Saturday, February 22, 2014

Accreditation and innovation not incompatible

A major landmark in open education was reached last week when University of the People was finally accredited by the Distance and Education Training Council, a U.S. Department of Education authorized accrediting agency. The online university with 1700 students from 142 countries has been in operation since 2009 with the objective of becoming "the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, accredited online academic institution dedicated to opening access to higher education globally for all qualified individuals, despite financial, geographic or societal constraints." Until now students have not been entitled to academic hard currency in the form of full university credits but with accreditation now in order it is likely that UoP will expand considerably and also demonstrate to the world that this educational model is not incompatible with the academic establishment. Indeed the accreditation of UoP must have raised a host of academic eyebrows and an article in Inside Higher EdAn Innovation Stifler? sees the decision as evidence that accreditation organisations may not be the barriers to innovation in education that they have often been accused of being.

"I have to say that with all the complaints, if they accredited us, they've paved the way to alternative models," says Shai Reshef, founder of University of the People. "We're tuition free, operate on a budget of $1 million a year, use only open learning resources and on a volunteer faculty and a peer-to-peer paradigm of learning -- we're as different as you can get."

UoP had to measure up to all the criteria a traditional university needs to fulfill and had to make several changes to their procedures to gain accreditation, for example introducing checks on students' English language ability. Previously the learning process in many study groups was impaired by many students' low level of English.

The interesting point in this for me is that an innovative organisation offering virtually free higher education explicitly to people in developing countries with a low-tech and low-cost model has been accredited and can now offer real credentials. Similarly there is the OER University partnership which has a different model but can also offer credentials to those who are unable for financial or geographical reasons to participate in mainstream higher education. These and several other open education initiatives are providing what the MOOC movement is supposed to offer but has so far largely failed to deliver. The majority of MOOCs do not lead to credentials and are often rather technology heavy, depending on high quality video and access to broadband connections. If this type of education is to have an impact in widening access to higher education it needs to offer layers of accessibility enabling even those without broadband access the chance to fully participate. Materials need to be offered so that they can operate on any platform and alternative materials must be provided that are low bandwidth-friendly. 

The MOOC revolution is providing plenty headlines and is a fascinating topic to follow but it is sad that the spotlight is so seldom turned on other aspects of open education (in all its 50 shades of openness) because there is plenty innovation going on there too. Now it is even accredited.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Closing thoughts on #OCL4Ed

As I write this post I realize that I have finally completed a MOOC after many attempts (Open Content Licensing for Educators). I have written several times about why I and thousands of others find it hard to stay the course so it's better to reflect briefly on why I completed this one. Firstly the subject is directly relevant to my work at present and I realised that although I know quite a lot about copyright and Creative Commons there's always more to learn. Secondly the length of course was not so daunting, a mere two weeks. Surely I could fit that into my life. Thirdly, I promised myself that this would be the one I'd complete. In other words the ideal combination of internal and external motivation plus the availability of time.

What have I learnt then? 
Online education is virtually impossible if you fully respect copyright laws and the complexities of working in an all-rights-reserved environment are too complex for teachers and students to understand. If full copyright applies a resource is simply locked and without explicit permission you should just link to the resource. The course has confirmed all my suspicions and confusion about copyright and made me even more convinced that as educators we need to show the world what they can and cannot do with our work by marking them clearly as CC.

I also thought that Creative Commons was a user-friendly enhancement and clarification of copyright but I have learnt that it too has its controversies and ambiguities. The main problem area has been the non-commercial condition. I first became convinced that it was a barrier to openness and that the share alike condition would suffice, since it is hard to make money with a resource that you have to share freely. Iam on the verge of changing the CC license on this blog to simply BY-SA. However my course colleague John Edmonstone made a good case for keeping NC by listing a number of valid objections, one of which was:

Any essentially commercial activity is outwith the bounds of the OER community - someone creating materials for profit is not going to share these openly. Therefore the principle of sharing all combinations of OER materials could not be adhered to.

