Issues with OER (#h817open, activity 7)

For week two of Martin Weller’s Open Education course at the Open University, one of the activities was to read three articles from a suggested reading list on open educational resources (OERs) and discuss three issues related to OERs and how they are being addressed.

I read several articles, but am focusing here on three:

  1. Albright, P. (2005). UNESCO (IIEP): Final forum report. Available at:
  2. Downes, S. (2007). Models for sustainable open educational resources. Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects, 3, 29-44. Available at
  3. Smith, M.S. & Casserly, C.M. (2006) The promise of open educational resources. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 38(5), 8–17. A pre-publication version is available here:

Personally, I am most interested in the question of motivations for faculty to contribute OER–for me, it seems obviously a good thing to do, but I may be an anomaly. In what follows I also consider possible motivations for educational institutions to support OER, as well as the issue of moving beyond a producer/consumer model.

“Doors,” cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by JMacPherson

Why should teachers and faculty care about OER? Why do I?

I was less than impressed with the suggestion made in Smith and Casserly (2006) that faculty are motivated to make teaching and learning materials open simply because of “the idea that their content will have a much larger audience” (7). This doesn’t really say much at all unless accompanied by an explanation of why faculty might want a larger audience for their teaching and learning work. I suppose it’s possible that some want their resources to be viewable by a lot of people simply for the sake of ego, but I expect there are other reasons that would work better to motivate faculty to contribute OER.

One place to start is to ask why I think it’s important to open up my teaching materials, my reflections on teaching (e.g., my blog) and even my courses up to anyone who wants to view, reuse, remix them, etc. I’ve already done some thinking about the value of doing so, in an earlier blog post (in which I also consider some potential downsides). A few reasons, from that earlier post as well as some additions:

  • Making teaching more “open” can motivate one to ensure it is as good as possible (when it’s closed, it’s a bit easier to let some things slide, even with the best of intentions, due to time or other constraints). (As also noted in Albright, 2005 (p. 8)).
  • Seeing what others do with one’s work can lead to ideas to improve it.
  • Allowing others to use and adapt one’s work could potentially lead to collaboration with others, which can mean opportunities for thinking about teaching and learning in different (and potentially better) ways–e.g., it could reveal ways in which one’s thinking and teaching are unconsciously bounded by time, place or privilege. It might also lead to collaborative teaching, which could be beneficial for students (if different perspectives and methods are provided in the same course).
  • Students in a course that is “open” to many participants may benefit from the various ways of thinking, speaking and writing that could be more likely than if the course was made up of students who are similar in the sense of all being admitted to the same educational institution.
  • If we are really passionate about teaching, and think that what we do is valuable, then why should it be limited only to those who can pay, and to those who have had the experiences needed to be able to demonstrate their worthiness to be admitted to our particular institutions of learning? It is, of course, not necessarily the case that those without such credentials are incapable of learning the way students who are officially registered in our courses do.

The thought here is that perhaps one or more of these might be motivating for other faculty as well.

However, it is one thing to recognize that sharing OER is a good thing to do, and quite another to overcome the stresses of time constraints and heavy workloads in teaching situations in order to devote time to doing so.

Albright (2005) suggests some more pragmatic incentives (based on a forum discussion amongst many participants), including:

  • considering the development and dissemination of quality OER as evidence in support of tenure, promotion, and merit processes for teachers and faculty
  • giving awards for outstanding OER (along the lines, I suppose, of teaching awards)
  • “adoption of [other] institutional policies that encourage opening educational content and valuing the creation of such materials” (9), e.g., supporting faculty who wish to make their courses available to learners beyond the institution, by removing bureaucratic barriers to doing so and even providing IT and other support as needed

For UBC, especially for people in the “teaching” stream of Instructor I, Sr. Instructor, and Professor of Teaching, the first point here seems an obvious move. Insofar as those of us in this stream are evaluated on the basis of teaching, curriculum development, educational leadership (and related), then creation and dissemination of good quality OER seems to fit right into that already-established framework. The second suggestion seems fairly easy to implement as well (though of course, it requires time and effort to set up and sustain).

It’s crucial to point out here, though, that all of these suggestions can merely add to faculty workload, which in many cases is already too heavy. It makes sense to recognize the time commitment involved in developing OER, in opening up courses to wider audiences, etc., and to provide some kind of time compensation in return. How much depends, of course, on the degree of work needed for the OER. A course reduction is one possibility, as is reduction of service commitments.

