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.

Martin Weller and Tony Hirst

Martin Weller and Tony Hirst

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that including dynamic data sources from elsewhere in our courses is risky because of the services potentially being withdrawn, the data changing so that it is less meaningful or the data structures being altered.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allow course authors to include commentary around the data, makes the courses look more current and avoids them going out of date so quickly.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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2 Responses to Opening up the Open University online

  1. fgarcia says:

    Hi Niall,

    Im Francisco García, member of EVA Programme, a virtual learning project of Andalusian Goberment in Spain. Your blog is very interesting and useful to know about innovation in e-learning sector. I see that you visit Edtech 2009 in Dublin, I would like to go but I still don´t know if I can go. In any case, I´d like to present you a new innovative resource that we just publicated in EVA. GUIDE TO METHODOLOGICAL INNOVATION IN E-LEARNING. They will be possible users of this guide: professional teachers which want to innovate and carry out new alternative teaching methods; company teachers which want to replace traditional methods and want to meet the needs required by the new business environment; organizations which want incorporate e-learning as a way of learning innovation; university professors which stand for innovation as a way to adapt to Europe and the new knowledge society requests; institutions and organizations which use ICT’s for teaching learning.

    I hope that you like it.


  2. fredriley says:

    Hi Niall

    I thought today to look at your site/blog, and I saw the post “Opening up the Open University online” in which you discussed incorporating remote material in OU courses, and also exposing OU material. I can’t offer you a RSS or OAI-PMH feed for our materials ( as yet, although I am working on it, but I would be very interested in any ‘exposure’ of OU materials that we could harvest. I mention this mainly in the context of a recent SIG I’ve kicked off with the unlovely acronym of SLOHSIG (, standing for Sharing Learning Objects in Healthcare. (I rather wish I’d added Tertiary before Healthcare as then we’d have SLOTHSIG :o).) This came out of a conf we ran here in March with the same title, about figuring out what materials were out there and how they could be re/used, aggregated, shared and whatnot, so of course repositories and harvesting got a good mention.

    Anyway, a ‘strategic’ and probably unrealisable aim of the SIG is to develop, in conjunction with other bodies/repositories (eg Jorum, IRISS, NHS), a ‘one-stop shop’ for teaching and learning resources for healthcare, as the conf punters wanted, ideally, a Google-style interface into which they could type something like “liver physiology” and magically up would pop the ideal learning object for their course. Technically very challenging, of course, but a worthy end. One aspect of such a 1-stop shop would be behind-the-scenes harvesting of various open repositories, so when I hear of possible repositories I hunt around for their RSS/OAI-PMH/SRU service URLs.

    So, after a long preamble, does the OU make any of its e-learning materials repositories publicly shareable, and if where can I find machine-readable URLs for harvesting/syndication? And if you and/or any of your colleagues is interested in the SIGs aims you’re all very welcome indeed to join in. We’re hoping to hold an initial meeting somewhere in the Midlands in early to mid-October.

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