Is an OER still an OER if no-one uses it?

(note, these are my personal views and not those of my organisation or programmes and projects I have responsibility for)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “academic reuse” angle of OER for a while now – eagle-eyed #ukoer10 attendees may have spotted that my contention that this is a peculiarly British obsession got sneaked in to Sarah Porter’s opening remarks. There are international exceptions – most notably MERLOT and Connexions at Rice – but there is a much greater focus at a global level on reuse by learners. In many ways I think this is healthier – the end users of all educational materials are learners, and academic reuse is simply an extra mediating level.

In English HE policy we have been trying to get academics to use digital materials created by other academics for at least 15 years. One of my favourite historical policy documents is a short summary of an evaluative seminar concerning the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI), Technology in Learning and Teaching Support Network (TLTSN) and Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP). The first two of these became the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN), which mutated in to the Higher Education Academy, the latter has been (unfairly) maligned as “that big expensive HEFCE programme that produced loads of content that no-one ever used”.

One key phrase from this document  is “not invented here” – an assertion that a combination of “professional pride and pure snobbery” was a major stumbling block to the reuse of material. A more thorough investigation into the use of these materials suggested the following:

“Of the 919 departments/schools which responded to our questionnaire, 33% were using the products of one or more TLTP projects”

I’m still not sure why this was seen as a disappointing result – getting a third of any given pool of academics to do anything is nearly impossible. I would be surprised to see similar take up levels for UKOER, not through any issue with the quality of UKOER materials but more a reflection on the sheer number of materials now available out there. Thirty-three percent take up, even within a sample, would have any textbook publisher sending out for crates of Cava.

“More TLTP materials are in use in the HE sector than may be generally recognised, especially allowing for the failure of some staff to recognise the materials they were using as being from TLTP. They are embedded in conventional courses, alongside a very substantial use of other types of C&IT. Reasons for adopting these are mostly pedagogical rather than operational or tactical.”

What we were beginning to see here is an early challenge to the idea of an academic as a “delivery mechanism” for materials. An (unnamed) participant at the seminar suggested:

“The world is full of information, information is not knowledge, and wisdom is disappearing”.

Ten years later, this seems almost prophetic. Information is now fully commodified and almost without financial value, and any academic manager still making the claim that his (and it is always “his” in this case) institution is a repository of arcane knowledge would be laughed out of the annual HEFCE conference.

Knowledge and wisdom (or the application of information) is hopefully what we are imparting to our graduates, and the growth of the web as an uber-RLO has hopefully served to highlight this. The old truism is that “everything is a learning object”, I’d amplify this by suggesting that not only is everything a learning object, every learning object is connected to other learning objects – not only in a TCP/IP sense but also in a Baudrillardian hyperreal sense of a system of referentiality between objects and the idea of objects. This uber-RLO that we call the internet is available constantly from pretty much anywhere, and is constantly being added to.

We can no longer usefully look at a learning object in isolation and this to me is why the emphasis on reuse by academics is maybe missing the point. In the same way that I sit at my synthesiser and worry that I haven’t chosen the “right sound” from the billions it is able to make; I find information on the web and worry if it is the best, most complete and most comprehensible source of that particular knowledge. In both cases, I may investigate a few further links but will end up using what seems to work at that time. And being able to identify (quickly) something that just works is the skill in either case, and is what makes me (at my best) both a musician and a deep, reflective learner,

I don’t think it would be possible to gain a degree looking only at the materials that your tutors gave you – not in any meaningful sense. Students have always sought additional knowledge – in textbooks, in libraries, in conversation and latterly in on the net. In releasing OERs we are improving the pool of information that learners can freely access. Perhaps staff will use some of these materials as the centrepiece of their own teaching, in the same way as they may use a textbook or an anthology. Perhaps not. It would be interesting to know either way (and great, encouraging feedback), but it shouldn’t matter.

The point is that OER release is adding to and improving the quality of the sum of human understanding, in an even more profound way than a research paper or press release. A good OER is written to support deep learning and this is the advantage that academia, which is unique in grappling with these issues every day, can bring.

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2 thoughts on “Is an OER still an OER if no-one uses it?”

  1. Hmmm… jumping from “33% [of departments/schools] were using the products” to “a third of any given pool of academics” is a bit of a conceptual leap to say the least – the former statement tells you almost nothing about actual uptake (probably intentionally!).I’m not sure that you answer the question posed in the title. The trite answer is ‘yes’ I guess… it’s ‘open’, it’s ‘educational’, it’s a ‘resource’ after all.The point is, it’s not an effective/useful/valuable resource unless it’s used/re-used – irrespective of whether that re-use is by teaching staff or students.Here’s an alternative question for you? What is the sound of one OER clapping? 🙂

  2. Hi Andy, and thanks for your comment.The 33% [of departments/schools] using TLTP resources remains braggable – I wish we could make comparable claims for UKOER or even OER as a whole. But TLTP was a much greater proportion of the total available number of digital learning resources at the time. I agree that it doesn’t equate to “a third of academics”, but the point I was making (really badly :-/) was that convincing a department/school to use a set of external resources as a matter of policy (to the extent that they would actually admit to it in a survey) must be as hard if not harder than convincing an academic to teach using OER. TLTP achieved a lot, maybe the time has come to evaluate it’s impact again.Is an OER still an OER if no-one uses it? It’s a rhetorical question really, the answer is yes, obviously it is. But looking at a lot of OER projects you’d think that academic reuse was the entire purpose of release. And that worries me, as in a lot of cases this will fail and people stop releasing because they will feel they have failed.

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