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(info) Draft for comment: 2007/06/27

  • Add comments at the end
  • Correct or change obvious errors in-text
  • Alternatively, contact me directly - James Neill

(info) Changes for next draft

  • Too long - separate unit/institution-specific content from generic 'open' content
  • Include evaluation results



This article overviews an action-inquiry-based experimentation with an emancipatory approach to academic work in the 21st century electronic age. Universities generally request of academic staff the pursuit of three (inter-related) missions: teaching, research, and service. This article suggests four pillars which could help to support authentic pursuit of these missions: the use of free software, open file formats, open access materials, and placing of materials into the public domain or use of copyleft licensing. This approach was pursued within the the the context of teaching Survey Design & Methods in Psychology during Semester 1, 2007 at the University of Canberra as part of the institution's Researching Online Learning project. Institutional support and encouragement to experiment with an open academic approach was critical to the progress made.

Pursuit of emancipatory teaching in an electronic age

Mt. Everest may have been well and truly climbed, but there's no shortage of other mountains to be tackled with a spirit of adventure and for the potential benefit of humanity and ecomanity. Within the context of academia, I imagine myself somewhere half-up, half-down stumbling around in the wilds in search of providing authentic teaching, research, and service. Along the way, I have been developing my developing a teaching philosophy which includes four pillars of free and open teaching.

4 pillars of free and open teaching

Tools, functions and applications

I search for the best free software to meet each desired functionality for sharing unit materials and fostering electronic communication.  All solutions ultimately need some level of customising, and occasionally a bit of hacking. I also use proprietary software where no reasonable alternatives exist or where I haven't sufficiently experimented yet to commit to an alternative in a production teaching environment.

The main tools I use in my day-to-day teaching-related work are outlined below, as are various issues associated with their use.

Learning management systems

University students' encounter with electronic teaching materials in the 2000's is typically via a Learning Management System (LMS), supplemented by email. A LMS provides staff and students with constrained access to some integrated web applications hosted usually on a university web server. Universities configure a LMS to pull details out of the student enrolment system in order to determine which unit materials a student can access. Once the students complete a unit, their access to the material is removed.  This is common practice and seems also to be believed by many to also be best practice.

There are numerous problems with LMSs, some of them philosophical and some of them practical (e.g. LMSs tend to be orientated towards linear sequenced learning rather than non-linear approaches):

No LMS package addresses the fundamental, underlying limitations and issues inherent with using a LMS as the primary electronic interface with students.  Some LMSs do however offer clear advantages, such as free software LMSs. One of the issues with all LMSs is that are like overly heavy, slow moving beasts. Bloated functionality is often provided and the packages are having difficulty keeping up with the more rapid evolution of Web 2.0 tools.

Some educators take the view that LMS packages (which usually become behemoths) should be light and minimalistic, concentrated on being a gateway for integration with other web and desktop applications. More radical online educators suggest that LMSs should be killed off altogether (just as some suggest PowerPoint is killing off inspiration in classrooms) and have proposed instead a DIY blend of free Web2.0 tools (such as wikis, blogs, social bookmarking sites, etc.). For example, see Leigh Blackall's Die LMS die! You too PLE!.


UC has traditionally used WebCT as an LMS, which has always been a white elephant, particularly after it was bought out in 2006 by its rival Blackboard. I couldn't jump too quickly to accelerate my search for alternatives when UC announced it was searching for a new LMS.

UC identified three LMSs for trial use during Semester 1, 2007. Two proprietary packages (Janison and Desire2Learn) were considered candidates for replacing WebCT. Open Academic (OA) was selected for exploratory purposes with the idea that it could run in parallel to a proprietary LMS, to allow some staff to experiment with use of free software in teaching.

Open Academic

Open Academic is in its early stages as a LMS. Its basically a hack of Drupal (a well-respected free software Content Management System). UC used a consultant, Bill Fitzgerald (the OA guru), for web-hosting and customising an OA installation. I experimented with setting up my unit in OA here - but you can't see anything unless you register). There were several aspects of OA which didn't allow me the flexibility in design that I desired. I prefer to have direct control over my electronic teaching materials and how they are presented. For example, I want to put my materials in the public domain, for free and open access (not hidden behind logins which is a problem with most LMSs).

