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Open Assembly is cloud-based platform for collaborative knowledge creation with open educational resources (OER)

Future direction of the OER Research Hub

Congrats to the whole team! Have greatly benefited from some of your research findings to date. They’ve helped me make the case for OER in numerous contexts.

Dropping the R opens up the horizon that OER illuminates when the “openness” engine is in full gear. Looking forward to learning more about your new activities and research going forward. Thanks and see you at OpenEd in Vancouver.

From another enthusiast in pursuit of (more) openness in education,

Domi Enders

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The OER Hub team prepare for launch

July marked the end of the initial phase of the OER Research Hub. It’s been a great three years, and Beck has pulled out some of the highlights. But what next, you are all asking! Well, we’re delighted to announce that we have received further funding form the Hewlett Foundation. The aim of the last grant was twofold: to try and develop an evidence base for many of the beliefs that people held about OER, and to raise the profile of quality research in the OER field. The new project seeks to continue these broad aims, by establishing the hub on an ongoing basis.

Having gathered data and developed tools for OER we also want to broaden our scope to other aspects of open education, including MOOCs, open educational practice, open access, etc. To this end we’re slightly rebranding by dropping an…

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Career Pathways, Part 1

The question of whether a college degree–especially a four-year college degree–is still “worth it” is being asked by many graduating students as they discover sobering truths about the cost of their education. Here are some facts to consider.

The 2013 report from the Project on Student Debt found that average debt for college seniors graduating in 2013 was $28,400, the highest on record, and up 2 percent from the 2012 figure of $27,850. In recent years, that average debt figure has grown steadily and has generally outpaced inflation, even as earnings for bachelor’s-degree holders have stagnated.

The unemployment rate of young four-year college graduates today is nearly 7.8 percent, about the same as the population at large. Of even greater concern are estimates that suggest that the percentage of young college graduates working in jobs that don’t really require a college education might be as high as 30 percent. And these numbers mask the fact that nearly half of those who start out in a four-year college do not finish. The point about statistics like these is that in today’s economy what you study matters more than how many years you study. Recent data from Florida tell us that 2009 graduates with a technical degree from Florida’s community colleges are outearning the average graduate from the state’s four-year institutions by over $10,000.

In recent years it has become increasingly clear that our current (and future) economy’s jobs are requiring a higher level of skills and formal credentials — particularly in high growth industry sectors, such as healthcare and STEM fields. Many of today’s employers report difficulties in finding talent to meet their skill needs, and job seekers of all backgrounds are experiencing difficulties obtaining sustainable employment without a formal post-secondary credential.

This pressing demand for skilled and credentialed workers — which many employers and workforce developers have termed the infamous “skills gap” — has also contributed to a growing trend in conversations around education and workforce solutions: Career Pathways.

Career Pathway programs, although diverse in their specific priorities and strategies, are generally designed to more closely align education and industry and to establish a streamlined pathway for students and job-seekers to transition from education into living-wage employment. Stakeholders across the nation have been implementing a wide range of career pathway programs, which have addressed various focus-areas such as:

Young adults: Beginning with career-focused high school programs, transitioning students into career and technical post-secondary certification and degree programs

Working and older adult populations: Focusing on the specific needs of job-seekers who have already been in the workforce for a significant period and are now in need of further training and job opportunities

Special populations: Tackling educational and workforce-related barriers specific to populations such as returning veterans and individuals with disabilities

Employer-driven: Centralizing the need for employers to invest in linking training activities with opportunities for formal credentialing

As summarized in this 2015 Department of Education-funded study, career pathway programs have been found to share a number of important common characteristics, including: collaboration and partnerships, data sharing, resource coordination, and employer engagement — among others.

So what does all this mean for learners?

As the post-secondary landscape continues to integrate new transformations and innovations (e.g. online learning, open educational resources, competency-based education), there now exists a broad array of customizable training and education options, which, although empowering, can also be confusing for learners seeking career-oriented credentials. Many adults — whether they are recent high school graduates or second-career baby boomers — often find themselves taking courses or engaging in educational programs that do not ultimately lead to a marketable credential.

Career pathway programming can play an important navigational role in linking such diverse, and often non-linear, educational activities with actual opportunities for living-wage employment. For a high-school student who is responsible for contributing to a family income, for example, this focused approach to education and job training could result in years of time and thousands of tuition dollars saved before s/he can start earning sustainable wages.

