Workgroup:Learning design/Reusability paradox and iDevices

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Key points
This text is an extract from a grant proposal. The following points are relevant:
  • The proposal includes a component to improve OER content interoperability between mainstream platforms, and in this case we aim to build import -- export capability between Connexions and WikiEducator
  • iDevices will improve the pedagogical value of both platforms.

The reusability challenge

The reusability paradox illustrating the inverse relationship between reusability and pedagogical effectiveness
The quality of a teaching resource is, in part, determined by the pedagogical design elements and learning activities embedded in the OER that respond to the learner's educational context.

Educationally speaking, reuse means placing an OER into a different learning context from that for which it was originally designed and developed. Meaningful learning is closely related to the learner's context. For instance, an OER Physics lesson dealing with Newton's second law of motion based on an activity using the example of a London bus will have little meaning or context for learners in rural Uganda who have never seen a London bus. While this OER example may be pedagogically effective for children in the United Kingdom, it has significantly less reuse potential for children in Africa. Consequently, there is an inverse relationship between pedagogical effectiveness of OERs and their potential for reuse -- hence the reusability paradox (Wiley 2004: online)[1]

Effective OER reuse of necessity requires recontextualisation of the resource. The example of the Physics lesson above is used to illustrate that educational elements embedded within OER can restrict reuse, but this example is understandably an oversimplification of the pedagogical challenges associated with remixing. It is therefore imperative that we empower educators as “intelligent agents” within self-organising systems to recontextualise OER by:

  1. building capacity and skills to remix OER in conjunction with
  2. the development of technologies which make it easier to do this.

The value proposition for OER reuse is based on a cost-benefit decision by the educator:

Cost of repurposing < Benefits of developing a new OER

The cost of recontextualisation, that is, the time required to re-purpose an OER for a different educational context, should conceptually be less than the perceived benefits of developing a new OER from scratch. Improving reusability is simultaneously a technical and a pedagogical challenge:

  • Technically: OER should ideally be developed and stored in editable formats using open standards and open file formats thus enabling educators to easily adapt and modify materials with the tools of their choice[2]. Both Connexions and WikiEducator develop and store OER in formats which are easily editable by users hence these respective platforms are ideally positioned to reduce the reusability paradox. Moreover, the Mediawiki software engine has an collection extension which enables users to produce customised pdf versions and the option to download these customisations in open document format[3] for off line editing.
  • Pedagogically: The ability to identify the educational elements embedded in the content as discrete components within OER would increase the value proposition for reuse. This would enable educators to save time in recontextualising the pedagogy for different learning situations. For example, exporting the content of the OER Physics lesson on Newton's second law of motion (above) with the option of excluding context specific activities. This would contribute to the reducing the cost of recontextualisation in terms of the time required to re-purpose and OER.

The concept of iDevices and reusability

With reference to the OER sustainability challenge, Atkins, Brown and Hammond (2007:25) recommend the adoption of "a voluntary (or mix of voluntary and paid) wiki-like model, in which OER is the object of micro-contributions from many[4]". Educational elements like: learning outcomes, pre-knowledge reflections, case studies, interactive questions with feedback, supporting resources and other learning activities constitute the micro-elements of OER learning materials. The learning design approach of breaking down educational materials into its constituent pedagogical elements is well researched within the distance education literature[5].

This approach is being used by a growing number of OER projects. Consider, for example:

  • the design template used for authoring OER materials in the Teacher Education for Sub-Saharan Africa project[6];
  • the instructional design template[7] developed by the Commonwealth of Learning which incorporates distance education, instructional design elements and techniques into the learning texts;
  • the deployment of similar techniques called instructional devices (iDevices)[8]by the eLearning XHTML Editor (eXe)[9] – a popular open source software authoring tool designed for use by teachers; and
  • WikiEducator's deployment of the equivalent approach in a wiki environment called pedagogical templates[10].

