Making the most of open content: why we need to understand use

At the JISC conference next week I have organised a session on “Making the most of open content: stories from the frontier

“Over the years JISC has funded many projects to support sustainable open working and release of content. So what are people doing with all this “stuff”? This session will bring together ideas of digital scholarship, open science, open data, open education and open educational resources to look at it all from the point of view of the user. It will be a lively set of stories of how people have found, used and shared free open content, opportunity for discussion and reflection, and participants will help compile top tips for making the most of it all”

I have brought together five people with different stories to tell about how they make use of open content/data and in the process of sourcing those stories I have been struck again by how much more we understand about release of content than of use. The question of “what do you want to do with it” is ever shifting, and the implications that has for how content is released on the web is playing itself out in a number of areas, particularly in open educational resources and open data.

The OER Impact Study is exploring use and re-use, including modelling the landscape , also there is a learner voice literature review out to tender. Understanding audience in order to provide quality content services and collections there are the Strategic Content Alliance audience publications. For models of optimising research data for use there are the current projects on citing, linking, integrating and publishing research data (CLIP) Managing Research Data CLIP projects. focussing on two-way engagement with external communities in the co-development of digital content there are the Developing Community Content projects. Work on ways of collecting, analysing and reusing the data about the way that staff and students interact with institutional systems is being done in the Activity Data Programme.

In preparing, I have been thinking about how much we really understand about use, about what people actually do with the content they find. There is huge potential, and plenty of models, but the task before us now is to understand actual use, so that we can support release models that really accrue the benefits promised. We can optimise content for potential use, but unless it gets used, the affordances we’ve work so hard to provide for don’t translate into benefits for users.

The big issues around open content/data are whether the effort needed to release it will be rewarded with enough benefits to justify continued release. Open data is an organisational decision, with some parallels to “Big OER”: enough benefits have to be realised by the organisation to be able to justify continued release. I think this is different to “small OER”: if individuals have the rights and the drive to release their content, whether as researchers, teaching academics, managers or learners, then they have the option to release it, as individuals: issues around individual motivation to release are not what I am talking about here. For these organisation-level decisions the stakes are higher, and that’s why the question of benefits is in sharp focus. It’s quite possible that benefits may be long tail and /or long term, or difficult to measure, such as process change. I’m really impressed by the approach taken in the Open Bibliographic Data Guide to articulating the nuances of supply- driven and demand- driven use cases: we need more of this pragmatic approach to openness.

Business models for open content can be abused more easily than the business models for paid-for, proprietary and all-rights-reserved content, so its important that users help bring benefits to releasers but at the very least they shouldn’t undermine the business model for release. The need for users to act responsibly in the demand for open data is nicely outlined in this post by Tom Steinberg . The need to assume a spectrum of practice and use, rather than to build for the most pure use case is highlighted in this post by Les Carr .

What might a similar OER pragmatism look like?  Certainly an emphasis on attribution. Learning from citation practices, we need to make teaching resources citable and attributed, and one way towards that is smarter use of embedded licences for expressing rights, and ideally machine readable licences for tracking use. There are also things that open licences enable, such as the right to make alternative formats, and the right to translate, both of which make open resources useful to open education: as this post by Terese Bird argues  . In looking at the trade-offs between what  releasers want and what users want we also need to consider branding, as described by this post by Suzanne Hardy . I’d really like to see more thinking like this about how understanding real use of open content/data can help us make pragmatic decisions about which use cases to optimise for.

We need to know more about use! The OER Impact Study is a key focus for open resources for teaching and learning, but the question is bigger than that: how can we make open content sustainable?

Follow the conference session online, tweet #jisc11 #ocstories, or blog.

Stop Press: published today: sharing, reuse and frameworks by Mike Caulfield.

