Open Education, OERs, and institutions

As mentioned in my last post before the second UKOER programme kicks off I’ve been reflecting on the context of the UKOER programme, and some of the issues that cropped up around how to talk about or define what we were doing. The issues emerged in the context of the diversity of the programme itself but were also informed by some specific posts and conversations that have encouraged, prodded, or kicked me. My first post addressed the differences between RLOs and OERs. This one looks at the relationship between the open release of resources (OERs) and Open Education. A note – this is more of a personal perspective, more of a work in progress (as evidenced by its length), and less conclusive.


  • The Cape Town declaration on Open Education
  • There have been various blog posts recently offering a critique on the focus in OER-related work on releasing resources and the fact these efforts are potentially a distraction from promoting Open Education (from a variety of perspectives). see for example
  • Perhaps the opposite view of those critiques is Bill Gates’ recent comments about OERs replacing traditional institutions in the next five years see for example TechCrunch.
  • Recently I’ve learnt a bit more about P2PU -their school of webcraft is about to kick off it’s first cohort of students.
  • I’ve also noted the emergence of support structures around using OERs for learning: Open Study [i’m not clear how it is currently funded] and a commercial venture M[something].
  • an open education primer
  • Amber Thomas shared a fantastic video about management, productivity, and creativity

I’m very aware that there’s a lot of the wider discussion around the relation of Open Education and OERs that I’ve not had time to follow up and engage with fully, but I’m trying to pin down something of what I think and why (in part because every other blog post I’m trying to write relies on it to some degree and also I’d like to provide a point of reference for the new UKOER projects) – so if you think there’s any key thought-provoking posts or papers I’ve not mentioned feel free to add the to the comments (e.g. I’ve not engaged with David Wiley or Stephen Downes (in particular the recent MOOC work with Downes and George Siemens )


I think:

  • The release of OERs and efforts to promote Open Education are both good things.
  • There is a lot of conflation between OERs and Open Education. This is a bad thing.

Compared to the extensive, philosophical and critical analyses that are ongoing the above statements are perhaps simplistic but they’re a point to start the conversation.

As a rough approximation (to inform discussing the points above) education involves:

  • assessment
  • accreditation/certification
  • community
  • interaction
  • feedback
  • access to expertise
  • access to other facilities and resources.

In the context of tertiary education these things are provided (at least in theory) through colleges or universities, most often, though not exclusively, through enrolment on a course and physical presence at a campus. In continuing education and lifelong learning (whether post secondary or post tertiary) there are more diverse patterns (for example: professional exams, learning for fun, skills training). There are many factors affecting the ability of students to participate effectively in education, these include: motivation, personality, available time and schedule, availability of space on courses, finance, location, and other commitments. This consideration of education and some of the factors influencing how as learners we interact with it if certainly not complete but is needed in some form to consider the distinctions between OERs and Open Education.

OERs are a form of Open Content. I think that in itself is a good and useful thing, but more specifically the release of openly licensed educational content benefits learners, teachers, and institutions. For example see the infokit section on benefits of OERs In the context of institutions OER present a clear way to manage your content, support your students, and promote your ‘brand’ (both in the marketting sense and in the wider student recruitment sense). Phil Barker’s recent Open and Closed Case makes this point well.

OERs are but one part of the wider Open Education picture – they will only have a limited impact on the demand for access to education and wider opportunities to learn. Yes, as Bill Gates points out, you can have access to lectures from the ‘best’ institutions in the world on the web and for a few people that will be enough to help them learn what they need to but it’s incredibly odd to suggest that this in itself will change education – for centuries people have had comparable access to knowledge and text books in libraries, and more recently through television (Open University Course or comparable public access broadcasting) – the internet may change the degree to which materials are available, the volume and diversity of materials, and greatly improve the flexibility of access to those materials but historically I’d suggest access to materials in themselves has had only a limited impact and ‘online content’ doesn’t -in terms of education- necessarily change things that much.

In the bigger picture things change if the available openly licensed content begins to make the process of creating / remixing easier for lecturers and when we see the emergence of complete courses or textbooks using OER. There’s still a lot of questions around reuse but at OCWC 2010 in Vietnam last May it was clear that there’s a lot of countries wanting to use OERs to reinvigorate their university teaching and help their systems adjust to changing demand – whatever the issues around this approach it appears to be happening  [I’d note in passing that although we’ve got some tools and techniques for increasing the amount of and access to Open Content I’d suggest it’s not a solved problem  – the release of Open Content for education is not currently embedded widely across institutions, there remain massive questions about appropriate technology and discoverability, and subject coverage in depth is patchy at best].

