Public funding, OER, and Academics – a brief reflection

Earlier today Amber Thomas kicked off an interesting discussion on twitter about which institutions had a reputation for openness in various domains. One tangential thread from this conversation was a comment Pat Lockley made about the difference between openness that happens in connection to funded projects and openness that happens at your own initiative. I think Pat has a point but also think there are differences between models that work for individuals and models that work for institutions.

I’ll reproduce some of the conversation here, as it raises some issues.

Pat: my take is, if it’s done off your own back, it’s open, else it’s just “of kernes and gallowglasses supplied”

Me: there’s a place for funded stuff & sustainable open models rely on a source of funding; paying for related services/ expertise

Pat: it’s a very broad brush to say “sustainable open models rely on a source of funding”

Me: eg in open source many coders can contribute to projects in spare time because they have skills that earn them enough money

Pat: but thats true internally and externally. An academic is paid, if once paid, open, then everything can be open?

Me: in my view? yes; in uk -uni’s publicly funded; academics are public employees; ~our work should be openly available (exceptions)

Me: though if such an economy i think academics currently undervalued/ under paid [nb: ~well paid; but underpaid for ‘market value’]

Pat thought I was a bit off track to suggest academics aren’t paid enough, so i tried to clarify a bit

Me: NB academics well paid but i’m suggesting MAY be underpaid for required length of time in unpaid education to get job…. [1/2]

Me: …& comparable commercial salary for level of education. In context of: OER & seeing themselves as public employees [2/2]

Obviously there are assumptions, cross purposes, and missing context in my part of our exchange but I wanted to capture it to think about some more.

For ‘fun’ I’ve been thinking a little with a colleague at Strathclyde (Stuart Boon) about some of the factors in why an academic might choose to share resources openly. Perhaps that’s why i got distracted by the question of (relative) academic salaries. Advocates for openness often make the argument that, in general, if something is publicly funded it should be publicly available and I agree with this position both as a tax payer and sort-of academic (I’m not claiming that I’m always consistent but this is my default stance).

I think what I’m trying to think around is what this potentially does to the value of intellectual output – specifically does this argument promote:

  1. academics are solely public employees who do “work-for-hire” (I know some institutions have such a policy but many are deliberately ‘vague’)
  2. academcs employed by private institutions or at public institutions but supported by private funding (on a FEC equivalent basis) have no obligation to the public, and perhaps even an obligation not to share?

Obviously the issue of sharing and public funding is only a small part of the arguments for and against openly sharing stuff, but what side effects do we risk in such an argument?

My discussion about salaries was more to do with the notion that if you’re about to get a phd (or thinking about doing one) and are faced with the prospect of competing to become ‘work-for-hire’ at a university for a comparatively lower rate rather than being work for hire in other sectors, is there a risk that fewer candidates will go into academia? [or given the glut of phd’s and dearth of jobs is this a good thing?]

I appreciate there are a multitude of reasons people go into or end up in any given job – but does this argument for OER further remove the, somewhat mythical, notion of a scholar and replace it with academic for hire [is that a good/ necessary thing if it provides accountability? or does it lead to ‘industrialisation’ of education].

This isn’t entirely coherent and is perhaps somewhat UK centric but there’s something in the conversation and my reflection that I wanted to capture.

Open Education and OER is like …?

One of the interesting things about CETIS10 and OpenEd10 was seeing and hearing the different models and metaphors around Open Education and OER Initiatives. After a while though, it became clear that not only are there an abundance of metaphors and models – some of which inspire seemingly unquestioning adherence while others appear to have become clichéd already – but they are also applied a little haphazardly and there is rarely any consideration of how they do not apply, or what the limits and drawbacks of a given model or metaphor are. [edit: for a sample discussion please see Lorna’s post from CETIS10]

As the list of examples below indicates there is a great deal of confusion around the use of models and metaphors and it is often not clear if a particular model is intended to offer an business case, an analogy, or simply be inspirational. In what follows I’d like to offer some caricatures of these models and metaphors as a starting point for discussion. No criticism or critique of the potential relevancy of these models and metaphors themselves is intended – I’d like to provoke a little thought about their use… [and try to add relevant comments into the discussion and images if i get a chance (or any are suggested); i’ll note that i’ve been OSS development has a fair few issues highlighted – it’s probably one of the more developed and therefore easiest to question ]

