Tag Archives: #h817open

MOOC engagement and disengagement

Recently I contrasted ds106 with a course in statistics from Udacity, as part of my participation in a course on Open Education from the Open University. I got very frustrated writing that post because I felt constrained by the script, by the instructions. It wasn’t that I had other things to say that didn’t fit the script; it was more that following the explicit instructions seemed to keep me from thinking of other things to say. I was busy saying what I was supposed to, and therefore didn’t leave myself mental space to consider much of anything else.

Usually I only write blog posts when I have something I want to reflect on, to share with others, to get feedback about. It’s self-generated, and I care about what I’m doing. That hasn’t been the case for many of the posts I’ve done for the Open Education course, and it has just felt far too forced and unmeaningful.

I decided to stop.

Apparently the post was actually useful to some, as some Twitter conversations & retweets indicated, but it still felt dull to me because I wasn’t the one deciding what to write, or whether to write at all. Okay, yes, ultimately I was the one, of course, since I didn’t need to (a) do this particular activity for the course, or (b) do it in the scripted way, or (c) join the course at all in the first place. So yes, I decided. But my point is more subtle. And it affects how I approach face-to-face teaching as well. 

In my previous post, I listed some of the major differences between ETMOOC and the OU course, and talked a bit about why I preferred the former. Here I want to focus on one particular downside to the OU course.

The directed assignment

There is probably a better word or phrase for this–I just mean an assignment or activity in which one is told exactly what to do. This is what we had, each week, several times a week, in the OU course. It is not what we had in ETMOOC.

In ETMOOC we had a few suggestions here and there for blog topics, things one could write about if one wanted. During some of the bimonthly topics there were lists of activities we might do if we wished, including reading/watching outside materials and writing about them. But there was a strong emphasis that one should choose one or just a few of these, or none at all (see, e.g., the post for the digital storytelling topic in ETMOOC). The activities were clearly suggestions, and participants could (and many did) blog about anything that caught their attention and interest in relation to the topics at hand, whether from the suggested activities, the presentations, the Twitter chats, or others’ blog posts.

My experience with the OU course was much different. The activities were written as directives rather than suggestions. Here, for example, is an activity about “connectivism” that I decided not to do (other examples of directions can be found by clicking on the #h817open tag to the right). I am going to blog about connectivism and how it informs the structure of cMOOCs, as it’s something I’m interested in, but that’s just the point. The way the activities in the course are written, one gets the strong message that directions should be followed. The rhetoric is clear. You may be interested in writing about something else, but then you’re not participating in the course.

Sometimes I followed the instructions; sometimes not. My choice, yes, but something else happens too.

Follow the path

Follow the path, CC-BY licensed flickr photo shared by Miguel Mendez

There could easily be, and for me at times there was, a strong enough feeling that I ought to follow directions that, well, I did. It’s just a sense that that’s what you do in a “course.” And the fact that this was an “open boundary” course–meaning it had students officially registered for credit as well as outside participants–probably contributed to it having a more traditional structure. But that structure suggested, implicitly, that one should do what the instructor says.

Incidentally, this was another difference from ETMOOC–in the OU course, there was clearly one instructor in the “expert” or “authority” role. In ETMOOC there were many people involved in both planning and facilitating, and unless they were giving one of the synchronous presentations, they acted just like every other participant in the course. The information about each week’s topic seemed to come from some anonymous source, without a clear authorial voice, even though it had a list of people at the end who were involved in working on that topic. It felt less hierarchical, more like a collective group of people learning together than a set of instructors vs. learners.

I’m not concerned about having specific, assigned readings, videos, or other materials; some of those for the OU course I found very helpful, and when one is faced with something unfamiliar, having a few common guideposts on the way is helpful when learning with others. What led me to disengage was being explicitly directed as to what to do with those materials, exactly what to write about. And even though I knew that was optional, the rhetorical  thrust of both the wording and the structure of the course indicated otherwise. 

I had a bit of a discussion with Inger-Marie Christensen in comments on one of her blog posts, here, about this issue. She rightly pointed out the danger of just skipping things in a MOOC that don’t seem immediately interesting to you, and I agree. I also see that by following directions I might end up finding new things that I’m interested in, engaged with, that I might not otherwise.

Still, I think that a balance can be struck: encouragement to at least engage with most or all of the topics, read or watch at least one or two things, and then choose from a variety of suggested topics to write about or activities to do (while also providing freedom to do something else related if one chooses). I think the value of greater engagement and more meaningful work by participants by offering such flexibility can outweigh the loss of perhaps missing some aspects of a topic.

Face-to-face courses

I felt this way earlier in the OU course, but continued on for awhile anyway:

And another implication struck me then, too:

But in Uni the students either just do what you ask or drop the course. And suddenly it’s hitting me that when I provide clear, detailed instructions on what to write for essays, my students may respond the way I did. How did I not see this before?

I often give very detailed essay assignments, saying exactly what should be written about. I have thought I’m doing students a favour by providing clear directives. And for some, that’s probably the case. But I’m also:

  • doing the hard work for them–wouldn’t it be better to ask them to find the important aspects of texts and arguments for themselves, based on what they want to talk about? 
  • leading their essays to be as rigid as my instructions, and so
  • likely preventing the excitement that comes when you really want to figure something out and work with a text (or something else) to do so, as well as
  • discouraging deep creativity in responding to the texts and issues we’re discussing.

Now, I actually do give students in third- and fourth-year courses more freedom, but I tend to be more directive in first- and second-year courses. And I’m wondering if I can strike more of a balance between specificity and flexibility. I realize that people new to philosophy can use clear guidance on how to write philosophy essays well, and sometimes that could mean telling them exactly what to write about. But does it have to? At the very least, I could make it clearer that the provided essay topics are suggestions rather than directives, and emphasize that there is room to experiment.

I could, thereby, open up students to the significant possibility of writing essays that are deeply problematic because I gave them the freedom to fail. But if I also give them detailed feedback and the chance to revise without penalty, then, well, that seems to me a good way to learn. And maybe they’ll be excited to do so in the process. Okay, at least some of them.

The bigger issue

But this doesn’t address the problem noted above: even if one says, explicitly, that directives are optional, one’s other words and course structure may indicate that, after all, they really should be followed. And/or, the learning experience for many has for so long been such that when the instructor gives suggestions for what to do, many students may do that rather than come up with something on their own, because after all, the instructor is in the position of authority/expertise.

Even in ETMOOC, I recall several participants expressing how they felt “behind,” and needed to “catch up”; some even said they dropped out because they felt so behind. The message of flexibility may not have gotten through.

So I am left with two problems for my face-to-face teaching:

1. How to balance promoting flexibility and creativity, and thereby hopefully greater engagement, with the danger of learners only focusing on what they want and not going beyond their comfort zones (hmmm…seems to me I’ve visited this issue before).

2. Once I solve problem number 1, how to communicate that flexibility really means…flexibility?


MOOCs I have known

So far in 2013, while on sabbatical, I’ve actively participated in two MOOCs (Massive, Open, Online Courses): the OU course on Open Education, and ETMOOC (Educational Technology and Media MOOC). The latter was one of the best educational and professional development experiences I have ever had. The former…well…was just okay. Not bad, but not transformative like ETMOOC was.

I want to use this blog post to try to figure out why this might have been the case, and in the next one I’ll focus in on one particular difference and discuss it in more depth. 

I don’t think it was just the most obvious difference, that the OU course was an “open boundary” course, meaning it was a face-to-face course that invited outside participants as well, and ETMOOC was not–though ultimately, this may have been an important part of why the two differed so much.

A heated discussion

A heated discussion, CC-BY licensed flickr photo shared by ktylerconk

1. Synchronous presentations/discussions

ETMOOC had 1-2 synchronous presentations weekly, some by the “co-conspirators” (the group that planned and facilitated the course), and some by people outside the course. These were mostly held on a platform that allowed interactivity between the presenter and participants, including a whiteboard that participants could write on synchronously, and a backchannel chat that presenters often watched and responded to.

Instead of synchronous presentations, the OU course had assigned readings and/or videos for each week. ETMOOC had no such assigned materials, just the synchronous sessions. These are somewhat similar, though of course the presentations get you a sense of being more connected to the presenter than does reading a static text or video from them. There is at least the chance of asking live questions.

The OU course had one synchronous presentation and two synchronous discussions–the last one a discussion of how the course went & thoughts for the future. I could only attend one of these because of time zone issues, and there was much less interactivity–the chat was much less active, e.g.

2. Twitter

ETMOOC had a weekly Twitter chat that was, most weeks, very lively. I met numerous people through these chats that I followed/got followers from, and I still interact with them after the course. The Twitter stream for the #etmooc hashtag was quite busy most of the time, and still has a good number of posts on it. The OU course had no synchronous Twitter chat, and most days saw maybe 2-3 tweets on the #h817open hashtag. Few participants used Twitter, and those that did, didn’t use it very much. Mostly they announced their own blog posts/activities for the course, though some shared some outside resources that were relevant.

3. Discussion boards vs. Google + groups

OU had discussion boards where, I imagine, much of the discussion took place (instead, e.g., of being on Twitter). ETMOOC had no discussion boards, only blogs, Twitter, and a Google+ group.

Iwent to the OU boards a couple of times, and remembered that I really don’t like discussion boards. I am still not sure why. Partly because they feel closed even if they are available for anyone to view, and partly because I don’t feel like I’m really connecting to people when all I’m getting are their discussion board posts. Unlike Twitter or Google+, I can’t look at their other posts, their other interests and concerns. I stopped looking at the boards after the first week or so.

Fortunately, some of the members of the OU group set up their own Google+ group, so I did most of my discussion on there (and on others’ blogs). There was a small group of active participants on G+ that frequently commented on each others’ blogs, much smaller than the ETMOOC Google + group.


Linked, CC-BY licensed flickr photo shared by cali4beach

4. Building connections

ETMOOC started off with some presentations and discussions on the sorts of activities needed to become a more connected learner (unsurprisingly, as this was a connectivist MOOC), such as introductions to Twitter, to social curation, and to blogging (one of the two blogging sessions stressed the importance of commenting on others’ blogs, how to do it well, etc.)  (see the archive of presentations here). Many of us are still connecting after the course has finished–through a blog reading group, through Twitter and G+, and through collaborative projects we developed later.

OU had no such introduction to things that might help us connect with each other–again, unsurprisingly, as it wasn’t really designed as a cMOOC, it seems. There was a blog hub, and there were suggestions in the weekly emails to read some of the blog posts and comment on them, but it wasn’t emphasized nearly as much as in ETMOOC.

