The Qedoc Story
(This is a draft for the UNESCO OER site)
This report is intended for other OER protagonists, partly to familiarise them with what Qedoc is doing, and partly to modify perspectives about what OER can be and how the landscape and limitations of OER vary with different resource types.
Readers are welcome:
- to consider joining the international approvals team (described below) if they command a suitable non-English language. This will help those contributors creating materials in many foreign languages.
- to adopt Qedoc into their own OER project for the purpose of supporting interactive learning elements within their project. If the possibility of interoperability is not immediately obvious, please assume we can do it if asked, and then ask! Putting interactive Qedoc learning modules into any LMS / CMS / VLE or whatnot is as easy as adding a URL to a webpage.
- to spread awareness of Qedoc in their institutions. Qedoc is something which students and pupils, as well as educators, can immediately use. Use does not require any institutional commitment as servers are not necessary. Individuals can become involved as individuals.
The big idea: Disney meets OER?
"Disney meets OER" doesn't accurately encapsulate all the strands of thought present at the inception of the Qedoc project, but it does cover quite a few of them. We were thinking about Creative Commons and open content, we were looking particularly at the pre-school and primary school OER audiences, and we were thinking about interactivity in eLearning. We were asking questions about the fun in OER and about the motivational elements in learning. Existing children's eLearning resources were found to be frustrating, because they offered the most delightful of learning experiences coupled with non-editable non-extendable content which constantly diminished as the market "dumbed-down".
A final formative influence was lack of money! Not only were we concerned with keeping the total cost of ownership down for the consumer - we had to keep the total cost of production down in our own interests. The two minimisations are connected, not least because everyone involved with Qedoc development is also a consumer.
The idea which emerged
The learner and the interface
Particularly at the beginning, Qedoc had a very narrow focus on the learner and on the quality of interaction between learner and learning material. Today that concern has morphed into a system which has about 100 different base types of interactive task, each of which is highly modifiable into further sub-types.
The interface has strived, probably successfully, to achieve something which can delight children without alienating older users. Goofiness (comic-feel) has been avoided. On the other hand, slabs of monochrome empty space are wholly absent - the entire interface consists of colourful semi-transparent overlays and smart icons placed over a variety of wallpaper images which we "reckoned" were motivational but not distracting. The frequency of sound effects and icon changes is intended to give a feel of something alive and responsive. Where many other projects have mainly concentrated on interface ergonomy, Qedoc has been looking hard at aesthetics as an essential part of the motivational aspect of learning.
What we did
Qedoc has mostly been about doing. It is a pragmatic project.
Timeline and centres of activity
Planning in earnest began in 2005, followed by a start on programming and the launch of a website. The software's first release was in March 2006. The module repository was large enough to require a complete reorganisation, with scalability in mind, by the start of 2007, and most of the Qedoc web presence moved to a new MediaWiki-driven site in February 2007.
The centres of activity have been:
- Development and release of software applications for design and playback of complex interactive multimedia elearning modules of medium granularity. The applications pay particular attention to typical OER-requirements such as metadata visibility and editability/reusability.
- The establishment of an online repository of modules. Modules cover all levels of education from pre-school to tertiary, as well as the informal and other education sectors. Many languages and all subjects are represented with increasing depth. A categorisation system has been established using MediaWiki.
- The internationalisation of the applications and repository, opening up the Qedoc facilities to non-English speakers.
Viewed by subject, the areas of greatest activity have been medicine (tertiary level), mathematics (primary level) and language acquisition (all ages).
Geographical reach and contributor effort
The Qedoc project is, much like Wikipedia, open to anyone in the world to join. Volunteers are self-appointed and can get involved in any parts of the Qedoc project: creating eLearning modules (usually), translating, administrating, reviewing, testing, guiding development. Unlike Wikipedia, we require real names, a possibly controversial move made in the hope of quality assurance.
By October 2007, we had 3000 registered real-name contributors from 117 countries, of whom around 150 had actively published content and about a dozen or so others were involved in other activities. To correctly assess the amount of effort put into the project by these volunteers, one should bear in mind that the work contributed consists of interactive eLearning modules and requires considerably more effort than editing a page of text.
Qedoc eLearning modules are medium-granularity OER's providing multi-media and interactive capabilities. They are intended for stand-alone use or integration into courses on any LMS/VLE.
- Most common media formats can be integrated with single clicks (flash movies, quicktime and other video formats, standard image formats, most audio formats including MP3). Metadata tagging of media resources is rigorous.
- Text and media can be placed into any of about 100 different "task types". Each task type offers a fundamentally different kind of interactivity, and each can be customised in terms of layout, points, behaviour. Existing contributed modules consist of anything from 20 to 2000+ questions or tasks, with hundreds of media items in some cases.
- Modules present themselves to the learner as a sequence of activities (typically 1-20 activities) which can be of different types: quizzes, lessons, writing activities, flashcards, surveys, with more planned. Activites in turn are constructed by an author from tasks/questions.
- The software for module playback runs on Windows as a desktop application, or alternatively as a cross-platform web-based application which can be launched from any website using a simple URL (works with Windows, Mac, Linux and all common browsers).
- Modules, however internally complex they may be, are distributed as compact, single files, capable of being modified and reused, with Creative Commons licencing.
- Various feedback options are available (on-screen, certificate printing, email submission back to a teacher, online halls of fame).