Are we being a little blue-eyed in believing that only responsible educators will be interested in our content and not unscrupulous types out to make a fast buck or two? I fully support the idea that someone, say, in a developing country can earn a little money by repackaging my material (eg making print copies that can be distributed) but the idea that some opportunist could exploit the sharing culture of OER to make a fast profit does not appeal.

I take up these problem areas mostly because I discuss them almost daily at my university with colleagues who have genuine concerns about openness that I can't always answer. I got a question today, for example, asking which CC license would be best for an open access scientific journal. If it doesn't include NC someone could take an author's work and include it in a book without that person getting any royalties.Would a share alike condition be able to prevent this? My colleague argued that maybe a scientific article is such a coherent work that it should not be remixed therefore a stricter BY-NC-ND license would be appropriate. The article may be copied and made freely available but not commercially and only in its original form. Wouldn't remixing a scientific article amount to plagiarism?

The non commercial license has either to be redefined and fully clarified as to exactly what the term means or it should be withdrawn and possible replaced with a less ambiguous restriction. Another post on the course forum refers to a 2012 article by Richard StallmanOn-line education is using a flawed Creative Commons license, in which he argues why CC licenses using NC are flawed. The problem is that almost open licenses such as BY-NC and BY-NC-SA allow derivatives but not in a commercial context. This can lead to many adaptations over the year and then maybe someone wants to use one of these works commercially. Even with NC you are perfectly entitled to approach the author and ask permission; the rules of regular copyright apply here too. But if the work has been remixed several times, who do you ask?

What happens if you would like to use one of those works commercially? How could you get permission? You'd have to ask all the substantial copyright holders. Some of them might have contributed years before and be impossible to find. Some might have contributed decades before, and might well be dead, but their copyrights won't have died with them. You'd have to find and ask their heirs, supposing it is possible to identify those. In general, it will be impossible to clear copyright on the works that these licenses invite people to make. This is a form of the well-known "orphan works" problem, except exponentially worse; when combining works that had many contributors, the resulting work can be orphaned many times over before it is born.

Maybe what is needed is a selection of pedagogical examples for each CC condition that demonstrate when each condition is useful and when it is less so. A number of case studies that demonstrate in practical terms some of the trickier complexities. Could the Creative Commons website develop an interactive game giving educators the opportunity to test their interpretation of CC with recognizable case studies and interactive multiple choice questions. The gaming element could be built in by letting you move to more advanced levels and then some kind of Khan Academy style badges when you succeed. The more CC can be linked to the practical everyday problems faced by teachers the more likely they are to see the benefits.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Something old, something new, something borrowed ...

20-October-2009 - Something old, somethi by I Am Rob, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by I Am Rob on Flickr

This post is another assignment on the course Open Content Licensing for Educators that I'm doing just now. The old custom of what a bride should have on her when getting married, "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue," is rather applicable here as I try to include examples of various license forms in one article to meet the requirements of this week's course assignment. Here's the task:

Prepare a blog post of approximately 700 - 900 words in two parts:
  • Write about a topical concept or interesting idea of your choice (400 - 500 words). You don't need to restrict the topic to education, it could be a hobby or personal interest. This component of the blog must include:
  • Text you can legally copy and modify about 300 words.
  • Sources from a minimum of three different Creative Commons license types or open usage declarations (this is intended to explore your knowledge and the challenges associated with license compatibility when choosing the license for redistribution).
  • Over and above the Creative Commons sourced material, this section of the post must also include an extract of all rights reserved content legitimately used under the exception provisions of your national copyright act.
  • You must include at least one image in your post which can count as one of the required license types for this post.
  • Based on your preferred license preference and the legal requirements of the materials you have copied for reuse and adaptation in your blog, you must apply a Creative Commons license for your derivative work which meets the legal requirements for remix compatibility.
  • Your blog post must include proper attributions for the materials you have reused.
    (Text CC BY Some rights reserved on WikiEducator)
Admittedly this is a rather contrived post as I try and tick the boxes indicated above but it's still a challenging exercise and I have a few questions that I would like to get some feedback on from the course facilitators and other participants. When I started this blog I put a Creative Commons attribution, non-commercial, share alike license on it meaning that you are free to copy, reuse and remix the material under the conditions that you do not use it commercially and must share whatever you create under the same license as this. However, over the years I have used a lot of CC photos to illustrate my posts and they have the full range of CC license forms. To avoid conflicts I wrote a restriction on my BY-NC-SA license that it only applies to my texts and that photos may have other licenses (now and again I include a copyright photo that I have asked permission to use). Is this acceptable or do I have to severely restrict the types of CC photos I can include so as not to conflict with the blog's overall license? As I understand it my overall license BY-NC-SA means that I cannot include any CC material that has the condition no derivatives since that conflicts with the blog's overall license. Material that has BY-SA is also not possible since I cannot then share alike if I add the non-commercial condition.
Public Domain CC0

