OER Road trip

I’ve just returned from a fascinating fact-finding mission to the US on OER and online/distance learning. Spending time with colleagues from MIT, CMU, NSF and University of Maryland University College gave us an invaluable opportunity to gain insights into their experiences, attitudes and business/educational models for distance/online learning and their experiences of being involved with the OER movement. I travelled with David Kernonhan (programme manager for the current JISC OER programme) and we joined Malcolm Read ( Chief Executive of JISC) later in the week. I’m not sure if it was just a happy co-incidence, but during the week the Obama administration also announced a $50 million programme to create open resources for community colleges.

One of our first meetings was with Candace Thille of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Candace has been instrumental in setting up and managing their Open Learning Initiative (OLI). This programme has been running since 2002 and as with many other open initiatives received funding from the Hewlett Foundation. The main premise for the programme is to create new learning environments for individual/self study purposes. The overarching goal is to facilitate a “change of knowledge state” of the individual so measurable, student centred outcomes have been a key part of the design and development of the materials.

When developing the materials a rigorous design process is adhered too. Broadly speaking this encompasses a literature review the subject area, identification of available materials, and then research in the given subject area of both the expert and student views. This allows the design team (who include teachers/subject experts) to build a “big picture” view and identify the gaps between the expert view and the actual student experience. The results are then used as the basis to create materials which concentrate on the key areas of misunderstanding and provide self-paced study activities. Although originally seen as an open self study resource, the courses are increasingly being used by on-campus students and tutors alike . As students work through material feedback is automatically generated and so tutors are able to structure their f2f teaching time to better accommodate the actual learning needs of the whole class. The data is also used to refine/develop the courses as part of an iterative design process.

The “learning environments” are openly available on the web, but are not strictly speaking OERs, as you can’t download them and re-use/re-mix. The key to this programme is gathering feedback and using that to refine the materials. However they are exploring some models to allow some customisation of the materials which include a small fee to become part of their “academic community” and providing fee based assessments. Candace is also a partner with the OU here in the UK of the OLNet project which is looking at the issues surrounding community take up and use of OERs. Extending the design of the environments to include collaborative learning opportunities is also part of their development plans.

Our next meeting was with Steve Carson (External Relations Officer of the MIT OWC project and Mary Lou Forward new CEO of the OCWC. MIT is probably the most famous single OER project. However it was interesting to discover a bit more of the history of the project. MIT had been investigating the possibilities of distance learning. However after extensive investigations came to the conclusion that their wasn’t a viable business model for the MIT experience as an online experience. However the institution had publicly committed to having some kind of online experience and so the concept of allowing their materials to be openly available gained ground as a way of meeting that commitment and also resonated with the more public spirited philanthropic ethos of the institution.

Like all OER projects (and I know this is a key concern for the current JISC funded project) copyright and IPR was something that needed to be addressed at the outset. It was decided that the best model for MIT to adopt was that faculty owned their content, but they would licence it to the OCW project who could then make it open. Initially faculty members were paid a small fee to engage with the project and licence their materials to the project, but as it has grown this payment is no longer necessary.

Currency of materials is an ongoing issue, and at the moment the review period for a course is seven years – however depending on subject area this is flexible. The general ethos now is that the materials give a “snap shot” view of the course. The development team try to make the process of putting teaching materials online as easy as possible for faculty and the average minimum time spent by a faculty member is around 5 hours. Of course this is mainly to produce print based materials.

There have been a number of unexpected benefits to the institution including reported improvements in teaching and learning from on-campus staff and students; increased lifelong connections between students and the institution ( the class of 2008 donated around $50,00 to the project ) and the one I found most interesting – particularly given the standing of MIT as a research institituion – is the fact that faculty members involved in OCW have reported reputational benefits from releasing their teaching materials. The team are currently involved in evaluating the programme and hope to produce an extensive evaluation report later this year.

In terms of sustainability the programme is looking at various models. In costs c.$3.3 million a year to run and will soon have to become self sustaining. Substantial cost reductions have been made through savings in technology use such as outsourcing hosting services e.g. video on youtube which can them be embedded back into the site. The model the team described as being most close to their ideal would be one similar to the public broadcasting service in the US. That is a model which would allow for major gifts, some corporate sponsorship and some advertising/underwriting etc.