This is not to say I wouldn't use OA in the future - it has considerable potential.
It should also be pointed out that OA encompasses much more than a Drupal hack. It has the vision of being integrated with other free software packages, including:

  • Moodle (a popular free software LMS) and
  • MediaWiki (what Wikipedia runs on), with
  • OpenID (for integration of logins).

All of this sounded attractive and represents the possibility of many teaching tools coming together under a single umbrella. However, the practical implementation is rather nascent, and with time running out before semester got underway I opted out from frustrations I envisage would ensue from expecting too much of the early implementation of OA.

Google groups

Google Groups provides a simple, easy to use and customise, reliable, group discussion tool. A closed GG was operated so that students' postings weren't subjected to external availability and scrutiny. I try to encourage students to ask questions, however "dumb" they may seem to be. Much as I personally prefer open communities, I didn't want to discourage group communication.

Initially I had problems signing students up because GG rejected my attempts to bulk add my 80 student email addresses (part of their anti-spam efforts). However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it made students sign up using their preferred email address, which are usually not their university email addresses.

I had no ambition to do anything other than provide a simple, basic mechanism for email and web-forum style communications amongst staff and students. An important criteria which led me to choose GG was that I found no other way (other than equivalent sites such as Yahoo Groups) which provided a free web-based and email-based discussion tool.

I valued highly the goal of a simple electronic discussion medium which could accessed via email or web. I think its inadequate in this day and age to have email only or web only electronic communications for tertiary teaching. Email remains the key electronic communication device in students' lives (along with mobile phones). GG provides a simple, easy and effective electronic announcement mechanism, with students able to customise their email address and the format and regularity of delivery of group messages to their email accounts.

GG has expanded well beyond group email and could be used as an entire LMS. This is an interesting possibility which I would pursue further except that for the fact that, much as I love Google's free products and their "do no evil" philosophy, they are a profit-making company (e.g., ads display on the GG interface) and their software is not free software.


During computer-based laboratories I introduced students to using Firefox 2 as their web browser. Uptake was quite successful, because FF2 is pre-installed on the UC disk image and has the significant advantage of tabbed browsing after IE6. In the future, there is significant potential for integrating a range of learning tools and functions with FF. It could be possible to create a LMS-style install of FF, with various extensions, such as social bookmarking icons (e.g., for

Web-browsing and email are two key ways that students interact electronically. A third is via mobile devices. Thus, transitioning students to using a free software browser is an important step towards creating a free software platform.

Open office

The most ubiquitous desktop applications are Microsoft Access, mainly Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. One of the problems with these programs is that the information is tied up in a proprietary format. Recently, however, there has been internationally agreement about standards for open document formats, which do not require proprietary software to read, edit, and save the files.

There are several free software packages now available which essentially replicate and extend the functionality of MS Office and which can read and store files in open formats. The most popular is Open Office, which consists of:

To date, I'm using OO Writer for keeping notes (where I once used MS Word) and switching over old spreadsheets and create new spreadsheets in Calc (where I once used MS Excel).

Next semester I will making a similar transition to use of Impress (where I currently use MS PowerPoint). I've requested OO be installed on the university disk image so that in teaching we start to use open document formats. In the past I have also experimented with the use of S5, which provides css for creating presentations from html files (e.g., [Introduction to Social Psychology| lecture). S5, however, took extra time with html markup and, whilst it worked, is not in the same league as a growing band of Web2.0 presentation applications which I think will become increasingly attractive, such as SlideShare.

Screen capture

MW Snap is a screen capture tool which is very handy for capturing any part of the screen and saving as image. I use this for creating images for use in tutorials and lectures. It's a free alternative to SnagIt.

I also use some proprietary software for image editing, including PhotoStudio2000 and Adobe Illustrator, but eventually plan to transition to a free software alternative such as GIMP.

