The OER Turn

At ALT- C I participated in several discussions around open content, and then this week we ran the closing programme meeting for Phase Two of the HEA/JISC OER programme.  I feel that a new perspective on academic-created open content is emerging.

I think it’s sometimes useful to think in terms of foreground and background: most of the elements are there and have been there all along, but some take centre stage. It’s a question of weight and attention given to the different activities, a question of where the discussions happen.

2009 Foreground 2011 Foreground
Focus on provision Focus on use
Focus on educator as provider and user Focus on non-educators as users
Open courseware, the course online Rich media, beyond text
Embedding in courses or free searching online Tutor or peer or social recommendation
CC BY NC ND  for editing by educators CC BY for remixing by anyone
Focus on licensing is key Focus on licensing might be distracting
Institutional workflows Institutional support for open practice
Storage and presentation services Brokerage services
OERs Open content

Just to stress, all of these views are evident in part in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and even before that. My interest is just in what is shifting in the foreground. This is just my first take and I hope it will stimulate discussion. It would be really interesting for others to write their own lists.

I think that enough of the focus has shifted that the space has changed.  I christen this The OER Turn. The OER Turn is characterised by the working through of the following topics:

  • visible and invisible use
  • the importance of licensing
  • the role of the university

Visible and Invisible Use

The Value of Reuse Report by Marion Manton and Dave White of Oxford, produced for the OER programme, uses an iceberg analogy of visible and invisible use. It helpfully guided our discussions at the end of phase two programme meeting. Previous to this, David Wiley’s “toothbrush” post was the example cited of this conundrum. The fact that it was so divisive amongst OER people shows that it hit a nerve (excuse the pun). I think the iceberg diagram draws on this and illustrates the problem of visibility.

The general consensus amongst people involved in UK OER Programme is that reuse of web-based resources does happen, all the time, but it is usually private, mostly invisible to the providers and often not strictly legal. So there is above waterline use and below the waterline use.

The visible use of open content tends to be institutional-level use that is itself more visible because it is openly shared again: it is being relicensed out again. Where institutions want to reuse content in aggregate open resources, it may influence the types of content they reuse, and they way in which they do it.


  • Visible use has characteristics that may not be shared by invisible use: we should not extrapolate too far from the visible uses to the invisible uses
  • Institutional content might make more use of resources that are clearly pedagogically described and fit with their structures course provision. So the most visible reuse we see might be that. But that might not be the main use case for open content.

On reflection, perhaps the top of the iceberg fits most closely with 2009 foregrounded conception of OER, the majority of the iceberg is what is being given more attention in the 2011 conception.

The importance of licensing?

Naomi Korn’s video introduction to licensing and IPR issues illustrates the concept of rights in > rights out. The more rights you want to give out to users, the more you have to restrict yourself to content you have obtained broad rights in for. As the risk management calculator illustrates, if you use content licensed as CC BY NC ND, you cannot licence it out as CC BY NC, because that doesn’t not include the ND clause. And CC BY SA can only be licensed out as CC BY SA, so cannot be remixed with anything less than CC BY or more CC BY SA. Share-Alike is quite restrictive. This is counter-intuitive but true. Play with the calculator and find out for yourself.

It may be only when reuse is more visible, such as formal institutional adoption of third party resources (above the waterline) that the risk of reusing un-cleared content is high enough to make the open license a key aspect of OER.Institutions as providers of content may wish to choose different licences to what institutions as  users of content want. They may want to publish content as (c) all rights reserved. If it is a choice between that or nothing, what should they choose?  Note that they could publish something as (c) all rights reserved unless otherwise stated, and have clearly marked CC elements. Polarising a simple open or not open isn’t helpful. As Naomi Korn put it, “what is the opposite of open”? Paid-for? Authenticated? Not editable? Open content needs to be viewed as part of the wider ecosystem of content. What it “affords” will be specific to the use case. Interestingly this is a good parallel with accessibility: “accessible to who to do what?”

Reflecting with Naomi Korn we shifted our recommendation from “whichever CC licence suits” (1) in phase one to “ideally CC BY” in phase two. John Robertson has summarised licensing choices made by the projects.  This is an example of how the programme has pushed forward our understanding of this area, including that of the legal experts. If we knew the answers at the start, it wouldn’t be an innovation programme!

Thinking above to the points about visibility: if the open content is not shared out again under an open licence then it might be being used but not so visibly. It might show up as web stats, but even then, once the content has been copied to another place, as any CC licence lets you do, then the content proliferates, as does the usage. Usage becomes even harder to see.

Another implication of described use as above below the waterline is that the risk is significantly less. The feeling was that this is an appropriate risk evaluation.  So, open licensing does matter for formal institutional use, less so for practice that is “under the waterline”.


