OER Hack Day

Apr 18, 2011 by

The OER Hack Day event was jointly organised by JISC CETIS and DevCSI. Participants came from a variety of backgrounds and levels of technical expertise, and included academics, learning technologists, repository managers, developers, and librarians from UK institutions such as Harper Adams, Oxford, Nottingham, East Riding College, the Open University, and other organisations such as Creative Commons, the Learning Registry, Open Michigan, and TechDis.

John Robertson from CETIS provided some context to the event by highlighting their technical interest group (OERTIG) which was established to help separate out the discussion about OER. He also provided a brief overview of the discussions in the lead up to the event, including blog postings by Nick Sheppard, Amber Thomas and Dan Rehak.

Robertson also outlined some of the ideas shared prior to the event in both the email list discussion and the event wiki. These included an OER playlist picker and creating tools using W3C widgets.

Mahendra Mahey from DevCSI provided an overview of the aims of the event: to meet other experts in the field and start interesting conversations, to develop interesting new ideas, form mixed teams and develop prototypes (paper or electronic) or working code.

Lightning Talks

The event kicked off with a series of lightning talks from participants who wanted to share their project perspectives, interests and challenges for the group.

JORUM, Aggregated OAI-PMH, Open APIs, and Discoverable JORUM OERs
Nick Sheppard, Repository Developer
Leeds Metropolitan University

Sheppard described his interests and journey through various JISC-supported projects working with OER to identify areas for collaboration through the event. In describing his experience, he discussed the recurring issue of getting content into JORUM, given the lack of OAI-PHM support, and his experience using SWORD to differentially deposit resources into multiple repositories and retrieve those resources from a central portal. He also expressed an interest in discussing the anatomy of APIs.

Sheppard gave us his perspective on the event and his interests in this short video interview:

Open Fields
Roger Greenhalgh, UMF Programme Manager
Harper Adams University College

Greenhalgh took us on a whirlwind tour of some of the ideas he has been exploring in relation to the new Harper Adams’ repository Open Fields, aimed at the “dirty nailed practitioners” in agriculture and land-based subjects. This includes not only formal papers, but also grey materials and other learning resources, which they wanted to make very findable to the public.

Greenhalgh discussed their SEO activities and their emphasis on creating short technical briefing papers with bullet points and pictures to explain practical issues, which can be easily found and used to lead people to the more academic resources, if appropriate.

They created their own a short url – inspired by the DOI system – the OFI (Open Fields Identifier) and a plugin within their VLE which allows you to search the repository and pull the resources out to use them. They also identified problems identifying the attribution of photographs, so created a prototype service at Dev8D to automatically add a banner along the bottom of an image displaying selected metadata.

Roger Greenhalgh receiving the Picture This! prize at Dev8D for his work on photograph attribution

Greenhalgh discussed some of the new ideas that this work had triggered, which could be explored during the event. These included mechanisms to extract images and other data from PowerPoint resources, and ways to keep branding information separate from video content to avoid costly work when institutions rebrand.

OERca – A New Publishing Platform for Open Michigan
Ali Asad Lotia, Software Developer
University of Michigan Medical School

Lotia introduced several elements of his work from the Open.Michigan project, including OERca, which was developed to help automate the due diligence process assessing if OER materials are fully cleared. He explained how the OERca document import/export tool works with OpenOffice.org to extract materials, suggesting that participants may want to look into developing enhancements to this tool to allow users to process a wider variety of file types for use in OER.

He went on to discuss OERbit, their recently released Drupal-based OER publishing platform, which is available under an open source licence. He issued a challenge to write an installation script to help automate the install process for OERbit, making it easier for people to try it.

The Learning Registry
Daniel Rehak, Technical Advisor
Learning Registry

Rehak introduced the Learning Registry, which he described in a blog posting prior to the event as “a social networking for metadata”.

Rehak discussed some of the difficulties and deficiencies of metadata, and the advantages of looking at other types of data when searching and evaluating resources, such as paradata (usage data), analytical data, linked data and context, drawing parallels with the ways in which Google and Facebook work.

