Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Authentic Educational Activities: innovation and openness

This post relates to Activity 5 Week 2 (H817 module) with the Open University (OU) in the UK.

We've been discussing openness and innovation in the light of  'An Open Future for Higher Education' (McAndrew et al. 2010). This paper discusses amongst other things OpenLearn which opened its doors to non-paying learners in October  2006 and according to McAndrew et al., over '8 million' users had taken advantage of this free education at the time of writing their paper. Free education, but at a price. The project swallowed $11million in the initiation phase whereby ' nearly $9million came from the 'The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation' ( McAndrew et al. 2010). 

Over $11 million to go 'open'. An innovative form of learning that poses challenges in the way of content design and delivery, e-pedagogies, methods of support for learners and staff, assessment or proof of completion of a module, choice of information and communication technologies, methods of tracking user behaviour in order to optimize resources etc. These are just a few of the  complex factors that need to be addressed if the quality of education provided is going to be taken seriously and maintained for this group of learners, which according to an OU study, can be neatly catergorised into two main groups i. e. volunteer students and social learners (McAndrew et al. 2010). Basically, the difference being that the first group are more content-driven learners and the latter are more interested in the social aspect of learning and more likely to take advantage of the technologies at hand for this purpose. I prefer to think of the first group more as autonomous or self-directed learners. This form of learning is just one example of how learning is changing e.g. a blurring of boundaries is occurring between formal and informal learning and in addition, this specific model of learning is having concrete effects on teaching and research. 

McAndrew et al. (2010) also discuss several innovative projects such as, iSpot (see video below), a nature site where participants are encouraged to  photograph what they spot outdoors and find unusual i.e. wild nature and not pretty pot plants hanging around garden centres waiting to be bought, unless of course there is some wild bug feasting on them and participating in bug activities in general. Having spotted and photographed something, the next phase is uploading your photo and data and participating in the forums to discuss your findings and deepen your understanding of nature. The site is loaded with information, provides support, has its own android app, has videos, pdfs, sharing possibilities with Facebook (which means sharing with a broader audience) and asks for feedback, so very much a blend of learning by doing, learning autonomously and social learning with the possibility of accessing help and support through various media. For those wanting to take this form of learning further there is a link to an OU nature course as well as to the Open Air Laboratory site where users can assist in collecting information for specific surveys and where the building of natural history societies is promoted. 

In the context of openness and innovation, I think this is a good example. There are guidelines as to what should be uploaded and how but otherwise participants are encouraged to make use of the resources and take part in forums. Therefore a social approach to learning using authentic activities. Innovative, in that it's using the masses to assist with data collection, encouraging the use of social media to broaden the scope of users and networks, has created an app to enable mobile-learning and thus more flexibility and provides other routes for more formal learning and also to participate on a more active level with like-minded people. Certainly, this type of Citizen Science project is not unique in itself, but iSpot seems to cater to the needs of various learning groups using the affordances of technology to enhance the learner experience and is interested in receiving feedback in order to optimize the site. Personally, I find these kinds of projects inspirational in that they give everyone an opportunity to take part in something that they can identify with in their own environment  with friends and family, and engage with a wider community of like-minded people.


McAndrew, P., Scanlon, E. and Clow, D. (2010) ‘An open future for higher education’ [online], EDUCAUSE Review Online, (EQ) 33/1, http://www.educause.edu/ ero/ article/ open-future-higher-education (accessed 12 February 2013).

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