August 15, 2007

"Feeding from Open Courseware" - OpenLearn Conference Abstract

Earlier today, I had to combine a couple of abstracts I'd put in to the OpenLearn Conference for the single speaking slot I've been allocated. Although I normally keep everything, I couldn't track down either of the abstracts for quite some time, so I mailed the organisers to see if they could let me have copies back (unfortunately, the abstracts weren't on the conference website - I checked; and come to that, the same is true for the abstract of the presentation I'm giving at Internet Librarian International 2007, which I also appear to have, err, misplaced...!)

Anyway, assuming that I'm likely to have trouble tracking the new abstract down when I come to prepare my presentation in the hours, err, days (okay, Patrick? ;-) before the OpenLearn conference (30-31 October 2007), here it is... just in case...

Feeding from Open Courseware - Exploring the Potential of Open Educational Content Delivery Using RSS Feeds.
Tony Hirst
Faculty of Technology, The Open University

Abstract An implicit aim of many opencourseware projects, including OpenLearn, is to encourage the informal use of open educational resources, as well as its reuse. In this presentation, I shall describe several examples of how open courseware can be disaggregated into component parts that can be easily shared and republished using RSS and OPML web feeds.

From 'daily learning chunks' delivered to candidate PLEs such as PageFlakes using a Web 2.0 mashup to mobile access, this approach can also be used to turn bibliographies into online bookstores and provide a way of displaying media assets in a rich media slideshow.

The original wave of opencourseware initiatives, such as MIT's OpenCourseware project, sought to make high quality educational resources available for reuse and repurposing by whosoever wanted to avail themselves of that content. More recent thinking implies that just providing the content is not enough. Approaches such as OpenLearn provide a learning environment around the content that can provide personal learning support tools and support the formation of learning communities and.

Although providing 'reuse and remix' opportunities forms part of the war cry for the OER community, few demonstrations of just how the content may be used in such a way are offered. In the same way that the learning object economy that was much heralded by educational technologists never seemed to be as successful as was originally hoped, is it possible that the hoped for reuse and remix of OERs will similarly fail to take off (Lamb, 2007)?

The granularity at which open courseware content is typically published - the course, or course unit - makes it difficult to consume bite size chunks of content easily, and arguably makes it difficult to discover reusable or remixable items of content.

As I have written elsewhere, '[t]he easiest remix is not really a remix at all, and barely counts as a reuse, though it is a republish or represent - just take a direct copy of someone else's content and make it your own property/publish it on your own site, in your own content area' (Hirst, 2007).

At the simplest level, exposing open educational content via an RSS feed immediately opens up this republishing opportunity.

Taking a lead from social websites such as youTube and flickr, where content can be shared at a fine level of granularity (the movie or picture level) as well as at an aggregated level (a playlist or photostream), I shall describe several implemented examples of how both MIT Open CourseWare courses, and Open University OpenLearn units, can be disaggregated into component parts and then republished in a syndicated way using OPML and RSS feeds, as well as through social networks.

One advantage of making content available via RSS is the wide variety of pre-existing tools that are capable of consuming RSS feeds. For example, it is possible to consume RSS feeds RSS readers (e.g. Bloglines or Google Reader) or webtops (e.g. Netvibes, iGoogle or PageFlakes), as well as republishing content in RSS format as PDF documents, or even audio files. Mobile support for RSS feeds is also widespread.

However, the use of RSS feeds as a significant route for publishing OER content does not seem to be widely recognised. For example, the Open Educational Practices and Resources. OLCOS Roadmap 2012 (Geser, 2007) uses its section entitled 'RSS feeds enrich educational portals and learners can subscribe directly to thematic content feeds' to refer more to the way learners can aggregate content around a particular topic from formal and informal publishers, such as news services and bloggers, without suggesting that OER providers themselves might publish educational content in this way. This in part reflects the mindset that RSS is used to publish changeable content or content that is regularly updated, as opposed to providing a way to syndicate fixed or static content, such as unchanging course material.

In this presentation, I will describe the process by which early demonstration RSS feeds for OpenLearn content were generated from the original OpenLearn XML content and MIT OCW web pages using various third party online tools. Essentially, this is just republishing the materials in the RSS medium, in addition to the HTML pages or printable PDF documents that are typically made available.

This "RSSified" content can be used as the basis for republishing and remixing the content by third party users, or consuming it in the location of their choice. For example, RSS versions of course units can be viewed using candidate personal learning environment "webtops" such as Netvibes and PageFlakes, or distributed as "daily learning chunks" using OpenLearn_daily, a Web 2.0 mashup involving OpenLearn and Yahoo Pipes; and simple content remixes can be derived using RSS feed filters and simple content analysis tools.

Reusing or repurposing material at the level of granularity with which it is published (that is, at the course or unit level) is problematic on several counts: the physical format of the materials may not be appropriate, the way multiple topics covered by the materials are bundled together may not deliver the correct storyline for the person wishing to reuse (elements of) the course, the materials may not have the correct blend of media assets for the intended reuse, and so on.

By disaggregating content and individual assets and republishing them as separate items in a single RSS feed, the component parts of a course can be made available as a cleanly packaged bundle of separate items without the need for heavyweight packaging formats.

As a demonstration, I will show how an MIT OCW course can be atomised in such a way that bibliographic information and media assets related to course examples can be republished via shareable, rich media feeds, and how the course as a whole can be disaggregated into component parts that can then be republished in aggregated form using an OPML feed.

I will also describe an automated process for treating an OpenLearn course unit in XML form as a database that can be "mined" - or "asset stripped" - in several different ways to expose particular components of the course, such as link collections or image collections. The link collections can then be used to seed custom search engines, and media assets can be passed into course related photostreams or online radio channels.


Geser, G. (ed.) (2007) "Open Educational Practices and Resources. OLCOS Roadmap 2012" ISBN 3-902448-08-3 Available from:, accessed 14/7/07.

Hirst, T. (2007) "So What Exactly Is an OpenLearn Content Remix?" OUseful Info, April 3, 2007,, accessed 14/7/07.

Lamb, B. (2007) "Dr. Mashup; or, Why Educators Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Remix" EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 42, no. 4 (July/August 2007): 12-25. Available from:, accessed 14/7/07.

PS Not having any 'proper' references to hand (as requested by several referees of the original abstracts who didn't hint at what those references might be, or even where they might come from), I put out a shout to a couple of people who work in the area to see if they had any good ones to hand. Apparently not... Now I used to be a real academic reference junky (honestly!) back in my PhD days, although even then I'd be as likely to cite a pre-print or technical report I'd found on an individual's web page as something from a heavyweight (= slow turnaround) journal. But now? I am soooooooooo out of the formal literature and don't even know what conferences or workshop series to follow, let alone what journals to read ... So if you do know offhand of any good references that might bolster the above, can you, err, please mail me link or DOI? Or share me the link via delicious? Ta muchly... (I'll give you an acknowledgment, of course :-)

PPS don't forget the OpenLern Remix competition... there's still plenty of time to enter...

Posted by ajh59 at August 15, 2007 10:25 PM