Some models and metaphors:

  • The Music Industry
    • usually this seems to be talking about the free/ cheap music model with profits being made on concerts and swag.
    • model benefits: make money from related stuff give content away for free
    • model drawbacks: will the swag pay for the content? will they want your swag?
    • metaphor benefits: educators want to be rockstars – right?
    • metaphor drawbacks: established successful bands and internet-found wonder children only?
  • Open Source Software Development
    • via @scottbw “2 different models: for individuals as contributor to OSS (e.g. CLAs) -> little oer; open development process -> big OER” [there was a much wider discussion of this at the Open Innovation session at CETIS10 ] See also Andreas Meiszner “The Emergence of Free / Open Courses – Lessons from the Open Source
      ” [which i’ve not read yet]
    • model benefits: some highly successful software developed in this way, motivates lots of volunteer effort, community recognition and reward possible, added value services, highly distributed
    • model drawbacks: failure rate? (what this means may vary); often those who contribute time are well paid by related jobs so they’ve got the time (and time investment may help job) – this is not true for education outside of this domain; student participation may rapidly veer towards survival of the fittest; possibly intense competition and elitism?
    • metaphor benefits: appeals to ed tech developers, easy to point to success
    • metaphor drawbacks: very geeky; not obviously about education/ students
  • Open Access Initiatives
    • Open access is a relatively established way to share open content (research articles) in a university context
    • model benefits: about sharing open content, involves academics and librarians, increasingly backed by institutions
    • model drawbacks: research articles and learning materials are very different; articles have a known longevity and value to university; the systems and procedures for open access have a link to citation rates, research funding and by extension the RAE and related metrics. Success of Open Access is patchy& not yet a given.
    • metaphor benefits: supports clear message – ‘it’s good to share’ & ‘open licenses promote use/reuse’
    • metaphor drawbacks: the danger of implication that tools, process, and related issues are sufficiently similar that what has worked for OA should/ will work for OER
  • The Shop Window/ Loss Leader
    • Display and/or give away some of your content to entice students to study at your university
    • model benefits: showcase the learning experience offered through free samples; can attract more students and may support retention of them
    • model drawbacks: others might use your content or your content may put students off.
    • metaphor benefits: the ideal of public display and loss leader is demonstrably effective in other contexts so it’s may appeal
    • metaphor drawbacks: implicit focus on stuff/content not process. Commodifies education?
  • The Free Market
    • Used in a couple of ways: either in a similar manner to the ‘loss leader’ i.e.  OER provides a competitive advantage or OER providers compete and the best open content rises to the top
    • model benefits: will appeal to some institutions and organisations. reflects state of competition between  institutions
    • model drawbacks: will put many academics off. unclear if there is a OER market, and the impact of OER on wider HE market likely to only be a factor within certain limits/ in certain sections of the ‘market’
    • metaphor benefits: may be seen as realistic
    • metaphor drawbacks: may be seen as negative view; commodifies education?
  • The Commune
    • Academics would do what they do anyway; a sustainable cooperative (local or distributed) is a possibility
    • model benefits: offers sustainability through changing paradigms
    • model drawbacks: does it offer much by way of job security or the ability to get a mortgage?
    • metaphor benefits: appeals to some classic ideals about teaching and/or political structure
    • metaphor drawbacks: may be treated with suspicion; may implicitly raise questions about individual academic recognition
  • The Charity
    • A benefactor pays for the release of OER or the running of programme / institution
    • model benefits: an approach that has kickstarted a lot of OER initiatives; there are numbers of foundations interested in the area
    • model drawbacks: many funders want to move beyond the model of paying for content release; ongoing funding unreliable and only for some
    • metaphor benefits: easily understood, one approach to education should be free
    • metaphor drawbacks: underlying question is it really free/ open/ unbiased?
  • The Lifetime Members’ Plan
    • Students/ alumni pay an annual fee to an institution; get degree and ongoing access to courses/ credit/ CPD)
    • model benefits: ongoing income; fits with promotion of  lifelong learning and university involvement in professional training
    • model drawbacks: does it create enough revenue to pay for courses; does it interfere with running more lucrative professional training opportunities
    • metaphor benefits: clear, fits with alumni relations, comparable services already offered (sports club or library access etc.)
    • metaphor drawbacks: perhaps quite culturally specific, unclear value to student
  • The Cute Kitten
    • OER are like cute kittens everyone likes them
    • model benefits: makes point about costs of free
    • model drawbacks: for OER costs are before not after realease; for Open Ed is the kitten too transactional?
    • metaphor benefits: internet friendly, easy to see appeal and costs associated
    • metaphor drawbacks: they’re not, costs also likely to be more start up than ongoing
  • The Reformation
    • OER is revolutionising education like the reformation changed the church/ western society
    • model benefits: clear picture of systemic radical change with unintended consequences sparked by  a few individuals.
    • model drawbacks: not exactly clear or uncontentious outcomes; parallel somewhat arbitrary (? ok I was a church historian and it makes me grimace).
    • metaphor benefits: many people will have some familiarity with it and it conveys systemic change
    • metaphor drawbacks: will put some people off, agreement about what metaphor means unlikely (see previous comment)
    • [as an aside I think there are some interesting questions around what models of distributed education arose around in this historical context but that’s another post]
  • The Internet
    • The internet has revolutionised the world and made lots of new things possible it can revolutionise education
    • model benefits: lots of things can happen at scale and in a distributed manner, freemium possibilities, volunteerism
    • model drawbacks: danger of reducing education to content; do interaction opportunities favour the ‘strong’ and those who know what they want to do?
    • metaphor benefits: everyone know the internet has changed many of the day to day processes of life, ‘internet’ting education seems like the next logical step
    • metaphor drawbacks: the metaphor is perhaps too vague to be useful.
  • The Home Brew (ok I made this one up for DIYU)
    • a lot of talk around the DIYU type of idea, self-regualted self-taught learners picking up content, support, and assessment as they need and can afford
    • model benefits: lots of pieces loosely joined if one piece drops out it can be substituted; can be customised for specific contexts
    • model drawbacks: accreditation and assessment parts of the model are uninvented/ untried; unclear why OER would continue to be released and questions around commercial use.
    • metaphor benefits: flexible, free, independent
    • metaphor drawbacks: value unknown, what benefit to OER creator?

