Issues with OERs: Leadership, reusability and students

On the #h817open MOOC we’ve been asked to consider some of the issues around OERs based on reading 3 articles from a list of suggested readings. I’m meant to pen around 500 words on what I see as three key issues for OER and how these are being addressed, but I think I’ll end up going over the suggested word count.

The articles I chose to read were:

  1. Atkins, Daniel Ewell, John Seely Brown, and Allen L. Hammond. A review of the open educational resources (OER) movement: Achievements, challenges, and new opportunities. Creative common, 2007.
  2. D’Antoni, Susan. Open Educational Resources: The way forward: Deliberations of an international community of interest. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 2008.
  3. Hatakka, Mathias. “Build it and they will come?–Inhibiting factors for reuse of open content in developing countries.” The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries 37 (2009).

The three issues I’ve decided to highlight are

  • institutional leadership and strategy
  • reusability and
  • student involvement in developing OERs.

which have some overlap with the three priorities I’d identified as research priorities for OER.

Leadership and institutional strategy Atkins et al highlight that there is a challenge in institutions buying into OER and D’Antoni outlined the role that faculty can play in incentivising the development of OERs and the need for institutional leadership and support for OERs. Perhaps buy-in to the whole OER philosophy is more widespread amongst those institutions that have received funding for OER projects. Sometimes, however, I wonder what the motivation was in applying for OER funding? Was it driven by high level institutional buy-in on OERs or was it seen as a way to fund development of online material to support local curricula. But maybe I’m being unduly cynical! Back in 2011 the HEFCE Online Learning Taskforce published it’s report Collaborate to Complete. It recommended that institutions need to take a strategic approach to online learning and realign structures and processes to embed it. It said

Institutions and organisations need to invest in learning, and leadership and vision at the highest level is required to bring a step-change.  Such changes will not occur rapidly enough without effective organisational structures and processes.  Online learning is a strategic issue, not a simple, bolt-on option.

Whilst this recommendation relates to online learning generally rather an OERs specifically, it would be interesting to see how many universities have responded to it.  With all steady stream of hype around MOOCs have they become the focus of attention at senior levels in universities at the expense of OERs?

personally I’d like to see more defined policies developed around OERs in institutions and to see rewards in place for staff who create high quality open resources and see them getting recognition in the same way that researchers do.


The article by D’Antoni mentions that if there is little or no awareness of OER availability then these resources can’t be exploited.  In some respects this links to institutional policies and strategy, if these don’t exist then how many staff are aware of OERs?  In my experience many staff aren’t aware of copyright issues around the reuse of online images let alone OERs and creative commons licences.

There are a number of issues that impact on the reusability of OERs.  For some academics there’s the ‘not invented here syndrome’, which hinders engagement with OERs and reuse or as Hatakka says simply a preference to develop local content.  There can also be issues or concerns about quality of OERs and where this relates to factual accuracy this is understandable.  In a field such as medical education, in which I work, the age of the OER can also be issue.  The resources we develop are subject to annual review and updated to reflect new clinical guidelines, and drug treatments. Do OERs have the same review cycle and include a detailed revision history documenting changes? Some of the issues around quality can also be very subjective and even trivial, such as not liking a particular colour scheme.

A more significant issue that limits reusability is context and this is particularly the case with large OERs.  This issue of context is raised in the articles by Atkins et al and Hatakka and again has relevance in medical education. Different countries have different healthcare systems, drug names, even within countries there are local clinical guidelines, national guidelines and differences in the NHS between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These issues are particularly significant when reusing content in developing nations.  Funding the development of medical education OERs in the developed world may seem well-intentioned, however this funding could perhaps be better invested in supporting medical schools in developing countries to develop resources based on local expertise and knowledge. Students undertaking electives in developing countries might also be encouraged to develop OERs that could help prepare others for their electives and the situations they may face.  Focussing development in the developing world would also help to develop resources for modes of delivery that are most accessible, in many African nations this would be for mobile devices.

Even with little OERs reusability can be an issue and this was something I witnessed when I was seconded to an academic collaboration called IVIMEDS – the International Virtual Medical School (Harden & Hart 2002).  IVIMEDS involved medical schools from around the world and started off with great ambitions.  These weren’t realised, in some ways some of the ideas were ahead of their time but there were also other issues which are shared by the OER movement.  One of the principles on which IVIMEDS ran was the idea of collaboration and sharing reusable learning objects (RLOs).  Medical Schools paid a membership subscription to be part of the IVIMEDS club and access a repository of RLOs. There was limited engagement with the big OERs developed here but more with the little OERs which were videos, medical illustrations and Flash animations explaining concepts and principles. Whilst these were used, there were frequent requests for the original Flash files as individuals wanted to edit and tweak these RLOs.  I think the ability to modify an OER may therefore also affect its reusability.  Many OERs are developed using locally developed technologies or proprietary tools eg Flash, Articulate, which not everyone has ready access to.  This was one of the reasons that IVIMEDS went on to develop Riverside a rapid content authoring tool so that content created by members could be modified and reused by other members.  There are also open source tools like Xerte developed by the University of Nottingham which may help to make content more reusable.  Open source content development tools would need to be a key component of the open participatory learning infrastructure proposed by Harris et al.

Finally in relation to reusability there is the role of Web 2.0 and social software, which may help to increase the reuse particuarly of little OERs.  Social media tools which support the curation and sharing of content, eg, Tumblr, Google+ and blogs can be used by teachers to provide context and narrative around OERs linking them to local curricula and used to signpost students to learning opportunities.  There is growing use of and engagement with Web 2.0 in higher education and this may lead to greater discoverability and reuse of OERs.

