Monday, 12 March 2012

Is OER mainstreamed and sustainable?

I should state before I even get started on this post, that I am a big advocate of openness; I have managed a JISC-funded project on OER and am currently researching aspects of the 'movement'. However, this is the first post in a series that I'm calling 'Sceptic Week' (a few posts that will critically reflect upon and question movements that I fully support). So, without further ado, this post will question two common tenets: mainstreaming and sustaining...

Last week I flicked through the (most recent) 2012 Horizon Report (a report which 'predicts' the latest technologies and their 'time to mainstream adoption'), and recall Open Content featuring in the 2010 report (that's 2 years ago) as a movement to reach mainstream adoption within a year or less i.e. last year. With my sceptic hat on, I questioned the Twitterverse if OER had indeed become mainstream. A resulting discussion/debate is what led me to writing this.

There will always be societal influences in education - sharing locally amongst academic colleagues, has, is, and probably always will take place. Viv Rolfe (from DMU) and myself are both interested in the current awareness and attitudes towards OER; both my article (submitted to Research in Learning Technology) and Viv's 2012 article (in the same journal) demonstrate that teaching staff are sharing content on an informal scale with colleagues within department/faculty, but they are not applying (creative commons) licences or sharing via repositories.

Without doubt, this needs to change if the movement is to scale and have a significant impact, and for me, one of the major challenges to the Open Content Movement is in embedding 'open practice' as 'standard practice' amongst academic staff, if it is to continue beyond funding activity.

But what counts as 'significant impact'? Well, it's probably a subjective metric - one might see the movement's influence on an individual teacher/lecturer as being significant, whilst others may want more 'bang for their buck'. I'm of the latter, and whilst the big players such as MIT OCW and the OU OpenLearn demonstrate significant access/download/sign-up figures,  the OpenLearn Research Report (McAndrew. et. al, 2006-2008) - all be it a few years old now - highlighted that we don't know how much 'reuse' is actually happening.

Instead, I see the success of such movements when they become mainstream.

Aha, another word of subjectivity - Mainstream!
"Mainstream is, generally, the common current thought of the majority" (Wikipedia article on 'mainstream')
Whilst many HEIs in the UK have some OER activity, to me, OER becoming mainstream means that not only are a select group of people within institutions engaging (and probably as a result of funding), but the majority of staff engaging from the majority of institutions.

And by engaging, I don't mean letting my friend use my powerpoint slides, I mean formally licensing and sharing via a repository - Schaffert & Geser (2008) suggest if something is to be open, it must subscribe to 4 elements: Open Licensing, Openly Access, Open Software and Open Format. This is quite a strict viewpoint, whereas Hilton et. al. (2010) suggest;
"Openness is not like a light switch that is either ‘on’ or ‘off’. Rather, it is like a dimmer switch, with varying degrees of openness” (Hilton et. al, 2010)
Either way, both Viv's and my own research highlights that the current informal sharing isn't really 'open' (in the strict sense of the word), or even if we consider varying degrees of openness, it demonstrates such a dim view the light switch may as well be off.

This takes me on to my second point - sustainability.

For as long as it requires extra workload and/or time, the chances of mass sharing of resources will be slim, especially in a era where wanting 'more for less' is prevalent. And sharing content is often more time consuming - not just the process of uploading a file to a repository, but inevitably (and rightly or wrongly) the stakes related to QA increase. Staff might be willing to use their own materials in class, but the thought of sharing those materials 'as is', can be daunting.

So whilst there are resources, workflows and development tools available, I just don't see mass engagement when funding ceases. Many authors suggest barriers that must be overcome, such as reward mechanisms and licensing - I agree that until HEIs strategically focus on OER for OER-sake, which will come at a cost, it can't reach mainstream, after all, would the breadth of institutions currently engaging with OER be the same if JISC/HEA funding wasn't so plentiful?

With these questions out in the air, I must once again repeat my 'allegiance' to the 'Movement' (no this isn't a Star Wars film), but in doing so, I must also critically reflect on my academic activities, and in an era of openness, share my questions. I am not so dogmatic to believe I am 100% correct on these points,  and accept that my views could be a 'glass-half-empty' stance, but I only hope they spark a debate.

  • Johnson, L., Levine, A., Smith, R., & Stone, S. (2010). The 2010 Horizon Report. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.
  • McAndrew, P. et al. (2006-2008) OpenLearn Research Report.Milton Keynes, England: The Open University. 
  • Rolfe, V. (2012). Open educational resources: staff attitudes and awareness. Research in Learning Technology, 20(1063519), 1-13. doi:10.3402/rlt.v20i0/14395
Mainstream image under CC-BY License from Flickr user Michael Karshis
Creative Commons License
This work by Peter Reed is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Hi Peter,

    I think you're absolutely correct in your analysis from a technical standpoint. However, sharing is a *social* phenomenon and, to my mind, the thing the OER movement hasn't got right so far is the social layer.

    Sort that, get mainstream stuff to CC license things by default, and we're off. :-)

    1. Hi Doug, thanks for the comment.

      I agree, and touched on the societal influences. Ultimately, as you say, openness really is a social phenomenon, and something which I think Viv's research (and my own) has identified as something not unnatural or unknown to teaching staff. However, I feel there is a certain 'convenience' issue related to performing 'social goods' (for want of a better phrase). Let me expand...

      Most respectful people would happily help a pensioner cross the road, or give up a seat on a bus to a pregnant woman. However, would you cross a busy dual carriageway to help the pensioner cross a small one-way road? Or would you tell a gang of kids to stand up to let the pregnant woman sit?