  • Mixed economy of content is the reality for most end use cases.
  • The benefits of licensing to providers and users are different; of courses users would like as many rights as they can have, but which use cases really need those rights? Can the content be made available under a more restrictive licence and still be useful to the majority of use cases?
  • There is an emerging use case of intermediary/brokering services: aggregation, fusion, curation, which perhaps does require CC BY. Not because the end user needs them but because the middleware needs them in order to remix and represent content. Often though I suspect it is the feed or metadata that needs to be licensed rather than the content. Open metadata might turn out to be more important to open academic content than open content licensing.

We are genuinely learning together on this: as open licensing spreads and models of use develop, we will need to be alert to the mechanics of remixing content. And also open to the possibility that the end point of the supply chain need not be open: not all content will be licensed out again.

A great example of the OER Turn is how  OER Commons includes resources described as “read the fine print” licenses. Or Therese Bird’s work on iTunesU.

However … I still want to hear more about the rights that Creative Commons licenses grant to translate and shift formats, for above the waterline activities. Examples please! This could be key.

The role of the university

Alongside the previously dominant narrative of OERs as exchanges between educators and each other, and educators and their learners, there is also the potential for academic open content to connect academics with the public. I explored that a little in a previous post, Tony Hirst further in his post on OERs and public service education, University of Nottingham, Oxford University and other institutions also see their open content as part of their public engagement.

In some scenarios opening up universities through open practice is about OER, in the top of the iceberg sense. But much of the benefits of opening up knowledge to the public can be achieved without open content licensing (unless the brokering services need it). Initiatives like Warwick Knowledge also draw on the notion of the university as a pubic knowledge organisation.

So there is a strong argument for focussing more on the public and global use of open content.

Sidenote: Critics of the toothbrush analogy might say that this is what they meant all along. I’m not sure that is true. If it is, it wasn’t very well articulated. Because we still need to understand the drivers behind provision and how the benefits of public engagement can be articulated.  Academic staff are a university’s most precious resource. The needs of institutions, who pay academic’s wages, need to be factored in to how open practice can be supported.

The pursuit of global knowledge is not owned by universities. Wikipedia, Slideshare, YouTube, Twitter, Delicious have all seen a blossoming of thoughtful quality input from a huge range of sources. The role that academics play in this open content space is as one type of contribution. Learners contribute too. But so do millions who are outside of formal education.

OER is dead. Long live academically-created content appropriately licensed and formatted to support intended users

Not quite as catchy, is it? However I am increasingly hearing suggestions that OER is not a useful term any more, aside from a supply-side term relating to the visible tip of the iceberg. I have recommended for some time that we drop the term and focus instead on open content and open practice.

Having asked a year ago what the “O” in OER means, now I find myself asking what the “Open” in Open Content means. Well, it definitely means free (not paid). And it means easily linkable, which means not authenticated (not closed). However what about near-ubiquitous controlled access through gmail or facebook? Sometimes the format matters, sometimes the licensing matters. Maybe this matters a lot for content to cross language boundaries, maybe it matters a lot for accessibility. In which case do we need to articulate the costs and benefits of open content for those use cases? We don’t want to kill open practice dead by focusing too strictly on definitions of openness any more than we want to kill open content by diluting the promise to users seeking editable re-licensable content. What questions should be asking about open content?

What do you think?

Amber Thomas

Creative Commons Licence
OER Digital Infrastructure Update by Amber Thomas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

Footnote (1) The wording was  “Examples of suitable licences include those with the “Attribution” and “Share-Alike” clauses. We would encourage projects not to use the non-free Creative Commons variants (such as “Non Commercial” and “No Derivatives”), as these negatively affect the reusability of resources. However, we do recognise that in some specific circumstances this may not be possible.” (Thanks to David Kernohan for extracting)

25 thoughts on “The OER Turn

  1. dkernohan

    I’m starting to think that “focus on use” suddenly feels very last year. The key thing for me that is emerging is a focus on a range of benefits, and the de-fetishising of the actual materials as against a focus on academic (and quasi-academic) practice.

  2. Pat

    I think the OER commons read the fine print is just traders in the temple. CC licensing is already a real barrier to entry, read the fine print is abdicating responsibility for the problem and transferring the difficulty to the end user, so it’s open in the way a door being closed is.

    It suits people to change what open means, but I find it weird that as OER is already a by en large meaningless term to most people that we seek to introduce ambiguity and vagarity to the word open, especially when the word free is a fundamentally what its new meaning is.

  3. Lou McGill

    One of the things that strikes me is that the reason we’ve all been talking about OER in the UK rather than open practice and use is that funders wanted to fund oers. This seems a logical move on from them wanting to fund content (as with X4L). Funders like to fund content cause there is a tangible product to show for their funding and they have been operating under the (false) assumption that if content is there people will use it.

