Developing an open educational resource repository for the public sector with an inclusive lens
This is a summary, video, and a modified transcript of a talk given at the Open Education Conference in October 2021.
In the public sector, open sharing of learning materials is in its early days of maturity. While in the academic sector open educational resources (OERs) are now an established practice, the Government of Canada is stepping up to create one of the first platforms for OERs aimed at spreading this movement through the public service — GCshare.
Developing a repository for OERs in government is a culture change and an opportunity to build a better future together. There is lots of knowledge and expertise available across the public sector that is not being shared in the open. Enabling these professionals to see themselves as worthy and able contributors can be a challenge. This is why developing a platform that invites anyone who has valuable content to contribute requires a thoughtful and inclusive approach.
This session will talk about the different ways in which openness, accessibility and inclusion were considered in the design of the platform (including graphics, text and metadata), its collection development, marketing, and support of content creators.
After participating in this session, attendees will be able to:
- Recognize the different elements of OER initiatives that can contribute to inclusion throughout the design, collection development, marketing and contributor support stages
- Evaluate how you can make your own OER initiatives more inclusive with a list of guiding questions
Alternative presentation formats:
You can also access the full session transcript.
Land — Stewardship Gift — Reciprocity OER — Equity
I would like to take a moment and reflect on the connection between land acknowledgement and open educational resources.
As an immigrant and a settler, I am grateful for the gift of presenting to you today from the unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. The land now known as the city of Vancouver, located in British Columbia, Canada.
Reflecting on this gift of living and learning on this land, I am reminded of the words of Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, the writer of Braiding Sweetgrass, who said — “gifts are not free”. With a gift comes the responsibility of reciprocity. In the context of land, it is a reminder to give back and to be its steward.
Similarly, in the context of open educational resources, we also inherit them as both gifts and a responsibility to keep sharing our own gifts for the benefit of others, with inclusion and care in mind.
And with sharing the gift of knowledge comes the responsibility of equity. This echoes what Dr. Rebecca Karoff recently said about OER’s role in advancing equity; they said — “Doing OER with an equity lens is doing OER well!”. And I can’t agree more.
On this note, let’s get into the presentation and see how might we integrate lenses of openness, accessibility and inclusion into open educational resource platforms.
This presentation will cover
This presentation will cover:
- sharing context in the Government of Canada
- decisions that went into the design of the open educational resource platform
- framing of the collection development approaches
- marketing strategies used to raise awareness about open educational resources
- strategies used to engage with and enable content contributors
For each of the sections covering different aspects of the open educational repository, I will begin with a set of questions that we asked and that helped us frame our decisions and actions from an inclusive and accessible lenses.
My hope is that these questions can serve as a pathway for those who wish to apply some of these practices to improve or design their own OER platforms.
Sharing in government
Let’s begin by talking about the current sharing context in the Government of Canada.
Reasons for sharing
Over the past year, I have been diligently social listening and collecting stories that capture why and how people across the federal government are sharing.
I’ve distilled it into 4 main reasons. Let’s go through them in a bit more detail.
- Emergent & urgent needs — Across all government sectors, people are looking to develop relevant training to meet emergent and often urgent needs. Some immediate topics that come to mind include agile project management, business intelligence, virtual meeting guides, mental health, user research, and change management.
- Time & money — To meet these needs, time & money are of essence. While the desire to reduce design costs may seem obvious, especially given that it takes approximately 142 hours (or 2 months) to develop a course in 1 language. There is an additional challenge for the Government of Canada when it comes to the cost of translation, since experiences have to be offered in both English and French, the country’s two official languages.
- Equitable access — While learning should be available to everyone, equitable access is not a guarantee. Canadian government is made up of organizations of all sizes, some have over 40,000 employees and an entire Branch dedicated to training and learning, other organizations are under 20 people and simply have no professionals who could develop training from scratch.
- Pockets of expertise — This brings us to pockets of expertise. There is a sense of awakening to the fact that the public service is made up of over 300,000 employees with a variety of expertise. What better way to leverage their knowledge than to share resources?
Sharing is everywhere
Unsurprisingly, sharing is everywhere and it has become spread across many channels. It happens on Twitter, Medium, LinkedIn, via Email and government sharing platforms GCcollab and GCconnex, Google Drive, decks, direct messages, etc.
With over 300,000 public service employees at the Federal level alone, there has long been a need for a more centralized way to share knowledge.
We made GCshare
In response to this demand for sharing, GCshare platform emerged. It was developed in collaboration with eCampusOntario and was positioned as the content sharing and discovery platform for open educational resources (OERs) initiated by the Government of Canada.
