From Open Content Repositories to Open Sensemaking Communities
Simon J. Buckingham Shum, The Open University
Thursday, September 29, 2005, 2:15-3:00 pmmp3 podcast
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The Open Content movement is concerned with enabling students
and educators to access material, in order to then learn from it, and
reuse it either in one’s studies or one’s own courses. The core efforts to
date have focused on enabling access, e.g. building the organizational/
political will to release and license content, and in developing open
infrastructures for educators to then publish and reassemble it. The
key challenge in the next phase of the open content movement is to
improve the support for prospective students to engage with and learn
from the material, and with each other though peer learning support,
in the absence of formally imposed study timetables and assessment
deadlines. This paper reports on tools for e-learning and collaborative
sensemaking developed at the UK Open University which are now
being considered as candidates for open content learning support.
Framing the challenges
The Open University (OU) is Europe’s biggest University, with over
220,000 students. With 170,000 students online, the OU is the
UK’s largest e-learning institution, and specializes in providing the
support that distance learners require through small group tutors,
online interaction, print and digital media. Fundamentally, the OU’s
perspective is that open distance learning does not ‘ just happen ’
when a student encounters ‘content’, but that the engagement must
be crafted and scaffolded. This is of course a core element to any
instructional design approach, but the challenges are more acute when
most of the time the student is working alone much of the time, and
it is in this context that the OU has developed particular instructional
design strategies. Arguably, this is the mode in which most learners will
engage with open content most of the time (but this hypothesis may be
refuted by studies of open content learners, and possibly by emergent
patterns of social software use).
I propose four key challenges for the open content movement to move
to the next level:
1. Engage the instructional, multimedia design and computer supported
collaborative learning research and practitioner
communities, some of whose members will engage with open
content when they catch the vision. These fields are as much
craft as science, and require situated, focused application to
the open content context.
2. Contextualize this knowledge to embrace the particular
demands of what we might term Open Learning Pedagogy
which cannot assume the same work process support normally
present in a coherent course for which one is paying, and
pursuing with a stable cohort of peers. In an Open Content
user scenario at present (e.g. a web search brings up a new
learning object), there may well be no study guide, assessment,
expert support or peer group, or they may not be apparent on
3. Develop engaging, integrated tools to support learning, not just
4. Develop engaging, integrated tools to provide the social
support often needed to maintain motivation when pursuing
serious study with difficult material.
In the remainder of this abstract I will sketch some of the sensemaking-support
and social software tools at the Open University for supporting
(3) and (4) above, based on (1) and (2).
Tools for collective sensemaking
We use the term collective sensemaking to refer to the broad spectrum
of activities that occurs when an individual or group must construct
meaning from an array of environmental inputs.  They must literally
“make” sense by giving form and utterance to the emerging picture
they are constructing as they grapple with the material. Our tools are
designed to assist users in giving form and shape to their ideas as they
evolve from ill-formed, inchoate structures to more formal, rigorously
organized expressions, very much as in the cognition of writing.
One example is the D3E is a tool for document-centric discussion.
 The document could be a research paper, a policy proposal, or a
multimedia student assignment. The tool makes it easy to transform an
HTML fi le or URL into an interactive document, tightly integrated with
topic-specifi c or section-specifi c discussion threads. D3E has been used
since 1996 to publish the award-winning e-journal JIME  in order to
support conversational Web peer review. D3Eprints is a specialization
for the auto-generation of document discussion spaces for Eprint
archive documents.  The OSLO group has already integrated this
kind of functionality into open content repositories.  Another
example of such a tool is the Compendium semantic hypermedia
concept mapping tool  which has been used in online contexts as
diverse as NASA science teams , modeling the Iraq debate  and
long term doctoral research . Another is the ScholOnto suite of
tools for annotating, visualizing, filtering and navigating networks of
knowledge level claims about the connections between documents in
a literature.  These make use of a metadata scheme which focuses
on the connections between ideas/resources, as opposed to trying to
classify the resources themselves, which is the usual focus of metadata
or annotation. It then becomes possible to ask queries which will get
you nowhere with a conventional search engine: Whose work supports
or challenges this article? On what previous results did this idea build?
What impact has this result had: has anyone replicated the data? Has
anyone extended the methodology?
All of these are examples of the missing interpretational, sensemaking
layer in a content repository –the space for expressing and contesting
perspectives –but with the difference that they provide explicit
support for working with conceptual structure which is lost in email
lists or threaded web boards.
A raft of community-building tools has emerged in recent years, all
of which are now being assessed for their potential in a learning
context: blogs, wikis, RSS feeds. We are also focusing on the slippery
notion of online presence, which, we hypothesize, will be an important
affordance of mature open content repositories as students seek
like-minded peers. We are developing augmented instant messaging
with tools such as BuddySpace  which include conceptual and
geographical visualizations of online peers, Hexagon  which provides
lo-fi video snapshots of colleagues, and FlashMeeting  which
offers video conferencing to anyone with a Web browser and the
Macromedia Flash plug-in. We envisage that integrated into an open
content environment, these and other tools will offer a spectrum of
communication options to learners, for peer-to-peer interaction and
All of these tools are now being trialed in the Open University. A more
detailed overview, and the replayable webcast of a hybrid physical/
virtual workshop which deployed many of them live, can be accessed
from the e-PhD project.  Some of these will be demonstrated in the
presentation to better convey their affordances.
It is early days for the open content movement, but an important
trajectory to pursue is to bring to bear the pedagogical expertise
and software design expertise needed to tackle the four challenges
proposed. Examples have been given of emerging tools for
sensemaking and social presence awareness. Future work aims to
integrate these into open content repositories, to move them from the
first key step of gaining access, to the ultimate reason we are doing this:
 Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in Organizations. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Sage Publications
 Digital Document Discourse Environment: http://d3e.
 Journal of Interactive Media in Education: jime.open.ac.uk.
 Eprints: Open Archives Initiative server software: http://www.
 Open Sustainable Learning Opportunities: http://oslo.usu.edu/.
 Compendium Institute: http://www.CompendiumInstitute.org.
 Clancey, W.J. et al. (2005) Automating CapCom Using
Mobile Agents and Robotic Assistants. Proc. AIAA 1st Space
Exploration Conference: http://eprints.aktors.org/375.
 Okada, A. and Buckingham Shum, S. (2005). Results of Iraq
Debate Modelling in Compendium: http://www.globalargument.
 Selvin, A.M. and Buckingham Shum, S.J. (2005). Hypermedia
as a Productivity Tool for Doctoral Research. New Review of
Hypermedia and Multimedia, 11 (1), 91-102.
 Scholarly Ontologies project: http://www.kmi.open.ac.uk/
 BuddySpace instant messaging and presence visualization:
 Hexagon video presence: http://hexagon.open.ac.uk.
 FlashMeeting: www.fl ashmeeting.com.
 e-PhD project, Knowledge Media Institute: http://www.kmi.