This really only a first pass at thinking this through and it’s not really meant to be too serious, but there’s something about how we throw models and metaphors around that’s worth thinking about.

opened10: brief thoughts

Highlight thoughts

(all of these deserve posts in their own right):

  • what is the difference ‘open’ makes? (D Wiley)
  • when we meet – when are we going to do and not just talk? (unattributed)
  • how do you respond as an individual? (and why do you care about OpenEd/OER)? (Gourley; but equally could have been if i’d been in their sessions: Winn, Hall, Neary – though they’ve quite a different perspective)
  • if you have rubrics and marks as semantic data can you analyse for ‘soft skills’ across a programme of study?
  • how do i articulate what HE does that P2PU can’t, what can i learn from P2PU and what should i stop doing cause they do it better? (drumbeat)
  • why don’t HE courses create badges too? (drumbeat)

I’ll need to go back through the programme and remind myself of some of the sessions but as a first pass of some of the stuff that caught my attention emerging from opened10. not yet adequately linked or marked up and doubtless will grow a bit over time as different parts of my brain kick in.

All the conference papers are available in the UOC repository .

with apologies to those i know or have heard recently (Brian Lamb, Scott Leslie, Suzanne Hardy, Jane Williams, Simon Thomson, Jakki Sheridan-Ross, all the wonderful folk from the Open University, and  my colleague Li Yuan) – i’m too familiar with your work for it to make this first pass but i do think it’s great!

things to use now

some of the stuff that was presented is out there now to use: website website

fantastic opened site for art history – working towards being a viable alternative to OER – two art history teachers making stuff as they go to help students offset the massive cost of introductory art history textbooks for foundation courses.

Twhistory website

Twhistory website

historical recreations on twitter: Gettysburg, 1847 pioneer trek, the sinking of the Titanic, the American revolution, possibly about to start working with UK national archives to cabinet war room twitter account of world war 2. Tom Caswell’s presentation.


a feedreader for running open courses – a tutor sets up a blog-based course and edufeedr aggregates content from across blogging platforms designed to gather together student feedback based from wherever they blog it.

information and stats

we’re finally at get to the point were we can make or not make business cases and informed decisions. (links will follow)

OER use and attitudes surveys Joseph Hardin Mujo Research present survey results from instructors at University of Michigan and University of Valencia – surveying their willingness to use and to publish OER.