Student involvement in developing OERs

In the review of the OER movement by Atkins et al, the issue of sustainability of the movement is raised. One of the approaches to sustainability that they suggest should be explored is the involvement of students in “creating, enhancing and adopting OER”.  They propose an “OER Corps” where students could receive some training, recognition and some funding to facilitate their involvement in the creation of learning resources.  They feel that students could particularly play a role in developing content for disadvantaged communities and the developing world.

I think this suggestion could be taken further and the development of OERs could be embedded into courses and form new forms of assessment.  Do we always need to ask students to write an essay to demonstrate their understanding of a topic, could they create a video or some other type of resource.  This year in our 4th year dermatology clinical attachment students have been asked to work in groups and create a 5 minute video on a topic from a list of topics relating to dermatology.  They’ve also been asked to write some MCQs to go with the video, some open questions and provide links to additional resources for further reference. The initial reaction to this task has been a bit of a sigh but all the groups have really enjoyed working on these projects, their reflective pieces have highlighted how much they’ve enjoyed the task and how much more they have learnt because they’ve had to effectively teach a topic.  The quality of the videos has generally been excellent and it’s interesting to see the students also comment that they feel it’s been worthwhile because their work will benefit other students in their learning.  Essays are written never to be looked at again, but these videos will be looked at by other students both locally and wider afield where they’ve been posted to YouTube.

Involving students in the development of OERs is something I would like to see nurtured and developed further.  As I mentioned in my previous posts I think there are additional benefits to be gained for students around employability.

I’m well over the suggested 500 words, hopefully that won’t count against me when I submit this for my first badge!

Additional references

Harden, R. M., and I. R. Hart. “An international virtual medical school (IVIMEDS): the future for medical education?.” Medical Teacher 24.3 (2002): 261-267.

Are UK universities missing a trick on MOOCs and open courses?

The Guardian grabbed five minutes with Steven Schwartz, VC at Macquarie University, to talk about the online course revolution and how the UK and Australia compare on social mobility.

Schwartz’s comments and observations on social mobility make for interesting listening.  He highlights what many of us already probably suspect is happening, ie that the current financial climate is seeing a decline in social mobility in the UK.

However, it was his comments about announcements of new MOOCs and groups of Universities collaborating in the develpment of MOOCs and open courses coming out of the US almost every day, but none coming out of the UK, that made me stop and think.  He’s right, in the UK there are hardly any announcements about MOOCs. There are only two that spring to my mind the Oxford Brookes First steps into learning and teaching MOOC and the recently announced OU MOOC on curriuclum design with OERs, but there may well be others that I haven’t heard of.  Should we be concerned about this?  Are we lagging behind in the UK?

Schwartz goes on to ask ‘where is the digital strategy’ in the UK?  Last year HEFCE published the Online Learning Taskforce’s report Collaborate to Compete: Siezing the opportunity of online learning for UK higher education.  The report stated:

Institutions and organisations need to invest in learning, and leadership and vision at the highest level is required to bring a step-change. Such changes will not occur rapidly enough without effective organisational structures and processes.  Online learning is a strategic issue, not a simple, bolt-on option.

18 months on it would be interesting to evaluate what impact this report has had on UK universities. Is there a clearly articulated strategic vision on digital learning in all UK universities?  JISC and the HEA continue to invest in OERs and  the HEFCE report suggests that £5 million per annum should be invetsed in OER projects.  Are OER projects the right way forward, are they delivering what academics on the ground actually need? How many JISC funded OERs are you using in your courses? Or are you making more use of YouTube videos and content in iTunesU and content developed by individuals using other web 2.0 and social media tools?

Another recommendation the report made was for investment to be made to facilitate the development and building of consortia to achieve scale and brand in online learning.

Quality online learning is not a cheap option. Through collaboration, institutions can achieve significant economies of scale and more rapid development and adoption of technologies, for example in the development of learning resources or in sharing the risk of developing new forms of provision. This approach enables institutions and organisations (that are perhaps already collaborating in other areas) to exploit their joint brands and extend them into new markets, offering innovative, quality provision. Collaboration should embrace and harness the strengths of diverse institutions and organisations, across public-private and sector divides.

This is effectively what the big guns in the US have been doing.  The taskforce suggested that £20 million per year for 5   years should be invested to set up 3-5 consortia and that this should be the responsibility of national government and devolved administrations.  I’ve not heard of any progress on this but I may have missed any announcment.  Does anyone know if there’s anything happening on this front?

Reading this again also brought back to mind the failure of the UK eUniversity (UKeU) which cost £62 million of public money.  There’s a detailed parliamentary report which explores why the UKeU failed, I’ve not had chance to reread the whole report again but I remember one of the issues being the underlying technology platform and also that a supply led approach was a key driver rather than demand.  Educause also published a piece on the real story behind the failure of the UKeU.  Their piece highlights:

The initiative was touted as an innovative response to the perceived opportunities and threats of online higher education—in the form of U.S. institutions such as the University of Phoenix Online and the University of Maryland University College, not to mention the many—at the time—dot-com start-ups such as NYU Online and Cardean University.

Which brings me back to the Schwatz interview.  Is there a new threat from the established US universities and the MOOCs they are offering via Coursera, Udacity and EDx.  The Stanford MOOC on Artifical Intelligence attracted 58,000 particpants from more than 175 countries.  Should we be worried that we’re not hearing announcments of UK MOOCs? Has the UKeU expereince made us too cautious and caused us to miss an opportunity or has there been too much of a focus on OERs?  Will lagging behind on MOOCs affect recruitment for UK online distance learning programmes?

Lots of questions, I’m sure others have similar questions and it would be interesting to see some converastion around these issues with others both in the UK and wider afield.