The opinions expressed within this blog post are my own, and not those of my employer, or of projects or programmes I am responsible for. This post is available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
Allow me to start with a (deliberately) controversial statement: “The resources themselves are the least valuable aspect of OER, and academic reuse is the least valuable aspect of these resources.“
I don’t propose to be able to defend that entirely – but it is indicative of the way my mind is moving after reading a wonderful post by Tony Bates yesterday, and continuing to reflect on David Wiley’s position and the findings of the UKOER Evaluation and Synthesis final report.
As someone who is involved in a major funded programme of OER release, I want to be doubly clear that I don’t think that this work has been a waste of time – or that the content created is without merit, or that current investigations into content reuse are worthless. Far from it. I’m more inclined to believe that that what we have gained from our work is not what many people have argue that we have gained. It is far, far, more.
(And the least valuable is still pretty damn valuable.)
(sorry about all the caveats – but I know I am at risk of being taken out of context here. Can you believe that some people read this blog purely to find things to complain about? Yes, really! )
OER is interesting – as a concept, as a process, and as an entity.
(image credit: cybermule [from personal archive] – obvious nod of the hat to Sergio)
As a concept – and as Joss Winn and Richard Hall have argued – it poses serious questions for our understanding of what education is, and what institutions should be doing. Both in grander terms, concerning our understanding of knowledge and the value our society accords to it, and in less radical everyday thoughts about attribution, and how we discover and use material. I think that the volume of critical thought that OER has already created is immensely valuable – it has served as a genuinely new contribution to the age-old “purpose of education” debates, which are becoming increasingly essential in a higher education sector dealing with rapid transformational change.
As a process, OER pushes consideration of intellectual property and pedagogy into the creation of materials for use in teaching. It makes us consider how much effort we put in (or don’t) to ensuring that we have the best possible teaching aids for use with our students. And it engages what used to be the sole academic – working on their own to produce a hand-out, slides or a complex tool – with both the idea and the actuality of a community of practice, doing the same and similar things. This is the theme that I don’t think many have focused on (though the OPAL project is a visible and notable exception) but it is where we are seeing a lot of movement. If you are engaged with OER creation, it becomes a part of your use practice. From properly citing images used on PowerPoint slides, to automatically searching for open resources as a preference, to thinking “could I create this in such a way I could release it openly” – involvement in or engagement with OER “release” fundamentally changes your “use” practices.
As an entity, an OER is available for use and inspiration. It can be modified, it can be altered, it can be used within agglomerations of material from a variety of sources, modified and republished. It can be linked to as part of a course. It can also be read and recreated (partially or fully), or read in order to inspire work in a particular direction. And all these things can be done by everyone, not just academics and students.
And, as David Wiley says – most of the “entity” points are also true of content that is simply visible. Not all (not the ones in the first line), but certainly the most common ones. I’ve been around the loop before concerning the long term (10yr+) goal of the UK government to see academic sharing as common practice, and (outside of a few excellent examples around community based projects like Humbox and Connexions) this has not been a resounding success. I don’t go as far as David does regarding openness being an additional production cost – academics produce resources anyway (which is where the cost is) making these resources OER at this point of creation is trivial – at most a few dollars more for 5 mins checking a license. You could even argue that making resources that are not usable by the whole world is a (substantial) additional production cost!
But I do agree that it is an additional attention cost. And I think that this is entirely a good thing. OER creation focuses attention on IPR and pedagogic choice. Precisely what we want academics to be thinking about when creating resources, and if we are connecting people together as they create (through a community like #ukoer on twitter, Humbox or something else), even better. And if we are contributing to discussions on the future of HE by doing so – fantastic. Note that none of these benefits require the actual availability or find-ability of OER – this is almost like a potential additional benefit. And this potential additional benefit is primarily to people outside academia entirely, or students new to academia – people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to that knowledge or that opportunity for learning. Wikipedia (and similar projects) fulfil a lot of these needs, and the growth of academic input (rather than hostility) is welcome. But sometimes actual academic resources – short paper, annotated diagram, lecture recording – can go further than that.
Academic reuse – it’s long-tail, at best. There is a chance that there will be something useful, but as the needs of educators are so varied, no more than a chance. It’s worth looking – but it’s equally possible that building your own materials is the best option. As Tony Bates concluded: OERs need skill and hard work to make them useful [to others], and selling them as a panacea for education does more harm than good. OER reuse will make some things easier for some academics, some of the time.
But is this our only reason for releasing content openly? The concept and process benefits are already being seen, as are (increasingly) the benefits to independent learners and new students – the entity benefits to academics are too but on a smaller scale, and will take time to become fully understood. Have we got the luxury of the time needed to make that argument, and explain why it may be of lesser impact than many initially suggested?
When the chimes end, pick up your gun.