OER use and attitudes iNacol (online schools, K-12) surveyed their members about awareness around OER – the data and paper aren’t published yet unfortunately

Rory McGreal – examining differences Open Access makes for a university press comparing Amazon rank of Abathasca University’s press which is OA with three other Canadian university presses. results didn’t indicate any significant difference for bought physical copies but only one metric and doesn’t account for greater access provided by OA downloads.

David Wiley offered some figures around Brigham Young University Independent Study Unit looking at sustainabilty of making content open – if content made open – can costs be covered by sustained or increased enrollment. the short answer- yes -just.

under development

Open Rubrics and the semantic web – Megan Kohler (Penn State) and Brian Panulla – well i’d call them feedback or assessment criteria but wither way they’ve developed an OWL ontology and reference implementations for sharing and storing marking rubrics (and associated marks) – in terms of technical developments i think this is potentially the most important thing from the conference.

stuff to think about more

building courses with OER: Griff Richards presented about a project he’d worked on create course syllabi for a master’s course in instructional design. one to follow up after the final report and syllabi are out. [personally it brings me back to thinking about course syllabi around OER for librarians – but that’s another post in a month or so]. His metaphor of clothes shopping for looking for learning materials is also worth keeping around (Tailored: expensive, perfect , emperor’s new clothes; Off the Shelf: not quite fit, but do the job, reasonable price; Charity Shop: nearly free, hard to find what you want, might just find something perfect).

David Wiley the difference of Openness. the challenge is what does ‘open’ allow us to do pedagogically that we can’t otherwise do [open specifically not all the good stuff that often is triggered by open]? Identifying Concrete Pedagogical Benefits of OER

David Wiley: Why do we need 'open'?

David Wiley: Why do we need 'open'?

Dublin City University – took the OER as marketing angle and did some extensive work on how to best brand OERs using product placement and advertising methodology – this presentation made me profoundly uncomfortable but it is the logical extension of some of the advice and case for OER that many of us (including me) have made. i’m going to have to read their paper and think about this.

Erik Duval said a lot of things but there’s something fundamentally important about not being afraid to disrupt learning – oers probably have more quality assurance than the rest of course delivery.

Erik Duval you can afford to disrupt learning

Erik Duval you can afford to disrupt learning

I can’t help but finish with the work of those I presented in the same session as: Julià Minguillón (UOC), Pieter Kleymeer and Molly Kleinman from University of Michigan- we all raised questions, limits and possibilities around the role of libraries in OER. It was great to find other people asking similar questions.

Notes from the web: badges, governance, and opentextbooks

I’ll be honest and admit that these are the things I planned on blogging about last week, but time got away from me and I had a few days of vacation this week so this is perhaps a brief reminder of some of the interesting things other people pointed out to me last week.

Free to Learn Guide by Hal Plotkin

I heard Hal Plotkin speak at OCWC10 and it was clear that he was passionately involved in promoting the uptake of OER and was seeking to do so through shaping policy as well as practice. It’s great to see him create and release this guide to to OER for those involved in the governance side of education (it’s US-focused but certainly a useful point of reference in other contexts).


At the fringe event Matt Jukes organised before UKOER, a presentation from P2PU led to fragments of interesting discussion around badges and peer assessment and the thornier issue of accreditation. It’s great to see that P2PU are looking at badges some more part 1 and part 2 and it’ll be interesting to hear a bit more about that work at the Drumbeat Festival.

OpenCourseLibrary and Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER)

I’ve been thinking a little about open textbooks as one approach to reuse some of the content released under UKOER – although funded development of open textbooks is something that seem to have largely passed the UK by thus far (in perhaps a striking parallel to the relative lack of Open Access journals started in the UK). It was encouraging to come across two US initiatives and a related global one: Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources the OpenCourseLibrary initiative in Washington State. I’ve not looked into the projects in too much detail but open textbooks do present one compelling use for granular OER content typically produced by UKOER projects.


