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Open Source and Open Educational Resources in Europe – a look back to ten years ago

September 30th, 2015 by Graham Attwell

As promised the first in a mini series about Open Education. Pontydysgu originally got into educational technology through using closed and proprietary software. The first ‘educational technology’ I can remember using was FirstClass running on an Open University / BBC server (accessed through I think, the Mosaic browser). Ironically it was a print book which stimulated our move into Open Source technologies – Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, first published as a book in 1999.

In 2003 we submitted the SIGOSSEE project to the European Commission. SIGOSSEE stood for Special Interest Group on Open Source software in Education. Essentially we were exploring the potential uses of open source software and holding a series of workshops all over Europe, whilst building a Special Interest Group. Whilst the Special Interest Group failed to survive beyond the period of funding, it did kick off a flurry of activities, including a later spin out project on Open Education Resources. At the time the European Union has an ambivalent attitude towards OSS and OERs. Whilst there was strong support from a number of enlightened officials and programme administrators, the EU was being heavily lobbied by publishers and by the software industry not to endorse open source.

As part of their cautious move towards Open Source Software and Open Educational Resources, in 2004 the EU Directorate responsible for education, held a seminar entitled Creating, Sharing and Reusing e-Learning Content : Access Rights for e-learning Content. They invited a wide range of participants including from teh publishing industry and asked for the pre-submission of position papers. Below I publish the SIGOSSEE position paper, written by myself and Raymond Elferink. In the next post I will look at some of our recommendations and consider to what extent (if at all) we got it right.

Overview

This short position paper is addressed to both consultation workshops as we feel the issue of access rights to e-learning content and the more technical issues around reusable content are intrinsically interlinked. Whilst the position paper is presented by Graham Attwell and Raymond Elferink, it represents the position of the steering committee of the Special Interest Group for Open Source Software for Education in Europe.

The lack of easy access to attractive and compelling educational content is one of the major barriers to the development and implementation of e-learning in Europe. Most educational content is pedagogically poor, consisting overwhelmingly of sequenced text based materials and exercises. Furthermore, the subject and topic range is limited. This is particularly so for vocational and occupational subjects and in lesser-used languages.

Time and cost of production are major barriers to the production of quality learning content leading to the present interest in standards based, reusable content and to the sharing of content between institutions. In many areas content developers require not only technical and pedagogic skills but also deep subject knowledge.

Publishers have an important role to play in the development of content. However, as with traditional learning materials, much content in the future will of necessity be produced by teachers. There are also intriguing possibilities for learner developed content and there is great potential from public content repositories especially from cultural heritage and media organisations. It could be argued that there is already a wealth of rich learning materials available through the web. The problem lies in how these materials can be described and accessed and pedagogically deployed.

Key issues

Pedagogy and content

Pedagogy remains the key issue in terms of delivering content. As with any new technology, there has been a tendency on implementing ICT for learning to imitate previous paradigms – the ‘electronic classroom’ for example. There is some evidence to suggest we are now beginning to move beyond such paradigms and develop new scenarios for learning. However, the monolithic nature of much educational software and the need to implement ‘whole systems’ are barriers to developers seeking to pilot innovative pedagogic applications. The development of standards based content repositories and of Service Oriented Approaches (SOA) or modular approaches to learning architectures (see below) promises to allow far more advanced pedagogic innovation

Reuse of content

The potential reuse of content is a critical issue. Central to this is the development and adoption of standards. There remain problems in this area. Standards are being developed and adopted and the new Learning Design standard promises a major step forward in terms of recognising pedagogy, but the software engines and support are still in a development phase. There remain issues over defining metadata schemas and over who will (and should) enter metadata classifications. In the longer term the use of distributed metadata may provide some answers to these issues. Nevertheless the standards should be supported in order to allow reuse.

In pedagogic and technical terms there is still much work to do in developing tools and engines for content sequencing and assembly. Equally, more work is needed on how to base content on activity.

Licensing, property rights and open content

We believe a key issue is to involve the wider educational community in the development and sharing of learning content. One issue raised here is the question of licences. Traditional copyright licences are far too restrictive to develop an ecology of e-learning content. The Creative Commons Licence provides an effective answer to this issue providing an easy way of indicating possibilities for reuse. The OKI development by MIT and the Connexions project by the University of Rice in Texas – based on different open content models – have shown the potential of open content repositories.

There remain many issues to be resolved – not the least is the question of quality assurance. The difficulty in using content production tools is still a barrier for many to producing their own content.

Software and architectures and content

Monolithic architectures for learning and learning management have held back content production and deployment. Migration and reuse of content is often difficult due to lack of interoperability. Services Oriented Approaches and modular software designs can allow the development of standards based component architectures. Content would be either contained in a repository or accessed through distributed systems. Developers – open source and proprietary – could focus on particular components based on need and on their skills and interests. Content could then be easily reused between systems. The implementation of DRM systems should allow easy access to both proprietary and open content in centralised and distributed resource repositories (see for example the Canadian edu-source initiative).

Culture change and content

Implementing of this vision will require culture change at both institutional and individual level. Whilst much of the discussion has focused on teachers and trainers producing content, more important may be the ability and willingness to search for content and to develop coherent learning and activity plans from content produced elsewhere.

Recommendations to the e-learning community and to the European Commission

These recommendations are addressed to the e-learning community as a whole. However, the European Commission could play an important role in supporting pilot developments and implementations.

  1. Further develop standards and the implementation of standards. At the very least, funded projects should be required to consider and report on standards implications of any content development. Further work is needed in disseminating information of standards and their use. In this respect it may be worth considering European links to the UK based CETIS service on educational standards. Further research and development on standards and standard implementation related to educational content should be supported by the European Commission.

  2. Support the Creative Commons License. There seems little reason why education content produced with public funding – national or European – should not be required to be released under a Creative Commons Licence.

  3. Initiate and develop pilot implementations based on open content in institutions and networks. These pilots will be invaluable in exposing and testing many of the issues raised in this position paper.

  4. Explore the potential of a framework for e-learning based on a Service Oriented Approach. Work in this is already being developed by the UK based JISC in conjunction with Industry Canada and DEST in Australia. At a European level, an initiative to encourage developers to focus on services oriented or modular approaches and to share in the development of software, rather than continuing to reinvent the VLE wheel, is needed.

  5. Support the development of tools for content production, distribution, sequencing and deployment. Access to easy to use tools is more important at present than is directly subsidising the production of content itself.

  6. Support experiments in different pedagogical implementations of content including content from cultural and media organisations.

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