But what is it that you actually do (with online resources)?

Our collection of resources of potential relevance to the research methods project is growing alongside our brainstorming efforts to find/design a workable approach for the collection front-end. Among other things, we are also (im)patiently waiting for lovle.com, a platform which promises to help find, assemble and publish learning collections, to become something more than just a placeholder with an expanse of blank space. Overall, there’s a lot of blue skies thinking involved, with all sorts of ideas invited to the party, including a somewhat unorthodox approach to organising the collection by adopting a revised version of Borges’s taxonomy. Specifically, the one where animals are divided into surprisingly diverse categories, including “those that belong to the Emperor”, “those that are trained”, “those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush” as well as “those that from a long way off look like flies”. At the moment, I’d be tempted to classify OER research methods resources into “those that were abandoned by their creator a long time ago and are in dire need of some TLC”, “those that belong to a museum of curiosities” and perhaps “those whose creators deserve a lifetime achievement award for excellent teaching”. Not to mention “those that make you reach for the delete button if there was one” and “those that inspire OER-related blog posts”.

At the same time, to instil some method into the madness referenced above, we would like to start throwing some of the questions we’ve been grappling with at the community of (potential) users of the yet-to-materialise collection of research methods and to that end have put together a survey, which can be accessed here. In the true spirit of OERs, the questions have been adapted (with kind permission of David Davies from University of Warwick Medical School) from an online learning resource survey conducted during the OER pilot programme by MEDEV (Subject Centre for Medicine, Dentistry & Veterinary Medicine). Some of the things we’re trying to find out include ways in which academics within social sciences search for learning resources online, the sources they use, and how they evaluate the search results. We are also asking about people’s attitudes towards user-generated ratings and comments, as well as strategies for navigating the treacherous waters of copyright and licensing. Do help us spread the word – and fill in the survey! Allegedly, altruism is good for you – and the five Amazon vouchers we have to give away to survey respondents shouldn’t hurt either.


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All over the map

As part of an on-going effort to get a sense of what’s “out there” when it comes to social sciences research methods, I recently attended the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM) Autumn School in Southampton. This year’s Autumn School showcased some of the qualitative work conducted under the remit of NCRM over the last five years, focusing particularly on methodological innovations relating to researching space, place and mobility. There were some fascinating presentations on the work undertaken by researchers at the QUIC (Qualitative Innovations in Computer Assisted Data Analysis) node at the University of Surrey who introduced their research on the convergence of qualitative software (CAQDAS) and geographic information systems (GIS) software (think Google Earth meets Nvivo/MAXqda, offering new possibilities for enhancing interview data with links to placed mentioned in said interview). I also got a glimpse into “walking interviews”, yet another methodological innovation from the mobile methods family, which featured prominently in the presentations by researchers from WISERD (Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods) and the former ‘Real Life Methods’ node at the Universities of Leeds and Manchester.

These presentations got me thinking about how pervasive the metaphor of the map is for what we are trying to accomplish within the collections OER project. We talk about trying to map the landscape of social sciences research methods resources. The tools we use in the process of presenting ideas and organising large amounts of information and resources on the web are mindmaps and knowledge maps. Some of the resources we encounter engage with the concept of the map quite literally, such as Stingy Scholar’s Wayfaring map of university podcasts, webcasts and OCWs – created by Wynn Williamson, this map of the world allows users to link to OCW, podcasts and webcasts by locating the institutions offering them in physical space. That particular map quite starkly contrasts the proliferation of OERs in the Global North/UK/USA and with vast blank spaces elsewhere.

At the same time, I encountered such a blank spot at the research methods event in Southampton.  I was stunned by the wealth of resources produced in the context of NCRM projects and especially the Realities toolkits  which explore such diverse methods as using  walking interviews, analysing blog data or using participant-produced video and many more. I have no doubt that they will be shared in one way or another by those who know about the work of NCRM or access the website through recommendations from their colleagues. With my OER hat on, I would love to be able to include these resources as part of the OER2 project methods collection – after all, these are high-quality, expert-produced resources. At the same time, this is a decidedly pre-OER landscape, lacking open licenses or enablers for sharing apart from the possibility to send a link to a colleague, but this doesn’t quite feel enough.

