OpenEd: week 12 – Commenting on Learning Objects

This week I read around classmates’ blogs and I commented some of their posts. I found this way more effective than summarizing comments on my blog: it seems to me that I had more personal contact with the colleagues, since I visited their own blogs.

I commented:

  • Andreas (on LOs seen as mere “technical stuff”);
  • Catia (insisting on importance of “adaptation”);
  • Jennifer (on her “evolutionary” point of view about LOs and OER);
  • Elisa (on the difference between commercial and OS authoring tools for education);
  • Alessandro (on the relation between LOs and visions of teaching and learning);
  • Emanuela (on the non-mutual exclusivity between LOs and OER);
  • Greg (on cultural issues about “adaptation” and general validity of some principles);
  • Karen (“e-learning is too important to be left to engineers”);
  • Stian (on the e-learning paradigms and their consequences, e.g.. LO+LMS = formal/institutional);
  • Thieme (on the present “proprietary LO economy”)

Now I’m tracking further comments on these blogs, using It’s a free service for following comments (a still unresolved trouble…) via RSS. Try it if you want 🙂

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OpenEd: week 11 – On Learning Objects

Four years ago, I co-wrote a book about Learning Objects. It was one of the first to be written in Italian. I and my co-writer mainly grounded on the work of David Wiley and tried to explain to the italian readers the “LO movement” and present a critical point of view on this subject.

Our main criticism, that we also presented in a later article, was about the implicit pedagogical model of LOs. Maybe LOs were misundertood by the “market” but the reality is that they were (and still are…) largely intended as equivalent to SCORM packages, i.e. closed, single-user, self-paced, web-based multimedia content. The recent article by Wiley makes a “checkpoint” on the argument and presents an objective review of this very complicated matter, but I argue that the situation is almost consolidated on this equivalence.

I guess one reason for this difficulty is because we are pursuing an almost impossible goal: an easy, automatic, complete, reuse of content.

If we ask to any experienced teacher, he/she could says us that this “total reuse” is a chimera. Yes, of course, previous year materials could be reused, but near certainly they have to be adapted.

For me, this is the key: adaptation, not reuse!

So, first of all, we should think to LOs as those small units of content of which we talked in week 9 and limit the strong connections with technical specifications: standards are important but not so much important!

Next, if we need to modify them, we need source code, we need openness, not closed packages. It should be clear that if LOs are not open to modification and adaptation, they are not effective.

Even though we can continue to think to LOs as mere content, only if we can adapt them for use in different contexts (for example, we could translate or cut off some parts or add some other) they can be a good base for our work as teachers. It is necessary to abandon the idea of the LEGO metaphor: it’s definitely not working!

So, the OER movement could be important for “opening our eyes” on the real nature of educational content and the real meaning of reuse. Widening the perspective beyond economic advantages of reuse and shifting to think to reuse as sharing for adaptation.

OpenEd: week 10

I enjoyed this tenth week, dedicated to crossblogging. I’m convinced it was a great idea to insert some reflection between “productive” weeks. Furthermore, I was able to realize what means reading a bunch of posts and eventually comment all of them, each week! David, I further agree that it’s a Mission Impossible!! Maybe a lenght limit for posts may help, in the future editions… It could also be useful for students to improve their synthesis skills 🙂

For now, I have choosen to write a short resume of what I read around here on my blog, instead of directly commenting on the others’ blogs. Just now I’m reading about Elisa’s opposite choice. Even if I don’t agree with her consideration on possible discrimination (maybe this could be true for the instructor’s comment, but I don’t think it is a real problem for peers commenting) I too probably will comment each post, next week (just to change… :-))

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to produce a very coherent post, like Megan (BTW, Megan, excellent work!), so my post is more similar to a random collection of thoughts inspired by some colleagues’ posts. It’s more like a personal brainstorming than an organized resume.

I started my reading from Elisa’s post (what a coincidence!! :-)) in which I was struck by a phrase that reminded me the discussion about quality:

I understand the reason why foreign language books are so trivial and boring in their contents, they can’t publish for example even an extract of a song or a film or the photo of a famous actor with some useful information about him because of the copyright duties!

