Poster for the movie

I increasingly fear that the open educational resources movement is being used as a way of perpetuating inequalities in education while purporting to be democratic. Some components of OERs also smack of hypocrisy, elitism and cultural imperialism (the bad), as well as failure to apply best practices in teaching and learning (the ugly). Despite my support for the idea of sharing in education (the good), these concerns have been gnawing away at me for some time, so after 42 years of working in open learning, I feel it’s time to provide a critique of the open educational resources ‘movement’.

This is prompted by several recent developments, such as the following publications and events:

Walsh, T. (2011) Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press

For a brief review of this book and interview with the author, see: Kolowich, S. (2011) Online courseware’s existential moment Inside Higher Education, February 3 (thanks to Clayton Wright for directing me to this).

For an interview with the author, see: Unlocking the gates: interview with the author, Taylor Gates, in Higher Education Management Group blog, and a follow-up from Keith Hampson on industrial vs cottage industry OERs: OERs: Conversation Notes

EDUCAUSE (2010) Open Educause Review, Vol. 45, No. 4 (special edition of open educational resources).

Openness as a value

No, I’m not going to attack motherhood. I agree 100% with David Wiley when he says in his editorial in Educause Review:

‘those educators who share the most thoroughly of themselves with the greatest proportion of their students are the ones we deem successful…..Education is sharing. Education is about being open.’

However, this is a definition of ‘open learning’, and I will argue that ‘open learning’ is much broader and actually different from ‘open content’ or ‘open resources.’

For me, in an ideal world, education would be open to all, and would be free for everyone. However, we don’t expect teachers or university lecturers to work for nothing, so we immediately have a tension between the ideal and the reality of public education. There are costs in the system, and they have to paid for, one way or another.

Furthermore, even if we accept the somewhat questionable notion that content is or will be free in a digital world, I will argue that open content on its own will not do much for open learning, because education is more than about delivering content, and it is in the ‘more’ where the real costs lie.

Lastly, the word ‘hypocrisy’ keeps coming to mind when I hear wealthy institutions pounding their chests for ‘giving away’ content that either the public through taxes or students through fees have already paid for, while their fees are such that they exclude all but the rich from their own programs and the accreditation that open content does not provide.

If you want to hear the justification for these arguments, I’m afraid you are going to have to read a long blog post (but at least its open).

What do we mean by ‘content’?

We need to be clear about what we mean by content.

Content has many meanings. In digital terms we often describe content by its format: text, audio, video, or blogs, podcasts and YouTube. However, in educational terms, content is about facts, principles, ideas, beliefs, arguments, and descriptions or manifestations of processes, feelings and emotions. Academic content is often considered to be of a second order, one or more levels above direct experience: generalization, abstractions, rules and principles.

The public seems to swing wildly between believing that content is king and that content is now obsolete.  The ‘content is king’ school argues for set curricula, prioritizing content into what is important and what is not important, standardized testing of recall or reproduction of content. The ‘content is obsolete’ school argues that it’s all about competencies, skills, and doing. In fact we need both content, and the development of competencies and skills, which usually means applying content (as defined educationally above) to the real world, putting it into context and evaluating its appropriateness within a given context.

So we do need content in education. However, content is not static, nor a commodity like coal. Modern research into learning shows that content is best learned within context (situated learning), when the learner is active, and that above all, when the learner can actively construct knowledge by developing meaning and ‘layered’ understanding. In other words, content is not effectively learned if it is thought of as shovelling coal into a truck. Learning is a dynamic process that requires questioning, adjustment of prior learning to incorporate new ideas, testing of understanding, and feedback. These ‘transactional’ processes require a combination of personal reflection, feedback from an expert (i.e. the teacher or instructor) and even more importantly, feedback from and interaction with friends, family and fellow learners. The weakness with open content is that by its nature, at its purest it is stripped of these developmental, contextual and ‘environmental’ components that are essential for effective learning. In other words, it is just like coal, sitting there waiting to be loaded.

Now don’t misunderstand me. Coal is a very valuable product. But it has to be mined, stored, shipped and processed. We are not paying enough attention in the discourse around open content to these contextual elements that turn it from a raw material into a useful output.

The good

Surprisingly, I’m having most difficulty with this part of the discussion. Is it good to share content? Yes, of course, but don’t confuse it with learning.  Open content is nothing more than a glorified digital public library, without the fines for being overdue. A library does not a degree make.

