Rethinking the O in OER

Being immersed in the UK open educational resources (OER) programme it can be hard to step outside the programme boundaries and look at it with fresh eyes. This is my attempt.

  • What is an OER anyway?
  • Open is multi-dimensional
  • Is “use” good enough?
  • If linking is good enough, why use open licences?
  • Hybrids: what about an “OER Version”

What is “an OER” anyway?

If you search on google, bing or whatever for the topic of your choice, all sorts of things can turn up. OER is a supply-side term that means nothing to most users.  The question is more: how does the aspiration of OER release, and everything that means, translate into the availability of resources recognised as specifically useful for learning and teaching?

Consider whether the following can be counted as an open educational resource:

  1. a PDF
  2. an MS Powerpoint .ppt file
  3. a html page with no licence information
  4. an IMS content package
  5. a PDF licensed as CC BY SA
  6. a jpeg
  7. a website licensed as CC BY NC
  8. an iTunesU podcast
  9. an open office word document licensed as (c) all rights reserved

Strictly, only openly licensed resources count as OER so only (5) and (7) comply. In fact there’s a school of thought that no derivatives (ND) and non-commercial (NC) clauses on Creative Commons licences aren’t open enough.  See “how open is open?”  by Naomi Korn for a discussion of this issue. On this approach, only (5) is under a truly open licence. Outside of purely legal definitions there is also a risk assessment element, where if the use is under the radar and away from the enforcers, people sometimes ignore licences. A support tool to help with risk assessment is currently under development by the excellent OER IPR Support team

Now imagine the rest of the items on the list so have a CC BY SA licence on them, so the open licensing box gets a big tick. How open are they? If the point is to unlock resources currently locked inside universities, and make them available for wider use, then there is definitely more to this than the licensing. It also depends on what the user wants to do with it, what technology they have.

Open is multi-dimensional

As well as the legal axis towards optimum openness there’s a technical one too.

Illustration of technical and legal axis, without data

There are technology considerations such as:

  • What software do you need to access it?
  • Do you have to log in?
  • Do you have to pay?
  • What software do you need to edit it?
  • What skills do you need to edit it?

A diagram by Lawrence Lessig shows how the hard and soft legal/cultural constraints play alongside technology and cost constraints. Thanks to Tony Hirst for pointing that one out. As an aside, this diagram is a case in point, there’s no licence on it, the url doesn’t hack down to anything meaningful, and its apparently supposed to be password protected. I only know its Lessig because he told me, How do I cite it? How do i integrate it into what I have to say?

So let’s look back at the list.

(2) an MS Powerpoint .ppt file, is proprietary but ubiquitous. Easy to view, easy to edit.

(4) an IMS content package, is non-proprietary but specialist. You need to have the right software, and the software isn’t commonly available. But if you know what you want you can get it for free. Then it’s easy to view and easy to edit.

(8) an iTunesU podcast, is proprietary but common. You need the right device. You have to pay. Then it’s easy to play but you can’t edit it

Some formats have implicit constraints on re-use. Or as Tony Hirst puts it, PDFs are implicitly available on a no derivatives & share-alike basis: they are intended to be read but not edited.

We still need to understand more about how OER is actually used.  Just within the UK there are various activities underway within the OER Programme: a major studycase studies and monitoring reports, and there is also research at OLnet.

But based on what we already know, how important is editability to OER? (I know editability isn’t a proper word but I’m sticking with it because it has less connotations than repurposing, see below).

Is “use” good enough?

Use > reuse > repurposing

  • Use: bookmarking/downloading it, then reading/viewing/playing it to yourself
  • Reuse: the above plus reading/viewing/playing it, or linking to it, to your learners
  • Repurpose: the above but with an editing stage before putting it front of your learners

Learning technology is historically bound up with the search for the holy grail of repurposing: academic finds a resource, downloads it, edits it and uses it with their learners. This has been the vision for well over a decade. How often does this happen? How do we know? As we see from studies like the “Good Intentions” report there’s plenty of literature about reuse and repurposing but perhaps less evidence of it happening.

What’s wrong with an academic using online content to inform their thinking on the subject, their way of teaching it, and their ideas for presenting it? Or using a CC image from flickr as an illustration, or a background, just because its nice. It’s just “use”. But use is good! Reading other people’s content helps you reflect on how you teach it. You wouldn’t expect an academic to ask their students to read every journal article they used in preparing their lectures. Not every resource needs to end up in front of the student.

