Thursday, July 12, 2007

SELF: a collaborative platform to share and create free contents about free software and open standards

Presenter: David Megias, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain
Thursday, July 12, 2007
11:00 AM - 12:00 PM in SFUHC Sauder
Vancouver, Canada

David Megias is a lecturer at the UOC (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) with a permanent position. Since October 2002, he has been the co-director of the International Master Program in Free Software offered at the UOC. His teaching activities are mostly related to free and open source software and he has participated in forums and conferences concerned within this field.

The presentation was based on the paper SELF: a collaborative platform to share and create free content about free software and open standards, co-written by the presenter and the three co-authors listed above. SELF stands for Science, Education, and Learning in Freedom. The SELF tag-line is “Be Selfish: share your knowledge.” SELF aims to increase economic and technological development in the European Union and other areas through the advanced implementation of Free Software and Open Standards in science and education. The project has been funded with 1, 000, 000 Euros by the 6th Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development of the European Commission.

1. Introduction
Free Software and about Open Standards were defined.
Free Software allows (the points are numbered from zero to three): 0. The freedom to run the programme in any place for any purpose, forever; 1. The freedom to study how the programme works and adapt it to your needs (which requires access to the source code); 2. The freedom to make and redistribute copies of the program to other people and groups; 3. The freedom to improve the programme, and release improved versions.

Open Standards include: 1. A published specification of the document format and no limitations on its use; 2. Allows interoperability, or a capacity for the information and communication systems to share data and knowledge; 3. Allows retrieval of information at any time; 4. Open Standards can be used by vendors and developers to avoid monopolies and single application lock-ins.

The pitfalls of proprietary software were highlighted with the case of Word Perfect. When the software was discontinued, many people lost information stored in Word Perfect formats. Open Standards software examples are: HTML (W3C) and OpenDocument Format (OASIS).

The SELF project itself was then introduced by the presenter.
SELF is as a repository of materials (Learning Objects) stored using Open Standards (or semi-open standards). The materials can be organized in a complex hierarchical way. Complex hierarchical structures may be created through combining Learning Objects in whatever way is needed. To allow for the universal creation of hierarchies, XML-based formats are used to define Learning Objects’ Metadata. To further increase universal access, different standards may be used through the import/export feature of SELF, such as LOM, SCORM, and IMS Learning Data.

SELF aims to build a knowledge base about Free Software and Open Standards, for teaching, learning and training. SELF is multi-lingual and free. SELF also has a production facility to develop new, standard-compliant, quality assured materials. There are seven international participants in the SELF consortium: The Internet Society of Netherlands (ISOC.NL), Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), University of Gothenburg (UG), Internet Society Bulgaria (ISOC.BG), Fundación Vía Libre (CIPSGA) and Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE), which are settled in Holland, Spain, Europe, Sweden, Bulgaria, Argentina and India, respectively.

2. State of the Art
Currently, free software is not widely developed because of a lack of awareness about the existence of free software, a perceived lack of technical support, a lack of qualified teachers (which encourages the use of proprietary software), and a lack of training and educational materials about free software.

SELF is combining the strengths of existing open-concept educational platforms, which tend to have only fragments concerning Free Software and Open Standards, into one centralized and standardized platform for information about Free Software and Open Standards. Some existing platforms include Wikipedia/Wikiversity, TLDP, Linupedia, and Edukalibre; note that none of these is dedicated to promoting Free Software and Open Standards.

SELF’s general objectives are to bring together universities, governments, and other instituations and organizations; to centralize, transmit and encourage Free Software and Open Standards; and to raise awareness about these topics to contribute to a critical mass about Free Software and Open Standards.

SELF’s specific objectives are to research state of the art of education and training around Free Software to detect gaps; create an open platform about these topics; develop educational and training materials; and make SELF self-sustainable by forming an active and involved community.

3. SELF Free Materials and Production Cycle
SELF provides two types of materials: 1. General information on Free Software for non-technical users, and 2. Education and training programmes related to Free Software. These materials are both harvested from previous sources and newly created.

SELF targets educational institutions (from grade schools to universities), training organizations, and local and national governments.

