Thursday, February 07, 2008

OpenLearn – another document dump

OpenLearn or is it LearningSpace (brand confusion is not a good start), is the UKs answer to MITs Open Courseware. After chewing through several million in funding I had high hopes, but here I am feeling rather deflated after wading (literally) through a great many of its, supposed, courses. It’s really no more than a repository of old OU print documents with some tools on top. There has been no attempt to do anything remotely interesting or different.

Document dump
This is really a huge exercise in document management, with a few images and videos added in just a few of the modules. They seem to have taken a few box loads of historic OU curriculum texts and published them online with no real adaptation or sensitivity around their online use, readability or suitability. To be honest I think I could have published this lot using free software in less than a week or two.

Million pound Moodle
Moodle is famously free, but dwell on the fact that the OU have spent a cool million in development time for this ONE implementation. Perhaps the most expensive free lunch on record. The good news is that this development has taken Moodle forward, solving some of its historic problems around accessibility and so on.

Cold content
As I sampled many of the courses it struck me how weak much of the content was in terms of academic credibility. Like many course notes written from within an institution, rather than published text, it has the feel of being cobbled together by good experts, but not the best. Much of it reads like standard, long-winded, written-in-the evening text. The writing is, on the whole, remarkably flat and dull.

Here’s the subjects with the number of available modules:

Arts and History 44
Business and Management 29
Education 37
Health and Lifestyle 15
IT and Computing 25
Mathematics and Statistics 26
Modern Languages 15
Science and Nature 52
Society 47
Study Skills 27
Technology 24

It’s only 5% of the OU output but the course choices do seem a little odd. I was amused to see 'Brighton Pavilion' be given the status as a course in itself, alongside major topics in history and science. The study times associated with each module seem to be grossly exaggerated. It’s so easy to just state a general activity or question, then count that as ‘study time’. That is a con. Many modules have no more than an hour of reading. Egyptian Mathematics which, according to the author, “has left disappointingly little evidence of its mathematical attainments” has just a few pages of text peppered with a few images and a short reading list. I preferred the Wikipedia entry, which had clearer structure, was better written, and gave more useful academic links and a better reading list.

The Holocaust is 17 pages of dense text with not a single image in sight. How it justifies its 20 hours of learning tag is beyond me. Dance Skills was a hoot – ten pages of text and one short video. Not an image in sight. Truly amateurish.

The language courses are all over the place and are often built around some idiosyncratic video but these are at least useful for many learning French, German, Spanish, with some English and introductions to Latin and Greek.

Open Wallets
The costs of the pilot have been stated at around £5.65 million. That I don’t believe, as it doesn’t include loads of other internal costs. Seems like an awful lot of money for something that is essentially a bunch of documents online with a couple of tools on top. If this had been tendered out it would have cost a fraction of the price. It could have been so much more. The levels of interaction are abysmal and there’s no real assessment. Interestingly, not a single lecture online. Maybe that’s a good thing!

On the positive front, at least one institution is doing something about 21st century learning. I still love the OU and all it stands for, even if it is dragged down by the desire of its academics to mimic every other university. That wasn’t what Wilson wanted. On the whole, I find Wikipedia, supplemented by other resources such as iTUNES U, TED andGoogle Video to be miles ahead of this approach.


René Meijer said...

I think what this exposes is that a lot of the exciting new and innovative stuff that everyone is talking about in HE, predominantly exists in plans and pilots, and rarely in common practice.

Anonymous said...

Dear Donald,

Spot on.... and not just another document dump but another cash dump.

A project doomed to implode and leave no legacy once the free cash runs out. Why? Because while the OU lecturers may be competent, unlike their counterparts at MIT, they are not the leading lights in their fields and therefore external lecturers/students are not likely to be interested in their materials. Why take materials from the OU when you can get them from Stanford and MIT? or equally from Wikipedia and YouTube?

The OU would be better off hiring three full-time staff to convert materials and load them into iTunes, YouTube, the OU website etc.. This could be done at a cost of £300,000 over two years.

Why are all the significant UK higher education eLearning projects so poorly conceived and why do they waste so much money?

James M

MANTEX said...

I agree entirely Donald. I've been an OU tutor for more than thirty years, and I can recognise old flat materials dumped as taster 'courses' when I see them.

Having spent the last eighteen months getting interactivity into my own Moodle courses, I was keen to sign up for one of the OpenLearn offerings to see how it really should be done. After all - with all those resources in terms of funding and technological know-how, surely the OU would showcase the best practices.

The course I signed on for (beginner's Spanish) is nothing more than old course documents re-purposed in the most uninspiring way imaginable. They're full of bad editing, duff links, and hardly an interactivity in sight.

The whole shebang could have been mounted in a perfectly ordinary web site - because there is hardly any Moodle feature being used at all. There's no way of offering feedback or corrections, not a tutor or course leader in sight, and the whole exercise seems to me a very expensive lost opportunity.

Another one for the Project Graveyard.