The idea of aggregation where new content is created by mixing other openly licensed content and then gathering the final content package under a license that does not conflict with the licenses of the content used, is not the simplest concept for the busy teacher to grasp and practice. Some colleagues solve the whole problem by simply not including anything they haven't produced themselves and only linking to other sources. This is certainly the safest course if you find the world of copyright simply too complex to spend time on. many years ago when we all discovered PowerPoint our presentations were suddenly full of wonderful photos, diagrams and video clips not to mention those extremely irritating animations and sound effects.

If I was writing this blog as part of my university work and using a blog platform owned by the university I would have more scope for including copyright material in the post, as required in the assignment above. On a university platform I would be able to use copyrighted material under a general agreement in Sweden allowing university staff to use copyright educational material for educational purposes. This is administered by a national organisation called Bonus Copyright Access:

Bonus Copyright Access is a Reproduction Rights Organisation (RRO) that licences reproduction rights to schools, enterprises, public authorities and other organisations. Bonus Copyright Access is a collective rights management organisation which acts as intermediary/facilitator between rightholders and users in the fields of reprographic reproduction and certain digital uses.
However since this blog is private I do not have such rights and unless I get specific permission I can only link to copyrighted resources of quote short text extracts (as I have just done with the quote above!).

To close with here's a wonderful photo that contains several layers of copyright issues all rolled into one image. The actual photo is on Flickr under a BY-NC license (fitting nicely under my blog's aggregated license) but since it's a photo of a company's trademark it could be a case of copyright infringement. However the company here is obviously breaching the copyright of the official copyright logo and the question arises over whether the photographer is wrong to photograph a breach of copyright?

Copyright? by Stephen Downes, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License by Stephen Downes on Flickr

Confused? You will be ...
I cannot claim that I am any less confused about digital rights after this course than I was before but I am aware of the complexities in a more structured way. Copyright in a digital environment is today so complex and full of anomalies that no teacher or student can be expected to understand it. They either choose to ignore the problem and go on copying whatever they like in blissful ignorance or do everything themselves. A middle way is essential and Creative Commons would seem to be at least part of the answer. The key is to get CC adopted as mainstream practice.

Freemium education

layers by ** RCB **, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  ** RCB ** 

The concept of freemium is well established on the net. Most tools and services have a free version with limitations (limited functionality, advertising etc) and then a premium version with all the bells and whistles and minus the ads at a price. The free version is the bait to encourage you to go premium once you get hooked on the service. I use lots of these services but only in a few cases have I taken the premium option; you can't afford them all.

So how about freemium education? As universities scramble to find business models for their MOOC investments this would seem to be an obvious avenue to explore. So it was no surprise to read this week about Harvard's layered approach to one of their MOOCs on edX, Introduction to computer science. The course is offered on three layers:
  • You can take the course for free as with all MOOCs and if you complete all the assignments you get a certificate. This option is basically self-service independent study though you have student forums and suchlike for peer interaction.
  • You can pay $350 to get access to tuition and feedback from teaching assistants and be able to gain a Harvard continuing studies certificate (Harvard CS50). In addition, if you pass you also get a $350 voucher to pay towards another Harvard continuing studies course.
  • You can study for real Harvard credits with full access to teaching staff and qualified feedback. This option will cost $2050.
I have written several times about how education is becoming layered with the bottom layers of self-study and peer support remaining free but with higher layers offering tuition, feedback, validation and examination being offered as optional add-ons at a price. This is a fine example of this and it will be interesting to see how students react to this model. One option in the future would be to opt for an upgrade after starting the course. Having started as a free student you could after a week or so elect to move up a level to get access to some more qualified tuition and feedback. Read more about this in an article in eCampus News, Harvard’s online course: a MOOC, sort of,

