Over the course of the year, we rolled out the SMART Choices and SMART Tools education project — which is finally available now via the Blackboard Open Education portal. SMART Choices is a collection of six online courses based on our MPP academic tracks: a set of courses designed to help students decide which track they should follow. Meanwhile, SMART Tools presents a range of eight online toolkits designed to help students join the labour market.
By making these online courses available to the public, not only our students but many other people can benefit from the content we create. For example, by giving a taster of what our MPP programme offers, prospective students can better decide if the course is right for them. Meanwhile, our alumni and other public policy practitioners can delve into new topics or refresh their skillsets.
Mixing and matching local context and global demand
How exactly did we place SMART Choices and SMART Tool’s content online, visible to the public, and outside of our typical university systems? First, it took a large amount of planning, structuring, and coordinating to publish our content openly and in a presentable way. For previous open education projects, we used Moodle. A few reasons we decided to move away from Moodle were current capacity, usability and consistency. Moodle required more back-end support than we had, and there was no consistent Moodle format used within our university. We needed a different approach, but one that we could build on within the given time and budget.
To make our content visually pleasing and user-friendly, we chose Lectora Publisher software, which is already used by Maastricht University library. Conveniently, there was also a standardised Maastricht University template. This helped us maintain a uniform, clean aesthetic, while also saving us time. We edited from the template and uploaded our educational material directly onto Lectora.
Finally, when our educational material was ready, we moved to make our material publically available. Currently in Maastricht University, we use Blackboard as our student’s online platform. For us, it made sense to align – Blackboard has a publically accessible service: Open Education powered by Blackboard. Open Education allows anyone (not just Maastricht University students) to view our courses and toolkits online. Anyone can simply create an anonymous user account: they are then free to access the content.
With the help of Lectora and Open Education, we placed our course and toolkits online, available for all to see. In the future, we would like to upload the project’s educational videos and documents in an open access repository. This would help us capture user analytics and make our content easier to find online. We would be able to embed the videos and document links directly onto Lectora. Through these links, we can later edit the content, which would automatically be updated within our courses and toolkits. This would save us time in editing on Lectora and re-uploading onto Open Education.
The hidden value of openness
Many universities have ventured into online education, seeking a way to diversify and increase revenue. Yet, as part of the Open and Online incentive scheme, the content created under SMART is free and openly available online to the public. The benefits of creating public, free education online are often taken for granted; to our eyes, the added value is indirect and long-term. Through SMART, we gained experience and capacity in creating online, sustainable education. By producing these courses and tools, we also gained visibility within the online education community.
Good publically available content was already available online; but we wanted to weave that content into our courses and toolkits, and explain this content more broadly – within a public policy context. We saw that SMART would help not only our students, but also applicants, alumni and the wider public policy community (of which we are also a part, of course).
One group stood out, however: those who do not have access to higher education learning material. There are many examples of this. Think of small- to medium-sized NGOs looking to build capacity, freshly graduated public policy alumni seeking employment, institutions or companies with limited access to expensive research journals, those curious about the field who are about to invest their time and money in formal education, and those who are not able to invest in further higher education. Overall, though, we hope our content will help everyone and inspire future projects!
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
Flickr / M.Boening