Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Benefits and Drawbacks of 'Big' and 'Little' Open Educational Resources

According to Weller (2011, 2012) open educational resources (OER) can usefully be characterized as 'big,' large integrated projects created by major institutions, or 'little,' small, discrete and idiosyncratic outputs from everyday research and teaching activities. From Weller's discussion it is clear that big OER and little OER share some traits in common. They also differ in many ways, with the interesting feature that their differences show a strong reciprocal relationship. In many instances, the strengths or benefits of one mirror the weaknesses or drawbacks of the other.
Here is a partial listing, as noted in Weller (2011):
  • -17K to 200K visits monthly
  • -large audiences
  • -high visibility
  • -clear, strong motivations
  • -high costs (money, time)
  • -high technical expertise ??
  • -high threshold to content production
  • -creativity & work
  • -isolated
  • -must consider audience demographics
  • -constained by project-focused method of working
  • -fine filter
  • -require a pre-established network to be most effective
  • -low costs (money, time)
  • -low technical expertise
  • -low threshold to content production
  • -creativity & fun
  • -includes many shareable artefacts that are outcome of normal university work
  • -networked
  • -practices can be embedded
  • -can be simple spin-offs of everyday academic activities
  • -consistent with with the bottom-up, unpredictable nature of internet innovation
  •  -no need to consider audience demographics
  • -coarse (open) filter
  • -no academic compromises
  • -high reuse potential
  • -requires comfort with technologies
  • -low level motivations, complex, murky, unpredictable
  • -low visitation, visibility
  • -smaller audiences
  • -yet, as niche products, long-tail theory (Anderson 2006) suggests equivalent impact to big OER
  • -needs lots of content to sustain a perception of value
  • -money & time costs overestimated
  • -require a pre-established network to be most effective
  • -needs empowerment and liberation by academic organizations
  • -requires changed promotion criteria
  • -need formal and informal recognition of value within academic institutions
Weller appears primarily interested in the value of little OER and the actions that can be taken to make them more viable. As a result, the lists above are somewhat skewed in the direction of extended detail in the characteristics of little OER. Most of the little OER drawbacks, it appears, will in fact become strengths if the academic environment in which they are generated can be modified. Strongly supported embedding of little OER creation in the normal academic workflow, he suggests, can make little OER a major force in the cause of open education.
Weller, M. (2011) ‘Public engagement as collateral damage’ in The Digital Scholar, London, Bloomsbury Academic. Available online at (Accessed 27-Mar-2013).
Weller, M. (2012) ‘The openness–creativity cycle in education’, Special issue on Open Educational Resources, JIME, Spring 2012 [online]. Available at (Accessed 10-Mar-2013)..
[This posting is for Activity 11 of the OpenU course on Open Education H817open. All text and graphics are released under a Creative Commons Attribution license.]

Friday, March 29, 2013

Models of Sustainability for OER

All OER have a life cycle: creation, publishing, repeated revision and reuse, senescence, death. Much effort and many resources have been expended on the creation and publishing of OER. The actual value of such resources, however, depends largely on the extent to which repeated revision and reuse can be sustained before the inevitable onset of senescence and death. The issue of sustainability is largely one of resources, and is a topic of considerable interest in the field of open education.

Wiley (2007) defined sustainability as "an open educational resource project’s ongoing ability to meet its goals." In considering the issue of how sustainability may be achieved, Wiley identified three models that he characterized as follows:
  1. The MIT model: "highly centralised and tightly coordinated in terms of organisation and the provision of services, relying almost exclusively on paid employees"
  2. The USU model: "hybrid of centralisation and decentralisation of both organisation and services, and work is distributed across some employed staff and a number of volunteers"
  3. The Rice model: "almost fully decentralised and volunteers provide almost all services"

Wiley's three models indicate a promising direction for consideration of how the sustainability of OER may be achieved, but in the mind of this reader this approach is over-simplified and preliminary. It seems evident that more factors then the ones Wiley identified - centralisation, coordination and funding - are involved.