Ah, but what about getting access to the best and most up-to-date thinking on a subject, such as through MIT’s OpenCourseware project? Well, at best it does no harm, but see below my criticisms under both the ‘Bad’ and the ‘Ugly’ headlines. Yes, I can certainly see the value if I was an instructor contemplating a new course or program, but I would be surprised if I would need to go to OpenCourseware to determine the curriculum. This will be influenced by a very wide range of factors, such as more recent research in publications, attendance at professional conferences, and my own research and that of close colleagues. The danger is that I would just import the material without fully understanding why it was originally chosen, what its limitations are, and then I would be in difficulties fielding questions from students. However, as a resource for helping me define what I want to teach, yes, open content is definitely helpful.

However, for me, the two main reasons for using open content are as follows

  • by students, in a learner-centered teaching approach that focuses on students accessing content on the Internet (and in real life) as part of developing knowledge, skills and competencies defined by the instructor, or (for advanced learners) in conjunction with learners themselves. However, this would not be restricted to officially approved open educational resources, but to everything on the Internet, because one of the core skills I would want to teach is how to assess and evaluate different sources of information.
  • by a consortium of instructors or institutions creating common learning materials within a broader program context, that can be shared both within and outside the consortium. However, not only would the content be available, but also the underlying instructional principles, learning outcomes, learner assessment strategies, what learner support is needed, learner activities, and program evaluation techniques, so that other instructors or learners can adapt to their own context. This approach is being taken by


Example of OER
OER from University of Cape Town in OER Africa repository

Note however the more context that is supplied, the more restricted is the number of possible applications of the content outside the original group that created it. BCCampus requires institutions who use BCCampus course development funding to make that material available for use by any institution within the province, through its SOL•R repository, but it is at best only partly open source, as the government retains copyright of the material (although in practice, it is quite easy to access outside the province as well.)

There are probably other contexts where open content can be both useful and effective, but these need to be defined, tested and evaluated.

A major argument of course for open content is that this will be of enormous help in developing countries who lack qualified instructors. For my response to this, see ‘The bad’ below.

The bad

It’s easiest here to start with actual examples.

Health Sciences Online and GlobalUni. Health Sciences Online (HSO) is a non-profit online health information resource that launched in December 2008. The website aims to provide quality educational resources to health care providers in training and practice, especially in developing countries, thus bridging the digital divide (the global imbalance in access to information technology). The four pillars of HSO are being comprehensive, authoritative, ad-free and free. The next step for HSO is to become an online health sciences learning centre, providing credentials and distance education degrees to help satisfy the great need for more and better-prepared health care professionals worldwide.

It plans to do this through the GlobalUni. GlobalUni claims (like the University of the People) to be the world’s first free university. Founding collaborators and funders include the U.S. CDC, NATO’s Science for Peace initiative, World Bank, WHO, and the World Medical Association. The full health sciences launch in 2011 will include the world’s first free master’s degrees, multiple medical residency training programs and 30+ other medicine, public health, nursing, pharmacy, and dentistry courses.

All this sounds fine, until you look closer. The materials available to date are terrible, mainly Powerpoint slides, lecture notes, and pdf files. No principles of distance learning design have been applied. Student assessment is a joke, relying mainly on peer assessment and multiple choice, self-assessed questions. Unless the whole thing is radically changed, the result will be appallingly bad training for people in developing countries. It is this kind of initiative that gives not just open educational resources, but all online learning, such a bad name. It is bad, because it lacks all the essential components of a successful learning context, especially for learners in developing countries. They don’t deserve third rate teaching such as this.

Health Sciences Online materials

Similarly the claim that MIT’s OpenCourseware will radically change learning in Africa and other developing countries is another example of the arrogance of assuming you can just take content from one country and dump it into another, like giving away free coal. Content needs not only to be contextualized but also adapted for independent or distance learning. If MIT really wants to improve learning in Africa, it should redevelop the materials with African partners, build in learning activities, ensure that the learners have well trained instructors, locally or from MIT, to support the teaching, ensure a full learning context is provided, and work with African partners on the ground. It should then give those that graduate an MIT degree. Perhaps then I won’t get my regular e-mails from poor students in developing countries asking me how to get into MIT.

