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." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_educational_resources 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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_source_software).

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 - http://www.merlot.org/merlot/index.htm) 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 (http://www.wikiversity.org) 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.  http://www.bulsuk.com/2009/01/how-to-really-implement-kaizen.html  (Accessed: 21-Mar-2013).
Hylén, J. & Schuller, T., (2007). Giving knowledge for free. OECD Observer, 263. http://www.oecd.org/document41/0,3343,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 http://www.ejisdc.org/ojs2/index.php/ejisdc/article/view/545/279 (Accessed: 16-Mar-2013).
Johnstone, Sally M. (2005). "Open Educational Resources Serve the World". Educause Quarterly 28 (3). http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/open-educational-resources-serve-world (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 http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2252/2093 (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. http://www.adlnet.gov/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/12114.pdf (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 http://jime.open.ac.uk/jime/article/view/2012-02 (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]