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

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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.

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.

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.

The Upside of Informal Education and Learning at the Speed of Thought

For all kinds of learners, summer offers an extended stretch of time to discover new ideas and skills on an informal basis. With the fall semester approaching, this got Open Assembly intern Elise Melconian thinking about informal education within more conventional and formal contexts.

As easily as typing a question into Google’s search bar, Internet users are able to become their own instructors. The Internet has amplified the pedagogical influence of technology and revolutionized the way society has traditionally perceived learning.

The not-for-profit infed.org explains how informal personalized education develops from conversations with others and the spontaneous connection of people and ideas. It’s often difficult to predict where informal learning will lead once such a conversation inspires an educational pursuit. John Dewey explains how “the business of education might be defined as an emancipation and enlargement of experience,” and it’s through our growing life experience that we find questions we have the power to pursue. Rather than some curriculum or plan, thoughts, exchanges, or the discovery of new information and questions connect learning to emotions and to what sparks our own interest, rather than what someone else considers significant.

Although the lack of set curricula could leave holes in a student’s education, I’ve found in my own education, learning without emotional attachment is quickly forgotten. Fortunately, what’s fantastic in education is that there’s no incorrect way to learn. We can use technology and blend informal and institutional learning styles for an experience that’s inherently more effective than previous generations of students limited to textbook learning.

With the emergence of the CC license and OER, students have the opportunity to engage more deeply in their learning, stimulated by their own conversations and experiences, to become curators of their own content. Institutions and instructors can and should mix informal learning into the curriculum to further engage students in all aspects of the learning process.

For more thoughts on informal learning, read “What is Informal Education?” on infed.org.

OER Around the World: Next Stop, Greenland

“Valley of the Flowers hike-Greenland” by Christine Zenino on Flickr/Used under CC BY

The University of Greenland and its institute for educational sciences, Inerisaavik, have been leading a project to make information communication and technology (ICT) standard in European schools. The project, Open Discovery Space (ODS), aims to reinvent the educational ecosystem and provide teachers with better tech access in this digital age.

When it comes to integrating open educational resources into curricula, schools throughout the West can face similar challenges, among them technology-infrastructure restraints, resistance to change at the classroom or institutional level, and limited digital literacy among students. A country such as Greenland must overcome a few even-greater barriers to digitizing education.

The ODS Workshop found that some factors keeping Greenland’s teachers and administrators from adopting OER are similar to those of other European countries: not-invented-here syndrome, lack of OER awareness, and lack of knowledge about the intricacies of intellectual property rights, copyright, and licenses. Other problems are culturally and logistically unique to Greenland. Broadband access in the country is still very expensive in more isolated settlements, and translating OER to Greenlandic is a must because of how many monolingual teachers and parents live there. ODS is working to engage the country’s education stakeholders on how to improve digital tools, solutions, and services for young people, increasing their employment options while also tackling the challenges of digital and socio-economic exclusion.

What’s working in Greenland’s favor is that the country’s ICT and educational policies are very favorable for OER integration. Several national efforts have been launched in Greenland to facilitate OER implementation, such as the use of learning management systems and the creation of mobile-learning projects. Schools continue to discover how OER can provide high-quality education for diverse groups of learners. However, OER advocates must help institutions localize these resources, presenting them in native languages and incorporating learning activities that mesh with the cultural attributes of communities and the individual students living and learning within them.

Read the complete article on Open Education Working Group.

Competency-Based Education and the Higher Ed Act

Earlier this month Congress made its first moves in rewriting the Higher Education Act, including the House of Representatives’ passing a bill that would create greater federal support for and investigation of competency-based education.

The Education Department already allows some institutions to explore alternative teaching methods, including competency-based education and prior learning assessment, and recently decided to award some student-based aid for such programs. In green-lighting experimental school sites, the Obama administration wants to see whether these innovations would ultimately

“improve student persistence and academic success, result in shorter time to degree, including by allowing students to advance through educational courses and programs at their own pace by demonstrating academic achievement, and reduce reliance on student loans.”

We love the idea of students working at their own speed and taking advantage of consumer and educational technology to plot their individual learning paths, especially if such personalized learning can help save money on tuition and textbooks over time. Some have said that competency-based education could work particularly well for older and part-time students who may not be able to spend as many hours in lectures or classroom discussions as full-time students.

Yet competency-based education has inspired criticism because of a perception that it could lower academic standards or turn colleges into diploma mills. How would schools assess student mastery in, say, the tough-to-quantify humanities fields? How do you determine competency in degree programs that don’t train students for an explicit career path, such as nursing or IT? There’s also the challenge of ensuring that individualized learning will allow for developing skills that today’s employers—large and small, corporate and non-profit, startup and legacy—expect from graduates, including collaboration, writing and communication across multiple formats, and content and media literacy.

The House has approved two other bipartisan bills that would mandate financial counseling for federal student-loan borrowers and simplify how the government provides college information to prospective students. The three bills passed so far highlight the difference between the way House Republicans and Senate Democrats have approached revising the Higher Education Act: bit-by-bit changes versus comprehensive reform. It’s unlikely that Congress will reauthorize the HEA before it expires at the end of this year.

