Democratisation of digital higher education content creation

Higher education digital teaching platforms have been around for decades. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed these platforms to the fore as educational institutions grappled with remote teaching. But the plethora of platforms has been likened to a ‘Wild West’ that, in the United States at least, has been dominated by major educational publishing houses that do not encourage inter-operability and are not delivering the desired content or at affordable prices.

The traditional actors are being challenged by a next-generation open-source courseware platform developed by Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) Open Learning Initiative and the Center for Education Through Exploration at Arizona State University (ASU), which are collectively serving more than 100,000 students.

While CMU’s Open Learning Initiative was developing its own platform, ASU had been utilising ed-tech company Smart Sparrow’s cloud-based courseware development platform.

When Pearson, the world’s largest educational publisher, acquired Smart Sparrow for US$25 million in early 2020, Arizona State’s content, catering to 50,000 students, “was stranded”, said Michael Feldstein, chief accountability officer of e-Literate, which runs the Empirical Educator Project.

“We have had a Wild West of platforms and that means content gets stranded on these platforms,” said Feldstein at the “Democratisation of Higher Ed Content Creation” session hosted at the annual ASU+GSV summit held in San Diego from 9 to 11 August 2021.

Carnegie Mellon University and Arizona State University decided to cooperate to develop a new platform.

“I thought they would be able to do the impossible, which is to merge two completely different code bases into a coherent learning experience on a next-generation architecture in a period of time that would allow them to migrate both of their legacy courses and enrolments within 24 months, which is what they are doing,” said Feldstein.

To be called the Torus platform, based at Carnegie Mellon, it aims to shake up the curricular materials market and rewrite the future of digital education.

Feldstein gave an example of the shortcomings in the current higher educational curriculum field, highlighting the United States’ top selling biology textbook, the Campbell Biology Series published by Pearson.

The author, Cornell University professor Neil Campbell, died in 2004.

“For 16 years, they’ve basically been selling the book of a dead professor, which gets revised every five years. You get the full digital package, which includes an e-book, and a separate homework platform that is about 15 years old, for around US$85. That just seems a little wrong,” said Feldstein.

Liberating trapped content

The philosophy of the new project “is to empower and liberate what has been trapped and easily stranded,” said Ariel Anbar, president’s professor at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“We are working on a collaboration to develop a next-generation teaching platform for adaptive learning. My group is co-investing to modify and extend ways to enable heavily contextualised simulation-based adaptivity and AI field learning,” he said.

Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative has been operational for some 20 years. Norman Beir, its director, said the new platform has the potential to expand beyond the small groups of Carnegie Mellon faculty who have built adaptive courseware to improve learning outcomes.

“That has been successful, but we haven’t been as successful in bringing together a larger population of educators into that work, and that is problematic,” he said.

The larger open source platform allows for more contributions in terms of ideas and contexts for courseware.

“Part of what makes this compelling and new is that it is an open platform based on science, but really with a much larger community at play that is going to contribute to the code base but also the courseware,” said Beir.

The move is considered highly timely, not only due to the surge in digital education pushed by the pandemic. “No one questions that courseware has been stuck in the past, and the real problem is how do you bust it out of these silos. Nobody is happy with the price or the quality,” said Feldstein.

Through creating a more level playing field, Torus aims to utilise current practice in adaptive learning to develop new innovations that can be plugged in to the platform.

“What we are doing is to allow a publisher or instructor with a great idea out there to have the impact of what they are developing to be seen clearly, and allow for content to be adopted, based on that impact,” said Beir.

With open source instrumental to the overall project, although commercialisation has not been ruled out, the platform is also promoting inclusion in learning.

“We’ve found that, when we go to minoritised communities, they don’t necessarily want what we are building but do want to tweak and modify it as their learners have different contexts and problems,” said Anbar.

“The platform enables an instructor to modify the language or images that are representative of communities, all the way to crafting their own questions and problems within a platform.”

The platform is to have templates and tools to build on the practice of pedagogy, with analytics in the background providing data on the effectiveness of courses.

“This is not simply if the students get an A, B, C or D in the course, but what is actually going on inside the course. The key is a common platform, to not have these fractured, Balkanised platforms where you cannot compare things, except by looking at the course grade at the end, which we know is not a good measure of anything,” said Anbar.

Anbar is hopeful that, over the next decade, the platform will be used by faculty as much as PowerPoint slides have been in the recent past.

“It will be part of the faculty tool kit that makes adaptive learning experiences with formative assessments, and looks at the data of what students are actually doing in the course. This will become second nature for teachers in the mid-21st century. That seems a realistic vision, if we put our minds to it,” he said.