Sunday, 7 April 2013

Activity 11 - big OER vs little OER

First of all, it is probably a good idea to decide what is meant by the big and little OER ‘approaches’. The word 'approach' implies something deliberate or strategic maybe and, in my view, while this can certainly be applied to many big OER projects, it is more challenging to understand what a little OER ‘approach’ might be.

When talking about big OER, it seems that we are generally referring to MOOCs or certainly some type of course or ‘package’ of learning materials. (does an OER repository such as Jorum, Connexions etc. count as a big OER?) 


Legitimacy: There is a significant financial and reputational investment for those involved in producing (or hosting) big OER (e.g Harvard, MIT, Edinburgh, OU, Coursera etc), and to a certain extent this investment, and the name of the institution, give the courses and materials legitimacy, and there is an underlying assumption that the content provided will be of a high quality. [I think here it’s certainly valid to ask what exactly is meant by high quality. The course may well feature world-renowned experts in a field delivering their pearls of wisdom for the masses absolutely free, but what about the learning itself, what about the processes around the content, the activities the students engage in, the quality of interaction on any discussion platforms provided, or the associated assessment and feedback processes, if there are any? Does quality content equal quality learning? As we know, the dropout rates from many of these MOOCs are extremely high, so perhaps the measures used to determine quality are the wrong ones?]

Openness: If we look at David Wiley’s 4 criteria for openness: Revise, Remix, Reuse, Redistribute, then two of these often do not seem to apply to many of the big OERs. It appears to be relatively rare that other institutions or individuals revise and remix the content of these courses. As Martin Weller points out: “the experience of the OpenLearn project has been that very few units are changed or adapted for use.” (Weller, 2010) It could be that they are in fact not particularly open, and that institutions providing them retain a fairly strong control over how they are used. As Patrick McAndrew (OU) pointed out at the recent OER13 conference: “Often you can’t actually see into the [course] materials until you make a commitment,” and “They are creating a sort of closed community in the open.”

Pedagogy: A common criticism of big OERs, and particularly xMOOCs, is that pedagogically they are simply replicating outdated educational models. Many commentators believe that the new technological landscape is encouraging a move towards more social constructivist and connected forms of learning, and perhaps in some ways xMOOCs embody the old ‘transmission’ or ‘sage on the stage’ model of education, and fail to take into account this changing learner landscape.
As Knox et al. point out:
“All of these MOOC platforms appear to justify their status by promoting curricula that are equivalent to campus-based courses, with a strong focus on content delivery and an emphasis on the rigor and formality of their assessment methods.  However, some of the most interesting and innovative practices in online education have emerged by challenging these very ideas; loosening institutional control of learning outcomes and assessment criteria, shifting from a focus on content delivery to a foregrounding of process, community and learning networks, and working with more exploratory assessment methods – digital and multimodal assignments, peer assessment and group assignments, for example.” (2012) 

Having said that, one size does not fit all, and there is probably an argument to say that this model is entirely suitable for many of the students taking these courses, and that there is a certain comfort to be found in these familiar structures.

Little OER

Little OER approach? It is more difficult to ascertain what constitutes a little OER ‘approach’. It seems rare for a Higher Education institution to have specific policies or strategy objectives related to the use of OERs. Instead, where they are used, the process appears to be fairly disorganised and random, involving a relatively small number of staff engaging with new technologies and creating and sharing resources, but often on an ad hoc basis. These resources may well not end up in an OER repository, or have any wider reach than the department or university in which they are produced. This, then, is one disadvantage of little OERs – whilst they are quick, relatively easy and cheap to produce, they may not exist within a coherent framework or be easily accessible for others to find. They frequently also ‘reinvent the wheel’ and lack any form of scaffolding or information as to how they might be used. In terms of quality, because they can be produced individually, on a small-scale, there is often no guarantee of quality or reliability. However, despite these drawbacks, little OERs can be more flexible as they allow other educators to reuse and remix them for their own purposes, and provide a framework to match their own particular teaching and learning context. New technologies also provide a plethora of relatively simple new ways for educators to express themselves and breathe new life into their subject and teaching, and for some this can be a highly motivating experience.

It may be interesting to consider what a little OER ‘approach’ would actually look like. In terms of creating OERs, if their development is to be encouraged among academics (e.g. uploading a presentation to slideshare, creating a video or screencast, writing a blog etc.) then attention will need to be paid to the digital literacies of teaching staff and also the ‘what’s in it for me?’ question will need to be addressed. This is a huge challenge and one that is, in my view, far from frictionless. To a certain extent, the much maligned VLE (or LMS) already provides one way of giving context to little OERs – think of the lecturers using the Mashup feature in Blackboard Learn to integrate YouTube videos, Slideshare and Flickr for example. Of course, as long as they are inside an institutional VLE they are OERs not OERs, but perhaps the VLE could serve as a kind of testing ground and quality control mechanism from which the best OERs produced by a Faculty or in a Subject Area could subsequently be disseminated more widely and openly among the HE community. In terms of finding and using little OERs which already exist, consideration needs to be given to issues of copyright and making staff aware of these, how to locate useful OERs and how to integrate these effectively into a specific learning and teaching context, none of which are necessarily easy.

ps: I have a problem with words like ‘frictionless’ and ‘seamless’. Whenever I see or hear the word seamless in a higher education context, I can be sure that the reality will be the exact opposite. I fear that frictionless might fall into the same category. In fact, a bit of friction is, in my view, inevitable and probably necessary.


  1. Hi Jim
    Thanks for raising the very important question "Does quality content equal quality learning?". I quite agree with you that even good quality content cannot stand on its own. It's the activities and processes that learners engage in that are crucial for in-depth learning to happen. Good quality content can give you facts and figures and introduce you to thoughts and ideas, but you may not make much of this if you're not asked to express yourself on the topic and engage in a dialogue with other learners. Who said content is king? I say well-designed learning activities are king :-)

  2. Excellent analysis here--thank you. You point to some drawbacks I hadn't thought of, like the "openness" issue for big OER and the lack of scaffolding for use for little OER (and reinventing the wheel in little OER, though, of course, that's what most of us do in teaching F2F also!).

    I agree completely with the pedagogical issues in terms of xMOOCs and big OER that are courses taught in that sort of way, but also wonder if some courses that are online that don't have this problem might be counted as big OER as well. In particular, I'm thinking of some connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) that don't rely on traditional transmission models but do operate along the more constructivist and connectivist lines you point to. Things like the "Change" MOOCs (e.g., Change '11), or the ETMOOC (Educational Technology and Media MOOC) come to mind. I think those could be counted as big OER too, in which case the pedagogy issue only fits some big OER.