Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Openness + Educational Resources = OER

Is it really that simple?

H817 OpenLearn UK Activity 7:Exploring OER issues

For this particular activity we've been asked to read several academic papers and post a blog about what we perceive, from these readings, to be the three key issues in Open Education Resources (OER) and how these are being addressed.

As an English language teacher I'm used to searching for extra resources to supplement or compliment my lessons. It comes with the job. Twenty years ago I was collecting postcards, cutting up calendars, tearing pages out of magazines for collages and creating cassette recordings. I then stepped up to buying extra resource books loaded with photocopiable material, but still needed my cardboard, scissors and glue to create games. Then came a massive  technological leap which had an enormous influence on my searching behaviour and creativity. 
    Since the arrival of computers, tablets, mobile devices and Web 2.0 developments, my searching has shifted online. I use the net to scour for open resources that I can adopt and repurpose to suit the virtual learning environment that I have constructed over the years for my distance language students. Yes, that has changed too:from face-to-face classroom teaching to a virtual environment. 
    The searching has become noticeably easier, especially since educators have become more digitally literate and publishing companies and institutions have started building resource repositories and offering teacher support. By digitally literate, I'm referring to the fluent use of social media tools such as Blogger, Twitter, Facebook and online curation sites etc, which are mechanisms for sharing. How has this simplified the process of searching for appropriate online resources? Educators within various fields are collaborating i.e. sharing links to valuable educational repositories; sharing teaching experiences; sharing release dates for newly available resources and tools and sharing dates for webinars and global conferences for professional development. And what is particularly  significant and relevant to the OER movement is that these educational resources are open and free. Consequently, increased numbers of  teachers are becoming aware of the rich pool of resources that are freely available and accessible online and more importantly, many of these resources have already undergone a peer filtering process to some degree, so a bit of quality assurance has been taken care of in the foreground. How might we then visualise this equation to date?

              Openness + Educational Resources = OER

Seems logical, even feasible, but of course it's not that simple. I find that within my context the formula functions quite smoothly. I know what I'm looking for; where I can locate appropriate resources; I use networks and social media to alleviate the filtering process; I'm aware in the majority of cases what can and cannot be reused, remashed, repurposed to suit; I don't have to worry about clashes with the curriculum or institutional policies; I know what the available budget is and how much time I'm prepared to invest to adapt, create and search for new resources.  OER work in my context because I have  control and it's just about the ecosystem that I have created for myself and my students. It's on a local, uncomplicated scale.  However, when the scale shifts to include  other learning contexts; other subjects areas; differing levels of education; developed and developing countries; accessible and remote areas, then instabilities within the formula become evident.  When we analyse this formula in the context of the global OER movement, then there are numerous complex issues which are proving to be disruptive and which are to some extent already being addressed, whether through extensive debates and research or through concrete actions.

Definitions and Interpretations
Defining OER seems to be part of the problem. And it's not surprising. 'Open', 'education' and 'resources' first need to be defined separately in the context of global learning ecosystems and then welded together to create a functioning term that unifies the meanings and concepts from these building blocks in order to create a formula that is understood universally. As Hatakka states, defining 'open' as 'free-to-use by anyone' (2009) is inadequate. The definition needs to encompass wide accessibility and issues of adaption for suitable reusability. Downes also draws attention to the debates surrounding a working definition concerning open resources and concludes that just because 'open' alludes to something free, this doesn't imply it is  'without conditions' (2007) i.e. attribution rights and licensing conditions. And what counts as educational material? If I could only appropriate material that is exclusively designed for educational purposes it would be very limiting. Then there are the resources. Is this referring solely to small units of content, or  the inclusion of modules, larger courses, 'tools and implementation resources', (Hylèn, 2006, cited in Hatakka, 2009). Thomas et al suggest viewing learning resources from 'their levels of granularity' (2012)  and to the extent to which 'information content is embedded within a learning activity' (2012). They go on to define digital assets, information objects, learning objects, learning activities, and learning design (Thomas et al 2012). When reading the various perspectives, we start to get a sense of how complex the OER movement is.
        Unesco defines OER as, 'technology-enabled, open provision of educational resources for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for non commercial purposes,' (Wiley, 2007, cited in Hatakka, 2009). Personally, the broadness of this definition appeals to me. I like the idea of 'a community of users', which gives the impression of learning environments beyond formal institutions and  of collaboration and creativity. Hence, implying that accessibility is not restricted solely to users learning  within the boundaries of more traditional forms of education, but accounts for self-directed or self-regulated learners. Thomas et al  agree that 'open educational resources may be described as freely available digital materials released under open licence, that can be used and re-purposed for teaching, learning, and research', (2012).
      If we pull apart the building blocks of these definitions we now have digitised materials, which assumes that users will have access to devices and suitable connectivity.  These materials are intended for the purposes of education and research. The audience is broad, which means the term 'education'  includes differing learning environments. And although the resources are free for non-commercial uses, 'open license' needs to be interpreted with caution. The deeper you dig, the richer the complexities. 

