February 6, 2016

OER and social inclusion: review of special edition of ‘Distance Education’

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Distance Education, the journal of the Australian Open and Distance Learning Association (ODLAA), has just published a special edition on OER and social inclusion. It is edited by Grainne Conole, of the University of Leicester.


I’ll start with quotes from the editorial:

we need to move beyond the creation of OER repositories to consideration of how they can be used effectively….The hypothesis is that making OER freely available will lead to their being used more by learners and teachers….However, despite the rhetoric about new social and participatory media generally and OER specifically, the reality is that their uptake and reuse in formal educational contexts has been disappointing….The focus [in the articles] on the relationship between OER and social inclusion/exclusion is particularly valuable, given the underpinning philosophy associated with the OER movement in terms of widening participation and the assumption that education is a right that should be freely accessible to all.”

There follows eight articles and three ‘reflections’. There are four articles each from the UK and Australia, and one each from Germany, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

Andy Lane (UKOU) gives a good if brief overview of the main history, concepts and differences between OERs, open learning, and open education before reviewing the findings of a study dealing with best practices for widening participation in higher education study through the use of OERs in six European open and distance learning organizations. Main conclusions:

  • even among six open and distance universities (ODUs), there was wide variation in how OERs are being developed or used
  • they are not yet able to measure how OER are truly widening either formal or informal engagement in HE study
  • many people who are not ODU students value being able to freely access and learn from ODU OER designed for self-study, compared with open recorded lessons or slide presentations from conventional teaching
  • OER are fine for confident and experienced learners, but this is less true of those targeted for schemes aimed at widening participation, who will need additional support mechanisms.

Bossu, Bull and Brown (USQ and Massey University) explore some of the policies and initiatives that might play significant roles in enabling the use and development of OER in Australia. Main findings:

  • OER are not part of the Australian government’s or universities’ strategies to increase social inclusion
  • Australian universities have been slow to embrace this revolution mainly because of fierce competition between Australian universities for market share of tuition-paying students and a lack of a convincing business model for OER (‘there’s no money in OER’)
  • most OER initiatives have been confined to small/isolated projects in Australian universities
  • those students who most need access to higher education often lack technology access, so OER are unavailable to them
  • few university preparatory courses available as OER, and none recognized for admission

Nikoi and Armellini (Aberystwyth and Leicester Universities), based on interviews with 90 students, academics and senior managers, found that for OER to have an impact on higher education in terms of learner benefit and social inclusion, OER need a mix of four factors:

  • purpose: what an OER initiative will help achieve
  • process: what resources, systems, quality control mechanisms are needed
  • product: types of OERs, licensing arrangements, target audiences
  • policy: governance and assessment of future implications

Finally, they conclude that institutions can do far more to promote universal access to high quality resources and social inclusion.

Willems and Bossu (Monash and U of New England) argue that while equity reasons often underpin the provision of OER, challenges continue to be experienced by those most disadvantaged  in accessing OER. Challenges include:

  • language of instruction
  • contextualization/localization
  • technology access

Richter and McPherson (U of Duisburg-Essen and U of Leeds) also explore questions such as

  • whether Western policymakers can avoid the repetition of some of the failures of the past in terms of foreign aid;
  • how educators/content providers can foster a worldwide knowledge society
  • if OER can realistically overcome the educational gap and foster educational justice.

They answer these questions positively and suggest six, mainly technical, recommendations to support OER in foreign contexts.

Eileen Scanlon (UKOU) provides and discusses two examples of inquiry and observation tools for science as OER for developing a better understanding of science for the general public.

Hockings, Brett and Terentjevs (U of Wolverhampton) describe an OER project that aims to teach academics how to teach inclusively, i.e. for social diversity. They suggest three models for embedding the principles of inclusive learning and teaching through the use of OER

Hodgkinson-Williams and Paskevicius (U of Cape Town) report on an empirical study of how University of Cape Town post-graduate students have assisted in the process of reworking academic teaching materials as OER, and what they had to go through to make the OER socially inclusive, within a conceptual framework of activity theory.