Expanding upon Wiley's work, it may be possible to identify a longer list of more potentially quantifiable variables involved in the sustainability equation:
  • Institutional blessing
  • Institutional financial support
  • 3rd Party commercial drivers
  • Contributions by intra-university scholars
  • Contributions by scholars at other universities
  • Contributions by independent educators
  • Foundation support (either initial or ongoing)
  • Government support (either initial or ongoing)

Using these eight variables in a qualitative, rank-scaled sense (i.e., judging importance on a scale of 1 to 10) allows one to visualize a sustainability profile for various OER projects with the following general appearance. (Fig. 1)


Using the same variables it is possible to propose visualizing Wiley's (2007) three models in more detail. (Fig. 2)

These same eight variables can be tentatively scored for four OER projects (ChangeMOOC, Coursera, Jorum and OpenLearn), and compared visually with the Wiley models.  (Fig. 3)

A quick review of the online presence of these four projects, of course, is unlikely to provide sufficient information for an analysis in which one could have a great deal of confidence. The significant underlying drivers of OER project sustainability are seldom exposed to public view.

Nevertheless, the multivariate approach offers at least the possibility of a more balanced view than Wiley's models alone. Introducing eight variables into the situation, however, makes it more difficult to compare different sustainability profiles by simple inspection. Fortunately, statistics provides a number of multivariate clustering methods (see the Wikipedia entry) that can assist in this process. The results of one such analysis (blatantly ignoring non-normality of the data) produces the following result. (Fig. 4)

Here we see that including Wiley's three models together with the other four OER projects suggests the existence of three distinct similarity groupings. In Group 1, the USU model and OpenLearn are closest together, and they appear quite similar to the MIT model. Visual inspection suggests that the distinguishing features of this group are probably the high levels of institutional support and a strong dependence on intra-university contributors.  The Rice model is in a distinctly different grouping, showing closest resemblance to Change MOOC and Jorum. This group is probably defined largely by lower levels of institutional support and a much higher openness to contributors from other universities. Coursera, probably because of its commercial model, appears strongly dissimilar to all the others.

Wiley, D. (2007) On the Sustainability of Open Educational Resource Initiatives in Higher Education, Paris, OECD. Online at  (Accessed 26-March-2013).

[This posting is for Activity 10 of the OpenU course on Open Education H817open. All text and graphics are released under a Creative Commons Attribution license.]

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Will I Use Creative Commons Licenses? (Activity 9: H817OPEN

I feel a great deal of moral support for the Creative Commons movement and for use of the CC license, for several reasons:
  1. If you want to get something widely used, understood and appreciated, make it freely available (and get credit too).
  2. If you have benefited from the use of freely available resources, you have an obligation to 'return the favour.'
  3. It is similar to the GNU license for open source software, which has provided such immense value to computer users.
If you are going to make something freely available for reuse, however, I agree with those (for example, Moller 2005) who argue that restricting use for commercial purposes is counter-productive. I take this view for several reasons:
  1. Preventing commercial use is very difficult to detect and expensive if not impossible to prohibit.
  2. What's the problem? You've already said it can be reused. Are you just against filthy lucre and private enterprise in any form?
  3. The GNU license for open-source software allows commercial reuse and this practice has resulted in many fantastic commercial products, like the Android operating system for smartphones.
  4. If someone has figured out a way to make money from your CC resource, then maybe you can learn from it and figure out how to do the same thing.
  5. Also, perhaps not surprisingly, I agree with all of the points made by Moller (2005).
Having said that, I will continue to make choices in the application of the CC license to my intellectual property. I will use it on occasion. Complete devotion to the 4Rs (reuse, revise, remix, redistribute) for intellectual property is possible for those who are salaried or who derive income from other sources. If as in my case, one depends in part for a living on the sale of intellectual property, then it seems clear that at least some creative products must remain proprietary.


Moller, E. (2005) The Case for Free Use: Reasons Not to Use a Creative Commons - NC License [online]. Available at (Accessed 24-March-2013).

[This posting is for Activity 9 of the OpenU course on Open Education H817open. All text and graphics are released under a Creative Commons Attribution license.]

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Activity #8: Creating an OER Course to Introduce Digital Skills

Estimated usefulness: G - quite useful;
M - moderately useful; B - not very useful
This activity was undertaken in an effort to determine how easily an open, online educational course could be created using only existing OER.


