January 23, 2017

Towards an open pedagogy for online learning

Image: © University of Victoria, BC

Image: © University of Victoria, BC

The problems with OER

I was interviewed recently by a reporter doing an article on OER (open educational resources) and I found myself being much more negative than I expected, since I very much support the principle of open-ness in education. In particular, I pointed out that OER, while slowly growing in acceptance, are still used for a tiny minority of teaching in North American universities and colleges. For instance, open textbooks are a no brainer, given the enormous savings they can bring to students, but even in the very few state or provincial jurisdictions that have an open textbook program, the take-up is still very slow.

I have written elsewhere in more detail about why this is so, but here is a summary of the reasons:

  • lack of suitable OER: finding the right OER for the right context. This is a problem that is slowly disappearing, as more OER become available, but it is still difficult to find exactly the right kind of OER to fit a particular teaching context in too many instances. It is though a limitation that I believe will not last for much longer (for the reasons for this, read on).
  • the poor quality of what does exist. This is not so much the quality of content, but the quality of production. Most OER are created by an individual instructor working alone, or at best with an instructional designer. This is the cottage industry approach to design. I have been on funding review committees where institutions throughout a province are bidding for funds for course development or OER production. In one case I reviewed requests from about eight different institutions for funds to produce OER for statistics. Each institution (or rather faculty member) made its proposal in isolation of the others. I strongly recommended that the eight faculty members got together and designed a set of OER together that would benefit from a larger input of expertise and resources. That way all eight institutions were likely to use the combined OER, and the OER would likely be of a much higher quality as a result.
  • the benefits are less for instructors than students. Faculty for instance set the textbook requirement. They don’t have to pay for the book themselves in most cases. With the textbook often comes a whole package of support materials from the publisher, such as tests, supplementary materials, and model answers (which is why the textbook is so expensive). This makes life easier for instructors but it is the students who have to pay the cost.
  • OER take away the ‘ownership’ of knowledge from the instructor. Instructors do not see themselves as merely distributors of information, a conveyor belt along which ‘knowledge’ passes, but as constructors of knowledge. They see their lecture as unique and individual, something the student cannot get from someone else. And often it is unique, with an instructor’s personal spin on a topic. OER’s take away from instructors that which they see as being most important about their teaching: their unique perspective on a topic.
  • and now we come to what I think is the main problem with OER: OER do not make much sense out of context. Too often the approach is to create an OER then hope that others will find applications for it. But this assumes that knowledge is like a set of bricks. All you have to do is to collect bricks of knowledge together, add a little  mortar, and lo, you have a course. The instructor chooses the bricks and the students apply the mortar. Or you have a course but you need to fill some holes in it with OER. I suggest these are false metaphors for teaching, or at least for how people learn. You need a context, a pedagogy, where it makes sense to use open resources.

Towards an open pedagogy

I am making three separate but inter-linked arguments here:

  • OER are too narrowly defined and conceptualized
  • we need to design teaching in such a way that it is not just sensible to use OER but unavoidable
  • we should start by defining what we are trying to achieve, then identify how OER will enable this.

So I will start with the last argument first.

Developing the knowledge and skills needed in the 21st century

Again I have written extensively about this (see Chapter 1 of Teaching in a Digital Age), but in essence we need to focus specifically on developing core ‘soft’ or ‘intellectual’ skills in our students, and especially the core skills of independent learning and knowledge management. Put in terms of learning outcomes, in a world where the content component of knowledge is constantly developing and growing, students need to learn independently so they can continue to learn after graduation, and students also need to know how to find, analyse, evaluate, and apply knowledge.

If we want students to develop these and other ‘soft’ skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, evidence-based argumentation, what teaching methods or pedagogy should we adopt and how would it differ from what we do now?

The need for teaching methods that are open rather than closed

The first thing we should recognise is that in a lecture based methodology, it is the instructor doing the knowledge management, not the student. The instructor (or his or her colleagues) decide the curriculum, the required reading, what should be covered in each lecture, how it should be structured, and what should be assessed. There is little independence for the learner – either do what you are instructed to do, or fail. That is a closed approach to teaching.

I am suggesting that we need to flip this model on its head. It should ultimately be the students learning and deciding what content is important, how it should be structured, how it can be applied. The role of the instructor then would not be to choose, organise and deliver content, but to structure the teaching to enable students to do this effectively themselves.

This also should not be a sudden process, where students suddenly switch from a lecture-based format as an undergraduate to a more open structure as a post-graduate, but a process that is slowly and increasingly developed throughout the undergraduate program or a two-year college program where soft skills are considered important. One way – although there are many others – of doing this is through project- or problem-based learning, where students start with real challenges then develop the knowledge and skills needed to address such challenges.

This does not mean we no longer need subject specialists or content experts. Indeed, a deep understanding of a subject domain is essential if students are to be steered and guided and properly assessed. However, the role of the subject specialist is fundamentally changed. He or she is now required to set their specialist knowledge in a context that enables student discovery and exploration, and student responsibility for learning. The specialist’s role now is to support learning, by providing appropriate learning contexts, guidance to students, criteria for assessing the quality of information, and quality standards for problem-solving, knowledge management and critical thinking, etc.

A new definition of open resources

Here I will be arguing for a radical change: the dropping of the term ‘educational’ from OER.

If students are to develop the skills identified earlier, they will need access to resources: research papers, reports from commissions, case-study material, books, first-hand reports, YouTube video, a wide range of opinions or arguments about particular topics, as well as the increasing amount of specifically named open educational resources, such as recorded lectures from MIT and other leading research universities.

Indeed, increasingly all knowledge is becoming open and easily accessible online. All publicly funded research in many countries must now be made available through open access journals, increasingly government and even some commercial data (think government commission reports, environmental assessments, public statistics, meteorological models) are now openly accessible online, and this will become more and more the norm. In other words, all content is becoming more free and more accessible, especially online.

With that comes of course more unreliable information, more false truths, and more deliberate propaganda. What better preparation for our students’ future is there than equipping them with the knowledge and skills to sift through this mass of contradictory information?  What better than to make them really good at identifying the true from the false, to evaluate the strength of an argument, to assess the evidence used to support an argument, whatever the subject domain? To do this though means exposing them to a wide range of openly accessible content, and providing the guidance and criteria, and the necessary prior knowledge, that they will need to make these decisions.

But we cannot do this if we restrict our students to already ‘approved’ OER. All content eventually becomes an educational resource, a means to help students to differentiate, evaluate and decide. By naming content as ‘educational’ we are already validating its ‘truth’ – we are in fact closing the mind to challenge. What we want is access to open resources – full stop. Let’s get rid of the term OER and instead fight for an open pedagogy.


  1. Both OER and OP (Open practice or open pedagogy) are necessary and not in opposition to each other. They are, in fact, ultimately interdependent. One of them is a thing and the other is an action or series of actions. Let’s promote more understanding of both OER and OP.

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