The bigger question is what new forms of education can and will emerge in response to:

  • the numbers and needs of learners
  • the wider availability of content
  • the affordances of online and /or blended interaction

There are emerging examples of new practice:

  • testing and accreditation only colleges (e.g. Western Governors University)
  • the Massively Online Open Courses being run by Downes and Siemens
  • ‘Open Study’ and other study support services
  • P2PU – offering its school of webcraft and beginning to look into proficiency  ‘badges’
  • [ ok not exactly new practice but one tool to to translate existing practice that I’m excited about]

I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess as to how these might mature but they offer ways to put together some of the pieces.

I know that many thinkers around Open Education there’s a degree of skepticism and frustration around institutions and their interaction with OERs as well as a desire to see them radically changed or abandoned. There is certainly a need for change, and there are essential questions to be asked around scale, models, costs, and funding – but I think institutions are here to stay in some form and I think sustainable open education needs them to be there for a number of reasons (which I ‘ll outline below). Where Open Education has the opportunity to revolutionise learning and make the biggest difference to the world is on the edges – creating alternative approaches and methods of education, widening participation and opportunity even as proportionate access to traditional formal education is likely to decline (patterns of living, costs, scale, perceived relevancy).

So why do I think institutions are so important for Open Education?

  • Institutions releasing OER provide building blocks for Open Education (not perfect, not finished, but components)
  • Institutions can operate at a a scale that affords the provision of particular facilities and resources which would not be otherwise feasible – the provision of these potentially enables some forms of wider open access to them (remote experiments for example).
  • Institutions provide jobs to people with expertise and experience who may be able to involved in Open Education

In particular, the short film about creativity (shared by Amber) accidentally captures part of why I think institutions are key to promoting Open Education. The whole animation should be required viewing, but the key part of it for this discussion is around the 5 minute mark – the economist speaking talks about motivation and mentions the point of  “when you pay people enough money to take the issue off the table” it then discusses the motivations that kick in: autonomy, mastery, purpose. I think understanding the discussion of  autonomy, mastery, and purpose are really important for open education, but the taking the money off the table issue is a critical – note: the amount of money isn’t the question) – without institutions, what do open educators do for their day jobs?

I’m wary of being stuck in accepted patterns in thinking about this – as many people develop, maintain, and share expertise, in areas outside of, and disconnected from, their employment; and some people devote themselves selflessly to various causes for little reward – but, this doesn’t scale and from what I can tell a lot of currently successful Open Education (not connected to IT) is driven by academics who are paid to teach, to research, and for their expertise (yes there’s grant funding too, but it’s neither sustainable nor scalable). Without institutions there’s a big hole in this picture.

Are OERs just Re-usable Learning Objects with an open license?

Is there any difference between an OER (Open Educational Resource) and a RLO (Reusable Learning Object) apart from the license? and what does the open release of resources have to do with Open Education anyway? In the run up to the second UKOER programme I’ve been reflecting on the context of the UKOER programme, and some of the issues that cropped up around how to talk about or define what we were doing. They emerged in the context of the diversity of the programme itself but were also informed by some specific posts and conversations that have encouraged, prodded, or kicked me. This post is an attempt to think through the differences between OERs and RLOs and subsequent one will look at OERs relation to Open Education. They’re intended to help pull together and reflect on some resources I’ve found helpful.


Rough archetypes

Many projects in the UKOER programme released RLOs so there are some obvious examples where RLO and OER happily concide but I’d argue that there are some critical distinctions between OERs and RLOs (that have to do with more than licensing) [The following distinctions address archetypes – there will be plenty of exceptions].

RLOs are intentionally designed for sharing, are intended to be context neutral, to have detailed metadata, and are often stored and managed in specific learning object repositories. Their creation tends to need specialist tools or skills and often involves various review processes. Although historically their creation has been associated with large projects, specialist centres, or institutional initiatives, tools such as GLO maker and Xerte have lowered the technical and ‘mechanical’ barriers to creating RLOs. Such RLOs are often media rich, interactive, designed for browser use, and may use Flash. They often are relatively granular focusing on one particular short topic or learning outcome. As noted some OER initiatives produce and/or release this type of material (and many other content sharing initiatives that aren’t ‘O’pen take this approach too (for example, initiatives to share content within a particular educational sector or subscription-based sharing initiatives).