I don’t see myself continuing to connect with any people from the OU course; or maybe I will with just a couple. I didn’t really feel linked to them, even though we read and commented on each others’ blogs a bit. I think the lack of synchronous sessions, including Twitter chats, contributed to this–even in the ETMOOC presentations we talked with each other over the backchannel chat. Of course, things might have been different if I had participated in the online discussion forums in the OU course; but I still think those are not a very good method for connecting with others, for reasons noted above.

5. Learning objectives

The OU course had explicit learning objectives/outcomes for the course as a whole, and for each topic in the course. ETMOOC, by contrast, explicitly did not–see this set of Tweets for a discussion about why. The quick answer is that ETMOOC was designed to be a space in which participants could formulate their own goals and do what they felt necessary to meet them.

6. Dipping vs. completing

ETMOOC had about five topics, each of which ran for two weeks. They were more or less separate in that you didn’t have to have gone through the earlier ones to participate in the later ones. There was an explicit message being given out by the co-conspirators, picked up and resent by participants, that it was perfectly fine to start anytime and drop out whenever one needed/wanted, coming back later if desired. There was no “getting behind” in ETMOOC–that was the message we kept hearing and telling to each other. And after awhile, it worked, at least for me; I missed a few synchronous sessions and didn’t feel pressure to go back and watch them. I just moved on to things I was more interested in.

The OU course seemed more a “course” in the sense of suggesting, implicitly, through its structure, that it was something one should “complete–one should start at the beginning and go through all the sections, in order. Some of the later activities built directly on the earlier ones. Now, clearly, this makes sense in the context of having a set of course objectives that are the same for all–participants can’t meet those if there isn’t a series of things to read/watch/do to get to the point where they can fulfill them.


So, clearly, two very different MOOCs, doing different things, for different purposes. Obviously, for some people in some contexts and for some purposes, each one is going to have upsides and downsides. In the next post I focus on one particular downside, for me, of the OU course (though, as you can tell from my tone in the above list, I found ETMOOC more engaging). I also appreciated the flexibility, which the next post addresses.



Contrasting the xMOOC and the … ds106 (#h817open, Activity 14)

For week four of the Open University course on Open Education, we were asked to compare MOOC models: either ds106 or the Change MOOC with something from Coursera or Udacity, focusing on “technology, pedagogy, and general approach and philosophy.”

I decided to go ahead and do this activity (though I’m not doing all of them for the course) because I really want to get a better sense of ds106. Plus, though I’ve explored Coursera a fair bit, and even signed up for one of their courses to see what it’s like being a participant, I haven’t looked at Udacity at all. While I kind of don’t care if I look at Udacity, this activity is a good excuse to look at ds106, which I do care about, and, well, I’ll at least know a bit more about Udacity in case that ever comes in handy.


“DS” stands for digital storytelling, and this course began in 2010, started by Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington. It still has students registered officially at UMW, and there are sections at other campuses as well (see “other Spring 2013 courses” at the top of the ds106 site). In addition, it has, well, I have no idea how many other online participants who are participating in parts or all of the course. (There are over 150 blogs listed in the “open online participants” section, but that may not be the same as the number of people who are actually participating. And that doesn’t count the on-campus students.)

One thing that stands out about ds106, among many others, is that while it’s a course that has specific beginning and end times for on-campus participants, it explicitly invites anyone to drop in anytime they like and stay for as long (or as short) as they like. Some people may be participating in a fairly in-depth way, by setting up blogs that are syndicated on the site, while others may just do a few assignments here and there (thus, the near-impossibility of figuring out how many people are actually “participating” at any given time).

Ways of participating in ds106 (for open online participants)

1. The daily create: a low-key, low-commitment, super fun way to participate. Every day there is a new suggestion to create something, and anyone can do one or more of these and add them to the collection. The daily create site explains:

The daily create provides a space for regular practice of spontaneous creativity through challenges published every day. Each assignment should take no more than 15-20 minutes. There are no registrations, no prizes, just a community of people producing art daily.

For example, today’s daily create (April 21, 2013) is: “Take a photograph of something you must see everyday. Make it look like something else!” Once it’s done you simply upload it to Flickr with some specific tags, and voilà, they show up on the daily create site (well, barring some technical hiccups and such). You can also search Flickr for the specific tag for today and find all the creations. Utterly cool.

I decided to do the Daily Creates for April 21 and 22, and had much fun with them. You can see my photos here and here. (I’ve got a lot of work to do on the “creative” end of things.)

2. Do some assignments from the “open assignment bank.” According to the “about” page for the assignments, they are all created by ds106 students. Those who are taking the course in a formal sense on a campus don’t need to do all the same assignments–they can pick and choose in order to put together those that will equal a certain number of “points” for a topic in the course. And anyone can do any one or more of the assignments, anytime they like. One can either do them on one’s blog and register it with the blog aggregator, or upload it to the site directly.

3. Don’t just do the assignments, write about them in a blog. Tell a story about why you chose that assignment, the context of what you created, and how you did it so others can see the process. Then, connect your blog to the ds106 hub so it shows up here. Further, read some posts from others’ blogs and comment. Build community.

4. Follow along with an on-campus course. You could look at the posts from a particular on-campus course (see top menu of ds106 site) and do similar topics as they are, and comment on their blogs/assignments.

This is all in addition to following ds106 on Twitter through the #ds106 hashtag.

And really, what other “course” has its own radio station? The most amazing thing about it is that it’s open to anyone to broadcast on, so far as I can tell. Well, anyone who can figure out how to do it. Find out what’s on by following @ds106radio or the #ds106radio hashtag on Twitter.

And there’s a “tv” station too, though I’m not sure how it works. I just know I got a tweet about an upcoming presentation, and when I clicked on the tv station site I could watch the presentation. Seems to be an option for live chat, too. You can follow @ds106tv or the #ds106tv hashtag on Twitter.

Udacity: “Elementary Statistics”

At some point I need to learn some statistics for my work in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. So I decided to take a look at Udacity’s “Elementary Statistics” course, for possibly doing it later. 

Image Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram, flickr photo licensed CC-BY, shared by Arenamontanus

General observations

Starting off with the main Udacity “How it works” page, I find something suspicious:

The lecture is dead
Bite-sized videos make learning fun

My experience with Coursera was that the traditional, hour-or-so-long lecture format seemed to just be cut up into shorter pieces, with a talking head talking for, if I remember correctly, 10-15 minutes at a time, interspersed by quizzes or other activities. We were still supposed to watch all the pieces. That’s not what I’d call killing the lecture: a lecture is still a lecture, no matter how short it is. This point has been made countless times before (here is just one example, from the excellent “More or Less Bunk” blog by Jonathan Rees). The lecture is dead. Long live the (mini) lecture. So I’m right away wondering whether Udacity is going to be any different on this point.

And I really, really don’t like the “branding” they do: they call us “Udacians” (Coursera calls participants “Courserians”), and they have their own new word–see, e.g., here. Yuck. It really puts me off. I don’t mind the sense of identity I got through doing ETMOOC, a sense of community, of belonging to something. I think it’s because the latter was developed over time, rather than foisted upon people when they start; with Udacity I feel like I’m being told I’m part of a community in order to put me into a feeling of caring about the company, rather than letting that feeling develop over time (if at all).

About the course front page: I hate the fact that I have to actually enroll to see how the course works (unlike ds106, in which all elements are out there for anyone to see and start doing). No wonder these kinds of MOOCs have such large enrollment numbers. You have to enroll just to see the thing in the first place.

Why do they require a registration before you can get a real sense of a course? At the very least, they can keep track of people that way to send them marketing materials. And they can gather a bunch of data about participants–all one’s courses, all one’s work inside those courses, can be tracked if they can attach work in the course to specific people. Which makes me wonder: what is that data being used for, exactly? The privacy policy doesn’t answer that question fully:

We use the Personally Identifiable Information that we collect from you when you participate in an online course through the Website for managing and processing purposes, including but not limited to tracking attendance, progress and completion of an online course.

But what do they do with the information about progress in courses, besides store it so you can go back to the course later and see how much you’ve done, or use it to issue certificates? Well, here’s one answer: it’s being used to make money. Udacity and similar companies can identify students who might be good matches for employers, and the employers can pay for the service.

But I wonder if any of this data could be used to provide useful information on online teaching and learning. Maybe, maybe not, but we may never know unless researchers can get access to the data. (Mike Caulfield explains here that institutions that are partnered with Coursera can get at least some data, but I don’t know what Udacity’s policies are in this regard.)

Nor do I expect that I, as a participant, will have detailed access to my data, because I don’t own it; they do–a problem discussed by Audrey Watters, here (and in a great presentation for ETMOOC, linked here).

I decide to register for an account and take a deeper look at the course–because really, I want to see how they killed the lecture.

Starting the course

The course goes right away into a short (>2 min) introductory video, and I pretty quickly get the hang of how this course works: very short videos (0-2 mins, some 30-45 secs long) followed by quick quiz questions (multiple-choice, fill in the blank, that sort of machine-gradable thing), back and forth for each “lesson” (though some video segments don’t have quiz questions attached). At the end of each lesson there is a problem set. And so it goes, for 12 lessons.

One nice thing is that there is a link to forum questions connected to each of the short videos, because if you go to the main forum page, you just get a bunch of discussions that aren’t clearly organized by topic or lesson. You can organize them by tags, but you have to know what the tags are to do a search on them. Another nice thing is that for each video you can click on the “ask a question” button, and it automatically adds the right tags for you for that particular video segment.

I skipped ahead to the first problem set and tried to do some of them, just to see what they’re like. All multiple choice, and like the “quizzes” in the lessons, you are told right away if your answer is right or wrong. In the quizzes you can just skip ahead to the answer if you can’t figure it out; not so in the problem sets. You have to keep trying until you get it right (a process of elimination, in may cases) or just skip the question. Or, you can always take a look at the discussion forums, where I found that sometimes someone had helpfully posted the answers.

Apparently there will be a final exam, but it won’t be ready online until May (not all the lessons are ready yet, either).

Is the lecture dead?

Yes and no.

The course does a great job of mixing lecture with participant activities, such as short quizzes to apply what’s just been said, or sending you to third-party sites to do activities there. In the first lesson, they sent us to do a face memory test from the BBC, and then asked us to put our scores into a Google form. Much of the rest of the first lesson referred back to this test and how one might think about the data generated by it. That’s a nice way to use an example for a stats lesson.

I didn’t make it all the way to the end of the first lesson, but if I had, I might see what they are actually doing with the data generated by student participants who take the test and upload their scores into the Google form. What’s it being used for? I think it’s uploaded anonymously, but I’m not sure because you access the form through the course interface itself. Hmmmmm.

