OpenLearn – Open Educational Resources from the Open University

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OpenLearn is the Open University’ (OU) educational resources (OER) website, which offers free access to a wide variety of educational content and learning materials. Initially inspired by MIT’s OpenCourseWare, the OU now provides over 900 learning hours of materials covering a range of different topics – from science and IT, through to the arts and languages.

Apparently this was launched in 2006, but the first I heard of it was when a leaflet arrived at my workplace this morning advertising this as a resource (very remiss of me!). Thank crunchy for good old-fashioned advertising though, because this really is a resource worth investigating!

I’ve not had chance to try any of the course materials yet [I dare say I’ll post something once I’ve given it a test-drive], but the fundamentals as I see them are as follows:

  • Anyone can use the resources and study materials provided – just turn up to the website, register, then get cracking
  • Once inside you are presented with what is effectively a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) that offers you a number of different options. You can browse through courses on offer by following topic links (e.g. “Technology” or “Study Skills”), or by more specific terminology in the form of a tag cloud.  Additional support modules include forums where you can discuss ideas with other participants, video conferencing software and instant messaging (allowing contact with learners from around the globe).
  • There’s also a “learning journal” module, allowing you to make notes on courses.  These can either be made private, opened up to other participants, or made public to anyone who visits the site.  Effectively they are learning logs or blogs, and so come with similar benefits such as tagging and RSS, and thus you can track the public posts of other people and make use of their observations.

This all falls within a module called LearningSpace.  Interestingly though, there is also an additional module called LabSpace, which contains all the resources from the LearningSpace, along with additional material from obsolete OU courses.  The LabSpace section aims to encourage learners and, more specifically, educators, to manipulate and reuse course material (the online resources fall under a creative commons license), as well as to create and upload new learning material to share with other practitioners.  So, when combined with courses on education and pedagogical practice within the LearningSpace section, this makes this a very appealing resource for both learners and educators.

For anyone involved in teaching or instruction within the workplace this could well prove to be both a useful (and very cheap!) source of CPD activities, whilst also providing interaction with/support from other educators, and inspiration for new teaching methods/resources.

On first impressions, this is definitely worth further investigation.  More from me on this later.  For more information on OpenLearn check out the details of their story so far.

Are “skills” a figment of our imagination?

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I recently attended a very interesting and thought-provoking course on learning theory, the aim being to gain ideas about how best to put across information to members of my organisation enrolled on information skills courses.

Long story short – it appears that the term information “skills” is something of a no no. As you may have gathered by the quote marks, it’s the “skills” bit that’s the problem. According to the course leader this could imply a set of predefined processes that a “student” may assume is the only way to approach a problem and that all information inquiries (in this case) can be solved by following the same set routines. “Skills” is therefore giving my “students” an unrealistic expectation about what they should be taking from/what they will get out of my courses.

The problem that I have with this is pitching it to my target audience. I have resisted using the industry terminology “information literacy” because, in my opinion, the inclusion of the term “literacy” will give the impression that I am condescending towards this audience who are almost certainly unaware of its use in this context.

My aim is not to give the impression that every information need can be fulfilled by the same routine set of processes, and nor do I think the title “information skills” imply this.  My aim is to raise awareness of techniques that can be used in searching for information in online or real-world environments.  For example, the use of truncation and wildcards in search engine queries, or even the simplest things like the use of synonyms (which can easily be applied to both Web/database searching practice, and searching the index of a book).  I want to equip those who participate in my courses with some “tools” that will make them more effective searchers, more “skilled” searchers. However, in order to do this I have to get people to come first!  They won’t come if they don’t feel they will be getting anything practical from it, and woolley terminology like “problem solving” simply won’ cut it with my target audience I’m afraid.

So, the dilemma is one of semantics versus the “greater good” – namely encouraging as many of my target audience as possible to think more carefully about information searching and retrieval, and resource evaluation when conducting their enquiries.  Narrow-minded though this may seem, the success of these courses is far more important to my organisation than the relative merits of the terminology, so for now I will set the semantics to one side and concentrate on the content.  I fully appreciate the arguments of the course leader, and I accept that in the field of academia “information skills” may be divorced from the “reality” of the learning experience provided, but in the real, my real world the semantics aren’t the issue – the results are.  As long as those attending the courses take away more than they came with, and find the work we do on the day useful, I’ll be a happy bunny! 😉

I should say that the rest of the course that I attended was very useful indeed, and I gained a lot of useful ideas about how to approach a subject in ways that would benefit all types of learners and people at various stages of understanding and development… but that’s one for another post – watch this space!