Wow! Is she saying we could have better textbooks if we lived in an more open-cultural world? It would be a good point because one of the strongest arguments for copyright reinforcement is exactly the opposite!!

The Karen’s post is a good summary of all the issues that relates with OER. She organizes them in four “realms”, according to Lessig’s Code … For me, it’ a pretty complete list. It could be a very synthesis for the entire course.

Stian covers an interesting point when he talks of APIs. It’s a technical issue but nowadays it’s very important: for example, this week Google OpenSocial started, proposing a set of common APIs for social networking interoperability, while OER repositories are still closed, “walled gardens”…

I was happy to see that Yu-Chun shares my reflections about granularity: the example of cooking book is very clear!

I would like to share the optimistic view of Andreas about mass participation as “vibrant business ecosystems” but I’m still skeptical…

I strongly agree with the (how to call it? appeal?) of Rob on the need of unity for the Open-Free movements and licenses. Why do we struggle with quibbles when the “enemy” has one, clear statement?

Finally, I appreciated the Alessandro’s effort to contextualize the discussion on the Italian situation, which I too well know. I think it’s important to refer to our own local, concrete, problems: Chenyong too refers to Chinese point of view.

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OpenEd: week 9

I started to read the Italian edition of Free Culture but I realized I would not be able to finish this book in time. I further admit that Lessig’s book had not fascinated me too much… So, lately I shifted to one of the Benkler’s papers. I previously appreciated this author for his paper proposed in week 8, thus I chose it.

The odd title, “Coase’s Penguin…”, is a little pun: the penguin is of course the Linux logo while Coase is the Nobel-prized Ronald Coase who in the late ’30 wrote “The nature of the firm”, in which the motivation of the emergence of firms (intended as managed organizations) was explained. It’s the well known theory of the transactional costs, aiming to explain why the economy is mostly based on firms and hierarchic organizations rather than self-employed individuals operating in the market.

According to Benkler, the emergence of the free software movement represents a sort of third way of being in the market: the commons-based peer production. Starting from the free and open source software movement, Benkler identifies this strategy as peculiar to the information goods and analytically exposes the features and the problems of this solution.

It’s a very interesting discussion, from which I can extract a couple of points that in my opinion are very related to OER development and management:

1) The nature of the projects.

In the past weeks we learned about various models of OER projects. The main ones are driven by academic institutions, mostly funded by foundations, directed to offer high-quality, complete and “branded” coursewares. This model is more like the “firms model” in economy rather than free software model, because individuals are often engaged by their organizations, not on a full volunteer basis. Anyway, they works inside the organization, under the direction of the institutional management.

On the contrary, Wikipedia and other similar initiatives rely directly on individuals, independently of their eventual affiliation to any organization.

There are some hybrid cases, i.e. the OU OpenLearn LabSpace provides a development environment for individuals, based on original courses, but open to remix. The Connexions project is a repository of LO, open to contributions by anyone.

Anyway, it is important to note that only Wikipedia has presently a large-scale, worldwide dimension, while the others are generally valuable but still limited projects, still largely dependent from the main funding. We discussed about this issue last week, when we cope with sustainability issues.

The key point is: if we were able to identify the properties of successful large-scale commons-based projects, we could apply them to OER projects.

Benkler identifies some of these properties in:

a) motivation of the participants. It is necessary for a project to identify and offer to individuals some forms of rewards, especially non-monetary. In fact, in the volunteer peer-production monetary remuneration is not so important as hedonistic and socio-psychological rewards (besides it is often difficult to pay due to budget limitations…). For example, guaranteeing the visibility of the authors could be a better way, compared to anonymous contributions. If an author could acquire reputation through participation, it would be a valuable socio-psychological reward.

b) structure of the project. Peer production are best fitted with project that are modular, high-granular with a low-cost integration of the pieces. They should be modular for allowing individuals to indipendently author a small piece, the dimension (granularity) of this piece should be minimized for admitting occasional, small-sized contributions from everyone and, finally, these pieces should integrate without a high, centralized effort. Of course, the integration relates also with quality, which is attained mostly by peer-review. So, I want to add one more constraint, related to the size of the community: peer-reviewing is usually well done if the number of reviewers is high or they are very specialized (but this case would lead to rise integration costs…)

It seems the identikit of Wikipedia!

