Firstly, let me apologise, for I have been meaning to write this little blog since I first enrolled on this blog site! To date, all I have done is summarise our part of the HEA Bioscience project. However, as of today, things are going to change! What I am intending to focus on is the use of eXe in our materials, but before I begin properly, I feel that it is important to set out where we stand both in respect of Open Education Resources and the use of wysiwyg editors, like eXe.
Why OER? Reasons and modifications specific to the Biodiversity Consortium
My main interest in terms of the OER project is in developing material that can be downloaded easily and either used as they are, or as an enticement to see the more developed – enhanced – materials that the Biodiversity Consortium holds. Through necessity, the Biodiveristy Consortium is going to need to somehow get financial support for the continuation of its materials (be it through subscription or the normal grant-funding and sponsorship routes). For now, we have only just been exploring these avenues, as it is of paramount importance that we keep together the people – and therefore the experience and skills – the Biodiversity Consortium has brought together in order to be as successful as it has been over the last 20 years.
As said before, the OER project will, we hope, enable us to advertise our capabilities to a wider audience through what we are calling ‘sacrificial units’ – that is, examples of our material, which may be presented in their entirety or slimmed down. In order to do this, we have had to find something in which we could implement rapidly some of our (pre-existing) material, but which would enable us to keep to our quality-control in place, protect the IPR of our authors and the copyright of the Biodiversity Consortium images (in reality, several thousand), but still enable the use of these materials in the institutions they were originally intended for. You should remember through all of this that the Biodiversity Consortium is unusual in the partners within these OER in that it is an entity distinct from any particular institute, even if it is currently housed in the University of Nottingham: this was perceived as a necessary feature of the Consortium, given that we were, even in 1992, trying to break the ‘not invented here; syndrome still so prevalent in HE institutes – through the bringing together of so many HEIs and thus authors, we amassed a huge pool of expertise in biodiversity, and are still doing this. No wonder we are careful as to how we release materials! With this in mind, we found the HEA_Biosciences OER project both a challenging prospect and one that may enable us to research some of the necessary avenues that we need to follow in order to bring back what we perceive is our former glory.
Over the years, I and my colleagues have experimented with a number of different editing environments. The Biodiversity Consortium materials were originally created in an inhouse programming development, the Scholar’s Desktop, which was delivered through CD and intranet, and which has actually stood the test of time in terms of its presentation functionality (people still comment on the advanced nature of its capabilities, and are amazed when we point out to them that it’s about 20 years old). The SDT, as it came to be known, was adopted by the OU for its biodiversity materials and was developed into a more web-friendly delivery engine for their students. However, it is proprietory software which, more to the point, is complicated in terms of developing material and subsequent delivery, so we needed to change.
We dabbled in the world of XML during the period of the VSB, and facilitated the development of WHURLE, primarily developed by colleagues in the School of Computer Sciences, initially with funding from the VSB. However, this was purely an experimental phase and, although it is commented that a lot was learned from this, many actual users felt it lacked something, and put too many assumptions in terms of pedagogy into the system. It was a good start, though!
The next set of developments revolved around how we could create materials quickly for our eChina colleagues. We dabbled with Dreamweaver (great in terms of look, dodgy in terms of coding), we created material directly in html (sadly, my preferred route, but the only one if you know what you really want and know what you are doing!), we dabbled with the idea of flash-xml combined templates (great, until you want to do something different, or want to make sure that you have easily updatable materials and interactions, rather than straight presentation-only files with little outside integrality), we even dabbled with freeware software like NVU, and probably dropped it just as quickly! Then, one of our number came across this NZ opensource software development package called, rather unfortunately we thought, ‘eXe’ (‘not to be confused with exe files’, we were told). After exploring this for other in-school purposes, we came to the conclusion that, at least in the short term, it would be the most appropriate tool to use to deliver rapidly at least some of the materials that we wanted to. With a bit of technical manipulation of the underlying CSS files, we found that we could modify its look to something less chunky and less bitty than the original format. Given that it automatically creates your menu for you, purely by how it gets you to create pages, and then publishes these inside your web pages, or as the alternative SCORM package, we felt that we were on to something here – anyone who creates web pages will now how time consuming, and even annoying, it is to ‘add in’ a highlightable menu system and remember to put in all the links, back links and the like when what you really want to do is ‘create materials’. And thus the great OER development with eXe begins ….