Screen recording

CamStudio is free screen recording (or screen castings) software. I have made some experimental recordings however there seems to be a missing codec from the UC system necessary to watch the .avi video format. I'm hoping to use screen recordings to create more visual, interactive tutorials and tips for computer-related tasks. It could also be used in conjunction with video blogging by staff and students.

For watching videos and listening to audio on a desktop, VLC media player is free and excellent.

Lecture recording

Lecture screencasts (.wmv) and audio (.wma) were automatically captured and online via student or staff login. This was provided by the UC digital recording service, a homegrown application which works quite well. There is, however, a project underway to find a commercial, enterprise replacement package with greater functionality.
Access to the recordings is via UC staff or student password. I would have liked to make the audio and video more widely available, but I lack sufficient bandwidth and server space, as well as administrative time for transferring these externally. They can't easily be transferred to video hosting sites such as YouTube because those videos are limited to ~5 to 10 minutes in length.
I am hopefully and will be lobbying for UC's search for new enterprise software for lecture recording will lead to digital recordings with customisable licenses and levels of access. Or for the system to be integrable with a new digital learning object management system which allows different levels of license and access.
It would also be desirable to see the university move towards allowing the creation of open format digital media (e.g., .ogg files for audio).

Statistical analysis

In psychology, we traditionally use SPSS for statistical analysis. SPSS is powerful, but the licenses are expensive. This is a significant issue because off-campus access for students for a full version is over $1000 or for dumbed-down studentware versions ($100 to $300).

Free software alternatives are few and limited, but at this stage include:

  • R - command-driven only, but powerful
  • Open Office Calc - spreadsheet-style
  • Many more to be explored - Free Statistical Software

Readings and textbooks

I am moving towards teaching courses with open access materials, but still find textbooks useful and also electronic readings which are copyrighted and delivered via e-reserve. Eventually, I will transition to only using entirely copyright-free materials. Textbooks remain helpful adjuncts to electronic materials, however their cost has risen disproportionately to CPI over the last decade and they are basically a rip-off to which most academics unthinkingly pander. (Like drug companies giving doctors free drugs, etc. publishers lure academics with free books).
As academics, we should be campaigning and taking action to help students get access to full-text materials at cost-price. With the erosion of student unions, the responsibility falls more than ever on academic staff to provide open and accessible materials. There is quite a journey still ahead, however, in weaning academics off their manipulated reliance on prescribing overpriced commercial textbooks and proprietary learning materials. Instead, its time to go the other way, and to work collaboratives on high quality, open access, online knowledge. The technology for pursuing this is readily available (e.g., see Wikiversity.

HTML editing

I have traditionally used Microsoft Frontpage as an html editor and like it. However, it creates junky, bloated html code if you don't know what you're doing (I'm still cleaning up old html code written with Frontpage), is known to be the MS software with worst standards compliance and is no longer in active production.  I also use HTML-Kit as an html editor and a suped-up text editor.  However, its WYSIWIG properties aren't as good as FrontPage.  So, I think l will eventually transition to some other free software html editor.  The front runner looks like NVU, a mature, free, cross-platform html editor.  Another alternative is to use Open Office Writer, but its a bit limited in its html editing functionality at the moment.

I personally think there's still much to be said for presenting information via simple html pages and equipping students with the skills to do so.  Chances are, in their future careers, knowing some basic html editing will be handy.  LMSs and CMSs are basically just hosted WYSIWIG html editors. Just as students are expected to have basic word processing and spreadsheet competence, so to I think it would valuable to consider more widespread teaching of html coding and also wiki markup. These two techniques empower people with the electronic language tools to communicate effectively via the web.

I've learnt that its important to keep the html stripped down to its bare bones, with minimal formatting, and to 'skin' the html content via cascading style sheets (CSS). Among other efficiencies, this enhances the portability and ease for reuse of information. 