I began with a quick outline for a 5-week course, with the learning objectives for each week sketched in only lightly. It looked something like this:

Week 1. Bits & bytes
     -programming; basics of digital coding (bits, bytes, etc.); silicon chips
Week 2. The functional computer
     -computer operation; smartphones; car computers; etc.
Week 3. The internet; finding information
     -web surfing; online learning
Week 4. Digital literacy
     -image manipulation; blog writing; word processing; video; media editing
Week 5. The social internet
     -email; social media; forums

The intention was to offer a very broad introduction to basic digital skills for children in an English-speaking, developing nation, who were experiencing personal computers for the first time.

I then used the following list of searchable OER indices to provide candidate OER for use in each of the five weekly blocks.

OPEN-U Openlearn:
Rice Connexions :

Each of the six indices listed was searched in turn in order, starting at the top, to find at least three OER elements that could support the learning objectives of each of the five weeks. Once three candidate elements were identified for a particular week, that topic area was omitted from subsequent index queries. As a result, most of the time searching and most of the 'hits' came from indices higher on the list. As I worked down the list of indices, fewer gaps remained to be filled in my course outline.

Each OER identified as appropriate was briefly evaluated for potential suitability, using a 3-rank qualitative scale: G - good; M - medium; B - bad. Since most of the OER recovered were coarse-grained, that is full courses or modules rather than individual knowledge units, a complete inspection would have been impractical. Instead the OER description was used as a rough indicator for the estimation of potential suitability. If the description included mention of one of the learning objectives I had identified, I assumed that there would be one or more learning units within the course that could be used in my course, although it is unclear how much effort might have been needed to extract and de-contextualize them.


It proved possible to identify three potentially useful OER for the first four weeks of the 'Digital Skills' course, and only two for the final week. The quality of these 'hits' varied from week-to-week: Week 1 GGG; Week 2 MMM; Week 3 GGG; Week 4 MBM; Week 5 MB. Seven of the hits came from Jorum, six from MERLOT, and one from MIT/OCW. The search function for Ariadne appeared broken during the period I attempted to access this resource.

The quality breakdown of the 14 OER recovered was: G - 6/14 (42.9%); M - 6/14 (42.9%); B 2/14 (14.2%) (see pie-chart graph at the top of this posting).

The full dataset upon which these summary observations is based appears in the first comment to this post.

The search engines provided with some of the OER index sites could stand improvement. In some cases the databases are large and a search returns hundreds or thousands of listings. Further refinement of the search terms does not tend to reduce appreciably the number or diversity of listings returned. As a result, winnowing through the listings is tedious, and in most cases only the first three or four pages worth were reviewed for this project.

A review of Richardson (2013) suggests that although guidelines vary, accessibility of the OER indexed in the sites used for this study is reasonably good for access via modern browsers.

Discussion and Conclusion:

On the whole, the results of this exercise were somewhat disappointing. It would be nice if the estimated quality of the OER recovered had been higher. It would also have been preferable if more of the resources had not borne an extremely high contextual burden. Many of these resources were clearly developed for presentation to specific audiences, for example educators, or project managers, or software designers. In fact, half way through the project I wished I had named my course "An Introduction to Digital Skills in Education." Unfortunately, course development assignments do not work that way.

The most disappointing aspect of all is that the great majority of the OER that were discovered through searching the major indices are coarse-grained, full courses or modules, instead of fine-grained, learning units (= learning objects) with a very narrow focus and low context burden. In preparing an introductory course on digital skills for children in developing nations, it is not clear that the use of OER provides a more rapid application development approach than developing the necessary units from scratch.


Richardson, John (2013). Accessibility of Open Educational Resources. (Accessed: 21-Mar-2013).

This activity was undertaken as part of the open course #h817open

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Evil Empire: Key Issues Surrounding The Use of OER in Education


The Wikipedia definition: "Open educational resources (OER) are freely accessible, openly formatted and openly licensed documents and media that are useful for teaching, learning, education, assessment and research purposes." ( Accessed: 18-Mar-2013)

On preliminary inspection, the creation and use of OER offers a potential solution to the global need for more educated people who are better equipped to cope with global problems like environmental quality, war, malnutrition and economic inequities, as well as to increase their own personal and community well-being. Some indeed, have expressed utopian expectations for OER.