Thus far, the career pathway approach appears to be a promising solution to help address some of our economy’s most pressing workforce concerns. As the model continues to develop and expand through further transformations in higher education and our economic climate, so much remains to be seen about its impacts for our nation’s job-seeking learners, as well as what role new innovations will play in bringing these programs to scale.

Stay tuned for Career Pathways, Part 2, about our quest to introduce Open Educational Resources (OER) into career pathway projects.

“Made with Creative Commons” on Kickstarter

Sarah Pearson and Paul Stacey of Creative Commons have created a case study for the very substance of the book project they are crowdfunding on Kickstarter: they’re raising funds to support the development of a book that they will ultimately give away for free under a CC license. The waiting-to-be-written-book Made With Creative Commons is about the ways creators and businesses make money when sharing their work for free under CC licenses. The dynamic duo’s goal is to empower others to create businesses that build upon open content and open licensing. The book will be written collaboratively with backers of the campaign, and Sarah and Paul will be writing regularly throughout the research and writing process in a Medium publication called Made with Creative Commons.

At stake is the idea that if “open” is to go mainstream, we need to develop and support sustainable business models that don’t depend on the generosity of non-profits such as the Hewlett Foundation to promote the open exchange of the knowledge we create.

You can get involved as a contributor to the project (for $150 or more), or simply as a fan (with a contribution of any amount). There are 15 days left to support this campaign!

Open Assembly has been working with Sarah and Paul on our own open business model, using the Business Model Canvas template they modified for the “open” attribute. The experience so far has been wonderful, providing much clarity and reaffirming our sense of purpose–and even suggesting new possibilities we hadn’t quite considered yet. There is no doubt in our minds that Sarah and Paul are laying an important foundation for defining a new generation of business models that reward “openness” and “sharing.” We who are already on the “open” spectrum of activities and initiatives will benefit greatly from sharing our various experiences. And hopefully countless others will also be inspired by coming to understand the ways in which sharing can indeed be good for business.

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The Adjunct Problems That Too Few Talk About. Possible Solutions at Our Fingertips?

During National Adjunct Action Week, Feb. 23-27, union-represented adjuncts joined with actions that ranged from creative picketing to teach-ins to in-class explanations of adjunct issues. These were designed to call attention to and illustrate the stigma of being an adjunct and the commitment to changing adjuncts’ status from second-class workers to well-respected, well-trained, well-paid workers with benefits and supportive working conditions.

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On a much quieter note, and with the expectation that over time adjunct working conditions can and will be improved through various union and institutional initiatives, is there something that we (the ed-tech-for-adjunct-faculty fan club) can do to reduce the thorny prick of chronic daily irritants affecting part-time adjuncts–and their part-time students?

Picture a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, perhaps at sunrise or dusk. Two drivers sitin two parked cars on opposite sides of the lot. The drivers happen to be part-time instructors at the same community college, where they teach different sections of the same course. It would be great if they knew they were both dealing with the same classroom challenge—but they don’t: They’re so pressed for time, they have to steal an hour in the parking lot to work undisturbed…even though talking to each other to resolve that common problem would help them get a lot more work done a lot more efficiently.

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To me, this parking lot illustrates the challenges facing part-time students and part-time educators at community colleges: Commuters who travel back and forth between work, home, and school—in the case of adjuncts, between multiple campuses—and who often work in isolation from their peers.

National Adjunct Walkout Day, on Feb. 25, became Adjunct Action Week (Feb. 23-27 ). We heard activists demanding equal pay for equal work, decent benefits, job security, and supportive working conditions, including academic freedom, for contingent instructors. In the meantime, entrepreneurs and researchers have been quietly chipping away at smaller adjunct issues. Theirs isn’t the galvanizing fight over unionizing adjuncts, but rather, the workday struggles of adjuncts. With roughly 70% of community college instructors falling into the adjunct camp (and 70% of community college students attending school part-time), there are means at our disposable to start alleviating these everyday stresses now.

Where does the trouble start? On-demand access to teaching resources is one place.

Let’s look at technology. To do their jobs, contingent faculty rely primarily on learning management systems (LMS). But this technology often fails to meet instructor (and student) needs. For one thing, resources become confined within the LMS. Think of an adjunct who’s teaching a Political Science 101 course at multiple colleges. Our part-time adjunct (Prof. PT) has digital assets ready to go: syllabus, teaching resources, reference materials.