    JISC have to run programmes that reflect funders priorities and drivers. My feeling is that if JISC had been left with more choice in what to fund they may have learnt from previous work (as described in the good intentions report) and focussed on practice and not content. Then we would have already been operating from this place you describe Amber instead of having to focus on production and release. I’m not saying we haven’t learnt useful lessons from ukoer phase 1 and 2 at all. I think we have. But I do think we could have started from a different point, but we may not have so easily got funding for that.

  4. Terese Bird

    Your conclusion, “What questions should we be asking about open content?”, is the right question. Here’s a few to start with. When discussing my SCORE project about iTunes U as a channel of OER, the discussion usually gets stuck on the premise: is iTunes U stuff OER (or let’s say open)? How can it be open if it requires something other than a browser to access? (Well that’s a pretty narrow definition – can’t a CD of Word documents be considered open?) How can it be open if the software serving it out is not open-source? (In this case we must disqualify Flash-based learning objects.) How can it be open if a corporation started it in order to sell its gadgets? (Are things only open if created by the truly pure in heart?) These questions are going to get really sticky the further we progress post-PC. What about OER optimised for handheld devices – and which handhelds, manufactured by whom? Institutions being slow to adopt mobile policies tends to imply that use of mobile-ready OER will, at least for now, remain invisible. Post-PC tech is making the realm of open very interesting indeed.

  5. Pamela Ryan

    Useful article. I’d like to add the list, quality for 2009 and social justice for 2010/11. But what is worth exploring is the phrase “the OER turn” which I like because it leads into my suggested topic which has bee submerged for some time now and it’s time it surfaced. OER has been largely a production for the West/North with the South consuming or receiving. Perhaps as the globe turns we can stop using these largely useless compass points to indicate the developed and the developing and focus on ways in which the global south (sorry) can show off its amazing wealth of local knowledge. Its really up to us (speaking from South Africa).

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  7. dkernohan

    +1 to Lou’s comment. Funders do tend to fund the creation of “stuff” rather than cultural change. Even a fairly enlightened body like Hewlett were stuck in production mode for years, and HEFCE (from TLTP/CTI onwards)…

    The benefits of openness, for me, come with the emphasis of practice over materials. At certain points I’ve felt like I’m trying to encourage poetry by giving people blank paper 🙂

  8. Doug Belshaw

    If the choice is between funding something that is measurable and something that isn’t (so) measurable, my guess that the former will always win.

    How can we make Open Educational Practice (OEP) more measurable to secure funding? A taxonomy?

  9. Alan Levine

    Not to sound old but this arc resembles the hey day of Learning Objects when the bulk of energy was on catalogging and building places to house them, and almost nil on the things that help people do things with them.

    The potential here ought to extend beyond what’s fundable; it’s a dream to think of a time when “open” might be the first reflex and not a modifier for content, learning, etc. My colleague Nancy White described openness as an attitude that needs to be spread, that the first thing practioners, leathers, leaders think of is sharing or using O stuff.

    I’m a dreamer. It’s much more interesting than being practical.

  10. Joe Corneli

    I think CC-By-SA is not unduly restrictive in the same way that, for example, CC-By-NC-SA is. Pragmatically, it only requires linking back to the license when distributing works downstream.

  11. Amber Thomas

    Great to get so many comments – much appreciated!

    some thoughts …

    therese: I second all those questions. Beyond crude polarisations of “open or not open”, we have to tackle questions of access, ubiquity, cost of device, ease of use etc

    pamela: yes yes! we absolutely need to think global

    lou, davidK, doug, alan: I’d love to be a dreamer but I have to be a bit practical 😉 What is the best use of several million pounds public funding to support “openness as an attitude that needs to be spread”? What should we be pitching whilst we have the goodwill of funders? I’d suggested a consultation on how to spend Phase 3 money but timescales didn’t permit. What should our aspirations be for future funding streams?

    Pat, Joe: worth a play with the risk management calculator to see the effect of SA on reuse. We’ve wondered if its worth factoring in to a future tool the all-rights-reserved with some other uses that don’t require CC ( a big task!), to see how it plays out with mixed content.

    “MossPoss”: Liked your post, and your point about working to get a cumulative effect in further exposing the tip of the iceberg, as a shared endeavour. Back in 2009 I was convinced that aggregation and tracking were somehow linked, and you might have hit on why!


  12. dkernohan

    “Not to sound old but this arc resembles the hey day of Learning Objects when the bulk of energy was on catalogging and building places to house them, and almost nil on the things that help people do things with them”

    Amen, brother Cogdog. Let’s hope we don’t have to make that mistake again.