Rehak outlined the flow from a resource being made available in the Learning Registry, which then creates a common metadata timeline, effectively re-aggregating metadata to show how a resource is used. This data can then be used a social way. They currently have around 180,000 paradata records, which can be quite small, such as: “I like this data” or “I use this data”.

Rehak explained that the Learning Registry is an “open everything” push network which provides a set of APIs enabling developers to build interesting stuff on top. He emphasised that they were keen to see what participants could contribute or build upon this during the event.

In this video interview, Rehak describes the Learning Registry project in more detail, including the concept of paradata, and his reasons for attending the event…

Wookie W3C Widgets
Mark Johnson, Reader
University of Bolton

Johnson provided a brief overview of the Wookie project, which aims to increase accessibility by creating external W3C widgets for tools and resources, which can then be brought into a wide variety of learning environments via a plugin as and when the functionality is required.

He provided an introduction to the system, in which a widget file is stored on the Wookie server, which then talks to a plugin within your browser or web application. The plugin creates a space within the environment into which the server can inject the configured widget. Users are authenticated by the container web application, allowing the widget to remain simple and integrated.

Johnson concluded by demonstrating how easily he could create a JORUM widget, accessible to anyone engaging with the Wookie server within their environment, and showed how this would appear within Moodle as a practical example.

Provenance, Attribution, Licensing and Teaching Resources
Amber Thomas, Programme Manager

Thomas advocated a person-centered approach to OER, considering the incentives for sharing – including reward and recognition. She emphasised that feedback reflecting how others are using and valuing their OER is really important for those creating resources. This is also vital at management level, as identified by JISC-funded work examining activity data, which has shown this information to be is really useful business data.

Thomas highlighted some of the current technical issues associated with attribution and licensing, noting that whilst Creative Commons licenses are useful, resources often only contain the CC logo for the chosen licence. Without a name or link to the licence, they fail to provide enough information for users to follow that licence appropriately. She emphasised the need for greater use of machine readable licences to improve this situation.

In discussing provenance of OER, Thomas observed that we assume we do not know very much about the identity of people online. However, she believes this is going to change, particularly as authentication across devices and OpenAuth grows. Knowing a tiny bit about who people are will help us know what they are doing, and will help make sharing resources on the web more sustainable. Thomas advised participants to assume that we are working towards this position when developing OER tools.

Thomas concluded that the end game should be to make OER person-centric, as this may be a key way in which people will navigate through resources.

Let The Hack Begin…

Following the lightning talks, participants were encouraged to discuss ideas and add them to the ideas wall, where they were collected together into natural groupings. Once these groups were established, those with an interest in a particular area gathered to discuss the practical work they proposed to undertake.

The following groups emerged:

WordPress Widgets Group

This group brainstormed a wide variety of ideas relating to ways WordPress could be used to store, organise or expose OER, including its potential role as a repository, playlist picker and recommendation tool, connecting OER to people more directly.

Peter Robinson and Zak Mensah discuss their range of ideas in more detail in this video:


This group explored the user and technical requirements of bookmarking tools for learning objects which could be used to help people submit feedback about resources using customised Django apps.

This approach had many synergies with the work of other groups and sparked a wider debate about the role of a Delicious-style bookmarking tool for OER. Greg DeKoenigsberg observed that part of the problem with existing bookmarking tools is that you cannot reshape the metadata when you save a resource link (i.e. selecting just the tags that are of interest of you). You also don’t capture licensing and publication information, which is important for reuse. The wider group agreed that there is a lot of potential for a bookmarking tool tailored to OER, such as proposed by this group.

Course Catalogue Group

This group looked at linking OER to particular courses, so the resources are connected with particular courses and institutions as a way of aiding discoverability and use. Their initial work involved taking a step back from OER to create a Google custom search to act as a complete course catalogue from all UK institutions, as one did not previously exist and was required as a backbone to their project. Their project examined ways to connect OER to this and to design a user interface to encourage students to use it to discover courses and preview the materials used on that course.

Shelagh Finlay explains their process and the first stage of the project in this video interview:

OERbit Group

This group was interested in developing an automated installation for the University of Michigan’s open source OERbit code. The developers identified a number of problems when working with members of the group to install it on different systems, so spent time overnight working to remedy these, together with those interested in using the tool.

