ILRI / ILRIComms / Knowledge and Information / Open access

Open agricultural knowledge: On MOOCs, mobiles, innovation, outcomes, theories of change

Last week I attended an Open Knowledge for Agricultural Development Convening organized by Michigan State University (MSU), OER Africa, and The Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM). The aim was to explore ways to “accelerate agricultural development through open knowledge practices”; we discussed innovations in open learning from the AgShare project, as well as mobiles, quality assurance for Open Educational Resources (OER), ‘Massively Open Online Courses’ (MOOCs), content repositories and sharing, and ways to measure impacts on open research, open content and open data …

The various presentations and other information are online

Some of my take-aways:

  • MOOCs are getting massively talked about (see this COL post or wikipedia) and we heard some experiences from MSU and the Sloan Consortium. It seems to  be a heavily academic-driven trend with MOOCs seen as massive tools to democratize access to higher education (and to create delivery efficiencies).  While online and distance and open learning has massive potential in our world, also for CGIAR with its massive knowledge assets, I found the focus on the ‘course’ to distract us from the purpose …. learning. So maybe rather than focusing on the course as output we need to focus on the outcome learning … making sure it is massively useful rather than massively open or online.
  • Mobiles are another buzz and Dileepkumar Guntuku (ICRISAT) took us through the range of opportunities they provide. One of the challenges mobiles present to research and educational organizations like ILRI is around the relevant and purposing of the content we generate. I recall once hearing from Nokia that their ‘live tools’ application had to re-write/re-purpose almost all they content they got from public bodies; none was in a format they could easily re-use. So we tried in this session to look at the open content we produce and how it can be connected via mobile devices with rural communities.

My colleagues Paolo Ficarelli and Sharbendu Banerjee (CABI) kindly contributed insights from the m-Kisan project via yammer.  Sharbendu argued, yes, ‘formal’ open knowledge of the type we have can flow through mobile channels, but only if the content has been interpreted and repackaged before entering the repository (eg to convey scientific information in 165 characters!). Paolo emphasized that the processes of validation and verification with local practitioners are heavy and time-consuming … and that really we need to be able to work with many well-informed and effective intermediaries.  So, yes we can get our ‘formal’ knowledge on to mobile platforms and out to rural communities – but it needs a lot of re-packaging, validation and especially strong intemediary partners much closer to farmers than we are!

  • Quality assessment of the open educational resources that are being produced was another popular topic. David Kernohan from JISC took us through the various aspects arguing that some of the processes with ‘regular’ educational resources are the same as for open resources. I sensed an underlying concern here that much of this new ‘massively’ open content is not as good quality as it could be, that the actual delivery is not always up to standard, and indeed that the educational platforms and resources are not properly checked against a range of technical, pedagogical, legal, and other criteria.  We undertook a group exercise to map possible quality assessment steps n the production of OER … where the focus disappointingly was mostly on the ‘product’ and not on the process leading up to it (our group started from excellent participatory problem/demand definition as the necessary first step in assuring quality of the resulting product).
  • The work of student innovation scholars in the AgShare project (phase 2 is just approved by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) was discussed in several sessions. We learned how MSc curricula at some universities in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia were adapted to enrich the student experience, provide a wider range of action research ‘products’ for communities and to co-create further (open) learning and teaching materials.  It’s a very interesting approach, not least as it encourages the students to adopt open rich diverse communication and knowledge sharing approaches. The final thesis remains; it is complemented by the many other knowledge products generated in the course of the action research. This complements the approach we try at ILRI to make much more knowledge open along the entire research process and to produce much more than just ‘final’ articles…

I was asked to talk about ‘Methods for Measuring Impacts of Open Research, Open Content and Open Data’ and then facilitate a discussion around some of the challenges this entails (see the presentation). I drew on an earlier presentation on ways we support learning and reflection through more open knowledge.

In this presentation I shared some basic metrics (views of services and content, going up massively after we began using more ‘open’ channels and platforms) and asked if this was enough. Can we prove, through views or downloads, that being open is more ‘impactful’, and on what? What other types of indicators might b want to use?

Using a very simple structure, I hesitate to call it a theory of change, I suggested we could look at openness in terms of the content, knowledge, tools, platforms, process etc that we use (the outputs). Making these more open is indeed probably desirable but how do we measure the usefulness of this.Thus I suggested we could try and link more openness of an output with a larger outcome – such as research or educational quality, transparency, efficiency and so on.  These types of outcomes are where the knowledge management group in ILRI is mainly focused. Open knowledge is OK, but effective research is what we want to achieve. We can also move beyond outcomes and try to associate more open knowledge through research outcomes to impacts in communities … such as more money, better education, less hunger. But this seems to be very difficult.

Taking this simple outputs, outcomes, impacts framework, I shared some examples where these can be seen. Thus, the open data people seem to be making a direct link between (more) openness and impact on citizens’ lives; the value proposition of OER is more about educational outcomes; and the open access movement is getting beyond open articles to the outcomes these can have on scientific productivity.

Summarized, some outcomes we may achieve through more open knowledge (and all it entails) include:

  • Cost savings, efficiency and product acceleration [of service providers]
  • Empowerment and engagement [of ‘customers’, of partners?]
  • Greater transparency [of decisions, of actors …?]
  • Access, availability, visibility [of content]
  • Return on investment [by funders]
  • Improved quality [multidimensional – of education, research, government …]

View the presentation:

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