The ugly

What makes a lot of open content ugly is the lack of design or adaptation to make it suitable for independent or distance study or for third party use. It is as if 40 years of research on effective practice in distance learning has all been for nothing. The problem of course is cost: it takes time and money to do this. However, if instructors know from the start that whatever they are developing will be used as open content, and they work with an instructional designer to ensure it is suitable for secondary use, then the costs can be kept reasonably low. But this means developing a comprehensive strategy for open content that includes thinking of the contexts in which it would be used, and how to make it valuable within such contexts, which few institutions have done.


Photo of MIT lecture
A lecture from MIT's OpenCourseware


The main barrier to education is not lack of cheap content but lack of access to programs leading to credentials, either because such programs are too expensive, or because there are not enough qualified teachers, or both. Making content free is not a waste of time (if it is properly designed for secondary use), but it is still a drop in the bucket. Initiatives such as Health Sciences Online suck up a lot of sponsor funding that could be better used by providing proper educational provision within a developing country. If MIT wants to put its material online to show off the academic quality of its instructors, and their great lecture style (cough, cough) then fine, but don’t pretend you’re saving the world.

Open educational resources do have an important role to play in online education, but they need to be properly designed, and developed within a broader learning context that includes the critical activities needed to support learning, such as opportunities for student-instructor and peer interaction, and within a culture of sharing, such as consortia of equal partners and other frameworks that provide a context that encourages and supports sharing. In other words, OERs need skill and hard work to make them useful, and selling them as a panacea for education does more harm than good.

See also:

New UNESCO chair in open educational resources

e-learning outlook for 2011

OERs for agriculture in Africa

Open content and the costs of online learning

EURODL call for articles: Fostering Creativity – The Use of Open Educational Resources

Innovative e-learning in the Vancouver area

Open educational resources in Chinese and English

See in particular Paul Stacey’s excellent post, The University of Open, which provides a constructive vision for what effective open education would be like, and also his Using Negative Space to Outline the Future of OERs.

For readers’ responses to Rory McGreal’s comment, go to: A Defence of the OER movement: Any Which Way You Can

For my reflections on all the comments on this topic, see: A Reflection on the OER debate: Every Which Way But Loose


Example of OpenLearn OER
UK Open University's OpenLearn



  1. Tony, great piece. While I don’t think it substantially changes your argument, I wanted to offer a small correction. You write:

    “BCCampus requires institutions who use BCCampus course development funding to make that material available for use by any institution within the province, through its SOL•R repository, but it is at best only partly open source, as the government retains copyright of the material”

    The Online Program Development Fund BCcampus administers on behalf of the Province offers content owners two choices of license, a BC Commons license (which requires sharing with all public post-secondary, and now trades and K-12 educators, in the province) or a Creative Commons license which obviously allows for reuse by any one in the world. In neither case is the content author asked to relinquish copyright and the Province does not retain copyright . Content authors (or their institutions, depending on the ownership rights stipulated in the faculty agreements) retain copyright and are free to do what they will with *their* content. Cheers, Scott

  2. I had great hopes for the Open Courseware initiative but after wandering through the offerings of quite a few universities and I can’t say I’ve found anything of much use.

    I am a little bit heartened by what I’ve seen because it’s helped me realise that the lack of understanding of teaching and learning and the absence good design princples is not limited to my own organisation. In fact we are probably on a par with many esteemed institutes of higher learning. Actually, I don’t think organisations such as MIT have done their teaching reputations much good by releasing crappy sets of powerpoint sides into the wild.

    While there are some positives, to some extent the the Open Courseware initiative damages the sector as a whole by reinforcing poor practice and establishing the defacto benchmark for HE teaching resources.

    If you want to see some cheap (free if you use the Learning Object Repository) well designed resources, have a look at the Australian Flexible Learning Framework Toolboxes. They’re not perfect, but I wouldn’t be embassesed if they had our Univerity’s logo on them.


  3. Excellent and truly needed critique.

    I see in the OER discussion also some challenges related to different use of language and conceptions. In Finland (in Finnish and in English) we never call books or other content “courses”, they are called books or content. If a book is used in a course, we call it a “course book”. For me a course is something with learning activities, discourses, exercises, feedback, objectives and evaluation. With this kind of definition the the “MIT OER courses” are not courses at all – they are just pieces of information related to MIT’s courses.