So should our map of research methods include not-quite-OER zones then or should we capture only what promises to be an accessible area through and through?  How do we decide where the boundaries lie and which signposts to include? At the same time, one could question whether the metaphor of the map is useful at all (see David Kernohan;s resent post for an exhaustive list of metaphors of possibly greater use!) After all, some participants of the 2006 OECD study, undertaken to map the scale and scope of Open Educational Resources questioned the need for mapping OER, arguing that the movement is growing and changing so rapidly that any mapping exercise would be quickly out of date. Four years on, can we say that they were on to something?


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OER wishlist

Following on from our earlier musings on parallels between recipe sharing and searching for OERs, we wanted to jot down some of our thoughts on what elements should be included in the ideal “home” for the social sciences research methods collection. For starters, we would like to borrow the sense of community from the recipe-sharing website we discussed earlier. Within that environment, we would like to see a facility for providing ratings and recommendations – similar to those provided by Amazon or TripAdvisor (in fact, these two websites are mentioned in a recent blog post by the Learning Technology team at University of Nottingham). Yet another useful feature, borrowed from Amazon, would be the listmania functionality to create lists to share the users’ “expert knowledge” and thus combine both the collective recommendations (the rating system) with a more personalised way to share individual expertise on a given subject. Finally, we would love to borrow some features from Google Scholar – the number of citations of an OER, related resources and signposting to relevant repositories where the resource has been deposited, not to mention the veneer of academic respectability. In particular, the citation facility would solve some of the concerns that frequently come up whenever sharing and re-use of OERs are concerned. As Scott Leslie (who recently completed an Olnet research fellowship looking at OER tracking) writes on his blog, one of the problems of depositing in repositories is that the content owners don’t get a good sense of the popularity of their resources and where else they are being used. These concerns were voiced within the OER pilot programme as well – as one of the academics interviewed by the research team at the Leeds University OTTER project put it, “my concern is that you don’t know once it is downloaded what is happening to it”. At the same time, if we were able to put together an interface which incorporated all of the above mentioned items on the C-SAP wish-list, would we be celebrating an OER marriage made in heaven or rather, in the spirit of recent Halloween festivities, would we be creating Frankenstein’s bride?

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Recipes for OERs

As our meeting with the project principal investigator and technical developer last Monday shows, you can get OER-inspired in all sorts of unlikely places. While discussing possible models for the research methods collection, and issues around discoverability and quality assurance, conversation turned to recipe-sharing websites and ways in which they could provide inspiration and offer relevant technical solutions.

For instance, MyDish is a social networking website where users can create their personalised cookbooks, upload recipes, organise them into collections (by ingredients, occasions, diets etc.), rate and review other’s recipes as well as add useful tips, create or join a group of people who share similar interests when it comes to cooking, ask questions to resident chef experts. They can also access the recently developed Tesco API where after choosing your recipes for the week or a dinner party, you can then shop for necessary ingredients and get them delivered. During the meeting, we started thinking aloud – what if we were able to create a similar website for social sciences research methods where the academic community could engage in sharing, reviewing and repurposing resources?

The interesting thing about MyDish and similar websites is that they allow for serendipity in finding and sharing resources, which is something we would like to encourage within our project. That is, we would like to create a space where a sociologist looking for resources on say the ethics of conducting research projects could easily locate relevant resources created by his/her colleagues across various social sciences disciplines, not just sociology. Furthermore, we would like this hypothetical sociologist to be able to trust (and hopefully reuse!) a resource on research ethics produced by say a political scientist. Finally, it would be great if on top of that particular resource, the person exploring the research methods collection could find recommendations for related teaching material. For example, through that presentation on research ethics the user would be signposted to a video on Milgram experiment on obedience and authority. A bit like the recipe planning tool on the Love food, hate waste website where you can enter up to three ingredients to generate suggestions for possible dishes, some of which seem quite unexpected – for instance, entering bananas, nuts and apples gets the probably predictable recipes for desserts but also savoury dishes such as haggis and apple purses or Jamaican vegetables, beans and rice.  If you applied similar principles to a research methods OER collection, you would potentially be enhancing the discoverability of certain resources, as the search results would return items that a user would not necessarily expect yet might find them useful. So, shall we get cooking (with OERs)?


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Still searching!

