Andy Lane: "The benefits of sharing should be to improve the range of resources available so as to allow teachers more time to interact with their students"
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Andy Lane, director of the Open University’s initiative OpenLearn, answers readers' questions on Open Educational Resources (OERs).
Dear Andy, I think OpenLearn is a generous initiative and so let me congratulate you for your task. Here is my question: Do you think there is a tension between the desire of institutions to manage their students’ knowledge and the students’ desire to manage their learning? If so, do you think Open Educational Resources could help to ease this tension?
Yes there is a tension that I think is largely created by Institutions mostly offering tightly defined programmes of study that have clear titles e.g. Biology or Architecture. While these programmes provide very useful learning experiences that can often be targeted at certain areas of work, the degree of choice in what students can study within the programme is limited as it does make it more manageable for the Institution and is also what is often expected by Professional Bodies. However many students may want to learn about things not covered in that programme, either because it has some relevance to the programme of study but is not included in it or because it offers other learning relevant to their wider aspirations. Open Educational Resources (OERs) can meet some of this need as they offer an alternative view of a topic covered in a programme (many users of MIT’s Open CourseWare are undergraduate students at other Universities who like to compare similar courses at MIT to ones they are taking) or act as enrichment study (we have found that some Open University students are studying units on OpenLearn from very different subject areas to their degree programme as they provide some other personal or professional development e.g. creative writing, learning a language).
Hello Andy, I was wondering if there exists or will exist any quality system for the open learning materials? How will the teachers or independent learners know about the quality and reliability of the material? I ask this because besides MIT and Open University there are surely other entities that offer open content.
Currently the quality of OERs is most often defined by the provider, and Institutions like MIT and the Open University are the guarantors through their normal quality assurance processes. In other cases it is for the users to judge for themselves whether the quality is good. While this may be difficult for an individual to do, the views of large numbers of people using rating schemes like that on the Amazon website for books could provide such a service.
Many people involved in the Open Educational Resources movement are looking at the different ways in which quality could be determined for users, especially resources developed by individuals or groups of people who are not part of an Institutional initiative. Two examples of this are the non-institution-based MERLOT and Connexions collections of OERs. In the former case they are using a traditional peer review mechanism often before publication of the resource (http://taste.merlot.org/peerreviewprocess.html) supplemented by user comments and ratings. In the latter case they have set up different ‘lenses’ (http://cnx.org/news/LensesIntroduced) for the resources to be judged after publication on the site. They have endorsement lenses for material reviewed by an authoritative body, affiliation lenses where content has been created by someone from an institution but not necessarily had it reviewed and members list lenses where registered users can give their views. We are looking at doing similar things for material contributed by others in the LabSpace of OpenLearn.
Is the disinclination of academics to use other people's materials an underestimated factor inhibiting the success of sharing initiatives, particularly expensively developed and maintained repositories?
Our research confirms Brian's view that academics are reluctant to re-use other people's materials. What do you see as the key challenges to changing this point of view?
I don’t underestimate this factor but see it as one of changing practices slowly. I believe that academics are not reluctant to use bits of other people’s material in the privacy of the lecture room but are reluctant to use substantive amounts in a more public way, either on an Intranet/Virtual Learning Environment or on the Internet. I say this because I don’t know a fellow academic who does not include a figure or graphic or small quote in slide presentations or handouts which has been published elsewhere. This is standard practice in teaching and writing but has been largely governed by the fair use or fair dealing rules around the use of copyrighted material. However most academics have little idea about the copyright laws in general and so are unsure what they can do and cannot do, even if someone has applied an open licence such as a Creative Commons one (http://creativecommons.org/) to the material. This is even more so if they are putting the material on a website and they have spent many hours developing it and do not want to give it away lightly in the mistaken belief they may make money out of selling such content (few can – even the Open University).
So the legal side does inhibit sharing, but I think that two other cultural practices are even more important. First, most academics teach as individuals. They are not used to working with others in either developing or sharing materials as they may be the only person teaching what they do in their institution and even where there are more of them there are no mechanisms for peer review of teaching in the way there is for research, and few Institutions recognise teaching in the way they do research through promotion and reward schemes. Second, most academics are not used to producing resources to publish on the web and they can worry about how best to do it and then worry whether their work is good enough to expose it to others. New technologies are easing the technical barriers for individuals to produce resources (although it can still be a big issue) but it is still the case that having more than one person developing materials with differing expertise is likely to be more effective.
Finally, there is also the question that many lecturers feel that the materials are not quite what they need for their situation – a point I take up in the next answer. These barriers may sound daunting but then we all had to learn how to use computers and that did not happen overnight.
Dear Andy. I have read about an issue that might be a problem to use and produce OER. It's about the concept that the production of educational material shouldn't (?) be separated from its usage. That is, the material is usually created for a certain context and situation of teaching and learning. However, when there is no connection - the one who makes the material, doesn't know when or how the material will be used / the one who uses the material can't evaluate the relevance and quality of the material without knowing the background - it can cause uncertainty both for production and usage. Do you think this is a relevant problem and is there any solution to it?
