Will post-sec embrace the open social?

The answer to this question seems to be largely dependent on what you read, and it probably also depends on what you want to use open, social software for. Based on some of the mailing lists and discussion forums I read, and post-sec sites I visit, social media concepts (whether built on open source or not) are far from well-articulated in most cases.

Content strategy and content management systems

Feeds are becoming more common, but are not necessarily being implemented in a way that allows site visitors to have real choice as to what updates they can receive. The public web site is the prime marketing channel of any institution, and on any given post-secondary web site you are liable to see the gamut. Poorly designed and architected, hand-coded static pages, to full-blown database-driven, XML-gasmic experiences, with a feed associated with everything, regardless of whether the content is appropriate to supply a feed for, or not.

With regard to marketing content, determining what to feature, how to elicit subscriptions, where you might want user-generated content like comments, how you engage prospective students in a public dialogue and whether you’re prepared to open up things like course ratings to public discourse are all questions institutions are grappling with in presenting a more user-friendly, socially-constructed face to the world.

As the marketing side of post-secondary is where I spend the bulk of my working time at the moment, it is not only the issue of what to publish, how it is structured and how those decisions are made that can be challenging. The CMS conundrum is perhaps moreso, always a topic of some discussion on university web development lists. Everyone wants to know what each other uses, but often the one asking the questions cannot get his/her powers that be to make the leap and use open source. Enterprise support and architecture are understandably big concerns, but with the proper mindset about how they work and bringing support in-house, the question might move from if the move should be made to what flavour it should be made to. The idea of building functionality to suit as it is needed, as opposed to waiting for a vendor to decide to implement something, would seem to be a no-brainer.

What about curriculum and textbooks?

The main discussion I am starting to see is more around opening up learning to broad audiences. Learning commons or open learning models are not new, but have hardly become common by any stretch.

I know some people probably feel “the tide is turning, there is no way to stop a moving freight train and it is only a matter of time” (How is that for mixed metaphors?), but there seems to be a lot of push and pull with the issue of open sourcing texts, let alone constructing course curriculum collaboratively. At the one end you may have younger or more digitally savvy faculty members balking at the high price of textbooks and wanting to remove the cost barrier in providing access to them for free online. However, the other end has big publishing interests who want no part of it. Yearly revisions for the cost of a new book seems to be their lifeblood.

Seems to me that opening up the whole process of accessing reading materials and collaborating on course elements brings the notion of constructivism to life:

Christopher Rice, a lecturer in political science at the University of Kentucky, is one such trendsetter. In 2006, Rice experimented with a wiki for his Introduction to Political Science class. In addition to online articles, the wiki links to books at Project Gutenberg for older texts. This kept the students’ reading list to below $40, an important consideration when tuition seems to go up every year. Students could also collaborate, posting class notes and helping to develop the course.

With regard to publishing royalties, is there a middle ground that is not getting explored much (or maybe it is and I am just woefully unaware)? Often people have a hard time reading solely online and need a hard copy. What about multi-level and multi-user licensing? A free non-printable, digital license akin to Google Books format, a slightly more expensive PDF version that you can print yourself, or an on-demand full cost printed and bound version from the publisher. If a publisher wanted to ensure they were not giving away the farm through free digital-only licenses, they could implement a very reasonable online-only class-wide license. Not quite free, but not what we have now, and that is a step in the right direction.

The Ars Technica article above also touches on tenure and the disincentive of royalty-free publishing. I do not profess to understand that enough to offer an opinion or solution, but it seems to me that if an academic world-view began to emerge that valued open access to post-secondary education, publishing models would develop that would adequately deal with the tenure and royalty issues.

Some argue that open curriculum won’t work, that is until you read through the blog post and comments, including the author’s own. The author wrote with a blanket statement, something which needed to be qualified …. badly. The basic concept of open access to, and collaborative development of, curriculum can work just fine, but not if there is no oversight, guidance or editorial hand moving it forward. All one need do is look at the concept of comments on news stories to see that, while it may indicate popularity or interest, unguided opinion on a factual piece of copy seems to have poor results (maybe it is just me). Similarly, building curriculum iteratively without experience guiding it would likely not make it worth learning.

What about learning platforms?

I would give my own present experience with learning platforms a mixed review. While a tool like Moodle puts a powerful LMS (or PLE depending on your definition) at your finger tips without exorbitant licensing costs, making the system really sing requires some work. The implementations I have seen have not really explored the user experience side enough to ensure task flow, navigation, contextual content, design contrast or user features are really structured to make the system as user-friendly as it should be, let alone appropriate use of rich media (as opposed to overwhelming use of Flash, ensuring poor accessibility among other things).

Distance learning is pretty well established. With the emergence of the web, in the past 15 years, online platforms like WebCT, Blackboard and, more recently, Desire2Learn and Moodle have replaced older distance methodologies like correspondence. I do not want to comment on the value of distance learning because so much of the success potential is derived from the user experience design effort, type of curriculum, credential and personal learning style. It is a bit of a generalization to say whether it works or not.

Attrition rates of distance-only learning are pretty well documented, but would likely be improved by adjusting the delivery method. As opposed to passive replication of lecture materials, a well designed online learning environment can go a long way to improving distance outcomes. Royal Roads, for example, blends short residencies with distance-based cohorts and has graduation rates well in the 90’s.

In conclusion

Regardless of whether an institute embraces or eschews open source software, developing strategies and plans for open access and collaborative methodologies would seem to be crucial. Students are demanding convenience and, often, self-directed education where appropriate. Developing an open, social strategy requires careful deliberation of, not only, what an institute wants to do, but the appropriate tools and approaches that will get them there. User experience design and considerations with regard to development of learning and marketing platforms is probably key in this regard. As well, pushing for more progressive text licensing models and experimenting with more student-faculty discourse on collaborative curriculum development will strengthen the student connection with the institution and develop a stronger sense of ownership of their education.