[And if my BBC face test data was connected to my personally identifiable information, then I should have had to fill out a consent form for it to be used, right? Might they have gotten ethics approval to collect such data? Or maybe they don’t need to? The important thing here is that none of these questions are answered, even the question of whether my Google form data had identifiable information on it. I just don’t know.]

The videos still contain lectures, but they are so short as to hardly seem such; often there is a quiz every 30 secs to 1 minute (sometimes longer, but not much). So there is a good deal of participant activity going on as well (one might even call it a form of “active learning”). And the videos for this course are (mostly) not face shots of instructors talking, but rather some kind of digital whiteboard with text and diagrams.

One could say these aren’t like lectures because they are so interspersed with participants having to do something. But the pedagogical approach that underpins lecturing is still in evidence, namely the knowledge/information transmission approach (more on this, below). So in some sense, there are still lectures here; they are just very, very short.

I tend to think there’s nothing wrong with having some lecturing going on here and there, though I’m also rather drawn to Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster, which can be read as suggesting that one ought not to act an expert and engage in explaining things to learners at all (see, e.g., the section on “Emancipatory Method” here, and the nice summary by my colleague Jon Beasley-Murray here, along with a critique I have to think about further).

I expect Udacity means that “the hour-long lecture, without  participant activities to break it up” is dead (which, of course, it’s not, but that’s another matter). But the “expert” as transmitter of knowledge to be grasped, and the “learner” as taking on that knowledge in exactly the same way as the expert, is not.


The most striking difference in terms of technology is this. For the Udacity course, there is some pretty heavy technological investment going into the production of the course. The videos are not just recordings of professors talking, but often of a digital board that one of the instructors writes on with a stylus, in different colours. The video switches fairly seamlessly into a quiz: the quiz looks just like what was last seen on the video, but when you move to it suddenly click boxes appear, and suddenly you’re in interactive mode. The technological structure of the course may not be terribly complicated (what do I know about such things? pretty much nothing), but my point is that the main technological investment is happening at the “course” side.

What’s different about ds106 is that the participants themselves create things with technology, with software and applications, rather than being consumers of such products produced by those in charge of the course. Instead of just passively interacting with things made by others, ds106 participants learn how to use technology to create their own artifacts. Just a quick glance at the Assignment Bank or The Daily Create shows that course participation is heavily focused on making things rather than (only) taking in knowledge from others. As does the fact that all the assignments (and at least some, or many, of The Daily Creates) are created by course participants.

Pedagogy and philosophy

Making and replicating

The above point about different uses of technology in the Udacity course vs. ds106 reminds me of some things George Siemens said about the difference between “xMOOCs,” like those from Udacity and Coursera, and “cMOOCs,” or connectivist MOOCs, like ETMOOC and Change 11 (I discuss some of the differences in an earlier blog post). He states here that

Our MOOC model [cMOOC] emphasizes creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning. The Coursera model emphasizes a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes and testing. Put another way, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication.

Is ds106 a cMOOC? It does have the focus on creating over duplication. Alan Levine argues that it’s not a MOOC at all:

To me, all other MOOCs, be they x or c type, sis [sic] to create the same content/curriculum for everyone in the course- they all do the same tasks. And to be honest, the framing points are actually weekly lectures, be they videos spawned out of xMOOCs or webinars. The instruction in these modes are teacher centric (even if people can banter in chat boxes).

Should we say that’s the definitive answer to the question? I don’t know, and really, it doesn’t matter in the end. But Levine has a point about other open online courses being more focused on weekly presentations (ETMOOC was like this) and having the same general topics for all each week, even if there aren’t always common assignments given to everyone (there weren’t in ETMOOC). ETMOOC was also more of a set “event” happening at a certain time (though, thankfully, many of us are continuing to think and discuss and work together afterwards on a “blog reading group”). ds106 is even less structured than that, being something one can participate in anytime, an ongoing community more than a course–except for those who are taking it as part of an official educational program, that is.

The Udacity course on statistics definitely holds to a model of knowledge duplication, in which participants learn things from experts and duplicate that knowledge on quizzes and problem sets. This is not surprising, given the topic, and not really a problem, given the topic. I found it more problematic when looking at a Coursera course on critical thinking and argumentation.

For all that, though, the Udacity course doesn’t encourage passivity in participants; one is continually doing things with the information being presented, instead of mainly watching or listening. It’s just that one isn’t really making or creating new artifacts, new knowledge in these activities, things to be contributed back to the community of learners. Except, of course, on the discussion forums, which are not really integral to the course. You can go to them if you have a question, or want to see answers to others’ questions, or want to answer others’ questions, but I think you can do the whole course without ever going to the forums.


I’m not familiar enough with educational theories to be able to say much of anything scholarly here, so I’ll just make a couple of quick observations that risk being so general as to caricature the approaches in these two online experiences.

In the Udacity course, the philosophical approach has already been stated above: a kind of expert-transmission model. The instructors are experts who should explain the topics in a way that will work for the most participants possible. There can be no adjustment in the instruction for different participants, as it must necessarily be the same for all in the main presentations and quizzes (though it can be altered over time, if evidence suggests a need for it). The assumption has to be that there can be a way to reach at least a good portion of a mass audience of learners, through clarity of presentation and testing of understanding along the way. If this doesn’t work for some people, they can hopefully get help through the forums (which have contributions from both participants and, at times, the instructors).

The learning experience is, from what I experienced in the first lesson and problem set, entirely instructor-directed, with the participants going through an already-set and -structured path through the course. It is possible to earn a certificate for a course, according to the FAQ page, if you complete a certain number of “mastery questions” correctly and thus achieve at least a certain “mastery level.” In this case, “mastery” means being able to replicate the knowledge one has ingested.

ds106, by contrast, (at least for open, online participants) is participant-directed rather than instructor-directed. Participants decide what they want to do, and when. There is no indication that one ought to follow a pre-set path through the course, nor that one should try to work through most or all of the topics.

The instructors in ds106 are not acting as “experts” for the open participants. There is nothing in the way of information being given to participants that they must somehow return back in the same form. There is only the ds106 handbook, which provides advice and tips for using digital tools as well for blogging about one’s artifacts, but participants then create their own artifacts and knowledge with those tools. Indeed, the “experts” in ds106 are not the instructors, at least for the open participants–it’s really the other students. They are the ones producing the artifacts, creating the assignments, and commenting on each others’ work and blogs.


It’s no secret on this blog that I prefer the “cMOOC” structure to the xMOOC one. Generally I prefer providing students with more freedom to investigate things they find to be engaging and valuable than to tell them exactly what they should do in order to “learn.” (Though my reservations about rhizomatic learning are also relevant here).

So it would probably seem that I’d prefer ds106 to the Udacity course. Which I do. I really appreciate that the “course” is about what participants can create rather than about what experts have to tell them.

But there just are some things that lend themselves okay well to the expert, knowledge-dissemination model, like basic statistics. That’s not to say that I don’t think participants can add important critical and creative knowledge to the field of stats, but at the start, one has to just grasp some of the basic concepts in order to understand the field well enough to do so. Or at least, to talk to others in the field about one’s ideas. And Udacity does a fairly good job of that, from what I’ve seen.

I expect I’d have a different response to a Udacity-type course in philosophy, however.


CC-What? Part 2: No SA (#h817open, Activity 9)

In the previous post I discussed why I don’t use a CC-BY-NC license for my blog, and won’t do so for any open educational resources I create. In this one I do the same for CC-BY-SA.

Share alike

Some of the blogs connected to the OU Open Education course have opted for a share alike clause for their CC licenses–see, e.g., this post by Inger-Marie Christensen, this one by Guy Cowley, and this one by Gitte Bailey Hass. These express a desire to allow continued sharing of the work into the future, so that someone else couldn’t, for example, put an NC or ND clause onto the work later (well, they could, but, you know…).

The point of using a CC-BY-SA license seems to be to keep things free in the sense of “libre”: the work can continue to be not only reused, but also revised, remixed, redistributed (the four R’s, given by David Wiley). The idea behind CC-BY-SA is similar to the idea of “copyleft,” which is explained on the GNU site in terms of software: “Copyleft says that anyone who redistributes the software, with or without changes, must pass along the freedom to further copy and change it. Copyleft guarantees that every user has freedom.”

Charging money

Now, initially one might think that this means the work would have to remain free (in the sense of gratis) in perpetuity; after all, if one put a CC-BY-SA license on a work, then any changes and redistribution would have to also have a CC-BY-SA license, so it would be available for free (no cost), right? Not necessarily–one can still charge money for something with a CC-BY-SA license. What is not allowed is restricting others’ ability to use and revise and remix and redistribute the work themselves. The legal code of the CC-BY-SA license says: “You may not offer or impose any terms on the Work that restrict the terms of this License or the ability of the recipient of the Work to exercise the rights granted to that recipient under the terms of the License.”

Whether or not you can charge money for such a work is a separate issue. It’s related, of course, in that making money is easier if you can stop others from distributing a work as well, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to charge for it. One way this might work is with software: someone could create a new program based on some code that has a copyleft license, and the new code has to also have a copyleft license. But the program could still be sold, even though the code is openly available for anyone to use, change, redistribute. But there are many people who can’t do anything with the code, can’t figure out how to install the program on their machines, etc., so they might be willing to pay for the software. The GNU site has a good article on how copyleft doesn’t prohibit making money from software: “Selling Free Software.”

Commercial enclosure

Some argue that one can use SA to prevent the sort of commercial enclosure discussed in my previous post, and that it would be a better tool for doing so than NC. For example, a booklet arguing against CC-BY-NC by Paul Klimpel explains (on pp. 12-13) that any work that uses something licensed CC-BY-SA, even when added to or mixed with things not so licensed, has to be released, as a whole, with a CC-BY-SA license as well–“and that is one thing most companies, especially larger ones, are not willing to do,” Klimpel’s translated text reads.

Charles Lowe explains further in Considerations for Creative Commons Licensing of Open Educational Resources: The Value of Copyleft:

… if I produce a derivative work of a Share Alike licensed open textbook on my own, one that is significantly enhanced over previous versions, I can sell it, even though I must license it as Share Alike. As a result of the license, any person who buys it—for whatever price I set—can post it to the Internet and give it away for free. From that point on, the potential market value for selling the book has disappeared.

“Pallas cat,” cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by suvodeb

So perhaps CC-BY-SA would cover the concerns about commercial enclosure that Stephen Downes raises (see my previous blog post), and I share, though about which I am not worried for my own work? Downes would not agree; he argues here and here that charging money to access a work means it is no longer free, and here he states that copyleft licenses like CC-BY-SA embody a contradiction: 

They are saying “‘you shall not block anyone from using this content’ and ‘you may block some people from using this content.'” [by charging money for it]

Downes then goes on to reiterate the argument that even if copyleft licenses supposedly leave the free (as in gratis) versions available, it doesn’t end up working that way because the free versions will be enclosed.

