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This had been a sticking point in much of the Connectivism debate, so I was really interested in how Rory McGreal and team are addressing the challenge of assessment and accreditation in an open world in a formal way (recordings here of Rory’s presentation). The project (called OER University) objectives were to survey the existing methods of assessment and accreditation across the world, assess scalable approaches and document the lessons learnt in order to provision a framework for learners who are taking the OER. As the OERU website states, “(t)he OER university concept aims to create a parallel learning universe based solely on OER to augment and add value to the formal education sector”.

The Complexity

So here is why the problem is complex. By definition, if the learning process is open and the technologies and content on the basis of which the learning experiences are based are also open, this poses several challenges to assessing the process. It is not a controlled institutional environment and in many cases it is only a partial learning environment, suited to content (as of now) that doesn’t have supporting physical dependencies like LABs or for traditional classroom type group collaborative activities – i.e. more suited for digital self-sufficient learning processes. The other problem is formalizing a process that is inherently complex and chaotic. Furthermore, it requires resources, a challenge that the open movement has succeeded in surmounting in the creation process, but critically, not in the support process. There is also the problem of the digital, an affordance that the bulk of the global learning population has limited (if at all) access to.

The OER-U Model

The OER-U project focuses on a subset of these challenges. Open Collaboration (for learning) is constituted by four things: open curriculum, open design and development, open pedagogy and open student support. Educational Institutions are then playing the role of a service provider – open assessment services, open credential services and open community support. This is backed by the OER support infrastructure that comprises open business models, open ICT infrastructure and open student administration (a new term for me). The use cases range from OER based free self-directed learning to consuming fee-based services. Cost is a major concern and therefore two important things need to be pursued vigorously – use of technology to make the assessment process more efficient (automatic marking?) and pushing down the cost of any type of assessment (teachers in India get 2$ or lower per exam script, which in itself provides a great business case). Obviously quality assurance, a weapon of the establishment, finds its way into the project as a critical component while accrediting institutions.

The model paradox

The acceptability of the model is being promoted in comparison to the existing models. For example, for open assessment services to be credible, they “must be strictly equivalent to that for mainstream students” and therefore must involve a fee. My argument is that the world over, traditional assessment mechanisms (as also learning) have been criticised for their inability to assess students accurately and for their inability to provide a job-ready candidate. Even different components of the same system don’t really trust each other’s credentials (witness entrance testing and qualification tests like GRE and TOEFL which also serve an important need of matching limited institutional resources to most deserving students). In this, and many other senses, the OER-U model promotes a hybrid inside-the-box model, not an out-of-the-box open model.

Fearing the establishment

Part of the reason for this approach is fear. This is a new realization for me. It is the fear, as Rory remarked, that if this model takes off, the establishment (traditional universities) will mount a heavy offense (backlash) with quality as their main argument. As I think about it more, this fear has many other dimensions as well that OER proponents must contend with – acceptability by employers, acceptability by students, lack of government support and so on. And our thinking is often shaped by these fears.

These fears are real. But I would also like to point out the opportunity to do something new. World over, demand is exponentially outstripping available educational infrastructure and resources. We have the opportunity to seriously consider the emergence of other systems which are scalable, cost effective and open. We have the opportunity to master our fears. These other systems need not to be thought of in conflicting terms (either these or the traditional system), but as options to help a fast growing, often disadvantaged population to navigate around the systemic problems that plague the traditional systems.

For example, the open software / open source movement succeeded because it empowered software users. The term OER University conflicts, if there is a parallel intended, with that vision. It is like saying Microsoft should have open source initiatives (which it has), rather than saying that Microsoft should be open source. We have to think of models that empower our learners, our teachers and our employers rather than help traditional universities extend their reach as consumers and ultimate approvers of a new system. Of course, it doesn’t help that I am an incurable optimist, even as I write this!

Services in the model

So, apart from Open Assessment services, there are also Open Credentials Services. Again, by making participating institutions, and there could be other entities or individuals who should be included in scope, have to comply with having credible local accreditation, the model perpetuates the hybrid in-the-box approach. It lays the claim, further, to be a nodal organization for assessments, with any student being able to join, with any student being able to use open content and open support (from perhaps participating institutions and academic volunteers worldwide). The skew is then on assessment rather than learning and by definition, then, it differs from a traditional university in these terms because it removes formal teaching from the mix.  And assessments in this way involves many other challenges – proctoring and security, for example.