And if they do put the resource in front of the student, why should they have edited it? You wouldn’t chastise an academic for failing to write in the margins of a novel, or for not ripping out whole chapters in a textbook, or editing the film down to the highlights. You’d expect them to provide these resources in context. What’s wrong with linking to an OER?

They need to be able to view/play it, and they need to be able to cite it or quote it. To cite it they need the url and attribution information, so that’s another reason for clear licensing (but not necessarily  open licensing). Do we even have a citation model in teaching resources? Do we state our sources as carefully as a researcher does? Do we use citations do situate our ideas in a larger context? Provenance is important to evaluating the relevance of the resource

Does a learner need  to edit a resource? Perhaps. But how common is that use case? What if the content which has most chance of being read, played, repeated, absorbed, is the content suitable for the user’s personal mobile device? And what if the device is proprietary? Is there a disconnect between the open standards argument and the reality of ubiquitous cheap computing? Where should we focus our efforts?

But back to the academic. What if even the academic doesn’t need to edit?  They could point their learners to the resource by linking, or by embedding the resource wiki-style, into another layer. As has been suggested, perhaps <embed> changes everything.

If linking is good enough, why use open licences?

As David Wiley points out in Why Bother Being Open?, linking doesn’t require an open licence. In terms of a user being able to view and link to a resource, good old fashioned (c) all rights reserved is usually enough. Particularly if it’s explicit that deep linking is welcomed.

Over and above having clear provenance, what else does an open licence do?

A blog post on how OERs increase efficiency lists customisation and affordability as one type of benefit. OERs are by definition free to access, without logging in so that does mean affordable, and easier to access. The post also illustrates the benefits of being able to reformat a resource, to create derivative copies for different platforms and users, and therefore to enhance accessibility. Also to create translation copies. So even without the need to edit, open licences do give the users rights that improve learners access to the resource. Beyond that, open encourages remixing, into different formats and presentation approaches. It could be argued that these practices already happen below the radar, but open licences make it possible for the rights holder to give explicit permission, and having explicit permission might make use more likely.

It’s also useful to remember that one item can be published in two places with different licence conditions.

Hybrids: what about an “OER Version”?

I’ve been thinking about models for OER, and for learning repositories. Its with uncanny timing that John Robertson at CETIS has published a post on OER models and metaphors.

I’m struck by Martin Weller’s description of big OER and little OER . What appeals about little OER is that academics use their autonomy to share content as a frictionless by-product of their teaching. Only if they choose to. Many won’t, and that’s fine. It’s an equivalent to open source, or open science: openness as a way of working. Little OER doesn’t need to be majority mainstream practice to be viable. Meanwhile Big OER is where more professionalised workflows matter, where business models matter and that can include making use of academic OERs: a parallel to business models for open source.

Can these be hybridised into what my colleague David Kernohan has called a third way? I’m not sure. Models can lose their coherence if they are squished into a compromise: enthusiasts lose their motivation, implementers lose their focus.

But one way of allowing big and little OER to live side-by-side  might be an “OER Version”? Have an alternative format available as open source, openly licenced:the editable version. Really great online resources get created and presented in line with the institution’s business models, mission and content strategy, as (c) all rights reserved if necessary.  You make sure your “rights in” are cleared for wide re-use, but you reserve your “rights out” for the glossy version (see Naomi Korn explaining rights in:rights out). Meanwhile, the OER version is shared with the academic community.  And outside of that institutionally sponsored activity, individual academics who choose to work openly can carry on doing what they already do. Perhaps the OER Version is like the open access pre-print model: a self archived copy that is a by product of an existing workflow. Academics who already share, who go above and beyond their job descriptions don’t need to change, they need to be valued by their institutions and they need to retain their autonomy. Institutions need to really evaluate what their business is, so that any constraints they put on academic freedoms can be clearly justified.

To sum up …

OER is a supply-side term. To judge whether university-released OER is valuable to users, we need to understand what enables and constrains use. Legal and technical openness are multi-dimensional and inter-related. There’s a spectrum of use, reuse and repurposing, as it applies to academics and other sorts of users. We shouldn’t overweight the use case of academic repurposing.  Maybe use is good enough for the majority of people. Does that mean we don’t need open licenses? There are still benefits to open licences. We need to find models of publishing that accommodate individual workflows and motivations alongside institutional models.  Maybe OER Version is one. I’d like to hear more. The bathwater is muddy, but let’s not throw the baby out.

