Monthly Archives: July 2013

Teaching a ROOC – Re-Mixable Open Online Course

Note: Since this post mentions Blackboard, I want to remind everyone that I do work for Blackboard as the Sakai Chief Strategist in addition to working as a faculty member for the University of Michigan. The statements in this post are my own and do not reflect any official Blackboard positions or directions.

I have been having great fun teaching my Internet History, Technology, and Security (IHTS) MOOC using Coursera. The class is now on its third iteration with about 120,000 students total across all three sections of the course and about 12,000 students earning certificates. I love how the large-scale of these courses allows me to touch so many people around the world. I can hold office hours in any large city in the world and meet and interact with my students. This is a video filmed by one of my students (Nico Morrison) where he captured about 15 minutes of the actual conversations that happen in a typical office hours:

London Office Hours Video (Extended edition) (13:39)

I hope more students bring cameras to my office hours – the videos I make for the office hours are more in the “hello world” style:


But for me the “Massive” in MOOC is only part of the story. Over the past decade, I have spent a lot of time pushing for Open Educational Resources (OER), and standards and tools to advance the cause of OER materials in education.

A Focus on Remixability – Python for Informatics

In order for me to “walk the walk” of OER and experience the real issues and challenges in remixable OER, I have another course where I am pushing on the Open Educational Resource and focusing on pushing on the “Remixability” dimension. My course based on my Python for Informatics: Exploring Information CC-BY-SA licensed text book is supported by CC-BY course materials and Apache licensed software.

Here are my OER Materials for Python for Informatics

These materials include the book, all slide sets, all video lectures, and the auto-grading software. I provide the materials both in a kit of files and instructions and as course exports from Moodle, Blackboard, and IMS Common Cartridge.

An Exercise in Teaching on Multiple Platforms

As an exercise in proving that the materials are indeed reusable I have taught my class using the materials on Moodle on Dr. Chuck Online and on Blackboard’s free hosted CourseSites. platform. I also put the materials up as a Python course in Peer-to-Peer University.

Here is what the courses look like in Moodle 2.5 (with the new pretty default skin) and in Blackboard’s CourseSites:

None of these offerings has attracted massive numbers of students. I have about 3000 students enrolled between the three courses. The courses follow a self-paced model so there is less time pressure for students and less stress for me. Students complete the course and earn a badge.

My goal was to prove that I could quickly construct a course on a new system reusing the materials. I was able to put up the CourseSites instance of my course over couple of days and was able to put up my P2PU course up in about a day. The P2PU class was easier to put up because there is no auto-grading – all the grading is done by peers in P2PU.

Building a Learner Community Around Remixed Content

One of my other dreams is that we would create communities of interest around learning content. I would love to have a forum / mailing list that brought all of the people interested in using my Python for Informatics book and materials together where we could exchange ideas and remixed materials with each other.

I have not yet started to build such a community, but I am using Blackboard’s xpLor product to connect the two instances of my Python course running on Dr. Chuck Online (Moodle) and CourseSites (Blackboard Learn). Here are screen shots of that cross-LMS forum hosted in xpLor linked from each of the courses:

This forum linkage is using xpLor and IMS Learning Tools Interoperability and was the subject of my recent presentation at Blackboard’s BbWorld 2013 conference.

A Community of and For Teachers

One of my core beliefs is that for remix-ability to work we need places for teachers to find, exchange, remix, and publish materials. This requires both interoperability standards like IMS Common Cartridge as well a sites like YouTube where people can congregate.

Blackboard has put a lot of effort into Learn to support standards like IMS Common Cartridge and IMS Learning Tools Interoperability and has added nice features to CourseSites to make publishing a CourseSites course as open content. Once I had built my course in CourseSites, there is a control panel option to make my materials freely available on the web. Here is a screen shot of what it takes to publish a Blackboard backup and IMS Common Cartridge from CourseSites:

Every instructor on CourseSites has their own page. Mine is and all the open content that each of us publishes is automatically made available on each course page linked from the Instructor page:

Python for Informatics on CourseSites

Scroll to the bottom of this page to see the links to the open content that was automatically produced by CourseSites.

Some Reflection

So I have this open, free and re-mixable course. Students can take the course and leave with the materials to use in their own courses. What next?

Well the first observation is that not too much has happened. At this moment I think that the urge for teachers to remix each others materials is still a pre-emergent concept. It does not have a “viral factor” where people tell each other about the idea so that it experiences rapid super-linear growth (look at the stats).