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The problem is, each college has its own LMS, which means Prof. PT can’t easily transfer those materials between college  ”walled gardens”…so our Prof. PT has to do the same prep work all over again, creating a new collection of materials and “courseware” for each college at which s/he teaches. Adjunct professors are freelance education professionals and need to protect their intellectual property. If they don’t, an institution can use or disseminate Prof. PT’s courseware without his/her consent—simply because it’s contained within the institution’s LMS.

Adjuncts also lack the resources that facilitate faculty-student interaction. Chances are that our part-time adjunct doesn’t have an on-campus office, which makes it pretty tough to schedule office hours with students. Yet the most important factor in student success, according to a 2013 report, is interaction with faculty. Limiting these opportunities hurts student performance.

In addition, adjuncts have limited access to two kinds of human resources: professional development support and peer communities. These are traditionally campus-based, but adjuncts are not based on campus—they’re on the go and largely on their own when it comes to professional development. The Coalition on the Academic Workforce considers this reality “another indicator that institutions are not investing in maintaining and improving the quality of instruction,” which—you guessed it—hits the neediest college students the hardest.

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Researchers and startups such as Open Assembly are collaborating to figure out how technology can provide the greatest benefit and user experience for faculty and students. By sheer numbers the majority of these users are adjuncts and the non-traditional “new student majority.” These companies are exploring tech solutions that use existing LMS technology more effectively by extending its capabilities.

Campus technology that first and foremost serves its core users, the students and instructors, helps everyone work more efficiently. For adjuncts teaching on multiple campuses or multiple courses within the same subject, user-focused tech reduces duplication of tasks—no more reinventing the curriculum wheel all over again. Serving teachers first also means recognizing their intellectual property and giving them control of the IP that they have created on their own time and their own dime. This can give adjunct faculty more agency and perhaps eventually, more academic freedom.

Community colleges also need to do a better job of fostering greater interaction between learners and educators, and between the instructors themselves. Since colleges don’t provide enough private campus spaces for student-instructor conversations, how about creating private virtual spaces? Under the current professional, and even technological, structure of community colleges, adjuncts also have limited opportunities to connect and interact with colleagues. Since contingent faculty are not rooted on any one campus, they need an on-demand digital space in which they can share best practices with peers and colleagues, and social media isn’t going to cut it. They need adjunct-managed, adjunct-centered peer communities.

If an institution provides the flexible technology that can handle these suggested solutions, along with support from campus administrators, colleges can achieve a high ROE: return on education. What does high ROE look like? For starters, increased student engagement and success; improved efficiency of instructors and instruction; lower turnover rates among contingent faculty. All of which drive down costs for institutions.

Group of People Using Digital Devices with Speech BubbleMaria Maisto, English instructor at Cuyahoga Community College, member of the MLA Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities,  and president of the New Faculty Majority, which advocates on behalf of contingent faculty, has said that “authentic learning cannot take place in isolation.” Teachers and students who participate in that learning must belong to a community.

When they don’t belong to a community, they end up like our lonely drivers at the beginning of our story, on opposite sides of that empty, sprawling parking lot: struggling to work in the in-between hours they have, with too little time, and no one to reach out to in a pinch.

Open Assembly Beta: OER Meets Web 2.0

Developing education technology that truly serves the everyday needs of college educators and learners is not an easy task. It’s actually an incredibly humbling undertaking, and you need to be prepared for failure before you can achieve any modicum of success.

And the metrics for success? Nudging the needle, to any degree, on any of the many challenges facing learners and educators in the trenches of higher education: college readiness, student debt, unaffordable course materials, poor student engagement, insufficient faculty-student interaction, recognition of competencies gained outside of formal education pathways, development of collaboration and other soft skills, coping with walled technology gardens, need to improve adjunct working conditions…and more.

Open Assembly is a team of social entrepreneurs and educators on a mission to provide instructors and students with user-friendly, personal technology tools made for learning and teaching—in an integrated interface or “toolset,” and at a price point all can afford. These tools are designed to help educators and learners nudge the needle on the challenges they face every day.

The Creative Power of Open

Must-have tools for learning and teaching include those that facilitate collaboration in various forms, those that support formation of user-driven learning communities, those that enable portable content and data management from one environment to another, and those that permit both students and instructors to engage in content curation. In the realm of content, Open Assembly prioritizes open educational resources (OER), and not only because they are free to access online.