The reader should be well aware of the dire warnings issued (for example) via the Hewlett Foundation that OER projects must do more to ensure their sustainability. The Qedoc project has taken sustainability very seriously since the beginning. While it would be nice to receive grants, grants are temporary income which encourage a project to overreach in terms of staff and server capacity. The irony of non-grant income is that the better a project is at ensuring its long-term self-sustainability, the more its "charitable" image can be damaged. Qedoc has studied a number of economic models used by various successful OER and open source projects. The Moodle model was an example of one which we viewed positively, but which would have to be modified to fit the kind of thing that Qedoc is. To date, most possible avenues of sustainability have not been tried, although there has been extensive thinking and discussion about the issue. The only avenue which has been used so far is the sale of software to people who wish to keep their resources closed - i.e. Qedoc caters primarily for the OER community, but as there are people outside OER and unwilling to join OER who nevertheless want to use the software, a non-OER version can be purchased - but we always emphasize that the software can be used for free if resources are opened as OER. Not surprisingly, the result has been that the quality of the software has drawn people (and companies) into OER who would otherwise have kept their resources closed. Qedoc's main sustainability strategy to date has been cost-minimisation and reliance on volunteer-only staffing.
What worked and what didn't
The intention to cater for developing country audiences worked. India is one of the top countries where Qedoc is used - explained partly by Qedoc's initial availability only in English. From English-speaking countries, Filipino contributors are also prominent. Latin-American contributors tended to pile in without waiting for the translation programme to get going, and this prompted Qedoc to prioritise its internationalisation. Eastern Europe was another area of disproportionately high interest.
In response to the international demand, we launched translation projects in May 2007, fearing the worst and expecting to have to find some external funding to make the projects work. By September 2007, volunteers had produced translations (for the Player) into 10 languages, well exceeding expectations and allowing the project to feel well on the way to international maturity.
The core of the Qedoc idea is, ultimately, the production of original, interactive OER's and the organisation of these in the repository at http://www.qedoc.org. Growth was slow in 2006. In 2007, the pattern is that of the early stages of an exponential trend. By October 2007, over 350 modules were available.
The following two aspects of the project seem like "white elephants" at the current time, but might still become useful in future years.
Interoperability has a buzz in the world of OER, and we had many discussions with many partners and users about this. Much time was invested in import/export facilities. However this effort has not yet met with any significant activity on the part of users. Qedoc is typically a point-of-first-contact to OER for most of its users. People seem to come for the software and its capabilities; they learn about OER from us as a result, but usually do not develop any desire to move content from one environment to another (with the exception of image content - i.e. borrowing images from other projects into Qedoc). Rather sadly, the experience of interoperability has been as a "white elephant". All the talk in OER seems to be about interoperability, but none of the doing is about interoperating. We hope this will change.
Halls of fame
At the outset, web-based halls-of-fame seemed like a good idea for motivating learners and we spent rather too much time on this. Like interoperability, it has proved to be rather a white elephant and the feature's interface prominence was downgraded in version 2.0.
Changes of direction
Desktop or web-based?
The initial decision was to concentrate on the software as a desktop application in order to minimize the total cost of ownership. Many users, however, constantly emphasized the convenience of browser-based systems and clearly wanted something where they could simply click something on a web page to get the eLearning modules to start. So we produced a parallel but identical version of the Player for the web using java web start. This has proved a popular addition, and has opened up many new avenues for cooperation with partners, not least because the JWS-version can be integrated into any website or content management system simply by using a URL. The UNESCO site (here) can become "Qedoc-powered" by adding a hyperlink: launch example of an eLearning module.
Windows or more?
For cost reasons, the project initially restricted itself to Windows. After encouragement and help from partners, Mac- and Linux-compatible versions of the Player were released.
Digital rights activism and blowback
Digital rights extremists were an unpleasant experience in several respects. Notable were attacks/resistance based on Qedoc's non-conformance to a specific economic model preferred by activists. The propaganda and knowledge-manipulation of activists was also troublesome and nearly led to mistakes. A more harmful problem was the blowback from digital rights activism, where the occasional government organisation wrongly associated "OER" (as a whole) with the the views of the more extreme digital rights activists and therefore reacted in an alienated fashion. The conclusion from this experience would be that OER doesn't just need to raise awareness of itself - it also needs to define itself more clearly to combat false awarenesses or manipulation. See Defining OER.
The more complex an OER is, the smaller the likelihood that anyone other than the original author is going to update or otherwise edit it. In other words, concepts of open authoring don't really apply in the same way to carefully structured educational content as they do to a text-based encyclopedia. There are two likely types of re-editing, which an authoring environment would need to distinguish between: very minor corrections (e.g. spelling), and total reconstruction/recombination as a separate, new resource.
Media permissions awareness
The prospects of the average OER producer (teacher, etc) ever understanding how to licence images and audio clips properly is minimal, with individual exceptions. In general, the assumption is that "anything I create myself is all-rights-reserved, and anything I find on the web is public domain" (cf. myth #4). The future for media licencing does not lie with the education of OER producers (almost futile) but with the development of automated systems for checking "image-plagiarism", importing metadata from the web, or embedding metadata into media.
Scalability issues are a priority at the current time. This means scalability in terms of (i) how fast incoming modules can be reviewed and approved, and (ii) how user-friendly we can make the various interfaces for helping learners locate learning material from the growing repository.
Internationalisation and International Approvals Team
This is a constant issue. New languages currently in demand are Italian, Serbo-Croat and other Eastern European languages. We have to keep on updating language packs as the software develops - Spanish is currently a problem here.
We also need to begin to put together a formal international reviewer network for reviewing foreign language modules. For international reviewers, we would hope to draw interest from universities, especially those institutions and departments concerned with teacher training. Reviews are simple: the process consists simply of checking the textual content of an incoming module to ensure that it is "appropriate" (i.e. bona fide educational content). Reviewer activity is unlikely to be a drain on anyone's time. The importance of creating an international reviewer network is that we are already frequently receiving high-quality modules (i.e. modules which teachers have spent many hours or days working on) which we can't publish simply because we have no one who understands the language in question.