Open Educational Resources (OER)

by Paul Maharg on 18/03/2009

UKCLE is leading a bid for funding from HEFCE, through JISC, to development OER for the law subject centre. Partnering with Strathclyde University, and in particular with our law school and Management Sciencein addition to the law schools of the Universities of Glamorgan and Warwick, the bid focuses on the development of resources for simulation in law and in other disciplines.  It's a small start to a significant development for all law schools, which I explore below the fold.  

Why might one want to develop OER?  Surely the idea of giving away resources that are the core of one’s business makes no sense in an educational world that is becoming increasingly commercial and competitive?  There are a number of commonly-cited reasons (Abelson 2008).  OER encourage the sharing of learning resources between institutions and academics; they enable learning resources to be share nationally and internationally; they encourage the better development of resources and tools because multiple versions will be available.  All these point to the development of an educational commons.  Another commonly-cited motive is that it gives first-to-market advantage to early adopters.  The motivation of these two drivers is not necessarily compatible, though, and may determine the distinction between early-adopters and continuing-adopters, not just in the sense of OER maintenance (eg updating the resources) but in terms of further posting of new resources. 

Posting of OER does not of itself guarantee use, of course. There are many reasons why OER may not be used by staff globally – local customising is just too problematic, local variants of a course may be perceived as of better quality than the OER on offer.  Programmes of study are complex entities and there are many reasons why resources may not be used. 

With all these reasons why OER might fail, why might one want to enter into this activity at all?  I think there are actually eminently good reasons – indeed the more one dwells on them the more it seems that OER as a concept is vital to our futures as law schools.  To appreciate the argument, we can turn to Yochai Benkler’s book, The Wealth of Networks (itself posted in its entirety on the web here [3.5mb, .pdf], with wiki page here).  As he says, vis-à-vis information flows on the web, it’s not that ‘the Internet inherently liberates.  I do not claim that commons-based production of information, knowledge and culture will win out by some irresistible progressive force.’  The same argument can be applied to OER.  What Benkler claims for information on the internet is also true of OER: it enables ‘intrinsic processes that allow substantial ordering of the information’.  And rather than envisaging a process where one user posts and another uses, an OER platform could enable users to come together to plan, write and assemble resources, and post them for others – a group of academics from a local cluster of universities, for instance, might begin to draft resources for their own pooled use and the use of others.  What’s interesting about this is that it could also be the first step in a process whereby academics begin to think about the development of common standards of assessment across institutions.

Benkler’s point about substantial ordering is so essential for initial and continued use of OER.  It’s not that we need some kind of knowledge gatekeeper (remember Jimmy Wales’ first attempt at Wikipedia, Nupedia, used PhDs as authors & gatekeepers, and failed).  Poor resources will be ignored, unused, and may be critiqued as such – or maybe altered if they have any future at all.  But poorly assembled resources will rarely be used whether their content is high or low quality, because they cannot be properly viewed or understood in context.  They will become yet another version of shovelware.  We therefore need to create ways in which OER structures and content can be visualized, analyzed, annotated and altered with ease by potential users. 

Who are these users?  Other academic staff, one might think, and I've been writing so far as if that's the only audience.  But it isn't, of course.  OER is about the transparent exchange of knowledge, peer-production and where appropriate, co-construction, where anyone can access and interpret the content — anyone with access to the internet and the OER site.  One of the courses I took as a law student was very poorly taught, and as a result the process of understanding the material was made much more difficult than it ought to have been.  Some of us borrowed lecture notes from students studying the same subject at the only other local university, and we used them instead of the notes from our lecturer’s lectures.  The incident is a classic example of affordance, but it also illustrates three interesting points.  First, had OER been available to us, we would have had many more versions of the subject to choose from – much wider global choice would have replaced the single local alternative available to us.  Our learning affordances would have been hugely enriched.  Secondly, there would have been a range of resources that would have improved our lecturer’s style of teaching and his unacceptable quality standards.  Sophisticated resources, assembled intelligently and sensitively, often require quite high levels of educational understanding and practice.  Third, even though the notes we obtained from the equivalent course at the other local university were much better than the sparse jottings we derived from our own lecturer, nevertheless as students we were faced with the problem of OER content that staff are faced with – how could they be used in a course that had a different assessment, and different content?  We were dealing with photocopies of lecture notes, and therefore the problem was a big one for us; but if OER are arrayed on the web in sufficiently granulated form, so that one can easily understand content and structure, and extract what one wants, then the problem becomes much less. 

There are of course other and deeper arguments too, concerning the access to justice, open education, and the nature of information and knowledge in a democratic society.  I don’t have to make them, I hope – not in this blog, at least.  But they’re reasons why OER are important to the future of HE.  Having said all that, I just hope we get the money…


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