  13. Amber Thomas

    Alan, David:

    I remember the learning object economy idea and doubted it then. I was managing Ferl at that time so I wasn’t just a bystander, we had to identify how to support changing practices.

    IMHO here’s why the LO Economy never happened:
    The object of exchange is not always the object of value. The content object is part of a system, and it is improvements to the system that counts.

    Parallel: newspapers circulation figures are more important than their sales figures. What their funders (advertisers) want is that the newspaper reaches the audience. Hence some newspapers are free. The newspaper is the object of exchange but the reader is the object of value.

    Or as they say, in the google age, if you don’t pay for the product, the product is you.

    I think something similar happens with publicly-funded open content.

    The value to the public funders of services like Ferl was in the behaviours they encouraged. The content usage was just metrics to evidence that the service was actually being used by the target audience, which it was. The value of public investment in things like Ferl is in changing the behaviour of users.

    That is precisely why I have been pushing on understanding use more, so that we can make arguments to support investment in the provision infrastructure (human and technical) so thanks for your comments.

    So the question, again, is what we SHOULD we (JISC and the Academy) be investing in and aspiring to?

  14. Doug Belshaw

    @Amber: I’m going to ask my question again, as you lumped me in with people not saying the same thing with your reply!

    How can we make Open Educational Practice (OEP) more measurable to secure funding?

  15. Amber Thomas Post author

    @Doug yes, that is the question, and yes you had asked exactly that 🙂

    So … “Doug’s question” is How can we make Open Educational Practice (OEP) more measurable to secure funding?

    And once we have some answers to Doug’s question therefore we can ask my question: What we should we be investing in and aspiring to?

  16. dkernohan

    How can we best measure knowledge and learning so we can convince people to pay for it?

    We should be aspiring to live in a world where we don’t need to ask that question.

    It’s frustrating really – you’re making all the right arguments (content is absolutely not the object of value, a point I made way back in ) but you’re drawing a conclusion that means that we are forced into connecting two worlds that don’t connect (see ).

    The end-user only becomes the “object of value” if we decide that they are the object of value, because we need for whatever reason to inject the idea of monetisable value into the system.

    Your parallel with free newspapers doesn’t work because advertising is not a simple value transaction, no-one actually knows why or or how it works. They just assume it does. Advertising is a bet on the likelihood of a future transaction.

    The lovely thing about this late-capitalist civilisation is that you can chase down a million rabbit holes to make the classical link between labour and value, but you rarely if ever find it. It’s all assumptions, guesswork and statistical noise.

  17. Lorna M. Campbell

    Hmmmm. Interesting and thought provoking post Amber. Though I think I would have to take issue with some of the comments. I have never seen the funding of content development, distribution and use, (whether learning objects, open educational resources or whatever), as an end in and of itself but rather as a catalyst to encourage the kind of change that many of the commenters above are advocating. Viewing oer developments as being just about content is to miss the bigger picture. Perhaps funders have chosen the easy route by focusing on models of producing and using content to facilitate practice change, rather than pursuing that practice change through more direct routes. However as Amber rightly said “What is the best use of several million pounds public funding to support “openness as an attitude that needs to be spread”?”

    I also couldn’t agree more with Amber’s reminder “If we knew the answers at the start, it wouldn’t be an innovation programme!” We’re learning as we go along and this was also the case with earlier programmes such as X4L. Through these programmes we’ve learned a huge amount about educational practice, institutional workflows, academic paradigms, the use and reuse of educational resources to say nothing of the technical experiences gained regarding the management and distribution of that content. All learning experiences that have helped to get us to where we are today. Without them I suspect we’d still be scanning the horizon for icebergs 😉

  18. Marion Manton

    @ Alan and others – I think learning design was supposed to be part of the answer to helping people do useful things with both Learning objects and OERs but somehow it has never quite done what it should have. I think fundamentally it is too far from every day practice and over complex for the majority. Despite this I still think there is something useful there in terms of capturing what you actually do with open content if we could just work out how to make it useable.

  19. Terry McAndrew

    A unit of open educational practice is a publication in a suitable academic journal which gives credit to the individual and their institution. Doing this through the disciplines needs to be encouraged (plugging Bioscience Education for example) but these publications themselves should be more multi-media, to better illustrate the practice and its benefits. The consequent units are citations for the peer-reviewed work, the tagged blogs amplifying it, and the more informed and professional open practice educators (note I am not limiting this to academics) who compete by how much s/he shares and therefore changes practice. Somewhere in all this the students feedback scores on the +ve experience hopefully improve.

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  21. Pat

    Not going to link to my own blog post, but insisting on knowing the value of stuff so you can get funding is just not really in the spirit of open.

    If it’s the right thing to do, and you still want paying for it, well, there’s a probably a pure reason joke in there, or at least a reference to it’s author.

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