Open Education: How do we build relevance?

Well, I am finally decompressing from the Open Education 2007 conference, and its been an interesting three days. Among the numerous highlights was re-connecting (in person) with D’Arcy, Scott, and Brian, as well as meeting folks I have followed through the tubes like David Wiley. Not to mention all the new folks I have met, to name just a few Jen, Pedro, Kim Tucker, and Keri (who from what I understand was under the impression I was a bonafide Reverend -well aren’t I?). Cool people make all the difference, and there were more than a few at this conference.

That said, there was a general feel at the conference that might be likened to an uncertainty about the future of open content in relationship to issues of scalability, sustainability, localization, and other infra-structural issues that often compel those who have something to lose into the realm of trying to predict and control outcomes rather than imagining possibilities. The more I think about it, the more I think that content is not something that can be imagined outside of a cultural or community context, it is something that has to be conceptualized within a very specific space. During my talk with D’Arcy I started to imagine the University of Mary Washington as a college with very few resources as compared to the wealthier institutions such as MIT, Berkeley, Yale, and many of the other prominent US institutions present at this conference, not to mention all the representatives from large international institutions.

In fact, I found myself saying to folks repeatedly when they asked me “Mary What? Where are you from again?” “Oh, I’m from a small public school in Virginia.” In many ways I started to think about the visions of development and the questions of scale as a frame for how institutions with so many resources can begin to divine how to frame out a series of open resources to tackle the uneven development of nations, while not even beginning to think about the uneven development of educational resources in any given state of the US. This is by no means a knock on any of these institutions, but rather a call to action. The University of Mary Washington is preparing for some lean years to come and we are by no means a rich school to begin with. The faculty and staff are paid decidedly less than most other schools in the state and we have avoided larger enterprise LMS systems and other “sustainable and scalable solutions” as much because of a lack of resources as a lack of interest.

What might some of these larger institutions learn from a school like UMW with a particular community that has a specific set of challenges, concerns, and scarcity of resources? Well, for one, they can think about how creating large, over-arching systems to manage open content is most likely a colossal waste of time, energy, and money. Of the examples I saw at the conference, I wasn’t overly impressed by any one thriving community surrounding the re-purposing or sharing of open content. In fact, I would suggest that creating content repositories is probably not the answer to the problems of scarcity, access, and openness, and this is a sentiment many seemed to echo throughout the three days. But why, then, were so many of the discussions premised around issues of scalability, sustainability, and infrastructure?

Content is being created on the open web daily. Why force-feed “developing” nations another series of systems when we should be working on allowing them to either access or easily create the resources that are already out there. For example, a small and relatively poor school like Mary Washington has in the last three weeks spent all of $30 (monthly mind you) to create an active blog archive of resources about a wide variety of subjects like British Literature, Video Art, Women & Western Art, Islamic Literature, Asian Literature, Creative Writing, Cell Biology, Instructional Design, Banned Art, and the list goes on, for its specific community of 3500 learners. We haven’t been doing this for more than three weeks but have over 4,000 posts that are out there on the open web, all of which have the potential to be searched, found, and used by other folks for their own education (formal or otherwise).

Moreover, we are using an open source tool (WordPress Multi-User) that costs nothing, is simple to set up, and has a phenomenal community of users that are constantly fine tuning both the code base and extending the functionality of the system. $30 bucks a month! I fully recognize that the work I have been doing over the last year is in effect making my actual position in some ways redundant, and I think that is important. What could be better in this field if you can find a tool (although its not all the tool-granted) that helps build learning communities that is so cheap, easy to manage, and awesome that it could pretty much run itself? Allowing the user to have full proficiency to publish their thoughts and ideas to the web without any obstacles. That, for me, is the pinnacle of success because it works against all the ludicrous notions of having to keep yourself relevant and useful. That is the problem with institutional thinking on all of these issues, they want to keep themselves relevant in regards to issues of sustainability, scalability, and cost recovery, when it has become readily apparent that they are increasingly irrelevant in regards to infrastructure in the age of the open read/write web with search engines like google and tools like Blogger, Wikipedia,, Drupal, MediaWiki, and the list goes on.

Focus on creating a great space for teaching and learning at your institutions that is dynamic, forward thinking, and multi-modal, while at the same time capturing it in some digital form (or at least its trace) and make it freely available on the web. Why are we creating new tools? Why are we trying to design course modules with new content? D’Arcy articulated some pretty profound musings at the conference that I was lucky enough to overhear: “let’s put a moratorium on developing new tools” as well as “a moratorium on developing new content.”

