Thoughts on Amazon Inspire

Earlier this week EdWeek Market Brief reported that Amazon is developing a platform to “allow schools to upload, manage, share, and discover open education resources”.  Amazon Inspire, which appears to be aimed squarely at the US K-12 education sector / market (you decide) will enable users to

“to add ratings and reviews, and to receive recommendations based on their previous selections. Educators will be able to curate open resources, self-publish material they have developed, and put a school’s entire digital library that is open and freely available online.”

Although Amazon admit they haven’t nailed down a business model to ensure the platform’s financial sustainability, harnessing the company’s formidable recommender system to sell products that complement lessons and resources, is likely to feature prominently somewhere along the line. Amazon are sufficiently confident that they can guarantee the platform’s sustainability that Andrew Joseph, vice president of strategic relations for Amazon Education stated

“We’ve made a commitment that we will never charge for this,” Joseph said, noting it will be “a completely free, open platform for free resources.”

I’m tempted to say “we’ve heard that before”, but that would be cynical of me.  And of course “free” and “open” aren’t quite the same thing, but lets come back to that in a minute.

Of course Joseph doesn’t miss an opportunity to take a pot shot at Google

“teachers spend 12 hours a week on content creation and sharing on their own,” said Joseph, using Google Drive or shared folders within a district. “If you think about those resources, they’re not all that discoverable or sharable.”

Quite.

Unsurprisingly, this announcement has already sparked considerable discussion online.  Stephen Downes was one of the first to comment on this development, noting that Amazon already has a significant presence in the education sector, providing access to tools, a grant programme and cloud services. Matt Reed of Inside Higher Ed was generally enthusiastic about the development, speculating that Amazon Inspire could do for OER what iTunes did for podcasts. He does add a note of caution though, asking

“Are they trying to kill commercial publishers? Harvest student data? Commission hagiographic treatments of the life of Jeff Bezos? Amazon isn’t known for philanthropy.”

Like many commentators Reed focuses on the potential ability of OER to reduce the astronomical cost of textbooks in the US.  While I agree that reducing the cost of textbooks is undoubtedly a Good Thing, (though of considerably less benefit to education in the UK), focusing on this as the primary benefit of OER, rather misses the much wider potential of open education. Replacing a paid thing with a free thing, is certainly good, but does little to challenge the commercialisation of the education, particularly if the free thing is being provided by a commercial behemoth. This is a point that Jim Groom raised on twitter.

And then there’s the whole issue of open and free. Will the resources hosted on Amazon Inspire really be open?  Or will they be free?  The EdWeek report makes no mention of whether resources will carry a CC licence, in fact there is no mention of licensing at all. If they don’t use CC licences can Amazon really market this as OER ? Pat Lockley thinks they can (though he did admit to cynicism.)

Whatever Amazon Inspire transpires to be, it’s certainly an interesting development at a time when the sustainability of open educational resources and OER repositories, or lack thereof, is an increasingly pressing topic.  This is an issue that Viv Rolfe, David Kernohan, Leo Havemann, Pat Lockley, Simon Thomson and I will be exploring in a panel session at OER16 called Web Today, Gone Tomorrow: How can we ensure continuing access to OERs? and I suspect it’s an issue that will surface repeatedly during the conference.  If sharing OER through web platforms such as YouTube and Flickr is already common practice, would sharing them through Amazon really be problematic?  I don’t know. Without knowing more about the platform and the business model it’s too early to judge. I can’t help feeling a bit suspicious about this though…

One final point…I was very interested to note that Amazon Inspire will be partially based on the Learning Registry, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

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The Challenge of OER Sustainability

Sustaining the outputs of projects and programmes beyond their initial phase of funding is a weel kent problem but it is one that we still struggle to solve. Back in 2009 when Cetis were working with Jisc to scope the technical guidelines for the forthcoming UKOER Programme we attempted to address this issue by recommending that projects deliver their content through multiple platforms. One of the few actual requirements among the programme guidelines was that projects must also deposit their content in JorumOpen, in order to act as a safeguard against resources being lost:

Delivery Platforms

Projects are free to use any system or application as long as it is capable of delivering content freely on the open web. However all projects must also deposit their content in JorumOpen. In addition projects should use platforms that are capable of generating RSS/Atom feeds, particularly for collections of resources e.g. YouTube channels. Although this programme is not about technical development projects are encouraged to make the most of the functionality provided by their chosen delivery platforms.

OER Programme Technical Requirements

Six years down the line and attrition is taking the inevitable toll. Several of the sites and repositories that hosted UKOER content have disappeared and the sustainability of the content hosted by the national Jorum repository remains uncertain following Jisc’s announcement in June that it intended to retire Jorum and “refresh its open educational resources offer”.

These problems were brought into sharp focus by Viv Rolfe (@VivienRolfe) of the University of West England this week when she tweeted

Viv’s tweet sparked a lengthy discussion on twitter that drew in several of the community’s most incisive critical thinkers on open education including Simon Thomson (@digisim), Pat Lockley (@Solvonauts, @patlockley), David Kernohan (@dkernohan), Leo Havemann (@leohavemann) and Theresa MacKinnon (@WarwickLanguage).  

