Am I missing the point on open educational resources?

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I’m sitting in the opening session of the UOC UNESCO Chair in E-Learning Fifth International Seminar on Fighting the Digital Divide through Education (I believe you can follow the presentations via video). So I don’t have time to provide an adequate overview of yesterday’s Open EdTech Summit… Thankfully, I can refer you to Ismael’s usual amazing liveblogging of the event for that.

It was a genuine privilege to be able to take part in the experience. Thirty or so gifted and very accomplished educators with varying associations with the open educational movement were crammed into a few meeting rooms with the goal of identifying “future education and technology needs and trends” for a pending white paper. So rather than listening to a bunch of talks, we were put through the paces of a creative process that was at turns exhilarating and exhausting. An invaluable learning experience for me.

I came into the day with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, having just read Scott Leslie’s epic post on planning to share versus just sharing and his provocations very much on my mind. In the early brainstorming discussions, I staked out something of a confrontational stance… that higher education is still conducting its business as if information is scarce when we now live in an era of unprecedented information abundance. That we in the institutions can endlessly discuss what content we deign to share via our clunky platforms, while Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, TED Talks, the blogs and other networked media just get on with it… That I might not be able to legally reproduce much of the copyrighted media on the web, but I can link to it, maybe embed it, or simply tell students to search for it. This is not to suggest that sharing more of the presumably high quality content that higher education produces would not enrich the store of available information… but that the world is not waiting for us to get our act together and become a relevant force on the web. The world is moving on without us.

One of the other participants asked a question that resonated with me: if we live in an era of information abundance, why is the primary drive around OERs the publication of more content? And what other activities around the open education movement might be an effective use of our energies? What other needs have to be met?

I realized then how locked in I can be into a content-delineated mindset. Maybe that’s because I can get my head around it. I can set a goal of publishing [x] number of open courses, or collecting [x] number of educational resources. If I try to go deeper, I might think about how to reproduce content in multiple environments.

But other than a simple faith that using and diffusing simple, open tools represents a vast improvement over current educational “best practices”… I really don’t have a clear sense of how to think of and promote useful OERs as something other than content…

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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21 Responses to Am I missing the point on open educational resources?

  1. Jon says:

    Frankly, I think that there’s far too little focus on content. People are far too keen to celebrate gee whizz things that can be done to data while remaining impervious to the data itself.

    And then they’re called on to come up with some content? Complaints and infighting but no action.

    (Again, call me a cynic.)

    So let’s have more consideration about “what” and perhaps less about “how.”

    But then isn’t Scott saying the same thing?

  2. Jim says:


    You delineate a key point here, and one that I think gets to some of the issues of open content as we see it produced by universities currently. One of the model that provides a interesting model for thinking about how to harness the discussion/seminar based engagement that must happen around open content is the CUNY Graduate Center’s Great Issues Forum. It is simple model, kind of a blog/forum wherein you put up a pdf of an important essay around a theme such as power, for example Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism,” you have a scholar blog her reflections and thoughts on this piece, then a group of seminar members discuss it and interact around it openly. Moreover, anyone can join the conversation through comments.

    This is kind of what we have been tracing more loosely at UMW, an open discussion through the blogs around ideas, thinking out loud and interpreting within a framwork of guided discussion. I think open content needs that companion piece for it to be of any value. And while I thinking publishing content for students introduces a new element of publishing that is important to be out there (not to mention they can keep an archive of their own process), I think it is the discusion and interaction that is still missing from the OER/OpenEd movement.

    Take David Harvey’s Reading Capital video lectures. Amazing stuff that have the potential to enrich the field of Marxist studies 1000 fold, but as de-contextulized videos without a discussion/interaction space surrounding them that is both focused and loose simultaneously they might lose so much of their value.

    What universities need to be thinking about is ways to use syndication and open architecture to provide mechanisms of sharing and bringing together the various resources and inquiry around such a topic–kinda like the experiment behind> Providing flexible spaces where distributed scholars, students, and independent thinkers around the world can drop off a feed and share their interpretations of readings is a new way of thinking about conversation, which is very different than content–even if written down.