    I think the question of language is critical also in the attempt to “save the world” with OERs. When developing materials with African partners we should do it in African languages. Same time we should translate, localize and contextualize African content to European languages — we actually could learn something from those OERs, too.

  4. Open content may be a necessary condition for open learning but, as you say, it is certainly not sufficient. Context reigns. My concern, I guess, is that it may be impossible to contextualize open content in the way that you describe given current institutional forms. And, worse yet, even if we could it wouldn’t be enough. Ultimately context occurs at the level of each learner. Just-in-time learning anyone?

    Very nice post. Thanks!

  5. There is a lack of content and this is gradually being addressed – not just about deep learning but also about training – What is the most efficient way to construct a solar cell ? and how can you source components or whatever is economically valuable to the learner.
    The school fees debate disappears into old value chains around where you went to school.
    What you can do with what you have learned is of much more practical value.
    Can you ask hard questions etc –
    We need smaller and less expensive chunks of learning that change and update faster – OER is just part of that.

  6. I’m glad that you’ve looked at Health Sciences Online, a health sciences library at We’re the only website to deliver authoritative, comprehensive, free, and ad-free health sciences knowledge (with over 50,000 hand-selected resources, and 8,000 hits per day).

    And I’m glad you’re interested in, a beta version of the world’s first free university. Here is some language verbatim from our website — including:

    If you would like to be notified when our courses are available, please send an email to

    Our full health sciences launch later in 2011 will include multiple medical residency training programs (several of which will qualify graduates to apply for licensure as a medical/surgical specialist in >=9 countries), and 30+ other medicine, public health, nursing, pharmacy, and dentistry courses. We will educate many thousands of trainees at a time, particularly in developing countries, with students remaining in their home environments (and thereby building capacity, instead of encouraging brain drain), using HSO-based online training, local hands-on mentoring, and peer-to-peer distance feedback.

    Our founding collaborators and funders include the U.S. CDC, NATO’s Science for Peace initiative, World Bank, WHO, and the World Medical Association.

    Our trainings are all high-quality and community-based, and all completely free — an unprecedented set of offerings.

    We are currently piloting these trainings in schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, public health, and speech-language pathology in the Caribbean, China, Colombia, India, Kenya, South Africa, and Zambia, and welcome your feedback on these resources.

    Thank you for your interest, and we hope you’ll find our site a powerful and beautiful tool when we launch later this year — we’ll be sure to let you know, and would love for you to join our Beta testers and give us your thoughts — we serve home-made Armenian cabbage rolls to all our Vancouver collaborators — it’s the kind of currency we usually work in as a non-profit organization! Let us know if you’d be willing to eat and think with us some time — we’d welcome your toughest thoughts, as this is how we grow and improve .

  7. I appreciate your critical eye on the OER movement and OERs. The issues you are raising are crucial because they touch the core of OERs including the conceptualization of what they are and what they ought to be, as well as the mindset on what they are doing. I agree with you that while OERs are glittering they sure are not whole gold.

    The issue of mindset is more urgent because it may move OERs from contributing towards democratization of education to handouts that are rendering users to mere receivers/consumers of ready-made content, courses or programmes. Imbedded in this would be an assumption that the developing societies have postponed thinking; which I believe is not the case.

    Your article is an eye opener to supporters of the OER movement and I hope it has stimulated thinking on the better way forward. As you have pointed out collaboration in the knowledge creation cycle of all in developed and developing societies is important. However, it takes two to tangle. Let developing societies also take initiatives and be more pro-active in the OER movement.

    It is also important for all developers, providers and users to have a clear understanding of the various forms of OERs such as open content, OER courses/programmes and ‘OER university’. That is OERs which claim to be courses/ programmes or university have to adhere to the essentials of an ODL course/programme or university.

    Best Regards,

  8. Tony, sorry for the delayed response and the long post, but I could not let this go. Read on.

    First off, Tony is claiming that the OER components can “smack of hypocrisy, elitism and cultural imperialism”. I would suggest to the readers and to Tony that ANY content can “smack” of anything and that this is a truism to which I would respond “So what?” This is not an argument agains OER. Can anyone claim that non-OER content is free of hypocrisy etc.

    Supporters of OER do not have to be idealistic to support their claims. We have long recognized that OER are not free (as in not costing anything). Public education is not free although it does not cost parents directly, they pay through their taxes. Tony argues that instructors have to be paid and who would disagree. However, the argument does not fit the reality. Schools that use proprietary content do not pay their teachers from their earnings from the content. Why does he suggest that we would have to do so when using OER? Where is the “tension” as he writes. There are costs in the system for those who use OER or proprietary content. The fact is that proprietary content costs more than OER and you keep paying every year.

