The Simplicity This Side of Complexity…

I love this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity I would give my right arm” (figs, one must presume, being much more readily–and affordably–attainable in post-Civil War Boston than present-day Seattle)

But it had not until recently occurred to me that such garden-variety simplicity could actually be worse than useless.

I read the brief of a design competition the other day asking for a signage system The competition sponsors (administrators of an expensive private school) “our revolutionary library classification system will be based on how students intuitively think about and explore topics; discarding the arbitrary alphabetization of fiction authors and the meaninglessly abstract Dewey decimal system for non-fiction, all our books will instead be categorized by concept. If a student wanted to learn more about Alaska, for instance she might go to the aisle for Places, find the section on the United States and then the group of books about Alaska. Another student interested in dinosaurs would find the whole collection under Animals: Dinosaurs”

The brief outlined the 24 categories into which…someone…had divided the universe of literature and asked for both a color and a pictogram for each. The competition prize was handsome, so I found myself back at the brief several times; perhaps there was an elegant solution I had missed in my rush to judgment? But no. The idea simply broke down once a reader progressed beyond board books.

Where, for example, would one look for the American classic “To Kill a Mockingbird?”
Under Animals: Birds, right?

Okay, then. Places: United States: Alabama?
Times and Seasons: Great Depression?
Professions: Law?

How about Social Issues: Race, Rape, Murder, Poverty, Disability, or Advocacy?
Honor? Sacrifice? Coming of Age?
What about Burned-out Tree? (the image that stuck most prominently in my mind the first time I read it. I may have been just a bit young.)

In fact, I can’t think of a single book worth reading that is about ONE thing. And I feel deeply inordinately concerned about a library full either of books gutless enough to be classified by such a system or teachers one-dimensional enough themselves to reduce the treasured worlds and heroes of my childhood to a pictogram.


Been ruminating on this one for a while (isn’t it funny how deep personal understanding of a word can make it at once more crude and more perfectly appropriate?) anyway, I’ve been ruminating on relevance. And I’m becoming convinced that more than interest, more than engagement, more than challenge or even feedback, relevance is the key to motivation in education.

rel-e-vance : relation to the matter at hand : PERTINANCE

per-ti-nent : [from L to reach, belong] : to belong to something as a care or concern or duty, to have reference to, to be appropriate or suitable for application.

Relevant material is suitable for application to the matter at hand. Relevant instruction carries with it care and concern, a duty to relate to the matter at hand. So, what is the matter at hand? I think it’s deceptively simple. In that way that makes it really easy to answer that question in a workshop (or a comments section) and yet still be baffled when it comes to actually doing it. I think the “matter at hand,” for students of all ages all over the world is simply LIFE. Continue reading

A Singlular Experience…

Just started what might be to coolest class of my graduate career. (Oh, forgive me, second coolest, professor _______ .)

Just to give you a taste, this is a quick run-down of my discussion group (about a quarter of the participants in the class):

Vasileios Paliktzoglou – Greece
Frank Kiel – Germany
Johan Hellström – Sweden (in Uganda)
SaraJoy Pond – USA
Andrés Moreno – Spain (in Finland/Sri Lanka/Kenya)
Xavier Justino Muianga – Mozambique
Thai Bui – Viet Nam
Sören Norrgård – Finland
Rajarshi Sahai – India
Lenandlar Singh (Len) – Guyana

Notice anything? I am the ONLY American! (I’m also the only woman. Somehow I don’t find that quite as exhilarating…perhaps I should.)

I am so excited to be part of an active discussion on issues I am completely passionate about (using information and communication technologies for development) with people from all over the world, who are all commited to (and unquestionably capable of) changing the world.

If you’re interested, the class is using the ICT4D Consortium’s Elgg site as a discussion forum. I can’t imagine anyone would object to lurkers…or even sporadic contributions.

Renewable Energy for OpenEd

Several dozen entries in the Dell Social Innovation competition (which I have become mildly obsessed with over the past several days since entering—yes, that was a shameless plug…check it out) proposing everything from human-powered nut butter machines to low-cost solar panels cum water purifiers, plus the numerous billions of dollars allotted for “exploring” it in the nation’s latest stimulus package have got me thinking a lot about renewable energy.

