Creativity, serendipity and open content

I recently went along to an event organised by the Digital Humanities Network, Scotland at the University of Edinburgh, where Ben O’Steen, Bob Nicholson and Mahendra Mahey gave a series of fascinating presentations on the work of the British Library Labs. BL Labs is a Mellon funded initiative that supports creative experiments to visualise and explore the library’s digital collections and data through competitions and awards for innovative and transformative ideas that bring these digital collections to life. I’m not going to attempt to summarise the presentation, but I’ve put together a Storify of tweets from the event here: Exploring Digital Collections and Data in the Humanities

I’ve been a huge fan of BL Labs projects for a while now, particularly the wonderful Mechanical Curator, which provides undirected and unpredictable engagement with digital content by posting random small book illustrations from the library’s digital collections on an hourly basis. (You can learn more about the inner workings of the Mechanical Curator here: Peeking behind the curtain).


Ships found by the Mechanical Curator

Bob Nicholson’s (@digivictorian) marvellous Victorian Meme Machine is another favourite. This highly creative and entertaining project uncovers forgotten Victorian jokes preserved “largely by accident” among the library’s digital collections and brings them back to life. Not to be outdone by the Mechanical Curator, the Victorian Meme Machine has recently launched the Mechanical Comedian, which tweets random Victorian jokes every lunchtime.


The Mechanical Comedian

On the one hand these projects might appear frivolous and light-hearted but they are a compelling demonstration of what is possible when you bring creative thinkers together with innovative technology and open content.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the interface between openness, creativity, and content recently in the context of teaching and learning and I think there is a lot that open education could learn from the creative approaches to content discovery and reuse being explored by the BL Labs projects.

One of the things I love about open education in general, and open educational resources in particular, is the creative potential they offer to find, use, reuse, create and recreate such a wealth of diverse content and resources. However it appears that, in some quarters at least, open educational resources seem to be regarded as a rather restricted class of content that must be managed and used in a particular way. OER still seems to be rather tainted with some of the negative and rather questionable ideas associated with reusable learning objects. This makes me rather sad as, to my mind, this perception seems to be contrary to what open education should really be about and neglects the creative, fun, and serendipitous aspects of openness. That’s not to say that there aren’t some great examples of creative approaches to surfacing open education content out there. As well as presenting a simple search interface to open educational resources aggregated from a wide range of repositories worldwide, Solvonauts tweets #randomoer every hour.


#randomoer from Solvonauts

And I also love OpenSpires simple interface to the University of Oxford’s eclectic collection of open content and resources.



I don’t quite know where I’m going with this post but I can’t help thinking that we need to encourage more creativity and serendipity in how we surface and engage with open education content.  More to follow perhaps…

7 thoughts on “Creativity, serendipity and open content

  1. Wow, I love these examples. If anything a more typical OER is something created for a very singular purposes as part of a course or lesson, and inevitably leads to David Wiley’s Reusability paradox

    What I see in your examples are less a well rounded OER and more open content organized / presented in a way to offer potential reusability (with some work on the re-users part). The stuff from @solvogram or the Mechanical Comedian might be used as writing prompts or launches for research. They also speak a lot to the value and spirit of remix.

    Or maybe it is a cooking metaphor, you can certainly sell packets of fish nuggets that one just microwaves, or you can sell fresh fish packaged with recipes (aka the old teach a person to fish metaphor).

    • Hey Alan, thanks for dropping by! Glad you like the examples. There’s some great stuff coming out of BL Labs, and Pat Lockley’s brilliant work on Solvonauts deserves to be much more widely known.

      I think you’re right about open content. This is the kind of stuff we need more of. I wonder if teachers might be more inclined to reuse and adapt open content of this kind as it still allows them to exercise their own craft. There’s still a lot of reticence about reusing other people’s educational content as it’s almost seen as calling into question your professional expertise.

      I like the fish analogy. I like fish! The fresher the better 🙂

  2. There is also

    The basic problem (to me) is openness never cared about broadcasting, or disseminating the content, or getting found. Serendipity is great, but perhaps not at Odyssean levels. This isn’t an argument for ess eee ohh, but for giving a toss about your work.

    Suspect OER funding was about “creating content”, not about getting people to use it. Fire and forget? Dump and run?

    I don’t think repositories present their content as an “endpoint”

    • Think you’re dead right Pat. In the ed tech space the focus on open content tends to be on getting stuff out there. The UKOER metaphor was turning on the tap. But discovery is still a big problem. To be fair to UKOER, later stages of the programme did try to focus on enhancing discovery but I’m not sure how successful that was.

      It’s still a problem. So what’s the answer? More repositories? Better metadata? Custom search engines? Or is it all just a digital literacy issue?

      One of the things I like about the BL Labs projects is that they are very much focused on creative approaches to discoverability. So what, if anything, can we learn from them, or indeed from what you’ve been doing with Solvonauts?

  3. Thanks Lorna, a thought provoking post. I definitely agree that the distinction between RLOs and OERs is an important one, and shouldn’t be seen as just a rebranding exercise. But perhaps if OER can be just about anything that you are allowed to reuse, this means we as ‘promoters of open’ have to take a step back from the old RLO ‘sales pitch’ that claims you will be able to just search, plug and play some resource and that will save you all this time. In the ed tech world there is a danger we can end up repeating narratives of technological progress and efficiency. Instead I think we must acknowledge that doing this stuff is hard and time consuming for people whose main job is actually something rather different. So my feeling is we need to focus on making better arguments for openness. I enjoy tweets from Solvonauts and the mechanical curator popping up in my news feed and I don’t think the value of fun should be underestimated – and as well as highlighting interesting things, just because they are interesting, these serve as a reminder that there is open content out there to be had. But it does seem to me that a key open ed issue is that educators are not really sure how to find the specific content they are after for a specific purpose (actually, they are sure they can use Google, it is beyond Google that madness appears to lie). So you can look at it as partly an issue of digital literacies, partly about needing open technologies to improve to better support discoverability and reusability, but also crucially about the how culture and motivation impact engagement with openness, and how much support is available to help educators navigate these open waters.

    • Thanks for your comments Leo and for helping to move these discussions forward. I think you’re right, perhaps we do need to re-evaluate what we mean when we promote the “benefits of open”. Reusing existing resource does take a degree of time and effort and this isn’t something we should gloss over.

      I also agree that more needs to be done to improve the discoverability of resources that match users’ specific educational requirements. Even after all these years, discovering educational content is still hard. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been involved with the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LRMI It won’t solve all these problems, but it’s another step in the right direction.

  4. Thanks Lorna – your post has left me thinking about the conceptual boundaries between discoverability and serendipity. There is so much great open content (as your examples show) that would be more accessible through improved discoverability, but one of the great joys of serendipity is finding something (or stumbling over something) without really “looking” for it. Of course all this also raises issues of how users then curate and manage the content.. definitely challenges to consider over afternoon coffee!

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