Welcome to the bazaar (or how video may kill the radio star)
In gaming out scenarios of the future of opencourseware publication, part of the never-ending search for sustainable models, I keep having discussions about improved integration between Learning Management Systems (pervasive enough to demand capitalization) and opencourseware publication systems, such as MIT’s CMS or COSL’s eduCommons. Makes sense on the face of it. If we can get most faculty to adopt an LMS, and we can couple the LMS with the publishing environment, then we can capture the effort faculty expend anyway in creating their courses and reduce the effort required to openly publish the course materials. These scenarios always start out with assumptions like, “If 80% of faculty are assumed to be using an LMS…”
But I’ve never been comfortable with those assumptions, and I realized a while back that it was because I never taught with an LMS. I used one for three years while I was teaching a distance learning course, but the whole time the actual content was housed in a separate web site (where it was much easier to manage) and most of the interaction was via e-mail (1998-2000, a web 1.0 world). It’s a heretical thing to say in some circles (and I’m not the first to say it–I first heard the idea from a presentation by Stephen Downes), but we may well be seeing the high-water mark for the LMS and adoption may actually decrease in the years to come. I recently came across a site, which–while I haven’t explored in great depth yet–seems to point in the same direction.
The whole idea that learning can be “managed” from a central system may even seem to be a strange notion in ten years. Instead of centrally creating a secure digital learning space for teachers and students, as we do now, the default may be that students and teachers come together in self-organizing digital spaces of their own design, where the various elements of the participants’ digital personas (blogs, vlogs, wikis, websites, facebooks, fileshares and linklists) come together via aggregation tools of their choosing. In as much as the physical classroom depends on the unique contributions of both the teacher and the students to produce the character of the learning experience, so too the digital learning experience may utlimately depend greatly on the ways in which the students project themselve into cyberspace, and the walls of an LMS may be a barrier to this.
The elements of current LMS that I found to be of most use were basically the administrative tools, and those might eventually atrophy to be the only elements that remain, if at all, as small parts of school’s student information systems. Even these are not that hard to replecate externally, with the exception of direct links to enrollment lists in administrative systems and the reporting back of grades–though who knows, a secure RSS feed might allow even that to happen in multiple environments.
So how does this affect opencourseware publication? I’d suggest in two ways. Because it ultimately points to a situation in which learning becomes a less digitally stable undertaking–something more fluid, with learning experiences created and dismantled rapidly and outside of any central control–opencourseware publication can serve as an organizing principle around which learning experiences can be documented. The process of gathering materials and publishing a “snapshot” of the materials can provide a stable point of reference for future learning experiences.
Second (and this again is an idea that draws on Stephen Downes’ thinking), opencourseware may become less about providing reusable and repurposable materials that are then somehow “localized” by others, and more about providing a fertile soil for future learning experiences as old materials decompose. In trying to imagine how I might use opencourseware content in my future teaching, it seems to me if I know of a resource reasonably close to my own needs that exists at a stable URL, I would likely point to it in a blog post and provide any necessary annotation for my class in the post, rather than try to download it and edit it directly.
The idea of reusable digital objects, as I’ve said before, may be a consumer culture idea developed in a time when such objects were expensive and difficult to create (and in fact I think the potential for reuse of an object is related to the expense and difficulty required to create it–which is why simulations are among the most sought-after types of digital resources). In a producer culture environment, most “learning materials” may turn out to be more disposable than reusable, with educators finding in a web 2.0 world that it’s just as easy to roll your own as borrow and adapt.
We may find that so many people are creating so much material and making it so widely available that there’s always plenty of useful stuff near enough to our needs that a reference to the resource wherever it resides on the web, with a little context in the pointer, is much easier than making the effort to pull it into a canonical system and make changes to the resource directly. This vision would point to keeping opencourseware systems relatively format and learning environment agnostic (something I see as a strength of eduCommons right now) and keeping publishing formats relatively simple. I’m not saying this vision is a certainty by any means, but I’m not buying stock in WebCT/BlackBoard either.