Making the most of open content: understanding use (Part II)

There is a huge variety of free content on the web of use for teaching, learning and research. In my recent post on Making the most of open content I argued that we need to understand use in order to make open content release more sustainable. This post is part two, an attempt to deepen the argument that use matters.

JISC funds a range of work to support innovation in open access and open content, and open comes in many flavours. So … what do open access, open data and open educational resources have in common? What makes content ‘open content’?

Essential Characteristics

  • Online
  • Free at the point of use
  • Not password-protected
  • Available under an open licence

Common Characteristics

  • often academic/user-generated (OER, OA)
  • often repurposable/editable (OER, open data)

but after that, it gets a little more complicated … there is debate around what makes content “open”:

  • Open data: 5 Stars of Linked Data, and there are discussions about how far open data and linked data should be aligned
  • OERs:  definitions: OECD Definition, 4 R:s reuse, revise, remix, redistribute, and there are discussions about what makes an educational resource open, or a resource useful for open educatio
  • Open Access: Research papers tend to be pdfs or text but there are interesting issues around the limitations of PDFs: and the potential for enhanced publications
  • Open Licensing: Even within creative commons licences there is a spectrum of openness and people draw the lines in different places, especially around non commercial and non derivative clauses

Its worth saying at this point that of course open content isn’t just about the content … because it is also a manifestation of a way of working … and the benefits of the open way of working are:

  • knowing that content will be public is an incentive to improve the content
  • collaborative development improves the work: the many eyes principle
  • the best thing to do with your data/idea will be thought of by someone else
  • if the public have paid, the public should benefit
  • clarity of licensing makes re-use easier
  • free at the point of use can save £cash and time
  • it can invite commercial exploitation downstream
  • visibility increases reputation, brand awareness, recruitment …

So given all these benefits of release, does it matter if content gets used? I often hear concerns that if we focus too much on use of content over the benefits of release then we risk putting people off releasing content that might not get used. They argue for the long tail argument that your content might just be perfect for someone? They ask what about the need to preserve content for access in the future rather than now?

There are some interesting perspectives to consider on this …

David Wiley makes an analogy between OERs and learning and toothbrushes and good oral hygiene, arguing that “OERs are like toothbrushes”. The analogy includes:

  • “A free toothbrush doesn’t insure that people will actually engage in the behavior of brushing their teeth.
  • Toothbrushing normally takes place in a private space (like a bathroom), so direct observation isn’t practical.
  • Because the organization has no idea who picked up the toothbrushes, they can’t reach back out to people later to find out if people’s oral hygiene actually improved or not.”

There are other issues around the relationship between release and use too:

  • In open access, research papers have an established and understood use model  where publishing brings benefits. whereas teaching  resources don’t have such an established model
  • Open data is partly driven by transparency agenda, and as a cost efficient way to handle freedom of information requirements, so it can be argued that making the data available is enough to justify release
  • Andy Beggan, Nottingham observes that reusing web-based content already happens a lot, hence the need to strip third party materials out of existing teaching resources to make them into OER. Yet people ask whether OERs are getting used.
  • Melissa Highton, Oxford suggests, open content literacy means using content in an ethical manner
  • Les Carr, Southampton, reflecting on OER and open data, argues re-use is the enemy of access: designing for reuse rather than just access sets the bar to entry very high

So I think that understanding use should inform the way we release content. Trying to understand use is not to imply that unused content is useless content, but that through understanding use we can release content that is optimised for use. Optimising for use based on evidence means making informed decisions about the costs/benefits of release, so that efforts taken to optimise content for use will be worthwhile and will result in more benefits arising from usage. This will help open content be more sustainable.

2 thoughts on “Making the most of open content: understanding use (Part II)

  1. Pingback: OER Digital Infrastructure Update : Information Environment Team

  2. Pingback: Digital Infrastructure to Support Open Content for Education : Digital Infrastructure Team

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