OpenLearn Website Refresh, and the Re-emergence of SocialLearn…

It’s seems like today has been a busy day for a couple of the OU’s web teams…

First up, and with a beta launch today, the new OpenLearn site makes an appearance, including integration of content from the site. As I understand it, the new OpenLearn website amounts to something akin to the “public service educator” presence of the OU, (complemented by OU Platform, the OU’s (open to all) social community site, and presumably SocialLearn, about which, more later…)

OpenLearn Relaunched

openlearn -

As well as providing the access point to the OU’s openly licensed (and free to use) educational material that was hosted on the original OpenLearn LearningSpace site, and content that is published to iTunesU and Youtube, OpenLearn ( will also support the OU’s “broadcast” strategy. This will include support for OU co-produced programming with the BBC, taking over this role from (apparently: “ will stay live for a while so we can tell our existing users about the changes and manage any current broadcast related activity on the site. We will then close the and anyone following links to will be redirected to the new site.”), as well as providing opportunities for publishing materials in order to support major news events, perhaps along the lines of The COP15 University Expert Press Room; (I’m not sure if OpenLearn will also act as a channel for teaching and research related news, as well, cf. Social Media Releases and the University Press Office?).

Course materials are organised by topic, as well as resource type (in a way that reminds me of the OpenLearn content promotion that (used to? or still does?) appear on Sky’s Skylearning website):

OpenLearn beta

We can also search by media type:

OpenLearn - - media resources

(One thing that might be handy would be the ability to subscribe to a podcast feed from a search on a particular topic area?)

Note that the search function may be a little ropey today, as the site is still being indexed…

The What’s On area of the site seems to have links to recent OU broadcast content, though I’m not sure whether it will also start to promote academic presentations and webcast events of general interest e.g. from the OU’s Berrill Stadium?

OpenLearn - what's on

I didn’t spot an RSS feed though…:-(

(Hmmm, which reminds me – I wonder if my Recent OU Programmes on the BBC, via iPlayer hack, or the mobile/iPhone or Boxee versions still work?!;-)

All the OpenLearn content appears commentable, although I think an OU registration/login is required? I seem to remember logins being provided to all comers for the Platform site, so maybe anyone can just register?

In fact, registration opportunities provide a good link to the announcement of a private beta for SocialLearn that opened up today…

(Re)Introducing SocialLearn

Long time readers of this blog may remember an OU project called “SocialLearn” that was initiated to explore the opportunities for a web scale social learning platform to straddle formal and informal learning. After various fits, starts, and consumption of budget, SocialLearn is back at in a new widgetised form, appearing to offer (in the early stages a least) a Netvibes like dashboard that can host custom created widgets or (I think?) iGoogle gadgets that can be used to support your learning… (whatever that means!;-)

A couple of nice features that struck me: firstly, as a social platform, you can use credentials from the most popular social networking services to log in/create your account, and you can also import personal details from those networks. (I’m not sure how this works in practice – I don’t have an invite yet…) Secondly, a SocailLearn toolbar can be raised on any page from a bookmarklet (rather than a browser extension?), and then used to display individual widgets from different widget sets as overlays on the current page (I assume widget sets are like tabs on Netvibes, or Pageflakes?)

The best way to demo this is by a video… err.. Hmm… Being a web platform, site features are described using a video tour; and being a social platform, the video player has viral sharing/embedding features… errr…. probably… maybe… errr.. well if there is, I can’t spot them, at least, not in my browser…and being a WordPress hosted blog, I’m limited as to what I can embed anyway…

Ho hum…

This new, lighter weight view of SocialLearn harkens back to some of the original ideas that were mooted at the early stages of the first iteration of SocialLearn, but since then we’ve had the Facebook effect and a shift in terms of attention to that platform and the Facebook way of interacting, as well as the explosion in availability of smartphones and the app economy. Maybe the time is now right for portable toolbars that carry your applications with you to separate websites? Will the widget base of SocialLearn allow widgets to act as a standalone apps on a mobile device, or work nicely together in a combined app? Who knows…? It’ll be interesting to see…

(It’s also interesting to wonder whether the SocialLearn gadget approach is being developed with an eye on the Google Apps for Edu, which a little bird told me will start to roll out to OU students over the summer… (can anyone confirm that? And more specifically confirm what will be rolling out to whom?)