OERs are much more diverse, to roughly borrow from how Creative Commons’ DiscoverEd approaches the topic – it’s a resource, with an open license, that someone has declared to be useful to be useful for educational purposes. Example resources might be images, animations, slides, curricula, lectures (audio or video), sample assessments. There is no dominant format/ mime type associated with OERs. Currently many OERs that are released are existing resources which need to have the rights over their content reviewed; although there are initiatives around promoting the use of open content to create educational materials from the outset. As outlined by Weller (2009) there have been significant differences between large institutional projects and individuals.

  • “Big OERs are institutionally generated ones that come through projects such as openlearn. Advantages = high reputation, good teaching quality, little reversioning required, easily located. Disadvantages = expensive, often not web native, reuse limited
  • Little OERs are the individually produced, low cost resources that those of us who mess about with blogs like to produce. Advantages = cheap, web (2) native, easily remixed and reused. Disadvantages = lowish production quality, reputation can be more difficult to ascertain, more difficult to locate.”

In UKOER and other initiatives we saw a wide variety of approaches  used and perhaps the emergence of “Middle OER” (see David Kernohan’s comment on Weller 2009).  More approaches were we saw institutions sharing with informal tools, institutions enabling their academics to share, as well as coordinated groups of individuals sharing corporately.


If I was trying to capture the difference between RLOs and OERs in a sentence I’d say something like: People sharing what they’re doing vs. people creating particular stuff to share

Why is this worth talking about?

I’m not sure in the wider elearning community if this distinction is understood – in the context of educational content with open licenses I’ve heard the words used interchangeably. I think many RLOs are great but they come with an approach and history that is not essential to OERs and we make a mistake if we accidentally equate them.

There are ongoing efforts to promote Open Educational Practices – one aspect of which is to strive to embed openness into how lecturers go about creating their materials, to use openly licensed content and reuse OERs, and try not to design materials in a way that relies on specific resources. This is in part to overcome the costs involved in clearing rights on existing content and is a critical necessary shift in developing sustainable practice. There is, however, a key difference between designing courses and materials that are more shareable and designing context neutral courses (in the RLO style) – most academics / teachers are paid to develop materials in a context and there’s a big difference between asking someone to share what they’re doing as an OER and asking someone to create a context neutral OER. From my perspective, the first is scalable but the second will be a niche or directly-funded activity.

I could be missing something as I know and respect some of the advocates of the context neutral approach as the way forward so comments are very welcome. Whether you agree with my categories and opinion or not of you’re thinking about OERs it’s worth watching the interview with Brian and and reading Martin’s posts.

Libraries and OERs: OpenEd papers and survey

What role do libraries have in the release or use of Open Educational Resources?

I’ve an ongoing interest in the role of Libraries in Open Education and have a paper for OpenEd 2010 looking at ways academic libraries might be involved in the release and use of OERs. I’m excited about the chance to present some of my ideas to that community and was pleased to discover that Open.Michigan have a paper on Libraries and the future of OER. We’re going to co-ordinate our papers to complement each other.

Building on my earlier blog post, my paper focuses on potential roles of academic libraries in connection with the use and release of OER; I’d like to inform my reflection by asking about your experience and thoughts about the roles of libraries in this area. To help with this I’ve put together a short survey:

There’s ten questions but most are quick responses. The survey is designed for OER projects and initiatives and there will be a follow up survey (at a later date) targeting the wider library community. I’ll blog the results as well as incorporating them into the paper.

Thanks in advance for your participation
John (in collaboration with the Open.Michigan team)

Overview paper: Technology and descriptive choices in UKOER

Technology and descriptive choices in the JISC and HEA Open Educational Resources programme.

