Reflections on the OER Review & OPLI challenge

Several months on from its publication in May, and sparked in particular by Cathy Casserly and John Seely Brown at our recent OpenLearn 2007 conference, here are some reflections on:

A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement: Achievement, Challenges and New Opportunities“, by Dan Atkins, Director of Cyberinfrastructure at NSF; John Seely Brown, former Chief Scientist of Xerox, Director of PARC, and Allen Hammond, World Resources Institute.

To paraphrase just a little, the impressive OER review makes the argument for investing in a convergence between big OER repositories as funded by Hewlett and others, big top-down cyberinfrastructure as funded by national e-science/e-social science/humanities programmes, and grassroots, bottom-up Web 2.0 tools. The resulting Open Participatory Learning Infrastructure (OPLI) (- or OPLEcosystem as JSB redubbed it at Openlearn 2007), would provide online learners with unprecedented access to OERs, interoperable social learning and collaboration tools, and scientific e-instruments/data, co-evolved with new work and organisational practices, with our eyes wide open to the historical realities of how real infrastructures develop.

This is an exciting vision that resonates strongly with me (as will become clear), and yet, I feel that the characterisation of the ‘perfect storm’ that has been brewing to make this happen, and the usage scenarios, are missing something important.

First, when I read the OPLE vision, I don’t see just “the learners” out there benefiting from access to each other, OERs and Professional Scholars Online. If the OPLE tools are any good, then it is the top flight researchers and everyone down from them who will be appropriating them for their own use. Of course, they would hopefully be amongst the first to count themselves as “learners” for their lifetimes, but we should start from the beginning with them as end-users and testers. The way that scholarly knowledge is disseminated, debated, reviewed, indexed and accessed could be jump-started by the OPLE as well.

Secondly, why stop at learners and academic scholars? Right now, we face some of the most “complex, urgent challenges” (to quote Doug Engelbart) imaginable, and (continuing with Doug) need tools to “augment human intellect”. Sounds like the OPLE to me! The global, national, societal and community dilemmas that we now face do of course engage academics, students and informal learners, but far more: government and other policy makers/thinktanks, corporate executives and scientists, national and international development agencies, economists, trade unions, facilitators, conflict resolution experts, and so forth: the whole spectrum of stakeholders who need to work together.

My point is this: if we get it right, the OPLE should be of equal benefit to these people, and moreover, they should be involved in shaping and testing the programme that makes it reality. Personally, I find the concept of sensemaking to be a richer one than learning, and so would shoot for an OPSE (!), or a concept I’ve been working on, a Global Sensemaking Infrastructure (GSI), that overlays on the more familiar Global information Infrastructure. But the branding is a detail: it’s about our vision, and who we bring around the table for the next chapter.

This new environment/ecosystem will provide ways for analysts to construct meaning over the information ocean, showing how information fragments cohere into meaningful patterns, which provide an evidence base for different courses of action. It’s about connecting and contesting in principled ways. This applies to both formal and informal learning as a newcomer, all the way through to deliberation and debate in society and professional circles about how to tackle the problems we now face. It will combine tools for collaboration, content syndication, argumentation and dialogue, as well as data and information visualization to help clarify the overwhelming datasets we now have (cf. the fantastic work of Gapminder)

In this sense, there is no difference between “learners” and “pros”. Everyone is trying to make sense of the world.

And to finish, a few favourite quotes of the moment 🙂

“Sensemaking is about such things as placement of items into frameworks, comprehending, redressing surprise, constructing meaning, interacting in pursuit of mutual understanding, and patterning.” Karl Weick, Sensemaking in Organizations, Sage, 1995, p.6

“I want to talk about the challenge of our generation. [

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