But OER are not only encyclopedias: more structured productions are neeed too, as textbooks or coursewares. Unfortunately, they have not all these characteristics… Maybe that in these cases, the “firm model” is more suitable, providing the necessary information and control for coherence and consistency. Furthermore, educational resources have often to be more contextualized than an encyclopedia entry. This implies the need for additional efforts and/or for specialized roles for participants.

As stated by Yu-Chun who addressed this book too, maybe “participants who take charge of the consistency for some contents are necessary”.

2) The intrinsec efficiency.

Benkler stresses a very important point about matching of resources and human capital. His theoretical conclusion is that

the widely distributed model of information production will better identify who is the best person to produce a specific component of a project

If it was true, we could obtain the better resources from the “crowds”! We have to admit that Wikipedia has effectively showed evidence of the average high quality of its entries, indirectly confirming this theory.

According to the author, this efficienfy is more effective in remixing and derivating from “information inputs”. Thus we can connect with the importance of lowering copyright: in this vision intellectual property rights are limits to this process. We need more openness to have the opportunity of widening the range of intellectual inputs!

I’m aware this is mostly theoretical , but it is important for demonstrating that peer-production is not only a sort of hobby for altruistic people but it can be grounded on a sound socio-economical theory. Be aware that contributors to Wikipedia are not only volunteers but they can have a role in the knowledge economy.

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OpenEd: week 8 or the sustainability…

…of this course :-)! We talked about this issue, this week. Even with the best will in the world, it seems that an open course with 60 students worldwide blogging every week on such profound topics is unsustainable for a single instructor… and I strongly empathize with David on it…

I also reflected on my personal sustainability in attending this course. I admit I undestimated the workload, not being a full-time student… (to be more exact: I am a minimal-time student!!)

I know, I must now write about sustainability of OER :-).

Well, I want to make a comparison with Open Source software and, particularly, of OSS for education like LMS and LCMS. A well known case of success is Moodle. Well, do you know there are and web sites? is not a mirror of but it is a distinct site, dedicated to services related to Moodle, i.e.. hosting, support, consulting, installation and so on.. Please take note that these are pay services, offered by a network of Moodle Partners, commercial firms that “contribute directly to the ongoing development of Moodle software via funding or expertise”. So the circuit is closed… Of course, you are always free to download Moodle free but you may also well decide to buy some services from a Moodle Partner, knowing that a part of your payment will be spent in the development of your preferred software. For me, it’s a good model of self-financing!

Could this model suitable for OER, too? Maybe, but we should think to which “services” we can offer via parallel commercial structures funding the developers.

What if MIT started a network of localized point-of-presences worldiwe, offering pay tutoring and, maybe, some form of certificates, based on OCW? A sort of franchising for OER?

Do you find I’m a little trivial thinking only to money? Maybe I receive some criticism from Elisa, who agrees with the Downes point of view that “money is only part of the problem”. Yes, it’s true, but I guess money is the most important part!

Another example is the SLOOP project (I blogged about it in week 5…). It’s an interesting project, very near to OER. It was funded by the European Union but now the funding period is expired and the staff have trouble about the future… Is this project able to survive as a volunteer community? I love SLOOP but I honestly do not bet on its unfunded survival.. This is, indirectly, an answer to the question about government funding: yes, for example, in Europe there are a lot of EU funded projects for education and some of them are related to OER. But they all work within the “project paradigm“: the project starts and we hardly work, it ends and… let’s try to start another one… In my opinion it’s not a very sustainable model!

A final consideration on the paper I liked very much this week: Common Wisdom. It seems to me that the author has identified a very subtle problem when he points out that contributing with a few sentences for Wikipedia is a peculiar “affordance” of that specific model (the wiki) but collaboratively authoring a textbook requires much more coordination and effort, because of the need of coherence of the internal structure. So, we need a stronger motivation from a smaller groups, for successfully obtain a complex OER such a courseware or a textbook, while an encyclopedia can be authored by a very larger group, without a strong committment. I guess these different affordances are critical for sustainability of OER: maybe the encyclopedia model is the more sustainable?