The OCW infrastructure is now been seen as having considerable leverage within the institution. Nearly every grant proposal has an OCW element built into it so that material can be released. Various outreach projects such as “Highlights for High School” are based on the basic material but customised for a specific target audience. The Board is also looking at ways of generating income from additional elements to the materials such as assessment and more interactive services. However no decisions have been made and their is a commitment to making sure that any such services would be consistent with the open ethos.

In contrast to these open initiative, our final visit was to University of Maryland University College where we met Nic Allen (Provost Emeritus) and Mark Parker (Assistant Provost, Academic Affairs). The student profile of UMUC is radically different to both MIT and CMU with many of it students being part-time and also from under-represented communities. Although a part of the public university system of Maryland, UMUC receives only just over 6% of its budget from public funding. So, it is very business orientated and relies on fees to generate revenue. A “lean and mean” philosophy which has at its core leveraging technology use has proved successful. Although currently the institution is not involved in developing OERs, it does see the open movement – including open accesss journals, as having a role to play in future developments. UMUC has an extensive portfolio of online courses from high school to doctoral level and has c.100,000 students worldwide. Since its inception UMUC has also been the provider of overseas education to the US forces and families. This traditionally has involved f2f teaching however this model – particularly with regards to provision to service personnel- is changing more and more to online delivery.

UMUC has developed a “students come first” culture in respect to all aspects development and running of courses. 24/7 being support is available for all aspects of online provision – from technical, library and tutor. Since 1992, the institution has developed and used its own LMS – Tycho (the current version being webTycho). In part this decision was made as at the time there was no off the shelf product that met their requirements and also they are in control of its development. Although not an open-source product, its currently development cycle can utilise web 2 technologies and use web-services to integrate with the usual suspects of facebook, youtube etc. There was also interest in the widget development work that Scott Wilson has been spearheading. All staff undergo a 5 week training course which a focus on pedagogy before teaching “live”. There is also a network of faculty communities of practice to support staff in developing their online teaching habits.

Mike explained that a key factor to their success has been that their model of online provision has been an integral part of the institutions’ course provision and has had to be self sustaining from the outset. It has never been seen a separate division, and so faculty buy-in has been there from day one. In terms of service provision some of the lower level technical support has now been contracted out to private companies but key services will always be provided by in-house staff.

So a wide range of projects and models however there were a number of key similarities that struck me including:

Seed funding: For OER in particular, seed funding from large foundations such as Hewlett has, and continues to be key for starting initiatives. JISC is now playing a similar role in the UK and hopefully current economic circumstances aside, will be able to continue to support an ethos of openness.

Production processes: Although CMU, MIT and UMUC have very different business models they do all have a basic production process. In the main this is quite similar to a print based editorial/publishing system. However, even more importantly they all have a dedicated team of staff to “put stuff online” – it’s not just left to academics. It will be interesting to see if similar teams are developed/utilised in the JISC OER pilot projects or if viable alternatives emerge.

Evaluation:Evaluation of OER is very complex and even MIT find it hard to track who/where and how their resources are being used. Unless you take a very diagnostic approach from the outset as OLI have, it is difficult to get accurate information on how your resources are being used. This is where perhaps community based projects such as OLNet can help the community come to some consensus about best practice around use of OER and help develop common evaluation strategies. In some ways the JISC one year pilot programme is almost too short to evaluate within its lifecyle, however the fact that projects have been asked to look at tracking their resources should in itself provide some useful data.

Enhancement: it may seem a bit of a “no brainer” to some of us who have been involved in online learning for a while, but the simple act of getting materials ready to put online does provide a valuable opportunity for reflection and refinement for teaching staff and so help to improve and refine the teaching and learning process. Both MIT and CMU did not realise just how much use their on-campus students would make of their open materials and the subsequent impact they would have on on-campus based teaching. As I mentioned earlier, MIT OCW now has anecdotal evidence that faculty can have unexpected increased reputational standing by being involved in the OER movement.

Sustainability: Although seed funding is key to getting things started, it can’t be relied on forever. Hewlett have already announced that they will stop funding OER projects in the near future and so sustainability needs to be considered from the outset. Perhaps a case of “an OER isn’t just for a JISC project but for life . . .” mentality is needed to be developed. Of course, JISC too should be extending the open ethos by ensuring that all outputs of its funded projects are openly available through creative commons licencing. Certainly from the experience of a successful online learning institution such as UMUC, making any online provision part of a central process and/or central to core business models and not a peripheral unit/practice would seem to be essential. Again it will be interesting to see what sustainability models/issues emerge from all three strands of the JISC pilot programme.