      Of course you may say yes to the latter two, but they are just examples to exercise my point. Essentially, social goods only exist, in the main part, whilst it they are convenient. Of course there are exceptions to this rule (if we can call it a rule) - aid workers for example might be the equivalent of the OER extremist. But whilst there are barriers to the social good - dual carriageways - then the majority are less likely to perform them.

      The real challenge for OER therefore, has nothing to do with the social - it has to be economic, which in turn includes technical. The social good - the act of sharing, has to be a seamless one. We must remove the inconveniences such as separate systems to upload to, and the application of 'confusing' licenses. Perhaps a way toward this would be strategic implementation of CC for all academic work by default. All work is primarily uploaded to a repository, and linked to from the VLE. Sharing will have to come first.

      That's enough tenuous links for 1 day I think :-)

  2. Nice post, good questions.

    Mainstreaming and sustainability concern me too.

    The narrative that follows is very particularly about risk management. Its quite a conservative view and not the only narrative around open educational resources, just one that doesn't get told much, and seems relevant to your post.

    I think that for the last 15 years or so, the mainstream practice of those who *do* share has been sharing on the "black market" as described by Dave White et al at Oxford. I myself used to run a repository for FE in the early 00s, plenty of sharing, complete ostrich approach to copyright (which I stand by as appropriate for that time).

    What does Creative Commons licensing do for education? It gives a legal framework for remix and reuse. Where does remix and reuse happen in education? Most often, it happens at the point of delivery, face to face, or in an authenticated digital environment. Low risk of a copyright breach being spotted there (unless like two crazy Canadian universities you allow your email to be monitored by a copyright collecting agency). But when we do our teaching on the web, in the fresh air of publicly accessible spaces, the risk of breaches being spotted is higher. This was different territory. So along wth the increase in sharing,  there was an increasing awareness of the *risk* of sharing. So the early web sharers rightly grasped Creative Commons as part of the solutions for education making use of the web.

    The paradox is that it is actually higher risk to licence out as Creative Commons resources containing third party resources than it is to licence it out as (c) all rights reserved. That's because you are giving the end user more rights than they would have had if you used the traditional (c) all rights reserved. So the owner of the third party materials are more likely to object, if they spot it, EXCEPT that higher risk is mitigated by the goodwill around CC licences).

    So, I said this is something to do with mainstreaming and sustainability. I think CC licences effectively broker the supply and demand of content on the web. Giving and using is all part of the ecosystem, and it is the ecosystem that offers the sustainability. This is not about education institutions taking an all or nothing approach. Releasing, viewing, downloading, commenting, attributing, sharing, favouriting, across this massive body of CC licenced content makes the content ecosystem sustainable for its many suppliers and users: everyone wins.

    OER alone is not sustainable: educators as one type of provider of open content, and learning as one use of open content, is a much healthier ecosystem. I'm still struggling to articulate this argument, but this is why I said in the OER Turn OER IS DEAD. LONG LIVE ACADEMICALLY-CREATED CONTENT APPROPRIATELY LICENSED AND FORMATTED TO SUPPORT INTENDED USERS


    1. Hi Amber, love the comment, especially the capitals and The OER Turn post!

      A few things have got me thinking...

      I'm trying to think of the big picture of HE and the open ecosystem within it. Perhaps the ecosystem you describe is sustainable in itself, but is it scalable?
      I think openness on the grand scale is not particularly reciprocal i.e. there are probably many more 'takers' than there are 'givers', so as the movement is developing, will the supply meet the demand? And also, how will the sector (and the funders) see the cost/benefit? If all OER related funding ceased tomorrow, what would happen in relation to appropriately-licensed, academically-created content? The ecosystem might continue to bubble along, just as there are still developer communities for the Amstrad, but again, how would the supply/demand fair?

      I can see re-application of the 'Blackmarket', to denote informal sharing without licensing or hosting (as described above) - but strictly speaking that cannot be open!

      (are there any models/matrices knocking about like this?)

      Also, who is the target audience in the open movement?
      I hypothesised a while back about student access to OER - we see large access figures at OU and MIT, so students/self-paced learners are clearly an important demographic. But with that, comes a hierarchy - is a student is less likely to choose a video from a smaller post-92 over one from Oxford, the OU, Stanford or MIT, for example - because they have to be better, right?
      Or do students not care about the source, but rather the most relevant Google search return?
      in cases where academics repurpose materials, should students even be able to tell the difference?

      So I think we have to be careful when considering students as consumers/customers/recipients/engagers in the ecosystem.

  3. I can't possibly follow Amber's comment as my capslock key is broken and I've only had half a glass of wine.

    But my worry is that we're talking ourselves out of a very good set of practices because we can't think of a way to measure them. OER is a window in to a utopia - what would learning be like if we could reuse, share and play with everything we wanted to. And it looks good in there. The ideas are amazing. And the practices, when we see them chime in with easy comparators like the "Open Access" debates, the Open Source movement - and also the way the worlds of culture, media and content are moving in wider society.

    Of course we can't try to persuade academics to break the law in creating learning materials. And we don't need to. They do, every day in their hundreds of thousands. Despite the recent unpleasantness in Canada there is no way we can stop them.

    So Creative Commons, and related "open" tools, are actually restrictive constraining devices - forcing us to take the time to understand what it is we are actually doing. They make the pragmatic act of stealing into the political act of sharing.

  4. Peter,

    This is a great post and I think you have done an excellent job framing the problems, particularly from an institutional/staff point of view. As you have pointed out in your comments on my post this week, sustainability (from a general educational environment perspective) must and will be a key factor in determining continued investment in this area. @xplanarob

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