Harvard have also featured in the MOOC news stream with another twist to the theme. The new venture HarvardX for alumni offers special versions of regular Harvard MOOCs for alumni only, with extra material and input from teachers not available for freemoocers. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard U. Will Offer Exclusive MOOCs to Alumni, this could be a smart move strengthening ties to alumni and providing them with an exclusive service. Loyal alumni might also be more likely to stay the course:

MOOC providers have struggled to reproduce traditional courses’ emotional connections and networking opportunities in online classes whose student populations are massive, mercurial, and far more diverse than the average college classroom. Strengthening existing ties among graduates, and their gratitude to alma mater, might prove easier.

These exclusive MOOCs could also be made available to donors and other friends of the university. Yet more signs that MOOCs are going mainstream.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Grey zones of openness

This is a third post inspired by my participation in the open course Open Content Licensing for Educators and this time I admit I'm wandering a little off course by not really following the requirements of activity 3.1. However this post is relevant to what I have been reading lately and may be of interest to other course participants so I'll submit it anyway.

The latest unit of the course has taken me on a bumpy ride through the bewildering world of copyright and it has shaken a few of my comfortable preconceptions. Try if you like the case study which asks you to judge several aspects of a fictitious course on Shakespeare from a copyright point of view. The examples are typical of the types of resources that a teacher often includes in a course (regardless of whether it's online or face-to-face) and deciding whether or not the teacher is allowed to include various images, texts and videos in the online course material was sometimes extremely tricky, even after having read the course material on the subject. The simple message is that you have to be very careful when using any material that is copyright. Even if it may appear be free to use in, say, the USA, it may not be so in your country since it is those copyright laws that apply for you, not those in the USA. So I have noted to myself to either get written permission first or simply link to the work. However before you can get permission to use a work you need to contact the right person. If I am writing a blog post about a particular person and there is a good photo of them on their university web site who do I contact? The person in the photo? The university? The photographer? All three? I would ask the university's web master first - what about you?

Here are a few extremely tricky examples related to copyright and Creative Commons that I have encountered and I'm interested in hearing what you think.
  • A few years ago I used a great photo of a office cubicles to show how many teachers/schools universities work in isolation, all reinventing the wheel without ever looking over the wall to see what others are doing. It was a perfect photo that I found on Flickr with a Creative Commons (attribution, non-commercial, share alike) license (I will not provide the link since I fear it is unfair use). So I added the necessary license details to my slide and used it in several presentations. After one such session a student said that he recognized the photo as taken from one of Jacques Tati's classic films, Playtime, which is still under copyright. The photo is however in the English Wikipedia where it clearly states that it is copyright but that Wikipedia has gained the right to show it in that particular context. So the version in Flickr would seem to be falsely attributed since there was no reference to the conditions stated in the Wikipedia version or of the film company. As a result I found another CC photo on a similar theme. However the question remains - how can you be sure that a CC photo is genuine? Are you responsible for unwittingly using a copyright photo that someone has falsely claimed to be their own and put a CC license on it?
  • I often embed films on my blogs but I really feel I'm in a very grey zone. Most films have very prominent embed buttons and sometimes actively encourage you to embed the film elsewhere. However there is almost never a CC license, generally the usual copyright terms that seem to forbid what the embed button invites. I have many times asked permission and received a surprised reply "of course you can!" It is possible to license YouTube films with CC and it's also easy to deactivate the embed option to prevent copying but no-one ever does. We need to see resources clearly marked with licensing terms, it's not enough to have general terms hidden under a tiny heading at the bottom of the website.
  • There are lots of resources on the web that the authors believe are open but are actually closed because they are simply not aware that copyright is default. A few months ago I discovered a wonderful site full of great teaching resources. At the foot of the page was the usual copyright notice from the university so I contacted those responsible writing that it was sad that the material was not open for reuse. The answer was that it was intended to be reused on the grounds that if it's on the net it's free to use. This shows a mismatch between how many teachers perceive openness and the realities of copyright. It also indicates that there are probably vast amounts of great resources that are locked but were intended to be free.
One thing that has become very clear for me in the last week or so of this course is the need for everyone to clearly state the license form of each work we put on the net. If we want it to be under the full force of copyright please make it clear, otherwise show a CC license. There is so much good material in a grey shadow land out there where it is not clear how it may be used and that is a shame. Teachers should be able to quickly see whether or not they can use a resource without needing to study copyright law for months.