"Education is a fundamental human right. It is the key to sustainable development and peace and stability within and among countries... [snip] The OER defined at the beginning of this article represents those resources needed most to achieve Education for All in the next 10 years [note capitalization]." (Johnstone 2005)

In spite of the apparent benefits flowing from OER, current experience has not matched earlier expectations (Hatakka, 2009). Several authors have identified specific issues with OER that apparently prevent them from becoming more successful, if success is defined as high levels of use and high levels of demonstrated satisfaction by users (Hatakka 2009, Hylén & Schuller 2007, Leinonen et al. 2009) These same papers have suggested a variety of potential responses to the problems identified.

Here I will attempt only to examine three key problems associated with the effective use of OER - barriers, quality and motivation - and with some of the solutions that have been proposed. I will also attempt to expand the discussion by comparing the OER movement with the immensely more successful (in my view) open-source software (OSS) movement (see the Wikipedia entry:

1. Barriers to Use

Individuals, educational systems and countries have so far failed to make extensive use of OER because of a number of barriers, both physical and perceptual. Physical barriers include the difficulty of finding appropriate OER for use in any specific educational setting, the quality of internet infrastructure and the availability of internet hardware accessible to individuals. Non-physical barriers include perceptions of low quality in OER and lack of recognition of educational accomplishment when using OER.

Improved standards (for example, SCORM - Poltrack et al. 2012) and indexing of OER (for example, MERLOT - are both attempts to make appropriate OER easier to find, use and re-use. The barrier of internet infrastructure and the availability of internet appliances is being erased automatically by the wide proliferation, even in developing countries, of smartphones and the networks to sustain their use. Existing OER of course must still be converted for effective distribution to small screens, but that too is rapidly being taken care of by HTML5/CSS3/Javascript 'skins' to repurpose existing web content.

Perceptual barriers are harder to erase, especially lack of recognition of accomplishment. I deal with some problems of perception under the heading of Motivational Issues, below. The issue of OER quality is considered in the next section, Quality/Maintenance/Sustainability

2. Quality/Maintenance/Sustainability

The quality or usefulness of some OER is reduced by context. They may have been produced, for instance, with an assumption that users will already have acquired prerequisite knowledge. This assumption makes it difficult for re-use by other users who lack those specific prerequisites. Few solutions seem to have been implemented, but there has been a call of a de-contextualization of OER, a move that probably implies atomization and a finer-grained OER landscape. OER course elements, that is, may be preferable to OER courses.

Maintenance of OER requires a continual expenditure of resources. A very brief survey of OER available on Wikiversity ( quickly reveals broken links, missing images and other evidence of inadequate maintenance. Poor maintenance quickly raises the issue of sustainability. It is still not clear that sufficient resources have been mobilized to make possible the production of new OER, the necessary revisions and updates to existing OER and the simple maintenance of links to external web resources.

Some recent initiatives show at least theoretical promise in remedying maintenance and sustainability issues in particular areas. Hylén and Schuller (2007) recommend policy changes and increased spending in both public - local, national and international levels - and private spheres.

Leinonen et al. (2009) propose action research, the mounting of ambitious individual courses using OER as a promising direction in improving perceptions of quality. Such projects not only provide useful information on how OER can be used effectively, by their very success they can help to improve overall perceptions in educational and legislative communities.

Nevertheless, once a perception of the low quality of OER has become established it will take some time and a lot of effort to turn it around. It has taken decades to correct similar situations, for instance the perception of quality in products from Japan subsequent to World War II, and the perception of the quality of software produced by open-source communities. With OER, this challenge can only be met by continual improvement in quality (the Japanese concept of kaizen - Bulsuk 2009) and more successful projects utilizing OER.

Some motivational aspects of quality/maintenance/sustainability problems for OER are considered in the following section.

3. Motivational Issues

Motivation as discussed here is the galaxy of rewards that lead individuals to support OER development and use with either time or money. Motivation is perhaps the most critical factor of all, for it is at the root of the other key issues, capable of removing barriers and improving quality, maintenance and sustainability.