What will actually happen is an empirical matter that I don’t have the facts to try to predict, and it’s quite complicated, as this post by Downes and this reply by Wiley suggest. And, as I’m ultimately rejecting both NC and SA, I won’t try to go further into this issue here.

Sharing in perpetuity

There is also a deeper, philosophical argument that can be advanced in support of copyleft principles. J.M. Pedersen argues here that copyleft licenses allow for “reciprocity in perpetuity,” in the sense that they allow one to take resources from a “commons” but also require that anything new done to them be returned back to that commons for anyone else to use.

The GPL [GNU General Public License–a copyleft license] ensures that everyone is able to access the Free Software commons, and also that everyone will act in ways that ensure its continuity (and in fact, growth) into the future. Reciprocity in perpetuity refers to an attitude of responsibility and responsiveness that is necessary in order for the commons to remain perpetually there.

Pedersen also explains that copyleft therefore creates a kind of community of people who agree to reciprocally share their work. This community is, in principle, open to anyone, but of course they have to be willing to engage in this kind of reciprocity: enjoying freedoms to use, to redistribute, and to improve works only if one is willing to allow others to do the same with anything one creates on the basis of them.

This idea of “reciprocity in perpetuity” expresses the desire that free works (in the sense of libre) remain free far into the future. CC-BY and CC0, for example, couldn’t guarantee that–they allow others to use the works in any way they wish, including revising them extensively and releasing the new works under copyright.

I respect this desire, and efforts to keep things libre into the future. It seems that in regards to CC-BY vs. CC-BY-SA, the choice comes down to giving others complete freedom to do what they want with your work vs. ensuring that more people, down the road, have freedom to use, revise, remix, and redistribute your work. There is one restriction that SA imposes that BY alone does not: one has to release whatever one creates from the SA-licensed work under an SA-type license as well. That’s not too much to ask for continued freedom of persons to use the material into the future, right? After all, one could say that the only restriction SA provides is restriction against further restrictions, as Rob Myers points out in this succinct post: “it does not stop you doing anything, it only stops you stopping others.”

But there are costs with SA, of course, as with any choice of license. And looking at those shows that SA does stop others doing some things.


The most direct cost, though some might not think of it as such, is that one’s work is not available for revision, remixing and redistribution by those who do not want to use a CC-BY-SA license. I, for example, don’t even look at any works that are licensed as SA when I am looking for images for my blog, and I am not likely to for OER either, since I plan to use CC-BY for my OER as well. I just completely skip over things with NC or SA licenses (or ND, even though I could use ND images since I use them whole…I just go straight for the CC-BY stuff because it’s the safest).

David Wiley has explained the license compatibility issue arising from SA here, as has Leigh Blackall, here. The issue is that material licensed with SA (or another copyleft license) often cannot be combined with other material that also has a type of SA license into a remix (e.g., one can’t combine material with a CC-BY-SA license with material that has a CC-BY-NC-SA license, because both require that the remix would have to be released under a compatible license as each one). See this chart on the Wikieducator site, which explains license compatibility quite clearly.

Further, of course, the SA designation restricts the sort of license that can be put on the remix, so those who do not wish to use an SA license will simply not use such materials. Which means that, again, releasing one’s work under an SA-type license restricts the number of uses it can be put to, and therefore likely the number of people using it.

Now, this may not matter to some; they may rather want to enter into the reciprocity community Pedersen discusses (as noted above) and only release their work to others who will also share it with others in the same way. But in so doing they are restricting their work to fewer uses (which they may not care about). By using CC-BY (or especially if I choose to move to CC0), my work can be used by more people, which is something I do care about. I put it out there to be used, if anyone finds it of use.

I recognize that this could mean it may be used by more people initially, but then closed off. And that does still bug me–which is why, as noted in my previous post, I’d still like to have some other kind of instrument that would allow for commercial use but not total commercial (or other) enclosure, such that no free versions can be had. This may be impossible, but that’s what I’d like. But again, that ultimately seems unlikely for the stuff I do.

As with most things, the choice between CC-BY and CC-BY-SA comes down to which costs one is most willing to bear. I find SA much less problematic than NC, after all this research, and I very much understand the desire to try to keep works libre in perpetuity through the use of SA.

But ultimately, I think of it this way: I give away my work to be used by others, as many others as want to, and they create something new with it (and maybe with other stuff too). Then it’s no longer just mine; I’m not willing to require that they share it with others in a certain way. My stuff is still available for others to use as they wish; whatever new stuff is created may or may not be, for various reasons that I can’t even imagine at the moment. 

I come back to the idea of giving my stuff away as a gift. Here, you can have it, and that means you can do what you will with it. Maybe you can do wonderful things I couldn’t imagine, and that wouldn’t be possible if I put more restrictions on it. Or maybe you’ll try to enclose it and not allow others to use it. But since I think the latter is less likely with my work than the former, I’m going with CC-BY.

Or possibly CC0.


CC-What? Part 1: No NC (#h817open, activity 9)

For week three of the Open Education course at the Open University that I am participating in (though we are now in week 5), one of the activities is to choose a Creative Commons license for “your blog content and other material you produce.” Of course, the latter is so vague that it might be difficult for some to say what license they might use for all of it, as they might end up using different licenses for different things. I am likely to just use one, but I may be in the minority.

I have already gone through some soul-searching on this very issue, but in a direction I haven’t seen in any of the other blogs I’ve looked at for this course: in an earlier post I asked why even use CC-BY instead of, say, CC0, which is more like putting one’s work into the public domain. I’m still undecided, but at this point (as you can tell from this site) am still using CC-BY for my blog.

But what I haven’t done is try to explain why I use CC-BY instead of CC-BY-NC (non commercial) or SA (share alike) on my blog, and why I would probably use CC-BY on any OER I might create (unless I decide to use CC0 instead). Generally, I use CC-BY  because I want to leave my work free for anyone to use however they like. But the issues involved are really quite complicated.

I’m only going to discuss NC and SA and SA in this and the next post, because I can’t imagine asking people not to make derivatives of what I create–it just seems part of sharing freely, to me, that people can revise and remix my work. This post is about why I don’t use CC-BY-NC, and the next is about why I don’t use CC-BY-SA.

[Thanks to David Kernohan, Pat Lockley, Brian Lamb, Rob Myers and Joss Winn for providing some links and ideas on Twitter that I’ve used in this and the next post.]

Commercial use

I’ve read several blog posts in the OU Open Education course that opt for CC-BY-NC  (such as this one by Nick Hoodthis one by David (I can’t find a last name) , this one by Daniela Signor and this one by Sukaina Walji.) Some express the sentiment that if they are giving away things for free, then they don’t want others to be making money off of them. I have to say that I kind of get this sentiment, but also not. I guess the idea is that if any money is to be made from what is produced, then the producer should be the one to benefit rather than someone who has just taken the content for free. This sentiment seems to make sense in a market economy, where many people feel that their work should be compensated monetarily if someone else is making money from it; alternatively, some may think it wrong for others to make money from something they have either not worked on or not paid for.

Of course, this sort of thinking should lead people to support open access publishing, since, increasingly, there is not much that publishers do that justifies them closing off access to publications and charging a fee…but that’s an argument for another day (and more complex than I’m making it out here, yes).


I get the idea that if money is being made from something, it seems fair to give some money to those who created the item in the first place. But it seems to me that once you decide to give your work away to be used, altered and remixed by others, it might be better thought of as a gift than a market commodity. And when you give something away as a gift, you might be said to be allowing the recipient(s) to do whatever they like with it. Sure, some people might be a bit upset if they gave a gift that another person decided to sell–but would they be upset because the other person made money off of something that they got for free and therefore didn’t have the right to make money from? To me, that doesn’t really make sense; if you give it away, it becomes someone else’s to do with as they wish.

When I give my stuff away, I’m saying goodbye to control over what happens to it afterwards, because it’s no longer just mine.

I realize that one of the benefits of CC licenses, though, is to allow people flexibility in the degree to which they want to think of their creations as gifts. And some people won’t accept that way of thinking. So here are some other thoughts.

  • If I have chosen not to try to make money off my work, why get upset if someone else does? After all, I could have tried to do so myself, but decided (for whatever reasons) not to. I gave up that option when I didn’t need to. I don’t really understand the sentiment that, if I am not going to make money off my work then no one else can either. Just because I chose to give up getting a financial reward, why must everyone else do so? If it’s because they didn’t work on it or pay for it, consider:
  • If someone is going to be able to make money off of something I created, they are going to have to do some work that I chose not to do, such as marketing it. After all, if I already put it out for free for others to reuse, change, remix, then there is probably going to have to be some kind of value added to it in order for others to be willing to pay. Such as, at least, making it well-known through publicity efforts.


An argument for using NC could alternatively be made as follows. A person might use NC on their work so that IF someone else thinks they could make money from what the first person has created, then in order for that to happen the other party must contact and discuss this with the creator, and the creator could set terms that require payment to him/herself. I see that, but even then one is not likely to get much (how much do we get in royalties for academic books, say? A pittance, usually), and to me, especially thinking about my own work, this overvalues the remote possibility of a significant financial gain while ignoring some much more likely costs.

Some of these costs are addressed in article by Erik Möller that has been put into a wiki page. I won’t go through them here because they are pretty well explained on that page. And here’s a nice post by Kathi Fletcher focusing on problems with NC for OERs. Finally, this booklet by Paul Klimpel points out (on pp. 14-15) that the NC clause may actually end up prohibiting use of items by organizations and projects that endorse and promote “open” work, while not stopping large commercial companies from using them against the NC license (because they can absorb the cost of a lawsuit if it should ever come). (The booklet as a whole provides many useful arguments against using NC licenses.)

I’ll just add that this post by Daniel Clark, for the OU Open Education course, nicely addresses the point about the ambiguity of “commercial” in the NC licenses. These comments by David Wiley do too (on a discussion of NC licenses for OER, hosted by UNESCO). And having a license with ambiguous terms is not just a philosophical problem; it can mean that fewer people will use your work because they may be unsure whether their use falls under the vague “commercial” terms.

I have sometimes wondered whether this blog counts as “non commercial,” even, given that it is hosted and supported by the University of British Columbia, which, after all, charges money for its courses and thus “makes money” in some sense. It is syndicated on UBC’s “A Place of Mind” site, and thereby acts as part of the university’s publicity strategy in some (very small) sense. To the extent that my blog might help attract students (hmmm, not sure about that one) or donors (ditto), one might say it’s part of the university’s revenue stream. I realize that’s quite a stretch, but that it could even make sense to consider it shows that “non commercial” is unclear.