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OpenEd: week 7

This week I’m really late with my assignment. I read the main papers and saw the CC video (thanks to Alessandro for the Italian version!) but I’m not able to answer in a convinving way to our questions.

My strongest feeling is that this field is still too complicated, so, for example, I don’t think that CC is missing some options! I guess we should simplify, if possible also unify licences, not create one more flavour of copyleft! Please take a look to the compatibility grid, also proposed by David, if you are still not convinced..

Why the open education movement should need a special license?

Last week I was almost sure that CC-SA and/or CC-NC were good choices for OER. Now I have some more doubts, but I’m still sure that OER need some protection against uncontrolled wide commercial use. I now see that Stian, for example, shares my strain on this point.

About a possible “non-attribution” CC license, it could be an interesting option (a CC-SA only, for example), but, are we sure that remixing and reuse are so heavily limited by a little citation of the original author?

On the contrary, as stated by Leigh, maybe that CC-BY could be the “basic” license for OER, until we’ll surrender to the power of PD!!

I realize that copyleft IS a limitation (one of its mottoes is “some rights reserved”, isn’t it?) but I still think that some limitation is required.

I want to dedicate a final comment to the reflection on the “openness” of most courses, made by Alessandro. I often discuss of it with faculties: in our universities the physical classroms are open, anyone can attend a lesson, without requiring enrollment, while virtual classrooms are mostly closed! Isn’t it an inconsistency? In the case of Moodle, why not make courses open to the “guest” account? Guests cannot participate in any activity, i.e. they cannot “disturb” the classwork, while they could access resources and see “what happens” in the course: a valuable opportunity for colleagues..

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OpenEd: week 6

Dear friends, this course is definitely astonishing! Within few weeks we turned from pedagogists to educational technologists and now to lawyers and economists! Wow!

I admit: I don’t feel very comfortable and I’m still struggling with those very articulated legal definitions. 🙂

However, I learnt a lot. Formerly I was not aware of most implications of copyright but I’m now able to look at that small © symbol with a different view. The same goes for public domain (PD).

However, when referring these issues to OER, I feel somewhat confusing.. This was my first thought:
a) the main reason of existence of OER is maximizing openness and wide possibility of reuse in a free (in every sense, including economics) way
b) public domain guarantees at maximum level these requirements, by removing any obstacles to copying and remix
and §
c) if it is true, according to Pollock, that new works generate an increasing “welfare” for the society
d) it is a reverse function of the strenghtof copyright;
why OER are not simply placed in the public domain from their origin?

I suppose that one reason is …that it is almost impossible! If I’ve right understood, every work is natively copyrighted. Yes, we can alternatively copyleft our works, but, as explained by David, copyleft is not the opposite of copyright!!

Another reason is control: works in the PD can be remixed and re-published without restrictions, included commercial editions. But it sounds as a contradiction if anyone was able to make a commercial book from Wikipedia or OCW content, isn’t it? Are these folks and institutions be publishing those valuable free contents for seeing them fall prey to private commercial, editors? I guess some sort of control is necessary.

So, answering to the first question, it seems to me that, at present, CCs and other Open licenses are yet far from PD: too many limitations are applied. But are these limitations useful and/or necessary? How to deal with risks of “commercial appropriation” of originally free resources? This can be the reason of the SA clause, very often used for OER licenses.

Therefore I’m afraid my original (and naive) reasoning is not so correct… Maybe we need some limitations to ensure OER remain free and open..

Finally, I want to dedicate a note on absurdity I read about “forever” (and “forever minus a day”) duration of copyright. If applied, it would be really a foolery, an incredibile damage for our society. However, I feel worried about it: I see as our world is increasingly dominated by financial interests of big corporations whose boards, everybody know it, are usually not very “socially responsible”…. We have to beware (also) on this matter… 🙂

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OpenEd: Week 5 – Examples of OE Projects

Wow! No readings this week: only (!) browsing six websites. It seemed easy, but it wasn’t :-). A great help went from my friends in LTEver (OpenEd Community) for providing evaluation grids, concept maps and, above all, a constant presence and support. Many thanks!

