Open Educational Resources as a higher education strategy for openness and social development

SCHMIDT, J. Philipp (2007)

As higher education worldwide leans towards privatisation and universities focus on increasing their market value through commercialisation, a movement that promotes openness, free access to learning resources, and emphasises the social function of higher education is growing rapidly. Open Educational Resources (OER) are the spearhead of a broader trend towards open access to knowledge that is based on a participative and socially responsible understanding of education. In this paper, we discuss some of the main features of OER, an emerging field of interest, that will have its own little space in the next GUNI Higher Education in the World report.

A complicated-sounding acronym, OER, has been occupying the minds and blogs of those working in the field of education and technology. The OECD has written a study about it (OECD, 2007), UNESCO's International Institute of Educational Planning has been discussing it with over 600 people from 98 countries [1], the Hewlett Foundation has spent US$ 68 million in supporting it and a search on Google now produces 90,000 results for the term OER, or open educational resources. What is all the excitement about?

The Open Educational Resources movement is part of a broader trend towards participatory innovation processes and open access to knowledge. Creative Commons licenses, which allow authors more control over what others can do with their work, have enabled the spirit of free and open source software to spread to the production of cultural artefacts and educational resources. This development is underpinned by a shared understanding of knowledge as something that must be accessible to the benefit of society as a whole [2]. Providing such a public good has always been one of the guiding principles of institutions of (higher) education, and one that stresses their important social role and commitment.
What is an Open Educational Resource?
The term Open Educational Resources encompasses freely-licensed educational content (text, audio, video), and other resources that support the production, distribution and use of such content [3]. The authors of OER grant anyone the freedom to use their materials, modify, translate or improve them, and share them with others (some licenses restrict modifications or commercial use). Most Open Educational Resources are provided in digital formats, which makes it easier to share and adapt them. Wikipedia, the volunteer-created encyclopaedia, and even textbooks can be OER, and open courseware is a type of Open Educational Resource that organises materials into courses.
Despite all the current attention, the concept behind OER is not all that new in the education environment. Lecturers have often shared their materials with colleagues, and the scientific method and peer-review are based on similar underpinnings of open collaboration. What is new, is the ease with which these resources can be produced thanks to digital technology, the ability to distribute them to mass audiences through the World Wide Web, and the legal security that free and open content licenses afford the authors and users. Some argue that OER are one piece of a much larger puzzle that suggests that a new role is in store for universities – but more on that later.
The beginnings of the OER movement can be traced back to 2001. In January 2001, Wikipedia was launched as an attempt to create an online encyclopaedia that could be edited by anyone. During its first month it received 17 articles, by April it had 1,000, in October more than 10,000 and by the end of 2002 it had crossed the 100,000 article mark [4]. It is now the largest encyclopaedia in the world and a tremendous resource for students and lecturers. In 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched its OpenCourseWare project and announced that it would publish its entire course materials online, open for others to use, modify and share, and free of charge. The world of higher education was in shock – how could MIT give away its "crown jewels" when the rest of the world was trying to commercialise teaching and learning activities? It has had a resounding success. To date, MIT has published over 1700 online courses, which are being accessed by more than 1 million users every month. And it is not just the rest of the world that benefits – MIT students are happy with the initiative as well: 35% of first-year students say there were aware of it and that it positively influenced their decision to attend MIT [5].
What started in a few well-resourced US universities is on its way to becoming a global movement. In 2007, for the first time other institutions out-published MIT in the open courseware field. The Open Courseware Consortium, a network of more than 150 members across the world, estimates that about 4200 open courses have been published to date – which puts MIT's share at 40% and shrinking [6]. The Open Courseware Consortium was set up to increase the production and use of open courseware internationally. In terms of the user-base, open courseware is already an international phenomenon. More than 60% of visitors to MIT's courses are not from the US, and almost half are self-learners – individuals who are not currently enrolled in a degree programme or teaching [7]. The internationalization is also going multilingual, as proves the recent OpenCourseWare Universia project, formed by Spanish, Portuguese and Latin-American universities, which aims to provide a wider and more efficient access to free knowledge [8].
OER development models, and sustainability
If there was such a thing as an OER recipe, its main ingredients would be education, technology and law: take the traditional practice of sharing and collaboration in education, add the power of information technology, wrap the results in licenses that are less restrictive than default copyrights, and the result is OER. As more lecturers are creating digital versions of their materials, and sharing them with students, it is a small step to also post them on a website for others to download. The institutions and lecturers that have taken this step, find that increased attention, growing reputation, and sometimes even commercial publishing opportunities are the result. They realise that by giving something away, they get a great deal in return. In addition, a few international donors (especially the Hewlett Foundation) have played an important role in launching and supporting many of the leading OER projects in the US and Europe.
Once this funding dries up, the question of sustainability hinges on our understanding and definition of who the producers and the users of higher education materials are. So far, most OER projects have been producer-driven, which usually means by universities, professors, lecturers and teachers. In this traditional view of education, the students are the users or consumers.
As we know from other open collaborative peer-production processes (a complicated way of saying “people who work together in online communities without expecting to be paid”), the producers of shared goods are strongly motivated by the proverbial need to "scratch an itch". If open source software developers need a certain application that does not exist, they go ahead and write it and then share it with others. Yet, with a few minor exceptions, we do not see lecturers collaborating with other lecturers to create OER in the same way. If we believe that OER can be sustainable because someone is scratching an itch by producing them, then we must first find out: “who is itching?”
