In the mid 1990s, instructors needed an easy way to create websites for their courses. With the advent of the web, the possibility of online syllabi, course notes and even online discussion boards had become a reality. But only the most tech savvy faculty members could create such sites without technical assistance. Course management systems (CMSs) were born to meet this need. When an institution installed WebCT or Blackboard and made it available to faculty, they could quickly and easily create their own course sites. Over time, CMSs have become more robust and feature-rich. They have also become more “enterprise” in their nature. On most campuses, CMSs are integrated with Student Information Systems (SISs) and are considered part of the institution’s enterprise technology portfolio.
While these developments have generally contributed to the stability and reliability of CMSs, they have also tended to make them less flexible and adaptable. Given their enterprise status, it is complicated and expensive to perform upgrades and customize functionality (via open APIs or otherwise). In response, faculty members and students have increasingly gravitated to Web 2.0 social networking tools that provide almost a much greater range of options and flexibility. The choice appears to be a centralized, enterprise “networked learning environment” on one hand and open, customizable “personal learning environments” on the other.
As we look to the future, it is worth considering the possibility of bringing these two worlds together in what we might call “open learning networks” (OLNs). In an OLN, faculty, students and support staff would reap the benefits of enterprise, networked software for authentication, identity management, integration with SISs, etc. Additionally, they would be able to use a vast range of Web 2.0 apps, integrated into the OLN via web services and other sorts of integrations.
What exactly might this look like? The picture is still coming into focus in my mind (and I’m anxious to hear others’ thoughts and comments), but I think it would look something like this:
1. A core of institutional authentication, identify management and data integration services to bring learners and teachers together in a secure institutional environment. Once “inside” a local, institutional OLN, learners and instructors would be linked together in groups based on course enrollments, majors, clubs and other groupings recorded in various university systems. They would also be linked to content related to past and future learning experiences, projects and assignments. A key component of this aspect of the OLN would be a persistent, sharable learner profile that would serve as a hub for the learner’s various connections to other learners, content and learning applications.
2. An OLN would also provide connections / integration points with a variety of open education resource repositories, institutional content collections, and user created content tools, including various self-publishing sites like YouTube, Google Docs and blogs. The OLN would facilitate “registration” of personal learning environment tools and social networking tools so that they are trustably associated with learner profiles. For example, once inside the OLN, users would be able to see the blogs, Facebook profiles, personal content collections and other tools and resources associated with other users (based, of course, on permissions and rights to see such information).
3. The OLN would also need to be integrated with robust online assessment tools (e.g. for formative and summative quizzing and testing), a “harvesting gradebook” capable of aggregating data from a variety of learning applications, and an eportfolio tool which students could use to archive and document their learning experiences and activities.
Admittedly, this is a vague vision. But it seems to capture the best of the rigid, centralized CMS paradigm and the open, free-form world of personal learning environments.
We are beginning a conversation at BYU to explore the feasibility of creating an OLN, what it might look like at our institution and how we might go about building it. One of our first matters of business is to consider the development of an open, web services enabled university gradebook. Having such a tool in place would be an important first step toward creating a viable OLN. More to come . . .