April 24, 2014

An analysis of OERs for adult education in Europe

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oerukFalconer, I. et al. (2013) Overview and Analysis of Practices with Open Educational Resources in Adult Education in Europe Seville, Spain: European Commission Institute for Prospective Technological Studies

McGill, L., Falconer, I., Dempster, J.A., Littlejohn, A. and Beetham, H. Journeys to Open Educational Practice:  UKOER/SCORE Review Final Report. JISC, 2013


The first report, with the short title of OER4Adults, is an overview and analysis of practices with Open Educational Resources in adult education in Europe.

The report is based on an analysis of the OER4Adults inventory of over 150 OER initiatives of relevance to adult education and lifelong learning in Europe, and on a survey of the leaders of 36 OER initiatives that focus on adult and lifelong learners in Europe.

The analysis revealed 6 ‘tensions’ that drive developing practices around OER in adult learning (extracted from the Executive Summary):

Open versus free

There is considerable confusion between ‘free’ (no financial cost) and ‘open’, which is compounded by lack of clear licensing information on many OER. Low awareness of licensing is pronounced among adult educators and lifelong learners; common practice is to use free (no cost) resources without worrying unduly about IPR. The confusion [is compounded] by restrictive but ‘free’ practices (such as many MOOCs). [Such confusion] is a barrier to collaboration across sectors that can produce OER of value to adult learners, and hinders the collection of evidence of the benefits of OER with a consequent threat to funding streams.

Traditional versus new approaches

The majority of OER providers have traditional Higher Education views of teacher-directed pedagogy that are out of line with the direction in which adult learning is heading. Furthermore, the question of credit for OER study that is appropriate to lifelong and workplace learners is seldom tackled. The findings raise the possibility that approaches that work well in a university context may be less appropriate elsewhere. Cross-sector collaboration between universities and those who know the lifelong learning context could lead to more effective resources.

Altruism versus marketisation

Individuals working in OER initiatives are strongly altruistic in their motivations, and these ideals engender strong commitment and team working. However, they tend to overlook the wider social context in which open learning initiatives are being supported by institutions primarily because of the brand recognition they create, and the importance of brand, as opposed to quality, in learner choice of resources. Brand is particularly significant for adult learners whose digital literacy tends to be low.

Community versus openness

Community-building is seen by initiatives as essential for successful uptake of OER. Communities can raise awareness, spread practice, and boost confidence. But equally a community can, by its norms, be closed in practice to ‘others’. Transferring resources produced in one community such as a university to another such as a group of workplace learners can be difficult. This makes collaboration across sectors particularly important at resource development stage. The open licence is essential in enabling such collaboration.

Mass participation versus quality

The ability of the masses to participate in production of OER – and a cultural mistrust of getting something for nothing – give rise to user concerns about quality. Commercial providers/publishers who generate trust through advertising, market coverage and glossy production, may exploit this mistrust of the free. This is particularly significant given the low ability of lifelong learners to evaluate resources for themselves. Belief in quality is a significant driver for OER initiatives, but the issue of scale-able ways of assuring quality in a context where all (in principle) can contribute has not been resolved, and the question of whether quality transfers unambiguously from one context to another is seldom [addressed]. A seal of approval system is not infinitely scale-able, while the robustness of user reviews, or other contextualised measures, has not yet been sufficiently explored.

Add-on versus embedded funding

Initiatives focused on adult learning contexts tend to have more diverse funding streams than those focused on more formal educational contexts. They are less likely to be reliant on government funding and more likely to be involved in cross-sector partnerships or exchanges. They have a larger community base and greater embeddedness in ongoing practices, rather than being perceived as a one-off funded ‘project’ that comes to an end when the funding ends. They are less worried about the ongoing sustainability of their work.

Journeys to Open Educational Practice

This is a report on the evaluation and synthesis of the JISC/HE Academy OER Phase 3 programme in the United Kingdom (which is part of but separate from the European Union – you need to be British – or Canadian – to understand this.)

Main findings (taken from Summary of Key Lessons Learned):

Culture and Practice

In the past, many sharing and technology change projects were hampered by the attitude of participants, and while negative views of open practices are still the case for many, this is rapidly changing with tutors and senior managers becoming more receptive to open practices and using technology. … However, working with OER [Open Educational Resources] and open practices is not a straight forward process with issues remaining in communication, training, legal, procedural, practical and infrastructural areas…All of this activity is substantial and mean[s] that even [those experienced on OER projects] were not able to leapfrog or simplify many of the stages every OER project has to engage in. 

Releasing and using OER

it is also important to consider the OER freedoms (c.f. UNESCO Access2OER report). In that framework, there are three essential freedoms inherent in “open”, which are legal freedom, technical freedom, and educational freedom. Legal freedom embodies licensing, and is the main OER freedom recognised. Technical freedoms include the freedom to access easily, to download, to disaggregate easily, etc. Finally, educational freedom captures whether the resource is sufficiently open for it to be adaptable to various circumstances, and easy to understand and localise. …. Overall, this threefold “freedoms”-based approach to OER enables users to take ownership, to change and adapt, and thus to participate as fully as possible and develop their own capabilities.

Institutional processes

Existing institutional policies for IPR, teaching, learning and assessment, quality and marketing may need to be adapted to incorporate OER and OEP into institution-wide practice. These include:

  • policies specifically on OER or OEP  
  • staff development activities
  • digital literacy activities
  • institutional infrastructure to support OERs

Detailed examples to illustrate all these and other findings are given in the report.


These two reports are essential reading for anyone interested in developing or using open educational resources, and really need to be read in full. The reports bring together a great range of experience in the actual practice of open educational resources, as distinct from the rhetoric.

It can be seen that while progress is being made in the acceptance and use of OERs, it is still a hard struggle. What seems a very simple idea in principle becomes exceedingly complex in practice. This of course is due partly to restrictive copyright and licensing rules in many countries, but also due to a large degree on institutional and cultural issues. Organizations such as the Creative Commons are working hard to deal with the technical and legal issues. The institutional and cultural barriers are more difficult to resolve but are not limited to just OERs. Such barriers really inhibit all use of learning technologies in ways that enable their potential to be fully exploited.

Having said that, if OERs are to be adopted on a large scale, thought needs to be given to simplifying the process, so that individual instructors or even course teams do not have to worry about the legal, technical and educational barriers. This requires some pretty smart institutional processes to be put in place to support OER use and adoption, as well as a good deal of faculty development and training. Until that is done, academics will be reluctant to change.

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