And this post by David Wiley shows that I am not alone in asking this sort of question (though the question there is slightly different: it’s about whether a textbook licensed NC could be used for a course that students have to pay for, and Wiley answers yes). I don’t ever use images for this blog that have an NC license, even though I am pretty sure I could. Who knows; maybe someday I’ll move this blog over to a platform on which I actually try to make some money through ads (highly unlikely but…). I refuse to go through and change images from the past were such a thing ever to occur.

Commercial enclosure

There is, however, a more pressing argument for the use of NC, given by Stephen Downes (an example can be found here, in the UNESCO discussion noted above). One part of this is that without the NC clause, commercial ventures can take what is freely available and work hard to “enclose” it completely by closing off access to its free versions. Here’s another iteration of this argument, this time focused on the real-world example of Flat World Textbooks at first publishing free textbooks and then beginning to charge for them. This is a harder point to argue against, for it is clear that those who have a vested interest in profit-making from educational resources will be motivated to find ways to enclose any free versions that might exist (though David Wiley does provide a rebuttal to such arguments, in the UNESCO discussion). Downes defines “commercial use” as “the act of restricting access,” in the UNESCO discussion, which makes sense to me, and I can see the point of trying to use NC to keep access open.

After all, in my “gift” image provided above, what could happen is that I could give something away to anyone and everyone who wanted it (because it’s not just one thing, but reusable, revisable, remixable by anyone), but then one of those recipients could decide they want to make sure no one else can have that gift as a gift. That goes against the spirit of what I tried to do in the first place.

Gratis and libre

So really, the issue seems to come to this (as I’m understanding it): using something like CC-BY only (or CC0) is freeing it in the sense of making it “libre” but could lead to it not being free in the sense of “gratis” (see Wikipedia on libre and gratis). But if you use an NC license, then you might be (if Downes is right) protecting the freedom of that work in terms of it being “gratis,” but it’s not “libre” in the sense of it being available for anyone to do anything they like with it. You’re restricting it to only some kinds of uses.

Downes addresses this distinction somewhat differently, here. He argues that we can look at freedom from the perspective of either the people who already have access to some work or those who do not yet have such access. For the former, freedom in the sense of libre means they can do whatever they wish with the work they already have. For the latter, allowing work to be behind a paywall means many can’t access it at all, much less do anything further with it. The second perspective, he argues, is as important as the first (and for those who can’t access works at all it is more important).

No NC for me

Thus, it depends on which sort of freedom you want to promote, I suppose. I think that the idea of letting people do what they wish with what I create (at least much of it; don’t know yet if all) is more important to me, mostly because of

(a) the ambiguity of “commercial”

(b) I don’t expect to be producing anything that will likely be enclosed by a commercial interest

(c) if someone can add value to my stuff and make some money, that’s fine with me b/c I gave it away by choice rather than trying to do so myself.

I still think of it like a gift, and because of (b) I am not terribly concerned about it becoming enclosed so that others can’t access it freely. I agree rather with Mike Seyfang here, that what I’m most concerned about is people finding and using my work. That’s pretty cool. But unlike what he says in that post, I kind of don’t care about people recognizing it as my work.

What is really needed, I think, is a less blunt instrument to do what Downes wants to do. “Noncommercial” is not only too vague, but too broad a term. I don’t mind if someone uses my stuff to make money for themselves and I don’t care if they ask me first because I don’t feel a need to have a share. But what I don’t want is for them to lock out access for anyone else to have my stuff that I’ve given away for free. Is there some other way to keep that from happening? Downes himself notes a need for such a thing, here:

…we want, I think, something like a ‘free content declaration’, a statement we can link to that identifies our desire, as providers of open content, to ensure that it remains open.

And CC-licenses won’t do this for us, Downes argues. But he uses NC in the meantime, which I have decided not to do, for reasons noted above.

There is, though, an argument that the “share alike” CC license (CC-BY-SA) could prevent commercial enclosure, which I’ll consider in the next post.


Does searching for OERs have to be so hard?

In my previous post I described an experiment of trying to find open educational resources on a particular topic in philosophy. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but that may not be the fault of the repositories themselves; I’m not sure such OERs have been put into the repositories I searched. And apparently there are many, many OER repositories. In this post I’ll briefly discuss some of the things that would make searching such repositories easier, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know much about OER but is looking for things to use for a course.

Too many repositories

I didn’t realize just how many there were, until I looked at the blog post referred to above, which lists 73 (and counting). A number of these are focused on particular subject areas, such as mathematics or STEM disciplines.  I can see the value of having such subject-oriented repositories–after all, I probably won’t be searching biology resources, e.g., when looking for Kant (though actually, many philosophers’ work crosses boundaries of humanities, social sciences, and the sciences, so…hmmmm…).

Perhaps even more useful are interdisciplinary collections, because one may actually find something relevant in what is, ostensibly, linked to another discipline. And there are so many different interdisciplinary repositories that it’s very time-consuming to do anything like a thorough search. I am guessing this might be due in part to funding situations: different groups get funding for different OER projects, and the result is that there are numerous different repositories. I honestly don’t know how this issue might be resolved, so really, I’m just pointing out the difficulty experienced by the user without having a clue how to fix it.

Perhaps it’s utopian to imagine that there could be a single portal that allows one to search most of these repositories at once? I expect one problem is that different parts of the world haven’t yet come to agreement on things like metadata, formatting of resources, and more, but this is mostly a guess.

“About” pages

Some of the repositories I searched in my previous post have extensive information telling me about the repository itself, where the resources come from, how they are uploaded into the repository, and more. MERLOT is a good example–there is a lot of info in these multiple “about” pages, and it is written in a way that is understandable for  those, like me, who don’t know much about how OERs and OER repositories and metadata (and more) work. I want to know the source of the resources, whether there is any review of them before they are put into the repository, whether the repository has a general policy on accepting resources that are licensed in a certain way, and more. Perhaps I’m an anomaly, but I find this information useful. On some sites it’s hard to find (e.g., Ariadne, MIT Open Coursware), and on others it’s hard for laypersons to read (e.g., Ariadne, Xpert).


Some repositories had good “advanced search” options, including allowing one to search by a phrase, all words, none of some words, and more (e.g., MIT Opencourseware). Apparently Xpert allows you to do this in the search bar by using Google search syntax, but they don’t tell you this (perhaps I should have just known? But why not make it clear for those of us who aren’t up on such things?). Some sites allowed you to limit your search to things such as type of resource, language, subject, license, which can be useful, though sometimes I may not know in advance what kinds of resources I want to search (lecture notes? presentations? full courses?). I particularly like how Ariadne allows you to narrow your search results after the search is done, by clicking on one or more limiters on the side of the page (you can have several limiters on your search results at once, and can take them off by just clicking on them a second time).

One thing that would make a big difference from the perspective of someone searching for resources is to have enough information in the “results” list to be able to judge the relevance of the material in terms of what the person is looking for. Having only titles and authors (e.g., Jorum), or title, URL and a text passage from the resource itself (MIT Open Courseware, OU’s Open Learn), or title plus passage from the resource and keywords (Ariadne) are not enough. Xpert comes close to being good in this respect, giving titles, authors, descriptions, license information, and related content, but what’s still missing is “type” of resource (full course? lecture notes? presentation? etc.).

Apparently, according to a comment by Pat Lockley on my previous post, part of the issue here is that repositories may be reliant on the metadata provided by the multiple individuals and institutions who create and upload OERs. That makes sense, and honestly, I don’t know how to solve such problems since I have zero experience on the “other side” of the OER repository situation. I expect there are probably serious reasons why such things can’t be standardized, or at least not easily. But it sure would be helpful from a users’ standpoint.


I was struck by the fact that some of these repositories have content that is not, actually, open. The Open University’s Open Learn site, for example, has some copyrighted works (as does Xpert I think; haven’t looked carefully at the others). That’s fine, I guess, but it doesn’t really count as “open,” so I don’t see how this is an OER repository, or open learning. And if I’m searching for things I can reuse in my own courses, or remix, then copyrighted materials, or those that are CC-BY-ND (no derivatives) are useless to me. I want to only see OER repositories that have only work that is at least Creative Commons licensed, and excluding things that are licensed as “no derivatives.” I’d rather see only CC-BY or public domain (insofar as that is possible–see an earlier post on this), but that’s another post. Connexions has only CC-BY materials, for example. Of course, some sites with copyrighted or otherwise not-open works often let you restrict your search to only CC-licensed materials (such as Xpert), but still, why have that in an open educational resources repository?

Of course, this assumes there is an agreed-upon definition for what “open” means, does not appear to be the case. Here’s one possibility, but clearly it’s not the one used by everyone calling their work “open.”

Perhaps it does have to be so hard

I would really like to hear from those who know about these sorts of things, what the reasons are for the problems I’ve outlined above–does it have to be this difficult? What lies behind such difficulties? Are there things that could be done to address some of them, and if so, are they difficult to do?


Searching for philosophy on OER repositories

One of the activities in week 2 of the “open education” course at the Open University is to find open educational resources for a fictional course on “digital skills” we should imagine ourselves creating. Since I have pretty much no interest in (nor expertise for) creating a course on digital skills (whatever that means), I decided to look at some OER repositories to see what they have in the way of materials for philosophy.

This won’t allow me to do the activity as suggested, since I expect there are much fewer OERs on philosophy than on “digital skills,” which is probably why they suggested the latter. But it does allow me to do something that might be of more use to me in the future.

The instructions for the activity said we should look at several OER repositories:

I find it puzzling that Xpert isn’t on the list, but I’ll look at that as well.

Now, rather than trying to find OERs for an entire course, which I find too time-consuming and unnecessary for my purpose of just trying to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of these repositories from an instructor perspective, I decided to just search for a particular topic. I thought about things that I wish I could find good online resources for, to help students in my courses when my explanations aren’t enough (often it’s good to have resources that approach topics from multiple perspectives and with multiple modes). I also thought it might be helpful to compare the repositories when searching for the same thing on each, to see what the search and recovery experience is for each one.

Many things came to mind, including Plato’s view of “forms” or “ideas,” Foucault’s view of power and resistance (or of the relationship between knowledge and power, or of biopower, or, well, of most things), Kant’s categorical imperative, and more. But I figured there’d be more resources on philosophers whose views are taught most often, so that eliminated Foucault. And since “forms” and “ideas” are pretty vague terms they might be likely to mess with the search results. So I was left with Kant.

I’ll discuss the repositories I searched in alphabetical order.