    Universities and colleges can seize the opportunity to frame these spaces for they have the unbelievable intellectual resources to help manage these distributed discussions, and interrogate the information that is already out there. The value of the institution is not based in content per se, but in framing the discussion and thinking about that content, and that’s why thinking about open models of self-organization around these ideas for universities is an important next step, for they pay for the intellectual capital of scholars, and those individuals are one key way for making those resources, objects, or things animate into something special. They are not objects, they are people who have thought long and hard about many of the most pressing issues of our culture, and bringing them into a wider conversation with our culture might be another way to look at this.

  3. Laura says:

    So now I’m thinking, what is the value of an educational institution? Or more specifically, of its faculty? Jim points to the idea that value resides in the bringing together of disparate scholars, presumably also the budding scholars we know as students. That “bringing together” doesn’t have to happen in a physical space, as Jim points out.

    But what I’m also thinking about is the way that higher ed *is* so focused on content. Faculty at many places do not get tenure from providing an education for their students, but from producing content (usually for certain journals or publishing houses) and this is what we need to get away from I think. We need to shift the focus away from producing content and back to education, writ large. For that focus on content also leads to the content-based class that’s all about “covering content” rather than encouraging thoughtful discussion, even about content-rich topics like biology or physics.

    These are truly complex issues because we have institutions and traditions that are entrenched in a certain way of doing things, and as Brian says, the world is not waiting for them to get their act together.

    I think it’s hard for me to even imagine what the next phase of higher ed will look like. And, sadly, it may not come in my lifetime.

  4. Jon says:

    Heh. OK, Laura’s got me to think twice. It’s true that in some ways content should be irrelevant. For instance, we are (or should be) teaching students skills more than lists of (say) names and dates. That’s a “how” rather than a “what.”

    But these skills need to be exercised in a determinate context on specific content. Students are understandably irritated when they are given things to do for the sake of it: busywork.

    The problem is that we endlessly replicate that busywork in the kinds of meetings that Scott is describing.

  5. Julià Minguillón says:

    the two main pillars of universities are content and accreditation; they are starting to lose the monopoly on the first one, the only way to fight the OER movement is to embrace it, publishing all the content that has been probably already paid off (I mean you no longer expect to become rich from such content), this would create a large amount of OER and act as a snowball efect

    but that means granularity, metadata, licensing, etc., a lot of necessary but annoying details nobody wants to waste their time in

  6. Alan Levine says:

    I’d push back on that question- even if we are in an era of Information Abundance, I’d argue you can never have too much. Or taking it another way, since people have been creating music for thousands of years, do we stop and say, “we have enough music, there is no need to create new or re-interpret.”

    And one might look at what you are calling “content” or “information”- at some atomic level, we can now and even in ways coming cannot imagine, be creating new “musical” interpretations or mixes of info.

    The pot hole has been, IMHO and I think you allude, the education has focused a lot on the “course” as the pursuit and generation of OER – what if it were reframed to look more broadly at creating the Open Content Experiences, which are the things people do, reflect, produce from, contribute to via learning, not just consuming content like a one way flow.

    Or maybe I am just saying what you have, but I see no conflict of recognizing the growing abundance of information– is higher ed really tapping into it? Why is more content/info not a desirable goal?

  7. Tony Hirst says:

    “why is the primary drive around OERs the publication of more content?”

    A similar thought struck me yesterday, in the context of “Learning Objects”. When these were all the rage, everyone was being encouraged to write them and make them available….

    … whereas maybe the emphasis should have been on encouraging people to find and reuse resources that were already out there…

    I guess we’re all just control freaks, and want to control the message we give to our students 😉

    And when we do try to embed third party resources, (particularly in online distance ed, which is essentially an educational publishing model at the mo), the rights issues are just so laboured it’s easier not to bother.

  8. But nobody could possibly create content as good as mine. It would be senseless to find and reuse someone else’s lesser content. Much better for me to create my own and release it so others can bask in its glory.

