Very exciting new initiative to organize research around open education

August 1, 2008, [MD]

I came across an initiative that made me very excited last night. Linked from a number of blog posts, the Open University of the UK, long a pioneer in the field of open education in both meanings of the word, and Carnegie Mellon University, which has some extremely innovative open learning modules, are partnering to propose a very ambitious research project to “develop infrastructure, community and activity to help share research findings on the design and use of OERs”. It aims to “be a global network of OER producers and users as participatory researchers who share designs, methodologies and evidence for evaluating the effectiveness of OERs in increasing and equitably distributing knowledge.

I really liked one of their analogies, that of the cancer research portal: Cancer Research portal.* In more established fields such as cancer research (or we might take the Human Genome Project) there is a consensus map of the structure of the field, the major research questions, and the different sub-communities and associated methodologies. It is possible to place oneself on the map, and to coordinate effort in a well understood way. What is the OER research map? What is the OER design process? What does it mean to validate an OER? What are the central challenges that all agree on? The OPLRN seeks to create a structured ‘place’ where questions such as these can be debated, and hopefully, enabling more effective coordination of action around issues and OERs of common interest.”*

I can identify with this because I have felt the same lack in the field of development and libraries. I wrote my BA thesis (I will post about it here very soon, when the translation is done) about community libraries in Indonesia, and throughout I struggled with orienting myself in a field that didn’t really exist. What were the typologies of community libraries? Methodologies for investigating them? Theories about their function in different contexts? Lists of case studies already conducted, commonly shared variables, suggestions for criteria for success? I was trying to do a gap-analysis to see where my research could fit in - but indeed I could not even find the entire field of research.

As I go into what will hopefully be a career of creating, advocating for, and researching ways of open learning and teaching, but also more specifically my MA research project, which will probably center on reuse and adaptation of Western educational resources by Chinese universities, such a resource will be invaluable. It will mean that not only will my own research be considerable strengthened, being able to draw upon all the studies that have already been conducted, use shared frames of understanding, and theories that others have found useful, but when it is finished, it will not just be another MA thesis in the library, but it will (ideally) make a small but significant contribution to a dynamic body of scholarship.

The ideal is to “build an epistemic community — a reflective community of practice dedicated specifically to advancing understanding not only of its field, but of what can/should count as “knowledge” in the field. Educational technology, and OERs specifically, are young, interdisciplinary design fields lacking widely adopted design methods, patterns, or evaluation criteria. The infrastructure must therefore foster appropriate forms ofdiscourse and memory: structures for sharing, indexing, recovering and debating the community’scollective intelligence on the relative merits of different OER design and evaluation approaches. Nor can the infrastructure fossilize as soon as the project’s startup funding ends: it must be asustainable social and conceptual network that can evolve through the contributions of many people.

In addition to the research projects, they also plan to develop several tools to further the actual processes of academic discourse online.

An epistemic community is interested in claims and supporting evidence, but also in counter-claims and differing interpretations of the same evidence. While many projects are engaged in building collective intelligence, few know how to deal well with contested knowledge — other than by enabling comments, threaded fora, blogs and wikis.

[…] The software deliverable from this project will enable learners, educators, researchers, analysts and other decision makers to ask questions such as,What evidence is there that this OER is effective?, but equally important,Does the community agree with the claims made? What counter-examples are there? In addition, as a socio-technical infrastructure, it will be architected to support diverse forms of evidence, with an architecture of participation that sets a low threshold for contribution, and community structures to help those who want, to move from the periphery to become more active, central players.”

I am also proud to see someone from OISE prominently involved; professor Marlene Scardamalia.

Looking forward to following their progress, wish the project the best of luck, and hope to perhaps get involved at some stage.


Stian Håklev August 1, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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