PS as far as user behaviour and UI aesthetics go, I wonder if the Max Expose inspired Firefox Tab Candy means we’ll start to see more of this style of interaction too?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

5 thoughts on “OpenLearn Website Refresh, and the Re-emergence of SocialLearn…”

  1. From the AL e-mail switch July 2010 update:
    “The OU is implementing Google apps as a personal tool for students and this includes an email account. Over the summer a targeted group of students will be offered the opportunity to sign up for Google. This will be evaluated before it is rolled out further in 2011. The students’ preferred email addresses will not automatically default to Google; students have a choice as to which email address they wish to use.”

    One of the key deficits of the original SocialLearn platform was how difficult the “social” aspect was in practice. I’m immensely curious about how this has been addressed this time, since it says you can connect with others and discuss your ideas with others on SocialLearn when your questions can’t be answered by a search engine. How do you do this? I saw widgets for People Recommendations and “Flow”, but I wasn’t sure where this content was drawn from.

    It seems likely that “People” recommendations are based on the profiles people set up (or import) on the site. What kind of info would you import from Facebook that would be related to your learning interests or needs or do you end up with recommendations for people who work at the same place or go to the same school? Twitter’s even shorter! The LinkedIn one, I could see being more useful.

    I remember, on the basis of the presentation at the OU Conference this year, tweeting that “SocialLearn provides the ‘glue’ to connect activities, friends & recommendations. SocialLearn is a layer to connect you.” That suggests that it’s more of an aggregator for content hosted/managed elsewhere than a provider itself. Is that the case for asking questions? How do you ask questions and follow discussions about your questions?

    So many questions and so few answers yet. It’s all part of a trick to suck me into trying it out. It’s working!

    1. I have no idea how the social recommender bits are going to be implemented. If you have knowledge of someone’s identity on one service (or get them to install an app in case of Facebook), you can often use that to pivot around them to pull in info about friends on other services, e.g. using Google socialgraph API ( ). As the service starts to build up its social database, there would be the potential to try to reconcile folk/identities across networks and make recommendations on that basis?

      As to flow, I was assuming that would be based on activity data within the SocialLearn environment, though I suspect it would be easy enough to syndicate updates from other services (yet more duplicate channels!;-)

  2. Hi Tony

    Thanks for spreading the news. In answer to your queries:

    1. There aren’t any plans for OpenLearn to replicate the news pages on the OU website but we will be creating content relating to newsworthy teaching and research related subjects – more the science behind the story than covering the story itself. We meet wekly with the Media Relations office to make the links.

    2. It’s likely that Stadium content will appear on YouTube in the first instance and be embedded in OpenLearn with more wraparound content where we have it. We’ve done a bit of this in the past so yes, many of these lectures could appear in What’s On in the future (rights allowing).

    3. There are loads of feeds available in the site albeit very hidden away. We’re running our second stage of expert testing now and more user testing in the Autumn so will raise the prominence as an issue – I can see that it would be useful to at least raise the category level feeds up to the top of the category pages. In the meantime, scroll down to the bottom of any article page and you should see a set of three tabs. One is called Article feeds.

    Thanks for feedback.


  3. Hi Tony and Michelle

    The tools are giving us a nice springboard into easy p2p interaction. Trialling aiming to start in Sept after we’ve kicked the tyres a bit more: I have your invites in gilt-edged envelopes in front of me ;-)

    We already have a baby recommender gadget runnning in Cloudworks [eg., and we’re now working with the new JICSC-funded KMi/Library/Arts Lucero project around linked data to start experimenting with analytics and recommenders in RDF space [].

    Agreed that there may well not be much in your other SN profiles that will really inform your learning/inquiry-focused interests, so you will prob want to enhance your SL profile to give the engine as much to work with as poss.


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