    I will not challenge Tony on his use of the word “hypocrisy” to describe wealthy institutions like MIT who open their content. (By the way, they do not “give away” – they give but still have!). However, having a prestige institution like MIT in the OER community is great publicity for OER and helps us to fend off naysayers who claim that institutions that use OER lack quality.

    Tony argues that we have to be “clear about what we mean by content”. I would respectfully disagree. We work in a confusing and unclear world. We should recognize this. As some wise man commented “If you are not confused, you don’t understand”. On the other hand, I like his characterization of educational content as distinct from the format. Nevertheless the boundaries are seldom clear.

    I do not see any “wild swings” between the content is king camp and the content is obsolete camps. It seems to me that “never the twain shall meet”, which is too bad because I suspect that both approaches are valid. Students can learn effectively from facts that are shoveled at them. Many of us are survivors of such learning approaches. It could be argued that there are better approaches. So, to argue as Tony does that learning “requires” questioning, testing, and feedback is quite simply not in accordance with the facts. People learn many things all the time without “personal reflection, expert feedback and interaction with others”. I would suggest that these processes help in learning but to argue that they are “required” is unsupportable.

    Tony goes on to criticize OER even in his “good” section calling it “nothing more than a glorified public library”. I would argue comparing a public library to the access to learning content etc. that we now enjoy on the Internet is like comparing a horse and carriage to an automobile, or even a spaceship.

    Tony’s criticism of MIT materials that this would be like importing content without understanding may or may not be true depending on the instructor, but the same critique would hold for importing proprietary content, so it is not a criticism of OER. He goes on to point out his reasons for using OER and they are good ones – for use by students and by instructor groups. I would suggest that there are innumerable other approaches that may be more or less effective. The value of the OER is that they are accessible for use in a variety of ways and are more open for such contextualization etc. than proprietary materials.

    The criticisms of Health Sciences Online and Global Uni, I believe, are premature. The first step is often just putting your materials on line as OER. Step 2 would be to make them better by adding instructional design etc. This will take time and the intervention of knowledgeable educators. I would argue that this Third rate education is a thousand times better than no education. A dean of medicine once told me that he would not waste his time with instructional design, because his students were the cream of the crop and would learn no matter how it the content is presented. Many (if not most) learners need the help of really well designed content and the intervention of instructors, some don’t. Now, with OER, this minority of learners can learn – try to stop them. This hopefully will build a small cadre of knowledgeable people in developing world communities that can help others who are less able. And, they might even participate in improving the OER. Note that this is not an argument against creating sound pedagogical OER – of course we should build good OER; it is an argument that even third rate materials can be and are useful, whether we care to admit it or not.

    So, OER do not NEED to be properly designed as Tony contends. It would be great if they were, but I doubt if we could get instructional designers to all agree on what that would be. I would also contend that OER, contrary to Tony’s assertion, as they stand are useful even the powerpoints. They do not NEED skill and hard work, even though that would be desirable. Finally I do agree with Tony that OER are not a panacea — neither is technology, nor constructivism, connectivism nor any anything else, but they all could have a place in any of the multiple approaches that we can develop to promote learning.

  9. In developing materials for a new DE course, we usually cast around for what already exists – even just to get an idea of what we don’t want. Then we have the traditional adopt/adapt/create choices to make. In practice, I have never actually managed to get to either either of the extreme choices. I always find there is a need to adapt to a greater or lesser extent. It should be easier to adapt if we can get hold of source materials that are open source, however, so that we know we can work with them. However, effective teaching and learning flow from a whole curriculum process – sourcing materials comes after curriculum and course design decisions have been made which include purposes, mediation strategies, assessment strategies etc. It seems to me that until we know what we want to achieve and how, we are not really in a position to start looking for and evaluating resources. Having recently worked on a collaboration involving multiple stakeholders, including several HEIs, on a national programme, it became apparent to me that even with an agreed curriculum outline, suggested mediation and assessment strategies and agreed core materials all published as OER, the curriculum as practised by different HEIs was still quite different. Which is probably how it needs to be. At best all we can hope for is a reasoned approach.

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