OER: A languishing teenager
Caution: Teenagers: CC BY 2.0 Flickr User CGP Grey

OER: A languishing teenager?

I was involved in a lovely conversation about Open Educational Resources (OER) as part of the ALT_OERSIG webinar held on Thursday 29th January. The webinar was led by Paul Richardson and involved Terry McAndrew. The webinar sparked a discussion about how open education needs to move forward and I get the sense that many people at this moment in time think open education is at a pivotal point. The term ‘open educational resource’ was coined over a decade ago, and maybe it has hit the terrible teens? I see comments on social media about how individuals and institutions haven’t changed. I happen to disagree, and I think the teenager is just languishing in its bedroom having an almighty sulk, and is about to emerge with a second wave of new found confidence very soon.

Audrey Watters explains some of this rather nicely suggesting that the term ‘open’ has lost its authentic roots having been hijacked by initiatives that most of us would not consider open at all. ‘Open’ can mean so many different things to different people but the original underlying philosophy was always about altruism, authenticity and opportunity.

If we believe in equality, if we believe in participatory democracy and participatory culture, if we believe in people and progressive social change, if we believe in sustainability in all its environmental and economic and psychological manifestations, then we need to do better than slap that adjective “open” onto our projects and act as though that’s sufficient. (Watters 2014).

So how is the UK faring in terms of open education? From my perspective I see many areas of impact – OERs being used and shared on Jorum; ‘students as producers’; open courses from Post Graduate Certificates to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on a range of platforms, maybe not open in the purist sense in terms of licensing and technology, but indisputably providing an access point to learning. There is activity across the education sector within schools, Further Education (FE), Higher Education (HE) and with adult learners. Many of these individuals and institutions championing ‘open’ were supported by the UKOER programme of funding (2009-2012) led by Jisc and the Higher Education Academy (HEA), which was instrumental in transforming the sector. Activities have grown and expanded way beyond the funding, and a passionate community exists, but maybe we have reached a plateau and there are good reasons for this?

There will have been a turnover of staff and therefore a loss of the traction in some institutions. That has been a major problem for me personally having moved jobs and seeing pro-vice chancellors come and go, and having to start again with conversations. The lack of funding for education research is hugely destructive as communities of practitioners become dispersed rather than united around projects and common goals, and the organisational changes within our national bodies including Jisc and the Higher Education Academy will also have contributed to this lack of shared enquiry.

Other changes to the sector are also instrumental. The tail end of the UKOER programme coincided with the introduction of fees, and students that we surveyed at that time shared the ideals of open education but voiced some areas of concern:

I know it sounds really cheeky but we live in a day and age where we’ve got to pay for it, why should everybody else get it free (Hurt 2013).

Other institutional changes have seen the rise in importance of league tables, and the close auditing of academic time taking precedence over the former idea of being given the freedom to pursue activities that we felt passionate about as academics.

So where might future opportunities lie? We cannot debate that millions of global learners have been attracted to massive online open courses; even if they don’t complete, our eyes have been opened to experimenting with new ways of learning and teaching. Open textbooks are having a tremendous impact in the US in reducing the financial burden placed on students. We do little in the UK to consider the plight of our students juggling part-time jobs whilst being scorned for poor attendance as they struggle to cover the costs of their education. Nationally in the HE sector we are not catering well for part-time or mature learners; so perhaps more flexible ‘open’ approaches as evident in the US are something of a potential lever?

Other opportunities are emerging with the next Research Excellence Framework exercise in 2020 which will require papers submitted to be open access, and the Research Council’s UK group mandating all data arising from their funding also to be openly licensed to share. These are conversation points for technologists, those in library services and academics who have experienced those painful first steps in sharing their work openly for the first time, and this can be a route in for raising the profile of open education more generally.

So what next? In the webinar the conversation toward the end alluded to leverage through the professional skills and teaching excellence frameworks. Criteria for these awards already considers ‘learning resources’ and maybe we should try and influence that toward ‘open and accessible learning resources’. Other excellent initiatives exist including embedding ‘open’ in PGCerts for new academic staff. I believe every new teacher should produce an OER, and new programme validations and professional body accreditations should be made to include OERs and open practice.

In the webinar Terry talked about the impending withdrawal of the Disability Student Allowance (DSA) funding to universities (Morgan 2014). We discussed how the onus will be on academic teams to deliver an accessible student experience, and that radical changes to university policy and practice need to take place to ensure this happens. However, there are such strong parallels between open and accessible learning, not just on a technical level, but a philosophical one, that ‘open’ might save the day. By striding toward open practices (through flexible materials designed for all purposes, openly licensed for reuse and remixing), educators will be naturally providing more accessible learning.

So open education has hit its teenage years and may be stroppily languishing away in the bedroom, but there is much activity simmering under the surface. I see the Association for Learning Technology playing a major part in leading the national community toward achieving the participatory cultures that Audrey talks about.

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also be interested in articles published in Research in Learning Technology on attitudes and experiences of OER, published by Viv Rolfe (2012, 20) and Peter Reed (2012, 20)

Vivienne Rolfe;
University of the West of England;


ALT_OERSIG Webinar, 29th January 2015. How open is open education: Event details and download available: https://www.alt.ac.uk/civicrm/event/info?id=142&reset=1

Hurt, Libor (2013). De Montfort University Student Perceptions and Understanding of Open Education Resources. MSc Dissertation available: http://www.biologycourses.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Libor-Hurt_Student-perceptions-of-OER.pdf

Morgan J (2014). Disabled Students’ Allowance cuts postponed. Available: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/disabled-students-allowance-cuts-postponed/2015720.article

Watters, Audrey (2014). From “open” to justice. Available: http://hackeducation.com/2014/11/16/from-open-to-justice/

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member

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