Most of the usual motivators for pedagogical and scholastic accomplishment, including tenure, financial reward, professional and public esteem, appear to be largely absent for work with OER. The field is left then with several relatively weak motivators such as altruism and rapid course development. Various government and foundation grants providing stipends for OER development have sought to address the issue of financial reward, but such salaries are seldom sustainable over the long term.

Another class of motivators is concerned with the reasons why potential students do or do not make use of OER to advance their own education. The low cost of access appears frequently to be negated by the low level of recognition of educational accomplishment. Efforts to address this problem include gamification, the awarding of 'badges' of merit in recognition of successful learning using OER. Gamification also seeks to harness the competitive spirit of potential students and the force of peer esteem.

In addition, many university generated open online courses (big OER - Weller 2012) are now offering certificates of completion or accomplishment, and there are efforts to see these recognized as indicators of accomplishment similar to grades earned for on-campus courses. Even if this effort is successful, however, it offers little hope for potential users of small OER (in the sense of Weller 2012).

As I will discuss below, it is possible that the OSS movement has some important lessons on motivation that may benefit the OER movement.


In contrast to the development and use of OER, the development of open-source software (OSS), an area of which I have some personal knowledge, is a resounding success. The quantity and quality of OSS improves every year, and there are OSS alternatives for virtually every type of major proprietary computer program. This ranges all the way from the powerful operating systems that run the majority of the world's websites, to office suites and high-end user applications such as 3-D modeling and realistic character animation.

Although some of this activity receives corporate support, for instance from Google, IBM and Oracle, the vast majority of the work is done by highly skilled volunteers, working as individuals, networked commmunities or cohesive teams. These groups frequently establish foundations to provide stability and long-term direction to their efforts, as well as establishing global standards of interoperability. The world wide web is one product of this type of open source standardization. The motivations behind this kind of successful product creation by volunteers is worth investigating.

How has all of this been accomplished?

Personal champions, individuals whose names become associated with an operating system or a programming language, are one factor. These role models stimulate others to emulate their accomplishments. This type of motivation is easily seen to extend to the generally high regard in which those who become software cognescenti are held by their peers and by legions of others who are less accomplished in the same area.

Another motivational factor, far too powerful to be discounted, is the widespread identification of a common enemy. Referring to large, for profit companies with terms such as "the evil empire" and "the dark side" builds a camaraderie among OSS developers that binds them to their work and to accomplishing ever greater ways to free themselves from the tyrrany of proprietary software. This type of loyalty bears a strong resemblance to nationalism and might be termed a non-violent form of sectarian warfare. The power of the feud is well known to drive the behaviour of individuals across the span of generations.

Could the OER movement and open education in general benefit by a stronger countercultural emphasis?


While there are very likely lessons to be learned by the OER movement from the OSS movement, we must be careful not to jump to the conclusion that there is a one-to-one correspondence. The software development environment is a relatively simple system in terms of human motivation, because software users derive a very direct and tangible reward in terms of a feeling of power when the software enables them to accomplish personal goals with the computer. Even without peer esteem and the satisfaction of evading the clutches of an 'evil empire,' there are concrete reasons for wanting good OSS.

The educational environment, by contrast, is an example of a very complex system. There are few instant gratifications like those provided by software use. Instead, motivations for accomplishment are many and continually shifting with place and time. Like other such systems - the environment, the weather, armed conflict - we still have few tools that are useful in prediction and control. Achieving concrete goals in the educational system may still be an intractable problem in practical terms.

Bulsuk, Karn G. (2009). Warping Forward with Kaizen: An introduction to kaizen, the concept of continuous improvement, and first in a series of how to practically implement it within your service-industry organization.  (Accessed: 21-Mar-2013).
Hylén, J. & Schuller, T., (2007). Giving knowledge for free. OECD Observer, 263.,3343,en_2649_35845581_38659497_1_1_1_1,00.html (Accessed: 15-Mar-2013).
Hatakka, M. (2009), ‘Build it and they will come? – Inhibiting factors for reuse of open content in developing countries’, in EJISDC - The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, Vol. 37, n. 5, pp. 1-16 (Accessed: 16-Mar-2013).
Johnstone, Sally M. (2005). "Open Educational Resources Serve the World". Educause Quarterly 28 (3). (Accessed: 18-Mar-2013).
Leinonen, T., Vadén, T. and Suoranta, J. (2009) 'Learning in and with an open wiki project: Wikiversity’s potential in global capacity building' First Monday, Volume 14, Number 2 - 2 February 2009 (Accessed: 16-Mar-2013).
Poltrack, J., N. Hruska, J. Haag and A. Johnson. (2012) The Next Generation of SCORM: Innovation for the Global Force. Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation, and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) 2012, 9 pp. (Accessed: 18-Mar-2013).
Weller, M. (2012) ‘The openness–creativity cycle in education’, Special issue on Open Educational Resources, JIME, Spring 2012 [online]. Available at (Accessed: 13-Mar-2013).

