Open infrastructure and open education practices

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Photo by Monika Majkowska on Unsplash

One of the questions that I’ve been percolating and discussing with my OpenETC collaborators is the extent can you do open and engage in open education practices without open infrastructure. The timing is perfect, as I’m about to embark on a two week guest speaker gig for the MET course Planning and Managing Educational Technologies for Higher Education. This is the third year I’ll be doing a guest speaker spot in this course, and while in the previous years I focussed on the institutional organisation of educational technologies, this time I’m going to focus on the growing importance of considering open educational technology as part of the educational technology infrastructure of an institution.

For starters, if you’re looking to get academic about this topic, there’s not a lot out there in terms of research. And if you want to begin discussions about open ed tech with IT and colleagues at your university/college/institute, Moodle will inevitably be mentioned. Let’s just park Moodle for the purposes of this blog post, since as I’ve argued elsewhere, you can’t get far when the topic of ed tech starts and ends with an LMS.

It’s worth starting with a recent publication on how institutions are selecting and using platforms for the creation and delivery of OER. This is a timely study, and as the author puts it:

In order to determine best practices for platforms and OER, we first need to understand how institutions are currently using technology in the creation and delivery of OER content. To facilitate this, we surveyed higher education institutions to understand what tools are currently being used to deliver OER, how these tools are selected and evaluated, and perceptions regarding how these technologies help to support processes surrounding the creation, revision, and use of OER. 

The study is a survey of 33 US institutions and in this small sample, shows a majority of OER content being created in the LMS, with faculty members being largely the decision makers in the selection of the tool.

As we can see from the table above, the choices are well represented by proprietary systems and tools. And even though WordPress/Pressbooks/Github make a presence, this list hardly suggests that there’s a rich ecosystem of tools being used.

In the introduction, the author touches on the tension between open content in proprietary platforms and the cognitive dissonance that this presents. I wish the discussion had underlined this point a bit more, since I think that the question about how institutions should be more strategic about those platforms is an important one.

“While some critics have argued that Cengage’s approach is not a good approach to the stewardship of OER — placing open content in a locked down, proprietary platform — it brings up an important opportunity to differentiate between OER content and the platforms or technologies by which it is delivered. What values should OER platforms hold? How should institutions of higher education select platforms for the delivery of OER? How can they be strategic about the use of those platforms?”

While research on OER enablers and challenges fairly consistently point to the importance of technology as an enabler, this rarely gets discussed or connected to the larger question of the distinction between proprietary and open source technologies in enabling or inhibiting OEPs. I think this is a really important question to be asking ourselves if we are encouraging a move towards OEPs.

OER content authored in the LMS may suffer from a lack of discoverability from other users at the institution, and if this is the case, institutions may want to more carefully think about their strategy regarding technology to support the distribution of OER content.

As a starting point for how open infrastructure can substantially enable OEPs, there are two notable examples with a BC connection.

  1. Open Journal Systems (OJS) is open source software that more than 10k journals use, most of which are open.  As this report outlines, the Public Knowledge Project started here in BC in 1998 and produced OJS, which launched in 2001. Since then we’ve witnessed a substantial shift in the academic publishing paradigm, for which we have John Willinsky and many others to thank. Would this have happened without an open source platform? I think that answer is a hard NO, and the academic publishing retaliation in offering Green access is an indicator of this.
  2. It’s hard to imagine how our sector would have had the same success with open textbooks if we didn’t have BCcampus support for both the initiative, but also for providing a Pressbooks service. What this means in plain terms is that if a BC institution produces and open textbook, it can be built in the BCcampus Pressbooks service and added to the collection. There are now 272 books in the collection, extending beyond the 30 BC higher ed institutions. Imagine if open textbooks had to be hosted by every institution on an institutional Pressbooks install, or worse, distributed by individual faculty through the LMS. Point being, the impact of an initiative like open textbooks is conditional on having access to the systems that are required to support it.

So where does that suggest we should go if we want to extend this success further?

Around the time that the OpenETC was forming, Ben Werdmuller wrote about the challenges of proprietary educational technology and the potential for open source and consortiums to create a new ed tech landscape. While many of the points he touched on were concurrent discussions we were having as a trio of ed tech administrators at our respective institutions, our conversations looked to cooperatives and platform cooperativism as a solution to a sector-wide problem. He writes:

What if institutions pooled their resources into a consortium, similar to the Open Education Consortium (or, perhaps, Apereo), specifically for supporting educators with software tools?

In 2015, Educause – who serve as a guiding beacon for many CIOs at our institutions – dropped a new acronym (NGDLE, or Next Generation Digital Learning Environment) on the ed tech community in what is an attempt to provide new language for a post-LMS reality. For some of us, it felt like old news and presented a largely uninspired future, as Clint Lalonde points out in his blog post where he also underlines an important point about NGDLE and vendor driven solutions:

My caution is if the only options we put in front of faculty to carry out one of the core functions of our institutions are commercially driven options, then we’re not only missing out, but are locking ourselves in to a vision of edtech that is completely vendor driven. We are not putting all the edtech options on the table; options that often have much more involvement and development input from actual educators than many vendor solutions.

This connection between open source software and the NGDLE is taken up in a more recent Educause article and is written in a way that may have potential to reach CIO ears.

By its nature an NGDLE is not something that can simply be purchased. Academic institutions need to own an NGDLE as it develops and shape it to their institutional context. Open-source software, with its rich affordances for innovation and range of support options, can play a significant role in this shaping. Participation in a diverse community, coupled with the natural affordances for customization provided by open-source software, creates rich soil for innovation and problem solving.

So where does that leave us? For a current example of open ed tech in action we can turn to David Lane who provides one of the most helpful and detailed unpacking of what open educational technology actually looks like for the OERu and what it requires in terms of resources. We can also look to the gap that ReclaimHosting began addressing in 2013 in providing a managed hosting and shared hosting service to higher education of over 100 apps, many of which are open source. Or we can look to ESUP-Portail, a French government supported service that was formed in 2002 (!) to provide mainly open source technology to French universities and schools and is now a national community of digital expertise, cooperation and development supported by open source solutions (h/t to @ammienoot). A description in English is provided on the Apereo site.

There’s a lot of room for conversations about open ed tech in higher education that still need to happen. For example, what are the social justice considerations? What kind of open source technology literacy is needed at the leadership level so that decisions can be informed? Where are the institutional case studies who have moved to a more open source ed tech ecosystem? Or as Anne-Marie Scott has surfaced at the end of this post, what do we need to be wary about in considering open source more broadly?

Development of open source technologies from companies like Google or Facebook were paid for with advertising revenue, which was likely generated through the exploitation of data. Can we really say open source web infrastructures are built on principles of fairness, openness, freedom?


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