I got excellent and prompt feedback on these questions from Wayne Mackintosh of OER university on his blog post, Responding to OCL4Ed 14.02 queries.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

How wide is open?

As I continue through the course Open Content Licensing for Educators it's time for further reflections that are also of general interest to readers of this blog.

One general point that has struck me on this course is that so far it is not exactly objective towards its subject. The course investigates the principles of openness in education, the advantages of open licensing forms such as Creative Commons and the benefits of open textbook publishing. Given that it is organised by the OER university partnership the assumption is that openness is inherently good and as far as I can see all participants are in remarkable agreement. Now I am also one of the converted here but somehow I rather miss a devil's advocate on this course to ruffle our feathers a bit. There's plenty material explaining the absurdities of current copyright restrictions and we have stirring speeches from inspirational figures such as Lawrence Lessig, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Stephen Downes and David Wiley to present the case for openness. However I would like to see some rational but opposing views in here to make us think a bit more. The sort of views our skeptical colleagues often voice. Maybe some voices from the publishers; I know many who are sympathetic to the open movement but have sound and interesting reservations. Let's hear from them too. Otherwise the course risks becoming a case of preaching to the converted.

One such objection that a colleague of mine voiced last week is worth raising. Many teachers are worried that if they allow reuse and adaptation of their resources, parts of their lectures could be taken out of context and made to support arguments that they do not agree with. We all know how tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines can take an innocent remark out of context and blow it into a hot scandal. What do you do when your Creative Commons licensed lecture is heavily edited and used to appear to support an extremist cause? Of course you can try to reason with the person responsible but the damage is already done and the film could have already gone viral. This is a genuine fear for many and we need to address it.

Another problem is whether you can afford to be open. In affluent western societies teachers have reasonable monthly salaries and can afford to be open but it's not always so easy. I read a few years ago about an OER initiative in a developing country (sadly I cannot remember where or provide a reference) where teachers at state universities were being encouraged to publish their resources openly. Although this seems an admirable move from our perspective (ie developed affluent society) it backfired on simple financial grounds. Teachers were extremely poorly paid and one way to make ends meet was to write the textbook for your course and earn a little extra by selling it as required course literature. Without this extra income teachers claimed they would find it very hard to survive. Here the barrier to OER adoption is connected to teacher salaries and the state of the nation's economy.

I have however learnt from this course how complicated openness really is and that there are many subtle shades to consider. It's easy to exclaim that everything should be open and free but to really make openness work we need to deal with all those "what ifs" and accept that freedom can and will be abused and how we should deal with such abuses. Maybe the next part of the course will reveal more. Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Flitting from MOOC to MOOC

Butterfly by fox_kiyo, on Flickr
CC BY-SA some rights reserved by fox_kiyo

I've just started another MOOC this week called Open content licensing for educators and offered by the OER university partnership on their WikiEducator platform. This one is genuinely open with all resources shareable and involves some major figures in the open education movement. The aim is to help educators learn more about open education, open licensing and how copyright functions in a digital environment. Although there is a schedule I think it's rather flexible so you can probably start when you like. I'm a little worried about starting a new MOOC because so far I've never completed one. I enjoy dipping in and picking up a little nectar here and there, like the butterfly in the photo above, but I don't seem to settle for long. This one is supposed to take only two weeks to complete, is nicely divided into short digestible units of 1-2 hours and therefore suits the short attention span of the average MOOCer.

