Using technology to make education more flexible and accessible.
A tale of digital innovation, hard work, and a cultural shift.
Technology and being open
The OU has always looked to utilise technology to deliver innovative teaching through many different channels. We obviously have the text books. Television? Yip, done that, from flares to Frozen Planet. And in the Internet era we’re already celebrating 10 years of delivering online learning using the Moodle virtual learning environment (VLE).
Our openness can be seen in our large base of mostly part-time learners, and more disabled students than any other European university. More than 14% of OU undergraduates declare a disability. In support of our belief in open learning we have a key strategic priority to maximise student success by providing flexible and accessible ‘anytime/anywhere’ learning options. We want our students, whatever their situation, to be able to fit their study around complex work-life commitments. We also want to deliver this learning in the most useful and accessible formats possible.
Much of what we do when developing the OU’s online learning systems is designed to help support these aims. One of the things we have done is to develop a platform aims to streamline digital production. And that platform has been nominated in the Times Higher Education Awards 2015 in the rather splendidly named ‘Outstanding Digital Innovation in Teaching or Research’. We’re happy with that.
So what is it we’ve built? Well, technically, *takes a deep breath* OU Structured Content is an XML-driven single source input/multi-format output system that enables simple authoring of platform-agnostic learning materials, which conform to web standards and accessibility guidelines, and tightly integrates with our content management system and Moodle-based VLE, creating a scalable, end-to-end digital publishing tool that supports academics, production staff and external partners. Phew.
Or, in other words, it’s now technically possible for course material developed on the VLE to be simultaneously delivered in multiple online and offline formats such as HTML, ePUB, MOBI, Word, PDF, etc., so that students will be able to choose the format that best suits their needs.
It’s early days, but we’re already getting positive feedback from students.
This is obviously a good thing for students. But it’s also good for us at the OU too. This system is helping to bring about something of a culture shift. Historically the OU has kept its print (books) and audio-visual (television) pedagogies separate. Now we can focus on a digital experience that acknowledges the student desire for physical and online/offline digital materials. This has been a positive challenge for staff as they look to create engaging pedagogically innovative content that is also accessible for myriad student needs and study environments.
The system as a whole relies on a combination of commercial, bespoke and open-source software. It is extensible, modular, maintainable, and offers the capability to update and refresh content via multiple channels in real time — fix an error on your course web page, and all of the offline digital formats will be updated. That’s quite cool.
In addition to our primary VLE output, we have utilised the OU Structured Content system to generate digital assets for our ‘OU Anywhere’ mobile app, for production of OpenLearn OER material and modules on our Offender Learner ‘walled garden’ VLE. We’ve also piloted its use for the delivery a print-on-demand service for students, and we’re looking into using it for production of DAISY digital talking books.
All pretty straightforward then?
Well, no actually. When is it ever? As simple as the process might sound there have been many obstacles to overcome in bringing this whole system to life. So, what are our top three areas of ‘things that weren’t as easy as we would have liked’.
In no particular order…
Things like porting complex mathematical equations between output formats turned out to be a bit trickier than you might think (if ever you think about that sort of thing). Validation of input still occasionally trips us up. Optimisation of images; that’s a tricky one too. Accessibility issues like not all reader technologies working on all ePUB formats. eBook reading software doesn’t seem to keep pace with use of interactive and multimedia features in ePUB3. The impact of the choice of fonts when rendered across various platforms. This list goes on. We’ve dealt with many of the issues we’ve encountered, but are still working on others.
When you produce a book you can proofread that book. When you produce multiple formats you suddenly have many, many more things that need to be checked. And they will all have their quirks.
This is a big shift in some respects. It has been a challenge for content creators. A positive challenge, but a challenge nonetheless. The technology and process issues mentioned above inevitably combine to place some limitations on the freedom of the content creator. They want to create great, engaging content, but they now have the additional challenge of making sure it’s great, engaging content that will work across many formats.
Alongside that comes a certain loss of control. An editor of the past, as mentioned earlier, could be confident that the book they proofread was 100% as they wanted it. Now, unavoidably, it’s impossible for an editor to check that the content being produced is exactly as desired across all formats and across every possible device.
Things like this are bound to cause some level of discomfort for a content producer. But the end result, we hope, makes it worth it.
So what’s next?
All in all we’re happy. We have a Structured Content system that allows us to create flexible, immersive and relevant student experiences. And we will keep developing the system, with future work proposed to enhance its authoring capabilities by developing a web interface with in-built learning design and workload planning tools for rapid content creation.
Whether we win or not at tonight’s awards ceremony isn’t important. What we’re really pleased about is that the hard work that everyone has put into making this system a success (both systems development staff and the content creators) and the usefulness of what the system does, has been recognised.
Update: Well, we didn’t actually win. But that just means we’ll have to do something even better for next year!
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