As said entries make abundantly clear, there are numerous interpretations of the term “renewable;” from the denotative take of a resource replenished by natural processes at a rate comparably faster than its rate of consumption (the windmills sprouting like towering minimalist daisies along I-80 in Wyoming) to the more pragmatic idea of an abundance that’s not likely to go away (the mechanism that would transform traffic racket to electricity proposed by this guy.)

So what could “renewable energy” mean in Open Education?

I know! Freshmen!

In all seriousness, though, the open education movement is largely centered in higher education. And if there’s one sector with a perpetually renewing abundance of harness-able human energy, it’s college campuses.

What if beginning graphic design students were assigned to “visualize a biological process so that it can be explained to middle school kids” … What if senior computer science students work in groups to create a decision-making simulation of a critical historical event, or animation teams were challenged to tell the “story” of supply and demand, or logical fallacies … What if creative writing students wrote cases for negotiation courses or business strategy workshops?

The students get top-quality, relevant pieces for their portfolios, and teachers and learners on campus next semester and around the world get top-quality, relevant learning objects that enrich their learning environment.

Focusing solely on “technological” (in the Gibbons sense) programs; courses concerned with artifact production, with building something, I found almost 50 classes offered this semester alone for which an assignment to create an OER could be a natural, direct fulfillment of a core learning objective:

To say nothing of the potential value of say, assigning groups in a freshmen biology course to create open slide-shares for high school students describing various genetic disorders, or students in a technical writing class being encouraged to craft instructions on how to add fractions or find Saturn through a telescope instead of the classic “make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich” (hate to admit I did that one.)

(just skip this paragraph if you’re not in the mood for a slice of pie in the sky) We could even create a system where professors and students create a bank of learning object needs, like a huge personals section for open learning; “dedicated student seeks sleek, simple, accurate depiction of a functioning larynx” from which the students with these course assignments can draw. Within a matter of a few years, we could create collections that rival those of international publishers in breadth, depth, and quality.

Granted, in most of the projects I’ve looked into, materials creation is hardly the bottleneck. And far from solving the sustainability question, this would actually magnify some of the concerns. Still, tapping into the rising generation of educators, creatives and technical professionals like this might just help us move toward the critical mass OpenEd needs to become a “given” in US higher ed and around the world.

Models, What Models?

This week’s quest asks merchants to explore the long-term sustainability models of each of the main players in the OER field and discuss the rationale behind them. Pending the return of some emails that might give me a more insider perspective (I don’t blame them for the delay–they just might have something more important to do, like, oh, worry about the long-term sustainability of their jobs) here’s what I can gather:


There are hints at diversification, inklings of refined value propositions, and some definite short-term cobbling going on, but nothing (in my opinion) unified and coherent enough to be called a “model.”  MIT, arguably the flagship of the OER movement, has placed considerable effort of late into moving supporters into more active, (financially) committed roles: there are “why I donate” snippets on every page, an ever-present “donate now” button and a newly formed corporate sponsorship campaign (two levels $10K and $100K–right now one company is listed on the site.) To be honest, these efforts give me a not-so-subtle vibe of desperation. This does not bode well for the organizations following in their wake.

Some interesting adaptations, and some aberrations: Open U of the UK seems to be sidestepping all the funding questions by simply granting credit and degrees and charging tuition. Teachers’ Domain seems to be capitalizing on a well-estabilished brand/reputation (WGBH) such that grant funding is never in short supply. Hippocampus has full-on banner ads on the site, Curriki cleverly veils them as “featured sponsors.” The Stanford project was funded by a venture capital firm…as far as I know a completely novel approach, but gives no indication as to what the nature of the “investment” is nor any explicit plans for the future. oersust_table_financial

In terms of the more “human” element of sustainability, it seems (interestingly, and perhaps critically) that the more open, the more community-based the initiative, the more unstable and difficult to sustain it becomes. Also interesting is how few of these initiatives actually involve volunteer materials creation or maintenance. Yet another dimension to the definintion of “open.”oersust_table_human

This quote, pulled directly from one of the organizations profiled in this post (I’m not saying who it is…the point is that it could be almost anybody) pretty much sums it up:

(insert the name of any OER initiative) recognizes that the scope of coordination activities and the requirements for sustaining (Open Education efforts) is rapidly increasing. Maturing the organization is critical for its long-term success. To that end,  (initiative) is advancing the current collaborative framework, exploring a variety of business models, and developing its sustainability plan so (initiative) can serve the current and future academic technology needs of faculty, students, staff, and institutions.