It appears that in many cases students and self-learners are more interested in creating OER than the lecturers. Similarly to open source software developers, these learners are both users and producers, which provides strong motivation. For example, students from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Informatics at Budapest University of Technology and Economics in Hungary have created a vast repository of educational resources that includes lecture notes, exam texts with model answers, and summaries of articles and books. Without any institutional support, the students have compiled about 10,000 pages of content. Why? Because they realised that sharing their notes benefited them all, made learning more efficient and made it easy to catch up if classes had been skipped. While this might seem like a campus rebellion (or a dream come true depending on who you ask), it signals the beginning of a new higher education environment, one that is learner and community-driven, uses technology effectively and navigates around institutional barriers.
Open Education: quality and accreditation
This new open education environment poses a number of challenges to the current understanding of education and its institutions. Firstly, the notion of quality, which is inherent to both peer-reviewed published research and to the assessment of students, changes. Whereas quality has traditionally been the realm of a small number of experts, increasingly we find that hordes of non-experts are able to produce equal or even superior works. Wikipedia, mentioned above, is a great example in which a self-selected community of amateurs produces an encyclopaedia that is as accurate as the work of paid experts who contribute to the Encyclopaedia Britannica [9]. However, educators (who are experts by training and definition) hardly need worry about these developments. The art of teaching finds its expression in the transfer of tacit knowledge (the things we know but cannot explain, or are not aware of knowing) from teacher to student, and between students. A great teacher creates a learning experience that cannot be replaced by reading a book or accessing OER.
Nevertheless, some argue that the absence of accredited quality assessment is the key challenge for more widespread acceptance of Open Educational Resources in the future. The debate over what is quality and who can be expected to assess it has only just begun, and projects are underway experimenting with different strategies to address this issue. Thus, successful open content projects like Wikipedia are finding better ways of preventing intentional manipulation of the content, without limiting the underlying notion of open collaboration. For example, some Wikipedia entries can only be edited by users who have been registered for at least four days – this has proven effective at keeping out many unwanted contributors. Other projects posit that introducing some form of “expert” assessment is needed to ensure quality. Citizendium, another community encyclopaedia project that was started by one of the Wikipedia founders, requires contributors to be registered under their real names, and only users with a university degree can “approve” entries. While it is too early to conclude whether this will result in higher quality individual entries, Citizendium's slow growth rate of articles indicates that openness is a more effective way of mobilising a community of volunteer collaborators.
The reputation of OER producers provides another mechanism that influences how users perceive quality. Some of the early producers of open courseware are among the world's elite research universities. If users are able to assess the reputation of the producers, this can help them to navigate the vast amount of available resources, but it can also become a problem for smaller international universities. For instance, the OER published by universities in developing countries are unlikely to receive the same attention as those by the top international institutions in developed countries, even though they may be more appropriate for a particular local context. One way around this is affiliation with the Open Courseware Consortium. The consortium allows its members to display the OCWC logo on their websites to indicate a commitment to certain standards, and it has developed search services that include courses from large and small members alike.
The second big issue is formal accreditation, which takes on a new role in a world in which one's work and reputation can be scrutinised online. In a recent review of open source software for economics, 70% of developers felt that their participation in open source projects compensated for a formal degree [10]. Employers are able to review their work, which is stored in source code repositories, and their status in the open source community is based on careful peer assessment over time. Such proven ability to produce working software and collaborate with others are sufficient to find a job. However, the need for accreditation varies between disciplines and countries, and seems more feasible in areas in which it is easy to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong. Computer software works or it does not, in a way that a treatise on English literature cannot be evaluated. Moreover, as participants in the Peer-To-Peer University discussion at the Icommons Summit recently found out, nobody wants to go to an open source dentist.
The Ivory Tower and the Bazaar
While some have declared the university to be in ruins (Readings, 1996), or at least in need of significant re-orientation (Bok, 2003), calls to abolish it altogether in light of open educational resource and practices are clearly premature. However, open models of peer production create a pressure for change, which makes these exciting times to revisit the institution's role in society. From creating cultural identity, to serving the needs of the industrialising state, the university has changed and adapted to the demands of the times. Yet, throughout these developments, its idiosyncratic role as a place for reflection in search of truth (Cowan, 2005), has largely been preserved as crucial to a functioning society. The question is how the depth of thought we find in the ivory tower's deliberate meditation can be reconciled with the clutter, noise and fleeting excitement in the bazaar of open education.
BOK, Derek (2003) Universities in the Market Place: The Commercialization of Higher
Education. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
COWAN, R. (2005), "Universities and the Knowledge Economy", Paper prepared for the conference Advancing Knowledge and the Knowledge Economy at the National Academies, Washington, DC, 10-11 January 2005.
OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (2007), Giving Knowledge for Free - The Emergence of Open Educational Resources, OECD Publishing. Available from
READINGS, B. (1996), The University in Ruins, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
SUROWIECKI, J. (2004), The Wisdom of Crowds, Random House.
Catriona Savage to IIEP-OER mailing list 5 June 2007
Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, famously declared that information should be “Free as in freedom.”
There is no generally accepted definition of OER. The term was first used in July 2002 during a UNESCO workshop on open courseware in developing countries. Most existing definitions include content, software tools, licenses, and best practices.
Unpublished statistic collected by the Open Courseware Consortium, June 2007
Indeed, Universia also collaborates with the MIT by translating original MIT OCW materials into Spanish, as can be seen at

About the author

J. Philipp Schmidt

Free Courseware Project
Rip-Mix-Learn Research Group
University of the Western Cape, South Africa
United Nations University MERIT

Thursday, September 13, 2007


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