Yes! Use the tools that currently work to populate the web with existing resources. Then work on ways to manage the flow of data, to quote Brian again and again, at institutions and get out of the business of providing nuts to bolts infra-structure. This is not only a solution for institutions and educational interests more broadly, but also an extremely cheap and reasonable means for “developing” nations to frame out their own distributed learning networks. Why are we re-inventing the wheel? Let’s just put it all out there and find ways to get it to folks as easily as possible, rather than wasting so much money on re-thinking the wheel? Small communities throughout the world will create resources relevant to them, no matter where they are located, and that relevance will make them that much easier to find on the open web.

Can rich institutions of the West build relevance for the rest of the world? Perhaps, but I don’t think they can do it very effectively or efficiently. And if we do, it’s no longer called relevance, its more akin to cultural imperialism. We need simple, affordable micro-cultures for teaching and learning, not macro-cultures for delivery and consumption.

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14 Responses to Open Education: How do we build relevance?

  1. Pingback: Ruminate » Blog Archive » Riffing on Relevance

  2. I wish I knew how to write, because if I did I would say stuff like this:

    “… there was a general feel at the conference that might be likened to an uncertainty about the future of open content in relationship to issues of scalability, sustainability, localization, and other infra-structural issues that often compel those who have something to lose into the realm of trying to predict and control outcomes rather than imagining possibilities.”

    … or this, “Focus on creating a great space for teaching and learning at your institutions that is dynamic, forward thinking, and multi-modal, while at the same time capturing it in some digital form (or at least its trace) and make it freely available on the web.”

    Preachin’ to the choir 🙂

  3. jimgroom says:


    You just did!

    It was a pleasure meeting you, and you can be sure that I won’t forgive you for your Drupal love. Now that I own D’Arcy, you’re next!

    Kiss NYC for me.

  4. Pingback: on open ed 2007 - D'Arcy Norman dot net

  5. Tony D'Ambra says:

    As an outsider to this milieu, it seems to me is the central issue is content insofar as quality and relevance determine the value of any learning system. Not just anyone can teach in an educational institution, so there should be be a gatekeeper system to filter out the crap and propaganda.

    Adequately funding quality education in the less developed world will be where you need to start there.

  6. Greetings, Mr. Groom,

    Some great thoughts and observations here —

    On days when I’m feeling cynical, I can’t get around the sensation that some of the motivation driving the discussion on “issues of scalability, sustainability, localization, and other infra-structural issues” has less to do with scalability, sustainability, and culturally competent/translated content than it has to do with controlling the flow of content, or slowing the process while businesses figure out how to make money off of licensing.

    Because: we have rss and atom, json, soap and rest calls, and xml-rpc, to name a few — all lightweight methods of moving information from point A to point B. When content is transported (not referenced, but actually copied) from one place to another, it can then be recontextualized, remixed, reused — all the things that most folks within the open content arena agree need to be happening.

    One of the things that is amazing to see about what you are doing at UMW is that you have proceeded to build out a lightweight infrastructure that works. People can criticize it as unscalable, etc, but when the dust settles you have the same basic response as defenders of Wikipedia: it only works in practice.

    The same is true of using existing tools to make truly open content possible — it only works in practice. I only half agree with D’Arcy: we need to be using the existing tools, but they need to be developed in order to allow the everyday user (a teacher, a student, someone working on their own without the resources of a university behind them) to access, import, and recontextualize content. These tools need to run on FOSS platforms to guarantee free availability and access.



  7. Holy shabang! First D’Arcy wears a WordPress shirt and then Bill Fitzgerald (who bleeds Drupal drop blue) says he only 1/2 agrees with D’Arcy on something. All is not well in Drupalville … we must set aside our differences and fix this … Drupalistas unite!

  8. jimgroom says:

    Oh Jesus! Jennifer are you calling for a Drupal revolution on bavatuesdays? You heretical philistine! The reverend is not happy.


    I don’t know why I always get so happy when you comment, but nonetheless I do. In D’Arcy’d defense (though I know I should be feeding the rift between Drupal fanboys and that D’Arcy is fully capable of defending himself) he seems to be talking about a moratorium on developing new software, not developing out the existing stuff to sing to the tune you outline beautifully above.