OER are inherently shareable based on the terms of Creative Commons licensing. At the bleeding edge of openness, the CC BY license can inspire new, open pedagogies by leveraging the remixing and sharing potential of OER for co-creation—via collaboration, connection, and interaction. Between educators. Between learners. Between educators and learners.

Paradoxically, most OER used in the classroom, which at its best is free to Retain, Reuse, Remix, Revise and Redistribute, is typically deployed in an LMS (a walled garden). There’s a conflict between the openness of OER and the closed, by-invitation-only nature of the LMS. Phil Hill has eloquently described this problem in recent blog posts.

Open Assembly has built an extension to the LMS that effectively bridges the walled garden and the Web. This allows OER to operate at its greatest potential, deployed in a secure technology framework that supports flexible, open learning. A win-win for institutions, instructors, and students.

OER can also make a significant contribution to reducing costs, and yet between two-thirds and three-quarters of all faculty nationwide report that they are unaware of OER, such as open courseware (e.g., MIT OCW) and open textbooks. Educators familiar with OER find them difficult to adapt. We believe OER need to become modularized in order to make reuse and adaptation easy enough for many more educators to adopt and make their own. You can Browse OER on our site to see what this looks like.

Who Owns the Data? 

In an age where data privacy and IP ownership are issues of increasing relevance for individuals (whether or not they think about it), Open Assembly insists that you own your data. We will not share it with any institution, organization, association, or governmental entity without your permission. It’s yours to retain or remove from our platform at any time.

It’s also portable. We know that you create and manage content in more than one context, and Google Drive and Dropbox are OK but are not made for education. For instance, you can’t do more than keep content in folders, and you can’t share easily with others via multiple channels, including social media. The LMS has limitations, too. Content gets trapped in course shells that expire. Instructors have to recreate the same course in more than one LMS, and students lose their work if they forget to remove it before the end of the semester.

Moreover, we’re all learning everywhere, in settings both formal and informal. At home, at work, at school, on the go. With Open Assembly you can integrate your learning across all of these contexts. This way you remain at the center of your lifelong learning path.

Owning Our Learning

Our goal is for Open Assembly to become a truly “convivial toolset” that enables educators and learners to remain in control of their privacy, their networks, and their learning. As Audrey Watters points out in a recent talk, “We all need to own our learning.” Technology in and of itself is not the answer, but can perhaps help us all move toward a culture of openness in education—the only sustainable future we at Open Assembly can imagine.

Open Assembly v2.0 (Beta)

We soft-released Open Assembly v2.0 earlier this fall, and as of Dec. 1 we’re officially in public Beta. The free trial ends Jan. 31, 2015, just in time to breeze through spring semester with our portable toolset for learning and teaching.

We are very grateful to all of our early adopters and advisors for believing in us and for helping us shape and develop the platform. A special thanks to the Education Design Studio and our colleagues in the 2014 cohort for giving us the tools, mentorship and support to transition from dreamers into increasingly effective entrepreneurs.

OERRH OER Evidence Report 2013-2014

Valuable insights for learners, instructors, institutions about how OER is being used.

It gives me great pleasure to announce that OER Research Hub is now ready to release the first of its dissemination reports. The ‘OER Evidence Report 2013-2014’ brings together a range of evidence around the research hypotheses of the product and provides an overview of the impact OER is having on a range of teaching and learning practices.

OER Evidence Report 2013-2014

If you’re lucky enough to be at Open Education 2014 this week then the research team will be presenting some of the results in person on 20th November at 10.15am in the Virginia Ballroom.  But if you can’t make that and you want to discuss the report then just come find us at the conference, comment below, or get in touch online.

We’re interested to know how useful this information is to you, and whether the patterns we have found in OER impact correspond with your own experiences as teachers, learners…

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The OER-LMS Oxymoron

As John Rindele pointed out in his presentation at Open Education 11, “a key factor in OER uptake is the ability of resources to be easily accessed, combined with other course materials, and presented in an appropriate context for learning.” For many instructors (for better or worse), the LMS is currently the hub of their course. And yet using OER within an LMS presents some interesting paradoxes and dilemmas given that LMS are still operating within the “closed course” paradigm. Of greatest significance is the near-impossibility of realizing OER’s full potential to enable open pedagogies.

