An #ukoer Christmas Carol (and 9 Lessons)

These are my personal opinions and not those of my employer, or the programmes and projects I am responsible for. The following is available under a CC-BY-SA license.

This is a particularly grim and cheerless December for Higher Education in the UK, I hope you will forgive me a brief moment of levity and Christmas cheer.

An OER Christmas Carol (and 9 Lessons)

“The VLE was dead”: to begin with. There was no doubt whatsoever about that. The register of its burial was signed by James Clay and Co at ALT-C 2009. The old VLE was as dead as a doornail.

I’d never painted out the Old VLE’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the repository deposit interface. Some people called it the VLE, some people called it the Learning Object repository – ’twas all the same to me.

Once upon a time – of all the good days of the year, on Christmas Eve, I sat busy at my desk. I was counting up the number of learning materials in the repository, scowling at the list of figures as they steadfastly refused to add up to the required 360 credits. And unless we could reach that magical number by the end of term, the dastardly Lord Browne would call in his debts, and the Old Repository would be as dead as the Old VLE.

“Merry Christmas, repository manager, and God save you!” called my assistant through the door I had left open to keep an eye on her as she wrote the final and completion reports. 

“Bah!” I said. “Humbug!”

“Christmas – a humbug? returned my assistant gaily. “You don’t mean that, I am sure”.

“I do,” I said. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? With Lord Browne’s judgement due tomorrow you will be poor enough.”

My assistant left the room prudently, without an angry word. And as the hum of our ancient RAID array filled the void, I felt myself drift towards a strange and troubled sleep. Was I indeed asleep, or awake, or in some state between the two… as I picked up a case study I had previously discarded, and began to read the words on the last piece of yellowing recycled paper… 


Conclusions and Recommendations

1. Check the licence carefully.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16

” I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.” Revelation 22:18-19

It took some effort to find the license(s) for the Bible, as they are presented in a non-standard format, and are split between two sections of the material. What we appear to have is an attribution license, with specific authorisation for use in an educational context, alongside a “no derivatives” clause, which goes into particular and alarming detail regarding the penalties for a breach of the license terms. 

Clearly under the terms of this license the Revelation of St John of Patmos should never be included in an aggregation of material, or indeed translated. However the fact that this is actually what has happened suggests that the terms of this license were not clearly understood at the AD 397 Council of Carthage.

Seeing the Bible as an aggregation also gives us an issue regarding the Second Epistle of St Paul to Timothy – what did it mean by “all scripture”? Was the apostle referring to the present collection (as codified nearly 350 after the accepted date of composition), a specific class of document marked as “scripture” (there isn’t anything in Dublin Core), or something else entirely? Unclear wording of license terms has always caused issues for end users, but seldom of this magnitude.

Our conclusions here must be that “no derivatives” licences effectively must be broken in order to allow resources to be reused in any way, and that other licenses must be clear about the work that is being referred to.

2.  Building in openness from the start is easier than repurposing existing materials.

” A voice of one calling: 
In the wilderness prepare 
  the way for the LORD; 
make straight in the desert
  a highway for our God. 
Every valley shall be raised up, 
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
  the rugged places a plain.”
Isaiah 40:3-4

Preparation is everything in open release. Rather than have the Lord do all this tedious checking of individual components, a project manager by the name of John was engaged to clear the relevant resources.  However, this did not end well as he subsequently lost his life in a bizarre ritualistic killing in a Jerusalem nightclub, to which royal links have been made. The resultant lack of preparation may have been linked to later difficulties regarding the engagement of senior stakeholders.

3. Don’t ask too for much from metadata.

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.” Luke 2:1-3

This is a classic example of the way in which repository managers can fail to appreciate the inconvenience that may be caused to depositors by an emphasis on the quality of metadata. A repository manager several steps removed from the user community chose to arrange records by their provenance, which meant that materials had to be returned to their original point of creation. This caused an enormous strain on infrastructure and storage systems, and brought the entire area to a grinding halt at the busiest time of year. We would conclude that it is essential that those with responsibility for repositories balance the user experience with the need for accurate data.

4.  Authorship and ownership are different concepts.

“This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Matthew 1:18-19

Here, an academic (Joseph) claimed ownership of a resource he had no part in creating, for selfless political reasons. Laudable as such an action is, this mis-attribution subsequently caused problems in assessing the provenance of the resource when it was re-used. It is important that resources are attributed to both the author, and the body claiming ownership of the work.