A position paper for the ADL Learning Content Registries and Repositories Summit by R. John Robertson, Lorna Campbell, Phil Barker

Theme: ‘State of the practice in learning content repositories’ and ‘Systemic Initiatives’  License: CC: BY

JISC and the Higher Education Academy are collaborating on the Open Educational Resources Programme. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has provided an initial £5.7 million of funding for 29 pilot projects, plus associated support activities, (April 2009 to March 2010) which will explore how to expand the open availability and use of free, high quality online educational resources. (

CETIS (the Centre for Educational Technology and Interoperability Standards), a JISC innovation support centre, is providing strategic and technical support for UKOER at both programme and project level. Technical guidance and synthesis is disseminated primarily through the CETIS blogs which are aggregated onto the CETIS website (

A different approach

Unlike many previous development programmes, UKOER has not specified a particular technical architecture or mandated a specific approach to metadata and resource description, beyond the requirement that a few key pieces of information are recorded in some way.

The required information is:

  • Programme tag
  • Title
  • Author / owner / contributor
  • Date
  • URL
  • Technical info – file format, name & size.

Some additional information has also been recommended:

  • Language
  • Subject classifications
  • Keywords
  • Tags
  • Comments
  • Descriptions


It is still too early to present a synthesis of how this information has been recorded but it is possible to provide an overview of the platforms, tools, metadata standards and packaging formats that projects have adopted.

Packaging formats in use

Packaging formats in use

Communication protocols in use

Communication protocols in use

Descriptive metadata standards

Descriptive metadata standards

Types of tools used to manage OERs

Types of tools used to manage OERs

Details of the types of tools in use in UKOER

Details of the types of tools in use in UKOER


  • projects may occur more than once in any given graph.
  • the graphs record the number of platforms that support a given format, protocol or standard (rather than use per se)
  • the recorded use of Zip is probably unrepresentative


  1. At this stage CETIS technical synthesis of UKOER is still very much a work in progress but some preliminary trends are emerging:
  2. Unsurprisingly projects have gravitated to technologies they are familiar with and already had in place.
  3. Projects have used a mixture of elearning platforms, repositories, and innovative approaches
  4. The standards used are often embedded in applications and their use is dependant on the application chosen.
  5. The feasibility of aggregating distributed heterogeneous resource descriptions is still unproven.
  6. The pilot programme points to ways forward to use both web2 applications and digital repositories and to exchange information between them.
  7. Projects have chosen multiple platforms to support different functions such as preservation, streaming and dissemination, marketing and advocacy.
  8. Projects’ technical choices primarily reflect resource management and distribution requirements – as opposed to course delivery requirements.

Questions for discussion

  1. How do these figures fit with your expectations of approaches to sharing learning content?
  2. Can the applications you are using interact with multiple different platforms and applications for different purposes?
  3. If relevant, can your content move between different types of platforms? Can your metadata?

A fuller version of this position paper will be presented at the OCWC Conference in May 2010.

The use of Content Packaging and Learning Object creation tools in the UKOER programme

Although it is possible to create learning objects or content packages within virtual learning environments (from which it may be possible to export them) there are also a number of content packaging or Learning Object creation tools which have been used in the UKOER programme.

As the discussion around the use of Content Packaging noted ( and the perceived usability of available tools may influence the choice of packaging standard (whether the tools listed produce IMS CP, ADL SCORM, both, or something else is not noted).


In use by:

  • C-Change

Learning Object Creator

In use by:

  • Humbox


In use by:

  • Evolution
  • Unicycle


In use by:

  • Simulation OER


In use by:

  • Berlin
  • Evolution
  • Centre for Bioscience OER
    • “ Using eXe, in part as they had significant issues with using RELOAD and in part as eXe is JorumOpen’s preferred tool”



In use by:

  • brOME OERP
    • exporting materials from QuestionMark as QTI items to make more open
  • Centre for Bioscience OER


In use by:

  • Berlin
  • C-Change
  • C-SAP OER – one mini project used Xerte to transform PPTs into Learning Objects

The use of ADL SCORM in the UKOER programme

“The Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) integrates a set of related technical standards, specifications, and guidelines designed to meet SCORM’s high-level requirements—accessible, interoperable, durable, and reusable content and systems. SCORM content can be delivered to your learners via any SCORM-compliant Learning Management System (LMS) using the same version of SCORM.” ( )

In the context of the OER programme SCORM has mostly been interacted with as  a profile of IMS CP (though it utilises and profiles other standards as well).

