In trying to make the what universal, I’m afraid we strip away some of the context that explains the how…