5. Content quality is more important than reputation

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
 though you are small among the clans of Judah, 
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
  from ancient times.”
Micah 5:2

Despite the generally low academic standing of the then Bethlehem University College (now the University of North Jerusalem) and reports of academics being housed in conditions suitable only for livestock, some very high quality resources have been released. Increasingly in an OER world, it is the quality of material, rather than its provenance, that is seen as important.

6.  Make intelligent use of marketing.

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. “ Luke 2:8-9

This is one of a pair of useful examples of dissemination practice drawn from this case study. Here, a great effort has been made to draw people to visit the resources, including celebrity endorsement and son-et-lumiere. However we must compare the probable expense of this marketing with its end results, as only a small number of shepherds actually visited the site in question. It appears wasteful to go to the expense of engaging the Angel of the Lord, a host of angels singing, and covering associated AV and event management costs in order to attract so few users. Better use could have been made of this marketing opportunity.

7. Make open content visible and discoverable.

” After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Matthew 2:1-2

Here, a much better example of marketing used a simple tag to draw international users to resources. Despite this, the users in question needed to ask a number of contacts in the Jerusalem area for further information, suggesting that the specific resource was not, after all, easy to find. The fact that the international visitors initially went to Jerusalem rather than Bethlehem may point to an underlying issue with Bethlehem’s reputation.

On finding the resource, the visitors were startled to see the low quality of the infrastructure, but recognised the quality of the resource and left a substantial endowment. There is no audit trail regarding the use of this endowment, which we ascribe to the poor overall standard of documentation.

8.  Open, informal, learning is amazing
“Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?” John 7: 14-15

There is real evidence presented here of the use of OER in informal learning, and the reputational benefits of informal learning. A community of scholars was initially incredulous, but eventually convinced by the quality of work produced. However, this led eventually to jealously and animosity from institutional managers, and serious problems faced in the later career of the academic in question. Had APEL been available within the Jewish Temple system then history could have been very different – independent learners often face difficulties in demonstrating their accomplishments.

9. Openness is (eventually) inevitable

“For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” Luke 8:17

Whereas the documentation suggests that the LORD will sit in judgement over all on a fiery throne, until that (often posponed) QA event occurs quality assurance has to be carried out by peers. There are currently two incompatible systems in place, one using a set of accredited experts and the other relying more on the layity offering advice and guidance. Simply in terms of scale the latter is more resilient, the former representing a huge overhead. Both systems suffer from disagreement and multiple interpretations of guidance documents – the hierarchical system is able to rule on these issues (though this is often criticised as ignoring the user voice), whereas the folksonomic sysem tends to fragment into competing subsystems. We await with interest the coming of the quality assurance manager, and hope that earlier predictions of this causing enormous upheaval, changes to working practices, war, famine, pestilence, death and water purity issues are overstated.

As all materials will be openly available at this point, it makes sense to recommend that users prepare for openness as soon as possible…


… rubbing my eyes, I awoke to find myself in my office, but not my office – a warm and bright place, filled with cheer and light and Christmas joy. My flushed and delighted-looking assistant pressed a glass of mulled wine into my hand. I sipped and yawned as she babbled…

“… so I put out a special request on the ALL-STAFF mailing list, and on the intranet, and on twitter with the #ukoer tag… so many people have been coming in and dropping off materials… images, text, video, audio, even SCORN-compliant learning objects… thank you!” – she smiled at the Dean of Philosophy who had put a DVD filled with correctly tagged reading lists on the pile – “… and everyone has really pulled together for the sake of OER…cheers!” – an august and bearded Professor of Applied Linguistics toasted us as he uploaded the last of his prized collection of dialect recordings to the repository – “… and look, here comes the music department…”

I heard a band playing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and before I knew it, I was dancing in a circle, singing, and beaming at everyone in the candlelight. I’d never felt so happy and at peace… until a black-gloved hand touched my shoulder.

“I see you are within reach of your end of year target,” purred Lord Browne in a dark, oily voice. “Allow me to contribute.”, and yes – his Report, his precious Report so written about and so feared – was disaggregated and rendered into granular objects ready for deposit. “Congratulations!”

“God bless you, you crazy old open learning repository” yelled the Academic Registrar, as around us dancers circled and church bells rang louder than the cheers of what appeared to be the whole body of staff and students. “Merry Christmas, every one of us!”.

“Till auld aquaintence be forgot, and never brought to mind…” we sang lustily, as a tiny ringing bell indicated another successful deposit…

(… and far above us, in CETIS, Wilbert Kraan had finally got his wings.)


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