So OER-U is like a melting pot which brings students (learners), teachers, academic volunteers, institutions all together, but takes ownership over assessments. It is not a new model in that sense either. There are assessment and accreditation bodies across the world.

Stephen pointed out an inherent conflict because resources for learning are intimately connected with assessment design and development. This would lead to other formalizations such as a process for certifying additional resources (not necessarily) open and even creating a cadre of certified open support resources. Rory’s response, in the context of the university, was that it was a way surely of generate an alternate revenue stream, but was open to a more distributed approach, with this being one way that students could choose from. Also, he talked about quality in the context of teaching to the test and also talked of evaluating competency based models for assessments.

So what are possible directions for change?

In my mind, and since this is Change11, the change could come from various sides. The most important factors influencing change will neither be OER or technology, nor will change come from private players. Rather they will come from either the government or from an entire distributed movement that is able to capture mindshare and shape future systems.

Why I say government is because any new initiative whose outcomes are not clearly visible (except in the vision) and which entails a single window (democratic) decision-making in the face of risk and uncertainty, quite clearly has to be backed the government (our combined resources). The government is critical because it is responsible for creating the traditional system and the onus of change rests with it. By definition of democratic systems, the onus of convincing government lies within us. Of course there are challenges to make governments think and feel this vision, but it is not an impossible task.

Why I say movement, is equally obvious. The more we can take control of our own futures, the more the chances of change  actually happening will improve. Obviously too, there are challenges with this approach, and inherent contradictions, but isn’t that we are all already trying to achieve through our individual and collective efforts? Perhaps it needs to be more organized and focused.

An important feature of this change will be innovation in assessments in the OER context. Dave pointed to the need for students to be able to pass the test which is especially important professionally, so it would be important to design tests differently for different needs (for example, early learning assessment vs. late learning assessment). Some suggestions in the chat room also pointed to an absence in thinking of assessment types that we have been talking about in the past – like those covered in LAK11 (Learning Analytics), peer assessments, competency models, data trails and critical literacies. Obviously, when we are talking of open design of curriculum and content and learning environments, we must also focus on open design of and new forms of assessment.

The position paper by Allison Littlejohn and her presentation leaves me a bit challenged, particularly in terms of the vocabulary. If you recall, there was a large amount of discussion in CCK around groups vs. networks (and Terry Anderson’s session here), collective vs. connectives, the entire crowdsourcing hype (p16 on Paul Anderson’s What is Web 2.0), the Critical Literacies MOOC and some of my own work centered around trying to find a way to capture evolution of collaboration in networked settings and different learning formations.

Although the presentation is titled Connected Knowledge, Collective Learning, Allison talks more about collective knowledge (which she defines as the knowledge distributed across people, machines, networks and artefacts) and Collective learning (the term used to describe learning processes that make use of this collective knowledge).

Collective Knowledge is then, the output of charting - connecting, consuming, creating and contributing by people. In her opinion, the individual and the network are indivisible and collective learning itself is emergent. Also, the individual views the networks, groups and collectives through the lens of her own goals.

Allison defines groups as composed of the individual, team, manager and colleague with similar skills. Network is broadly defined to include this group and external contacts, peers with similar goals and anyone.

The quest is to understand the inter-relationships inherent in groups and networks, understand the forces that bind individuals in their learning, understand the learning process, how collective learning can help improve outcomes at the workplace and the literacies required to achieve collective learning and how to understand how different resource types might  support collective learning and knowledge building.

Collective knowledge is defined as formal learning, libraries, dynamic knowledge (wikis), collaborative spaces, knowledge networks, smart information, your knowledge, shared and recommended resources. The Collective is defined as a combination of groups, networks and collective knowledge. The individual is as the center and connects with groups and networks, creates/consumes/contributes to collective knowledge. Goals may change/evolve over time and so may paths, Allison feels, and this where she says charting really helps.

