Open Educational Resources
Now that the foundations of modern ed tech had been laid with the web, CMC, e-learning, and LMS, developments could take place that utilized this basis of awareness and technology. For 2004, the selection was open educational resources (OER), which represented one such development. In 2001, MIT announced its OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative, which marked the real initiation of the OER movement, and in 2002 the first OER were released, and there was a move to engage with different forms of licences for educational content. The OER concept is a relatively, but perhaps deceptively, simple one, and has remained largely unchanged since the initial MIT project: creating educational content with an open licence so it could be accessed freely and adapted. UNESCO’s (2012a) definition of an OER is “teaching, learning and research materials in any medium, digital or otherwise, that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions” (para. 1).
A key element to this definition is the stress on the licence that permits free use and repurposing. In order to satisfy the above definition, it is not enough simply to be free, it has to be reusable as well. There are different definitions of OER, but they are all quite similar. Unlike the definition debates that dogged learning objects, this fairly clear understanding of the concept of OER has allowed it to develop quickly.
Other providers followed the example of MIT, by 2004 a new open education movement was developing, and it had moved beyond being just an experiment by a single institution. MIT’s goal was to make all the learning materials used by their 1,800 courses available via the Internet, where the resources could be used and repurposed as desired by others, without charge. At the time, this announcement caused a good deal of debate, as it seemed to run counter to the conventional wisdom that “content is king” and to the online models that sought to develop paid subscription models. Simply giving content away — and not only giving it away but explicitly giving permission to others to alter it — was a model that many struggled to comprehend. It took an institution with the reputation of MIT to give some credence to this idea, but it should also be noted that MIT was operating from a position of extreme privilege. Giving away its content was unlikely to affect its student recruitment, and much of that content wasn’t particularly useful outside of the MIT setting. But what it highlighted, contrary to many of the prophecies of doom we saw in chapter 6 on e-learning, was that there was more to an education than simply the content.
As we saw with learning objects earlier, inspiration had been taken from software coding on reusability of components. The software approach, and in particular open source software, also provided the roots for OER. The open-source movement can be seen as creating the context within which open education could flourish, partly by analogy, and partly by establishing a precedent, but there was also a very direct link in the figure of David Wiley. Influential in the initial interest around learning objects, he provided a bridge to OER through the development of licences. In 1998, he became interested in developing an open licence for educational content and contacted pioneers in the open-source world directly. Out of this came the open content licence, which he developed with publishers to establish the Open Publication Licence (OPL).
The OPL proved to be one of the key components, along with the Free Software Foundation’s GNU General Public Licence, in developing the Creative Commons licences, created by Lawrence Lessig and others. Creative Commons, which was founded in 2001, would go on to become the main licence that permitted reuse of materials and be widely adopted in the OER movement. In 2004, MIT would adopt Creative Commons, and others followed suit. These licences went on to become essential tools in the open education movement. The simple licences in Creative Commons allowed users to easily share resources and wasn’t restricted to a software code. Key to the Creative Commons licences was the fact that they were permissive rather than restrictive. They allowed the user to do what the licence permitted without seeking permission. These licences became a very practical requirement for the OER movement to persuade institutions and individuals to release content openly, with the knowledge that their intellectual property was still maintained.
The OER movement has been something of a success story compared with some of the developments we cover in this book. There is a global OER movement, with at least three annual international conferences on the subject, and OER repositories in most major languages. Funding has been provided by foundations such as Hewlett and national bodies such as Jisc in the UK, and sustainable models that do not require external funding have begun to emerge, such as the Open University’s OpenLearn project (Perryman, Law, & Law, 2013). The OER World Map (https://oerworldmap.org) lists nearly 1,000 institutions globally that are using OER and nearly 500 OER projects, while Creative Commons has estimated there are over one billion CC-licensed resources (Creative Commons, 2015).
This demonstrates a steady but not spectacular impact. When MOOC became headline news many in the OER field could only wonder why they attracted such attention when many of the same claims of newsworthiness could be made about OER. The potential of OER to become mainstream seems always just about to break. This “nearly there” phenomenon is a recurring theme in ed tech; for example, with artificial intelligence. Here are some areas on which OER could have a significant impact, and although the results are currently small scale, there is promise:
Student retention: Students in formal education at all levels often use OER to support their learning (Weller, de los Arcos, Farrow, Pitt, & McAndrew, 2015). Currently, this is done on their own initiative, but educators could make better use of promoting OER to offer a broader range of material.
Student recruitment: Higher education is increasingly expensive in many countries, so the idea of trying a subject for a year and then switching to a different course is not always feasible. In order to facilitate effective course choice (Simpson, 2004), the provision of OER is an ideal way for students to explore if the subject meets their interest.
Student costs: This is often couched in terms of open textbooks for formal learners, as we shall see later, but also more broadly in terms of allowing access to educational content that would otherwise be unaffordable for informal learners.
Pedagogic variety: Teachers, colleges, and universities all struggle with the issue of appropriate staff development, updating the curriculum, and incorporating technology. The use of OER by teachers led to teachers reflecting on their own practice (Weller et al., 2015) and resulted in them incorporating a greater variety of content and approaches in their teaching.