Over on the Open Nottingham blogs, Pat Lockley (XPERT/ XERTE) has been outlining his emerging approach to metadata There’s some of this I want to say has been tried before but knowing Pat I suspect that his plans may involve more of a skilled hack that might work well enough rather than more careful precision that won’t scale – so I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Other stuff I need to read soon:

Libraries and OERs: Survey results and preprint

Thank you to all of you who replied to the survey. The results were interesting and, although the initial analysis is done and the paper submitted, I’m aware that there’s a lot of analysis that I’ve not done – hopefully not, yet, done.

Here are a few of the outputs from the survey:

  • The preprint of my paper for Open Ed is available in Strathclyde’s repository and (as an experiment) on Slideshare.
  • The annonymised survey data is available as a Google spreadsheet
  • Some expressions of interest in taking the work further – I’ll contact those who have expressed interest to figure out a way to take this forward that will allow us to coordinate our respective work in this area.

A few highlights…

Library involvement in OER release

Library involvement in OER release

Library involvement in OER use

Library involvement in OER use

Involvement of librarians in OER use

Involvement of librarians in OER use

Reported current involvement of libraries in OER initiatives

Reported current involvement of libraries in OER initiatives

Threshold concepts and Open Educational Resources

As part of my PG Cert in Advanced Academic Studies I’ve been considering the possible application of threshold concepts to open educational resources. As an experiment in openness this is a slight revision of one of my assignments for Teaching, Learning , and Assessment that I think looks at an interesting question.


The notion of a threshold concept as developed my Meyer and Land provides a framework for considering, identifying, and addressing critical disciplinary concepts that students struggle with.

A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time, with the transition to understanding proving troublesome. Such a transformed view or landscape may represent how people ‘think’ in a particular discipline, or how they perceive, apprehend, or experience particular phenomena within that discipline (or more generally).

Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (1): linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines, 2003. Available:

I’ll return to the particular features of threshold concepts later, but to briefly mention one or two examples from the paper: temperature gradients (in physics), opportunity cost  (in economics) . They’re are concepts that fundamentally shift how you interact with the subject but are often not intuitive. [For the purposes of this post: I don’t want to get too distracted with defining Threshold Concepts at this stage – but rather use the idea as a springboard to consider what shifts in perspective  might have to occur wen encountering Open Educational Resources. I’ll come back to which of these shifts are Threshold concepts later].

Related overview website of work in this area:

Open Educational Resources

As such the idea of ‘threshold concepts’ (Meyer & Land, 2003) or the similar idea of ‘expert knowledge’ (Pace & Middendorf, 2004) resonates with the challenges and communication issues my colleagues and I often encounter. This assignment will examine how these concepts apply to the area of our work around the open sharing of educational resources.
The Cape Town Open Education Declaration stated

“We are on the cusp of a global revolution in teaching and learning. Educators worldwide are developing a vast pool of educational resources on the Internet, open and free for all to use. These educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge. They are also planting the seeds of a new pedagogy where educators and learners create, shape and evolve knowledge together, deepening their skills and understanding as they go…” (Open Society Institute and the Shuttleworth Foundation, 2007)

Open Education falls into a wider spectrum of issues around openness and ownership in late 20th and 21st Century culture. The underlying principles and issues are not new but have been brought into sharp relief by changes in technology and associated working practices. There are three main areas where these issues are impacting or are likely to impact Higher Education; these are Open Access, Open Education, and Open Data. An academic’s interaction with Open Access and Open Data is increasingly likely to come directly (and somewhat inevitably) as a consequence of public funding. Their interaction with Open Education is, however, much more likely to be routed in local decisions or personal choice (either to change practice or apply for particular funding which requires openness). Perhaps one of the key features of an OER is that it has clear licensing permitting free use and distribution. Such licenses usually permit reuse and are nearly always non-transactional (they don’t require permission to be sought or any form of communication prior to use).

This outline of issues around Open Education which academics (and others) frequently find troublesome is a result of collaborative discussion. I discussed the issues around the adoption of Open Education with my colleagues – Sheila MacNeill and Lorna Campbell. Sheila and Lorna are assistant directors of JISC CETIS and experienced professionals in the e-learning domain who have had significant engagement with issues around managing and sharing Open Educational Resources (OER)- Lorna in advising and helping scope the pilot Open Education Resources programme (JISC, 2009) and Sheila in engagement with the international OER community. Together we identified the following issues.

