Openness: The Proof of the Pudding is in the Eating

In my last post, I said that I thought Blackboard’s announcement of making it easy to add a Creative Commons license to a Common Cartridge export is significant. One day later, we have some evidence of just how significant. e-Literate featured blogger Audrey Watters has a post up on her own blog about a big announcement out of Washington state:

With help from matching funds from the Gates Foundation, the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges has built a Open Course Library (OCL), which launches today. The idea behind the library is to address the increasing cost of textbooks by making openly licensed course materials available for 81 of the state’s most enrolled classes. Some of the materials in the OCL are free, but some aren’t. The only stipulation: no required material or textbook can cost a student more than $30.

The first phase of the project, which is available today, features materials for 42 of these classes, including Introduction to Literature, Introduction to Chemistry, Calculus I, and Microeconomics. (The other 39 should come online in the Spring of 2013)….

As the materials in the OCL are licensed CC-BY, instructors will be able to adopt the course modules or adapt the materials to suit their own classes’ needs. The materials are available via Google Docs and Google Sites so that they can be shared between faculty and institutions, but there are also options to import the content into standard LMSes.

By “options to import the content into standard LMSes,” she means that the content will be available as IMS Common Cartridges. How are they being produced? It turns out that the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges has a state-wide license for ANGEL, which happens to export to Common Cartridge. So this initiative, which could turn out to be a big deal in terms of community college affordability, is partly enabled by a for-profit LMS vendor’s decision implement Common Cartridge export. Who was the guy in charge at ANGEL at the time that technology decision was made? Ray Henderson, the same guy who announced Common Cartridge export for Blackboard.

By the way, there’s plenty of room for Pearson to play here too. Production of OERs is only part of the problem. You still need to drive adoption. If OpenClass made it very easy for faculty to find and import OCL content, either through Google Apps integration or through Common Cartridge import, that would be a significant step forward in at least one kind of Openness.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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10 Responses to Openness: The Proof of the Pudding is in the Eating

  1. I’m glad you caught this piece of my story, Michael, as I was going to follow up with an email to you today and ask for some behind-the-scenes details on how the Common Cartridge works. Why this and not an API?

  2. Jim says:

    I still can’t help but think that the role of the LMS here in helping create and cultivate openness is far too overrated. I guess sharing a link to the Google Docs with the info is way to difficult or unsatisfactory? We need a full blown common cartridge export? Really? Why?

  3. Scott Leslie says:

    Sure sounds good, on paper. Just tried one in Moodle 1.9.13, the only Moodle that “supports” CC (as an experimental feature). And it borked. Yet I know Moodle handles _some_ “CC’ ok, as I can import OpenLearn courses into it…

    So by “eating” you meant “writing about it in a press release,” right? ;-) Sorry, that is uncalled for – CC hasn’t been quite the unmitigated disaster of CP, but hey, give it time! But before anyone tells me this is simply a momentary hiccup (which it _may_ well be) I have a bunch of WebCT CE4 “IMS CPs” they can decorate their Christmas tree with (but not restore anywhere else!)

  4. Audrey, Jim, and Scott, you are all getting at something very important from different angles. Fundamentally, I don’t believe in cartridges. I don’t believe in forking a copy of a digital resource and stuffing it into another system. It’s bad for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to the implementation challenges that Scott ran into with Moodle (although it’s fair to say that some LMSs handle CC import better than others). Common Cartridge made more sense 5 or 10 years ago, but it’s late to the game and is ultimately destined to be eclipsed by in-place APIs, including but not limited to IMS LTI. (By the way, I’m not so sure it’s such a good idea to let Google own our integration API either.)

    But that’s not the fault of Blackboard. As far as I can tell, they made a good-faith effort with the tools that they have. And they did a lot more than put out a press release. They released code. If it were such an insignificant effort, all the LMSs would have it by now. As to its impact, we’ll see how this content gets adopted. If there’s a lot of uptake of OCL’s Common Cartridges, then we’ll learn something. If there isn’t, then we’ll learn something too.

    Anyway, the whole in-place versus copy-and-ingest thing is something I want to write about more in the future. The cartridge approach makes the problem more obvious because it’s so heavy, but I actually think that copy-and-ingest in general is a strategy that wreaks all kinds of havoc for OERs.

  5. Rob Abel says:

    Hi Folks-

    Just reminding you of my previous response in which I posted the URL at which you can find LMS’s that have passed the IMS Common Cartridge testing:

    Scott- You will notice that Moodle has NOT yet passed the testing, even though there are some versions that have various implementations of CC. MoodleRooms has committed to fixing this

    We are going to ask Open Course Library to post a notice that indicates where to find this list and also an email to contact us if there is a problem. IMS has a pubic online cartridge validator – we don’t know if the creators of these courses tested them – we are going to do that testing.

    IMS is standing behind the Common Cartridge – if anyone encounters a problem, please let us know.