Edtech is Widening Skills, Achievement Divides. Why Not Narrow the Engagement Divide?

This work, “Kids at computer,” is a derivative of “Kids using the computers.” by San Jose Library, used under CC BY/Cropped from original
This work, “Kids at computer,” is a derivative of “Kids using the computers.” by San Jose Library, used under CC BY/Cropped from original

Despite efforts to provide technology access to poor and minority students and narrow the “digital divide,” educational tech may not be leveling the playing field after all.

A recent Hechinger Report story focuses on research conducted in two polar-opposite Philadelphia neighborhoods over a 10-year period. Susan B. Neuman of New York University and Donna C. Celano of LaSalle University studied academic and economic inequalities between children from affluent Chestnut Hill and those from struggling Kensington. They explored how kids used computers at public libraries, where they discovered just how differently poor and affluent students took advantage of the tech resources.

Chestnut Hill kids often went to the library with adult family members, who sat with them and answered questions or directed them to educational material. In contrast, the Kensington children tended to lose focus and interest while using the computers, and parents didn’t usually guide their children’s online learning.

Lack of tech savvy wasn’t the only problem for Kensington students in this study, nor is it the only problem for kids from similar neighborhoods:

Poor children also bring less knowledge to their encounters with computers…Not only are affluent kids more likely to know how to Google; they’re more likely to know what to Google for.

Edtech could very well exacerbate economic and achievement gaps that already exist between poor and wealthier students. Unless…we begin to address the “engagement divide.”

Why not attempt to work with the way that less-advantaged students prefer to interact with content: via entertainment or games? Why not try to meet these students on a 1:1 basis, as opposed to the one-size-fits-all approach?  Open educational resources (OER) for “productive gaming” could provide a solution; otherwise, poorer kids will fall further behind.

Productive Gaming
Image cropped from 10-Blended-Learning-Trends-Infographic, courtesy of http://www.dreambox.com

What if we developed an OER-based “Google Search Game” designed to support game-loving students in becoming more effective explorers in our knowledge economy by using tools that make the most sense to them?

Perhaps we also need to curate materials in OER repositories the way the best instructors do in prosperous classrooms—based on context, learning style, and skill level. This would give less-advantaged students access to higher-quality digital learning resources that narrow that “engagement divide” and the skills and achievement gaps—i.e., that foster and achieve “deeper learning” (expanding what students learn, deepening the experience through which they learn it, and improving the benchmarks for measuring their knowledge).

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation believes that “OER provide a powerful means to grow the impact of Deeper Learning” and supports grantees such as Expeditionary Learning who are developing Deeper Learning OER resources.

Open Access Could Be the Solution to Rising E-Book Prices

ProQuest, a company representing 11 academic publishers, recently notified the Boston Library Consortium that the cost of short-term e-book loans would be raised, effective June 1. Each time a client checks out one of the e-books, libraries pay a portion of the title’s list price and after a certain number of loans the library automatically buys the title at full price.

Oxford University Press has raised the cost of short-term loans across the board. A 28-day loan that once cost 30 percent of the title’s list price will now cost 70 percent. The press also doubled the price of seven- and 14-day loans, while one-day loans jumped from 15 percent of list price to 25 percent.

Two months later, after the announced cost shift on short-term e-book loans, Ms. Stearns and John Unsworth, the Boston consortium’s president-elect, wrote a stern letter to The Chronicle accusing the commercial publishers of “price gouging.” The letter referenced continuing dissatisfaction with scientific-journal pricing.

Publishers contend that the e-book-pricing model was still in beta, and that recent changes are simply a market correction.

Publishers say that the model was intended as an alternative to Interlibrary Loan, but that it had instead became a way for students and professors to access low-circulation titles like scholarly monographs without libraries’ paying full freight for them. At issue is a short-term loan model for e-book purchasing that allows libraries to offer large catalogs but pay for only those books that are actually used—and not to pay full price until books have been used several times.

In March, the Oberlin Group, a consortium of 80 liberal-arts colleges published a statement calling for an end to “restrictive licensing agreements” that prevent e-books from being shared among libraries the way hard copies pass through Interlibrary Loan. The statement, signed by Mr. Geffert and 65 other academic librarians, called the current model of e-book exchange an “existential threat” to the “ecosystem of sharing.”

These pricing increases should drive the effort for affordable, Open Access alternatives to traditional publishers, promoted by organizations like SPARC. Digital technologies and the Internet have made knowledge accessible to all, leaving us with the potential to take the power back from publishers and remove the restrictions to access caused by the high prices imposed on consumers.

Read the original article by M. Scott Brauer for The Chronicle here.

The Age of Bite-Sized Learning: What is It and Why It Works

It looks like bite-sized learning is here to stay, according to e-learning professionals. Brain-based learning theory suggests that bite-sized learning may lead to improved learning outcomes. Proponents believe it perfectly suits the information-rich lifestyle of today’s learners: bite-sized nuggets of content are easy to engage, notably images and video, and have the capacity to “create deeper meaning by referencing shared experience or shared stories.”

A note of caution.

“Effective chunking….is about making sense of information. Don’t do it just for the sake of breaking content into pieces. Do it to make information more meaningful.”

More here: The Age of Bite-sized Learning: What is It and Why It Works

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