September 26, 2023

A Next-Generation Open Source Courseware Platform Collaboration

Author: Michael Feldstein
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I started the Empirical Educator Project (EEP) two and half years ago based on the idea that higher education could greatly accelerate progress in technology-enabled education if only they could get better at sharing their projects and collaborating on addressing their common or complementary needs. Since then, I’ve been able to write about increased sharing facilitated through the EEP network but not much about collaborations.

Today I have some massive news to share on that front. Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI) and Arizona State University’s Center for Education Through eXploration (ETX) are collaborating on a next-generation, open-source, open-standards platform for designing and delivering courseware.

That’s a lot of words, yet it doesn’t really convey the heart of the work. There is much to unpack here.

In this first post of a multi-post series, I will describe the drivers and origins of the collaboration itself. The project is an evolution of contributions from these two groups that I have previously written about here in e-Literate. In the next post, I will describe some of the key architectural concepts of the project. And in subsequent posts, I will explore some of the implications.

On the nature of academic collaborations

Before I get into the details of the project, it’s worth taking a moment to talk through some lessons learned about fostering EEP-style collaborations. First, they take time and energy to bring to fruition. While EEP generated a lot of excitement from the beginning simply by helping academic groups discover colleagues in different organizations who were doing complementary work, helping these initial connections to evolve from casual cross-fertilization to deliberate and sustained collaboration takes a lot of time and hard work on everyone’s part. This is not a surprise. But I am learning a lot about the specific kinds of facilitation necessary to bring collaborative projects to fruition. (This topic probably deserves its own blog post at some point.)

Second, one of the complexities that need to be considered is the internal diplomacy that each stakeholder has to manage. Note that the partners I have listed here are ETX and OLI, not ASU and Carnegie Mellon. Likewise, the title of this blog post is not the much sexier “ASU and Carnegie Mellon collaborate on…”. Both institutions are rightfully protective of their respective brands and how their involvement is characterized in various projects. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Each participant has to manage a whole host of intra-institutional concerns that affect when and how they talk about such collaborations publicly.

The collaboration I will be writing about in this series has been underway for some time and is quite advanced at this point. Yet I could not write about it before now without complicating important conversations that were (and still are) proceeding inside these institutions. Even now, this blog post is not an official press release and should not be considered an official statement from either university. I have asked the major project leaders at each institution to review my first two blog posts in the series to help me characterize the project appropriately. That said, if and when you see a press release jointly issued from the two institutions, you should consider that more official statement to be another milestone in the evolving relationship.

With those caveats out of the way, I’m going to walk through the process by which contributions led to a ground-breaking collaboration. In the process, I’ll provide a first sketch of exactly what that collaboration is.

Carnegie Mellon’s OpenSimon contribution

In the spring of 2019, Carnegie Mellon University used the EEP summit that they hosted to announce OpenSimon, a collection of open-source projects built over the years by their faculty to advance their research and application of applied learning science—or, as they call it, “learning engineering.” The investment these projects collectively represented was well north of $100 million in grant money, staff time, etc. This was an official, university-sanctioned contribution. They issued a press release. University Provost Jim Garrett kicked off the announcement at the summit.

People at the EEP summit and the in wider EdTech world were simultaneously excited and a little bewildered. The toolkit provides a sprawling array of functionality in a variety of areas. Some of its components tilt more toward research, while others are immediately useful in teaching applications. It was hard to know where to look for the low-hanging fruit. Even for me.

One of the crown jewels in OpenSimon is the OLI software, which is developed and maintained by the eponymous OLI team. Originally conceived almost 20 years ago, the OLI platform set the template for modern mainstream courseware while the research on the courses built on that platform established some of the earliest and most robust evidence we have for the effectiveness of this kind of teaching tool. Without OLI, there probably would be no Pearson Revel, no Cengage MindTap, no McGraw-Hill Education Connect or SmartBooks, Wiley+ or Knewton, and so on. Today, OLI hosts somewhere in the range of 50 Carnegie Mellon-designed courses for over 50,000 formal course enrollments annually, not including courses and lessons created by faculty at other institutions or the many students who use OLI courses for self-study outside of a formal course adoption.