The SELF production cycle basically runs as follows: Stage 1 Harvesting, Stage 2 Adaptation or Production of Content, Stage 3 Revision and Quality Control, Stage 4 Conversion to Stable End Product. See a detailed diagram of the production cycle on page 5 of the paper.

4. Development Roadmap

SELF started July 2006, and will finish July 2008. Please see page 6 of the paper for a timeline/flow chart of the project. The project is currently on Step 6, the Pilot Platform in English. In a few weeks, they will be on Step 9, Q & A Mechanisms and Checks, and in September, 2007, they will be on Step 10, the International Launch.

5. Platform design

SELF is different because of certain aspects of its authoring model, such as: 1. Low-effort contributions-easy registration; 2. easily identifiable authors of each Learning Object; 3. rating of each Learning Object by other users; 4. the ability to comment on Learning Objects and edit the objects directly; 5. the formation of groups of interestd people around each Learning Object.

SELF uses an authoring reputation index, a point system based on: 1. author’s contribution ratio (contribution compared to size of the learning project); 2. accepted contribution ratio (acceptance of user’s contributions relative to his/her overall contributions); 3. harvester’s credit : extra points as incentive for help harvesting materials; 4 contribution to quality (improving quality results in points); 5. density of involvement (points for sustained/regular contributions); 6. expertise in specific area (your expertise in relation to others using similar project).

6. Summary conclusion

Although dissemination and adoption of Free Software and Open Standards is an objective of the European Commission, no existing project provides freely accessible training and learning materials. SELF fills in this gap by facilitating a platform for the collaborative production and sharing of these materials. SELF is open to all educators and anyone else who is interested. The status, rating, and usage of SELF’s Learning Objects is clearly marked. Free licenses (copyleft) are used by SELF. All are invited to join the SELF community.

David Megias ended by announcing the upcoming Free Knowledge Free Technology Conference in 2008 in Barcelona, Spain.

Commentary (by blogger)

SELF is developing, and will soon be internationally launching, free, accessible, non-proprietary, and innovative software for education and learning around the benefits and uses of Free Software and Open Standards. The project is based in values such as openness, transparency, collaboration, and sharing. The project uses these values as the basis for creating software (in the model of Wikipedia) that furthers these very values in a tangible way, by spreading knowledge and education about the wide and varied Free Software available for all sorts of uses, and the importance of Open Standards. Further, the software’s intention is to spread this knowledge to educators in all fields and at all levels, which means that it indirectly fosters and promotes its foundational values to learning institutions and students all over the world. SELF gets big points for access because of this snowballing effect in disseminating the information, wherein the software development is founded in values that transfer to initial software users, and from software users to a wider community who may know little or nothing about Free Software and Open Standards.

SELF is aware of and uses the strengths of open access information and open source software—namely, the ability to have communities of people who contribute in a collaborative way to increasing and improving the resource. Also, SELF wants its software to be useable by other organizations for whatever purpose they would like, in cooperation with whatever other software they would like to use. SELF’s Open Standards philosophy makes their software free of proprietary hedges and leaves their software open and available for any and all innovations that might be dreamed up by users or other software developers. SELF shows its dedication to its foundational philosophy with its point system, a ranking of users based, among other things, on contribution to the quality of the software and for “harvesting” other free software components that might help improve the SELF community.

SELF appears to have high standards for quality of knowledge at the same time that it espouses an open access concept. It has two highly democratic main checks to ensure quality knowledge: review by the community itself, and the point system, which is basically a means of representing “reputation” numerically. Points are awarded not only based on quantity of contribution, but more importantly on quality. Judging the quality of a contribution would appear quite difficult to do in an open access model; however, the SELF project appears confident in the ability of random and open peer review to deal with erroneous information. The point system appears as though it will help maintain this balance between openness and quality information because of the “reputation” factor that will be represented numerically. It will be transparently to all users whether a given contributor’s ideas have been widely accepted in the past, or highly contested and rejected.

It should be noted that, although SELF is Free Software created under an Open Standards philosophy, SELF has not been developed for free. It has been funded with 1, 000, 000 Euros. However, from the presentation it appears the SELF may have required funding to get started, but that it has many strategies to keep a self-sustaining, cost-free community in place and thriving.


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