Sunday, June 08, 2008

Connexions-- An Open Educational Repository

There are many challenges in developing open educational repositories. I continue to follow the evolution of various repositories so here is an update on Connexions.

This repository has many of the same tools and structure that are available in other repositories. Teachers can search by subject, author, language, popularity and/or specific words. A short summary of the content in the teaching module provides you with the basic ideas. Obviously, these vary in quality, but this provides the teacher with a quick way to assess whether the topic is relevant to your search.

A key concept in Connexions is the idea of "collections" which they define as akin to a "course." This is an important idea because they are trying to help instructors to think about ways to group modules together in various configurations or "collections" to make a course. Since my interest is in "families" I searched for a collection that includes this term and found a literacy course that is fostering new approaches to teaching literacy that is based in the Trinidad and Tobago.

The collection consists of four brief web-based text summaries of information about language and reading development with a particular emphasis on Trinidad and Tobago. This material is much like what one would find in a typical online course. These materials can be downloaded and tagged and used in a variety of ways. Likewise, there are links to the author and the author's open course at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Inside a course module there are also links to print materials, web materials and other resources. In some cases these are open access and in other cases a person would need access to a library or bookstore.

Another example is a collection is a set of modules on "communications skills.

In this case the author provides a very brief sentence about the content and each module is a link to a pdf document that resides on another webpage that appears to be the author's course. The material seems to be open access and conform to the agreement of the Connexions repository, but this is less helpful to mixing and matching materials across collections.

One of the major assertions of open education advocates, particularly those who recommend the development of repositories is the idea that students and instructors can assemble their own various collections and/or course materials without starting from scratch. The challenge that remains is that the formats for these contributions by instructors have little or no common structure so it is unlikely that a very coherent "collection" can be assembled.

I also remain skeptical about the size of the content. The creators of Connexions asserts that they are inviting teachers to create modules that are non-linear. They write:
"Most textbooks are a mass of information in linear format: one topic follows after another. However, our brains are not linear - we learn by making connections between new concepts and things we already know. Connexions mimics this by breaking down content into smaller chunks, called modules, that can be linked together and arranged in different ways. This lets students see the relationships both within and between topics and helps demonstrate that knowledge is naturally interconnected, not isolated into separate classes or books."
This is the right spirit, but I suspect that in order to create truly flexible teaching materials we are going to have to break down the units of instruction even smaller than modules-- something like concepts or "main ideas." Creating a common structure for this is even more problematic and creating the tools to assemble these "units" into larger educational materials is also a big challenge. But this still seems like the right direction. Although "learning objects" have been abandoned in many of our discussions, we still need to explore this idea.

See my earlier discussions of learning objects.

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