Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Thoughts on OER

A summary of reflections from the interim meeting of the UK OER II programme. Warning - it's a bit long (lots to say).

Financial constraints mean institutions are less willing to invest in learning and teaching innovation. However, once the political paroxysms are over, the new funding regime might mean that learning and teaching agendas such as OER will have a new relevance. In non-elite institutions it will be necessary to demonstrate that the university experience is worth the money., and that it is distinctively different from the experience at comparable universities. What benefit models might be convincing in this climate, especially in terms of differentiation around the student experience?

In the short term, with threatened mergers etc, visibility and reputation enhancement may become the key drivers of OER release. OERs project the institution's values to the world, and web 2.0 hosted content e.g. on iTunesU is an important marketing tool. However, there are a lot of institutions where the only OERs that are visible to the outside world are informational or marketing in focus. Is this sustainable in learning and teaching terms? Focus on learning and teaching production is very different from focus on institutional reputation and there may be polarisation of these two agendas in the coming months and years.

Course marketisation may be a link between the two. If every course has an OER profile in order to give students positive choices about their learning, then both strategies come into play. At present none of the institutions represented in the strand have a policy of tasters/trailers for all courses, but there is a move towards this view. They give potential students a view of the kind of experience they can expect, they raise the profile of the module, and they can be particularly powerful if they showcase work by students themselves.

Reward and recognition for teaching and learning are key. So is it about embedding OER into formal processes e.g. quality, course approval, or raising the visibility and status of individuals involved in OER, or embedding into high level policies (teaching and learning, marketing, content management, to name just a few)... or all of these? What works best?

How students are engaging with OERs may be a different issue from how staff are: embedding into the student experience of learning is not the same set of strategies to embedding into the curriculum. So while staff recognition and reward is probably key, student motivation is much more about quality and relevance of the resources.

It is possible that more insecurity in academic employment might actually make OER release more attractive as a way of enhancing personal reputation and profile. Weaker affiliation with an institution → 'public' scholarship as a career path. Academic blogs, rich media papers, open research data, pre-publication versions, and personal content legacies are all becoming part of the apparatus of scholarship and professionalism in academia. OERs are part of the picture of borderless institutions on the one hand, and public scholars on the other.

We can expect more conflicts between academic ways of managing knowledge and the opportunities presented by world-wide web – OERs, iTunesU and marketing depts are places where some of these conflicts are being played out. The 'borderless university' is another way of expressing these tensions.

Defining 'open'. For JISC open = openly licensed to support repurposing and reuse. But some other aspects of openness are at odds with one another – there is not a single dimension along which institutions can be measured. For example, open sharing in communities tends to involve some minimal gatekeeping e.g. log-in and personal identifier, to support the virtuous circle of release and re-use, and enrichment of content. Open resources 'in the wild' are available without gatekeeping but lack the history and community ownership that allow for sustained reuse. Resources may be made highly accessible to students in all contexts by including pedagogic support, but this makes them less accessible to teachers who want to repurpose them in different pedagogic contexts.

OERs allow universities to position themselves as sites of public knowledge, in an age of near-universal access. But what does that look like in practice? Outcomes of the UK OER programme which would be nice to see:

- 'Best of' UK OER resources to showcase quality

- Talking heads: towards open public knowledge (students, potential students teaching staff, professionals, developers, managers talking about their OER experiences)

- Impacts: 2 sides of A4 on institutional and educational benefits and lessons learned

Apparently there is no funding available for dissemination, so the evaluation and synthesis team needs to think about how outcomes from the projects and from our own work can be designed to meet some of these criteria without 'extra work' disseminating them in new forms.

OER’ as an issue might become less visible in the coming months, because on the one hand it is just part of the developing digital landscape, and on the other hand it is just a new mode of content sharing, which has always been an aspect of the academic community. OERs can be differentiated from other content (open licence, cost free, accessible design...?) but for most users these are of limited visibility and interest – it's just content. UK OER is a particular moment in the evolution of both digital content and open practices in education, but the evolution will continue.

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