My coverage of OpenSimon to-date has left out one critical update. OLI is in the process of rebuilding the platform, incorporating lessons learned from the past two decades in how to design such a system and reimplementing the platform on a modern architecture that takes advantage of the cloud services and technology stacks available in 2020. The new platform, code-named “Torus,” has already been used during the university’s 2020 summer school program in which students practiced building simple course modules. OLI plans to migrate the first tranche of their courses in production onto the new platform by the fall of 2021 and the remainder by the fall of 2022. In other words, within 18 months, this next-generation platform will be hosting all of the 100,000+ student enrollments in production.

As with the other OpenSimon projects, Torus is being released as an open-source project under the MIT license.

ETX’s courseware interoperability initiative

About a month after the OpenSimon announcement, I was approached by Ariel Anbar, the ASU Presidential Professor and Director of ETX. I have been a long-time admirer of Ariel and his ETX colleagues, having written about their Habitable Worlds course as far back as 2013. From early on, ETX used the Smart Sparrow courseware platform to create their immersive digital lessons and courses in a pedagogical style that they call “guided experiential learning.” When I ran into Ariel at the 2019 ASU+GSV conference, he had recently received a $2.5 million grant from the Department of Education to build OER courseware that follows this pedagogical style on Smart Sparrow. But he foresaw a problem. While his content would be released under a Creative Commons license, the platform required to run it was proprietary. To his mind, this violated the spirit of OER.

Furthermore, having worked very closely with Smart Sparrow to build over $15 million in grant-funded content already (from funders including, NASA, NSF, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Ariel recognized that all such platforms were hurt more than they were helped by that lock-in. Without a wealth of content that could be “played” on a proprietary platform, the companies that make the platforms will always be financially at-risk and therefore risky to use. If the stand-alone courseware platform product category is ever to become sustainable, it needs an ecosystem of interoperable content.

Ariel hired me, under the auspices of EEP, to convene a coalition to draft interoperability standards for courseware content that could be submitted to a standards body as a first draft of an official specification. In doing so, ETX was offering to make an EEP-style contribution. They were extending their project in ways that advance the public good by enabling other educators and educator-supporting companies to benefit and contribute.

As I wrote about in a blog post late last year, our first meeting included OLI, Lumen Learning, Smart Sparrow, and CogBooks as potential platform implementors, with ETX acting as the convener and some allies at Maricopa Community Colleges who were involved with the grant providing an access-oriented academic perspective.1 The group met in September 2019 to workshop the scope and basic structure of several kinds of interoperability standards. IMS Global CEO Rob Abel offered his blessing to the project and some free consultation hours from one of his engineers. The group had the outline of an action plan shortly after our first meeting and was off to a promising start.

Fate intervenes

Shortly after the interoperability kick-off meeting, I learned that Pearson had acquired the assets of Smart Sparrow.2 They wanted Sparrow’s next-generation version of the platform for internal projects and did not intend to continue supporting the product for existing customers. It’s not my place to characterize the relationship between Pearson and Sparrow’s customers regarding this transition, other than to make the observation that it seems to be proceeding in a supportive manner that has satisfied the Sparrow customers I have spoken with. But the most important point for the ETX-led interoperability project is that the abstract concern it was intended to address suddenly became concrete. ETX had over $15 million of content development efforts invested in Smart Sparrow courseware and plans for over $10 million more. They were already supporting somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 student enrollments a year (many of which came through their Inspark network). They needed a way to move their content to a new platform that would preserve the pedagogical intent and learning design. It wouldn’t be enough to move the assets—the text, videos, quiz questions, and so on. Those assets were assembled in particular ways to create specific and differentiated learning experiences for students. ETX needed a way to preserve their past and future investments in guided experiential learning.