Sharing is for everyone
Part of our vision was that anyone could share quality content and that sharing was for everyone. We wanted to invite a diversity of voices to contribute resources. Not just those in official training and learning roles. We wanted to include practitioners and subject matter experts. Whether it was a learning canvas, a career tool or a wellness resource, all were welcome.
Sharing is not for everyone
But we also quickly learned that unfortunately, sharing was not for everyone. We heard 6 main types of concerns related to sharing:
- It’s not perfect! — People were worried that their content wasn’t finished or perfect
- How will others use it? — They feared how others might use it
- Can I take it down? — They wondered if they could take it down later
- Quality of learning — Some weren’t sure if their resources were good enough, as they weren’t professional instructional designers
- Accessibility & format — Many were unaware that their learning products posed accessibility barriers — tables with split cells, images without alt text, missing headings, inflexible document formats to name just a few issues
- Copyright & licensing — On top of that, copyright is an area that has very low awareness in government, making it difficult to trace back what was used in any learning product. Not surprisingly, licensing and open licenses specifically are also not well understood.
It is important to acknowledge that barriers to sharing do exist and accessibility and inclusion play a key role in creating a comfortable space where anyone can contribute and also where people see that differences are valued and supported.
Let’s talk about the design of the platform. Design includes many elements. In this presentation, I will touch on research artifacts that guide design, graphics, text, metadata, and functionality.
Questions we asked ourselves — Design
Any good design process begins with asking questions. And this process was no different. Here are some of the questions we asked ourselves:
- Through design, how are we demonstrating what we are asking others to do?
- Are the images we use on the website open source? Why not?
- Who is centred in these images? What message does it communicate?
- Have we provided appropriate credit where needed?
- How can we reflect the values of diversity in website copy?
- Is the metadata reinforcing stereotypes? Are the categories and language used positively contributing to shaping the world we want to see?
- Have we made explicit our commitment to accessibility of the platform via an accessibility statement? Or a statement on inclusive writing?
While we did not manage to address all of these questions or to fully implement them for the initial launch, we can use these as a roadmap for future improvements. But for now, let’s talk about the areas where we did respond to these questions through our design.
Research artifacts to support design decisions
In addition to these questions acting as guideposts, we also created 4 personas based on user research to help keep our designs anchored in diverse and real needs. If you are not familiar with this concept, personas are fictional portraits that capture real characteristics, traits, and pain points of your target users. They help illustrate how we can bring everyone along and remove the barriers we’ve identified. Here is an example of one of them:
Tony uses pronouns (he/they) and they are relatively new to government; they work remotely from Vancouver. As someone who values learning and helping others, it’s important to them that the resource sharing platform is easy to use, so they can quickly share content with colleagues. They value sharing, but have not shared their own work, as they are not sure if it’s good enough. They can benefit from resources on OER creation and evaluation.
Personas served as a reminder throughout the design process of who we are designing this platform for.
As I mentioned, it was important for us that our design feels welcoming and this includes how we use graphics. We know that visual representation matters when we talk about inclusion. It is important to be able to relate to the people you see and to be able to see yourself in these images.
While as an organization we have subscription to paid image banks, we also opted to use at least some images for the launch of the platform that were shared under open licenses, to really practice what we were promoting.
The first image on this slide is one of the open source illustrations that we’ve selected from Undraw website to represent different resource types in GCshare.
And the second image, which is the main image on GCshare homepage, is from Unsplash a website that offers a range of photographs that can be used with or without attribution. Both images on this slide center women of colour, and were an intentional choice to ensure diverse representation.
Copy or text is often treated as an afterthought in design. As someone with background in content design, I wanted to make sure that inclusion was also integrated into the language that was used. This took many different forms including conventions around which sentence case to use for headings, using plain language to explain complex concepts like ‘conditions of use’ and how to integrate inclusive writing into French copy.
For example, based on plain language and readability guidelines, we know that sentence case headings are easier to read. So whenever we could, we made sure that headings such as resource title and the different metadata elements on the resource details page (which are shown in the image on the left) were written in sentence case rather than title case (where the first letter of each word is capitalized).
When explaining what the different Creative Commons licenses are, it was imperative that this is very basic and clear. We opted for a longer explanation such as “Use and adapt for free, credit the author” rather than using a shorthand of CC BY or even the full name of the license, which would have meant nothing to most of our users at this point.
When it came to the French copy, we decided to approach it form an inclusive writing perspective. In French, this is called la rédaction épicène, which literally means gender-inclusive writing. To provide some context, in French language, all nouns are by default either masculine or feminine. And when representing a group of people the language defaults to masculine expression, no matter what the group’s composition. Making women largely invisible in language.