With particular thanks to people who’ve helped me develop these ideas: Tony Hirst, CETIS session on open innovation , colleagues across the OER Programme and Support Teams, and OER friends on twitter.

9 thoughts on “Rethinking the O in OER

  1. Pat Parslow

    Thanks Amber, a thought provoking piece.

    I have to say that whenever I come across PDFs, I interpret the intent of sharing very differently. PDF is all about control, so the implication (as I see it) is that the owner very much retains their copyright, and unless the document explicitly allows editing, it is a ND form of copyright too. Obviously there are ways around this, and I often find myself extracting material from a PDF for personal, educational, use, but I do so in the knowledge that I am probably not meant to be.

    There is another issue with linking – whilst I agree broadly with your assessment, if an online resource is copyright, all you can do is give the link for students to follow (as I understand it, as we do not have a ‘fair use’ clause in our copyright laws). If you want to show them the resource in a lecture, you either need to extract small, relevant, amounts (which is then repurposing) or obtain a licence to reuse the material.

    I’m firmly in favour of the open educational resources concept – as long as it absolutely retains Little OER (which I might, personally, describe as Hard OER). Big OER is less relevant, but I have no problem with it co-existing.

  2. Scott Wilson

    Thanks for a very timely article Amber!

    I think there is a problem with the “R” of OER, which has the tendency to focus attention on the wrong place.

    So while we have in the list things like websites and PDFs, these are “resources”. But if an employee of a university edits an article on Wikipedia, writes a blog somewhere, or answers questions on StackOverflow, they would seem to becontributing to the education commons in some form, but are these considered “resource”-like enough to be OER? If the focus is on openness and education without the “R” word, would it even matter?

    I think this is also one of the risks of the “middle way” – whether it intends to or not it would eventually marginalise “little” OER even further just by amplifying preconceptions about education resources based on a decade of Learning Objects, SCORM, repositories etc.

    For example, there have been some large projects that tried to combine formal and informal learning, and despite the best of intentions the language used ends up being that of formal learning and informal learning is quietly jettisoned as being too tricky to deal with.

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  4. Chris Pegler

    Short comment on a lot of interesting ideas. What I like about Amber’s thinking is that its looking at ‘life after release’. In business terms a lot of the early work on OER (as it did with learning objects) assumes that if the supply was sorted then use would follow. This ignores motivation of the users (its also rather simplistic about the motivation of the supplier too, but that is another tale). What do people want from the resource (and I use that ‘R’ term very loosely here).

    Yes you can link, but sometimes this is not enough, even when you are using the resource ‘as is’. Persistence of URLs is not guaranteed (those who link to Bects URLs might like to check out latest advice on what is happened to those at as a topical illustration of the problem). If you want to remix (a spot of Open Ed DJing a la Scott Leslie) or want your students to remix/version as part of their work (now there’s a thought barely explored yet), then this needs an open license. Yes, a PDF with an open license is saying something about control about that version. But its also saying that you can take it and strip it down and mix it up. Not easily, but legal.

    So, for me the license is the important part. If I can have easy-to-use technical form then that is so much better. If not I can live with it. Without an open license, if I want students to be able to wade in and really interact in a remaking kind of way, or want to do that myself, I will look elsewhere. If I don’t need that level of freedom I can use a blend, open and copyright as it presents itself.

    As a user with open on one hand and closed on the other I will always favour the former and not just from a philosophical point of view. It helps to keep my own work open so that others can easily build on and from that. Open is about potential. Exciting innit.

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  6. Doug Belshaw

    Loved this, Amber. To me, the key point is where you say:

    “[I]ndividual academics who choose to work openly can carry on doing what they already do. Perhaps the OER Version is like the open access pre-print model: a self archived copy that is a by product of an existing workflow. Academics who already share, who go above and beyond their job descriptions don’t need to change, they need to be valued by their institutions and they need to retain their autonomy. Institutions need to really evaluate what their business is, so that any constraints they put on academic freedoms can be clearly justified.”

    I see it as a hearts-and-minds issue – with the OER licensing there for those wedded to an outdated, monetary-focused system. 🙂

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