Trends in Open Education – Open Education Resources

In this post, which is the second in the series on ‘Trends in Open Education,’ is on Open Education Resources. There is a wealth of resources that can be of great use in education for a wide range of topics, and I will discuss these later in the post.

1. Open Learning

2. Open Education Resources (OER)

3. Open textbooks, open research and open data

4. The implications of ‘open’ for course & programme design.

Open educational resources are somewhat different from open learning, in that we are primarily focusing on content. While open learning does include both the content and the educational services, such as specially designed online materials, in-built learner support and assessment.

Open educational resources (OER) can cover a wide range of online formats, which will include (but not exhaustively) ebooks, video lectures (including live streamed webinars and recorded lecturers), web-based text content that has been created or specifically designed for study, animations, simulations, digital diagrams and graphics (Bates, 2017). Some MOOCs, or assessment materials such as tests that have automated answers could also be included as part of this list. OER can also include Powerpoint slides or pdf files of lecture notes. In order for any of these material to be considered as open educational resources, they must be freely available for at least educational use and labelled with the relevant license under creative commons to clearly identify to the user what type of usage they are intended for.

The Principles of OER

Hilton et al., (2010) have commented that there are five core principles to open publishing:

  • re-use: This is the simplest level of basic openness. Permission is given to use all or some part of the work for their own purposes (for example, downloading a tutorial pdf file to use at a later time);
  • re-distribute: Permission is given to share the work with others (for example, send a digital article by-email to a colleague);
  • revise: Permission is given to adapt, modify, translate, or change the work (for example, taking a book written in English, translate it into Spanish and release as a Spanish audio book);
  • re-mix: Permission is given to take two or more existing resources and combine them to create a new resource (for example, using an audio lecture from one course and join them with presentation slides from another course to create a new derivative piece of work);
  • retain: Permission is given for no digital rights management restrictions (DRM); the content is yours to keep, regardless of whether you’re the author, an instructor using the material, or a student.

Users of OER however, will need to check the actual license to see what they can or cannot do with the specific item, as sometimes there are limitations, which could include certain parts not being allowed to reproduce without permission for commercial reasons, or permission given to use with credit. For example, an online series of blogs about a specific topic cannot be turned into a book for profit by a commercial publisher, at least without written permission from the author(s). In order to protect your rights as an author of OER, you will usually publish under a Creative Commons or other open license.

Creative Commons Licenses

The simple idea, of an ‘author’ creating a license which enables people to access or adapt copyrighted material, without charge or special permission, is one of the most innovative ideas of the 21st century where sharing information and access to learning is concerned. This development does not take away someone’s copyright, or diminish the level of work put into it, nor does it hide learning behind a paywall, but rather, it enables the copyright holder to give permission automatically for different kinds of use of their material without charge or any bureaucracy.

The are now several possible Creative Commons licenses:

  • CC BY Attribution: this lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials;
  • CC BY-SA: this lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This is particularly important if your work also includes other people’s materials licensed through the Creative Commons;
  • CC BY-ND: this allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you;
  • CC BY-NC: this lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms;
  • CC BY-NC-SA: this lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms;
  • CC BY-NC-ND: this is the most restrictive of the six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

If you wish to offer your own materials as open educational resources, it is a relatively simple process to choose a licence and apply it to any piece of work (see Creative Commons Choose a License).

Sources of OER

There are a number of online locations for open educational resources.The Open Professionals Education Network has an excellent guide to finding and using OER.

However, when we are searching for possible open educational resources on the web, it is important to check to see whether or not the resource has a Creative Commons license or any statement that governs the permission for re-use. It may be common practice to use free (i.e. no incurred cost) resources without having to worry about copyright issues, but there are risks where there is not a clear license or permission for re-use. For example, there are many sites, such as OpenLearn, that only allow individual and personal use for non-commercial purposes, which means providing a link to the site for students rather than integrating the materials directly into your own teaching. If you have any doubts about the right to re-use, check with your institutions’ library or intellectual property department.

What are the Limitations of OER?

The usage of OER by teachers, trainers, lecturers, tutors or instructors is relatively small. The main criticism leveled at OER is of the poor quality of many of the OERs available at present– reams of text with no interaction, often available in PDFs that cannot easily be changed or edited, crude simulation, poorly produced graphics, and designs that fail to make clear what academic concepts they are meant to illustrate. In short, there is still a mentality of hoarding educational resources and those that are being shared are not of a high standard.

Falconer (2013), in a survey of potential users’ attitudes to OER in Europe, came to the following conclusion:

The ability of the masses to participate in production of OER – and a cultural mistrust of getting something for nothing – give rise to user concerns about quality. Commercial providers/publishers who generate trust through advertising, market coverage and glossy production, may exploit this mistrust of the free. Belief in quality is a significant driver for OER initiatives, but the issue of scale-able ways of assuring quality in a context where all (in principle) can contribute has not been resolved, and the question of whether quality transfers unambiguously from one context to another is seldom [addressed]. A seal of approval system is not infinitely scale-able, while the robustness of user reviews, or other contextualised measures, has not yet been sufficiently explored.