The shifts in perspective around Open Educational Resources

There are a number of areas in which an academic’s current practice is challenged when shifting to creating OERs. Some of these are intrinsic, others relate to the shift in the creation of learning resources from a physical to a digital model. The key issues in shifting to working digitally relate to a shift in where resources are created, shared, and stored; a shift from working on ‘my computer’ to having stuff on one or many computers which are part of an institutional network and the wider web. There is a related ownership question around where things are when thinking of sharing teaching resources in a department. Another related issue is that resources on the web are fundamentally in flux – there is no guarantee that any given resource will persist, but it’s likely something comparable will. These issues have no direct connection to Open Education but they raise similar issues and usually arise as part of a discussion about it.

Issues around publication or release

Unlike journal articles or books, academics usually regard learning materials as works in progress- they are essentially viewed as unfinished and associated with a particular course. They may have lecture notes or slides which have been used over a number of years and undergone multiple revisions which are regarded as one thing. Releasing such slides openly turns them into a punctuated series of connected resources. We’ve found that this is a more difficult conceptual transition than expected and is closely linked to concerns over maintaining currency.

Few OER initiatives, whether institutional or individual, afford any kind of formal peer review prior to release- consequently the creator is left to judge the value of their own work. This creates difficulties at both ends of the scale, academics can both undervalue and overvalue their work (from ‘no one would want to use that’ to ‘I’m not giving that away because I could sell it’). A related issue is that in sharing resources there is considerable value not only in sharing the resource itself but also in sharing information about its context of use and any associated course design or learning design process.

The lack of formal peer review also places more responsibility on the academic to ensure their learning resources are appropriate and have made appropriate ethical considerations; although one would hope they were appropriate and ethical in general- some material appropriate for classroom use may not be suitable for open licensing (for example, medical imaging or personal information).

Issues around control

One fundamental premise round many open licenses is that they grant the ability to redistribute. As such once a license has been granted anyone can come along copy your content and make it available themselves as long as they comply with the license terms you’ve stipulated. The only copy you can control is your local one. The only copy you can remove from circulation is your local one. The only copy you can update is your local one. Although there are possible approaches to alleviate some of these concerns there is a fundamental change in ownership. Many academics who are very happy to give their material away struggle with this inability to control what they’re giving away and run the risk of early versions continuing to circulate (this is in marked difference to their attitudes to earlier articles).

Related concerns exist occasionally arise around the possibility of theft or plagiarism. These are however, somewhat spurious risks of theft or plagiarism are present as soon as learning resources are used or distributed in any form. It could be argued that clearly attributed openly available materials online are likely to make the detection of plagiarism or theft easier.

Issues for academics

Beyond these particular issues around publication and control there is a fundamental claim that the benefits of open licensing for educational resources outweigh the difficulties or potential risks.
For academics some of the other concerns around OERs might include:

  • a feeling that their teaching is being commoditised
  • a worry that if they make their materials available students may not turn up to lectures or the institution (having got hold of these) may value them less or fire them
  • a concern that their materials aren’t good enough

Some of the reasons academics to release OERs include:

  • the perceived good of sharing resources; particularly with the developing world
  • many of the available tools and the processes involved in sharing resources create a resource management environment which helps you manage and find your resources
  • sharing resources openly globally also makes it easier for your students to use them
  • sharing resources openly makes better use of work you’re doing anyway
  • sharing resources openly has the potential to get your resources used more
  • sharing resources openly may enhance your reputation and attract students to your course
  • sharing resources openly may have a positive impact on your online visibility and consequent positive impact on the visibility of your research
  • knowing that your materials are public encourages you improve them
  • sharing resources openly may help create a feedback loop when other academics interact with you about your content

Issues for Institutions

There is a similar value proposition for institutions. Some of the concerns institutions may have include:

  • a loss of their competitive edge by sharing learning resources
  • the staff development and possible infrastructure investment to promote and support the release of OERs in a manner that most benefits the institution
  • the effect on their reputation of shoddy content being released
  • potential liability relating to errors in the materials
  • the implications of a shift in the value of formal education from knowledge transmission to the provision of a structured experience, supportive context, and a venue for assessment (formative and summative) and accreditation