[This essay is submitted as Activity #7 for the open course #h817open. NOTE added 24Mar2013: This activity has been awarded the Badge: OER understanding - Demonstrated understanding of OER issues on H817open; see badge logo appearing at the top of this post]

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Openness in Education (#h817open)

This is Activity #3 for the Open Education course I'm taking (see this post for more details) - #h817open

Today, I offer an infographic intended to summarize some aspects of the content of these two references:

Anderson, T. (2009) Alt-C Keynote [online]. Available at .

Weller, M. (2012) ‘The openness–creativity cycle in education’, Special issue on Open Educational Resources, JIME, Spring 2012 [online]. Available at .
[Graphic by D. Barr, released under a Creative Commons Attribution license}

Monday, March 11, 2013

It's Open Education Week! Who Knew? (#h817open)

I certainly didn't. Coincidentally, however, I had already signed up for a MOOC (massive open online course) about open education (you can find the course description HERE). Discovering this course through benefit of my personal learning network (PLN) on Google+ was really great (thanks +Deborah L Gabriel, PhD, MD ), because I had just completed another MOOC on E-Learning and Digital Cultures, and like many participants in that one was experiencing a sense of emptiness and letdown. This new one was billed informally as a MOOC about MOOCs - just the thing to lift one's spirits in the gray days before Spring arrives.

This blog post, by the way, is the first formal activity I've been asked to complete in the new MOOC, which goes by the hashtag of #h817open.

My name is Dave Barr and I am a museum consultant with wide experience in the Canadian cultural sector and a special interest in new technologies for engaging museum audiences. I have worked with museums, both large and small, in organizational and process analyses, strategic and business planning, policy development, gallery development, project management, and online education. I've written numerous publications, including online learning courses in strategic planning, business planning and project management for

I'm an avid user of smartphone apps.

Interestingly enough, museums have been pioneers in delivering open education, also called free or informal education. During the 20th century museums increasingly adopted informal education as one of their core missions. As I try to list my learning objectives for the course, below, you'll see that I am grappling with the ways and means that museums can continue to play a leadership role, now that open education has become a popular preoccupation.

My learning objectives for H817Open include:
  • understanding better all that MOOCs can be
  • understanding a lot more about world-wide activity in open education
  • becoming better acquainted with some of the resources and channels for open education
  • understanding better some online education techniques like gamification
  • understanding what role museums can play in today's approaches to open education
A final objective, under the heading of 'other,' is continuing to expand my personal learning network.
Oh, yes. And Mar. 11-16 really is Open Education Week, organized by the Open Courseware Consortium. From the OpenEd website: "The purpose of Open Education Week is to raise awareness of the open education movement and opportunities it creates in teaching and learning worldwide. Participation in all events and use of all resources are free and open to everyone."  Lots to do and see - check it out at  (Thanks, +Sara Roegiers )

Not only that, but have you ever heard of P2PU? From their website: "Peer 2 Peer University (we mostly just say P2PU) is a grassroots open education project that organizes learning outside of institutional walls and gives learners recognition for their achievements. P2PU creates a model for lifelong learning alongside traditional formal higher education. Leveraging the internet and educational materials openly available online, P2PU enables high-quality low-cost education opportunities." Get the whole scoop at  (Thanks, +Sara Roegiers )

As for museums, my thoughts are still at a very formative stage. But my firm suspicion is that if we want to remain leaders in open education, we'd better get going with the online versions, ASAP. The rest of the world is starting to leave us behind.

[The illustration is a mash-up of the logos for Open Education Week and Peer 2 Peer University, from their respective websites, which I just know are made available under a Creative Commons license :)]