What’s good for “open content” is good for the LMS/virtual learning space?

My tweet stream reminded me this morning that #oer15 is up and running. The following tweet from @courosa was amongst the first I saw.

The tweet draws on the 5Rs framework from David Wiley as a way of defining “open content” as having a license that allows others

to engage in the 5R activities:

  • Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  • Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  • Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  • Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other open content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  • Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)

Why stop at content?

When it comes to learning (and teaching), I wonder about the focus on and definition of “content”. Especially if you take @downes perspective that the “content in learning functions as a McGuffin”. At the very least, the content in the courses I design is somewhat important, but it’s not the only thing.

What the learner does with and takes from that content is more important. What the learner does is enabled and constrained by the tools available to them and the affordances those tools offer. Sitting in a lecture, reading a print book, watching an online video, engaging on a blog, engaging in a discussion forum all offer different constraints and enablers.

Regardless of their relative merits, increasingly the learners in my courses are being required to engage with a range of digital technologies in the form of a the institutional LMS and other tools. These tools – both institutional and personal – make up their virtual learning space. Complaints about the LMS have been many and regularly over the last 10+ years.

Perhaps the most regularly complaint from certain circles is that the LMS is not open. Not open in terms of only people enrolled in the course at the institution are able to access it. Not open in terms of once you leave the institution you probably don’t have access anymore. Not open in terms of not being able to use Google (or in my case any search engine) to find material on the LMS.

But recently there has been another trend in institutions that have been making the LMS even less open. Many institutions are now mandating consistent, minimum standards for all courses hosted in the LMS. At my current institution that has translated into the virtual learning space for a course having to look a specific way and more troubling to use specific locally produced tools (e.g. a particular way for presenting assessment information and a study schedule).

What’s worse is that this mandated consistent set of minimum standards is being seen through the lens of an “established” view of technology. That you can’t and shouldn’t change the technology. In fact, if you do change the technology you are seen as breaking policy and are required to “please explain” (as has happened to me this year).

In some large part this type of thinking to me is an example of this quote from Bret Victor

We’re computer users thinking paper thoughts

The mandating of consistent, minimum standards for all courses in an LMS gives me a strong sense of a deja vu for the bad old days of 2nd generation print-based distance education. The days when all the distance education courses for a University had to use the same style guide, even if it broke all the Prolog code in the Machine Intelligence material. Mandating consistent, minimum standards for all courses in the LMS is “computer users thinking paper thoughts”.

It’s an example of people not understanding what’s really different about computers and digital media. Mike Caufield makes this point

I would argue (along with Alan Kay and so many others) that for digital media the most radical affordance is the remixability of the form (what Kay would call its dynamism). We can represent ideas not as finished publications, but as editable models that can be shared, redefined, and recontextualized. Conversations are transient, publications are fixed.
But digital media can be forever fluid, if we let it.

Universities are missing out on the full benefits of digital media because they are “computer users thinking paper thoughts” that don’t even recognise the “remixability” of digital media and the potential that brings. Instead of leveraging this affordance of the medium and letting it be fluid, institutions are setting it in stone.

Even if you open access to the LMS, will it be open?

Even if an institution opens up access to the LMS. Allows any one into it. I don’t think it can be classed as open, because access is only the first step in being open.

I’m thinking that the LMS – or any other institutional virtual learning space – can’t be truly open until allows me to

  1. Retain – to make and control copies of the data, experiences, and perhaps affordances offered by that learning space.
  2. Reuse – the data, experiences, and perhaps affordances in other ways, in this space, and other spaces.

    e.g. download data about learner activity to my laptop to perform analysis not available in the LMS. e.g. take data from the LMS to generate a “learning report” to automatically “mark” learning activities.

  3. Revise – to adapt, adjust, modify or alter the data, experiences, and perhaps affordances in other ways, in this space, and other spaces.

    e.g. I can use jQuery to point the mandated “Assessment” link to assessment information that is presented more appropriately.

  4. Remix – to recombine the original and revised data, experiences, and perhaps affordances in other ways, in this space, and other spaces.

    e.g. take LMS data and data from the student records system to develop a “learning process analytics” tool used in the course.

  5. Redistribute – the data, experiences, and perhaps affordances in other ways, in this space, and other spaces.

    e.g. the idea of a tool that allows the learning material in my course to be re-purposed as an open book.

Should/can the virtual learning spaces be open in terms of the 5Rs? How might this be done? What problems/benefits might accrue?

Personally, these are important and interesting questions. Not the least because I’m already doing this (see the examples above) via various backdoor methods. And it is helping to make the task of teaching 300+ students somewhat bearable.