There are many approaches to fixing this. One such approach is making both genders visible by fully writing out and doubling the words. Even better if you start with the feminine to prioritize it and reverse the masculine-first convention. For example, on our Share page, we tell people that we are happy they are here. In French, we double the adjective happy to be both feminine and masculin to represent diversity of our own team — Nous sommes heureuses et heureux que vous vous joignez à nous!
While it does not solve the challenge of including and making visible other gender identities, it still felt like a step in the right direction.
When developing a metadata schema for the collection there are many decisions that can be influenced by an inclusive lens. The 2 I will touch on are which metadata elements to choose and how to express the values within the elements.
For GCshare, we decided that Accessibility element was essential. Not only because we wanted to highlight that we care about this and that it’s important, but also to use it as a way to nudge people to have conversations about accessibility. We had a lot of different points of view on what the values of this element should be and while using WCAG criteria was what we ended up going with, we look forward to making it more plain language in the future, by finding other ways to communicate how accessible something is. In the meantime, we used an approach many other OER collections use where we referenced the Accessibility checklist from BCcampus, as a simple way to assess resource accessibility on a basic level.
In terms of the values included, for the Conditions of use element, we also included Traditional Knowledge licence to indicate that we are aware of different considerations necessary for Indigenous knowledge and that we welcomed Indigenous contributions on their own sharing terms.
Another example is the language used in the Delivery method of training (Mode d’utilisation in French). We once again used inclusive language for the values describing whether content was to be used for virtual or in-person instructor-led training. The word for instructor was modified to explicitly indicate in brackets that the instructor could be either male of female.
Once the designs were completed and the platform was live, we were able to have the functionality of the platform tested by a user navigating with assistive technology, as part of an amazing service provided by Fable. We were thrilled that the overall results were pretty good with a score of 90/100 on an Accessible Usability Scale. We also required our partner eCampusOntario to provide us with an accessibility report by the end of project implementation, to ensure that we eliminated as many barriers as possible.
Now, let’s hop over to collection development. It is all about aligning purpose, vision and values. Developing one is a really great reflective exercise that forces us to ask some difficult and important questions.
Questions we asked ourselves — Collection
When defining the scope of the collection it was important to ask the following:
- What will make this platform inviting and useful?
- How is it different from the commercial training and learning platforms?
- Who might be excluded from using or contributing to the platform?
- What resources will we include or exclude? Why?
- Who will be making these decisions?
What we heard — Collection
In doing user research for this initiative, here is a quote that certainly stood out to us as it relates to collection development:
“I feel if enough people put enough good quality resources on this platform […] people will use it, but if there aren’t a lot of useful resources there, most people probably won’t. […] what will drive use are the resources.”
Based on what we heard and what we asked ourselves, we’ve identified 6 important objectives for the collection that respond to the concept of ‘good and useful” in a meaningful way:
- Accessibility — Let’s start with Accessibility. Government of Canada content is required to be bilingual and it has to meet important accessibility requirements. But we also know that it is a real struggle for those doing the work to be able to integrate many of these essential requirements into their demanding workloads. We wanted to show that accessibility is important and we also wanted to position the repository as a place where things don’t need to be perfect. So resources across all accessibility levels were welcome. By sharing what folks had so far — as a starting point, it would allow someone else to improve the content, instead of everyone always missing the mark.
- Shareable content — We would advocate for shareable content that is in plain language, targeted and results in concise learning objects that are easy to reuse; this also touches on the formats that make reuse and adaptation easier
- Professional content — We wanted to contribute to professionally focused (rather than academic) OERs that can support training of mature learners and those seeking upskilling or career change
- Redefine learning — We wanted to broaden the definition of what is accepted as a “learning resource” to include a variety of content types including templates and case studies as well as content at different stages of development such as drafts and iterations with feedback
- Indigenous content — As I mentioned earlier in the metadata section, we also wanted GCshare to be a welcoming space for contributors of Indigenous knowledge across Canada. We recognize and respect that Traditional knowledge does not always align with Western conventions of intellectual property and we wanted to learn from the community about the best ways to support them.
- Francophone content — To support the work of the Government of Canada and to contribute to the global OER community, we also wanted to encourage the development of OERs in French which are still quite limited.
Now, let’s talk about marketing. Building something no matter how great an idea is and expecting people to just come and use it is simply not realistic. You really need to spend some time thinking about how to meaningfully promote what you do.