The critical feature of web-based text is of course the use of hyperlinks. This article makes use hyperlinking in effort to facilitate a more meaningful experience for the reader than would probably occur through hard copy only reading. So, html allows more than simply putting information online, its really about interconnecting, sharing, and interweaving information.

For these reasons, and in the absence of finding a suitable LMS or CMS, I simply present the webpages for my units as interlinked html or php pages. This is a somewhat old, basic approach, but for me its fast, reliable, light-weight and effective. The main feature it lacks in my mind is the ability for students to comment on or edit pages. That's why Web2.0 tools such as wikis are promising and high on my priority list for further experimentation.


UC does not provide staff with admin access to servers, so I pay for an externally hosted virtual server where I place unit materials. This is primarily because I can get near full control over how the material will be presented. The external host provides a virtually hosted Apache web server with mysql and phpadmin. The rest can be configured.

Despite the exciting possibilities of Web2.0 principles and applications for learning, I have a strong orientation towards simplicity and usability. Thus, for example, it is important to me that content is:

  • Not hidden behind passwords
  • Fast to download, with
  • Clean interface
  • Simple navigation

File Transfer Protocol (FTP)

FTP software allows transfer of files between a desktop and a server. I transfer materials I prepare via SmartFTP to the hosted server. It is faster and more simple than using web-based systems, but requires ftp login access to a server.


An online gradebook is the one functionality which I continue to rely on an institutional LMS to perform. The UC OA implementation of Drupal doesn't yet have a gradebook. There is one in Moodle, but an installation of Moodle just for its gradebook seems excessive. This illustrates why LMSs might be better constructed as stand-alone, but integrable modules. Even when an a gradebook package is identified, there will be the issue of getting institutional permission to automatically register students via LDAP. Academic staff do not have direct access to LDAP and therefore rely on institutionally customised LMS packages for access to automatic student registration. However, this could be overcome and in future, I hope to find a free software online gradebook solution because its a fairly straight-forward yet widely needed function.


A wiki, among other uses, provides arguably the quickest and simplest way of creating collaborative online content. UC has implemented Confluence, an enterprise, proprietary wiki software system for staff and students. For most of my wiki notes I use DokuWiki, which is free software, although I've been transitioning my UC-related wiki notes over to Confluence to explore its potential and so that staff who teach the units I teach units in future will have a legacy of relevant links, notes, and resources.

Confluence is a highly functional wiki and potentially could be be used as a primitive but functional LMS.  However, I am hesitant to pursue Confluence much beyond its potential for UC-related note-taking and file-sharing tool because it is not free software and I don't see much point in teaching with software which students aren't likely to have ready access to in their future and nor might I once I leave employment of the institution.  Confluence is nevertheless a fully functional wiki which could be used to foster valuable electronic collaboration between staff, students, and the outside world, particularly for to local and short to medium-term projects.

Unfortunately UC hasn't rolled Confluence out with much gusto in the way of training or support. Uptake is progressing slowly, but at least the institution, including students and staff, have have a powerful wiki readily available. Confluence content can also be opened to public access and editing, so it provides the most openly enabled electronic interface for UC members to share and develop electronic content.

There are currently some technical limitations with using in teaching, such as it is only possible to bulk add students to a name space on its creation (not subsequently). The blog tool is not producing proper RSS feeds, etc. I written a separate article about my initial assessment of UCSpace).

I have created several open access name spaces on Confluence, including ones for each of the units I teach:

I use these spaces to collect administrative information and links, mostly for teaching staff. The content is open access in order to provide transparency and opportunities for peer review and collaboration.

In the future, I intend to experiment more with MediaWiki because it is the most powerful and 'academically'-oriented free software wiki software. Also training staff and students to use MediaWiki will help to empower them as editors of Wikipedia and similar sites.

Social bookmarking

Bookmarking of webpages is commonly done either within a web browser or, for academic referencing universities and academia, tends to push proprietary products such as EndNote and RefWorks, despite the uptake and user satisfaction with these products being pretty low.