    Content creators are chronically guilty of NIH syndrome. Sure, someone ELSE created content. But it’s not EXACTLY what I would have created, or doesn’t cover EXACTLY what I would have covered. Or it uses a different font. Can’t use it. Gotta create my own…

  9. Lanny Arvan says:

    On the “information is scarce front”

    I think that is something of a mis characterization. Much of what is taught is algorithmic knowledge – in Physics F = MA, as quintessential example. We teach (and the students as sycophants act) as if absorbing the right algorithms is learning. Students learn the algorithms as if those are information. They ask neither – why is that interesting enough to learn cold? nor do they ask what are the implications of understanding the algorithm? To be pedantic, random facts are not typically taught. Facts that illustrate a concept, conform to an algorithm, that’s what is taught.

    On the more basic question – certain writers we read because they say interesting stuff. We don’t read them because their stuff is freely available. We read them because what they write is interesting. I’ve not yet figured out what OER does to distinguish interesting writers from the rest of the pack. Nor have I got a sense of why someone who knows they write interesting stuff would release that to an OER.

    We need to spend more time thinking about how our technology solutions solve these non-technology issues.

  10. “…higher education is still conducting its business as if information is scarce…”

    That is because they still have the one thing that IS scarce, and that is certification.

  11. Brian says:

    Hey all – I’m sorry, between the event I am at, and no hotel wifi, I have not had time to properly respond to your great comments. Thanks for your thoughts, they are churning in my mind, and I will try to respond soon…

  12. Seth says:

    There is great non-OER content available, and educators should feel free to be able to use what works. I think you are underestimating the importance of localization. Can we really say to educators: “Here’s a great YouTube video, you can show it for free, your students can mash it up in the class, but it can never see the light of day because of copyright…and if that doesn’t work, too bad because we don’t want to run a clunky platform to offer an alternative.”? We talk about Not-Invented-Here syndrome, yet there’s this bizarre self-loathing Instructional Technologists have for their own institution or repositories. The grass is always greener on the other side, I suppose.

    Though I was never crazy about the term edupunk, and I don’t want to be too pointed in this, but how does telling people they can link to regular copyrighted materials fit into that ideal?

  13. Seth says:

    There is great non-OER content available, and educators should feel free to be able to use what works. I think you are underestimating the importance of localization. Can we really say to educators: “Here’s a great YouTube video, you can show it for free, your students can mash it up in the class, but it can never see the light of day because of copyright…and if that doesn’t work, too bad because we don’t want to run a clunky platform to offer an alternative.”? We talk about Not-Invented-Here syndrome, yet there’s this bizarre self-loathing Instructional Technologists have for their own institution or repositories. The grass is always greener on the other side, I suppose.

    Though I was never crazy about the term edupunk, and I don’t want to be too pointed in this, but how does telling people they can link to regular copyrighted materials fit into that ideal?

  14. The short answer is that we’re pushing production of content, because that is really a token by which we talk about increasing participation. There’s a lot of great content out there but the dispersion of participation is lumpy at best.

    This, incidentally, is why I am less impressed with Open Yale Courses than the Rip-Mix Learners project. Because Rip-Mix Learners fully democratizes participation in a way that Open Yale Courses doesn’t.

    Maybe I’m oversimplfying this, but I don’t think so. There’s a lot of OER out there, but if it’s produced by a small fraction of the population, and particularly if it’s produced by the usual suspects, we have a lot more work to do.

    As far as university involvement — either their are unique perspectives in your university that should be part of the grand conversation, or we’re all frauds. I’m not completely ruling out the second possibility, but my operating assumption is the first, and my experience is if there is stuff in a state school of 5,000 students that can change the world as we know it (and I know for a fact there is) there is stuff everywhere that needs to be up, ASAP.

  15. Chris Lott says:

    Doesn’t it seem a little bit ironic to argue against the artificial culture of scarcity in order to make an argument that (at least) implies that sharing more open “content” (I’ll explain the quotes in a blog entry of my own soon) is somehow detracting from sharing other artifacts?

