Serendiptous collaboration chains

The notion of useful “federated search” across multiple collections of learning resources has long been something of a holy grail for proponents of sharable learning objects. It is considered to be a functionality requiring complex web architectures and rigourously detailed metadata schemes. The years of expensive work across multiple institutions that have gone into developing specifications such as the Ariadne federated search architecture (or the eduSource Communication Layer) have to an extent succeeded and been implemented in various sites. However, the complexity of these protocols and the effort required to meet them effectively limits participation to large, well-funded institutions, and makes the inclusion of more modest efforts difficult. It also effectively creates a bubble of restricted interaction within the larger open web. As Stephen Downes noted in his post-mortem of the eduSource project: “Who cares if a few universities exchange learning content among themselves (not that this really happens a lot anyway)?”

Contrast this highly managed, expensive and lightly-adopted model with a series of uncoordinated yet connected activities on the open web.

Zaid Ali Alsagoff, an eLearning Researcher based in Malaysia, decides to post “all free University learning related OCW and OER resources and collections [that he had] discovered into an all-in-one (sounds like shampoo!) quick-to-access/find juicy compilation.” Alsagoff includes links to existing open education collections such as OER Commons, community collaborative OER sites such as WikiEducator, institutional sites such as Berkeley’s collection of  webcasted lectures, online book collections such as the Gutenberg Project, as well as resources not strictly aimed at educators such as the TED Talks, and the general interest information site How Stuff Works. While not all of the resources meet the stricter definitions of an “open educational resource” – some work is copyright, other work is posted in formats that do not support easy reuse – Alsagoff’s set of links represents a massive collection of readily online materials that can be useful to educators in virtually any discipline.

In England, Tony Hirst of the Open University takes Alsagoff’s links and uses them to define a Google Custom Search Engine. The Google CSE allows any user to create a constrained search across a set of specified domains. Hirst sets his CSE to search across all sites linked in Alsagoff’s post.

Subsequently, in Victoria, Canada, Scott Leslie alters Hirst’s formula so that the collection of sites being indexed by the Google Custom Search Engine is managed on a public wiki, so that anyone can contribute to the set of pages being searched. Leslie is sufficiently pleased with the success of this prototype that he extends that work into the slightly more formalized and integrated structure of the BCcampus Free Learning portal. Built on the WordPress platform and incorporating tagging structures from the social bookmarking service Delicious, this site required less than a week of development and programming time, and all of the code required to implement this system is open source.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about this work is that at the time it was done, Alsagoff, Hirst, and Leslie had never met. They were not coordinated by any central body. They required no project funding, and each did their part drawing on minimal resources from their home institutions. What was required was openness: the resources needed to be indexed by Google on the open web, and each step of the process was shared on a weblog to allow others to learn from and build on the work. This simple yet powerful collaboration model fostered the development of unexpected and widely beneficial outcomes.