I think free social bookmarking services have much to offer in way of collaborative and easy to use bookmarking. I store 6000 or so bookmarks in My bookmarks are publicly available. I sometimes link students to specific tags e.g., my bookmarks for multiple linear regression. Over time, I hope to find more ways to introduce and encourage students to create and share their bookmarks.

To create bookmarks, I use the extension for firefox.

Concept mapping

For constructing diagrams, I've primarily been using OO Draw, but have also been exploring various concept mapping (also called mind mapping) software tools, including FreeMind and CMAP. I'm not convinced yet there's a lot to be gained in teaching with these tools, but they seem to work for some. Concept mapping is a useful skill to use, but I think it tends to work better on paper and whiteboards than electronically. However, this is just a personal preference. The new UC Vice-Chancellor has been giving some effective presentations, for examples, based on MindJet Pro (proprietary software).

My other concern/caution about concept mapping software is mainly the portability of the text and relationships into other formats. This is becoming less of an issue, with concept mapping software programs increasingly able, for example, to be rendered in html and xml.

I have started experimentation with two free programs,FreeMind and CMAP, for creating some basic concept map diagrams for use in presentations and in website materials, but usually I find that I'm drawing quite basic images for presentation and that for those jobs OO Draw is perfect. If you want to investigate further, FreeMind is more basic and CMAP is more advanced. I've tagged more information "conceptmappingsoftware" on - concept mapping software. As well as the desktop applications, there are also a growing number of web-based options for image editing, drawing and storing diagrams e.g., see CumulateDraw. There are also plugins such as Gliffy for wikis such as Confluence

Quizzes and exams

Previously I've experimented with online quizzes and exams, building test banks using Respondus and delivering the quizzes through WebCT. Both are proprietary systems, so I'm on the hunt for an alternative. Hot Potatoes is free for educational use and has several features of interest, but is for quiz generation and web presentation, without the capacity for storing participant grades. Moodle I think should be able to handle quiz functionality reasonably well and deserves further investigation in this respect.

For other various reasons (including less tutorial lab time due to a reduction in credit points from 4 to 3 per unit), I've opted to revert for the moment to a more traditional style mid-semester and exam of semester using hard-copy multi-choice exams with automatic marking sheets. The scanning and marking is performed by the university Print Room. They are very efficient and return all the data, including each person's response to each item and scores, in a .csv spreadsheet.

Down the track, I hope to switch back to online quizzes and exams because it offers additional features, such as the potential for immediate feedback and help to students. However, there are hurdles, such as hardware and invigilation. Ideally, we need a room full of 100 or so terminals configured to allow mass sitting of electronic exams. Or perhaps several rooms in Building 10 could be booked out - worth looking into. Or maybe we look more towards handheld devices.

Plagiarism detection

By requiring assignments (in this case lab reports) to be submitted electronically, I have far greater capacity for detecting plagiarism than if they are submitted as hard copy. This results in a greater likelihood of grading and credit being awarded fairly.

There are a range of proprietary softwares available for comparison of similiarity in texts, but they don't do much more than can be achieved by searching a desktop folder of all assignments for similiar text strings or using a free file comparison tool such as WCopyFind or doing a google search if the assessment task lends itself to reproduction of already existing content. Personally, I try to make assessment tasks involving the generation of new text and results, rather than presenting tasks when could be tackled via regurgitation or rehashing of existing materials. In this unit, copying from another study was more likely and I identified two students with virtually identical abstract, method, results, and appendices in their reports.

In contrast, on alerting colleagues teaching other units in which these two students were enrolled to run an extra check, I was told that there was nothing that could be done to check the intregrity of these students' work because it had been submitted by hard copy and already handed back to the students. I personally believe it is incumbent upon teaching staff to be using technology for the purposes of equity and fairness. Cheating is known to be widely occurent in universities, including in university and the institution at which I teach (e.g., Marsden, Carroll, & Neill, 2005). Staff need to be proactive rather than turning a blind eye.