Most online instruction takes places within a learning management system (LMS) such as Blackboard, Moodle, Desire2Learn, Sakai and others. Yet little research has examined how learning management systems structure participants’ experiences and replicate or diverge from traditional pedagogy. The ways in which course materials are presented and accessed — and who gets to present what and when — form a key component in the online classroom.

The technology used to deliver an online class influences how students and instructors interact with one another. More than previous technologies, online learning systems have the potential to enhance the collaborative performative nature of teaching, and at the same time, the potential to turn teaching into a static exercise. Just as the architectural design of a classroom qualifies student–instructor and student–student interaction, online course delivery platforms such as LMS provide the framework for class communication. And like the room seating arrangement, degree of access to (natural) daylight and other aspects of the bricks-and-mortar classroom context, the LMS structure largely goes unnoticed and unquestioned. Yet how a classroom is organized, whether in person or online, will influence how communicators interact within that classroom.

In her 2002 critique of online education, Megan Boler argued:

“The brave new world of digital education promises greater access, increased democratic participation, and the transcendence of discrimination through pure minds. We must interrogate the actuality of these hypes: who has access, is participation online transformative, and is transcendence of difference a goal of progressive pedagogies?”

To extend the reach of OER we feel it is critical for resources to be made easily accessible from within the LMS, until we have a better way. This need is greater than providing a simple link.

A Fine Hoax of Attitudes Towards Adjuncts in the Chronicle

Annals of an Adjunct: Open Assembly Test Drive

To better engage her students, this adjunct details how she used our platform to track their progress (and find out whether they were really paying attention in class).

This summer I had the opportunity to take the Open Assembly platform for a demo in my image-based humanities course at a large urban public institution.

As a teacher for 14 years in some way or another, I have developed my own style of teaching that I’ve honed over the semesters. I’ve found that as my confidence in my voice grew, I abandoned the podium to which I originally found myself tethered. Because of this style of instruction, I did not teach directly from the OA platform, but I did spend many hours crafting the course within OA using information that reinforced what we covered in class.

While some students are able to take notes and still follow along, for others this proves difficult.  This summer I had two foreign students who were somewhat new to the U.S. Their writing was fine, but when speaking with me, it became clear that they did not understand everything I was saying. This is problematic in an accelerated course where content is covered quite rapidly. Both of these students greatly benefited from reviewing the content on our OA course page, where they could review the learning materials at a slower pace and re-watch the video content until they understood.

This brings up the way I enjoyed using Open Assembly the most during these courses: taking advantage of the ANALYTICS function to track students’ access to resources that I uploaded for the course. Through blank stares and low test scores, I had a hunch that certain students were not following along. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw that they had not accessed either the readings or the modules on the OA platform. While it seems a little “Big Brother,” it is a useful tool that allowed me to follow up with students who were not accessing the course materials.

Another significant benefit of Open Assembly was that for the first time, every one of my students had access to the assigned textbook. Prior to this semester, I had not used an open textbook before. I found an excellent open educational resource (OER) alternative to the (somewhat costly) textbook I had been using before, and assigned it to my latest crop of students. For once I had a level playing field in my classroom, with every student being able to afford this (free & open) textbook.

One of the ways that I plan to use the Open Assembly platform in the future is for constructing debate and assignments that can take place outside of class time. Case in point: there is immense debate over a group of sculptures known as the Elgin marbles or Parthenon marbles. These relief sculptures decorated the interior and exterior of the Parthenon temple that sits on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Acquired by Lord Elgin during his time as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century, they are now on display in the British Museum. This debate involves repatriation of artifacts and the question of who rightfully “owns” the Parthenon marbles. The Greek government contends that they were taken out of the country illegally, and there are numerous documents and video clips giving alternate sides of the argument.

In a group-based discussion exercise, students often need prompting to start the debating, but once started, many join the conversation. Unfortunately there is not enough time in the semester to devote a whole class to this exercise, so this is how I plan to use the Open Assembly platform: through videos integrated within my curriculum, students will be able to form their opinions about the status of these sculptures, then make a statement through the COMMENTS interface, forcing them to take a position. This is followed up with a formal writing assignment where the student has to make a statement and then defend that decision in a two- to three-page written response. I’m really excited about the debate possibilities that Open Assembly can bring to my classroom.

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