The major initiatives seem to be at different stages as regards their “long-term sustainability models.” Some are still blissfully sailing along on the generous surge of Hewlett foundation funding, with no indication that they will ever need another cent beyond it. Some have online “voices” tinged with a faint edge of panic; the presence of “donate” buttons on homepages seems strongly correlated with the age of the initiative and older sites seem much more likely to be promiently touting the benefits of everything from materials submission to coporate sponsorship. Others, like the one cited above, seem to recognize their own impending crises. They are diversifying funding/revenue channels and working to build their brands. One has to wonder, though, if it all might be too little too late for some.

The Results are In…

Well, here are the results of our little licensing quiz…Hopefully someone will correct me on the things I’ve got wrong…

What license should I apply to my dog-training video if I’m cool with releasing openly (and feel everyone should be) but I’d rather my client’s puppies not show up in someone’s animal cruelty presentation?

Creative Commons

My intent was for this to be BY-ND-SA. BY is almost inherent in anything not “all rights reserved.” The statement about feeling others should be open as well implies a Share-Alike clause and No-Derivatives would protect those puppies from ending up in an unseemly remix. This hypothetical trainer doesn’t mention any objections to someone else making money off the video

As a director (not playwrite) can I stage a CC-BY-ND play in a different time period or geographic location (eg. 1960s New York instead of ancient Japan)?

YES! : 1

NO : 4

A bit of a trick question… staging a play is not a publishing activity. As long as I am not publishing this as an adaptation of the original author’s work, I am completely within the rights granted directors, performers, users etc. usually lumped under “creative license.”

Am I allowed to create an instructional slideshow on Baroque architecture by combining CC-BY-NC photos from Flikr with CC-BY-SA music from Magnatune and my own narration?

YES! : 4
NO : 1

Neither of these licenses limit derivative works, and an instructional slideshow (that might not have been very clear–I meant for classroom use) is well within the non-commercial clause of the photos, so I should be fine. Incidentally, depending on the extent of the resources used in my presentation, this kind of use would be acceptable even if the works were under traditional copyright.

Which license(s) would I be able to apply to the resulting product?

CC-BY-SA (2)
None, at least not legally…

If I understand properly, in order to re-mix these resources, their licenses must be not only compatible (which would make CC-BY-NC-SA a viable option) but exactly the same. Practically, we could probably license this BY-NC-SA, but according to the letter of the law, the licenses of the photos and the music are not remix-able.

Classify each of the following licenses based on the type of use permitted:


ARR                  :  R – R – R – R
BY                      :  RRRR
BY-SA               :  RRRR
BY-ND-SA        :  RR – R – R
BY-NC               :  RRRR
BY-NC-SA        :  RRRR
BY-NC-ND       :  RR – R – R
BY-NC-ND-SA : RR – R – R

Everyone got this one exactly right. I guess that illustrates well the fact that on their own each license and its bounds are pretty clear…it’s the compatibility issues that introduce the confusion and complexity.

Disclaimer: This was a game. Only a handfull of responses are represented. In no way should any of the following results or analysis be given scientific, statistical, or practical credence of any kind 🙂

So You Think You Can License?

Because this assignment is already 2 weeks late, because you can already read great summaries here, here, here, and–oh yeah–here, and because (despite his assertions) I just can’t believe that David actually wants to read another explanation of creative commons licenses…

Test your knowledge on a couple of fun licensing scenarios here. (Tried to do it with polls inside WordPress, not much luck…told you I wasn’t an artisan) I’ll post the results on Monday.

“Why we say we’re open…”

Jared presented a good broad categorization of open ed motivations (Philanthropic, Strategic, Pedagogic, Economic) and I liked the framework Michael proposed as well; motivations based on values and motivations based on value. Picking up from there, here’s a little analysis on the “whys” (at least the public ones) of some top open education initiatives…

MIT OpenCourseWare : Unlocking knowledge, Empowering minds. “MIT OpenCourseWare is an idea – and an ideal – developed by the MIT faculty who share the Institute’s mission to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship to best serve the world.”