“Search and rescue swimmers train in a pool…” cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Official U.S. Navy Imagery


The first thing I noticed on the Ariadne site is that there is no information on this repository on the site itself, though through the link on the front page to the Ariadne Foundation I found this page, which seems to explain a fair bit about how the repository works. However, it’s not written for people new to OER and metadata to understand, so it left me still pretty clueless.

The sidebar shows “providers,” which lists (I think) the other OER collections that Ariadne searches, including MERLOT, OER Commons, OER Africa, and others I am not familiar with.

I appreciate how the sidebars allow you to sort results by language (OERs in many languages seem accessible here), format (such as PDF, html, xml, powerpoint, video, audio), context (educational context, such as postsecondary, CGEP, primary, secondary, training), and type (such as presentation, syllabus, image, lecture notes, project).

The search box at the top of the repository page doesn’t have an option for “advanced search,” so I just typed in “Kant categorical imperative,” and got…nothing. “No results found.” Okay, bad start.

A search for “Kant” turned up some resources in Engligh (many more in other languages), though they were mostly full courses that had some Kant in them. I clicked on “type” on the sidebar to focus only on “lecture notes,” just as an example, and all I got still were full courses. Turns out you have to click on the link to the course, which takes you to another repository where you have to click on the link to the course, then finally get to the online course and dig around to find what you want. Nonideal.

I guess I hoped you could just get right to the individual resources. Possibly you could on Ariadne, if you were looking for other topics for OER–I don’t know.


The Connexions site explains itself as “a place to view and share educational material made of small knowledge chunks called modules that can be organized as courses, books, reports, etc.” So there won’t be whole courses here. The “about” page notes that:

  • “Connexions content is modular for easy remixing. This makes it easier and more cost effective to update and adapt content.”
  • all modules are in a standardized XML format (but can be downloaded in various formats)
  • all content is licensed as CC-BY
  • quality control is provided through a “lensing system by which trusted/knowledgeable vetters review and endorse content,” and those visiting the repository can view material through these “lenses”

It’s possible to browse the content by subject, language, popularity, and author/title/keyword. I tried “subject: humanities,” which led me to a page where all the humanities subjects were listed alphabetically, and I had to go through several pages of “more” to get to philosophy. Not good. But you can do a search from that page that is limited by subject, if you want.

Again, the search bar doesn’t offer an “advanced search” option, so “Kant categorical imperative” it was. This time I got five results, all in English, two of which actually had most of the same content, and all of which were separate “modules” rather than full courses.

They were all texts, which I think all OERs in Connexions are (a downside). All were also highly contextualized in the sense that the discussion was mostly focused on the particular context of the module. These were nearly all from applied ethics contexts, such as business ethics, ethics for engineers, and ethics for administrators. There were some parts that were mostly theory, but most of those were fairly superficial. I didn’t find anything useful for my purposes, which requires fairly in-depth philosophical discussion.

But if I had, I could have saved it to a “favourites” list, or put it in my own workspace in order to remix it. The ability to remix materials on site sounds kind of cool, though I haven’t tried it to see how it works. 

Finally, on the front page there is a direct link and instructions on how to contribute to Connexions, which is nice–it’s not clear how to contribute to Ariadne (don’t think you can, directly).


The front page of the Jorum site indicates that resources found there are only from the UK: “Through Jorum, you can find and share learning and teaching resources, shared by the UK Further and Higher Education community.” If that’s the case, it seems unnecessarily narrow.

Like Connexions, there is an explicit invitation on the front page for contributing to Jorum, but yeah, you have to either be a UK educator or a “trusted depositor” to do so (or you can contact them to ask if you can). Hmmmmm. Why? Probably because it was funded by JISC, which is focused on education in the UK. But still, is it really useful even for educators in the UK to have and contribute to a resource that has OER from only their area of the world?

You can browse by subject, date, author, title or keyword. Jorum does have an “advanced search” option, which allows you to specify search terms in “full text,” “author,” “title,” “keyword,” “date” (creation or insertion), “language,” “type,” and more. Turns out this doesn’t help my particular search much, so I just did “Kant categorical imperative” again in the simple search bar.

This time I got 92 results, but it was hard to tell how many are really relevant. All I got was a title and an author, sometimes with an institutional affiliation and sometimes not. How can I tell without clicking on it whether or not a resource titled “Zero Chance? Aiming for Zero in Weapons Control” is relevant to my purposes? (Probably not, but there could be an in-depth discussion of Kant’s categorical imperative in there somewhere.) Some were obviously not relevant, such as “Statistics for Geography and Environmental Science: An Introduction in R,” and “Getting Started with SPSS.” But what about one called, simply, “Newspapers”? (How is that title helpful in any way?)

Since it was clear this search did not yield good results, I went back to the Advanced search and entered “Kant” in “full text” “AND” “categorical imperative” in “full text.” This time I got 3 resources only, which cut out some of the earlier ones that were relevant, and included one that wasn’t (“School Geography: Exploring a Definition”). There was one PowerPoint presentation on the Categorical Imperative that was not bad, but not detailed enough for my purposes.

Back to the simple search, and I found:

  • Some courses on philosophy from the Saylor Foundation–same problem as with Ariadne, except Jorum doesn’t even tell me whether to look for lecture notes, assignments, videos, or some other resource type with Kant in it, so this is even worse.
  • Some lectures by Peter Millican  on “general philosophy” for first-year students at Oxford, but when I click on the link for the feed I get something that goes straight to Google Reader, which is a problem on so many levels. I’m pretty sure this is a function of how I set my browser to handle feeds, but I don’t know how to fix it. Then, When I click on the second link to try to find these lectures, I am taken to a page with all of the podcasts from Oxford–more searching.
  • A module on “moral theories” in the context of health care ethics, without an author identified (hmmm…not sure why having no author specified bugs me, but it does)
  • Some resources from an “introduction to moral philosophy” course of some kind, but: (a) I had to view a number of PDFs before I found one on Kant, (b) these were all copyrighted–could I even put them on a course web page without asking for permission first? And (c) it still wasn’t detailed enough for my purposes.

And that was it for what looked relevant from title and author alone.


The MERLOT site could use a serious visual makeover. It is far too busy–and the moving type on the top is just puts it even more over the top.

According to this page, MERLOT has some value-added features, including comments provided by users and “learning exercises” provided by the contributor, to go along with some of the resources. MERLOT also subjects OERs to peer review, through discipline-specific editorial boards. The “about” section of the MERLOT site is the most extensive I have seen, providing quite a bit of information on policies and procedures, and much more.

I started with the “communities” portals, which apparently can provide not only OERs related to different disciplines, but also journals, conferences, etc. But no–nothing for philosophy. Under the “communities” site there is also a link to “compass,” which has a link to the “pedagogy” portal. I went there, and found a sizable list of resources related to things like writing assignments, active learning, inquiry-guided learning, and more. I didn’t have time to look at these carefully at this point, however.

MERLOT has an advanced search screen, which allows for searches by keyword, title, description, language, type, author, license, date, and more. Under “keywords,” which I used for “Kant categorical imperative,” you can choose “any words,” “all words,” or “exact phrase.” It’s possible to sort results by relevance, rating, date, and more.

However, my search came up entirely empty of results. So I searched for “Kant” instead. This got me 15 results, only one of which had been peer reviewed, a series of lectures on Justice by Michael Sandel at Harvard. One nice thing about MERLOT is that, like Ariadne, you can narrow your results by “type” of resource. You can’t seem to do so by language, once you’ve got the results list (you’d have to do that at the “search” stage). You can also narrow by “category,” which seemed to be a list of different disciplines or other contexts, such as humanities, arts, social sciences, and “Academic support services.”

The vast majority of results were full courses, with the same problem as noted above with Jorum: unlike Ariadne, I can’t tell what parts of these courses are related to Kant–lecture notes, assignments, or other. And after a good deal of time searching through the courses, unfortunately I came out with nothing useful for what I’m looking for. This isn’t the fault of the repository, necessarily…I’m beginning to wonder whether there is actually anything available for what I’m looking for.

MIT Open Courseware

MIT Open Courseware was one of the first (if not the first) repositories of open courses. Their “about” page says they publish “virtually all MIT course content.” Many of the repositories discussed above and below link to courses from MIT OCW.

You can search courses by topic, department, language (some have been translated into languages other than English), and more. There is an “advanced search” option that lets you search “all” of some words, an “exact phrase,” “at least one of the words,” and “none of these words”–a fairly robust way to handle search terms. You can also limit your search to things like syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, videos, animations, and more. You can sort results by relevance or date only.

I searched “all the words” “Kant categorical imperative” and didn’t limit to any particular type of materials. I got 18 results, most of which were PDFs. Some of them were the same materials I found through other repository searches, which is not surprising (and probably it would be a good thing if there were more that were the same–it’s best if you don’t have to go through six repositories or more to find results, because they find essentially the same things).

The results screen lists titles, URLs, and a passage from the resource with the search terms in it. No indication of what type of resource it is (except sometimes that’s in the title, sometimes not), and there are not always authors (sometimes in the title, sometimes not).  Sometimes the authors are listed on the resource itself, sometimes not (annoying). Here’s what I found:

Again, I don’t necessarily blame the site for not having what I’m looking for, but the results list could be improved by having more than just the title and a few words with the search terms in them. A “type” of resource, perhaps? An “author”? At least. Maybe even a description?

Finally, it’s hard to find what license(s) these materials have. Connexions states explicitly that everything is CC-BY, Jorum and MERLOT have the licenses on the landing page when you click on one of the search items (better if it were in the results list itself), and with Ariadne it depends on what other repository the resource is in, where you can find the license for the materials. For MIT OCW, you have to go to the very bottom of each page, with those tiny menus, and find “Help and FAQs,” then click around on various links to find where the heck the CC license is for MIT OCW. Finally, I found here a notice that they are using a CC-BY-NC-SA license. Shouldn’t that be more prominent? And only through that page did I find a link to the “terms of use page.” 

Now, to be fair, there’s a link to those terms on each resource I found, once you click on it and view it. But for those who want to know before they go through a search and find materials, it would be better to make that information easier to find.

Open Learn

 I originally thought the Open Learn site from the Open University would just be full courses, a kind of “open university” concept in which people take courses for free. The front page doesn’t help explain much what there is, in truth: it says you can “dip into insights from OU academics” (what does that mean?), try “free extracts from OU course materials” (aren’t they all free anyway?), and then go into deeper study with OU (does that mean actually take a course?). So I went to the “about” section at the bottom of the front page, and found this page, which told me I could not only take full courses but browse articles, videos and games from these courses.

The more I poked around in the site, the more I realized that it all looks the same…dreadfully, boringly the same. The same headers appear on each page, and sometimes it’s hard to tell you’re on a new page. But hey, I already knew that from the Open Education course that prompted this blog post; I just hoped that was the case only inside particular courses themselves. Nope.