The wide ranging discussion touched on a number of thorny issues relating to OER preservation and sustainability.  I’ve created a Storify of the entire discussion here: The Challenge of OER Sustainability

Self-hosting was seen as one alternative to using institutional or national repositories to host OER, with WordPress being a popular platform in some quarters.  David Kernohan took this one step further, asking if individuals who want to self-host OER should run their own repositories. While this is an interesting idea it was regarded as a rather heavy weight solution to the problem and Pat argued that repositories are the wrong tool for the job as they sit outside standard academic digital literacies.

The discussion then turned to cross-publishing. The LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) approach to digital preservation was regarded as one good way to ensure that content does not disappear.  However if content is deposited in multiple places and scattered across the web then other issues arise relating to how to find and curate content. Pat commented that multiple deposit may solve “lost hosting” but complicates “find”. Aggregators and the dark arts of search engine optimisation clearly play a role here, however search engines’ ability to accurately interpret licence information is still problematic.

The Solvonauts aggregator and OER search engine represents a good example of one sustainable approach to locating OER content.  Solvonauts has aggregated 141867 OERs, it costs around $50 a year to run and the code and database are shared on Github. If Pat falls under a bus tomorrow, it’s business as usual for Solvonauts. (Pat’s phrase, not mine.  Please don’t fall under a bus Pat!)  Of course Solvonauts can only find content that it is there; it can not solve the problem of how to sustain content if servers are switched off or repositories shut down with little or no warning, which brings us right back to the issue of repository sustainability.

Leo Havemann commented that the main problem is lack of funding rather than the failure of repositories per se and Simon Thomson suggested MERLOT as a good example of a sustainable OER repository.  This resulted in a rather heated discussion about whether MERLOT can be regarded as an OER repository as not all the content is CC licensed and there is a cost associated with deposit.  Simon has already blogged an excellent summary of this discussion and the points he made regarding MERLOT which you can find here: The challenges of maintaining OER repositories, but why we must never stop trying.

Ultimately there is no simple answer to the question posed by David.

 Where should I put my OER so people can find and use it?

Pat’s answer may suggest a way forward in the short term.

I would place content into any platform which supported some licensing, or was free hosting, caveated with a bulk download option should the platform close.

Even if there is no easy answer, sustainability of OER is a pressing issue that requires immediate attention and a collective response from the community.  Digital curation and sustainability of OERs may represent a challenge, but as Simon pointed out in his own blog post, we must never stop trying.

Spotlight on the Digital: Technical Focus Group

digispot_storifyLast Friday I attended the Spotlight on the Digital technical focus group led by David Kay, of Sero Consulting and Owen Stephens, of Owen Stephens Consulting. The workshop was attended by institutional repository and archive managers, together with representatives of a wide range of bodies including the Welcome Trust, EDINA, the Archives Hub, Knowledge Integration, the Wikimedia Foundation and the British Library.

Spotlight on the Digital is run by Jisc in collaboration with RLUK and SCONUL.    The aim of the programme is to

“identify practical solutions that will support Higher Education (HE) institutions to enhance the discoverability of their digitised collections for the benefit of their key audiences, in particular researchers, teachers and students.”

The project is focusing on three user groups; researchers, students and university teachers. Two hundred publicly­ funded digital resources have been examined to assess their discoverability and a literature study of research on search behaviour has been undertaken.  In addition to the workshop I attended, the project team will also consult with a group of library directors.

I’ve created a storify of tweets from the event summarising the main points raised, which you can find here storify.com/LornaMCampbell/spotlight-on-digital

It was a very interesting workshop that raised many important issues and highlighted some really innovative approaches to discoverability including; British Library Labs‘  Mechanical Curator project, which selects a small image taken at random from the pages of digitised works held at the library and posts it to tumblr ever hour on the hour; the Imperial War Museum‘s use of History Pin to crowd source information about their collections; and Cymu1900, a crowd sourcing project to transcribe Welsh place names.

However what struck me at the end of the workshop was that we had barely scratched the surface of issues relating to the discoverability of educational content. Educational materials are frequently scattered, messy, poorly catalogued, lack persistent identifiers, and rarely reside in well managed archives or repositories.  This raises a whole host of issues and problems in relation to discoverability.

While context is an important aspect of discoverability for all kinds of digital artefacts, it is critical for educational content.  One inspiring project highlighted by Owen Stephens which addresses both contextualisation and educational resources is the National Maritime Museum‘s contextualisation of the digitised Board of Longitude papers by creating stories around the artefacts and developing Key Stage resource packs for schools.

Board of Longitude Key Stage 3 resources from the National Maritime Museum

Board of Longitude Key Stage 3 resources from the National Maritime Museum

My Cetis colleague Brian Kelly, who also attended the workshop, has written up this thoughts on the role of Wikipedia in this context: Spotlight on Wikipedia: the opportunities and the risks.