CALI Author and open education

Last month I enjoyed the distinct privilege of keynoting the Conference for Law School Computing (also known as “CALIcon”), a gathering of legal educators, law librarians, and IT professionals in law put together by the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI). I can’t say enough in praise of the everpresent spirit of sly spirited fun at this conference, from the tour de force session organized by pulling topics from a hat to the giant remote-controlled shark-shaped helium balloon (lawyers, sharks, get it?) swimming through the air at the final plenary. It’s so much easier to tackle hard challenges honestly in a relaxed, genial atmosphere.

I learned a lot about law librarianship and legal education at CALIcon that will serve me well as I teach my library-school students. Even more importantly, though, I learned about CALI and some of its entrepreneurial endeavors. One in particular, CALI Author, caught my attention for its clever handling of common challenges in the creation, use, reuse, and revision of open educational resources (OER) such as open textbooks and learning objects.

Despite the relatively recent uptick in OER news, OER are not at all new, neither conceptually nor in execution. The learning-object aggregator called MERLOT has been around in some form since 1997, and the National Science Digital Library effort in the 2000s was in large part an experiment in OER aggregation. For all their proponents’ idealism, OERs have yet to take higher education by storm. The reasons tend to be rooted in the stubborn individualism of the teaching endeavor:

  • There is always too much to teach, such that instructors prefer highly-targeted, highly-contextualized learning objects to teach with. Just a tiny bit too far off the mark, and a learning object is useless to an instructor as-is.
  • Almost all OER have been readymade and non-customizable, such that they are neither highly targeted nor highly contextualized, nor can an instructor tweak them to suit.
  • Too many OER are not appropriately licensed for reuse, much less modification. No instructor wants to teach with the threat of a copyright lawsuit dangling overhead.
  • OER revision and updating has been solely at the whim of the original creator. Outdated learning objects persist, to the reputational detriment of OER generally.
  • Career-aiding credit for OER creation and updating has been hard to come by.
  • Too many OER have been built on fragile technologies, Macromedia Flash especially.

Though some of these problems are beyond the capacity of any authoring platform to address, CALI Author does a rather remarkable job of minimizing them. By concentrating on text-heavy casebooks and insisting on separate multimedia files rather than mashed-up Flash, the platform both delays its lessons’ technological obsolescence and eases modification and revision processes. The platform allows, even helps and encourages, an instructor who is not the original lesson author to modify the lesson for different classroom circumstances. Lesson authors are clearly credited on lesson pages, and the CALI Reviser Project reduces the quantity of orphaned lessons.

CALI Author finesses the tricky balance between authors’ proprietary feelings about their lessons and instructors’ need to modify them by controlling redistribution of modified lessons. This is not the happiest compromise I can imagine, but I understand it. It certainly does not mean that CALI eschews open education; the impressive array of open casebooks and other educational materials that CALI funds, licenses for open distribution via Creative Commons, and distributes through the eLangdell project attests to the strength of its belief in openness.

I could easily have started this column with classically librarian-style carping about how OER haven’t worked yet so they obviously won’t work now no matter how loudly they are promoted. I’m much happier to describe CALI Author instead, and suggest that libraries interested in helping create, manage, and preserve OER seriously evaluate it, thoughtfully inspecting the design decisions made in its construction that have served its instructor and student users well. Barriers and design challenges don’t have to be insurmountable; novelty doesn’t have to fail. In this moment of inflection around classroom material, let academic libraries learn from examples that work.

Note: This post is copyright 2013 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”