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.

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.