In the three, short ‘reflection’ articles, Terry Harding (Christian Education Ministries) complains that non-government distance education programs for school children are discriminated against by the Commonwealth (Federal) government of Australia. Liam Phelan (University of Newcastle, NSW) asks whether OER will change the nature of how we look at and particularly assess and accredit ‘autodidactic’ learning. Don Olcott Jr., writing from Abu Dhabi, examines four issues: blending OER into the day-to-day management of teaching and learning in institutions; the relationship between formal and non-formal approaches to OER; developing sustainable business models for OER; mobilizing awareness and use of OER.


I have mixed feelings about this edition. Little evidence was produced in these articles that OER does anything to foster social inclusion – indeed there is evidence here to the contrary. Also little or no evidence was available in these articles about success of OER in terms of learning or even in most articles the extent of its adoption – just too hard to measure, apparently.

For those who believe in the value and importance of OER, this is more than discouraging. Maybe Australia and Europe are behind on this, and if authors were from North America, they may have been more enthusiastic and less questioning. On the other hand, maybe some cold water is needed to cool down the hype around OER.

However, I did learn a lot from these articles, although the law of diminishing returns seemed to apply towards the end (or maybe I was just getting tired). The main points:

  • The articles did take in general a critically reflective approach and in one or two cases provided empirically based analyses of actual use (or non-use) of OER.
  • They brought home to me that the real challenge is the integration of OER in a wider learning environment, particularly in formal education, but also it appears in informal education as well. There needs to be some broader learning context or environment for OER to be useful.
  • There were some constructive ideas about how to make OER work.
  • And I did come away with my view reinforced that OER alone are not going to increase social inclusion or widen access to higher education, although they may still be a useful component of a broader strategy.

But it all looks like hard work to make them effective. Now on the other hand MOOCs……



  1. Mark Brown says:

    Nice review Tony and I share many of your critical insights of the unsubstantiated hype around OERs. As it happens this issue of DE is open access which at least is a small concession.

    • Good points adn critical review Tony, and I was just going to say the same, that this issue was open access
      Maybe unfortunatly not so much new stoff either in the articles
      The issue maybe raise more expectations than insights, although I also learned a lot of course

  2. Tony they may have reflected on your comments for the edition is now available as open access: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/cdie20/33/2

    • Thank, Ros, and my apologies to ‘Distance Education’ – I’m glad it’s now available as an open publication. That was my mistake. I’ve corrected the original post.

  3. Hi Tony

    Yes a nice review and I also agree it is interesting that there isn’t substantial evidence yet of the success of OER despite the significant investment so far…. But at least the special issue gives a flavour of what is currently going on. I wanted to focus on social inclusion because this clearly is a key aspiration behind the OER movement. I don’t think the impact has been anywhere near as significant as was hoped. MOOCs are interesting, clearly the current buzz word. Again I am not sure the reality lives up to the hype. I am involved in a learning design MOOC in the Autumn so it will be interesting to see how it goes. I am particularly interested in the extent to which people stay engaged with it, drop out rates are a big issue with MOOCs as far as I can see.

  4. Thanks for this review, Tony. I welcome a sober review of the situation, a nice contrast to the glib claims we too often see. As you note, it is a complex issue. I don’t think we are yet in a position to assert whether and how open content plays a role in social inclusion, nor to conclude that it does not. I think we need some research investigations which set out to answer this question specifically. This will involve articulating exactly what social inclusion means. Is it widening participation? To what? That is one way of looking at it. I think that an important indicator for inclusion is increased contribution from groupings who are under-represented. What are the constraints and enablers for addressing inequalities in participation in the open education terrain?

    These are critical issues. ( I have just written about this very danger in a piece on educational technology and equity at http://lauraczerniewicz.uct.ac.za/2012/07/educational-technology-equity/). I hope that this Special Issue is only the beginning of an ongoing conversation about openness in order to ensure explicit commitment to social inclusion

  5. Not surprisingly, ppeole such as Peter Suber or Scott Leslie have already noted that there were some connections between those three conferences, some crossover interests.

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