    I think the logic is to sit down and work through the tools we have identified as crucial to moving the content freely between contexts, and find away to make the eduglu of various RSS formats for numerous applications a bit more intelligent in terms of filtering by topic, keyword, relevance, etc. Both of which are not unlike what your are doing with Moodle, Drupal, and MediaWiki. I personally see our visions as completely aligned (D’Arcy, you, and I as well as many others like the fangirl Jennifer), we just have silly bantering sessions about Drupal and WordPress.

    By the way, thanks for the kind words about UMW Blogs, it works so far and that is purely because the faculty and students at UMW are truly amazing. The technology is just easy enough to foster their proclivity to be open and intelligent simultaneously.

  9. Hello, Jim,

    WRT “a moratorium on developing new software, not developing out the existing stuff” — fully agreed. The basic tools exist. They now need improvement so that non-technical users can access them.

    Adding in things like filtering by topic, keyword, relevance (although relevance is highly subjective and likely to change across contexts and across users) is also critical, and potentially could be managed at the source of the content or at the point of import.

    I also agree that we are pretty much talking about doing the same thing in the same way — and really, this is not a conversation about tools or software or platforms, but about supporting teaching and learning. It also has implications with empowering a user to own their learning, but these tools can be used effectively without ever going down the philosophical rabbit hole.

    But it would be a lot easier not to talk about tools if you didn’t use such a simplistic blogging platform.

    Sorry. I tried to take the high road. Really, I did. But by the time I realized what I had written I had already hit the “Submit” botton, and it was too late — see how the word “button” is misspelled in the earlier line? I was writing so hastily that I didn’t even have time to go back and correct my misspelling, let alone edit out any potentially misdirected aspersions concerning blog software 🙂



  10. Pingback: 益学会 > OLDaily 中文版 » Blog Archive » 2007å¹´10月3æ—¥

  11. jimgroom says:


    I know you ‘re lying, but it doesn’t matter because we can only get along for so long before things fall apart! 🙂

  12. Hello, Jim,

    How’d you know I wasn’t telling the complete truth?

    Damn. That’ll learn me for telling a falsehood to the Reverend. I can’t get away with nuthin.



    PS. All kidding aside, we are saying pretty identical things here. And anything that supports open standards, such as this blog with its RSS and Atom feeds, will be in a great position to be incorporated into a distributed learning network.

    Because, as much as I perseverate about a particular piece of software, the software is of secondary importance, behind the learning activities going on within the application.



  13. Steve says:

    Sorry to come late to the party, but I had a thought about a small point you made. Perhaps I’ve listened to Brian too much, but I think an answer to the open content question and the fact that the applicability of content depends on specific context is to keep the content your providing in small bits so potential users can mix and match what you offer to meet their specific needs.

  14. Gardner says:


    I’m even later to the party than Steve, which I sure he will remind me of on a daily basis. 🙂 That said, I appreciate your thoughts here very much and will try to engage them in depth soon. Maybe even in person? For now I’ll just say that my own vision (as you know) is that learners will not only become skilled in linking and aggregating but also skilled in thinking hard about web-enabled information and publishing architectures. I see the Bluehost sandbox at $8 a month as an innovation environment, what Jon Udell called a “user innovation toolkit,” with scalability and greater functionality provided by slightly more expensive hosting services such as CastIron. There’s an interesting and natural progression there that makes a lot of sense.

    One key in all cases, I agree, is to stay as lightweight as possible for as long as possible, though you and I would probably disagree at least slightly on when to “go heavier.” Another key, in my view, is that in the end only the user truly scales.(I forget where I heard it–a podcast on Wikipedia, maybe?–but someone said that true scaling is like NYC, while controlled planning around limits instead of possibilities leads to something like The Mall of America–which has its uses too, but not the way NYC does of course.) It’s a slight variation on the “teach a man to fish” idea, heading in the direction of Jon Udell’s vision of “hosted lifebits.”

    When higher education focuses on the infrastructure that enables innovation instead of the enterprise “solution” that holds and presents (and walls off) content, then we’ll be in a better place. And I’m convinced that higher ed is uniquely empowered to build an innovation infrastructure, or to put it in Engelbart’s terms, a “capability infrastructure”–since that’s another way of saying “education,” I think.

    Have you read Illich’s “Deschooling Society” yet? I think you’d find a kindred spirit there, as it happens another Reverend in fact. 🙂

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