Opening up the Open University online

I’ve just been at a workshop with my colleagues Tony Hirst, Ross Mackenzie, Martin Weller and others looking at how the OU’s virtual learning environment could be enhanced by closer integration with other systems elsewhere. This could work both ways so that:

  • Live data from other systems is integrated within OU course content, and
  • OU learning content is more exportable into other organisations’ systems

Organisations are increasingly making access to large and useful datasets by providing APIs ie ways in which developers elsewhere can tap into that data. Many of our courses could benefit from inclusion of dynamic data within the course content. One example might be an economics course which looked at the progression of a recession. See for example the BBC’s animated map of growing unemployment in the UK which could potentially be incorporated in a course and provide a more up to date and engaging experience for the learner than a static resource if it was based on the latest data.

Concerns were raised that including dynamic data sources from elsewhere in our courses is risky because of the services potentially being withdrawn, the data changing so that it is less meaningful or the data structures being altered. One solution would be to take a snapshot of the data at the beginning of the course so that students are accessing that rather than the live data. But does this remove the dynamism of the experience for the user? A way forward might be to provide both archived materials and live ones.

So why try to incorporate this data in course content and perpetuate the spoon feeding of students? Would it not be more in students’ interests for them to visit the website with the original data so that they learn how to navigate it or perhaps see other interesting materials while they’re there? Thanh Le pointed out that perhaps when two feeds are combined it makes sense to present the result locally otherwise with a single data source it’s better to send the learner to the original site.

There are pros and cons of both approaches but including graphs of live data feeds within course content does allow course authors to include commentary around the data, makes the courses look more current and avoids them going out of date so quickly.

We also looked at what could be exposed from the OU via APIs. Already quite a lot is available from OpenLearn, iTunesU and other systems with RSS feeds. One suggestion was that these should be combined and made accessible to other organisations/users using a single API.

My biggest concern is how to convince course authors of the relevance of all this. Most of them are struggling to find the time to engage with other aspects of elearning, let alone the techie world of APIs, RSS feeds, mashups and the like. We suggested that the Library needs to develop its expertise in the data sources that are out there – and to be able to suggest to course teams not only what they could use but how they could combine more than one feed together to produce useful applications for the learner.

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