More! this post by Peter Robinson about feedback from users illustrates what users value, the potential for reaching the long tail, and listening to podcasts as an alernative to afternoon tv.   This post by Andy Beggan highlights the irony of bemoaning “a lack of reuse” whilst simultaneously struggling with the licensing of materials full of  third party materials: reuse is happening, its just mostly unattributed/illegal and unknown/untrackable.

6 thoughts on “Making the most of open content: why we need to understand use

  1. Scott Wilson

    OK, maybe this is a slightly snarky comment, but then I have a cold and feel a bit snarky today:

    After the many tens of millions of pounds spent by JISC, SURF, the EU, NRC, DEST and others on projects in the UK, Europe, Canada, Australia, the US and elsewhere, the hundreds of conferences organised, the books and journals published – all on the topic of reusing learning resources and taking place for over a decade – what is it that we actually know?

    And if we don’t know it, why should we suddenly be able to find out given our lack of success to date?

  2. Amber Thomas Post author

    Hi Scott

    I think we know a lot about ways of re-using content, we know a lot about encouraging re-use. But what about what actually happens, in the main? What so people mostly do with open content? And how does that use change over time?

    What I am suggesting is that what’s needed is some realist pragmatic assessment, along the lines of the pareto principle: lets focus on the use case(s) that represent 80% of needs.

    If the majority of people just need to be able to link to content, then lets be specific about what the Creative Commons licence offers: perhaps format shifting and translation are more common requirements than academic repurposing? And what about branding? If users can be accepting of retaining the logo on university branded content (and perhaps most are?) then that signals potential for branded content provision to grow, which might enable more universities to provide content into the pool.

    I’m advocating that we keep an eye on trends in actual use. Rather than starting from a purist “open” approach I’m suggesting we look at meeting points of what people really want and what universities can really provide, without breaking business models that seem to be working.

  3. Pat

    I think analyzing reuse forshortens the argument / data available to help us make decisions.

    If we take an OER to be an extension of the RLO, then reuse is the key indicator. I don’t think OER is a direct descendant of the RLO. OER isn’t built to be reused, more often than not it’s highly customised and specific to a course. It then, with the waving of copyright becomes available for people to use.

    So the use and reuse arguments seem to be distinct concepts when talking about OER – but then we also need to talk about production. If one persons produces an OER, it is likely to be built exactly for them. If 2 people build an OER, then it is likely to be more reusable. But then we need almost a metric of reuse, because a reusable OER doesn’t mean it will be used or reused.

    There is also the problem we’ve always had with Xpert – are people coming to find materials to reuse, or use.

  4. Peter Robinson

    What do we actually know ? Good question. One thing we know is people want what they’re interested in, presented in a usable format …

    I’ve written up some nice comments from users of our OpenSpires material at Oxford University gathered over the last 6 months. i.e. a very short time. I hope these express clearly that people around the world are appreciative of high quality open content that meets their *own* personal needs. Once it satisfies their own learning, they reflect, contemplate, digest and then start to think about sharing it and recommending it to others. Just like finding good music online !

    BTW These are comments from people who were so impressed and excited about accessing the material for free that spent time to search online for an email address to send a note to.

    Some lovely quotes from users of our material are outlined in my blog post here. My favourite is from a UK school teacher using our Shakespeare material:

    My colleague Fawei Geng at OUCS has compiled a fuller report that I’ve took a chunk out of below, this was done for our Listening for Impact project. This has a huge amount of data and insight into the area of measuring impact for open material:

    BTW – If you want *live* feedback on our material you can always look for feedback comments on our twitter feed: hashtag “oxfordpodcasts” –

    The last three twitter comments are fairly standard: from a lady in the US – “I am loving the Old English in Context lectures from Oxford “; from an UK IT publisher – “podcast on quantum physics – mind blowing. Beyond my puny mind.”, from pat in the US – “I can’t pull myself away from watching podcasts from iTunes U. Currently watching actual business class lectures from Oxford University.”