Anonymous said...

It's not all bad - these guys seem to know what they're doing:

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see this better resource you can create in just a few weeks, I'd also enjoy seeing on the news how you were sued by major publishing companies for ripping off their material.

To assist you with your brand confusion, OpenLearn is the name of the Project, the site is helpfully split into two web resources, LearningSpace is where a majority of the students can view the material, engage in forums with other students, using a variety of tools and get a feel for what it would be like to study an OU course. The Labspace is where the materials can be downloaded, repurposed and uploaded again, perhaps you could give it a go and show OpenLearn how it really should be done.

OpenLearn is a project that has already in its short existence been awarded for its efforts in higher online education, interactivity is getting better with every course that is added and the efforts made by those involved should be applauded not criticised.

Howard Riches

lauradee said...

The voice of OpenLearn here - excuse my tardiness in joining the debate. I don't think anyone, including our experts in e-learning at the OU, would argue that OpenLearn is a gleaming example of elearning at it's best. But we should probably point out, it was never meant to be.

The team here would love to take you up on your offer to publish and clear the rights of thousands of learning hours of our printed and audio-visual materials online, in XML, in less than a week. For one we could all go home and take a well deserved break. :)

Didn't want to bust your comments box so more on why we are not an elearning project, why you couldn't do it in a week, why you would come to the OU instead of MIT and what we are doing in iTunes and YouTube over at the OpenAir blog...

Donald Clark said...

Hi Howard
So I'm only allowed to applaud, and never criticise, academic projects. You seem to miss the bpoint of blogging and open discussion. I have, for years, applauded the OU in print, at conferences and elsewhere. However, I feel free (this is the whole point of academic freedom) to criticise something I think is ill-executed. Note that I am not alone here - see Seb Scmollers's comments and the others posts.

As for branding, OpenLearn was hyped as the main brand, learningSpace (a previously well-known brand in e-learning) was used as a second tier brand. I still think it's confusing.

"publish thousands of hours" - there are around 350 single documents (largely text, with some bit maps). It does not take thousands of hours to read this stuff. The physical publishing of this material on the web is trivial. That was my point. By the way the 'thousands of hours' you state is largely student time (you're asked a general essay type question and asked to answer). This is a cheat when calculating this figure.

Having read through a fair number of these courses it would seem to be mostly the old OU course material, written, I presume, by OU staff. The admin task around rights issues don't seem that complicated ( in some cases not even worth it as the material freely available on the web is better).

On the whole I think the project has been worth doing, I simply question its cost and execution. The page turning is quite simply annoying - it takes ages to move from one page to another. The text is mostly unsuitable for the screen and interactivity is well nigh absent. A document dump it is.

lauradee said...

Donald, I haven't argued against your last points - I will (but shouldn't need to say again) this is not e-learning but open access to learning materials online. The physical publishing of this material on the web (simply converting it into a digital format and publishing it) is trivial. Agreed. But selecting it and amending it to be suitable for a public and global audience and publishing it in such a way that it can be reused under a Creative Commons license and with standards met for interoperability (including some very new standards such as IMS Common Cartridge) have been vital to the mission of the open educational resources movement and are more complex than your comment assumes. While you may not wish to reuse or remix the content, others do.

I don't need to tell you that learning is not just about reading so including tasks and tools for reflection and sense-making are important in the calculation of hours. If you do more than browse, you'll come across extensive and interactive resources such as the Exploring Psychology History timeline within OpenLearn.

You can read more about the issues involved in repurposing the materials for OpenLearn in this working paper including calculating the time for study and using materials from our co-publishers and the many third parties we license content from. This is an early paper from Dec 06, setting out our thinking at the time. More research will be available in the coming months as we evaluate the project.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately your comments do not accord with many users' experience. Despite its faults it is highly thought of by those that engage in it. Who is to say which subjects are suitably 'academic' or not. You? The materials in the LearningSpace are not 'old' but current. Even so Darwins 'Origin of Species' is old...does that make it useless? Although you provide some good issues for debate I am reminded of critics who have not seen the programme that they critique, or in this case found a way of learning with OpenLearn.

Anonymous said...

Of a survey of registered users (n = 1274) Less than 2% of surveyed users said "I don't think OpeLearn will be useful to me" with more than 60% saying they felt that OpenLearn looked like a very useful resource. More than half of those who had spent more than 30 minutes on the site selected 'I have learned something new from OpenLearn'. A large choice of content was the most highly ranked feature of OpenLearn from a list of 10 options including interactive content (3rd), audio and podcasts (7th). Further data is being processed.

Donald Clark said...

"this is not e-learning but open access to learning materials online."

I don't really get this. Seems like an oxymoron. Open access to learning materials online is e-learning, unless you have a very, very narrow and selective definition of e-learning. Is the purpose of these documents 'learning' or not? Even if the purpose was reuse - it must be reuse for 'learning'.