Without discounting the complexity associated with questions of pedagogical design, diverse cultural learning contexts, psychological “ownership” of externally generated teaching materials, personal teaching styles etc, it is a plausible contention that making it easier to edit and re-purpose sub-elements of OER learning materials with greater flexibility to manage and manipulate output formats will contribute to a reduction in the “transaction cost” associated with reconfiguring an OER resource for different contexts.

The following use case illustrates salient features of an OER remix scenario.

Use case

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Case Study
Wazobia creates and repurposes OER materials and activity assignment for his pupils in Nigeria

Wazobia, a teacher in a rural village in Nigeria is planning an assignment on waterborne diseases for his grade 10 class. The school has no textbooks, computer lab or connectivity.

Last Saturday when visiting the Internet café at the nearby town to check his gmail account for an expected email from his sister who is studying in South Africa, he searched Google and found three Wikipedia articles: Safe water (; Drinking water (; and Water Pollution (

Wazobia also visited the WikiEducator web site and found a practical assignment and corresponding worksheet developed by a teacher in India to measure and monitor the levels of water pollution in a local river. He noted that the assignment was well designed with a number of clearly identified educational elements which WikiEducator called iDevices (instructional devices). The assignment on WikiEducator contained a clear statement of learning outcomes, a number of interactive multiple choice questions with feedback for correct and incorrect answers and a case study of the Musi River in Hyderabad which has now become a receptacle of domestic and industrial waste resulting in the water downstream of the city being highly polluted. Each educational element was clearly signalled in the materials using a representative graphic icon and distinctive layout separating the “teacher talk” from the learning content.

Unfortunately the case study example was not appropriate for his class and two of the stated learning outcomes were not aligned with the Nigerian curriculum. Wazabia clicked on the link labelled “create a print version” He was presented with a number of options:

  1. Export full version (including text for the iDevices);
  2. Export with place holders for iDevices (iDevice text removed)
  3. Custom selection.

Wazabia tried the 3rd option and chose to keep the multiple choice questions and selected the place holder options for the learning outcomes and the case study elements which required reconfiguration for the Nigerian context. He saved this as a personal collection in WikiEducator and was also given the option of saving an “ODT” file, and wasn't sure what this was for. Nonetheless, he saved the .pdf and .odt file onto his USB memory stick, which he used for saving copies of his email communications.

Clicking on the ODT file, Wazobia found out that he could open and edit the file using Open Office which was installed as the word processing software at the Internet café. This meant that Wazobia could edit the OER content he sourced on WikiEducator off line without the need to tackle the long walk to the cyber café. This was useful, because feedback from his pupils after completing the project would inevitably result in a number of refinements based on the experience of using the lesson in the field.

He noted that the ODT document he downloaded from Wikieducator had maintained the layout and presentation for the learning outcomes and case study, but the text was removed. He inserted new learning outcomes based on the relevant Nigerian outcome statements and authored a new case study using a local stream as the example. He made a mental note to loan his cousin's new mobile phone to take a photo of the local streams, and transfer this to a memory stick for uploading onto Wikieducator on his next visit to the cyber café. Wazobia was surprised to see that the online interactions and feedback for the multiple choice questions now appeared as an Appendix in the off line version of the OER resource with cross references to the relevant questions in the body of the text.

Wazobia saw that Wikipedia also had the option of downloading an ODT file, and he downloaded copies of the three Wikipedia articles. Working off line, he deleting the irrelevant sections of these Wikipedia articles for his teaching purpose and combined the abridged encyclopaedia text with the customised activity assignment from WikiEducator. Selecting the File > Export option in Open Office, Wazobia uploaded a remixed version of his lesson.

Wazobia decided to create a customised workbook which contained his remixed version of the content from Wikipedia and the activity worksheet sourced from WikiEducator. He was able to customise this workbook by adding his own title and subtitle which he called: “Water pollution and Safe Drinking Water: A Group Assignment for Grade 10”. He also added his name as the editor of this compilation and was rather pleased, because this was the first book he had edited. WikiEducator produced a pdf master file with a professional looking layout, which could be reproduced locally for his pupils. He also saved an ODT version of the file for editing later off line.

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