This desire for OER to “break through” may be misplaced, however. It is not the case that all educators need to be aware of OER for them to benefit. Seaman and Seaman (2017) reported that awareness of OER amongst U.S. educators was low (10% very aware and 20% aware) but was growing annually, and in 2018 awareness amongst U.S. educators had reached 50% (Seaman & Seaman, 2018). More broadly though, open education in general and OER specifically form a basis from which many other practices benefit, but often practitioners in those areas are unaware of OER explicitly. These secondary and tertiary levels of OER awareness likely represent a far greater audience than the primary one, so the sizes of these audiences can be viewed like the metaphorical iceberg, with increasing size in successive categories. OER users, then, can be classified as follows:
Primary OER users: This group is “OER aware” in that the term itself will have meaning for them, they are engaged with issues around open education, are aware of open licences, and are often advocates for OERs. This group has often been the focus of OER funding, conferences, and research, with the goal of growing the ranks of this audience.
Secondary OER users: This group may have some awareness of OER or open licences, but they have a pragmatic approach to them. OER are of secondary interest to their primary task, which is usually teaching. OER (and openness in general) can be seen as the substratum which allows some of their practice to flourish, but they are neither aware nor interested in open education itself; rather, they are interested in their own area and therefore OER are only of interest to the extent that they facilitate innovation or efficiency in this.
Tertiary OER users: This group will use OER amongst a mix of other media and often not differentiate between them. Awareness of licences is low and not a priority. OER are a “nice to have” option but not essential, and users are often largely consuming rather than creating and sharing.
Wiley (2009) raised the concept of “dark reuse,” that is, whether reuse is happening in places that can’t be observed, analogous to dark matter, or it simply isn’t happening much at all. He poses the challenge to the OER movement about its aims:
If our goal is catalyzing and facilitating significant amounts of reuse and adaptation of materials, we seem to be failing. . . . If our goal is to create fantastically popular websites loaded with free content visited by millions of people each month, who find great value in the content but never adapt or remix it, then we’re doing fairly well. (paras. 4–5)
By considering these three levels of OER engagement, it is possible to see how both elements of Wiley’s goals are realizable. The main focus of OER initiatives has often been the primary OER usage group. Here OER are created, and there are OER advocacy missions. For example, Wild (2012) suggested a ladder of engagement for higher education staff that progresses from piecemeal to strategic to embedded use of OER. The implicit assumption is that one should encourage progression through these levels, that is, the route to success for OER is to increase the population of the primary OER group.
However, another approach may be to increase the penetration of OER into the secondary and tertiary levels. Awareness of OER repositories was very low amongst this group compared with resources such as the Khan Academy or TED. The focus for improving uptake for these groups, then, is to increase visibility, search engine optimization, and convenience of the resources themselves, without knowledge of open education. This might be realized by creating a trusted brand to compete with resources, such as TED.
OER has many strong advocates, and UNESCO (2012b), for example, phrased its promotion of OER in terms of supporting human rights to education. The OER movement is not without its critics, however, which stem from both practical and ideological bases. For example, Knox (2013) offered five criticisms of OER, including an under-theorization of “openness,” privileging the institution, and a lack of focus on pedagogy. Almeida (2017) also addressed some of the political reservations, suggesting that OER reinforce a neoliberal perspective and devalue academic labour. For Kortemeyer (2013), it was the lack of significant change in higher education a decade after the launch of OER that was the issue.
Perhaps one of the strongest criticisms of OER is that they focus on content often to the exclusion of pedagogy and support structures. They are guilty of reinforcing a model based on the autodidact or on implementation through existing educational systems. For example, UNESCO (2018) updated its previous recommendations, but the focus remained on the provision of content. Given UNESCO’s goal to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong opportunities for all,” OER represent a necessary starting point, but they are not an end point, and it is the learner support that is associated with the content that is a necessary component of any OER system. For example, UNESCO’s “sustainability models for OER” are aimed at finding ways to fund the creation of OER but are silent on the need for models that will support learners. The sorts of learners one might envisage using OER in an equitable, lifelong learning scenario often lack the confidence or the necessary learning skills to make effective use of them. As we saw in chapter 6 on e-learning, supporting students is by far the most expensive part of the open education system — but it is also the most impactful. An OER solution that ignores how this support is delivered is not sufficiently dealing with the problem that OER set out to address.
However, even with these reservations, OER represents something of a success story in ed tech, growing into a global movement since its early days. It may not have transformed education in quite the way it was envisaged back in 2004, and many projects have floundered once funding ends, but through open textbooks and open educational practice (OEP), it continues to adapt and be relevant.
The general lessons from OER are that they largely succeeded where learning objects have failed because they tapped into existing practice (and open textbooks doubly so). The concept of sharing educational content with a licence, that doesn’t restrict this distribution, is alien enough without all the accompanying standards and concepts associated with learning objects. The component parts needed to be in place: in this case, the digital platform, open licences, and the concept of sharing educational content.