    I’m with Jon on this one– there ain’t hardly enough good content (in the traditional sense) out there.

    But that doesn’t mean that documents of process and other contextualizing information isn’t also needed nor does it imply that those who work with orgs like OCW or use terms like OERs aren’t also working on opening up that kind of content too, much less that we are unfamiliar with the concept as too many lately are implying.

  16. Gardner says:

    I’m with Laura and Lanny on this one, I think. Emphasizing content, open or not, misses a crucial point about education. Only contact with other learners, and guidance from expert learners who can take students into their zones of proximal development and aid them there, adds up to education. Otherwise, Borders and the Internet would be pretty much all you need.

    I think some (by no means all!) of the OER push is akin to the delight folks felt when CD-ROMs first came on the scene and we discovered that all of Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, and Lewis Carroll (plus many others) could fit on a single shiny disc. In other words, there’s a bit of a “shovelware” aspect to some of the open resources. What’s missing is often context, mess, process, read-write opportunities. And with regard to online discussions (mentioned in another post), I think our students have gotten so used to what Lanny brilliantly calls “algorithmic” learning that they can’t see how a messy discussion with fuzzy boundaries can actually make their learning *stronger* than something regimented, ordered, freeze-dried, and easy-to-track.

    I need to follow up a remark John Kane made to me when I was up at SUNY-Oswego. He said he’d read a study that suggested student retention of lecture material was actually *greater* when the material was a little less linear, a little less organized, a little more associational or digressive. Presumably the lockstep algorithm march plays into both student and faculty desires in unhealthy ways.

    But I digress. Bottom line for me is that OER is a great idea and a necessary educational practice. Freeing our content from LMS boundaries is a wonderful thing. And I am not someone who thinks that process trumps product. Products matter, and they matter crucially. But the culture of education is only as transparent and inspiring as its processes and practices–and I don’t see OER doing enough to make those processes and practices truly open and shareable. Perhaps that would mean taking on certain core contradictions in our present educational practice in ways that we just can’t do right now.

  17. Chris Lott says:


    Actually, for a lot of purposes, Borders and the Internet ARE all you need– in one sense the push for OERs helps make this kind of educational material accessible to those who don’t have access to and/or the ability to pay for the content they could otherwise receive. I’m all for the distance learner who can benefit from that kind of content being well provided for.

    But I’m with you (and Brian) that there are many other needs as well. What I don’t agree with is that there is enough good content out there, that showing artifacts of process is the same as providing process (in the end, an instructor can use other content but he/she will always be creating their own context), or that for many (including my institution) going the way of open content isn’t the best and most productive way to get to other (some higher level, some not) kinds of sharing…

  18. Andy Lane says:

    Modern education is based upon content. It is recorded content written in books, on blackboards in notebooks in exam scripts etc etc. It is also ephemeral content in lectures, discussions and conversations. There is potential learning value in that content to its creator and to its ‘audience’. Open educational resources (content + tools) potentially redefines the nature of the relationships between the different actors in a system of education because so much content that was ephemeral or only available to a few is now available to all. Hence the abundance of content. But that is not to say that having lots of ‘good’ content is sufficient as its value for learning depends on context. There is always someone that can put a new twist, a new interepretation on the knowledge etc imbued within the content. Content will continue to multiply and grow as it is natural for many of us to add our own take on knowledge etc expressed as content. This is also why OERs are more than just about education, they are also about knowledge management and knowledge creation as people variously use them and the powers of linking, connecting and conversing to make new sense about the world. Universities have long ceased to be the only sources for this activity but they do offer some of the best managed systems for helping others to become fully fledged members of this activity through programmes of study that have handy, tradeable badges at the end (degree certificates) for those seeking advancement in labour markets etc. They are guarantors of certain achievements in the marketplace of work. So the benefits of OERs fall more on the side of learners at the moment than educators but inevitablky educators will reposnd to these ‘market’ signals as they have done over the years. Does that make for better education? Depends on your viewpoint but it certainly opens the system up to more scrutiny from more people than ever before and things will change, slowly.

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