Posted on December 1, 2009 · Posted in Siyavula

At the risk of adding to the world of “list-of” blog posts, I wanted to share some of the things that have come up in conversations with many people lately around choosing an OER platform. More important than things like allegiance to a programming languages, wikis, content management systems, or some particular software framework, a platform choice has to be sensitive to the context in which you wish achieve the OER-related impact.

Just for interest, my off-the-cuff list of the big OER platforms is (apologies to those not mentioned):

I’m the first to admit that it would be an incredible amount of fun and possibly extremely satisfying (assuming success) to try to build a new, better, slicker, faster solution from scratch but the OER world has some pretty significant players now and there is little to be gained from additional fragmentation. In fact, consolidation may be one of the best things we could see in the OER space now that governments are starting to take OERs seriously.

Context: Education in South Africa

A quick context description is the best place to start and I’ve put some of the context information down in an earlier post about the Siyavula strategy.

Strategic Functionaly for Siyavula

The four key features that the Siyavula software framework needs to provide are:
Importing – the ability to import already existing material so that teachers and organisations can share easily
Editing – the ability to edit, adapt, enhance and reorganise resources
Vetting – the ability to flag content as approved by either an individual or organisation
Typesetting – the ability to produce print-ready material because the vast majority of South African learners need hardcopy material, this is the primary accessibility requirement in South Africa

As part of our sustainability model Siyavula did not want to be responsible for building another web-portal from scratch and maintaining it. We sought a platform that we could use or partner with that embraced openness. We chose Connexions as our platform and have been working with the Connexions team for well over a year now.

Apart from ensuring that the platform had a strong team backing it, good governance and other due-process related things, we considered:

Open Licence

Connexions demonstrates an extreme commitment to openness in all aspects. The software that is used on www.cnx.org is an extension of Plone and is available as a separate open-source project called Rhaptos.

The content on Connexions is licenced under Creative Commons By-Attributions licence. This licence ensures that the content is compatible with all other projects using Creative Commons licences, even those that have chosen more restrictive ones and also enables the possibility for the exploration of commercial enterprises based on the open content items. Many other projects use more restrictive licensing constraining use and innovation.

Homogeneous vs. Heterogeneous Repositories

For communities with real diversity to form rapidly within the body of content it should be rapidly re-usable and re-mixable. For this to be possible the content needs to be edited and mixed easily and rapidly online, imposing the requirement that the content be homogeneous in a number of respects.

Format

Repositories that allow users to upload files in a random selection of formats do not promote rapid re-use and re-mixing as users are required to have all the relevant software packages (many proprietary) to make adaptations. This places an unnecessary burden on the users and hampers content adaptation and enhancement.

Connexions imports all text-based content and homogenises it, storing it in XML. This ensures that all content in the repository can be re-mixed without users requiring any special transformations or software packages. XML also allows proper semantic mark-up which has many additional benefits, for example equations stored in MathML can be imported into the vast majority of maths packages allowing users to interact with the content.

Licence

Repositories that contain content of mixed licensing can be frustrating for users as they are often not clear what content can be re-mixed, even if the format is compatible.
All Connexions content is licensed under the same copyright licence ensuring maximal mixing.

Structured Content

The vast majority of K-12 (known as R-12 in South Africa) content requires structure. Wiki-based platforms, based on a model involving a flat structure of individual pages are not well suited to the collaborative development of cohesive, coherent structured texts (see FHSST How-To for detailed anecdotes of WikiBooks usage). It is possible to restructure wiki software to behave more like a content management system with structured content but the simpler solution IMHO is to begin with a content management system.

Connexions provides the ability to develop structured content in the form of collections, ensuring that small units can be developed, modules, as well as books or entire courses.

The full revision history of any published resource is also permanently available on Connexions allowing courses, books or sites to reference specific versions of resources even though new editions may exist.

Editing

To simplify the content creation process and ensure that once a user had access to the content repository they were able to adopt an authoring the platform had to provide both authoring as well as a solid repository.

Connexions is such a solution, allowing users to edit content that has been imported or create content from scratch online.

Permissions

Although all content can be re-mixed by all users on Connexions, users still have control over their own versions of a module. This in fact increases freedom as users produce their own versions of content rather than entering into flame-wars around controversial resources, particularly prevalent in wikis where a single page exists on a topic.

A solution was required that would allow different versions of resources to exist in parallel. This is particularly important in a context like the South African context where we expect many parallel versions of a resource to exist to cater for the vast number of cultural and social contexts that need to be catered for.

Workgroups

The sustainability of content in the Siyavula project will be ensured through communities of practice. All candidate platforms needed to provide organic communities with a space in which to exchange content, ideas and collaboratively develop new resources.
Connexions provides this through workgroup functionality.

Vetting

To ensure credibility with the vast majority of the teaching corps, content vetting is required. Connexions provides light-weight lens functionality which easily allows for multiple vetting agencies to approve the same content items.

Typesetting

The primary accessibility requirement in South Africa is still hard-copy. A solution that allows for the typesetting of content is needed to gain real traction.
Connexions provides a typesetting solution which handles mathematics well, something most solutions aren’t capable of handling.

Decision

The primary platform discriminators for the Siyavula project were:

  • homogeneity of format and licence,
  • structured content, and
  • typesetting.

Serious consideration was also given to choosing a platform and deploying it ourselves but this was shelved for sustainability reasons. For reference, some platforms considered were:

  • Plone / EduCommons
  • Drupal (extension of www.fhsst.org)
  • MediaWiki

Topics like homogeneity of repository and requiring structured content (to wiki or not to wiki) eliminate many of the candidate platforms. Coupling the need for proper typesetting ensures that Connexions is the only sustainable solution that simultaneously:

  • allows external development on the underlying platform,
  • imports content into a homogised format,
  • provides an authoring platfrom with the relevant permissions and structure,
  • supports the organic growth of virtual communities with their own space,
  • enables effective solutions for vetting, and
  • is coupled to an effective typesetting engine.

About the Author

Mark Horner is the CEO of Siyavula Education, a social enterprise working in the school sector in South Africa. While working as the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow for Open and Collaborative Resources, Mark was able to transform the Free High School Science Texts (FHSST) project, which he co-founded, into Siyavula Education. In this process, openly-licensed, collaboratively authored textbooks have been printed and distributed nationally in South Africa. Working at the intersection of community, openness and technology; Mark intends to leverage this success to make Siyavula an innovative, technology provider in education that works effectively as part of the education community to ensure better learning opportunities for all. A recent notable event being the delivery of Siyavula's textbooks over Mxit, the most popular mobile chat solution in South Africa. Mark has a PhD in physics from the University of Cape Town and conducted his research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California on the results from the STAR experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. His work is carried out in the belief that the liberation of information and support of education in South Africa will lead to a peaceful and prosperous future for all South Africans.