What is the OERu? - Pizza Thursday talk for Catalyst Christchurch

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I've been asked to speak about the OERu to my former colleagues at Catalyst IT's Christchurch office as part of their monthly "Pizza Thursday" talks. Amusingly, this talk will be on a Friday, and lunch will be curries rather than pizza :)

What is the OERu?

Last week, an article and interview discussing exactly that was published on OpenSource.com which examined both the OERu and its relationship to free and open source software, which is core to the organisation's ethos. We're a "radically open" organisation... our terms of reference state that we

  • use exclusively openly licensed educational resources (OERs), i.e. written materials and digital artefacts that conform with the "free cultural works" criteria.
  • we only use free and open source software for everything where-ever possible
  • all our planning processes are conducted openly and with external participation encouraged (where-ever possible, they're streamed live and recorded for posterity, so others can see how we arrived at strategic decisions)

I work in the role of "Open Source Technologist" for the OER Foundation (a Dunedin-based charitable foundation, which in turn, is owned and formally hosted by the Otago Polytech, my official employer), who facilitate and enable the OER universitas (OERu), the global network of higher education institutions and related organsations (like donors and sponsors), who are working together to meet the OERu's strategic goals. 

This is how we explain the OERu to prospective partners:

Of course, as an educational provider, the OERu cannot make a lot of progress without "learners" (they're not "students" because that implies a contractual relationship with an institution - people choosing to learn with us can do so anonymously, without any formal relationship, so we've adopted the term "learners"). This is what the OERu looks like from a learner's perspective:

Earlier this year, we launched our "MVP", a "1st year of study" - a sequence of courses a learner can take (equivalent to a first year of undergraduate study) which, if they choose to be assessed (and meet the assessment criteria) can lead to a formal exit qualification.

Our current "flagship" course is Learning in a Digital Age, a series of four "microcourses" which can be undertaking in a sequence or individually:

  1. Digital literacies for online learning (LiDA101)
  2. Digital citizenship (LiDA102)
  3. Open education, copyright and open licensing in a digital world (LiDA103)
  4. Critical media literacies and associated digital skills (LiDA104)

So, as a learner, what does a course look like? Let's have a look at LiDA101...

What you see is it's a WordPress site holding all the course materials. These materials are not edited or altered by course designers within WordPress. Instead, they're created as a course outline on our collaborative OER assembly platform, WikiEducator, an instance of the venerable MediaWiki platform (yes, it's high time for a facelift - never fear, in the works). Here's the course outline used to build the LiDA101 course.

You can see that the course outline is just a selection of content from elsewhere on the site, including reference materials, media objects (videos, images, audio), quizzes and assignments, and assessment rubrics. We use MediaWiki as the collaboration platform thanks to the (relatively) user-friendly and flexible version control of content it provides. (n.b. the WikiEducator site, one of the OER Foundation's main initiatives, the other being the OERu, is very heavily used by educators around the world, and hovers near the 100k sites on the web).

You'll notice the "Snapshot" button at the top of the outline - behind that button is a one line specification for a target WordPress site - clicking that button allows someone with "administrator" permissions on that site (or "sub site") to automatically push the course materials contained in that outline to the chosen WordPress site - it will be formatted as you see, with the selected branding (e.g. for our partner institutions), particularly designed for use with mobile devices (although that could use some refinement) which is our largest potential audience.

Learners can access all course materials anonymously, however, if they want to interact with one another, and have their participation recorded, they must create an account on the site.

OERu's FOSS Tech Stack

The technology stack on which the OERu is built has a few parts. We have created what we refer to as a "next generation digital learning environment" made up of a number of carefully selected free and open source tools all "loosely coupled" together (the "UNIX philosophy"), with some strategic custom glue...

  • educator collaboration tools (Discourse, Rocket.Chat, OnlineGroups, Jitsi Meet)
  • educator collaborative course assembly tools (MediaWiki, NextCloud/CollaboraOffice, Kanboard)
  • market-automation, learner instruction email tools, market research (Mautic, LimeSurvey)
  • learner course sites (WordPress)
  • learner assessment tools (Moodle)
  • learner interaction (Mastodon, Discourse, Semantic Scuttle, Hypothes.is, other social media, learner blogs)
  • learner interaction feed (WEnotes: Node.Js + Python + CouchDB + MediaWiki extensions + WordPress plugins)
  • organisational info platforms (MediaWiki, Silverstripe, Drupal, Grav)
  • reporting/promotional presentations (Reveal.JS)
  • analytics (Matomo)
  • infrastructure (Ubuntu/Debian Linux VMs/Instances, Git, Docker, Docker-Compose)

We use this website (tech.oeru.org) as a place to explain how we do what we do, and why. We include how-tos for many of the technologies we use in hopes that more organisations will start to use them inspired by our example - our underlying "enlightened self-interest" culture sees that we all fare better when we have an interest in making these tools the best they can be...

Why I do this

In my career as a technologist, I've been very aware of (and involved in activism for improving) the many problems faced by our society (and others around the world). There's one compelling, effective, and unequivocally good thing I've identified as a key component to all the solutions to our social ills: education. By that, I mean education (which depends on aptitude, motivation, and opportunity) from literacy to higher learning, across all of social strata, particularly for girls and women.

As we in the OERu network build a platform for low cost higher education, we hope to create something that anyone can build upon, and scale up to meet the latent demand for education (globally, fewer than 10% of people ever have the opportunity to complete a tertiary qualification), providing people the realistic opportunity to reach their individual educational potentials. That opportunity depends only on people having access to suitable technology and Internet connectivity, both of which are spreading across the world faster than anyone could ever have imagined.

The fact that I can do something I enjoy, have real passion for, and derive satisfaction from because it's the "right thing to do for our world" - also known as "enlightened self-interest" - with people I respect and admire (and get on with really well), means that I have found my calling and consider myself incredibly fortunate.


Time permitting, I'd be keen to show you a few of the tech things:

  1. Demo of the WEnotes Course Feed (git repos: tools, plugins, deployment)
    1. The full noise
    2. A look at Hypothesis annotations
    3. A look at Mastodon
  2. A look at our Blog Feed Finder (git repo) which helps learners who want to submit their personal blog for scanning (to include suitably "tagged" posts in their course feed) actually find the feed and associate it with their course so our WEnotes scanner periodically checks it for new posts of interest.
  3. A tour of our Mautic and our approach to keeping learners and partners in the loop!

I reckon many of these tools are the sort of thing Catalyst could offer as managed services commercially.

N.B. we're not happy with Microsoft acquiring Github, and will be moving our repos from Github (and Bitbucket, too, while we're at it, because we're not overly excited to be using proprietary repos in general) to our own free and open source Git hosting as soon as possible. We will leave pointers to the new locations for these (and our many other) repos when they are created.




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