Evaluation and feedback

  • Insert Table plus Figure showing USS results for 7126/6667 compared to the School, Division, University, and Sector averages

Online surveys

Lime Survey (formerly phpsurveyor) is free software which can be readily installed on a server with php and mysql, and allows considerable online survey functionality. I trialled use of Lime Survey to conduct a unit evaluation and to seek student feedback.  View the draft unit evaluation survey(from a student perspective).  I have also blended quantitative ratings by students with options to contribute anonymous or non-anonymous public forum comments via Confluence.  The draft of this approach is currently for comments and adaptations before being rolled out to students in the final week of semester. 

Insert Table plus Figure showing online survey results

I am coming now to appreciate that feedback should be sought throughout the process and in multiple modes, thus now that I have experimented with an end-of-semester online survey and confluence comment boards, I will seek to extend this functionality, for example, to allow commenting about each lecture.

For example, using wiki software and possibly also polling/rating functionality for unit materials will allow micro-comments by students on each learning object and section. I find I get some of this through direct emails and face to face comments from students during semester, but the mechanisms should be as easy as possible for students and allow anonymity.

Bigger picture needs

UC provides staff with limited access to survey creation software. There are quiz and survey tools within WebCT, but these can't readily be used for surveying people for research purposes outside of the context of a unit. For research purposes we need access to generic online survey software which can be used for research purposes and for tasks such as gathering student evaluations and feedback on teaching and educational quality. Currently, UC has a patchwork of separate data collection systems for specific purposes, but a distinct lack of such functionality is directly available to academic staff for a wide range of teaching and research purposes. Staff are not able to freely gather via the internet data via UC resources.

Thus, part of the bigger picture may be a the need for the university to examine the inter-relationship between the SFS, USS, and the CEQ, bearing in mind their different values and purposes. The university may also like to invite teaching staff to innovate with more dynamic methods of gathering evaluation and feedback information from students for their professional development, such as by using Web2.0 technology. Ultimately, a unit should have readily available, easy to use methods for student feedback since this is basic to good quality, democratic, emancipatory education.

Conclusions and recommended changes

Based on the evaluation and feedback from students this semester, the following conclusions and recommendations are drawn. By making these transparent and in the public domain, it is hoped it will help to enhance my professional accountability.

Insert table of conclusions and recommendations

I'm going to trial this semester collecting feedback via anonymous, private ratings and comments via an externally hosted Lime Survey and anonymous or non-anonymous public forum space comments on UCSpace.


The aim of this article has been to provide a sketch of my journey towards emancipatory use of free software, open file formats, open access, and openly licensed materials in university teaching, research, and service. None of what is described involves rocket-science. However, the approach does represent an ambitious humanitarian, values-based pedagogy.  This approach emerges from my view of universities and university staff as having fundamental responsibilities to students, colleagues and broader society for sharing information and knowledge and for making open learning and research opportunities available.
I am experimenting with a variety of free and open source software tools and also continuing to use legacy proprietary software where its functionality isn't readily replicated by free software alternatives.  Along the way various institutional enablements and limitations are encountered. Institutional support and encouragement to experiment with an open academic approach was critical to the progress which has been made.
However, I have become accustomed to sending requests to IT and Teaching Support in order to help work out how a problem might be solved.  I have also begun to offer more feedback and suggestions up the management chain. Sometimes this makes a difference, but by and large universities seem to be slow moving, policy-laden beasts (often in contrast to the vibrancy of intellectual endeavour which engages rapid developments in technology and free software tools).  Much help, however, can be found elsewhere. For example, I learned much through connecting with cutting-edge online educators via the Teach and Learn Online discussion group (e.g., see my postings).
For myself and others willing to live at the bleeding edge and keen to teach within an authentic, emancipatory 21st century pedagogical context, the way forward for integrated and ethical teaching, research, and services appears to be action-experimentation with an increasingly free software toolbox, along with open file formats, open access, and open licensing which fundamentally boils down to a free and open philosophy.


Marsden, H., Carroll, M., & Neill, J. T. (2005). Who cheats at university? A self-report study of dishonest academic behaviours in a sample of Australian university students. Australian Journal of Psychology, 57, 1-10.