The possible benefits to the institution include:

  • the kudos and visibility accrued through supporting open education
  • the general promotion and visibility of the university brand
  • allowing potential students get a taste of the courses they’re considering may improve student recruitment (in particular in the context of overseas recruitment or Professional development courses)
  • providing wider access to course materials may support the retention of existing students
  • openly releasing course materials may enhance departmental and interdisciplinary communication and projects

Changes in approach to course design

Another possible threshold concept connected to OERs was suggested by Helen Beethem (2010) is “designing for the ‘unknown learner’” – OERs require course design which is compatible with an unknown learner (that is as a minimum course design which does not suppose access to restricted resources or assume particular interaction). This may true if you’re explicitly designing resources for what might be termed ‘universal use’; however many OERs are not designed in this manner and there are considerable implications for local users and assumptions about context if this approach is taken. As such I’m not yet where the balance is between designing for ‘universal use’ and designing for open release – both require a careful consideration of the resources used but designing for ‘universal use’ affects course design in much more comprehensive (and potentially limiting ways).

Are these threshold concepts?

Meyer and Land (pp. 5-7) outline five key features of a threshold concept. It must be:

  • Transformative
  • Irreversible
  • Integrative
  • Bounded
  • Troublesome

I’d argue that, although they have some roots in earlier practice, the concepts outlined above in are clearly transformative. They significantly change how an academic interacts with their content and can influence their wider views about their control of their online presence and identity. It should be noted, however, that (for many good reasons) it can be a partial or limited experience – sharing some resources does not necessitate sharing all resources.

Although the decision to release OERs can be reversed (for a number of reasons), experience thus far is that the underlying impulse to share openly is much less reversible for individuals. There is a case that once an individual accepts the value proposition it is not likely to be rejected.

Integrative is difficult to assess as there is a not a clear subject domain. Open Education does somewhat relate to notions of Open Access and clearly relates to Open Data so there is a degree of integration there. It does, however, offer a fit with wider changes in the value of institutions and new models of course design.

The above concepts are bounded in so far as they can be partially applied and there is in each case a value judgement to be made. The boundaries involved are not so much related to domain but to suitability for this purpose and local costs.

These concepts are troublesome in many circumstances; in particular:
• the challenge about ownership of their intellectual effort can unsettle academics
• the underpinning notion that the value of the university experience is not about access to content can be difficult to academics and institutions to work through
• accepting the degree of risk and liability involved
• accepting that once it’s licensed and online content cannot be controlled

However, the issues around participation are arguably threshold concepts – realising the value added by participation, the value of sharing ‘good enough’ material, and the potential demand for resources locally considered commonplace. All of these potentially meet the criteria for threshold concepts. A key sticking point is the irreversibility question; although at an individual level the choice to release resources openly is certainly a reversible shift, the appreciation of the potential value of community participation, of shared work-in-progress, and of what other’s might find useful are all perspective shifts which are much less reversible.


Some of the identified issues appear to fit within the framework of threshold concepts. I’m not entirely convinced about the fit with the notion of irreversibility because this can be applied partially and selectively. The wider challenge for Open Education is as a transformative concept is that the validity of the value propositions is still very much under examination and the adoption of Open Education – especially for institutions carries a degree of risk and uncertainty. As mentioned earlier teaching or communicating around this topic fits well with the notion of expertise outlined by Middendorf and Pace and this may be a better fit for these concepts at this stage of their development; there is something, however, in the troublesome and transformative nature of these concepts that Pace and Middendorf’s model doesn’t quite capture in the way the idea of threshold concepts might.


Beetham, H. (2010, March 4). Retrieved March 9, 2010, from
JISC. (2009). Open educational resources programme. Retrieved March 9, 2010, from
Meyer, J. H., & Land, R. (2003). Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (1): linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. In C. Rust, Improving Student Learning – Ten Years On. Oxford: OCSLD.
Open Society Institute and the Shuttleworth Foundation. (2007, September). Retrieved March 9, 2012, from The Cape Town Open Education Declaration:
Pace, D., & Middendorf, J. (Eds.). (2004). Decoding the disciplines helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking (Vol. 98). Jossey-Bass, Higher and Adult Education series.