By Megan Driscoll
Robert Schuwer's career has long followed parallel paths of education and technology: After teaching secondary math, he worked as an IT consultant and CTO, then hopped back to teaching at the Eindhoven University of Technology and later joined the Open University (OU) in 2006. When the OU started the Netherlands' first Open Educational Resources (OER) program, Mr. Schuwer was asked to lead the project, and he's devoted his career to OER both within and outside of the university ever since.
Q. How do you think that OER can help the Open University of the Netherlands achieve its mission of making higher education 'accessible to anyone with the necessary aptitudes and interests?'
A. The 'Open' in Open University means freedom of time and place for a student to study, but also no entrance barriers for any person to start. Offering Open Educational Resources seems like the logical next step in being open. It takes away a financial barrier for those who want to get acquainted with courses on an academic level before entering the Open University and becoming a paying student.
Q. In 2008, the Netherlands Minister of Education launched a national OER initiative called 'Wikiwijs.' What are the goals of Wikiwijs and what is your and the Open University's role in the project?
A. Wikiwijs aims at creating a portal where all teachers in the Netherlands (from primary to higher education) can create, (re)arrange, find and share open digital learning materials. It also helps teachers professionalize themselves on all aspects of open digital learning materials, including using as many available sources of information as possible, from tips and tricks to self-study courses.
In 2009, the Open University, together with Kennisnet (a public knowledge center on information and communication technologies (ICT) and education in the Netherlands, targeted at primary, secondary and vocational education) got the assignment to realize the Wikiwijs portal. I am the content project leader for this program. Among other things, my responsibilities are to organize Wikiwijs so that the content is findable and accessible, information about the quality of the materials is available and learning materials are ordered along specific trajectories.
Q. What are the origins of the name Wikiwijs and what types of resources does it make available?
A. Wikiwijs was named by the former Minister of Education, Ronald Plasterk. The 'wiki' part refers to the communal knowledge idea behind Wikipedia because it's a community of teachers sharing and improving learning materials (although not necessarily in a wiki format). 'Wijs' is Dutch for 'wise' or 'sensible'.
The resources are not limited to any particular format or level. They range from PDF files to websites, from Java applets to videos and from pictures to complete learning trajectories.
Q. The Wikiwijs project was rolled out to higher education in the Netherlands last fall. How has it been received so far and how widely has it been used? Have you seen any impact yet, and if so, can you describe it?
A. Wikiwijs is still not able to fully support higher education, which is entirely due to the metadata standard used in Wikiwijs. Currently, Wikiwijs only supports an LOM-based national application profile for primary, secondary and vocational education. Higher education uses a different application profile.
Last year, both application profiles were converted into one new application profile for all educational sectors in the Netherlands. This profile is now being implemented into the ICT infrastructure underlying Wikiwijs and I expect this to be ready end of 2011. Then we can support higher ed completely and will be able to better see its impact on that sector. Right now we only offer direct links to repositories of interest for higher education.
Q. Many OER projects have struggled to generate original content or persuade instructors to participate. How has Wikiwijs handled these challenges?
A. A lot of digital learning materials are already available in the Netherlands from several dozens of repositories. The organizations behind these repositories were encouraged with a little financial support to add these repositories to a national harvester.
The challenge of getting individual teachers involved is a hard one. We use several types of actions, ranging from organizing workshops for interested teachers to supporting existing communities and persuading them to use the Wikiwijs platform for their goals. But in my opinion this challenge is the hardest one for the Wikiwijs program.
Q. In what ways have you integrated Wikiwijs into the Open University's OER?
A. Because Wikiwijs is still not able to support higher education entirely, it has not yet been integrated in the Open University's OER. However, the Open University is involved in an initiative called the Open Networked Polytechnic. This initiative aims at offering a bachelor's or master's trajectory in a blended fashion (online and on campus). The learning materials will be published under an open license and will be made available using Wikiwijs. This will be the first integration of Wikiwijs and the Open University's OER.
Q. Now that the project has been rolled out for almost a year, what are the current goals for Wikiwijs and how will it sustain itself?
A. The current goals for Wikiwijs are to better open up available open learning materials and better support teachers in using them. Furthermore, we will work on making the initiative sustainable by involving different stakeholders and transferring over more and more of the activities to these stakeholders. This needs to be realized by the end of 2013 because then funding from the government will stop.
Q. What are your goals for the development of OER at the Open University of the Netherlands?
A. After 2013, when Wikiwijs has been adapted by other educational stakeholders, I expect the current implementation partners (Kennisnet and the Open University) to still be involved, but not as leading groups. At the Open University, we are currently in the middle of experimenting with new business models around OER, trying to publish as much learning materials as possible under an open license and defining for-pay services around these to make it sustainable. In the Netherlands, we are a frontrunner on OER and we aim to keep that position.
Q. Finally, I'd like to offer you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about Wikiwijs and open education at the Open University of the Netherlands.
A. To my knowledge, Wikiwijs is the first and only program of this size (reaching all educational sectors) and impact initiated by a government. It is interesting to see how it accelerates developments in several other programs and projects on digital learning materials. The OpenU experiments at the Open University will also give more insight into how OER can be offered in a sustainable way. I am very curious how both initiatives will develop in the next years and am excited to be a part of it.