We seem to be at the stage with the OER collections project which is both exciting and frustrating – the excitement comes from a sense of almost unlimited possibilities when all options are still open, the frustration comes pretty much from the same source. After all, amidst all this abundance, how are we supposed to pin down an approach towards the research methods collections? A cursory overview of resources brought to us courtesy of Twitter seems to echo these sentiments – for instance, Daniel Rehak’s “Digital Content Manifesto” proclaims that:

We live in a fragmented world with an abundance of learning content(…) We suspect that for any learning activity, somewhere relevant digital content already exists (…)  We need to enable a learning layer on Web 2.0.

Apparently, a good place to start would be with academic libraries as according to a recent report by University of Michigan (thank you Twitter once again!), university libraries are well positioned to run or support OER production and publication operations. The authors argue that many university libraries already have the necessary technical and policy infrastructure in place that would provide economies of scale both for nascent and mature OER projects. Nevertheless, UK universities involved in the OER programme still need to catch up with their own institutional libraries, as Tony Hirst comments on his blog – a brief glimpse at the library website at the University of Leicester reveals a noticeable absence of any mention of OERs despite the university’s substantial involvement in the OER programme through the OTTER (Open, transferable & technology-enabled educational resources) project.

Meanwhile, the search for the social sciences research methods collection continues…

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JISC OER II start-up meeting

At the recent JISC meeting on 22 September for OER II we had opportunity for representatives from the collections strand projects to get together and share ideas about the what, why, when etc of our project ideas. I think we all had some involvement in the pilot phase, and are looking to build on our collective knowledge (wisdom ..?!) in pursuit of our aims in developing approaches to enhanced resource discovery in our respective subject domains. This is inherently a ‘technical’ area of work, although as in the pilot phase there are no ‘mandated’ approaches and creativity will be at the heart of the process. Our C-SAP collections project will focus on research methods materials in social science, with approaches and solutions oriented towards the ‘lighter’ end of the technical spectrum.

However, from what I’ve grasped so far this all depends on context, and the first phases of our project will be taken up with some detailed scoping of just what we mean by open collections of research methods materials, the distinctions between static and dynamic resources, audience(s) and users, and what we can find out already about how resources in existing collections are discovered and re-purposed. Our technical solutions will then revolve around some creative investigation in potential mash-ups of existing tools, guided by our subject context, user needs, and what we know already about OER discovery (much of course documented by CETIS).

Rob Pearce, from the Engineering Subject Centre collections project, recently posted about serendipity and the collections strand of projects, urging caution about the problems of ‘muscular search systems’. Rob offers a good point of reflection to pause before we get going. Perhaps if the true semantic web was here then we would have all the answers, or we wouldn’t be doing these projects in the first place, but as Rob says perhaps we should ‘stop worrying about it’. I think this is good advice, we’ve got to be realistic about what we can achieve, but what’s worrying me slightly at the moment is not so much our own approach or philosophy (which will be light in tech but we hope rooted in collections and materials of relevance to social science) but the inevitable and inherent risks in working with tools and standards that are in constant change. One thing we had already bookmarked for our project (pun intended) was the Xmarks bookmarking sync tool – just on a speculative watch-list of things that might, for example, help facilitate information about dynamic collections (and the enhanced Google search results in Firefox is also of potential interest). Yesterday it was announced that the service is likely to disappear next year, as they are struggling to develop a business model for premium services. On another tangent, the Scribd platform (which we were interested in during the pilot phase) has now changed from a ‘free stuff’ platform to a commercial service, or at the minimum an exchange where you have to upload in order to download. Maybe it’s not a big deal, but from the previous OER round we know that exchanging is quite different to sharing (those of us from the pilot phase are probably aware of the excellent paper by McGill et al. “Good Intentions”), and from my perspective as someone who has layman familiarity with the landscape of web 2.0 etc, but not as an under the hood type developer, it just reminds me of how little we really know about what’s happening with these sites/platforms/services, and the risks of trying to shoehorn solutions which might not deliver in 6 months time. That’s the pragmatic side of me – we need confidence in what we are doing, in order that our academic communities engage with it. Having said all that, and not meaning to be melodramatic, I’m looking forward to grappling with the challenges of this project – I might even have learned a few more things by the end of it, if only the difference between RSS and Atom!

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Visualisation tools

The C-SAP OER II Collections project hopes to shine a small light on undiscovered or underused social science research methods resources, and create new ways of facilitating the use of these to support teaching on undergraduate and postgraduate programmes – and we propose that one of these ways could be through the use of visualisation tools. To start with, we are putting together a growing collection of bookmarks on delicious tagged with “visualisation” – feel free to explore as many as you can and hopefully you will be inspired to add some of your bookmarks, too. The visualisation periodic table and the Visual Understanding Environment developed at Tufts University are probably our most favourite ones!