So, let’s answer to the questions…

1) What do these representative open education projects have in common?

I could easily answer that they all are projects that aim to offer open contents for education, mainly for higher and adult learning, almost totally available only in English, chiefly directed to single learners engaged in informal learning and mostly released under a CC license.

But, I want to point out another trait: five out of six projects are funded, at different levels, by Hewlett Foundation! The sixth, of course, is from UNESCO…

I guess this fact should make us reflect… Are OER initiative uniquely possibile (and economically sustainable) if supported by generous foundations? Maybe I’m anticipating week 8… but I was struck with it..

2) What differentiates them?

I found substantial differences that I tried to classify into these main categories:

Project Main target Licensing Main granularity of content Source of content User Editing / remixing Community Technical
MIT OCW HE CC BY-NC-SA Course Institutional Download. Broad use of PDF makes remixig difficult No Dedicated website, download as IMS package. RSS available
OU OpenLearn HE CC BY-NC-SA Course Institutional Relatively easy.
Download in XML format and re-Upload (in LabSpace).
Partial. Forum connected to courses Moodle based. Other tools available: Concept Mapping and Webcasting.
RSS available
UNESCO Open Training Lifelong learning Variable Course Mainly Institutional but open to individual contributions Variable No Dedicated website, links to external resources. RSS available
NROC HE – High Schools Copyright Course Institutional Not possible. No download. Only online training No Dedicated website. Multimedia online lessons
Connexions All CC BY All Everyone, collaborative Easy, “derived copies” specific feature Partial. Discussion forums and peer-rewieving Repository-based site with internal authoring system for contributors
Carnegie-Mellon OLI HE CC BY-NC-SA All Institutional Not possible. No download No Dedicated website.
Multimedia online lessons

It’s worth also noting that only UNESCO and Connexions contain non-English materials.

3) In the context of open education projects, what does “quality” mean?

Quality is a key point for every informational resource and, all the more reason, for educational ones. In my opinion, quality for OER is mainy connected to reliability, accuracy, ease of use, reuse and remix, good instructional design, clear licensing policy.

For reliability and accuracy, I realize that some initiatives (for example, OCW) resolved the problem at the root: they do not allow external contribution! Their materials are so “guaranteed” by their trademark: as we trust MIT as we can easily trust OCW! Though, this enforce a producer-consumer model (as stated by Karen). Other systems, open to everyone’s contributions (like Connexions) are more exposed to the “Wikipedia syndrome”: how to assure quality without institutional control?

The other quality parameters are only partially connected with institutional source of the materials. We can surely find very good resources authored by single teachers. An example from Italy: take a look to the Sloop project (you can also dowload the final booklet of the project)

Anyway, the voice of the users is fundamental: a “folksnomy quality control” similar to the “Amazon model”. Comments, stories from real use, reccomendation from other users. In one word: a community around content. This can be a real-world metrics for quality…

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OpenEd: additional notes for weeks 2-3-4

I’ve just read the Karen‘s note about the lack of OER for primary education: actually, from “our” reports (specially Hewlett) the focus seems to be in HE, but there are already some working examples of OER and …OER-like resources for schools: for examples, in Italy the GOLD database (managed by Indire, a public-funded pedagogical documentation agency) stores good practices and experiences described by teachers for other teachers. Furthermore, a quick search on oercommons site, produces near 3000 results for “primary level”.

OpenEd: Weeks 2-3-4

Hard assignments for these weeks..

Lot of pages to read, lot of concepts, approaches, issues to consider and, of course, so little time…

So, I decided to start from a point that I feel as very important: the definition of OER.

Yes, I strongly need to get a precise idea of what OER definitely are. Is OER a new term for “learning object” or is it referred to pieces of content, although not technically structured as LOs? Is it related to only content? It seems to me that the word resource is wide enough to replicate the “elephant syndrome” that afflicts learning objects!