My impressions so far. Firstly it's always amazing how efficient some people are. It's only day 2 of the course and I see some participants already posting their final assignments; rather daunting to the new recruit I imagine. It's mostly self study however despite the clear ambitions of the course leaders to offer arenas for discussion such as groups in Google+, Twitter and using the hashtag to aggregate relevant content from our blogs and other channels. This leads to a dilemma when approaching a MOOC. You can focus on ticking the boxes and completing the course but you may not have time to notice the fascinating little byways that appear now and again that invite further investigation. If you choose to go off the beaten track you may learn a lot but you may never return to the course path. I tend to wander off and I'm sure many others do too. That's why I don't think "drop-out" rates are so relevant in open learning. Open means you can come and go as you want.

Since I've been working with OER and Creative Commons for several years now the subject matter is pretty familiar. What's more interesting is reading the comments and interactions and trying to contribute without simply echoing others. One question was whether teaching is a profession or a vocation and this has forced us to formulate an answer to a question we probably haven't really thought much about. After some thought I decided that "Vocation is a feeling/passion, profession is a role/skillset" and that set off a bit of discussion that was unexpected and welcome. I realised that just as we talk about formal and informal learning we can also have formal and informal teaching. Many of the greatest teachers were not trained, they simply taught driven by a passion for it. Many formal teachers are highly trained and qualified but lack the passion to genuinely connect with their students. Having both the passion and the professional expertise is of course the perfect combination but passion trumps qualification every time in my opinion.

Lets' see how where the path leads next.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Fear of the new

Why does education and especially the higher levels have such a suspicious attitude towards technology? You would expect universities to be at the forefront of pedagogical innovation but ironically it would seem to be reluctant to try new methods, despite all the MOOC hysteria of recent months. If you want to see innovative use of educational technology you probably need to look at elementary and nursery schools where tablets are especially used to encourage and facilitate reading, writing and counting skills through games and stimulating apps.

This issue is raised by Lord David Puttnam, chancellor of the Open University, who claims in an article in the Daily TelegraphFear of technology may hold back change in education, says Lord Puttnam, that higher education is the most conservative educational sector when it comes to adopting technology. He fears that change is being held back by fear.

He called for more encouragement and support for teachers, to help them integrate technology into a classroom setting.“What has surprised me is that the most positive and most adventurous professionals are primary school teachers,” he said. “There is a wonderful sense of hope in primary schools and a wonderful sense of how to make the learning experience better.”
He went on to say that the most reluctant to adopt new digital methods of teaching in many – but not all – cases, were those working in higher education.

He claims that many teachers and decision makers feel uneasy about the challenges of embracing technology and fear that jobs will be lost as content is recorded and distributed globally. Deciding to integrate the potential of social media and net-based tools into the curriculum is a bit like opening Pandora's box; once you lift the lid you suddenly have to deal with a whole flock of demons. These demons are not evil in this case but they challenge a lot of traditions and mindsets in higher education. You will need to reassess the role of the teacher/student/university, you will need to revise your policies and strategies, assessment and examination methods, IP rights and quality assurance criteria.It's not surprising that many prefer to keep the lid on.

So why is innovation more prevalent with the youngest learners? Maybe because it's the area least weighed down by tradition, where rankings and status are of little importance, where learners are internally rather than externally motivated and where concepts such as "play" and "games" are encouraged rather than treated with suspicion. It's also because the stakes are so much higher at university so there is a natural fear that any less than perfect innovation may damage the university's reputation. Reputation is paramount in the extremely competitive world of higher education so even slight changes of course risk drawing black marks from government inspectors. Radical changes in how courses are run must be extremely well planned and must be fully explained to prospective students to avoid negative evaluations from those who don't understand or support the new regime.

Lord Puttnam is right in much of his criticism but universities are caught in a crossfire today between demands for radical change and demands to battle for the best placings in world rankings that reward those who remain true to tradition. Whichever way you go you get fired on. Time for new university rankings that reward innovation, use of technology and above all pedagogical excellence.