ALTO: sharing CSM’s academic resources with UAL and beyond

Hywel Davies leads CSM’s BA Fashion Communication with Promotion (FCP). In 2010, he was invited by CLTAD to help develop and co-ordinate the project ALTO (Arts Learning and Teaching Online) as a representative from CSM.

ALTO exists now as a platform and online file store for Open Education Resources (OERs), and for two years the project received funding from Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). Through ALTO the University has been exploring the potential of OERs within arts and design education.

Here, Hywel describes how ALTO works, a student collaboration related to the project, and he explains how ALTO benefits both students and staff.

Open Education Resources – a digital archive

The Open Educational Resource Movement has been alive for over a decade and goes from strength to strength. Probably the best known institution that spearheaded OERs within higher education is MIT. They were initially funded to put their course resources online, for instance reading lists and presentations, and for them to be freely available to the world. It was so successful that they kept going, and many other organisations and individuals created their own OER sites subsequently – like the Khan Academy.

“The purpose of OERs is to share information freely. Anyone can see lecture notes you have uploaded – anywhere in the world – and use them; make them better, change them and deliver them somewhere else. So the philosophical foundation is that educational materials and resources should be free – which I agree with.

The whole philosophy behind OERs is that you, as the lecturer, produce your resources, whether lecture notes, PowerPoints or a reading list – it could be anything – and you allow other people to use them. You do so by attributing licenses to the resources through Creative Commons. Creative Commons is a formal set of licenses, like a stamp on your work that says ‘this is my work, and you can use it, but you have to say that I created it.’ It is recognised globally as a license for securing recognition for your work. You can use images from Flickr or videos from Vimeo that are licensed through Creative Commons, as long as you give the name of the originator of the material.

ALTO was set up to look at how the university as a whole could tap into the idea of Open Education Resources. We developed a website – a platform – for ALTO to allow people to store their work, their teaching materials.  For example you go on to the ALTO website and search for ‘pattern cutting’, and then some lecture notes might come up that were created at LCF, and will say who did it, when it was created and what the type of license is.

When you produce teaching materials, they’re often produced as physical hand-outs, and then they are lost, whereas the ALTO digital archive stores all of these teaching materials. The website has been set up like a file store. There’s two parts to it, the first layer is a file store to deposit all the materials; the second layer is called Process Arts – which is linked to ALTO. Process Arts is more like a social place where students can talk about anything. It is a form of teaching facility as well.

Sharing between the Colleges

ALTO is about sharing. Obviously UAL has six different colleges and currently there isn’t much sharing between them – they’re all quite distinct. The idea is for ALTO to be a central resource where all teams across the university can deposit their learning materials and other people can use them and change them – which is really important. Somebody might have done a PowerPoint presentation at Camberwell about drawing, and I’d think ‘that would be amazing for my FCP students to see, but actually I need to chuck in a few more references or take out some references’ and it allows you to do that!

Creating better resources

Another part of the project was exploring the idea that creating resources for other people to use makes you create better resources. That’s the thinking behind it. If I’m producing learning materials knowing that anyone in the world can use them – they’ve got my name on them – well, it’s like publishing a book; you want the materials to be amazing. So it’s partly about reputation.

Collaboration between disparate institutions

Another strand of the project looked at what would happen if two institutions collaborated in order to create learning resources. If I worked with a different institution and created a mixed-media presentation on fashion photography, what challenges does that raise? You’re having to think about different student groups, modes of working, differing course philosophies and so on. The notion behind that is if two different institutions (or two different people from different locations, with separate experiences) collaborate, you get an even richer experience and a greater project at the end.

I worked with Heriot-Watt University in Scotland who run a new BA Fashion Communication course. FCP at CSM has been going for about 30 years, but at Heriot-Watt it’s been running for about two years. We did a joint project to create learning resources that we can both use, but it was very different because I had to think about students who had maybe not been to London, and who are learning in a very different environment to CSM. Their college is in the Scottish borders – an hour from Glasgow – in the middle of nowhere, compared to London where you’ve got everything. So we worked together and ended up doing some really interesting ideas; the Heriot-Watt students came down to CSM and we did a joint fashion film project with Dazed and Confused online. It was interesting for my students to learn to work on a project with students they wouldn’t normally encounter.

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Sharing Central Saint Martins

Basically ALTO is all about collaboration, the whole philosophy behind it is ‘let’s produce things that are not exclusive.’ Be open about what you do. It’s not going to devalue what we do at CSM, because whatever we do here, we’re the best in the world; if we show what we do externally, it doesn’t give away the secrets. You know the benefit of coming to CSM, it’s about the people you meet, your colleagues and connections, the whole environment and experience – you can’t give that away online, it’s a completely different thing. I think we should all embrace, or at least explore, how we could be involved with the Open Educational Resources Movement.

A life of its own

It’s definitely beneficial for staff because it makes them think about what they’re doing and reflect on their practice, and for students it’s good because they can see the stuff they’re being taught is being considered a great deal. In addition, by putting your teaching resources on a digital platform helps people who are thinking about coming to the College see what sort of materials are generated – and that demonstrates the quality.

The project was only funded for two years, but it’s still there – people can still upload, it’s still linked to Process Arts, it’s just that there isn’t the support staff anymore. Before there were the three of us who were helping to put stuff up and telling people about it, and while we still do that informally, ALTO has a life of its own now.