You may have already heard a bit about NIXTY, since they have managed to make a significant media splash in the last few weeks. There have been a number of interesting analyses, both pro and con. I’d like to highlight a few aspects that haven’t gotten much coverage.
For starters, here’s a screencast that NIXTY CEO Glen Moriarty was kind enough to make for me:
One of the first things that jumps out is how easy it is to build a course around open educational resources (OERs). Will this capability automatically generate a revolution in open pedagogy? In a word, no. In fact, it may be a good test for those who argue that the LMS itself flattens pedagogy. NIXTY makes it very easy to build a conventional LMS-style course design around OERs. To the extent that inclusion of OERs fail to change pedagogical practice, that would be evidence that the delivery vehicle (i.e., the LMS) may be a stronger influence on learning design than the content (or it may be that neither has much ability to move existing cultural norms among faculty). But I don’t think that’s an entirely fair critique of NIXTY. For starters, broader adoption of OER is a good thing in and of itself insofar as it helps the best educational content get used more widely, lowers the costs of educational materials for students, and fosters an academic culture that recognizes the prestige that comes from creating something that is widely re-used over the prestige of owning something. Clay Shirky has said that behavior is motivation filtered through opportunity. NIXTY increases the opportunity to use OERs by lowering the amount of work required to adopt them by a substantial margin.
Second, there are some interesting differences between NIXTY and current-generation LMSs that may or may not have a substantial impact on pedagogy. One such difference that was highlighted in the screencast is the ability to create a wiki’ed course in which anybody can be an author. I wrote some time ago about the benefits of a Wiki’ed Learning Environment, or a WeLE. NIXTY offers a somewhat different implementation of the idea, but it certainly could change practice. We’ll have a better idea of just how much of an impact that feature makes once there are a number of non-NIXTY-created courses on the platform. The ability to rate content is another interesting little twist that could make a difference in whether and how content is re-used. NIXTY has other interesting features in the pipeline that are designed to foster sharing and re-use, too; I may write about them once they are public.
Finally, NIXTY is interesting because of the impact it could have on sustainability models for open education. It allows for courses that are open to everyone for free, courses that charge tuition offered by individual instructors, and courses offered and paid for in the traditional way by institutions. The system is permeable, allowing courses to move from one of these states to another, and it also includes some basic capabilities for institutions that want to track non-degree adult and continuing education. This enables both institutions and individual teachers to mix and match various approaches in order to find a sustainable model. They can give some courses away while charging for others. This is absolutely critical if the OER movement is going to grow. Think about open source software. There are many different sustainability models from software primarily developed by a hobbyist to software primarily developed by a community to software primarily developed by a company, with many subtle variations in and between these categories. For example, just think about the sustainability models around Firefox, TiddlyWiki, Sakai, Moodle, and WordPress. Their funding and governance models are very different from each other, and yet they all produce valuable open source tools that are useful to educational technologists. We have no such variety of sustainability models around open education yet. NIXTY provides one laboratory for developing some of those models. I don’t know what it will produce, but I believe that it bears watching.