This is a post about knowledge, community, online repositories, OERs, and the ethnography of the teacher staffroom inspired by a recent experience with JORUM.
What was the last time you learned something interesting or helpful? I’m willing to bet that it was one of these: 1. Somebody you know or trust told you, OR 2. you read about it in a publication you read regularly. Some people might say: I searched for it on Google, I looked it up on Wikipedia or researched it in the library. But this only applies to things you already know you want to know and are motivated to expend some effort to find out. But this accounts for only a minority of the useful everyday things we learn.
I have always been amazed how few successful online resource banks there are that teachers regularly access and use (and that ultimately reach their students). This is because they are what I call “dumb repositories“. They may contain great content, but unless they can provide either channel 1. or 2. for distributing their information, they are always going to be at best of peripheral utility to practicing educators. Teachers and teaching assistants are simply too busy to search repositories for ideas for materials on the off-chance that they will contain something useful. And they have learned that generally, they don’t. Or if they do, it’s far too much work to make them fit your own needs, so it’s better to create your own or even better to just stick to what you already have.
Yet every time I speak to teachers, they keep asking for more repositories of resources that they then don’t use for the reasons I outlined above. Teachers want to improve and do better by their students. But it’s just too much effort even to learn one new thing as part of the daily grind. By the way, I think the same thing applies to students. They also want to use various resources to learn but often find that it takes too much effort and stick with what is easy.
Somebody should do a proper ethnographic study of the use of resources by teachers (or if someone has, I’d like to know about it). But anecdotally, it feels to me that teachers always share tips for repositories with each other, but often in answer to “and does it have X”, they respond, I don’t know, I have been there in a while. It turns out that they often have one chart or simple resource bookmarked for frequent use, but they rarely use the repository it its full potential (assuming it has one and they haven’t metonymically conflated the utility of a particular resource with the utility of the repository). Spending time in the staffroom reveals relatively little exchanging of tips leading to greater use of online resources. Of course, there are a great many exceptions but exceptions are just what they are.
All these projects have been following same scenario for the last twenty years: 1. Respond to misguided teacher interest, 2. create a repository of resources, 3. watch teachers not use the repository. Now they’re sitting there being “dumb” in all the possible senses of the word.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the repositories and their content (even though there sometimes is in many particulars). Their problem is that they don’t do anything to become a regular part of the learning channels of most teachers (and humans) which are based on trust. And trust is mostly derived from social capital gathered through activities in a community. People are much more likely to go to a resource because 1. it was recommended by someone they respect because it minimizes the chances that the significant investment in trying a new resource will be wasted. Or they are more likely to try a resource, if 2. finding and trying resources is part of their regular routine (like subscribing to an RSS feed or a Twitter hashtag). As far as I know, no repository has tried to address this problem sufficiently or successfully.
This post was inspired by JORUM, the laudable and lauded effort by JISC to provide OERs (Open Educational Resources). I have always shared everything I’ve developed in education online. I even invested personal resources to share my Czech teaching materials online on Bohemica.com (long before the concept of Creative Commons or OERs). All of my PowerPoints are shared on Slideshare and I’m always looking for new ways of sharing resources I’ve developed. But just a few minutes on JORUM made me certain that this won’t be my platform for sharing anytime soon. Apart from its walled-garden nature and UK only licence, I could see no way that others could easily discover what I’ve shared. My PowerPoints on Slideshare have had thousands of views (one 20,000). Is there a single resource on JORUM that has had hundreds? I don’t know because the information isn’t provided. I looked at a few areas I know something about and the resources were sparse and difficult to evaluate. This meant that even if the material would have been useful, I would have spent as much time evaluating it as putting something together myself. This is ok for one or two things but not for the whole database. There was no way to crowdsource the evaluation. No starring system, no ‘users who liked this, also liked…‘, no ‘most popular downloads in a category‘, no ways of contributing back a modified version, no personalised lists to share, no wishlists by criteria, no commenting on resources, no way of have a subject-specific conversation, no karma points for sharing, no groups. There was an email notifier for a category (which would have been good in 1996?). Simply, there was no way that JORUM could become my regular discovery destination or that I could build a network of trusted suggesters who would point me to resources on JORUM. And that’s a shame.
The JORUM roadmap gives me little hope of this improving significantly. Their roadmap hints at curation and commenting but is suitably vague on the details.
I’m not singling out JORUM because it’s bad but because it’s relatively good in the category of “dumb repositories”. However, I’m certain that it will not be used by more than a fraction of UK HE educators unless it insinuates itself into existing patterns of sharing. Goes to conferences, contributes to subject-relevant journals and gets librarians on its side. Libraries, funnily enough, are not dumb repositories (although they may appear that way to the uninformed). They are highly curated by subject specialists (both inside and outside the library) and their contents have inherent social capital through the publisher. Furthermore, there’s a rich system of social recommendations pointing towards the library (lectures, seminars, conferences, peer-reviewed publications and random conversations). Amazon and LibraryThing or GoodReads have added value by adding a personal and social layer to the library concept in virtual space.
So why hasn’t anyone done this with the repository? I think this is because the funded projects creating these repositories are not ambitious enough and the funding agencies aren’t savvy enough. What JISC should do (and who else) is to fund and run an open source platform for sharing everything in UK education (but open to all): software, curricula, books, worksheets. Sort of like Sourceforge, YouTube, Slideshare, Delicious and WordPress.com on steroids. This would host development projects (software and otherwise), bring together users and creators, allow the creation of interest groups and communities (kind of like Ning) and commit to sustainability. All JISC-funded projects should be required to release all materials and software under an open licence and have an active presence on this platform (although not necessarily exclusive to it). All the software building blocks are out in the Open and all the community models are there as well. If these tools were generalised enough (cf Drupal Scholar), it would not limit creativity but rather provide a platform for stability and true sharing across projects, media and subject matter. If it had a layer of federated identity (see elsewhere on this blog), it would be all the better for it.
Now it is important to keep in mind that there are many communities that fail. Communities need to nurtured and supported to function successfully. Even the “self-sustaining” ones. I tried to outline the sources of community sustainability in a presentation a few years ago. And having a reliable, long-term, free platform would be a great first step toward community sustainability. Community may seem like a recent buzzword (because it is one) but in fact it’s how information has always been communicated and shared. Information needs trust and communities provide that trust. Information also requires resources (material and symbolic) and communities provide that, as well. So building a community is the first step to success (as Wikipedia demonstrated), the rest follows. Of course, there needs to be an environment within which the community can strive, such as a seed of useful materials (Open Street Map shows the power of that), but then it’s up to the community itself. The mistake JORUM is making, and that Wikipedia did not make (unwittingly, at first), is relying on the lone contributor. This is not sustainable model. It needs to entice in motivated area-specific or cross disciplinary but passionate teams who then motivate those around them to keep contributing. The individual contributions will then be welcome but not essential to the success of the platform.