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Learning from the Learning Registry project

Learning Registry is a project of the US government that’s focusing on how to make federal learning resources more accessible to educators and the learners alike, so that the public can engage with the materials and reuse them in new, unforeseen ways. At the moment, the project team is seeking input from the public and collecting ideas about the project using a social networking platform, IdeaScale. The suggestions gathered so far can be accessed here. At the moment, the idea of using structured data to help with the search is coming across quite strongly – whether it’s a microformat to identify a resource as educationalextraction of metadata, adding information about specific properties (seat time, cost, etc), several ideas are centred around making use of structured data to improve the search experience. As the project brief requires us to deliver both a static and a dynamic collection of research methods materials, we are quite drawn to the ideas expressed in the post on authoritative, generative, and social search as three distinct modes for organizing and finding resources and answers. Following some adaptations. the authoritative approach of applying a top-down, predefined taxonomy might be applicable to the static collection. The dynamic collection might possibly benefit from an amalgamate of generative and social search, since, as the author of the post argues, “a fundamental principle for any search system or knowledge management system is that all three methods should be used and that each one should be used and combined when and where appropriate”. We will certainly explore these and similar ideas quite extensively in the coming months and would welcome any constructive feedback!

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Initial thoughts on the collections project

As we already mentioned, we are planning to use this blog space to trace our project progress and that will include documenting how our thinking evolves on the issues raised by the project call. At the moment, we are exploring possible approaches towards tackling the task of putting together a collection of social sciences research methods resources, this post reflects some of our ideas at the outset of the project.

In evaluating ongoing challenges to the growth and impact of the open educational resources (OER) movement, the problem of being able to find appropriate OER on the Internet remains a top concern. In the context of the collections project then, how do we of build solutions that actually work in the universe we live in –  In other words, rather than ‘wishing’ that people would behave differently, how can we utilize solutions that function just fine given the way people actually behave?

Moreover, with web 2.0 we are also in a situation where it is not just the content creator who can potentially supply information that makes a resource more discoverable – think of the Amazon rating system. Where do we stand on folksonomies and how useful are bottom-up, user-based tagging systems for our project? What to do about the abundance of already existing resources in social science research methods? For instance, are there any parallels between what we are trying to accomplish and a rather timely debate within the field of scientific peer-reviewed publishing, with US-based academics arguing that “less is more” at least when it comes to high-quality research and issuing a plea to “stop the avalanche” of peer-reviewed research? In response to that plea, Neylon presents a counter-argument, suggesting that the fault does not lie with information overload or a failure to adequately filter the research, instead, he suggests to think in terms of a “discovery deficit”. He argues that:

We don’t need more filters or better filters in scholarly communications – we don’t need to block publication at all. Ever. What we need are tools for curation and annotation and re-integration of what is published. And a framework that enables discovery of the right thing at the right time. (…) A focus on enabling discovery can both deliver for researchers and provide business models that are more aligned with the way the web works.”

The discovery deficit could perhaps become a good working metaphor for the collections project and the central dilemma that we are trying to resolve.

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Welcome to the blog and the Open Collections project

This blog will support the C-SAP (Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Sociology, Anthropology and Politics) project: Discovering Collections of Social Science Open Educational Resources.

The project will run from September 2010 until September 2011 as part of the wider Open Educational Resources Programme Phase II. It seeks to make available open collections of social sciences research methods by embracing Web 2.0 technology and OER-related, sustainable solutions. The rationale for the project stems from the recognition that there is now a wide range of OER materials available to support social research methods. However, despite advances across the sector, academics and students often have problems locating and accessing good quality, peer-reviewed resources appropriate for their particular needs. The project aims to examine which of the Web 2.0 technologies are best suited to support dissemination of research methods OERs and explore a wide variety of Wikis, Blogs, discussion boards, database interrogators, bookmarking systems etc. The project will examine and pilot various approaches and seek to obtain feedback from potential users about suitable approaches, focusing on issues of long-term sustainability.
We will use the blog to post updates on the project and communicate with the OER community, share our thoughts, resources and latest discoveries in the field of open education/learning technology. We see this space as a collaborative effort and welcome any feedback – watch this space for more contributions coming shortly!

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