Your point on the calculation of hours I still find odd. Counting student reflection time is to confuse a activity related to your input with activities that the student does on their own. It is to confuse input with output. All learning involves reflection, but only in upside down world of education would you say that the customer's own time and effort is something you sell to them.

Steve (research fellow)
So more than half the people who had spent half an hour in the content said they had learnt something new. I should think so. What's worrying is that the other half, who also spent half an hour on the material felt they had learnt NOTHING NEW! Given the supposed quality of the material, how is that even remotely possible?

Similarly with the 40% of registered users saying that OpenLearn was NOT a very useful resource. Worrying.

Interactive content comes in at No 3. I struggled to find interactive content in the several hours I've devoted to 'reading' the material.

lauradee said...

What I am trying to get across is that these materials are not designed for elearning. To me there is a difference between knowledge made available online and materials designed for elearning. It maybe a narrow view but my experience of producing elearning materials tells me that these resources would have formed source materials that would have undergone a transformation process that was outside the production budget of the OpenLearn project (in most but not all cases).

However they are designed as distance learning materials so people can and do learn from them effectively and the structure of the materials is important scaffolding for the learner. They are delivered online to increase global reach and greater access to educational resources as cost effectively as possible. They are delivered online in XML and an open source learning environment to make them as flexible as possible for others to reuse. They are delivered online so that learning journals, discussions forums, video conferencing for webinars, video blogging, knowledge and idea mapping software can be provided alongside them to support the learner in making sense of the materials within an online community and allow learner generated content to be published. An online space allows learners and educators to feed back to us and republish course materials in a way that is easily shared.

Re. the time estimates we are trying to give an indication of how long we think it will take the learner to complete the study unit to help them understand the time commitment involved. Completing a study unit includes the tasks. We are not selling the 'customer's time and effort to them'. We are trying to support independent learners in the planning of their study time. Everyone will study at a different rate and come to subjects with a different level of understanding and ability - especially in an open website where we can only suggest prerequisites. These are best etimates based on the range of factors documented in the paper I posted yesterday. If people feedback back to us as they encouraged to do in the unit reviews, then we can better gauge how long the units are taking people.

Anonymous said...

Hello Donald, just to answer your comments. More than half of the high users clicked the box saying that they learned something new – the non-clickers of this box did not say they learned nothing new…you have inferred this but users have not stated it (note there are usually a small percentage who bypass a number of questions in the survey as shown in Likert type questions and do not wish to answer). The exact figures in the four samples are for high users:

59% and 50.7% saying they learned something new

and low users

27.9% and 27.9% (from both samples).

The low users are not those using it for 30 minutes as you’ve stated but less than 30 min….i.e. a median value of about 15 min….so one would not expect many to learn a lot in this case since many will be browsing in the site.

Secondly in my rush yesterday I mis-worded the question asked (problem of slap-dashing of blog entries). The actual question was was:

Q. In terms of your own potential use of OpenLearn how important would you consider the following features? (there were a list of ten features)
These are average scores based on a four point Likert Scale (1 = low, 4 = high)

A large choice of content Ranked 1st for all four samples high and low with average scores of 3.5 3.5 3.7 3.6

Interactive content e.g. quizzes, interactive diagrams, etc. Ranked 3rd in all four samples with average scores of 3.1 3.1 3.1 3.2

To be able to interact with other learners. Ranked 9th 9th 10th 10th in the four surveys with scores of 2.3 2.5 2.2 2.2 (less than half)

Almost surprisingly content is more highly ranked than some of the other attributes in the list including interaction with other learners.

To a certain extent different things fit different types of learner but I would personally disagree with many peoples understanding of interaction – high interaction for example does not necessarily imply relevant learning is taking place….there is certainly intra-action that occurs with content…if you read a book for instance you co-construct meaning from the book and each person will do this uniquely depending on their previous experience. Often they will share there learning with friends outside the context in which they are reading.

It is also easy to attack something which is there as opposed to something that is not and hopefully as Open Learning develops there will be an ever increasing range of resources and interactivity…for me OpenLearn is a very good contributor…and there are not that many others around.

Further data and many more questions will be published at a later date and will include findings from a sample of more than 2200 individuals (the data supplied represents about half this sample size).

SJ said...

First post; lovely blog; I'm glad to have found it.

I sympathize with this piece and feel the same way about most educational sites I admire. Even Wikipedia, which has been an important part of my thinking life for many years, expends tremendous energy on being "just another editable document collection" rather than amplifying its more extraordinary components. Luckily the quality and depth of its creators (curious people!) are so deep that they need no amplification, and can absorb a few magnitudes of redundancy and inefficiency.

Despite enjoying my reading, I regret that this is a blog, for passing commentary and discussion, and not a wiki where I could dive into some of the above with you and help turn a critical piece into a roadmap for doing it better next time. For instance, pulling out the full count of materials by subject area, and turn that into an estimate of the quality of coverage.

If you want to take a stab at a similar or complementary project from other data sources, I'd be glad to collaborate on that.