Institutional support

But this raises another question, of course: what motivation do institutions have for providing such support for faculty to develop OER?

I have been impressed with the emphasis that many universities have on promoting open access research, at least through the provision of institutional repositories. At UBC, I have had extensive help putting my publications and conference papers into the UBC institutional repository, including having someone else find publishers’ policies on what version of publications can be posted online as open access, and when, and contacting publishers directly when needed.

But no one has encouraged me to put any of my teaching work online. I’m curious as to why there is emphasis and support for open access research at my and other universities, but not for OER. One might say that showcasing the research of the university can help with PR, including showing the public that the research they are helping to fund is useful. But showcasing the teaching that goes on at the university can work similarly, I would think, and could also be a way to attract students as well as faculty who are passionate about teaching.

Is the discrepancy between support for open access and OER yet another instance of the focus on research over teaching? More likely it’s that encouraging and supporting open access for research doesn’t require as many resources as doing so for OER (though really, this is just a guess on my part). Making publications open access means getting permission, ensuring they are tagged with the appropriate metadata, and posting them in an institutional or other repository. For OER, on the other hand, there are also other things to consider, including quality control, issues with technological interoperability, and questions about where to store them, at least (not every university does or should have an OER repository).

Thus, back to the question: what could motivate an institution like a university to encourage and support OER development amongst faculty? The possibility of attracting students and good teaching faculty through showcasing teaching and learning practice at the university may or may not be enough. Smith and Casserly (2008) point to the possibility of governmental support, but that is not likely to be long-lasting.

Of course, it may be that institutions are not the ones who are providing the financial and other support for faculty to develop OER. It may be other organizations that do so instead. Smith and Casserly (2008) suggest that scholarly societies might play a key role in such efforts, but they also link this to work by “volunteers” (13), which is not ideal. Downes (2007) lists numerous possible funding models that might work for organizations or even commercial ventures (34-35).

Still, even if the bulk of the work on OER is done outside of educational institutions, it would help if educational institutions provide some kind of encouragement for teachers and faculty to be involved in their development.

Collaborative development

Another potential issue that stands out for me in regard to OER is that it’s too easy to fall into a sense that as a teacher/faculty member one is “providing” OER for others to “use.” As both Albright (2005) and Downes (2007), it’s important to move from a “provider/user model” to “a community model of collaborative development” (Downes, 2007, p. 38). This is not simply to avoid the situation where a few countries and cultures are providing knowledge for the rest of the world, but also to reflect the reality of how OERs work most effectively. The idea is not for something to be created and remain static, used as is, but reworked and repurposed as necessary for new contexts. Thus, as Downes (2007) notes, pointing to a comment made by a participant in a UNESCO forum on OER, we should move from thinking of OER on the model of “‘knowledge for all’ to ‘construction of knowledge by all’” (38).

Downes takes this point further at the end of his article, when he discusses decentralizing OER production and dissemination. Noting the way Wikipedia and bitorrent work, Downes argues that a community of volunteers might be better for sustaining OER than a centralized organization. The distinction between producers and consumers could be collapsed in the sense that “The use of a learning resource, through adaptation and repurposing, becomes the production of another resource” (41), which could then be re-uploaded into a repository. This collapsing of roles could work even if OER are controlled more centrally, but perhaps would be even more likely if not. The idea of such a decentralized system is intriguing, though again, relying on volunteer effort can simply add to already-heavy workloads for teachers and faculty.

But importantly, Downes’ article points to the fact that users of OER are not simply other teachers, but also learners, and collapsing the distinction between producers and users of OER means also doing so for teachers and learners. Thus, learners can and should also be involved in producing and disseminating OER. Many teachers and faculty recognize the value of involving learners in the development of curriculum and materials in traditional teaching situations; the same could be said for OER. Working on altering and re-submitting OER could be an effective part of the learning process, and thus not “extra” work on top of a curriculum.


I am sure there is more to be said about possible motivations for teachers/faculty and institutions to support OER, despite the fact that this is one of my longest blogs posts ever. Ideas?


Successful completion of this activity can earn participants in the Open Education course an “understanding OER” badge. But the instructions say the blog post should be around 500 words or so. I did not follow the rules. Wonder if I can still get a badge, or if I get docked for my post being too long, as I sometimes tell my students might happen. Or hey…I’ve written nearly enough for FOUR badges!