There is only a simple search bar at the top of all the pages, so I tried “Kant categorical imperative” again. One result: from what I can tell out of context, it seems to be a discussion between Stephen Pinker and some others about one of Pinker’s books. Not relevant. So I tried just “Kant” and got 48 results. Once I got to the results page, then I got an option for an “advanced search,” which is strange. I could search for all words, a phrase, the usual; also approximate searches, like “starts with” or “approximate spelling”; also by file type, date, language, and many more. None were helpful for my purposes, however.

The results page allowed me to narrow my search, by parts of the Open Learn site, by people (authors? subjects of the resources?), and by organization (Open University, YouTube, BBC, and more). I narrowed by “Immanuel Kant” and got 22 results. The results page lists title, date, and author, as well as a brief, few-word excerpt that is sometimes helpful, sometimes not. I found, among other things:

  • A tag cloud that presumably led me to resources tagged with those philosophers’ names; clicking on “Kant” didn’t lead me to anything relevant
  • A video by Michael Sandel on Kant and the capacity for reason, which was interesting but not quite what I was looking for
  • A game about lying or not lying, which looks like it might be cool but again, takes too long to load
  • A podcast about the wrongness of killing, which features some of Kant’s views and is otherwise quite interesting

Nothing that suits my needs, but what I like is that there are quite a few different types of resources here, including videos, podcasts, and games. A quick perusal of the full 48 results from the “Kant” search showed nothing else of relevance.

What about licenses for the materials? Again, you have to dig to find this information. Sometimes there is a clear copyright symbol on materials, sometimes there is a CC license, and sometimes there is nothing (indicating fully copyrighted materials, since this page says that unless stated otherwise, everything is under copyright).

So I suppose Open Learn is good for learners who want to access materials, but many of the materials are copyrighted, and thus not terribly useful for teachers who want to reuse or remix them.


 Xpert has a very clean home page, which, after MERLOT and Open Learn and some of the other repositories, is a nice break (Ariadne does too). The “about” page is written a bit beyond a novice’s understanding, but what I can gather is that there is an open source tool for authoring OERs that one can use, and then an RSS feed from one’s OER creations uploads them automatically to Xpert. Xpert is also JISC (UK) funded, but there’s nothing to indicate that the resources are only from UK educators.

You can subscribe to some RSS feeds, if you want–things like the latest CC-licensed resources, the latest MP3s, podcasts, and videos.

The “browse” function seems resource-heavy; it took ages to load, and froze my browser with a message saying a script on the page was not responding. I would blame this on my slow internet connection at the moment, except Xpert is the only thing I’ve been using for the past couple of hours that is acting like this. Eventually, when the page loaded I found that I could browse by institution, author, type, language, publisher, license, and keywords. I chose to use the “advanced search” option, which was kind of like “browse” but with a search bar. You could enter your search terms and then narrow by the choices above. Again, extremely slow.

When I searched for “Kant categorical imperative” and tried to narrow by language to english, I was puzzled by the fact that there seemed to be several choices for English: “en,” including “en-AU,” “en-US,” and more; and also “eng,” including “eng-GB,” “eng-US” and more; and also just “English.” Which to choose? Will I get different results for each? Hmmmm. I chose “English.” I clicked a box for CC-licensed materials only (there was also an option for UKOER, which I think is OER from the UK, but I didn’t check that box).

I got 40 results, and the results page gave titles, descriptions and authors, as well as license information and a link to “related content” (if there was any). It’s great to see the license information right on the search results page, and to be able to limit results to CC-licensed materials. What I would have also liked to see is something indicating the type of each resource (a course, an audio or video recording, etc.). I could tell from the description that most of the results were courses, but it was unclear from the titles and descriptions just what some of the results were.

Many results here, as with Jorum, were clearly way off the mark, such as an MIT course on programming languages, a course from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health on Statistics for Psychosocial Researchers, an Open Learn course on Psychology in the 21st century. I’m guessing something about “categorical imperative” is messing with the results, so I tried just “Kant” instead.

Again, I ran into issues with Xpert–kept getting messages that the server was reset while trying to load the page. Eventually I got 17 results for just “Kant.” Most of these clearly had something about Kant in them, but many of those were full courses in which one has to hunt to find where Kant is–same problem as with Ariadne, above. I also got a good number of links that went to the Open Learn site, but got me only an “oops, something went wrong” page–broken links.

I did discover, however, (thanks to Pat Lockley, who explained what the page did when I couldn’t understand it on the face of it) that Xpert allows you to search for images, and it then attributes them. Use the search box at the top of this page. You also get results for “sounds” and “videos.” That’s all quite nice. I was going to use an image of Kant I found through this service for this post, but strangely I got a bunch of images of people in costume as well as some of women in lingerie.

Interim conclusion

I’m going to write another post in a few days summarizing the problems I ran into during this experiment, and some suggestions for OER repositories (given, of course, that I know nothing about the technological–and likely other–difficulties involved). All I’ll say for now is that I didn’t find what I was looking for, but I don’t blame the repositories for that. It’s probably the case that there either isn’t anything online that discusses the categorical imperative in a detailed way, or that whatever there is hasn’t been linked to a repository…and there could be various reasons for that. But I did find some issues when searching the repositories, and I’ll summarize those in my next post.


Issues with OER (#h817open, activity 7)

For week two of Martin Weller’s Open Education course at the Open University, one of the activities was to read three articles from a suggested reading list on open educational resources (OERs) and discuss three issues related to OERs and how they are being addressed.

I read several articles, but am focusing here on three:

  1. Albright, P. (2005). UNESCO (IIEP): Final forum report. Available at: http://learn.creativecommons.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/oerforumfinalreport.pdf
  2. Downes, S. (2007). Models for sustainable open educational resources. Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects, 3, 29-44. Available at http://ijklo.org/Volume3/IJKLOv3p029-044Downes.pdf
  3. Smith, M.S. & Casserly, C.M. (2006) The promise of open educational resources. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 38(5), 8–17. A pre-publication version is available here: http://learn.creativecommons.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/changearticle.pdf

Personally, I am most interested in the question of motivations for faculty to contribute OER–for me, it seems obviously a good thing to do, but I may be an anomaly. In what follows I also consider possible motivations for educational institutions to support OER, as well as the issue of moving beyond a producer/consumer model.

“Doors,” cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by JMacPherson

Why should teachers and faculty care about OER? Why do I?

I was less than impressed with the suggestion made in Smith and Casserly (2006) that faculty are motivated to make teaching and learning materials open simply because of “the idea that their content will have a much larger audience” (7). This doesn’t really say much at all unless accompanied by an explanation of why faculty might want a larger audience for their teaching and learning work. I suppose it’s possible that some want their resources to be viewable by a lot of people simply for the sake of ego, but I expect there are other reasons that would work better to motivate faculty to contribute OER.

One place to start is to ask why I think it’s important to open up my teaching materials, my reflections on teaching (e.g., my blog) and even my courses up to anyone who wants to view, reuse, remix them, etc. I’ve already done some thinking about the value of doing so, in an earlier blog post (in which I also consider some potential downsides). A few reasons, from that earlier post as well as some additions:

  • Making teaching more “open” can motivate one to ensure it is as good as possible (when it’s closed, it’s a bit easier to let some things slide, even with the best of intentions, due to time or other constraints). (As also noted in Albright, 2005 (p. 8)).
  • Seeing what others do with one’s work can lead to ideas to improve it.
  • Allowing others to use and adapt one’s work could potentially lead to collaboration with others, which can mean opportunities for thinking about teaching and learning in different (and potentially better) ways–e.g., it could reveal ways in which one’s thinking and teaching are unconsciously bounded by time, place or privilege. It might also lead to collaborative teaching, which could be beneficial for students (if different perspectives and methods are provided in the same course).
  • Students in a course that is “open” to many participants may benefit from the various ways of thinking, speaking and writing that could be more likely than if the course was made up of students who are similar in the sense of all being admitted to the same educational institution.
  • If we are really passionate about teaching, and think that what we do is valuable, then why should it be limited only to those who can pay, and to those who have had the experiences needed to be able to demonstrate their worthiness to be admitted to our particular institutions of learning? It is, of course, not necessarily the case that those without such credentials are incapable of learning the way students who are officially registered in our courses do.

The thought here is that perhaps one or more of these might be motivating for other faculty as well.

However, it is one thing to recognize that sharing OER is a good thing to do, and quite another to overcome the stresses of time constraints and heavy workloads in teaching situations in order to devote time to doing so.

Albright (2005) suggests some more pragmatic incentives (based on a forum discussion amongst many participants), including:

  • considering the development and dissemination of quality OER as evidence in support of tenure, promotion, and merit processes for teachers and faculty
  • giving awards for outstanding OER (along the lines, I suppose, of teaching awards)
  • “adoption of [other] institutional policies that encourage opening educational content and valuing the creation of such materials” (9), e.g., supporting faculty who wish to make their courses available to learners beyond the institution, by removing bureaucratic barriers to doing so and even providing IT and other support as needed

For UBC, especially for people in the “teaching” stream of Instructor I, Sr. Instructor, and Professor of Teaching, the first point here seems an obvious move. Insofar as those of us in this stream are evaluated on the basis of teaching, curriculum development, educational leadership (and related), then creation and dissemination of good quality OER seems to fit right into that already-established framework. The second suggestion seems fairly easy to implement as well (though of course, it requires time and effort to set up and sustain).

It’s crucial to point out here, though, that all of these suggestions can merely add to faculty workload, which in many cases is already too heavy. It makes sense to recognize the time commitment involved in developing OER, in opening up courses to wider audiences, etc., and to provide some kind of time compensation in return. How much depends, of course, on the degree of work needed for the OER. A course reduction is one possibility, as is reduction of service commitments.

Institutional support

But this raises another question, of course: what motivation do institutions have for providing such support for faculty to develop OER?

I have been impressed with the emphasis that many universities have on promoting open access research, at least through the provision of institutional repositories. At UBC, I have had extensive help putting my publications and conference papers into the UBC institutional repository, including having someone else find publishers’ policies on what version of publications can be posted online as open access, and when, and contacting publishers directly when needed.

But no one has encouraged me to put any of my teaching work online. I’m curious as to why there is emphasis and support for open access research at my and other universities, but not for OER. One might say that showcasing the research of the university can help with PR, including showing the public that the research they are helping to fund is useful. But showcasing the teaching that goes on at the university can work similarly, I would think, and could also be a way to attract students as well as faculty who are passionate about teaching.

