A productive hiatus

When the core OAE team undertook a major rewrite of the back end a couple months ago, I was on board with the plan, but couldn't help but feel disappointed: I knew I was going to miss the activity on the design side. The deep conversations about how to raise the level of learning online were a core part of what made the project feel valuable, and it was hard to set them aside, for however brief a time.

But even while the project was going through turmoil in the context of the Sakai community - key partners turning elsewhere, stones being thrown - I'd generated a bit of local excitement in our library at the prospect of how much more deeply the library could be engaged in learning activities if the platform took content (rather than, say, courses) for its atomic structure.

Fine then. The main project needs time to sort out its future, and if the design work is going to be put on hold, then the lead designer is going to have a little spare time. We can throw our own OAE design party locally. Even if the OAE ultimately ends up going away as a product, using it to scaffold some fresh design thinking about learning and the library could be of real value.

Now, a couple months later, we're just entering into a first round of significant user testing of our prototype scenarios. There will be more to about the details in future posts, but for now I'll focus on the problem we're trying to solve.

The problem in a nutshell is that library resources and staff are not made good use of in learning activities. A corollary goal is that we want our students to learn to be better researchers, which is to say better learners.


How solutions tend to go wrong

A traditional approach to tackling this kind of problem has involved a combination of training and marketing - getting the word out about dedicated library systems (silos, in other words) and steering people toward using them effectively. This kind of solution is symptomatic of Conway's law: that software tends to take the shape of the organization behind it. Or, in this case, the shape of the artificial separation between library and learning support organizations within the traditional university.

We wanted to go a different way. We thought the library was well-positioned to recognize that learning and research both lie on a common spectrum (call it ‘scholarship'), however much they might be distinguished by seniority and sophistication of methods. Or, put another way, scholarship is also learning, and the library - as a core part of the very concept of the university - is fundamentally in the learning services business. A silo at arm's length from the assignments and projects students were engaged in wouldn't do. We needed to make our solution an integral part of the things people were already doing online in their learning activities, not a new destination.


Back to basics

A practical inspiration for much of our design work was a research librarian (specializing in Biology) who was deeply engaged with a handful of undergraduate, project-based biology courses. To the classes she supports she becomes a kind of coach and consultant for research methodologies, ranging from literature review through technical tools. She was already modeling on the ground the kind of deep integration we were trying to achieve online, with the learner at the center and supportive people within reach.

And so we started. Sam, the lead designer for the OAE project for the last couple years, came for an early visit and workshop. I think some of the ideas we have lobbed Sam's way over the years have been hard to juggle, owing in part to the legacy of the LMS, which does far too much in a fragmented way. I took it as a cheering sign when, after speaking with us about our ideas for a couple days, he said “I think the OAE is finally starting to really make sense.” This wasn't a new departure or a mere layering on of features, it was digging down to the roots of what the OAE was getting at.