  1. Hello Christina,

    Hope you are enjoying your travels! I am having to find #etmoocers on Twitter these days for current updates.

    I wanted to add to your discussion that Kwantlen Polytechnic University has become a fee paying member of the OER Consortium and from what I understand, the plan is that each member institution commits itself to the development and contribution of 2 open courses which are then added to the Consortium’s inventory. The Consortium was interested in Kwantlen because it has an ‘open access’ mandate and mission but primarily a f2f delivery model. I don’t think UBC is a member of this Consortium.

    The OER Consortium has a defined ‘business model’ available to view on Wikieducator; you will note that the delivery of the courses utilizes a corps of “international academic volunteers”, not instructors. Also, from my understanding haven taken a MOOC on this topic from Wayne McKintosh ( of the OER Foundation is that faculty development of open course-ware is considered a “sunk cost” by the university because the university is already paying the faculty member a salary. Yes, I see this as contributing to added workload issues, but faculty members do seem to be jumping on board based on their interests in the open movement. I am currently taking an XMOOC from Harvard on Justice and it seems to me that Professor Sandel ( is involved in the EdX initiative as an experiment, and it is probably added workload for him. His lecture captures filmed at Harvard (1/2 hour long each) are excellent, and the readings (Bentham, Mills, Locke, Kant, legal cases) assist the discussion forum prompts and multiple choice self tests, quizzes and exams. He has a teaching team assisting him in the course delivery; they help moderate the discussion forum.I am taking the course just to compare it to the connectivist etmooc experience and am interested in the course design (which is more linear and traditional in feel than the asynchronous #etmooc) .

    My impression, so far, is that universities may see the scalability potential of MOOCs as new sources of revenue, but that the faculty members who develop the courses may be more interested in the liberalization and democratization of their course content afforded by the open education movement. Professor Sandel has said in one of his course interviews that there is a terrific potential for increasing the understanding of cultural perspectives by opening up courses to a global market.Here is an article sent to me about this topic by a colleague:

    1. Hi Janet:

      Thanks for the commments, and sorry for the late reply–I’ve been moving around so much I’ve let things slide a bit, but now I’m back home for awhile.

      Interesting to hear about the OER Consortium, which I didn’t know about before, and also interesting to hear that some institutions will pay a fee to be a part of it. There must be some good motivating factor there, underlying their willingness to pay. I can see that there might, someday, be potential for monetizing MOOCs (though I admit I haven’t looked into this carefully, so am not really sure if/how it could work), so I can see why an institution might be willing to do full open courses. But I’m also curious about smaller OERs, such as digital artifacts that demonstrate some principle or practice, short videos, lecture notes, etc. Those are harder to monetize, I’m guessing; at least, an institution couldn’t charge for “credits” for such things. So I’m curious what might motivate institutions to support their development and dissemination.

      Part of the cost is borne by faculty members themselves, those who do such things because they care about “openness,” such as Sandel and others (including me). I do see that such people are often willing to put in extra work on their own time, though I wonder if this means the number of OERs might be lower than if they were better compensated somehow. Some of us will happily work extra for this sort of thing, but not everyone is willing (or able) to do so. And also, this is just part of the cost, of course; an institution might also pay at least one OER specialist who knows the technological and issues around putting things into repositories (though, of course, such people might be funded in other ways and not attached to specific institutions). My next blog post talks about my experience trying to find OERs in several repositories, and the problems I came across. At least some of those are apparently due to how the materials were submitted in the first place, and faculty by themselves probably won’t know what to do to avoid such things.

      Thanks for the link to the Chronicle article–I had seen links to it on Twitter, but hadn’t read it yet. I found it especially interesting that a high percentage of respondents, who were, the article points out, probably the most enthusiastic MOOC supporters, said their motivation was to increase their visibility amongst others in their field and the public. That’s more or less what I poo-pooed in Smith and Casserly’s 2008 article, in the post above–they said many faculty would do it so their work would have a larger audience. One point I found striking was that one motivation for being involved in a MOOC was that one can get better data about teaching because the students are tracked so carefully in some MOOCs, and this could be used to improve F2F teaching. I can see what they’re getting to there, but it doesn’t really translate to F2F teaching, given that people taking MOOCs likely differ so much in motivations and activities than those taking F2F courses; significant numbers of the former may be just picking and choosing things they want to do, which says nothing about the quality of the teaching, per se.

      I had heard about Sandel’s course on justice, and I’m curious to hear how it went when you’re finished!

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