Open Courseware Consortium Growing Up

by P

At the Open Courseware Consortium (OCWC) meeting in Dalian (China) the OCWC elected its first Board of Directors, concluded the ratification process for the by-laws by the membership, and announced its registration as a non-profit organisation in the State of Massachusetts. It’s no coincidence, that Massachusetts was chosen, since the MIT has been generous host, supporter, and shepherd of the OCWC in its first few years of networking building, awareness raising, and finding its feet. Incorporating the organisation in MIT’s backyard, shows that MIT is not expecting the OCWC to immediately start walking (although the analogy stops making sense here – the OCWC is already running and mostly in the right direction) and will continue to provide support, which is important.

After the Dalian meeting I came away with the impression that there was a lot of enthusiasm, and lots of great projects, and that the overall mood within the OCWC was very positive, but also that things were changing very rapidly, with lots of challenges and opportunities and a new organisation identifyings its place in the open education landscape. The Shuttleworth Foundation sponsored my trip to Dalian, and in return asked for my thoughts on the evolution of the OCWC – and Mark suggested rather than burying them in some internal report, I post them on the blog.

Thematic Communities – One recent development is the thematic clustering of people working in similar disciplines who want to start looking at collaborative course development. This is an improvement compared to the first generation of publication focused projects, and part of the growing awareness that content is important, but not enough. It is hard to incubate successful open content communities, but incentives to contribute are much stronger if authors have an immediate interest in and need for the materials they are creating. This is also a great boost for developing country institutions, who might have expertise in certain fields and can now join others working on similar issues in other parts of the world to jointly develop educational materials.

OCWC Projects – Looking at the many small clusters of people that were discussing project ideas, it is clear that from within the OCWC membership a number of exciting open education and open courseware projects will be developed. One example is a working group on Health, which is thinking about a community of institutes from around the world, to increase collaborative content development, and improving the way content is diffused by partnering with others who might be interested in incorporating it in their curricula. I can’t imagine that any OCWC members are concerned about these communities of people working in the same fields (except of course, if someone feels left out), but there are other project ideas where the membership might be more divided and some institutions might oppose the work that a particular project intends to do. The Consortium has great potential to identify those that would benefit from collaboration, and support the development of projects and communities, but it will need to find ways to deal with the potential tension that comes from being a consortium of many institutions, and running projects that involve funding for small groups of these institutions.

Technology – In the past, the Consortium has not had to worry too much about technology. Utah State University with a grant from the Hewlett Foundation had been developing and supporting eduCommons, the de facto open courseware publishing application. And a small consulting firm (enpraxis) has been set-up to provide additional customisations or support for eduCommons users. We use it at UWC and have been very happy with its publishing features. It’s robust, and while it is a little complicated to install on some operating systems, once it’s up and running it makes it easy to create a professional looking site. However, Hewlett is not going to fund eduCommons forever and this will affect both the institutions using it, as well as the consortium. In order to attract more members especially from lower income countries, an easy-to-deploy technology solution needs to be available. While diversity in solutions drives innovation, and within the consortium, many of the larger projects have developed custom solutions or expanded existing open source software applications, many of the smaller projects would struggle to set-up their own system.

Open Courseware within the Open Education World – The Open Courseware Consortium is sometimes criticised for being focused too strongly on publishing content rather than innovating teaching and learning practices, technology standards, and any of the other things that fall within the broad definition of Open Educational Resources. My impression after Dalian is that while courseware publication was the starting point, and remains the unifying focus for the consortium, many of its members have moved far beyond just making content available. Some sites are offering support for self-learners, other projects are forming thematic communities (see above), yet others are considering how open content creates new opportunities for informal (or non-institutional) learning communities. The ideas coming from this group of institutions are at least as innovative and radical as those in other open education communities, but there still is that perception that OCWC means content only. And maybe that is not a bad thing, because the OCWC is foremost a network of universities, and many universities are still sceptical and conservative regarding open education. Publishing materials is a good first step, and often leads to second and third steps, so I am not too worried about this issue. The one thing that I have suggested and hope we can discuss a little more at the upcoming OCWC meeting in Utah, is the Cape Town Open Education Declaration. A number of OCWC members were involved in drafting it, and it provides a foundation for a much broader community – within which the OCWC and its members play very important roles.

That’s it for now, the next Board meeting takes place this week and there will be more news and updates afterwards.