An Interview with Terry Anderson: Open Education Resources – Part I

boettcher80By  Judith V. Boettche

This is my first experience with doing a formal blog posting, although it has been on my list for a while. Jim Morrison suggested that this format, the new blog area for Innovate, might be a good way to more quickly share a recent interview on open education resources with Terry Anderson, director, Canadian Institute for Distance Education Research, and one of the keynoters at the 14th Annual Sloan-C International Conference on Online Learning in Orlando, Florida, on 4 November 2008. Terry’s keynote title was “Social Software and Open Education Resources: Can the crowd learn to build great educational content?

One of my goals in going to the conference was to interview Terry about his perspectives on open education resources, and I was not disappointed! Terry was very gracious in meeting me over lunch the day of his keynote in the Caribe Royal restaurant. We had a broad-ranging conversation that included his personal experiences with making the book, The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, now in its second edition, freely available on the web. But more on that later.

So here goes. I hope you enjoy it!

terry_andersonJB: Terry, the abstract for your keynote emphasizes the promise of open education resources (OERs) to radically reduce the cost of educational content production and availability. Yet you seem to indicate that educators are not making much use of these resources. Why not?

TA: I don’t think that the availability of OERs has had much impact as yet. Lots of people download content, but how many people use it for serious academic work?

JB: Why do you think that is? What do you think has to happen before the adoption of OERs becomes more widespread and thus more of a force in keeping educational content costs down?

TA: I think there are two issues in the adoption and use of OERs: credentialing and the social support of learning experiences.

People work hard when they are motivated, and most people are motivated by credentialing or earning some kind of a certificate. What is needed for broadening the impact of open educational resources is to provide a pathway for credentialing. For example, with the open courseware from MIT, they provide the courseware resources, but no credentialing. It is up to other institutions to provide the pathway to credentialing. For example, at Athabasca University, a significant number of our Athabasca courses have what we call a “challenge alternative.” This means students can elect to writing an equivalent final exam or completing the final requirements of a course — without actually taking the course.

The second issue is that of social support. Many students find it difficult to learn on their own independent of a social environment. They like to struggle and engage with other learners as they learn. So one of our future tasks is likely to focus on developing educational experiences that include interaction with other students. For example, a learning experience that says, “Go to this site and do this with others who have started at about the same time.”

JB: What about the financial model for OER? How is this going to work? How do we ensure that people with expertise, talent get some compensation for their time and resources?

TA: What we have here, I think, is the same issue that exists with television, music and other creative industries. I think that micropayments are one approach that will work. We see this in the model from Apple with iTunes. Rather than buying a whole album, people select and pay 99 cents for one track of a CD. We need to experiment with additional different models that include reaching out with micropayment models to the long tail of the net —where there are millions of people on line today. We need to begin doing more looking out beyond the 200 or so million people in the U.S.

terry_anderson_sbJB: What about faculty members? Is the micropayments model going to be important for them?

TA: For many faculty it is not an issue. Even today, writing educational materials generally does not mean a lot of money coming back to faculty. And it does not matter as faculty are paid by the state or by the institution! Faculty may dream about writing a textbook that becomes a nationwide top seller, but it doesn’t happen very often.

I think we should move away from a production model where textbooks are written by one or two superstars to a production model with a much larger group of folks. Or move to a co-production model such as we do for research journals.

[Note: Terry’s thoughts on content production models made me think about the Wikipedia model. Maybe we should consider a Chemistry or Physics Resources Wikipedia? -JB]

JB: Terry, what bout the current costs of textbooks and educational materials. Are the costs for educational materials really a big deal?

TA: It really depends a great deal on where you are. When I am working on my campus I have access through our institution’s library database agreements to almost any resource I am interested in using. And this is the same for most of my colleagues in the academic community. So, we start to forget that materials may not be similarly “available” to others. If you go to Africa where the tuition is $45, and the libraries do not have access to content and the textbook is $90 to $100, it’s a very big deal!

JB: Let’s return to the question in the subtitle of your keynote presentation. Terry, do you think the “crowd” can learn to build great educational content?”

TA: Oh, I think “yes!” A colleague and I have been working on a book that is in a long gestation period. The book focuses on the “three aggregations of the many.”

The third “aggregation” is the collective, which is the “crowd.” A lot of people are using the net for many purposes. As they are doing this, they are all leaving traces of their activity, explicitly by voting or buying or doing something; or implicitly by which sites they are visiting and how long they stay on a site. Data mining and data capture techniques include tools that match what some people are doing with what other people are doing with some automatic filtering going on. We are at the early stages of that. Collectives are being used as learning resources without enrolling the class. This means if you use the net fairly frequently, it will reward you.

[Continued in Part II]

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