Does searching for OERs have to be so hard?

In my previous post I described an experiment of trying to find open educational resources on a particular topic in philosophy. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but that may not be the fault of the repositories themselves; I’m not sure such OERs have been put into the repositories I searched. And apparently there are many, many OER repositories. In this post I’ll briefly discuss some of the things that would make searching such repositories easier, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know much about OER but is looking for things to use for a course.

Too many repositories

I didn’t realize just how many there were, until I looked at the blog post referred to above, which lists 73 (and counting). A number of these are focused on particular subject areas, such as mathematics or STEM disciplines.  I can see the value of having such subject-oriented repositories–after all, I probably won’t be searching biology resources, e.g., when looking for Kant (though actually, many philosophers’ work crosses boundaries of humanities, social sciences, and the sciences, so…hmmmm…).

Perhaps even more useful are interdisciplinary collections, because one may actually find something relevant in what is, ostensibly, linked to another discipline. And there are so many different interdisciplinary repositories that it’s very time-consuming to do anything like a thorough search. I am guessing this might be due in part to funding situations: different groups get funding for different OER projects, and the result is that there are numerous different repositories. I honestly don’t know how this issue might be resolved, so really, I’m just pointing out the difficulty experienced by the user without having a clue how to fix it.

Perhaps it’s utopian to imagine that there could be a single portal that allows one to search most of these repositories at once? I expect one problem is that different parts of the world haven’t yet come to agreement on things like metadata, formatting of resources, and more, but this is mostly a guess.

“About” pages

Some of the repositories I searched in my previous post have extensive information telling me about the repository itself, where the resources come from, how they are uploaded into the repository, and more. MERLOT is a good example–there is a lot of info in these multiple “about” pages, and it is written in a way that is understandable for  those, like me, who don’t know much about how OERs and OER repositories and metadata (and more) work. I want to know the source of the resources, whether there is any review of them before they are put into the repository, whether the repository has a general policy on accepting resources that are licensed in a certain way, and more. Perhaps I’m an anomaly, but I find this information useful. On some sites it’s hard to find (e.g., Ariadne, MIT Open Coursware), and on others it’s hard for laypersons to read (e.g., Ariadne, Xpert).


Some repositories had good “advanced search” options, including allowing one to search by a phrase, all words, none of some words, and more (e.g., MIT Opencourseware). Apparently Xpert allows you to do this in the search bar by using Google search syntax, but they don’t tell you this (perhaps I should have just known? But why not make it clear for those of us who aren’t up on such things?). Some sites allowed you to limit your search to things such as type of resource, language, subject, license, which can be useful, though sometimes I may not know in advance what kinds of resources I want to search (lecture notes? presentations? full courses?). I particularly like how Ariadne allows you to narrow your search results after the search is done, by clicking on one or more limiters on the side of the page (you can have several limiters on your search results at once, and can take them off by just clicking on them a second time).

One thing that would make a big difference from the perspective of someone searching for resources is to have enough information in the “results” list to be able to judge the relevance of the material in terms of what the person is looking for. Having only titles and authors (e.g., Jorum), or title, URL and a text passage from the resource itself (MIT Open Courseware, OU’s Open Learn), or title plus passage from the resource and keywords (Ariadne) are not enough. Xpert comes close to being good in this respect, giving titles, authors, descriptions, license information, and related content, but what’s still missing is “type” of resource (full course? lecture notes? presentation? etc.).

Apparently, according to a comment by Pat Lockley on my previous post, part of the issue here is that repositories may be reliant on the metadata provided by the multiple individuals and institutions who create and upload OERs. That makes sense, and honestly, I don’t know how to solve such problems since I have zero experience on the “other side” of the OER repository situation. I expect there are probably serious reasons why such things can’t be standardized, or at least not easily. But it sure would be helpful from a users’ standpoint.


I was struck by the fact that some of these repositories have content that is not, actually, open. The Open University’s Open Learn site, for example, has some copyrighted works (as does Xpert I think; haven’t looked carefully at the others). That’s fine, I guess, but it doesn’t really count as “open,” so I don’t see how this is an OER repository, or open learning. And if I’m searching for things I can reuse in my own courses, or remix, then copyrighted materials, or those that are CC-BY-ND (no derivatives) are useless to me. I want to only see OER repositories that have only work that is at least Creative Commons licensed, and excluding things that are licensed as “no derivatives.” I’d rather see only CC-BY or public domain (insofar as that is possible–see an earlier post on this), but that’s another post. Connexions has only CC-BY materials, for example. Of course, some sites with copyrighted or otherwise not-open works often let you restrict your search to only CC-licensed materials (such as Xpert), but still, why have that in an open educational resources repository?

Of course, this assumes there is an agreed-upon definition for what “open” means, does not appear to be the case. Here’s one possibility, but clearly it’s not the one used by everyone calling their work “open.”

Perhaps it does have to be so hard

I would really like to hear from those who know about these sorts of things, what the reasons are for the problems I’ve outlined above–does it have to be this difficult? What lies behind such difficulties? Are there things that could be done to address some of them, and if so, are they difficult to do?



    1. I trust you, definitely, as I am completely on the other side of all this and have only recently learned what metadata is. Not much there in the OU stuff, true.

      I certainly don’t want to make librarians cry, but why does even considering standardised metadata do so? I’m struggling to imagine why, and not coming up with anything.

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