What I talk about when I talk about #ukoer

I spend a lot of my time talking about #ukoer (#4life!!), and – pretty much as a personal aide memoire that other people may find useful, I’ve decided to add some common links, inferences and my ideas of key outcomes on my personal blog. Do please comment and add to this as you see fit, also please reuse it as you see fit (cc-by). And note that this is on my *personal* blog for a reason, other programme staff offer equally valid perspectives with different emphases.

For practical purposes, there have been three main “phases” of UKOER (the large programme led by JISC and the Academy). I tend to characterise them as per the diagram below:


This is not in any way to denigrate the excellent earlier work that UKOER directly builds on – basically more than a decade of experience on the cutting edge of digital content and online sharing. Two key pieces of work that came out of the initial UKOER discussions were the RePRODUCE programme – which was an early attempted to examine educator attitudes to reusing content – and the Good Intentions report, which looked at business models for openness. The experiences of Jorum have been a huge influence, also projects like Xpert at Nottingham. And latterly, a number of other areas of work have begun to use UKOER ideas and concepts, most notably the recent work of the Digitisation and Content team at JISC.

But I tend to focus on the three main phases, as above, because it allows me to describe the narrative that I feel explains the way our perspectives have shifted.

With the initial kick off at phase 1, I was acutely aware of two things. Firstly that we were launching a risky undertaking – doing something that flew in the face of a lot of what was (and often still is) a prevalent internet business model. And secondly, that we were doing so with public funds, so we needed to make compelling arguments about value and sustainability. Phase 1 was split into three main strands, examining release models around institutions, consortia (based around the HE Academy subject networks) and individual academics. Though there was never an intention to directly compare them, we were interested in which models provided the most benefit and appeared to be the most sustainable at a low initial cost (compared to OCW-style approaches) and without substantial ongoing investment.

There were really three culminations of the programme. The Evaluation & Synthesis final report provided, drilling down to near-forensic detail, offered an overview of programme findings. The OER InfoKit distilled these into advice and guidance for those working in the area, and the UKOER10 symposium presented findings to the wider world.

Broadly speaking, what we learnt was that it was possible to do OER efficiently and (comparatively) cheaply in pretty much any setting, that it was possible to realise a variety of benefits from release (not all of which were directly linked to the reuse of material), and that lowering the technical and metadata barriers to release brought great participation but may cause issues further down the line.

Phase 2 had to be prepared in such a way that we were pulling ideas and plans together as phase 1 was coming to a close, and the major strategic steer we were getting concerned the “use” of OER-as-artefact, by students and staff. Addressing this, we supported a range of projects to draw together OER from various sources in managed collections aimed at identified user groups. This was coupled with two research studies into academic reuse and the student response to OER, and a small set of case studies examining specific instances of reuse. Phase 2 also explicitly built on the findings of stage one, funding more OER release projects to build on what we had learnt (with a nod to key sectoral priorities identified by the funding council), and using a “cascade” methodology to explicitly transplant working release models from phase 1 projects into new areas.

Again an evaluation and synthesis final report and extensions to the OER infokit were (alongside the wide range of materials produced and collected) the major outputs. For me, the interesting findings moved in two directions. The postulation – by Lou McGill, Helen Beetham, Marion Manton, Dave White and others – of the concept of “Open Academic Practice” – simply put, academics being open in every area of their practice and artefact creation. This idea ties OER more explicitly into stuff like Open Access Research, Open Data and MOOCs. We also started to see more movement technically, with stuff like the OpenAttribute browser-plug in, CapRET, the (US) Learning Registry and some of the widget-led approaches to resource collections all starting to manifest. The potential for webscale change is there, but might require a significant cultural shift before we start to see benefits.

What was also interesting about phase 2 was what we didn’t see – evidence of OER reuse at scale by academics. From the early days of OCW even up to the design of the UKOER programme one of the central benefits postulated from OER release has been the massive academic reuse of materials giving rise to an efficiency saving. To me, what the early OER thinkers failed to do is to take into account the growth of online practice and the ongoing decay of the c19/20th idea of “intellectual property” – to be blunt, educators are reusing and remixing stuff they find online anyway, license-be-damned. 

Following on from this, I don’t think I can tell the UKOER story without mentioning the political themes running alongside it. Joss Winn at Lincoln was among the first in the UK to connect some (not all) of the ideas and assumptions behind OER with the ongoing struggle for the soul of the university sector – thrown into sharp relief by the change both of government and university funding regime in the UK. Open Academic Practice (if not so much OER directly) has been a part of the critique and resistance to the way HE seems to be going, and you can see elements within the “free” university and MOOC-like movements that have sprung up alongside mainstream provision. At the very least, there is a really interesting collection of blog posts.

As we came to define UKOER phase 3 I think that these things were uppermost in our minds, alongside the idea that we should be concentrating on what we could do with OER, having proved to our satisfaction that we could do OER. The “themes” strand takes as a starting point the need to address specific institutional and sector-wide issues drawn from a range of perspectives, ranging from engagement with the private sector to the development of new models of delivery. The OMAC project from phase 2, developing materials for academic staff development, has become a full strand in support of the new Academy-led UKPSF. And there are a range of studies and pilots, looking at ways of using OER and spreading further the ideas and practices behind it.

For me, the unique nature of OER in the UK is constituted as follows:

  • low initial and ongoing cost practice
  • empowering individual academics to create and release materials, within (and outside of) institutional policies and practice.
  • a nuanced understanding of the issues around reuse.
  • a genuine feeling of community action and community support, supported by an inclusive and wide rationale.
  • drawing on existing strengths and structures, most notably the existing national services and ongoing work around the more library-esque facets of digital resource management.
  • a spirit of technical and structural experimentation.
  • large amounts of tea and/or warm beer.
So that’s what I talk about when I talk about OER.

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