    from the Listening for Impact report –
    “Most of the 67 emails sent by the listeners expressed their enjoyment and gratitude to the people who produced the podcasts. They declared the internet a fantastic tool for spreading knowledge. People also felt privileged that they could gain access to online materials offered by the University of Oxford ?for free?. Most of the feedback also indicated that further free podcasts would be greatly appreciated.
    ?You ask if there is a demand outside Oxford for podcasts of your early modern lectures. Yes, big demand I would think. ???
    Although most of the people who sent feedback did not identify where they were from, a number of messages did include some geographical information, which indicated that Oxford?s podcasts on iTunes U were listened or viewed by people from all over the world including Sweden, Norway, Brazil, USA, Canada, China, Korea, and New Zealand. (For further analysis of audience by geographic location and domain please see the ?Analysis of requesting domains? section below).
    The email feedback received by academics also revealed the occupation of some listeners:
    ? Professionals (writer, lawyer, an orthopaedic surgeon)
    ? ?I have always liked philosophy (being a lawyer I actually need it), but I must say your [podcast] brought me back the will to study it more carefully.?
    ? ?It was both stimulating and thought provoking, particularly as I am trying to write a book [on the subject]?
    ? Students (prospective Oxford student, graduate students and high school students);
    ? ?I?m not joking but this has become my favourite site in ten seconds flat ? can?t stop downloading! Where has this been all my life?????? This is ridiculous!?
    ? ?Because of your lecture, I?m getting better and better knowing quantum mechanics (Absolutely, it is so hard and difficult to understand all contents of quantum mechanics),.. I really really thank you for providing me with a good opportunity to learn quantum mechanics from you.?
    ? Others who are interested in the subject e.g. retired professionals and teachers.
    For example, after listening to a philosophy podcast, a high school teacher said in an email that philosophy could benefit both teaching and learning in their secondary school. They sought advice from the podcast producer on how philosophy could be introduced into their teaching.
    By going through all the available feedback, it seems that the impact can be summarised by the following aspects:
    a) Engagement and interaction with the podcasting topic for private study
    b) The podcasts influenced the listeners to explore the podcasts in other Oxford subjects
    c) Re-use in teaching situations

    Engagement, motivation and interaction with the podcasting topic for private study
    ? Listeners were engaged by the podcasts and interacted with the podcast creator by asking questions and confirming their understanding of the topics.
    ? Some listeners attempted to demonstrate their understanding by providing their own examples which illustrated a concept discussed in the podcast
    ? Listeners sought to advance their knowledge of the topics in the podcasts by asking for reading lists, lecture notes, and recommended textbooks.
    ? A listener was motivated to carry on studying the subject after listening to the podcast:??I have recently enrolled in an Open Universities in Australia with the plan to complete a BA in Philosophy, but the first unit I have had to complete is a Study Skills unit which has been so boring and mundane I have been questioning whether to continue or not. Your enthusiasm for philosophy is infectious and put me back on course to continue my studies. Thanks again.?

    Podcasts influence listeners to explore further
    ? Feedback indicated that the most popular podcasts had not only attracted people to the particular subject, but also encouraged the listeners to explore podcasts in other subjects offered by Oxford.
    ? While some listeners listened to the podcasts for leisure, a number of students said that the podcasts they listened to helped them to learn more deeply and to prepare for exams such as GMAT, GRE:??listening to the Shakespeare?s play sheds much light upon a number of issues in Japanese play?
    Re-use in teaching situations
    ? A secondary school teacher wanted to reuse the ideas implemented in the podcast in their own teaching.
    ? Another teacher was impressed by ?the excitement and clarity? of how the podcast was delivered. They said that they would try to deliver their lecture in this way in their class.
    ? A listener said that one of the advantages of learning through podcasts was the capability to learn at their own pace:??I have quite a bit of work to do to understand some of the trickier [maths] derivations ? fortunately, I have a ?pause? button and much more time than your students do?

    Peter Robinson, Free Thinking

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