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What we talk about when we talk about a Learning Commons

James Hamilton, LTC’s Head of Learning Technologies, on how a virtual Learning Commons could connect Macquarie with local and global communities of content creation. And why attribution is the new citation…

The Learning and Teaching Green Paper talks about a Learning Commons. So what is that exactly?

As a technologist, it’s easy to assume that the Learning Commons is a piece of software that we just turn on and use. The Macquarie Learning Commons should involve technology like iShare and other systems like the Library’s MultiSearch, but it’s not just software. It’s about people coming together and sharing, and that includes staff, students, our community partners, our industry partners.

Think about a village commons, a place where people come together, to meet and to achieve common and individual outcomes. Over the last ten years or so, libraries have focussed on being more than just repositories of texts. They have become places for people to learn, research, share and work together. In a way they’ve become a new form of commons, a Learning Commons. The vision in the Green Paper takes this a step forward.

Macquarie’s virtual Learning Commons would allow any content created for learning and teaching – our documents, images, videos and so on – to be shared, in the university community or even beyond. iShare, our digital repository system, would be a platform for sharing and discovering our own content in iLearn, in our MOOC platforms, in our video collections, in our research repositories and in Echo360. But it’s not just about sharing our own content. A Virtual Learning Commons would allow us to catalogue and discover content in public repositories and networks – a Macquarie gateway into YouTube for example. It’s like having access to a whole network of information with one point of discovery.

As we continue to create semi-permeable boundaries with our learning and research partners, and our industry and community partners, the Learning Commons would be a place our partners across the street and across the world could share in the development of content and resources with our students and our researchers.

The Green Paper says that by 2020 we will have shared online content and collaborative teaching with partner universities across the world. This is where it will happen.

What are the advantages to academic staff?

Obviously there’s efficiency to be gained from the sharing and reuse of learning resources internally. But staff, and students, will also have access to a global community of content creation. For instance open educational resources like the Khan academy videos, could be mapped to our program learning outcomes – you could search for a program learning outcome and find a learning resource that fits.

There is also value in sharing your work and having it attributed and re-used. Attribution is probably the learning and teaching content equivalent of citation. Imagine being able to say, ‘this teaching and learning content that I created is being used by 50 different institutions’.  And as a university we can also think of sharing our content as way of making a public contribution.

Are other institutions already doing this?

When you look around the world, there aren’t really very many ‘virtual Learning Commons’. The few that do exist tend to be information portals, they’re like directories that are part of university libraries usually, with links to search engines and databases.

MOOCs and the MIT OpenCourseware project are are an examples of sharing learning content, but they are still sharing it in a very contextualised way. There are lots of collections of content around the world that are built and shared. But there aren’t many examples of a successful, complete and consistent approach to organizing to do this right across an institution.

Will it be difficult to implement?

Sharing is not something that is easy to do. With the internet, there’s the concept of the semantic web as this complex interconnected network of things inherently connected and associated by their characteristics and tags. But we’ve just thrown everything in the internet into a bucket and put this clever search engine over the top of it.

So for the Learning Commons, we’ll need to build and resource a robust information infrastructure, including managed meta-data standards and controlled vocabulary. Our library does this brilliantly for its own collections but we will need to extend that to all our content. We will need to map our content to our curriculum, to units and to programs – so that staff and students can find things. We also need policies around openness, decisions around the scope of sharing, and an understanding of how licensing and creative commons works. It’s a new way of dealing with intellectual property.

Our content creators will also need the skills to be able to become content sharers. Some resources that we might create are difficult to re-share for instance, because they contain copyrighted material, or they are tied to particular times and dates.

James Hamilton is Head, Learning Technologies in Macquarie University’s Learning and Teaching Centre.


2 thoughts on “What we talk about when we talk about a Learning Commons”

  1. Thanks James – that’s a really, really useful overview of what we’re talking about when we propose a “Learning Commons”. I like the idea of it being consciously and mindfully developed for sharing and learning – because, as you say, the worst (well, not the worst, but the least effective) thing we could do is just create a dumping ground for a mish-mash of content, ideas, resources and links.

    To develop a useable “semantic web” to facilitate access to and use of the material in the Learning Commons will require the participation of the whole community, to make sure we have at least reasonable agreement on the taxonomy of tags and categories, and some standards for inclusion and tagging of material. A conversation we have to have with a broad range of colleagues and partners!

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