Posted by Greg Warman on Dec 15, 2008 12:37:00 PM

Funding the Linux of Education

Vic Vuchic is an Associate Program Officer at the Hewlett Foundation and one very cool individual. I had the good fortune to meet him in his pre-Hewlett days through Stanford University’s program where we eventually became Master’s Project partners (we built a ‘tamagotchi’-like agent to build financial literacy among youth – in hindsight, we should have targeted bankers!)

I asked Vic to join ExperiencePoint’s weekly ‘Share’ session so we could learn more about his focus at Hewlett, the Open Educational Resources initiative (OER).

The OER program provides funding to various technology projects that, in essence, “equalize access to quality education”. OER is at its heart financial philanthropy to catalyze intellectual philanthropy. For example, Hewlett is a significant backer of MIT’s Open CourseWare (OCW) initiative which enables anyone with access to the internet, anywhere in the world an opportunity to experience MIT courses for free. Vic shared that this radical initiative was born out of a faculty meeting conversation likely common in many universities since the rise of the Internet – how do we use the web to shape the future of education? Since MIT’s OCW initiative, there are now over 200 universities around the world that are producing OCWs of various sorts. Most recently, the OCW Consortium was formed as one of the global hubs of the OER movement.

Another OER project relates to creating open textbooks. The idea is that multiple authors contribute to a domain specific text that is available online and is (you guessed it) free. Moreover, instructors are given the tools to modify, re-mix, and augment these texts so that they fit perfectly with their courses. Students can view the custom textbook online or order a bounded print at cost (price depends on the length of the text but Vic ball parked it at $20).

All of this “openness” has strained the traditional copyright law system and Vic shared that Hewlett funded Creative Commons to help remove some of those barriers. Founded by Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, the group works to create tools to manage greater copyright flexibility and promote openness. Creative Commons licensing allows a creator to choose which rights she wants to grant to users of her work. For example, a creator can elect to permit derivative works (currently verboten in standard copyright law) so that the user can innovate on the original. In this way, Vic sees Hewlett supported OER projects as innovation platforms, providing the worldwide education community opportunities to localize in whatever way necessary to ensure the lessons resonate with learners.

I also asked Vic to share some of the OER projects specific to ExperiencePoint’s world – gaming. To my surprise, he mentioned that they have fewer grant applications for open gaming projects than he would expect, but he did mention the number is rising. One major project that Hewlett supports is the Open Language Learning Initiative, an anime style game that allows users to explore various language and vocabulary building challenges. A Chinese/English version should launch early next year and since it is Open, it is already being adapted to a Spanish/English version that is in the works.

On the subject of learning games, Vic highlighted one of the key tensions everyone in our industry is trying to manage – how do you balance ‘engagement design’ and ‘learning design’. In his experience, Vic suggested that the closer one gets to engagement (what entertainment software firms excel at) the further one moves away from learning and vice versa. The design approaches are inherently different. Engagement design is about the user and appealing to their explicit and latent needs. Learning design starts with research-based theory and usually improves incrementally with double-blind, random sampling scientific studies. In our experience, finding the overlap between the two takes many iterations and a lot of time. It is truly the learning game designer’s Holy Grail.

Topics: Gaming, Simulations

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