We risk, one more time, of speaking about something not (yet) well defined….

Then I tried to start from definitions and considerations offered by our readings.

For OECD, OER are:

“..digitised materials offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and reuse for teaching, learning and research”. OER includes learning content, software tools to develop, use and distribute content, and implementation resources such as open licences. This report suggests that “open educational resources” refers to accumulated digital assets that can be adjusted and which provide benefits without restricting the possibilities for others to
enjoy them..”

For Atkins et al:

OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the
public domain or have been released under an intellectual property
license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others. Open
educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules,
textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools,
materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.

The OLCOS position is more problematic, they say:

OLCOS has gathered expert opinions and suggestions on open digital educational content […] but does not attempt to provide its own fully-fledged definition of Open Educational Resources.

At a glance, I sympathize with OLCOS: recognizing that defining OER is a difficult task is a very good starting point, but in fact this is a dead end!

It seems to me that OECD point of view is quite traditional, they are speaking about “accumulation of digital assets”: is the “silo model” of knowledge that strikes back?

The Hewlett report, by Atkins et al. offers a more articulated definition where the words “public domain” and “intellectual property” show up and make immediately think to the legal issues. I appreciate the attempt to include in OER a wider range of resources, with an important distinction between “full courses” and “course material”. I argue this is a key point: for instance, we can consider this course as an open resource that …includes the instructor (thank you David 🙂 while MIT-OCW courses are limited to materials. Of course there are many differences between these two examples, for example in terms of reusability…

We can conclude that perhaps only combining these definition we can obtain, if not a precise definition, an idea of the areas to be considered to understand the OER movement. To me, it is particularly important not considering OER uniquely as materials. An OER can be an experience, too.

But I cannot escape from the other questions! 🙂

However, I found the comparative reading of the three documents absolutely not easy, so I hereafter write some ..frewheeling impressions:

  • The OECD document is, as usual for this organization, partially committed to statistical comparison between countries, related to OER (no surprise for the absence of Italy from the main group of respondents…).
  • The OLCOS paper covers a wider range topics: it can be read as a compendium of the state of the art in educational technology. From e-learning standards to Web 2.0, from metadata to Creative Commons, they offer a 360° view on OER and not only…
  • OLCOS and OECD documents share some “drivers vs. inhibitors” overviews on the main factors involved in OER development. OLCOS offers also useful synthesis tables of them.
  • Reccomendations from OLCOS report are interesting, even if few are too generic (“foster the development of OER”…). I appreciated the reccomendations for students: I think it is important that they assume a more active role, also for OER development and use. After all, students are the “final customers”, aren’t they?
  • Atkins et al. emphasize the various experiences activated worldwide (again, no trace of Italy..).
  • One special topic from Atkins et al. is the proposal of the OPLI iniative and the vision of an ecosystem able to foster the OER diffusion. It’s not very clear but a fascinating view…
  • Atkins et al. is originated from the Hewlett Foundation, that is a big player in the OER field, while the other two papers are produced by important international organizations: a “special attention” for OCW and other Hewlett projects is, of course, intelligible. Neverthless, we must admit that OCW is at present a milestone, a reference point for OER in HE!

David is also asking us which is our “preferred” report, the most clear. I have to confess that I had no preference and that to a certain extent I think that the reports are not directly comparable. I can only remark the “encyclopedical approach” found in the OLCOS report.

The overall sensation is somehow confusing and I find difficult also the last question: basically I’m more involved in technical issues (for example I appreciate the criticism about using PDF in early OCW, from Atkins et al.) but I feel that, perhaps, OER have to be considered in a more holistic way. Technical, economical, legal, ethical, pedagogical, political issues are too much connected with one another: this is a big difficulty in this field.

Suffice it to think to this phrase, from the OLCOS report:

“It is important to note that current educational practices are decisive in determining whether – and how – digital educational content, tools and services will be deployed and utilised. If the prevailing practice of teacher-centred knowledge transfer remains intact, then OER will have little effect on making a difference in teaching and learning.

I think that if we reverse the reasoning, we can also think to OER as a powerful driver for innovation in education!

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