I have never been too upset working hard in an area that is still pre-emergent. At times, you do get the sense that no one cares and that no one will ever care. I got that feeling a lot when I was working on IMS Learning Tools Interoperability from 2004-2010 – but things turned out nicely on that front. So I will just keep pushing forward wherever and however I feel I can push to advance this cause with technology and standards.

Does A Person Need to Sign a new Contribution Agreement When They Change Jobs?

It has recently come up in discussion in the Apereo Foundation Licensing discussion group whether new contribution agreements are needed when an individual gets a new job like my additional job at Blackboard or in the case where rSmart’s Sakai operation became part of Asahi Net. The discussion centers around these two documents:

Sakai Individual Contributor License Agreement 1.0.1 (i.e. ICLA) (cached copy)

Sakai Software Grant and Corporate Contributor License Agreement v1.1.1 (i.e. CCLA) (cached copy)

These documents were based on the Apache Individual Contributor License Agreement (ICLA) : (2004 version) and (current version) (there were inconsequential text changes on the Apache document between 2004 and the present – but the version on the Apache document was not changed)

Some in the discussion were pointing out that when a person changes jobs and they have an ICLA on file with the project that they do not need to sign a new ICLA. Many of us with long experience point out that this is not the point – even if some lawyer reads the words literally and informs us that there is nothing in the wording of the above documents that forces individuals or corporations to file a new ICLA or require a CCLA for their new company – it is in the best interest of the project to file new CCLA and ICLA documents.

That technical/legal argument misses the whole point. This is not about doing the minimum that is legally required – instead we should take steps to insure that new ICLAs and a new CCLA is filed to best protect the projects’s interests.

This is my more detailed response in that mail thread.

All the documents definitely mention the employer(s) and address the “employer(s) permission” in their section 4:

You represent that you are legally entitled to grant the above license. If your employer(s) has rights to intellectual property that you create that includes your Contributions, you represent that you have received permission to make Contributions on behalf of that employer, that your employer has waived such rights for your Contributions to the Foundation, or that your employer has executed a separate Corporate CLA with the Foundation.

This is a very important clause. It does not require a signature from your “boss” on the ICLA and does not require a Corporate CCLA – but requires diligence on the part of the employee to obtain permission and assure continuous monitoring of anything that might change the permission as requested in section 7:

You agree to notify the Foundation of any facts or circumstances of which you become aware that would make these representations inaccurate in any respect.

It is almost 100% likely when an individual changes jobs that their ICLA needs *review* as they will have signed an IP arrangement with their new job unless the new job is distinctly non-technical – like you switched from a job doing software development to being a taxi driver.

In order for the employee to comply with section 7 of the ICLA the *most-absolutely-squeaky-clean* way to do this is to (a) have the new company file a CCLA explicitly listing the individual(s) involved and (b) have the individuals re-affirm their ICLA by re-submitting a new one. This is what I did when I joined Blackboard.

Some *lawyer* might advise us that we *technically* are not forced to follow the safe path by literally reading the words in the contracts – but I would then tell that lawyer “thanks for your advice” and follow the safe path. A wiser lawyer likely would say “you don’t have to demand a CCLA – but particularly when a technology company is involved your best approach is to get the CCLA and new ICLAs to cover all the bases if it ever came up in court…”.

If for example, if I went to work for Blackboard and I asked them to sign a CCLA and they refused to sign a CCLA, then I as an individual would need to inform the foundation (under section 7) that my ICLA was no longer valid as my conditions had changed. The whole structure pre-supposes that the individual is carefully monitoring and protecting the foundation’s interest across changes in their employment situation.

As another scenario, if a person working for a university was reorganized into a new unit and was explicitly told by their supervisor that they were *prohibited* from working on Sakai – it would also (in my opinion) trigger section 7 and makes the ICLA invalid – and so to protect the foundation the individual should stop making commits. And whether or not a rent-a-lawyer would say there are no words that insist that the ICLA is invalid – if an individual continues to contribute under cloudy IP conditions puts the foundation at grave risk.

So this is about not just the letter of the contract – but also an individual’s personal commitment described in section 7 within those contracts to protect the foundations interests as their job situations change. We as individuals need not to think about the least we are legally required to do – but instead what is best for the long-term health of the foundation. So even if a lawyer says we don’t need a new ICLA and don’t need a CCLA when we get a new job, as individuals we should want to go beyond the technical minimum and give the foundation maximum protection.