Questions we asked ourselves — Marketing
In the approaches we used for GCshare, we were inspired by social innovation methods which invite us to ask the following questions:
- What are the communities that have the most to gain from OER?
- Who is working on similar initiatives?
- Whose voices can we amplify by including them in this work?
Connect to communities with similar goals
I just want to show you a few examples of how we tried to connect to communities with similar goals in our marketing approach.
The image on the left is a Tweet that highlights resources that were shared thanks to our connection with 2 like-minded organizations:
- AlphaPlus — Ontario’s organization focussed on helping adult literacy education professionals to incorporate digital technology
- CivicActions Accessibility — an open, agile project and community.
The image of the Tweet on the right shows one of our pre-launch campaign messages which highlights that learning that integrates different points of view is valuable today and in the future. It includes a graphic of a person in a wheelchair, to reinforce the point visually as well.
Additional examples of marketing tweets:
- Marketing tweet about how to make documents accessible
- Marketing tweet promoting the launch of GCshare
- EdTech Twitter account used for GCshare
Celebrating contributions was another important aspect of marketing that allowed us at once to highlight great content and great sharers!
Here are 2 examples of celebrating contributions.
First tweet is highlighting an Accessibility Handbook released under a Creative Commons public domain license by the Canadian Digital Service.
The second tweet celebrates thematic resources shared by a number of contributors from across different government and non-profit organizations.
Write about what matters
Telling a story and sharing your journey is a valuable way to get people familiar with new concepts and ideas. We started writing about open learning in government more than a year before the platform launched and we’ve been able to generate some interest and awareness of the project.
We created a GCshare publication on Medium and wrote about usability testing and importance of accessibility and sharing — we wanted to align our messaging with the values that the platforms stands for — those of inclusion and openness.
We also encourage all our team members to contribute. And we will soon be publishing an article about what it is like to work on a platform project in partnership with another organization from a perspective of my colleague Josianne.
As I mentioned earlier, there are many barriers to contributing resources in the open. So in this section we will talk about how we work towards overcoming this.
Questions we asked ourselves — Contributors
As we connected with more people and learned about their perspectives on sharing, many questions emerged:
- How can we encourage contribution from those who are not sure they have something valuable to add?
- What are the biggest barriers to contributing?
- How do we want contributors to feel?
- How can we help?
As part of this discovery and experimentation, we’ve identified 4 main area of support that was needed:
- Accessibility review — this included areas like headings, title clarity, tables, alt text, content order and flow
- Image review — checking if images used in the current products were copyrighted and sharing alternative free image sources with contributors
- Licensing advice — this involved explaining Creative Commons licensing as well as what Crown Copyright meant which is the default copyright licensing applied to the Government of Canada content; and it also involved explaining copyright in general and how if any third party content was used in a product, without explicit permission, this content could not be shared under open licenses
- Metadata draft — this often meant filling out the metadata for the resource and asking the contributor to review the draft, rather than asking them to fill it in from scratch
In addition to this one-on-one support, we also did some tailored presentations that addressed specific concerns of business lines at the School and communities like Open Government.
What we heard — contribution
What we’ve heard from the contributors we’ve worked with has been reassuring. Here is one of the quotes that showcases a little positive change that we were able to accomplish:
“I have a personal doubt that people are interested in what we have created, but it’s worthwhile to experiment.
This vision excites me in training and learning, how we can share and reuse learning content.”
We learned that by investing time, tailoring help to the individual contributor’s needs, offering flexible and manageable options for how they can contribute, as well as providing encouragement and asking our contributors how they felt, we were able to open up sharing to more people.
We capture these stories as we go along, so that we can share them with others in the future.
“I’m really grateful for this. I appreciate the challenge to make my work more accessible. I learned how to use more PowerPoint features and learned a lot about formatting in Word as well (and I was already pretty adept!)”
“I feel good, I was a little worried about how all of this was going to happen, it was a bit overwhelming — how do we upload all these documents, translation, etc. I just don’t have the time… You made it feel like it is a collaborative process, that it will be manageable and does not have to be a big thing. Your attitude, excitement and energy, made me feel like we will do it together. It also made me feel good that this is not just a repository of stuff, but someone who cares and understand how it will be used and how things will be discovered will support it with their expertise.”
- OER Equity Blueprint
- Need for sharing across the Government of Canada
- Questions designers should be asking
- Accessibility statements
- Headings and titles
- Guide de rédaction épicène
- Pour que les femmes existent : En Clair et la rédaction inclusive
- Checklist for Accessibility
- Traditional knowledge labels
- Accessible Usability Scale
- Environmental Scan of Open Education Service and Support in Canada