Inundated by familiar arguments regarding open content, debates on re-use, freemium business models for open content publishers, moral and economic arguments for open textbooks and so on, by David Wiley at #Change11, I can’t help but ask – Is Content King?

Content is king for publishers, authors and institutions in the educational context. This is because, as equated to a textbook or interactive digital learning object, it represents structured interpretations of the domain, vetted through a process of academic scrutiny, and backed by the repute of the author. Often, it degrades into corrupt practices at the institutional level itself, but broadly users and subscribers to the content ascribe value to these outputs, both economic and academic. With open content, there is also a moral (access, freedom) argument. Like other things - LABs, classrooms, teachers, software systems and libraries – an institution treats such content as an essential foundation of learning.

Over time, with the digital variants emerging on new devices, the representation of content in educational contexts has also evolved, but the essential structure remains the same. It is perhaps apt to question the importance we give to the medium at this point. The textbook, as a constrained medium - as an imposition of structure on a non-linear learning process, as an output of decisions regarding the finiteness,  as a representation of the periodicity of the “semester” or the “term”, tied inextricably to the concept of the educational system, predicative of the level of learning & intellectual advancement – in effect, removes the conversation from learning and constrains the learning process in many other ways. It is also fairly impervious to context – both learner and environment. It is an attempt at standardization with personalization left to the wiles of the unsuspecting and often ill-equipped teacher. Wiley himself acknowledges the reusability paradox – the more context laden (read “richer”) a piece of learning content, the less it can be reused.

Taking a medium like this and making it open is as anachronistic as the first generation of eLearning – converting the textbook into interactive digital variants. So long as we consider the textbook as the foundation, we are condemned to operate within its constraints.

Stephen proclaimed the “end of paper” as a threat to the open content model. However, both the claims – of open content models and of the end of paper – are severely located in the context of these developments. It is easy to get carried away and ignore the main problems – that most of the growth in population of learners in the world is not going to happen in these contexts, which are already tanking on GER (Gross Enrolment Ratios). “Online” is still the preserve of the developed nation. The low cost tablet does provide a feasible alternative to the delivery challenge in other nations. The problem is that these other nations are swept away in the hype and perpetuate open content promises to an unresponsive or simply “unable” audience.

Wiley himself provides a possible solution, that of OSOSS (online self-organizing social systems). The “noise” in such systems often puts real world academics off, as also the debate between “academic and everyday knowledge”. But such systems are, by definition, complex systems. The only discordant note to me is the use of the word “online”, as the most relevant prefix. We have to investigate models where online is the most efficient possibility, but other models of conversation exist and are promoted. It is like going back to CCK08, when I asked the stupid question – what would happen to connectivism if the technology did not exist?  Can we think of a paradigm where the poor get richer than a model where the rich get richer?

Content is not just textbooks or eLearning courseware. But somehow, there is a lack of imagination (or perhaps we are still not that state of art), in conceiving options beyond these delivery-oriented keywords. Sure, there have been a lot of initiatives (like the MOOCs) that attempt to break this paradigm, and I hope they succeed in bringing the complexity perspective into education.

To really leverage open content, we must break away from the constraints of the textbook or the eLearning course. We must encourage diversity. For example, my idea of open content would be to take a concept and open it up to the entire world to write their interpretation of it. By implication, the context richness would provide many opportunities for non-linear real life learning. So instead of looking at content vertically (hierarchies of domain trees and curricula), publishers would look at it in a networked manner with clusters of self-similar nodes. In that situation, learners and teachers would both find it instantly easier to locate in-context learning content. In one stroke, then, the reusability paradox would also be resolved, simply through scale.

No real-world system today looks at content that way. The same way for search. If I want to learn about the reusability paradox and I respect David Wiley and Stephen Downes for their seminal ideas around it (top two articles on Google?), I should be able to access the network of content in and around their contributions, plus curations. So I am not searching a digital repository for keywords that an IMS standard predicates, but I am able to put a filter through nodes that are not content items to get to the content I need. And what if there was really an offline way of doing this, so that more and more people could learn that way?

In summary, please let us think out of the box and in a global context.

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