Adoption / Effective use
This seems to be one of the issues that is being addressed i.e. user groups and how effectively are OER being adopted and adapted. Hattaka (2009) views OER as a viable means of fulfilling the UN's goal that by 2015, primary education should be the minimum level of education attainable globally, but is aware of the barriers that need to be overcome, with particular reference to developing countries. His citation of Larson and Murray, gives insight into part of the problem, 'Build it and they will not come unless you design a system to promote and encourage access' (2008). Access  to digital materials is not solely about devices but requires suitable internet coverage and a certain level of digital literacies skills. Providing developing countries with the hardware is commendable, but is only part of the solution. Albright perceives another problem, i.e. ' [o]pen content from the developed world should ... work as catalyst for the production of new, local OER', (Albright, 2005, cited in Hattaka, 2009). The implication being that if uptake and reuse is to improve, then open content needs to be authentic and relate to users' needs. Hattaka also agrees that relevance and language are inhibiting factors alongside technical issues and computer literacies, just to name a few (2009).
    As a step towards finding solutions he suggests dialogue that exposes these inhibiting factors in developing countries. By communicating what is needed, concrete steps can be taken to improve content development from within their own educational system and thus produce material which is relevant. He makes an interesting point which seems in contradiction to the notion of 'open' as defined above. He suggests that open content will be better accepted if users have trust in the content developers. Keeping in mind that he is discussing developing countries and referring to traditional forms of education, this may mean better quality and more authentic resources, but of course restricts who can contribute to the design process. Therefore cultural issues are an additional factor that need to be taken seriously within the OER movement. 

From a developing world's perspective, Wilson et al (2009) also agree that OER have great potential in the field of education, their focus being on Higher Education. They take a closer look at OpenLearn, an Open University (OU) initiative that has had 'three million visitors since October 25th 2006' ( Wilson et al, 2009). The results of their study also reveal that despite the availability of an increasing number of open resources, 'the reuse of OER by academics within their teaching remains a challenge' (Wilson et al, 2009). Some of the problems overlap with Hattaka's (2009) findings  i.e. the need to adapt resources for context suitability; inappropriate language for foreign learners; not fully compatible with specific curriculum and lack of awareness in general  concerning access to OER (Wilson et al, 2009). Figure 1 illustrates how academics participating in this small scale study implemented units from OpenLearn: mainly as supplementary material which is understandable when reviewing the problems they had to contend with. Figure 2 supports the findings that content needed to be adapted to suit the learning context.

    Figure 1. Ways in which institutions could use OpenLearn units with learners (Wilson et al, 2009)

      Figure 2. Would OpenLearn units be used as presented or adapted? (Wilson et al, 2009)

The OU view it as their responsibility to use these findings to address the exposed challenges facing users. A couple of projects have been initiated such as POCKET (Project on Open Content for Knowledge Exposition and Teaching) and OLnet which are investigating how to encourage the use and adaption of OER and the 'effectiveness cycle' ( Wilson et al, 2009). Assuming that OER will be used more effectively across the globe in the future, how are projects going to be sustained?

Downes (2007) opens up his discussion with the problems surrounding definitions. What does sustainable mean in relation to OER? It seems to me in my research so far, that despite numerous issues arising out of inadequate definitions, context also plays a vital role and will influence how OER are finally being implemented and utilised. Interestingly enough, this became a topic of discussion in the  first week of the MOOC section of our module with OpenLearn i.e. a suitable definition for sustainability and its dependency on context. Returning to Downes, after a lengthy explanation he concludes that, 'sustainable is unlikely to be reducible to a single metric or calculation' (2007). A bit of a disappointment when you're hoping for clarity, but quite understandable in view of the variety of contexts that need to be considered. He does substantiate his explanation with the comment, 'it will ultimately depend on the economies and the objectives of the provider', (Downes, 2007). As a user of open resources, this is a reminder that although I can access and use them freely, they are not free to create or provide and that funding in itself is not only a complex topic but a necessity. I was astounded at the diversity of funding models.
      Downes gives a brief description of some of the models in use  such as the Endowment model, Membership model, Donation model, Institutional mode etc (2007). Why such diversity? Because the funding parties and their interests are apparently just as diverse (Downes, 2007). Wiley et al ( 2007) reiterate the same list and contribute a few more. They support Downes' view that due to the diversity in contexts 'no single model will fit every project'  (Wiley et al, 2007). However, funding alone is only part of the solution. Downes suggests the addition of  technical, content and staffing models to enhance and balance the sustainability framework (2007). The above parties agree that project goals need to be transparent; that the type of resources developed should be adapatable to 'local needs' (Downes, 2007), which supports Hattaka's findings ( 2009); they also agree that volunteers should be involved in the production of resources and that decentralising educational services is a move forward. But will this influence the  quality and type of resources developed?