We needed to accelerate our timeline by not only designing but also implementing interoperability with at least one of the partners in the collaboration. Of these, OLI turned out to be the best fit in terms of timeline and development ambitions. Both groups needed to implement new platforms in roughly the same time frame. (ETX needs to migrate its content off of Sparrow by June of 2022, although the goal to finish the migration sooner.) Both groups were highly collaboration-minded and open to cross-pollination. At first blush, the fit seemed good.

(CogBooks has also been involved in the interoperability discussions, although I’m not at liberty to characterize their past or prospective involvement at the moment other than to give them credit for coming to the table and investing effort into early interoperability prototypes.)

But there were—and still are—challenges to be faced too. First, the alignment of the two groups’ timelines is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is good to have collaboration partners with well-defined requirements and similar delivery schedules. On the other, neither group could afford to allow the time cost of collaboration to throw off their respective delivery schedules. Both ETX and OLI have responsibilities to internal and external stakeholders that they must meet. Further, Sparrow deviates from the course design archetype that OLI created more substantially than many other platforms in the market. The architecture of the new platform would have to accommodate divergent design approaches. And the two teams did not know each other or their respective work very well.

The fit looked promising. But the project would face substantial challenges.

The collaboration comes together

ETX engaged Unicon—another EEP sponsor—to help with the software development on their side. The first step was to prototype a harness for running ETX lessons outside of Sparrow in a way that would preserve the integrity of the learning design and could be launched from courseware platforms using a variant of the IMS LTI interoperability standard. Unicon has completed several increasingly sophisticated versions of the harness. ETX also continued to engage me—again, under the auspices of EEP—to help facilitate the growing collaboration. ETX and OLI respectively invested significant amounts of internal staff time to articulate requirements, think through architectural designs, align road maps, and get to know each other. Needless to say, this took time and good will on all sides.

The collaborators have reached a level of mutual confidence that the project has been greenlit. They plan to expand OLI Torus to accommodate the authoring and delivery of Smart Sparrow-style—and, more importantly, ETX-style—courses. Both organizations expect to support substantial numbers of students and faculty in courses migrated from their respective legacy platforms by the fall of 2021, with ongoing work continuing into 2022. Both organizations are making substantial engineering investments in the project; OLI through its internal development team and ETX through its contract with Unicon (as well as ETX-internal project management and learning design subject matter expertise). They are collaborating on project management, and both have their (respectively formidable) learning design/learning engineering experts involved with the design. ETX also continues to contract EEP to facilitate the collaboration and help keep the two universities’ product plans and goals aligned and as complementary as possible. Torus will be released under a commercial-friendly open source license. Further, it will act as a reference implementation for draft courseware interoperability specifications. (Again, these last two sentences may come across as bags of words to you, but they are vital to the project’s ambitions. I will unpack them in subsequent blog posts in this series.)

This is an incredibly ambitious project with many miles to go (and many critical decisions to make) before it is complete. But to be clear, it is happening. Resources have been committed. Development is well underway. Several interoperability prototypes have been built according to increasingly detailed specifications. And the innovations that are resulting from the collaboration are considerable. The current generation of courseware platforms is a collection of highly idiosyncratic applications that were developed in relative isolation, are generally fairly old, and are often maintained by organizations with challenging or problematic business models. This project is gaining insights by comparing two very different and very innovative platforms in a collaboration between two very different but very accomplished academic course design teams with respective histories of supporting faculty and students at a reasonably large scale across a diverse range of learning contexts.

It is thrilling.

In my next post in this series, I will describe several of the architectural and design innovations that have emerged from the collaboration so far.

  1. At the time, Lumen Learning and Smart Sparrow were both EEP sponsors, and Carnegie Mellon was our 2019 academic sponsor.
  2. Disclosure: Pearson is a current EEP sponsor.

The post A Next-Generation Open Source Courseware Platform Collaboration appeared first on e-Literate.

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