Ali Asad Lotia explains further in this video:


This group was formed by Terry MacAndrew, who has been working on the UK Centre for Bioscience’s OeRBITAL project to develop a MediaWiki populated with curated collections from existing OER on subject areas within the biosciences, as assembled by academic discipline consultants. This has produced a wiki containing fairly loosely structured data, including useful paradata about the materials.

The group combined representatives from the OeRBITAL project and the Learning Registry to examine how best to get meta- and paradata out of the MediaWiki and into the Learning Registry, and how this data could be used to improve the project as a whole.

Terry MacAndrew gives us his perspective on the event as a whole and the detail of this work in this video interview:

Visualisations Group

Several people from different backgrounds and perspectives joined in conversation with Tony Hirst, who has been producing visualisations with different data sets using the visualisation tool Gephi. There was interest in the potential for this type of interpretation of paradata, and for examining the relationships between tagged resources. One of the potential use cases cited involved #ukoer tagged objects, which not only includes OER resources, but also the conversations around resources, such as blog posts and tweets using the tag.

Team work, fuelled by coffee!


After 24 hours of work, the groups presented their prototypes…

The Course Detective

The Course Catalogue group produced a Google Custom search engine to search over the undergraduate prospectus pages for all UK universities. They presented a conceptual design and the live search interface, which includes filters for just courses or resources, or both. There will also be a tab to search over the YouTube channels available.

The group argued that a lot of OERs have been created in connection with a specific course, and it can be a great marketing tool to help give a flavour of the course content. However, it is rarely linked to the course prospectus, so it doesn’t get found by prospective students. The premise of the Course Detective is to create a rich search experience for prospective students that capitalises on OERs.

WordPress and OER: A list of tools, workflows and hacks

The WordPress group carried out a range of work to evaluate existing plugins and build up a range of resources to help make use of the WordPress platform in a practical way. Full details can be found here.

Their work included:

  • Creating a new OER bookmarker and bookmarklet plugin: “FavOERite” which is platform independent and mobile-compatible;
  • Reviewing how to populate WordPress with feeds from OpenSpires;
  • Feeding WordPress using FeedWordPress and Custom Post Types, to be displayed using Featured Post type;
  • Creating a plugin to search against Xpert, RSS and APIs;
  • Reviewing plugins for OER Creative Commons work.

The group also discussed ways in which WordPress could potentially integrate with the Learning Registry, including pulling information in through RSS and using the Salmon protocol to flow comments back to the source. Both groups agreed that this could be a very interesting a solution to create a reciprocal relationship between WordPress content and the Learning Registry.

Generating Paradata from MediaWiki

The OeRBITAL Group examined how to contribute paradata back into the Learning Registry by building a simple data pump that mines MediaWiki and transforms it into a paradata envelope for the Learning Registry. Currently this includes recommendation data, but the group noted the need for a “thumbs down” option and more semantic information to contribute more valuable paradata about the resources in the future.

Full details about this project and links to the code are available here.


The PORSCHE group demonstrated a proof of concept for a tool they named “Sacreligious” – an OER version of Delicious, built on Django. This automatically picks up licence, author and publisher data, where available, and includes a bookmarklet to help users add resources and personal descriptions as they browse.

Full details about this project are available here.

Xpert – Learning Registry Connection

John Poyau from the Learning Registry worked with the Xpert search API to parse it and push it into the Learning Registry. He identified some of the difficulties involved and made connections with representatives from Xpert at the event who could help take this work further.

Community Requirements

There were several common interests that had emerged from the two days, including the concept of paradata, OER-specific bookmarking tools and an ongoing OER hack community to continue pursuing some of these ideas. Participants were encouraged to continue using the event discussion group and the wiki to record their ideas, and to invite others with an interest to get involved with the discussions.


Greg DeKoenigsberg and Lorna Campbell give their perspectives on the value of event as a whole in these short concluding interviews:



  1. LNCD | We ♥ DevCSI - [...] by the sector in a supportive environment. Past events have included developer-focused workshops on Open Educational Resources, Accessibility, Open ...

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