Tag: sustain

technical debt for OER

Me trying to find a book on technical debt. Photo credit: LTW, University of Edinburgh CC-BY
Me trying to find a book on technical debt. Photo credit: LTW, University of Edinburgh CC-BY

Three weeks ago,  while preparing  my presentation for e-learningforum@ed conference I was musing on the similarities between ‘technical debt’ and what one might call ‘ copyright debt’.

I was thinking about institutional risks of not being open. Institutional risks are sometimes legal, sometimes reputational, sometimes financial.  Mostly, at IT directors’ meetings we talk about the need to mitigate risks early on, and avoid risks in the future.

Generally,  the risks of not engaging with open practice are reputational: Other institutions are doing it; we might miss out on this good thing; we should be seen to be bold in digital education and leading edge in our open research. There is a risk to our reputation if colleagues do not seem to be up to-date-on licensing and refer to online materials or data as ‘open’ when they are not. But most of those risks are easily hidden under a smear of open-washing and a vagueness about the definition of open in different contexts.

These are not risks which will ever convince a VP Finance and Resources to invest.

If you want to convince an IT director or a CIO to invest in systems which have built-in  open-licensing workflows,  protecting the institution against the risk of expensive copyright debt may be the way forward.

My definition of ‘copyright debt’ is based on my understanding of ‘technical debt’. Technical debt is a metaphor often used in IT to explain why it costs so much to replace IT systems. I  use it to explain why rather than spending my budget on new exciting learning and teaching functionality, I am having to spend it to replace something we thought we already had.

You can ready about technical debt on Wikipedia. It’s the cost of not doing something properly in the first place. From the moment you build a system poorly, without due attention to software code rigour and process, you begin to accrue debt and then interest on that debt. From the moment you don’t fix, patch and maintain the code, the same thing happens. At some point you are going to have to go back and fix it, and the longer you leave it the more expensive it will be*.

From the moment a colleague tells you that they don’t have time, or don’t care about the copyright licensing and metadata on their teaching materials and load them up into a VLE, online course environment, departmental website, online course-pack, lecture power-point slides, whatever, you start to accrue ‘copyright debt’.

Someone will have to go back to those materials at some point to check them, figure out who made them and when and check for 3rd party content. The longer time passes (or staff change) between the original materials   being uploaded in to the VLE the harder it will be to find the original source.

The cost will hit at the moment that you migrate from one VLE to another, or from one website to another, or from one media asset management system to another.  At that point lecturers and departmental administrators will be asked to confirm that they have copyright permission for the materials they are migrating, and they will say ‘ I have no idea, in fact I don’t even remember/know where all the bits came from’.

They will suggest that someone in a central service (usually the library) should do the checking, and that is where the cost hits. No-one in the library is super-human enough ( unless you pay them a lot)  to check all the hundreds of teaching and learning materials in your VLE, so most of it will just be binned and colleagues will be outraged that they have to make it all again.

I’d suggest the common causes of copyright debt include (a combination of):

  • Business pressures, where the business considers getting something released sooner before all of the necessary copyright searches are complete.
  • Lack of process or understanding, where the businesse is blind to the concept of copyright debt, and make decisions without considering the implications.
  • Lack of flexible components, where materials are not openly licensed, the re-use permissions are  not flexible enough to adapt to changes in course content.
  • Lack of time, which encourages colleagues  to do quick  google searches and take materials they find without checking the license.
  • Lack of metadata, where content is created without necessary supporting metadata. That work to create the supporting metadata represents a debt that must be paid.
  • Lack of collaboration, where knowledge of open practice isn’t shared around the organization and business efficiency suffers, or junior learning technologists  are not properly mentored.
  • Parallel development at the same time on two or more VLEs  can cause the build up of copyright debt because of the work that will eventually be required to move content from one to another. The more content developed in isolation without clear licensing , the more debt that is piled up.
  • Delayed reformatting – the  formats which were used for creating learning objects quickly becomes obsolete. Without clear permission to make adaptations it is hard for older TEL materials to be converted to new formats.  The longer that reformatting is delayed, and the more content is written to use the older format, the more debt that piles up that must be paid at the time the conversion is finally done.
  • Lack of alignment to standards, where industry standard features, frameworks, open technologies are ignored. Eventually, integration with standards will come, doing it sooner will cost less.
  • Lack of knowledge, when the content creator simply doesn’t know how or why to use open materials.

The challenge in all this of course, is that the individual academics making the materials don’t care about the longer term cost to the central services of this debt. This argument won’t persuade them to take the time to change their practice, so we must build rigour for open practice  into the workflows of our enterprise-wide systems and services as soon as we possibly can, making it easy for colleagues to make positive choices.

Or else we risk a whole heap of copyright debt.

*Basically it is the software equivalent of ‘ a stitch in time saves nine’.