SCORM is supported by:

  • Unicycle
  • OCEP
  • BERLiN
  • mmtv (under consideration)
  • Evolution
  • OLE Dutch History

comparing this to the list of those using IMS CP (link); those using SCORM and not using Content Packaging are:

  • OCEP
  • BERLiN
  • Evolution
  • mmtv

Support for SCORM is an out of the box function for

  • OCEP
  • BERLiN
  • Unicycle
  • Evolution

it may also be for the Moodle users (I’m not sure):

  • OLE Dutch HIstory

I’m not (yet) sure if mmtv decided to pursue the creation of SCORM packages, and am not clear, at this stage, if anyone is actively using SCORM or if projects are only supporting it.

Use of web publishing tools in the UKOER programme

Another approach taken in UKOER for the use management and sharing of OER management has been to use mainstream web publishing tools such as WordPress, Content Management Systems, and ‘simple’ websites (‘simple’ being a website created and managed without using a CMS ). One of the challenges this approach faces is that such tools are often not designed to export resources and a number of the projects have had some challenges when considering how to represent their OER(s) within JorumOpen.


  • TRUE
  • OpenSpace
    • OpenSpace created a virtual learning studio for collaborative creative script writing and storyboarding
    • Explored the integration of Kaltura with Drupal
    • the OER is not only the environment but also a example of it’s use (using a example (real) course with student work)
  • Phorus


    • OTTER have had problems exporting metadata they had created within Plone


  • numbat
    • XHTML and PHP based search


It is worth noting in passing that many projects have extensively used blogs throughout the programme for communication, discussion and dissemination. This has provided a valuable way to engage and stay up to date with projects but that usage is a different topic entirely.

  • ChemistryFM
    • WordPress used as the primary ‘repository’ for content and publishing platform. Courses broken down into into one sub-topic per post comprising of embedded videos and related supporting resources.
    • The posts are tagged with the appropriate course code – this allows the courses to be put together through the blog interface.
    • can export resources via OAI-ORE for import to other repositories
  • C-Change
    • is investigating the use of wordpress as a possible local publishing tool for their members of their consortium who need (especially in the longer term) a way to publish OERs.

The use of VLEs in the UKOER programme

Within the UKOER programme there has been some use of virtual learning environments or related classroom or collaboration tools in the management and distribution of OERs (see also the list of learning object/ content-packaging creation tools in use ).


  • Evolution


  • OpenStaffs
    • Trying to decouple storage and use of educational materials. Moving resources/ course materials out of BlackBoard into Hive. Then creating references to them within BlackBoard. This allows the resources to be more open and accessible (and uses a resource management tool to manage and store (and preserve?) the resources rather than relying on the resource management capabilities of the VLE) )


  • Fetlar
    • used by project to coordinate and manage gathering of resources and as a platform for sharing them.
  • OLE Dutch History
    • direct use in teaching as well as managing resources; (afaik) used for which offers access to a number of free taster courses

Custom ‘repository’ developments in the UKOER programme

One interesting development in the UKOER programme has been how many projects have chosen to build their own repository/database to manage their content in some form. Normally the phrase ‘we’ve built our own repository’ makes me worry in the same that ‘we’re developing our own standard’ or ‘our own controlled vocabulary’ does. However, these projects have had a wide variety of good reasons for doing so – all of which bear closer examination. Their approach is a reminder that there are circumstances under which ‘build your own’ is both necessary and a good idea. Some projects also make a case for lightweight and disposable approaches.

All the custom developments have used MySQL and all of those taking this option have been subject strand projects.

  • CORE Materials
    • they have built a database for the central management of resources prior to uploading to web 2.0 sites; their own solution was required to support interaction with the APIs of web 2.0 tools.
  • Medev OOER
    • they have built a database as a staging ground for preparing OERs – JorumOpen is their primary deposit. They are also considering a local repository in the longer term.
    • MySQL was chosen to be able to interact with Subject Centre website.
    • They are also looking at web2.0 api interoperability
  • Open Educational Repository in Support of Computer Science
    • built a lightweight disposable solution as management and publishing tool and staging ground for Jorum deposit
    • Jorum as the primary repository and copy of record/ preservation copy.
  • Phorus
    • primary cataloguing of OERs is into Intute which is then harvested via OAI-PMH into their local database
    • they then aim to harvest resources into JORUM
    • they may also move resources to host institution’s (Fedora) repository
  • Simulation OER
    • developed local repository both as continuation of earlier work and as available repository options did not meet the key requirement of being able to preview simulations.