CARE: open education resources and the distributed web

Where are we today? – Open Educational Resources (OER)

Having focused on the ‘wiring’ of eLearning/web 3.0 for the past few weeks, I am delighted to now be moving into areas where we consider how that ‘wiring’ might be used in the delivery of learning and development.

In reviewing some of the material around this weeks focus, it reminded me that the notion  of royalty-free, open source material has been around for a long time. In fact my first activity in this area was several years ago when the vogue term was “Reusable Learning Objects” (RLOs) – the idea being (crudely) that learning objects (ie text/video/audio etc with general learning outcomes and interaction/learner activity) could be created and shared via online repositories, thus reducing the duplication of effort across learning environments.

But, as is not uncommon, this was of limited success. In large part, I think, due to the need to contextualise the content of these RLOs as, once stripped of their context, it became apparent that much of the content felt a bit anodyne or simply lacked the impact it should’ve had. Further, the work required to amend this material to a new context wasn’t far away from just creating your own ‘unique’ version of the subject matter.

Scottish Open Education Declaration logoThankfully this has evolved to what we know now as Open Educational Resources (OER). Arguably this hasn’t been a huge evolution, but it has led to a more organised adoption route. So, in Scotland we have the Open Education Declaration:

Building on UNESCO’s 2012 Paris OER Declaration, the Scottish Open Education Declaration calls on the Scottish Government, the Scottish Funding Council and all sectors of Scottish education to endorse the … principles. … which aims to create opportunities for organisations, teachers and learners to innovate and to ensure that educational materials produced with public funding are available to all.

You can get a sense the scope of this declaration by reading the principles it lists. As you can see, it goes much wider than OER and is something which guides the day to day work of myself and those I work with. The declaration has helped shap our digital learning strategy, including how we distribute our products, and how we enable access to our online resources and services and so on.

In seeking to make as many of our resources as possible available as OER. It became clear to us that we had to separate the product from the content. So, what does that mean? For example – we have a number of tablet apps and, whilst we most often are not able to hand over the source code for those apps to third parties, we can make the source learning materials available so that interested parties can remix and reuse our materials to create their own ‘local’ versions/products.

But, this brings me to a point raised in the conversation with Sukaina Walji and Cheryl Hodgkinson-William which formed part of this week’s material. To successfully benefit from OER we need to have the skills needed to fully reuse, remix and mashup existing open resources. The lack of such digital skills/capabilities can be a barrier to people adapting and remixing OERs to create new resources. So, how do we address this and prevent OERs from becoming the domain of the digitally skilled/adept?

There is no doubt this remains a challenge and one to which I guess there is no easy solution. We have a further challenge which absolutely must be addressed: managing the individuals’ desire to create OERs and the institution/organisation’s desire to manage its intellectual property. Again, this needs answers which are way beyond my pay grade.

But, there are some great examples of what can be achieved when there is a will and a concerted effort, Like the TESSA project.

The next evolution of OER: the “CARE” concept

Two of the key challenges of using OER and their predecessor RLOs have been (a) finding the OER in this first place and, (b) sustainability. This week introduced the concept of Content Addressable Resources for Education (CARE). In the CARE model, instead of searching for and finding resources based on their location, we can search for and locate them based on their content.

Instead of being stored on a single server, content is stored on multiple servers. And when a web user requests that content, it is served from the nearest server. The only difference is that, in the distributed web, these servers are each others’ computers. These are called ‘peers’ and the system as a whole is called a ‘peer-to-peer’ (P2P) network. … in the distributed web we use content-based addressing. In essence, we search for resources based on what it is rather than where it is.

Stephen provides a more detailed description of how this works here. It is easy to see the potential. The fact that we can not only find original versions of open learning resources, but also remixed versions based on their content could be immensely helpful – after all, it’s always easier to start by looking at what someone else has done for inspiration or hints and tips about how to remix your own version, than to start from scratch.

Another attraction of the model is the role of the distributed web concepts in its delivery (see “Introducing the dweb” by Dietrich Ayala for more information). In essence, this distributed, peer-to-peer model makes it almost impossible for open content to be corralled and locked behind a pay wall (as has happened in many cases with the MOOC concept).

The mechanics or CARE and the distributed web

As ever, the devil is in the detail. In practical terms how can you make this work? Making it work means moving away from the current Content Delivery Network (CDN) model we are so familiar and comfortable with. To be honest, we are “comfortable” because the CDN approach allows us to offload the work required to take care of the complex technical arrangements of distribution to someone else.

This week did provide us with insights into how this might work in a dWeb environment  via IPFS and the Beaker Browser. Time to own up … trying to get my head round IPFS and it’s associated technologies, did make my head hurt! It’s fair to say that for me we’re back to showing off the wiring again and as I’ve already admitted, this is not how I want to engage. I’ll leave this stuff to those more tech savvy than me.

However, Beaker Browser was intriguing – it’s the first example I’ve seen of an application which allows you to both create and consume HTML content etc. from inside a browser. I enjoyed playing with it, but wasn’t confident enough in it to use it in anger. A bit like seeing the attraction of the Raspberry PI, but preferring an iPad.

For me, there’s a layer missing. In order to be a tool that can attract critical mass of learning resource developers, I believe it needs a WYSIWYG interface. I know, I can hear the coders sneering! And, this links back to the conversation with Sukaina Walji and Cheryl Hodgkinson-William: technology provision/availability on its own is not enough, its only the enabler. We also need to address UX and skills support/development to help people to exploit the benefits of the technology if we hope to achieve the level of change the CARE and dWeb model suggest.

Are we ready to put all of this together?

So, the big question is, “are we ready to take advantage of this new approach?” For me, it still too early to jump aboard. The tools and basic infrastructure are still too immature. As I said earlier, I can see the promise of Beaker Browser, but it lacks the user-friendly UI it needs to move it from the province of the coders and into the realms of ordinary users.

Something also needs to be in place to act as a bridge when individual peer sources are offline. We know through experience that ordinary users are, on the whole, unwilling to tolerate systems which appear to be flaky. With technical knowledge of how this all works, we can see that the source serving up the content we want may be offline, but to the average user, it might just appear to be ‘broken’.

However, the big issue regarding the effective use of open resources for learning, whether the current OER or the new CARE model, is building the digital skills of our target audience to enable them to exploit these resources. Until that is addressed, I fear that nothing much will change.

In closing, I’d like to return to the issue of context. Without context, I’d argue that content is of limited value. A few years ago, Stephen spoke at an event I organised and when we were preparing for the event he made the point that, content is everywhere. Whatever you want, you can probably find somewhere online – even if you need to breach the paywall! It’s sense-making that’s the premium resource.

This has stuck with me since that conversation and it seems to me that “sense-making” is the foundation stone of a new, much richer role for learning and development professionals (whatever sector they are working in) and it will remain at a premium regardless of what form of openness you work with in developing resources for learning, and the regardless of the systems you use to access/deliver them.

3 thoughts on “CARE: open education resources and the distributed web

  1. Thanks for this post. I’m glad it’s not just me whose head hurts trying to get into ‘the wiring’ of all this. Philosophically it makes sense to me, but practically, for the likes of me, it presents quite a hurdle to overcome 🙂

    • I think the work around is to link with people who love the wiring and can take ideas and make them happen.

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