Is the discrepancy between support for open access and OER yet another instance of the focus on research over teaching? More likely it’s that encouraging and supporting open access for research doesn’t require as many resources as doing so for OER (though really, this is just a guess on my part). Making publications open access means getting permission, ensuring they are tagged with the appropriate metadata, and posting them in an institutional or other repository. For OER, on the other hand, there are also other things to consider, including quality control, issues with technological interoperability, and questions about where to store them, at least (not every university does or should have an OER repository).

Thus, back to the question: what could motivate an institution like a university to encourage and support OER development amongst faculty? The possibility of attracting students and good teaching faculty through showcasing teaching and learning practice at the university may or may not be enough. Smith and Casserly (2008) point to the possibility of governmental support, but that is not likely to be long-lasting.

Of course, it may be that institutions are not the ones who are providing the financial and other support for faculty to develop OER. It may be other organizations that do so instead. Smith and Casserly (2008) suggest that scholarly societies might play a key role in such efforts, but they also link this to work by “volunteers” (13), which is not ideal. Downes (2007) lists numerous possible funding models that might work for organizations or even commercial ventures (34-35).

Still, even if the bulk of the work on OER is done outside of educational institutions, it would help if educational institutions provide some kind of encouragement for teachers and faculty to be involved in their development.

Collaborative development

Another potential issue that stands out for me in regard to OER is that it’s too easy to fall into a sense that as a teacher/faculty member one is “providing” OER for others to “use.” As both Albright (2005) and Downes (2007), it’s important to move from a “provider/user model” to “a community model of collaborative development” (Downes, 2007, p. 38). This is not simply to avoid the situation where a few countries and cultures are providing knowledge for the rest of the world, but also to reflect the reality of how OERs work most effectively. The idea is not for something to be created and remain static, used as is, but reworked and repurposed as necessary for new contexts. Thus, as Downes (2007) notes, pointing to a comment made by a participant in a UNESCO forum on OER, we should move from thinking of OER on the model of “‘knowledge for all’ to ‘construction of knowledge by all’” (38).

Downes takes this point further at the end of his article, when he discusses decentralizing OER production and dissemination. Noting the way Wikipedia and bitorrent work, Downes argues that a community of volunteers might be better for sustaining OER than a centralized organization. The distinction between producers and consumers could be collapsed in the sense that “The use of a learning resource, through adaptation and repurposing, becomes the production of another resource” (41), which could then be re-uploaded into a repository. This collapsing of roles could work even if OER are controlled more centrally, but perhaps would be even more likely if not. The idea of such a decentralized system is intriguing, though again, relying on volunteer effort can simply add to already-heavy workloads for teachers and faculty.

But importantly, Downes’ article points to the fact that users of OER are not simply other teachers, but also learners, and collapsing the distinction between producers and users of OER means also doing so for teachers and learners. Thus, learners can and should also be involved in producing and disseminating OER. Many teachers and faculty recognize the value of involving learners in the development of curriculum and materials in traditional teaching situations; the same could be said for OER. Working on altering and re-submitting OER could be an effective part of the learning process, and thus not “extra” work on top of a curriculum.


I am sure there is more to be said about possible motivations for teachers/faculty and institutions to support OER, despite the fact that this is one of my longest blogs posts ever. Ideas?


Successful completion of this activity can earn participants in the Open Education course an “understanding OER” badge. But the instructions say the blog post should be around 500 words or so. I did not follow the rules. Wonder if I can still get a badge, or if I get docked for my post being too long, as I sometimes tell my students might happen. Or hey…I’ve written nearly enough for FOUR badges!

Your Turn (#h817open, Activity 3)

I’m trying to participate in another MOOC (massive, open, online course), though being away on holiday for a couple of weeks is making it difficult. It’s the “Open Education” course from the Oen University.

This is the sort of MOOC where it makes sense to say I’m “behind,” because there is a clear weekly schedule with weekly assignments to complete. I’m about a week behind. This structure is not appealing to me at the moment, after ETMOOC, which was much more open to participants doing whatever they felt most meaningful in response to the presentations, Twitter chats, shared links, and more. But I’m giving it a go because I really want to learn more about open education. I’ll probably do a few of the assigned activities, and then for the rest just write blog posts about what strikes me as most interesting.

Here’s one of the activities for the first week. We were asked to read Martin Weller’s article entitled “The Openness-Creativity Cycle in Education” and Terry Anderson’s slides from a Keynote for Alt-C in 2009. (Alt-C is the conference for the Association for Learning Technology). The activity was to then create a visual representation of open education, based on what we had read. “The key is to provide a representation that draws together the key concepts of openness as you perceive them,” according to the activity instructions.

I didn’t actually do that. Instead, I focused on one aspect of open education, or rather, one aspect of “openness”: that it’s more than just being available for reading/viewing for free, but is also available for remixing, reworking, taking pieces and doing something entirely different with them.

Part of the reason I did this was because I wanted to take on the challenge of creating a visual representation that didn’t just replicate a textual one. And if I tried to pull together all the strands of open education from the two readings (and elsewhere), I’d just end up putting into visual form the same things I would have otherwise written in text. That’s pretty much all I do in my work: write and speak narrative text. And I wanted to try to get beyond that a bit by using a picture that speaks. As you’ll see with the image, though, I couldn’t get away from text entirely.

This is not my thing, usually, so I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t entirely work, and if what seems good today seems simplistic tomorrow.

Since I seem incapable of doing without textual explanations, I will just say this. Multiple pieces made by others can appear as useless scatter, or as raw materials.

P.S. The other reason I did this is because one of my Twitter peeps created Ruschagram and this was a great excuse for me to play around with it.



Why do I care if I’m attributed?

During one of the Twitter chats for the ETMOOC topic on “The Open Movement – Open Access, OERs & Future of Ed,” Pat Lockley Tweeted this:


We were talking about sharing our educational or other work, why some people find this difficult, the difference between “open access” and things being open in a wider sense, and more.

During the chat Pat’s Tweet kind of just went past me, but as I went back to the #etmchat Tweets for that day to add some to my Storify board on my ETMOOC experience, I came across it again and became curious as to what he meant. Thus started a fairly long conversation about copyright, licenses, public domain, and more. You can see it all here.

There’s a lot I’d like to think about further in this conversation, but what is really standing out for me at the moment is this:



Why am I using a CC-BY license on my work? Why do I care if I’m attributed when someone uses something from my blog, or some “open educational resource” I create? Pat brought up an important point:



Why not make one’s work public domain instead of using something like CC-BY? In the current legal climate, apparently it’s rather complicated: some places, like Canada and the U.S. (and probably other places too–I haven’t done enough research to list them), grant copyright simply through creating a work, and this may not actually be easy (or possible?) to give up (see, e.g., re: the U.S., Wikipedia on granting work into the public domain, and this post from the Public Domain Sherpa, and the last section of this page from Copyfree). One can, though, try to state as clearly as possible that one gives up all copyright and related rights to whatever extent allowed by law, and if not allowed, to give a license to anyone to use the work however they wish, without requirement of attribution. That’s what Creative Commons CC0 is meant to do. Copyfree has a list of various licenses that conform to their standard of “free use,” “free distribution,” free modification and derivation,” “free combination” and “universal application,” and CC0 is one of them (as is the Nietzsche public license, which is rather a personal favourite).

So, getting back to the original question and modifying it a bit: why not just use CC0 or something similar, thus releasing one’s work for any use by anyone, without attribution? Why care about attribution?

As Pat Lockley noted, it would be good to know that others find my work useful and that they reuse, repurpose and/or rework it. This would be helpful, if for no other reason than to validate for yourself what you’re doing. It could help you do more of it, perhaps. Knowing this would probably also be a way to improve one’s work through finding out what others have done with it. Not to mention it could be a way to potentially connect with others, which might even lead to collaborations.

In my own situation, on a pragmatic level, if I could discover and document how others have used my work, this could provide evidence that what I am doing has influence in the wider educational community, which might be one of several ways to support a claim of “educational leadership” or “distinction in the field of teaching and learning” for the new Professor of Teaching rank at UBC.

So yes, there are plenty of good reasons to be able to know what others are doing with your work.

But all of this requires what is NOT happening with CC-BY (and possibly not with other licenses…I haven’t done enough research to specify): notifying the attributed person that their work is being reused. If another blog links to your blog, you may get a pingback (maybe not; depends on the settings of your blog and the other blog, I think). And it’s a good practice to let other people know when you’ve used their work, if there’s an easy way to do it (such as leaving a comment on a photo posted on Flickr). I try to do that, but too often I forget (I’m working on this).

As noted towards the end of the Storified conversation with Pat, what’s missing, in order to get the benefits noted above, is some systematic way to notify people as to how you’ve used their work. I don’t even know how such a thing could work–the technological hurdles seem huge–but theoretically, it seems a good idea. Now, like any such things, one wouldn’t have to choose such a license (an attribution + notification license?), but for some it would provide a useful way to not just be attributed, but to know what uses their work is being put to. Perhaps it is too difficult/too much of a hassle to bother with. But it’s an intriguing idea.

“Attribution,” by fotogail (see below)

Of course, there are good arguments for making work as free as possible, without restrictions on what you have to do once you’ve accessed it–like attributing the author/creator, or telling him/her what you’re doing with it. So I’m undecided whether I, personally, would want to require more of the people using my work than just attribution. I might not even recommend this to others. But some might want to do it, and it could be useful.

But until and unless something like this happens, I’m back to my original question: Why do I care about attribution? If, for the most part, I won’t get the above benefits, what am I getting out of knowing that perhaps, somewhere out there, is a piece of work with my name attached?

One might think that it’s kind of like citation in academia; except again, citations are tracked whereas use of my CC-BY work (unless it’s a publication) is not. So really, it’s just a sense that other people know I created something. Why should I care about this?

Add to this the point that much of my work is not, perhaps, really “mine” in a deep sense because it is a culmination of so many other influences, work by so many other people that I have read or otherwise interacted with, and the question becomes even more pressing.

Okay, maybe it will come back to me at some point; maybe I’ll discover my work being used somewhere with my name, and then I can realize some of the good things noted previously. But maybe not (and perhaps most likely not). Or perhaps someone will find something with my name on it and decide to connect with me–thus leading to a connection through effort on someone else’s part rather than mine. These things might happen, but is that enough to require attribution for my work? I’m not yet sure.

I don’t have an answer, and you can’t answer for me of course, but maybe you have some ideas on why asking others to attribute one’s work might be a good idea, rather than just letting it go free into the wild. I’m thinking not so much for people who have to rely on their work to make a living, to make money off of it, but for people like me who are getting a salary from a university and could just share their blog writings, their photos, their OERs for free and without restrictions.

Help me out here?

Image credit: “Attribution,”  flickr photo (CC-BY) shared by fotogail