April 20, 2007

Innovating from the Inside, Outside

A couple of weeks ago, the OU hosted a workshop with several external consultants about OUr visionary future web strategy (presumably?) Martin Weller gave the heads-up, Stowe Boyd (one of the consultants) added a bit more detail - like suggesting this is an ongoing project - and Martin responded.

Needless to say, I can't find any documentation internally on this workshop/project (yet!) - though even if I could, it'd probably have to remain behind the firewall... (along with the new VCE Dashboard (internal readers can find a link on intranet home page, in one of the right hand navigation column panels...;-)).

[What follows is all a bit I and me, and me and I, for which I (!) apologise - but I (!?) don't really want to rewrite it all in a neutral voice just now...]

One thing that struck me about this workshop that the ideas are coming from the outside, in, which contrasts with something I've been meaning to post for some time now: inside, outside working...

There's no way I could have made any of the OUseful/OpenLearn toys (like OpenLearn_daily, or the OpenLearn_XMLProcessor, for example) until the OpenLearn project made the XML course unit files available under an open content/Creative Commons license.

For example, there was no way of getting XML versions of course materials that I could play with and publish on the public web.

That isn't to say that internally access wasn't available to XML structured content: for example, the OU short courses are generated from XML source documents (although these are not defined at the unit level - they use an XML document format defined at the page level - which I've argued against for the last 3 or 4 years...!).

It's just that being able to play with content that is still being delivered to students in live courses is just not done...

And of course, there are 'technical issues' too - materials locked behind an OU firewall require authentication before they can be viewed (even XML files). Which means that using third party tools to process them isn't really possible...

(The fact that many of the services I'm using didn't actually exist even a few months ago is neither here or there... it's also worth bearing in mind that quite a few of the third party services used in OUseful apps have benefitted (maybe?!) from feedback I've been able to provide as a result of using those apps for OUseful demos. In addition, OUseful tinkering has also generated more than a few feature requests and bug reports to third party services and maybe, maybe, contributed implicitly to knowledge transfer activity, albeit untracked.)

Another advantage of inside, outside working is that I've been able to bring to bear my knowledge of how OU courses are designed and put together to be able to atomise/disaggregate them in ways that hopefully make sense (e.g. by RSSifying the content).

I guess I can also justify the considerable amount of time I spend in OUseful displacement activity on OpenLearn related activites because I work for the OU (even though I am not part of the OpenLearn project). Again, an inside justifcation for this.

The power of working from the outside, of course, is that anyone could be doing this stuff - and I can't be stopped from doing it (in my own time, of course; hmmm....)

Partly for this reason, I try to ensure that OUseful doodle apps do not require any privileged access to Open University services (just like I try to ensure that news I post on this public blog can be found on the OU public website... okay, maybe I find the info on the intranet first, and then look for a public route in to it, but hey, at the end of the day it's the public who's paying for what we do...;-)

In many cases, an OU server is used to host stuff; but wherever possible, tools are written using client-side Javascript to implement functionality (and making "View Source" trivial), relayed RSS feeds/JSON used to ensure that clients don't suffer form proxy/security problems arising from trying to access feeds from OU domains, and so on.

So: one of the biggest payoffs for me about OpenLearn is that it allows me to indulge in inside, outside working.

For example, there's no problem using third party tools, services and applications in the services I want to develop.

It also means that skunkworks and side projects can be entertained without having to worry about leaking copyrighted/rights protected materials, for example - or having to obtain permission to try out various novel delivery models using either the materials or external, third party tools.

And because the materials are there, and freely available, anyone can use them...

...which includes - and this may come as a surprise to many - people on the inside...

So the general lesson here is that if an organisation opens up its content or services, for example, then its employees can innovate with those resources without the need for official sanction...

...if, that is, they have 20% time (or study leave, in the OU case), or they are prepared to burn a bit of midnight oil.

So for me, then, the opening up of content (and services) also opens up inside, outside working opportunities, enabling individuals who want to try out work-related innovation that the institution won't necessarily allocate resource to, to pursue that internal innovation outside the confines of work (in all the forms those confines take).

NB note that none of this applies if you have a life, do the work you are supposed to do, don't need to be a hero etc! ;-)

Posted by ajh59 at April 20, 2007 03:47 PM