Innovation Starts At Home…?

Mention was made a couple of times last week in the VC’s presentation to the OU about the need to be more responsive in our curriculum design and course production. At the moment it can take a team of up to a dozen academics over two years to put an introductory course together, that is then intended to last, without significant change, other than in the preparation of assessment material, for five years or more.

The new “agile” production process is currently being trialled by a new authoring tool, OpenCreate, that is currently available to a few select course teams as a partially complete “beta”. I think it is “cloud” based. And maybe also promoting the new “digital” first strategy. (I wonder how many letters in the KPMG ABC bingo card consulting product the OU paid for, and how much per letter? Note: A may also stand for “analytics”.)

I asked I could have a play with the OpenCreate tool, such as it, last week, but told it was still in early testing (so a good time to be able to comment, then?) and so, “no”. (So instead,  I went back to one of the issues I’d raised a few days ago on somebody else’s project on Github to continue helping with the testing of a feature suggestion. (A few days ago; the suggestion has already been implemented and the issue is now closed as completed. making my life easier and hopefully improving the package too.) Individuals know how to do agile. Organisations don’t. ;-))

So why would I wan’t to play with OpenCreate now, while it’s still flaky? Partly because I suspect the team are working on a UI and have settled elements of the backend. For all the f**kwitted nonsense the consultants may have been spouting about  agile, beta, cloud, digital solutions, any improvements are going to come form the way the users use the tools. And maybe workarounds they find. And by looking at how the thing works, I may be able to explore other bits of the UI design space, and maybe even bits of the output space…

Years ago, the OU moved to an XML authoring route, defining and XML schema (OU-XML) that could be used to repurpose content for multiple output formats (HTML, epub, docx, Word). By the by, these are all standardised document formats, which means other people also build tooling around them. The OU-XML document was an internal standard. Which meant only the OU developed tools for it. Or people we paid. I’m not sure if, or how much Microsoft, were paid to produce the OU’s custom authoring extensions for Word that would output OU-XML, for example… Another authoring route was an XML editor (currently, oXygen, I believe). OU-XML also underpinned OpenLearn content.

That said, OU-XML was a standard, so it was in principle possible for people who had knowledge of it to author tools around it. I played with a few myself, though they never generated much interest internally.

  • generating mind maps from OU/OpenLearn structured authoring XML documents: these provided the overview of a whole course and could also be used as a navigation surface (revisited here and here); I made these sort of mindmaps available as an additional asset in the T151 short course, but they were never officially recognised);
  • I then started treating a whole set of OU-XML documents *as a database* which meant we could generate *ad hoc* courses on a particular topic by searching for keywords across OpenLearn courses and then returning a mindmap constructed around components in different courses, again displaying the result as a mindmap (Generating OpenLearn Navigation Mindmaps Automagically). Note this was all very crude and represented playtime. I’d have pushed it further if anyone internally had shown any interest in exploring this more widely.
  • I also started looking at ways of liberating assets and content, which meant we could perform OpenLearn Searches over Learning Outcomes and Glossary Items. That is, take all the learning outcomes from OpenLearn docs and search into that to find units with learning outcomes on that topic. Or provide a “metaglossary” generated (for free) from glossary terms introduced in all OpenLearn materials. Note that I *really* wanted to do this as a cross-OU course content demo, but as the OU has become more digital, access to content has become less open. (You used to be able to look at complete course, OU print materials in academic libraries. No you need a password to access the locked down digital content; I suspect access expires to students after a period of time too; and it also means students can’t sell on their old course materials;
  • viewing OU-XML documents as structured database meant we could also asset strip OpenLearn for  images, providing a search tool to lookup images related to a particular topic. (Internally, we are encouraged to reuse previously created assets, but the discovery problem about helping authors discover what previously created assets are available has never really been addressed; I’m not sure the OU Digital Archive is really geared up for this, either?)
  • we could also extract links from courses and use them as a course powered custom search engine. This wasn’t very successful at the course level, (not enough links) but might have been interesting at across multiple courses;
  • a first proof of concept pass at a tool to export OU-XML documents from Google docs, so you could author documents using Google docs and then upload the result into the OU publishing system.

Something that has also been on my to do list for a long time are templates to convert Rmd (Rmarkdown) and Jupyter notebook ipynb documents to OU-XML.

So… if I could get to see the current beta OpenCreate tool, I might me able to see what document format authors were being encouraged to author into. I know folk often get the “woahh,, too complicated… feeling when reading OUseful.info blog posts*, but at the end of the day whatever magic dreams folk have for using tech, it boils down to a few poor sods having to figure out how to do that using three things: code, document formats (which we might also view as data representations more generally) and transport mechanisms (things like http; and maybe we could also class things like database connections here). Transport moves stuff between stuff. Representations represent the stuff you want to move. Code lets you do stuff with the represented stuff, and also move it between other things that do black box transformations to it (for example, transforming it from one representation to another).

That’s it. (My computing colleagues might disagree. But they don’t know how to think about systems properly ;-)

If OpenCreate is a browser based authoring tool, the content stuff created by authors will be structured somehow, and possibly previewed somehow. There’ll also be a mechanism for posting the authored stuff into the OU backend.

If I know what (document) format the content is authored in, I can use that as a standard and develop my own demonstration authoring tools and routes around that on the input side. For example, a converted that converts Jupyter notebook, or Rmd, or Google docs authored content into that format.

If there is structure in the format (as there was in OU-XML), I can use that as a basis for exploring what might be done if we can treat the whole collection of OU authored course materials as a database and exploring what sorts of secondary products, or alternative ways of using that content, might be possible.

If the formats aren’t sorted yet, maybe my play would help identify minor tweaks that could make content more, or less, useful. (Of course, this might be a distraction.)

I might also be able to comment on the UI…

But is this likely to happen? Is it f**k, because the OU is an enterprise that’s sold corporate, enterprise IT thinking from muppets who only know “agile” (or is that “analytics”?), “beta”, “cloud” and “digital” as bingo terms that people pay handsomely for. And we don’t do any of them because nobody knows what they mean…

* So for example, in Pondering What “Digital First” and “University of the Cloud” Mean…Pondering What “Digital First” and “University of the Cloud” Mean…, I mention things like “virtual machines” and “Docker” and servers and services. If you think that’s too technical, you know what you can do with your cloud briefings…

The OU was innovative because folk understood technologies of all sorts and made creative use of them. Many of our courses included emerging technologies that were examples of the technologies being taught in the courses. We ate the dogfood we were telling students about. Now we’ve put the dog down and just show students cat pictures given to us by consultants.

4 comments

  1. Simon Rae (@simonrae)

    Is this all encompassing system for OU course resources the same sort of thing as the BBC tried to create for all their digital assets a few years back? I seem to recall that that project didn’t end well… Will lessons have been learned?

  2. Tony Hirst

    @simonrae I suspect it’s just a markdown editor and a crap reimplementation of Open EdX, with lots of enterprise grade (?!) access controls and permissions groups. But I could be wrong… who knows?! ;-)

  3. Pingback: via @psychemedia 'we’ve put the dog down and just show students cat pictures given to us by consultants' https://blog.ouseful.info/2017/06/18/innovation-starts-at-home/ #innovation
  4. Pingback: Innovation Starts At Home…? | EDUMIO.com