The ALTO Ecosystem
We have been developing a rich model for publishing OERs in practice-based arts subjects, which we hope to take forwards in further research and development projects. The working title for this is the ‘ALTO Ecosystem’ – this has the ambitious goal of creating a reusable and adaptable model for providing appropriate IT, cultural and policy support for OER development and collaboration in the Art and Design sector.
The project started with a strong focus on acquiring and installing digital repository software1 to handle the completed OERs, this had the secondary aim of enhancing the ability of UAL staff to manage their own learning resources internally. The repository software package 'EdShare' was chosen, a variant of the popular research paper repository 'Eprints' supplied by Southampton University. A design for the customised version of the EdShare system together with a metadata schema was developed (based on the Dublin Core metadata standard) and agreed. Repository software is optimized for storage and management and operates using a library paradigm - which is great for that particular purpose, but is not so good at presenting or publishing information. The presentational limitations of repository software became apparent in the context of ALTO and the Art and Design academic community, who traditionally place a high importance on 'look and feel' i.e. affective and usability issues. Similarly, in the wider world of OER the emphasis is much more on presentation, publication and communication. Hence, the leading initiatives do not use canonical repository software e.g. MIT OCW2 (previously Microsoft Content Management, now Plone), OpenLearn3 (Moodle), Merlot4 (An database driven central web site with distributed web 'feeder' sites), IRISS5, the Scottish Institution for Research and Innovation in Social Services, (Drupal).
We realized that while a repository might be a first step, it alone would not be enough, we came to understand that ALTO would need to be more than just one software tool - it would need to be a system of connected and related tools. The repository gave us a place to safely and reliably store resources in the long-term for which there was already a strong demand. But there was also a question of how ALTO might fit with other UAL information resources created by staff and projects that were being hosted on the open web outside of the official UAL infrastructure, which had been quickly blossoming over several years, often using Web 2.0 tools and services. We came to see that ALTO needed to fit into this wider and dynamic 'ecosystem' of online resources and associated communities. Two things became clear. First, was that resources in the repository would need to be easily 'surfaced' in other contexts in the wider UAL information ecosphere and beyond, in a variety of social media to aid dissemination and impact (not too hard technically). Second, that the other components of the UAL ecosystem might want to use the repository to deposit some of their outputs now that the possibility of a long term storage area was possible.
A good opportunity to explore this kind of connected systems approach became available through an existing UAL social media initiative called Process.Arts (http://process.arts.ac.uk/), which was the result of a staff teaching fellowship to produce an open online resource showing day-to-day arts practice of staff and students at UAL. This was set up to address the need for staff and students to display and discuss aspects of their practice as artists and designers by providing a collaborative space in an installation of the Drupal6 web content management system that included many common Web 2.0 features. This has been very successful in a short time, with users uploading images and videos and discussing each other's work, user numbers and interactions are high and growing with considerable interest from abroad. We realized that if the repository was the officially branded 'library' part of ALTO then UAL sites and communities such as Process.Arts would be the 'workshop' areas where knowledge and resources were created and shared. As a result, a decision to develop a socio-technical7 architecture for ALTO to fit into the wider UAL information ecosphere was accepted by the project board.
We think this approach represents a good path forwards for OER initiatives in Art and Design (and perhaps other cognate subjects) and recognizes the crucial importance of a contextually rich presentation layer, like MIT OpenCourseWare, with the addition of a social layer (like Process.Arts) that can also accommodate more granular resources. It's not enough to just provide a repository mechanism of storage or retrieval (important as that may be) – the presentation and social layers enable the important human factors of communication, collaboration, and participation that are needed for sustainable resource creation and sharing within community networks. There is an online video describing our approach to these matters recorded at a workshop session at the OCWC 2011 conference at this link http://process.arts.ac.uk/content/introduction-alto-and-processarts-ocwcglobal
As at August 2011 the system consists of 4 ‘layers’
1 – Storage layer – Repository
2 & 3 – Presentation and Social Network Layers - Process.Arts
4 – Affiliate Layer – existing UAL websites that have adopted Creative Commons Licensing and an ALTO logo incorporating a link to a record in the repository. A schematic representation of the first 3 layers can be found below in Figure 1. A working sketch that describes the relationship of the ALTO Ecosystem to the rest of the UAL can be found below in Figure 2.
Another reason for having a social space to ‘wrap around’ shared learning resources is the special nature of the Arts and Art education, which tends to operate in highly confined contextual spaces. These spaces are determined by many things, such as socio-economics, political dogma and culture(s) and in these space it is challenged to distinguish itself from the ‘ordinary’. Arts artefacts need to be embedded in a relevant context - else it is not Art, but a consumer object. Sculptures and installations of scrap metal need this context badly to be recognised as Art and not as a scrap heap. The context is often created by a physical space (museum, public square on a pedestal, gallery, etc) or social value (famous Artist, Architect, Brand Designer). Sharing of Arts and Design artefacts, therefore, depends much on the meta-contexts that can be associated with them. One way to investigate this further is to explore the sharing of such artefacts between different cultures, to see what kinds of meta-contexts are used.
Cover image (Earthman at Eco-Rally) : http://www.flickr.com/photos/rev0lvin/2677684020/