If OER is to be taken up by others, other than the initial creators of the OER, they will need to be well designed. It is not surprising to learn that the most used OER on iTunes University belonged to the Open University, until the OU set up its own OER portal, OpenLearn, which offers as OER mainly textual materials from its courses designed specifically for online, independent study. Once again, design is a critical factor in ensuring the quality and subsequent success of an OER.

Hampson (2013) has suggested another reason for the slow adoption of OER, which is mainly to do with the professional self-image of many subject departments. Hampson argues that these departments will not only see themselves as teachers, but also creators and disseminators of new or original knowledge. Therefore, their professional work needs to have their own individual stamp on it, which will make them reluctant to openly incorporate or ‘copy’ other people’s work. OER can easily be associated with ‘packaged’, reproductive knowledge, and not original work, changing department staff from ‘artists’ to ‘artisans’. It can be argued that this reason is absurd – we all stand on the shoulders of giants in some shape or form with regards to knowledge that we have learned – but it is the self-perception that’s important, and for research professors, there is a grain of truth in the argument. It makes sense for them to focus their teaching on their own research.

There is also confusion between ‘free’ (no financial cost) and ‘open’, which is compounded by lack of clear licensing information on many OER. This confusion is easily avoidable with a little forethought. For example, Coursera MOOCs are free, but not ‘open.’ It is a breach of copyright to re-use the material in most Coursera MOOCs within your own teaching without permission. The edX MOOC platform is open source, which means other institutions can adopt or adapt the portal software, but institutions even on edX tend to retain copyright. However, there are exceptions on both platforms: a few MOOCs do have an open licence.

There is also the issue of the context-free nature of OER. Research into learning shows that content is best learned within a given context (situated learning), when the learner is active, and that above all, when the learner can actively construct knowledge by developing meaning and ‘layered’ understanding. The content is not static, nor is it a commodity like product to sell. In other words, content can not be effectively learned if it is thought of as shoveling coal into a truck. Learning is always a dynamic process that requires questioning, adjustment of prior learning to incorporate new ideas, testing of understanding, and feedback. These ‘transactional’ processes require a combination of personal reflection, feedback from an expert (the teacher or instructor) and even more importantly, feedback from and interaction with friends, family and fellow learners.

The weakness with OER is that by its nature, at its purest it is stripped of these developmental, contextual and ‘environmental’ components that are crucial to effective learning. In other words, OER become just like any commodity, sitting there waiting to be loaded. A given commodity, will still be a very valuable product. But it has to be stored, shipped and processed. More attention needs to be paid to those contextual elements that turn OER from raw ‘content’ into a useful learning experience. This means that teachers need to work at building contextually relevant learning experiences or environments into which the OER will fit.

For a useful overview of the research on OER, access the Review Project from the Open Education Group. Another important research project that is worth consideration is ROER4D. Its’ main aim is to provide evidence-based research on OER adoption across a number of countries in the South American, Sub-Saharan African and Southeast Asian continents.

How to Use OER

Despite the limitations discussed above, teachers and instructors are increasingly creating open educational resources, or making resources freely available for others to use under a Creative Commons license. There are increasing numbers of repositories or portals where department staff can access OERs. As the searchable bank of OER increases, it will become more likely that teachers and lecturers will increasingly be able to find the resources that best suit their particular teaching context and encourage them to contribute to the growing bank of OER in their subject area.

There are therefore several choices to the teacher (Bates, 2017):

  • choose OER selectively from other locations, and incorporate or adapt them into your own courses;
  • create your own digital resources for your own teaching experience, and make them available to others;
  • construct a course around OER, where students have to find the relevant content to solve problems, write reports or do research on a chosen topic;
  • take an entire course from OERu, and build student activities and assessment around the course, and provide learner support for the course.

Learners can also make use of OER to support any type of learning. For instance, MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) could be used just for interest, or students who struggle with the topics in a classroom lecture for a credit course may well go to OCW to get an alternative approach to the same topic.

Is it Still Worth the Effort?

In short, I believe so. Despite there still being some limitations or weaknesses of OER, its’ usage is likely to grow, simply because it makes no sense to create everything from scratch when good quality materials are already freely and easily available. There is now an ever-increasing amount of high quality open material that is available to teachers and instructors on every academic subject. This will only continue to grow over time. This will also change the way courses are designed, assessed, marketed and offered. Indeed, when the quality of OER resources reach a level and a quantity that is too big to be ignored, it may prove to be one of the essential features of teaching and learning in a digital age.


See also:

Li, Y, MacNeill, S., and Kraan, W. (undated) Open Educational Resources – Opportunities and Challenges for Higher Education Bolton UK: JISC_CETIS

Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

I'm a Lecturer in Computing and the Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. My research interests in the areas of technology enhanced learning, how we interact with technology, blended learning and professional development. Michael currently specialises in the computing areas of web development technologies, cyber security, software development and IoT. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution. Michael is currently studying a PhD in Cyberpsychology.

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