Values: excellence in instruction, universal access to information, education for service
Value: PR and reputation effects for the institution, competitive advantage, indirect sales (support recruiting)

OER Commons : Free-to-use Teaching and Learning Content from Around the World “expand educational opportunities by increasing access to high-quality Open Educational Resources (OER), and facilitating the creation, use, and re-use of OER, for instructors, students, and self-learners.

Values: improved OERs, improved instruction, improved access, multi-culturalism

C()SL at Utah State : Open and Sustainable Learning “is dedicated to increasing access to educational opportunity worldwide…we believe that all humans beings are endowed with a capacity to learn, improve, and progress. Educational opportunity is the mechanism by which we fulfill that capacity. Therefore, free and open access to educational opportunity is a basic human right.”

Values: rights-based access, humanism, education for service, advocacy
Value: PR and reputation effects for the institution

Commonwealth of Learning : Learning for Development “helping developing nations improve access to quality education and training”

Values: humanitarianism/charity, access
Value: PR and reputation effects for the institution

Carnegie Mellon OLI : Working to help the World Wide Web make good on its promise “Using intelligent tutoring systems, virtual laboratories, simulations, and frequent opportunities for assessment and feedback, OLI builds courses that are intended to enact instruction – or, more precisely, to enact the kind of dynamic, flexible, and responsive instruction that fosters learning.

Values: innovation, relevance/effectiveness/flexibility in learning
Value: PR and reputation effects for the institution, research platform, technology integration/exploration

WikiEducator : Free elearning content. Just try it! Our community will support you. “The WikiEducator is an evolving community intended for the collaborative planning of education projects linked with the development of free content; development of free content on Wikieducator for e-learning; work on building open education resources (OERs) on how to create OERs. networking on funding proposals developed as free content.”

Values: community organizing, improved OERs
Value: cost-savings for participants

“Quality” in Open Education

Training quest 3 has us exploring “ideals of quality” across two of the largest/highest profile open education initiatives.  I hear “quality” and immediately think in terms of comparative worth–excellence along any number of dimensions from durability to fit to taste and texture. While I could easily write a post about OLI’s Modern Biology animations or student argumentation skills in MIT’s Seminar in Ethnography and Fieldwork, discussions of quality as a global characteristic don’t seem particularly fruitful here.

But what if we think instead in terms of the first definition of quality: “an essential or distinctive characteristic, property, or attribute.” Instead of value, then, quality is more about values.

So, what do MIT and OLI value? What do they consider the essential or distinctive characteristics of what they’re trying to do, of who they are as organizations?

Organizational values are often expressed as culture and manifest in incentive and reward systems. While we don’t have access to most of this information about the major players in Open Education, we do know some of what they are tracking, what they are measuring and exploring. And these evaluation plans and reports give us a window into the values, the ideals of quality, guiding the initiatives today.

The last evaluation report from MIT OpenCourseware, published in 2005, includes sections on Access, Use and Impact. Access has to do mostly with site traffic–the site had 8.5 million visits during the evaluation period with a 51% bounce rate. 46% of visitors are from outside the US, 28% are returning visitors who spent an average of 10 min 41 sec on the site, &c. This seems particularly consistent with part II of the initiative’s dual mission: “To extend the reach and impact of MIT OCW and the opencourseware concept.”

The Use section explores questions of motivation, usability, and the special permutation of conversion MIT calls “success.” Why did each visitor come to the site? Did they accomplish those goals? What materials/resources helped them do that? This section includes responses to questions about video delivery and file type preferences, explorations of student vs. educator vs. self-learner goals, and at least a cursory reading of perceived quality and relevance from users. Part I of the dual mission expresses a fairly strong correlating value: “To provide free access to virtually all MIT course materials for educators, students, and individual learners around the world.”

