Tuesday, April 2, 2019

How I lost my faith in Open Education Resources (OER)?

This is more or less the script for a lightening (6-minute) presentation for the OER19 conference in Galway next week. I've recorded it with slides as well. (recording:http://bit.ly/2U9UhN0 - slides )

As someone who once thought that OER was a great idea, I first became aware of an ideological tinge in the movement when I listened in to an online debate (argument?) about the need for Non-Commercial (NC) to be included in open licencing. I had been putting my teaching materials on the web since the nineties with a note saying that anyone could use them any way they wanted and that a note of attribution would be nice. To be honest, I wondered what all the fuss was about open licencing but I was certainly on one side of the argument, in that if anyone wanted to make money out of my materials, fair play to them, as I certainly wasn’t going to. I wondered why Downes opposed commercial use of materials and following the debate I was firmly on the side of McGreal and had come to the conclusion that Downes had an ideological distaste for people making money out of education.

In the early noughties I attended seminars by legal experts on the use of third party materials on the web and concluded that if I followed their advice I’d never get anything done, so I generally advised my colleagues to use whatever they found that was useful and put a note on their web page stating “If I have inadvertently breached copyright with any materials here, please contact me immediately and I will remove them”. In general I have said “Stop worrying. No academics have been fired or gone to jail yet, so you are unlikely to be the first”. In general I attribute my limited success in online learning to a list of things I avoided doing rather than particular things I did, and this is one of them.

Quality Assurance (QA) in general is an issue that I have a problem with in higher education. Higher Education has accreted a set of tedious bureaucratic processes that in no way guarantee a high quality learning experience for students. Such an approach is deterministic in that it claims that if you follow a specific methodology there will be a good outcome. QA professionals in industry have long since admitted that this is unreliable, and that Continuous Improvement (CI) is a much faster and more reliable route to Quality. It is also inimical to innovation as it assumes that the experts know what will achieve quality even when they are unaware of new techniques. Although my opposition to QA in OER is somewhat based on the unreliability of “expert review”, mostly it is that such review systems are too tedious and represent too little “bang for the buck”. I volunteered to be a MERLOT reviewer some time back but had to give it up as the effort for individual learning object was just too much. It would be better to encourage academics to release their materials on the web and to let users, students and teacher, review and share them. This is the way videos become viral on Youtube. To paraphrase my daughter: “No matter what difficult concept my engineering professors present in class, I’ll find an Indian professor on Youtube that explains it better”.

For the same reason I have issues with repositories, granularity and reusability. We had the National Digital Learning Repository in Ireland some time back. Something like €8m was spent on the assumption that if we built an infrastructure for storing and sharing OER people would use it. It was a IT person’s idea that did not seem to understand how academics (or people in general) really work. As people were not naturally inclined to share materials, and technically it was somewhat of a challenge to upload materials, it essentially had to pay people to do so. In order to theoretically improve reusability, it encouraged breaking down materials for a fine granularity (e.g. single images), further increasing the workload for academics. Then people had to be encouraged to use the materials in their courses. This involved getting to grips with the technology of the repository, hoping it had materials suitable for your students, and then integrating them together and into the course. As my daughter has suggested, it was easier just to search the Internet for good materials to link to, often Youtube videos. During this time as well, very simple recording and publishing options were emerging, making it easier to create the materials yourself.

When MOOCs hit the big time in 2012, I was surprised at the negative reaction within the e-learning and OER communities. The courses were open but they were simple and did not use more advanced educational approaches. They were not granular so you could not reuse individual parts of them. The may have been open but did not contain openly licenced material. The last objection seemed to me to be ideological in nature. You can learn almost anything from the Internet, but learners need structure. MOOCs added structure to open learning. Surely that was of value to learners and educators, even if the materials themselves were not openly licenced. Micromasters and “MOOC style” masters degrees are offering even more structure, and though not free, may do more to achieve the same objectives as the OER movement: Lowering the cost of higher education.

Which brings me to my final observation: Are we addressing the wrong problem? With two children of my own in Higher Education I have estimated the costs per year in the following categories:
  • Cost of tuition (including fees, government subsidies and scholarships) €13k
  • Accommodation €9k
  • Food and entertainment €5k
  • (Opportunity costs - they could have been working) €20k
  • Books and courseware €0.6k
This leads me to conclude that we are working on the wrong problem. There are much more important challenges than the cost of books and other materials that can only be addressed by a more fundamental redesign of how we do higher education. So why the emphasis on books and not more fundamental change. I suspect that the reason for this is ideological.

The book and courseware business is essentially commercial and profit driven while higher education institutions are largely non-profit. It fits the ideological perceptions of those within higher education better to oppose the profit-making publishers than to challenge the inefficiencies within our own system.

But to be fair, some within the system are doing just that. My personal view is that we should stop sending kids to college. Apprenticeships and alternative credentials may provide them with more employable skills and hopefully employers will move towards more competency based recruitment rather than relying on the expensive signalling from college education. I believe that MOOC style courses and degrees will do more to reduce the cost of education than any other method and that is why I, personally, would prefer to work on what can be achieved through open courses and work-based learning than through OER.

Slides available at: http://bit.ly/oer19bm


  1. Good thinking Brian. I have just finished running an 11-week degree course, based on a 5-week MOOC I ran in 2017. I learned a lot and will run an enhanced course next year

    1. Yes, this is the way i would like to see things going. Now if you could convince your colleagues to do likewise you might get the cost of the whole degree down. What was the topic? I'm about to try to convince colleagues to do this with an Associates Degree.

  2. Could we improve it though as every "step forward" inevitably end up being a disaster leading to a backward quick step....

    1. Let's take some risks. If even 2 out of every 3 steps forward work it will probably be worth it.

  3. How did you approach reviewing OERs? I found it difficult judging teaching effectiveness out of context - the more granular, the more difficult

  4. To be honest I did it intuitively and was generally prepared to approve anything that looked remotely useful.