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Design for Open Courseware

In design terms open courseware, here understood as language learning resources freely available to educational institutions and individual learners, is located on a continuum between individual learning resources, usually produced on an ad-hoc basis by teachers, and professionally produced software, resulting from a collaboration of content writers, programmers and graphic designers. Either end of the spectrum has its strength end weaknesses around issues of authenticity, immediacy, adaptability and reuse. This paper looks at a number of these issues and their impact on the design of resources intended for use as open courseware. The paper considers ways of combining the strength of highly contextualized, teacher-produced language learning resources with the constraints imposed by resources intended for use in diverse and at the time of production unknown learning contexts. It explores two separate but related responses to this conundrum: adaptability and modularity. Both are intended to facilitate the integration of the learning resource into different and varied learning environments. The paper contrasts a set of teacher-produced resources and an example of traditional courseware intended to cover a complete curriculum with a new more modular and adaptable piece of courseware. The sample materials discussed are intended for learners of Chinese but the observation and conclusion are relevant to other languages too.
Teacher-produced resources are usually intended to meet the immediate need of a specific set of learners, they need to be produced quickly and their integration into the learning process can be extensively teacher mediated. As PowerPoint slides, Word documents and the like they can easily be adapted and reused to meet similar learning needs arising at a later stage. Their potential strength is in their immediacy and tight connection with a specific learning context. This specificity together with strongly relying on teacher mediation on the other hand makes its reuse by other learners and teachers difficult. Independently produced resources in contrast tend to be more comprehensive in their approach and less tightly integrated into a unique learning context. There is likely to be more explanatory information available and less reliance on teacher-based mediation. This enables reuse in different context including, at least potentially, self-study situations. Loosening the tight links to context and the greater generality however tends to make it more difficult to integrate such resources into local contexts, creating problems of 'not being quite right'. Independently produced software also tends to be less adaptable with technical and legal restrictions on fine-tuning the software to local needs. This paper uses small scale reading modules developed for learners of Chinese as examples to illustrate an attempt to combine the flexibility of teacher produces resources with the greater generality and more comprehensive coverage of independently produced language learning resources, discussing both the technical development of such resources and their use in actual learning contexts.


Christoph Zahner    
Language Centre
University of Cambridge
United Kingdom

Deputy Director of the University of Cambridge Language Centre responsible for IT Strategy and delivery, including the development of on-line language learning systems and associated support facilities. Work includes the design and implementation of in-house language learning resources as well as the development of open courseware.
Background in German philology, computational linguistics and educational technology.

Hazel Zheng    
Language Centre
University of Cambridge
United Kingdom

Coordinator for all Chinese language classes run by the University of Cambridge Language Centre. Core contributor to the Language Centre open courseware resources for basic and intermediate Chinese. Experienced teacher, content writer and examiner for Chinese.
Also interested in the social aspects of second language acquisition and the broader impact of language learning.


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