An object lesson: my introduction to open

I could not be more excited to be part of the group working with the University of Guadalajara for the Mural project on Innovation and Open Education. Our team has decided to kick things off with reflections on how we were each introduced to “open”.

Natural environment

My introduction to how online learning can lead to open education happened in Mexico, back in the late 1990’s at the Tec de Monterrey in Hermosillo. I was new to full-time teaching, and the internet was still a mysterious thing to many of us. Bandwidth was getting faster, and a vast new set of possibilities were emerging.

As an inexperienced instructor, it was an amazing thing to quickly gather materials, lesson plans, or just share ideas with educators. It seemed unbelievable how many fascinating things, much of it stuff I had been interested in and unable to access before, were now in front of me. Almost every day I spent time online, and almost every day I got some new idea that I could use with my students.  Sometimes within an hour of seeing it for the first time.

One of the resources I remember finding amazing was a tutorial that let me start to be a builder and writer on the web, not just a consumer. I looked at a lot of how-to’s for HTML, but I clearly remember the best one was by a guy in Arizona. He had other funny and cool things on his website, and I remember thinking I would enjoy meeting him someday.

After moving back to Canada in 2000, I became interested in a then-new form of web publishing known as blogging. I was so excited to be able to create attractive websites that did not break because my HTML skills were so poor. I was able to focus on the writing, and on reading all the new voices I was encountering because they were using the same technology. And when I started to receive comments from people around the world who were somehow reading what I wrote… it was like a drug. One that frequently kept me up very late at night.

Around this time, I got a job at the University of British Columbia, and of course I started a blog about it. The job seemed perfect: work with instructors, librarians and technologists to share learning resources on the web. There was just one problem. What had seemed so easy, fun and natural when I worked in Mexico, or when I started blogging, now seemed very complicated and just wasn’t succeeding.

I have written (too) many times about my thoughts on why I think the “revolution” of “Learning Objects” never really happened. I will try to avoid repeating myself (too much), but here is one post, and here is another. To my mind, the biggest barriers to sharing back then were:

  • people were willing to share, but only with some people. This meant the technology for sharing had to be complicated and restrictive.
  • the tools we used to build learning resources were expensive and everybody seemed to be using different ones. So we usually could not revise or customize work that was shared with us.
  • copyright appeared to be a problem everybody was terrified of and that nobody could solve.

And as I discuss in one of those posts I said I would not repeat (I am a liar), I was not the only person who was blogging about their work. As I got to know these people, and began to build enduring friendships with some of them,  we bgan to agree on the problems with what “serious” learning objects projects were experiencing.

That guy from Arizona who taught me HTML years earlier was trying to make learning objects work. This other guy from Calgary who built my learning objects repository at UBC was also frustrated. We started to ask each other why sharing learning objects seemed so difficult, and sharing resources and communicating on our blogs seemed so easy. We started performing some experiments to see if we could somehow merge the two approaches, and in the process started to work with all sorts of interesting people around the world.

It was around this time that a lot of the energy around “learning objects” started to move into something called Open Educational Resources (OER). People realized that sharing needed to be open, not selective. The problems with copyright permissions were greatly simplified with open licenses such as Creative Commons. Open technologies, open standards and formats made it easier to build and remix work.

So much has changed since I sat at my desk in Hermosillo and had my mind blown by the potential of open online learning. In many ways the internet has become a more complicated and less happy place. But the essential potential of networked digital technologies to increase access to learning and promote collaboration across cultures still excites me. I can’t wait to indulge that excitement in Guadalajara this week and beyond.

One comment

  1. Pingback: The EdTechie Martin Weller’s Personal Blog: 25 Years of EdTech – 2000: Learning objects |

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