(While I was doing this thinking, I bumped into  a session at #OER15 called  ‘the cost of not going open‘ by Viv Rolfe which also looked to quantify costs. Viv’s approach is to look at costs and savings around academic time spent creating materials, which complements my thinking rather nicely.)



designing to deliver education for 2025

University of Edinburgh  Education for 2025
University of Edinburgh Education for 2025

Vice Principal Professor Jeff Haywood delivered a keynote adress at recent ALT conference. In it he outlined a vision for the University of Edinburgh’s education in 2025.  The vision includes digital education, lifelong learning,  open educational resources (OER) and a significant  growth in online delivery to on- and off-campus students.

To support such a transformational shift we will need to build on recent success, draw upon our values and mission as an institution to find ‘the Edinburgh way’, and plan for investment to support sustainable, scalable growth.

This week the LTW service managers in the  many  IS academic IT teams  will meet as a group to begin to plan a roadmap of serious experiments, projects, support, staff development and infrastructure needed to make this vision a reality. We are looking closely at the many ‘flavours of openness’ in educational practice around the institution and discussing the investment needed in digital skills for teaching, learning and research. In his keynote Jeff stressed the need for the ‘serious experiments’ to be supported, evaluated and evidence based.  The reactions from the audience at ALT ( an international association of learning technologists in higher and further education) was that bold moves were needed at institutional and policy level to support a university like ours to adapt, change and maintain our position on the world stage.

If you would like to be part of ongoing discussions and consultations with Learning, Teaching and Web Services about the digital strategy, please contact  me.  Jeff’s keynote adress at ALT conference can be viewed online in full.

ctrl alt c

Picture taken by me in the street. No rights reserved.
Picture taken by me in the street. No rights reserved.

I have spent a couple of days this week at the ALT ( Association of Learning Technologists) Conference at Warwick. There were three keynote presentations. Each really interesting in its own way and each building upon the other. The assembled delegates were very well served (as were those tuning in online)

The first keynote was by Jeff Haywood, VP and leader of IS (University of Edinburgh). I would not ever want to give the impression that one has to go away to conferences to hear what is going on in your home institution, but it was fun to see it all up on the big screen and to tune in to the twitter comments from our peer community.

Jeff was followed by a keynote from Catherine Cronin (National University of Ireland). Her presentation covered the importance of values in open practice,  how her values have been shaped by experience, the importance of voting and a very clear representation for women in this workplace/space.  Her presentation was clearly inspirational for many, as reflected in the tweets from audience members and the high turn out at the Open Education SIG a couple of hours later. She signalled that education is a political space and that openness must be informed by what we know about gender, race and class.

Audrey Watters’ ( no institution) keynote also drew upon history and literature. I begin to suspect that a good grounding in the liberal arts is a useful background for educational technologists. She talked about man-made monsters and drew inspiration from previous writers and actors (including the luddites)*.

I spoke with Catherine about Mary Somerville and Audrey namechecked Ada Lovelace.

As I listened to the presentations and audience questions there was much to reflect upon, a couple things are high in my mind though. I have been thinking about the  politics of code, the values upon which it is based and in-built assumptions it can embody. I mentioned Bodington in a previous post. That was a VLE designed on the assumption that all the same tools which were available to teachers would also be available to students. It was in there in the architecture, it did not privilege the teacher’s voice, it was a tool to democratise the classroom.  I like technology which is based on those kind of values.

I was surprised at the conference to hear several people refer to Facebook as ‘open’ and as a space where great things can be done, a place that students have as a ‘good place’ and that educators should use. While I use facebook personally as much as the next woman, I have no illusions as to its origins and the values of its creators. Facebook was born out of misogyny  in elite univerisities and continues to be a place where peer pressure and shaming are rife. I like those values less.

I agree with Jeff, Catherine and Audrey: it is important that we understand our history and learn from our experiences.

There were many mentions of MOOCing cash cows and very few of cultural imperialism or sustainability. In general, the ALT conference made little mention of  FOSS  or CC although WordPress, Moodle and open badges did get multiple mentions and showcases.  A strong representation from the Scottish institutions and Open Scotland, but no discussion of what we’ll do when they cut us off from JANET.**

I could happily go a long time without hearing the phrase ‘herding cats’ again.

You are wondering if I actually attended any sessions about technology. I can assure you that many salespersons showed me theirs.


*I had a heated dinner table discussion with someone at the conference who believed that luddites lived in caves. I suspect he meant troglodytes.

** and despite several mentions of Luddites and laggards, no reference, even in the OER sessions, to Levellers.

better together

Picture taken by me in the street . No rights reserved.

Our new Learning, Teaching and Web Division was formally created on August 1 2014, which seems like a good date to begin a new blog.

Edinburgh has a great reputation for digital innovation, it’s an exciting place to be at an exciting time. There’s a lot of talent here, and an appetite to take risks and innovate with bold moves.

It is important that the institution gets good support from central services. Learning, Teaching and Web Services (LTW) is bringing together the services in Information Services that directly support learning and teaching. This gives us the opportunity to innovate, enhance or expand services to support an improved digital student experience and public engagement. The academic technologies such as Learn and MyEd are absolutely key to the experience of our students, as are digital education,  distance learning courses, online media, the university website and the technology which enhances our teaching spaces. We work closely with colleagues in the IS Skills teams and support for research data management to ensure that academic colleagues and students have the skills they need to make the most of the technologies on offer.