Blog Post

Pushing Open Content Forward


Some of the intellectual spaces that exist on the Internet soon will become easier to access. Blackboard, a company that provides schools and colleges with learning management systems (LMS), unveiled a change in their policy last Wednesday that enables course teachers/professors to share content and resources on their course sites using a Creative Commons license (Young, 2011). Jeff Roberts (2011) explains his take on the reason behind the change: it is "a means of enticing new customers to its paid products". More details on the change direct from the source are as follows:

"Blackboard also clarified its license policy to formalize the ability for education institutions to extend course access in the Blackboard Learn platform - as well as ANGEL and WebCT - to non-traditional, non-revenue generating students at no additional cost. The move supports engaging wider use of the platform to serve different types of "guest" users taking part in efforts including open teaching initiatives, auditing and accreditation activities, student recruiting programs, community outreach programs and collaborative research efforts." (Blackboard, 2011).

In addition to Blackboard, ANGEL and WebCT, Blackboard has started a new service, COURSEsites, allowing anyone to create up to 5 course websites for free. While the change in openness policy and the creation of COURSEsites seems appropriate for Blackboard's business strategy given the current state of open educational resources (OER), what does it mean for the advancement of open content and digital scholarship? Is it pushing open content forward?

My short answer is yes and no. I'll start my long answer with some background info. First, what is open content? David Wiley, a leader in the open content community, refers to OER as "teaching materials freely shared with permissions to engage in the '4R' activities, where '4R' represents reuse, redistribute, revise, and remix" (Wiley, 2010, p. 6-7). Traditionally, scholarship is explained as "the contribution of new ideas" to a field of study (McDonald, 2011). Digital scholarship refers to faculty serving as "their own librarians or curators of their own collections of scholarship (McDonald, 2011).

Blackboard's new initiative of openness is enabling professors to provide access to content that was previously under web authentication. However, as Jeff Roberts (2011) and Fernando Pernica (2011) explain, there have been viable alternatives (e.g. Sakai Foundation; iversity) available for a few years that administrators across the country have approved for practice. Regardless of the alternatives, Blackboard continues to be the leader in the LMS market with approx. 51% of the market share in 2010. The ability for professors to extend course access to their resources on Blackboard, ANGEL or WebCT is enabling access to many courses that were previously unaccessible from the outside. The professors that previously did not want to or have the skill set to create their own custom LMS, are now able to share content beyond the course roster. But there is more to think about...

In a previous post on our Krause Innovation Studio blog, Scott McDonald explained that "we need people to start building structures; in other words we need someone to curate all this information and make it into something that has meaning and can help us understand the world better somehow" (2011). While he was describing curation as digital scholarship (microlibrarianship), the quote serves a purpose here as well. Open content is useful when it can be understood as something that "has meaning", but if there is no attempt to build a knowledge structure, the content fails to provide meaning. Typically, a course is planned in such a way that structure is inherent. The professor plans ahead by creating a course syllabus and lays out the material and learning objects in a way that students can build on their experiences and learning throughout the process. Although a course site on an LMS may include a syllabus, learning objects, and resources, the course site may or may not include the professor's writings and lectures. And furthermore, the course does not hold the professor's thoughts and theoretical foundations for the organization of the course. Even though an outsider may still understand the meaning behind the organization of the course materials without having the professor's writings, lectures, thoughts, and/or theoretical foundations, connections between the materials may be lacking. And, context and meaning may be hard to grasp.

For this reason, my answer is yes and no. Yes, Blackboard is pushing open content and digital scholarship forward by opening access to organized course content, giving outsiders the ability to construct the implied meaning of the course to "understand the world better somehow" (McDonald, 2011). But, when the meaning behind the organization of the course content is not grasped easily and there is no inherent structure, the course content serves only as distributed learning objects. The content is open, but there are no connections or context. When this happens, there is no new intellectual curation of the content. In this case, it is up to the outsider to piece together his/her own meaning and build a structure. If the outsider turns around and publishes this new structure, the original course content becomes digital scholarship with the help of the outsider.

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