    As to the questions of APIs versus cartridges – simple answer is that you need both. If publishers only provide APIs (even open ones like IMS LTI) everything is locked behind a web application somewhere. Do faculty want to lock all their course materials there. No. If you use something like Google Docs – well, I guess you have a format that is great if you use Google, but not great if you use an LMS and want it to be integrated into the Campus.

    So, for the CC naysayers I’m just letting you know that CC will be an important part of the equation – and, if you have a technical problem, please ask IMS. We have public forums where you can post any issues or just email us.


  6. I don’t think cartridges save faculty anything in terms of content being “locked behind a web application.” Textbook companies are going to want to use DRM to protect their content wherever it lives. So vendor cartridges end up having effectively the same limitations as in-place APIs but without the benefits.

    The main value of cartridges right now is getting faculty-created content out of the LMS, which is why export is so important. As long as faculty are creating and storing content inside an LMS, having the interchange format will be valuable. But I suspect that use case has peaked and is slowly starting to wane.

  7. Rob Abel says:

    Hi Michael-

    Good debate to have that I expect will be going on for some time :-)

    If there is agreement that CC helps with the issue of content in an LMS then, well in your scenario the content is inside the publisher “LMS” (or equivalent).

    Can I tailor it? Can I put things in there – like a syllabus – and get it out? If I’m the student and I create something in there can I get it out? Can I mix and match with other publisher materials? Can I archive that mixing for next term? Can I share what I did with my faculty peers who might want to learn from it? Can I create assessments in there and then use them somewhere else or just put them somewhere so that I can use them in the future?

    Common Cartridge – or something like it – helps solve those issues. Fits right into the topic of openness. But, most importantly, in the digital education age we need to make digital education easy for the faculty and the students. Otherwise there won’t be a digital education age :-)

    Perhaps a mixture of OER and publisher proprietary stuff might be a solution. IMHO, some stuff needs to be tailored, remixed, moved in, and moved out. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a publisher platform or an LMS. Faculty want their stuff. Students want their stuff. Publishers need to help them, not thwart them.


  8. Yeah, this has nothing to do with publishers helping or thwarting. Whether we are talking about proprietary content, faculty’s personal content, or OERs, I don’t think forking copies of content and ingesting it is the right answer. There are ways to meet all of the needs you list without making a gazillion copies of the same resource and then importing each copy into its own separate walled garden.

    More on this in a blog post soon.

  9. Rob Abel says:

    Can’t wait to hear more. I’ll be listening carefully. I’m of course not saying that seamless integration of publisher products into LMS’s using IMS LTI is a bad thing – I think it’s great. But, there is certainly a lot of faculty used to using the LMS for a lot of things and it’s not clear to me how fast that will change.

    With respect to versioning, my sense is that faculty fork stuff all the time – that’s the normal mode for faculty. That’s pretty much what they do with textbooks today – select parts, adjust parts, build things around parts, add supplements. That’s one of the primary potential benefits of OER – making it easier to do that. It’s one of the big issues with textbook costs and publisher materials for those faculty that care about such things.

    I guess in summary I would say that an LMS that exports to a standard is not completely a walled garden. And, I fully expect the garden to open up even more as we evolve (per the whole theme of this and several threads this week). I hope to see the same from the publishers products to the degree it makes sense. If Cengage has a way to require faculty and student to enter in through a web site without making it a walled garden – well, that would be a major breakthrough. Can’t wait to hear your ideas!

    Note: For those not aware Common Cartridge includes an authorization service that allows content to be ingested into an LMS, tailored, and still restricted in terms of license across the institution. It is not DRM, but is an alternative for institutional settings. Not all platforms support it, but Desire2Learn does.

    Very best,

  10. Tom Caswell says:

    I actually left a comment here yesterday. It was insightful and perceptive, but somehow it got deleted. Let me try to paraphrase and capture the essence of my comment:


    I agree with Michael’s first comment. We will learn something by watching the uptake of CC packages in OCL phase 1. But I am not particularly tied to this form of sharing. It’s one stop on our quest to learn how best to share OER.

    Next stop: Google Docs.

    In phase 2 we’ll use Google Docs organized in Google Sites to create our next 39 courses. Why? Because some of our faculty don’t even use a learning management system. Requiring them to learn an LMS to participate in the Open Course Library took a lot of time and effort (cruel and unusual punishment for all involved). We’d rather our faculty spend that same time and effort designing great content, not learning a dying system called ANGEL.

    Is Google Docs the pinnacle of instructional technology? Will it push the bounds of our current pedagogical enlightenment? Darned if I know. And I really don’t care, as long as we have a way to work collaboratively. I just don’t want my faculty spending 70% of their time hung up on technology.

    So where will we showcase our courses? I’m working on it. Connexions plans to release a Google Docs importer by the end of the year. That’s an option. There are others. I just want great courses that are so easy to share you don’t even notice the technology.

    At the end of the project we’ll have two things to share from the Open Course Library: (1) an excellent collection of openly licensed courses, and (2) best practices and lessons learned from two unique attempts to collaboratively create and share open course materials. It’s going to be a fun ride!

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