I’m working on a paper with my colleague David Kernohan on the context of the UK OER Programme and it occurs to me that people understand the sharing of learning resources in very different ways. Even over the past 15 years that I’ve been involved in the field, the emphasis has regularly shifted.
One way to look at is that each iteration of the concept of sharing learning resources foregrounds different aspects of activity.
Processes and Products
For the sake of simplicity, I am illustrating this as four main activity domains: designing learning, creating resources, sharing resources and using resources. This is activities from a resource-centric perspective rather than a curriculum design and delivery perspective or a software/platforms perspective. This blog post is deliberately couched in soft systems terminology rather than practice.
(Paragraph clarified 2012/01/05 based on feedback!)
There are often multiple discourses in play at any one time – it’s not a linear or singular evolution. The diagram can just be used to describe the focus of a particular set of concerns/approaches. Sometimes the emphasis is on the process, with the product as secondary. For example, the late 90s to early 2000s emphasised the benefits of collaborative resource development. Later on, some advocates of Open Educational Resources (OER) brought to the fore the concept of content as by-product, exhaust, frictionless sharing. Simultaneously, the early 2000s saw a focus on reusable learning objects, with the transfer from resource creation process to resource use process being key. Towards the end of the decade that thread partially shifted into a discussion about the sharing process being key to open practices, a different angle again. There is currently an emphasis on making the learning resources themselves available to learners: a focus on access to product rather than improvement of process. Sometimes there is a new interest in eliciting a product/output from an existing process, for example, analytics brings to the fore the idea of usage data as a by-product of use. In parallel, approaches are maturing in designing learning, and an interest in how that design can be shared, directly as “a learning design”, implicitly as learning design built in to the resource creation process, and passively as contextual metadata to assist resource selection and use. I could expand these examples to show more clearly what I mean.
One of the benefits of looking at it this way is that we can see different models of value. Although deeply unfashionable to talk about academic practices in this way, looked at from a soft systems perspective there are variables of time, cost and quality. The discourse about why and how to share learning resources shifts its benefits model between these variables, and whether the value is in the process or the product.
A: PROCESS: Improving shared taught courses by using collaborative learning design
B: PRODUCT: Reducing time spent creating new resources by increasing the availability of existing resources
C: PROCESS: Promoting institutional subject expertise by sharing specialist learning resources
This was just a quick attempt to map the benefits. I found it easiest to think of examples where the driver is quality, though I seem to remember that the late 90s was more about saving time. We may be seeing a shift now to saving or making money (however indirectly). But the variables have always been there: the emphasis just shifts.
Infrastructure and Practice
I have a feeling that understanding where we are in terms of process and product will help us identify more accurately how technology can help. There is a history of sociotechnical engineering in the field of sharing learning materials that would be useful to tell. It’s not just a story of changing practices in pursuit of quality, it is also a story of government investment in a soft system, and a series of interventions (many of which I’ve been involved with), to support emerging good practices both processes and products. Maybe one day I’ll write a thesis on that!
For now though, I think it is salient to draw the conclusion that there is no reason to assume that today’s conception of the value of sharing learning resources will persist. This is a moving field. And that makes it very difficult to anticipate where public investment in supporting technologies should lie. Do we need specialist process based tools? Or generic platforms to share products/outputs/artefacts from each process?
There is more to be said about how this process and product model layers itself over individual, institutional, subject, national and global levels. There is also more to be said about how tools/services can get the balance between process-centric and product-centric models, and how this story plays out with VLEs, repositories and web2.0 tools.I found it useful to get my thoughts down on paper and hopefully some readers will be able to point me in a useful direction.