Resources and Quality

Albright also touches on the topic of whether 'OER [should] be driven by ‘top-down’ institutional systems or ‘bottom-up’ individualised initiatives' (2005), or should there be a more balanced approach? I'm sure answers to the above will vary depending on the context but nevertheless, wherever shareable educational content is being developed,  I'm also of the opinion that a certain quality assurance is important. But this is also open to interpretation as Albright suggests, what is considered 'high quality ... in one context' (2005) may not be embraced as such in another. Relying on users to judge the quality themselves may be feasible in some cases but certainly is no guarantee that what they choose is indeed of a high quality or relevant to their context. 
  Peer reviewing seems an acceptable and proven method of  discerning quality resources (Albright, 2005; Hylèn, 2006; Wilson, 2009), as well as doing further research, such as gaining feedback from both teachers and learners (Wilson, 2009) and hence analysing both voices. As Wiley comments, resources for teachers commence from a different premise as to that of students i.e. their resources are 'designed on the assumption of existing knowledge of a content area' (2007), whereas students' resources need to be 'richer' (2007), which is a point I can relate to as a teacher. Therefore, collecting feedback will assist in providing information pertaining to what users require in varying contexts. Whether materials can be adapted to satisfy everyones' needs is of course questionable on a global scale. Certainly within institutions one would expect that internal processes are in place for the purpose of quality control (Hylén, 2006), after all their reputation is at stake. Hylèn (2006) further suggests allowing users to rate a resource after having used it. This quality management approach would not be easy to employ in all contexts, but would provide immediate feedback for analysis. Figure 3 summarises Hylen's (2006) quality management proposals which can be used in combination depending on the context.

                                  Figure 3. Quality management processes for OER initiatives
                                  ( Hylèn, 2006)

The issues discussed above are by no means an in- depth analysis of the challenges facing the OER movement, but do give some insight into the complexity surrounding OER. After reviewing the papers, they confirmed for me what I have always held to be significant and that is the importance of context in relation to teaching and learning. Each context will have differing requirements in the way of funding; developing and distributing resources; providing technical support and satisfying user needs etc, so perhaps we need to concentrate more on diversity and 'localisation' (Downes, 2007) rather than just pushing to provide OER on a difficult- to- handle global scale. 

(Posted by Patricia Daniels)


Albright, P. A. U. L. (2005)"Final forum report." International Institute for Educational Planning. Internet Discussion Forum. Open Educational Resources Open Content for Higher Education Vol. 24.  Available online at:
(last accessed 27. 03. 2013)

Downes, Stephen (2007), 'Models for sustainable open educational resources', Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects, vol. 3. Available at: ( last accessed 26. 03. 2013)

Hatakka, M. (2009), ‘Build it and they will come? – Inhibiting factors for reuse of open content in developing countries’, in EJISDC - The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries,Vol. 37, no. 5, pp.1-16 Available at:  ( last accessed 26. 03. 2013)

Hylén, J. (2006) Open Educational Resources: Opportunities and challenges. Open Education 2006: Community, Culture and Content. Utah State University. Available at:  (last accessed 26. 03. 2013)

Thomas, A. Campbell, L. M. Barker, P. Hawskey, M. (2012) Into the Wild - Technology for Open Educational Resources, University of Bolton, Bolton. Available at: (last accessed 26. 03. 2013)

Wiley, D. (2007) Open Educational Resources: On the Sustainability of OER Initiatives in Higher Education. Paper Commissioned by the OECD's Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) for the Project on Open Educational Resources. Available at: ( last accessed 26. 03. 2013)

Wilson, Tina, and Patrick McAndrew (2009) "Evaluating how five Higher Education Institutions worldwide plan to use and adapt Open Educational Resources." Available online at:

( last accessed 27. 03. 2013)


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