The Impact section gets a little stickier. For this evaluation, the MIT team focused on three questions: What is the impact of OCW on individual teachers and learners? What is the impact of OCW on learning communities? and What is the impact of OCW on the open sharing of educational materials? The first two questions were answered almost exclusively within MIT campus, through student and faculty interviews. Supplemental data came from questions about perceived positive impact on an opt-in survey completed by 3% of visitors which the evaluators warn is significantly biased toward returning, international, student visitors. Answers to the third question range from national and international media citations, editorials calling for similar efforts at other major universities, and a graphical exploration of the initiative’s role within the open education movement along dimensions of tools, content, and implementation resources. Questions exploring the impact on instructional materials seem to support the statement that “MIT OpenCourseWare is an idea – and an ideal – developed by the MIT faculty who share the Institute’s mission to advance knowledge and educate students” and questions about impact on the movement itself tie back nicely into that bit about extending the reach and impact of the institution.

According to these metrics, MIT’s “ideals of quality” include:

  • Reach (breadth of material, volume of visitors, % of faculty members contributing)
  • Effectiveness (goal-achievement and usability) and
  • Momentum (media coverage, evidence of ripples in open ed, &c)

The Open Learning Initiative hasn’t published an evaluation report of the project as a whole. However, their evaluation plans and the research findings they seem to post in place of traditional site traffic or SROI statistics offer similar insights into underlying values.

OLI describes plans for evaluation studies of each course along the following dimensions:

1. Contextual: Where in the learning process are learners interacting with this course? In what relationship to educations institutions? What are the user demographics?
2. Effectiveness: How do student competencies (domain-specific and otherwise) change as a result of their interaction with the course?
3. Component: How well does each element of the course experience function? How do users interact with them?
4. Learning: What advantages do the innovative components of OLI courses offer online learners?
5. Assessment: How do the multiple choice course assessments stack up against psychometric standards?
6. Design: Why were the courses designed the way they were? Are those designs in harmony with sound instructional principles?
7. Dissemination: How adaptable are OLI courses to contexts other than the one they were designed in?

The weight on learning outcomes and subdivision by course points to a slightly narrower focus and a smaller unit of analysis than MIT. The increased granularity (assessing the impact of individual learning objects and monitoring the actual usage of online experiments) makes sense given the organization’s focus on “innovative online instructional components like cognitive tutors, virtual laboratories, group experiments and simulations” These same differences are reflected in the initiative’s mission statement of “working to help the World Wide Web make good on its promise of widely accessible and effective online education.” The proposed studies further reinforce the pre-eminence of “crucial elements of instructional design grounded in cognitive theory, formative evaluation for students and faculty, and iterative course improvement based on empirical evidence” in OLI’s organizational approach.

The Open Learning Initiative’s proposed research and evaluation questions suggest “ideals of quality” that include:

  • Learning (both the learners and the developers, both conceptual and procedural)
  • Theoretical Soundness (alignment with instructional theory and cognitive psychology) and
  • Continual Improvement (all studies are formative, each element is evaluated)

Whether either stated objectives or evaluation criteria accurately reflect the values and priorities of the organization is a sticky, multi-dimensional question for another time. Still, it’s been an interesting exploration.

Open Ed’s Not-Quite 95 Theses

We’re not planning to nail it to President Samuelson’s door just yet, but our class discussion on the evolving value proposition of open education yielded some intriguing results.

The premise here is that in order to remain viable, let alone accomplish its admittedly lofty goals, this next generation of open educational resources and practices must offer something to the institutions that support it beyond warm fuzzies…or positive PR…or 5-year infusions of funding. In short, it’s got to make a difference in the education of current, fee-paying, sitting-in-the-classroom students or the axe won’t stay hovering for long.

So what can openness offer the on-campus student? Here’s a start:

  • Better material used in courses
  • Faster/cheaper course development
  • Improved access to content (device-driven and adaptable)
  • Explicit connections/access to background material (instead of just saying “you remember linear algebra…right?” the instructor can actually link back to the foundational material from a previous course. Students with such access may even perform better in advanced courses.)
  • Increased efficiency in academic advisement (students can take on many of these functions themselves–more information up-front about a course will lead to lower drop rates, less time lost to resulting schedule inefficiencies and lower administrative costs.)
  • Faculty modeling critical skills of collaboration and team work.