In my opinion OER are available to everybody but I do not think they are accessible and exploitable by everybody. The diversity of learning contexts is not taken into account: for example different curricula (or, in the case of higher education, students that come from pre-university education with different curricula) and different learning objectives (matching the learner's needs taking into account his/her knowledge capital). The diversity of the learning cultures is not taken into account: the teaching and learning environment in different countries/school/university systems do not have the same overall objectives and methods. What is your opinion on the current situation of OER concerning these aspects and on possible solutions in the future?
This issue of resources being localised or contextualised to the needs of the user is a common discussion point because societies and cultures do differ in what is expected in their formal education systems. I believe it is necessary to look at the needs of teachers and learners separately.
For teachers, an OER may not be exactly what they want, but with an open licence and appropriate formats they do have the potential to take and adapt that OER for their own situation. The more (good quality) OERs there are, the more choice a teacher will have to be able to put together resources for their class just as they do now in a smaller way when taking images and figures and so on for slide presentations at the moment. Why reinvent the wheel or put together a neat Flash animation or YouTube video clip explaining something if it has already been done? Even better, if someone in India has created a new resource specifically for use in India and you teach in India as well. The benefits of sharing should be to improve the range of resources available so as to allow teachers more time to interact with their students, providing even more of the localisation that way, rather than just lecture to them. It is not about creating a single version of a course, but some building blocks with which to construct multiple versions, including versions in other languages (check out this study unit on OpenLearn that has been translated into Catalan http://labspace.open.ac.uk/course/view.php?id=3173).
Learners who directly study an OER, on the other hand, may have to accept that it has been developed for a different setting to the one they are in, and get what they can from it as supplementary study for their formal studies or as a non-formal learning opportunity as I explained earlier. OERs are there for self-study, so there is no teacher to help contextualise it, but in OpenLearn you can always post questions to other learners who may respond and help you out with any difficulties you have. It is also the case that the degree of contextualisation varies greatly with the subject being studied. For many science topics there is a more stable body of knowledge while for other subjects, such as law, there are more limited similarities between jurisdictions.
Hello, Andy, in my opinion exploitation of OERs offered at The Open University in the United Kingdom is really not connected with the problem of "the sophisticated learner with very good access to the internet". However, it is another kind of sophistication -- learners should be experienced in English. Because many of my students at Poznan University of Technology (http://www.put.poznan.pl/en) can read English texts, I'm going to encourage them to use the your OERs during the e-course “Metody i techniki kształcenia na odległość” (http://www.geocities.com/eklezjastka/ester1.html). Luckily, some of those PUT students and especially my future students at The European Career College (http://www.kde.edu.pl/page.php/2/0/show/1/) will write on Open University forums. Do you believe in the value of such international cooperation in the exploitation of your OERs?
Yes I do believe that there is value from international cooperation and exploitation of our OERs and of other peoples’ OERs. We do want people to use them whether that is done formally or very informally. We already have several international projects that we have given space to in the Collaboration Zone of LabSpace (http://labspace.open.ac.uk/course/filter.php?grouping=topic&detail=20&order=date) and we know of many others using our materials, all of whom we are in contact with to know what they are doing and what value it has to them. Since the ethos of OERs is about sharing we also belong to the Open CourseWare Consortium (http://ocwconsortium.org/) and are participating in a funded project called MORIL (Multiligual Open Resources for Independent Learning) that involves several members of the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (http://www.eadtu.nl/). Through these and other ventures we are researching and evaluating OER use in as many areas as possible so as to understand better all the issues that have been raised in the questions here. Some initial findings were reported at the OpenLearn2007 Conference we recently hosted (http://kn.open.ac.uk/workspace.cfm?wpid=7979)
The open contents initiative is a very good movement and I hope that people benefit from it. My concern is if the developing countries can gain from it too. Do you think the open material can help the developing countries in improving their conditions for teaching and learning? Can you name any specific projects about this? Are there any results so far?
Many developing countries have realised the potential of OERs (on top of Open Source Software) for reforming their education systems. Just before writing this I learned about the official launch of the Vietnam OpenCourseWare website at http://www.vocw.edu.vn with the aspiration to make OCW/OER features rich, accessible, and reusable at no cost for Vietnamese faculty members, students and self-learners. There is also plenty of OER work happening through the Commonwealth of Learning such as with WikiEducator (http://www.col.org/colweb/site/pid/4051) while here at the Open University we contribute to some specific projects in Africa such as the TESSA programme (http://www.tessaprogramme.org/). Many of the same issues I have discussed above apply to developing countries but the challenges are often greater because the physical and virtual infrastructure for education is not very good. It has been calculated that to have as great a proportion of the population go to University in developing countries as do in developed countries would require a new university being built every day for many years to come. OERs are not a complete solution by any means but meeting this scale of challenge is unlikely to succeed without them. The early results from these various initiatives are encouraging but reforming educational systems takes many years and substantive investment of time and effort as will be evident if you read up about the ones I have mentioned above.