Rory McGreal, VP Research at Athabasca University, has written a substantial response to my critique of aspects of the OER movement: OERs: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Since my post is now over a month old, and Rory’s response is both passionate and detailed, I’m making his comment into a new post so that it will get wider circulation. I will respond to this in a few days time, but first I wanted to get reactions from other readers. Here is Rory’s comment:

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.

So, over to you, readers. Have I unfairly maligned the OER movement, or do you still think that there are significant problems with the way OERs are being developed and promoted?


  1. I am a generalist with certificates,diplomas, and degrees from physics & missile fire control systems to anthropology & history onto education & educational computing. (Of course the last was when my educational technology textbook didn’t contain the word computer.) I’ve spent most of my career in one room schools, one room high schools, and very small northern college campuses. In short, I don’t normally comment on specialist blogs but in this case Rory and Tony maybe missing a few points; you’re both right, sort of…

    There has been, is, & will always be formal & informal education just as there have always been formal & informal sources of education. This is the way it should be. Not everyone wants or needs a formal piece of paper. Just maybe some people want to learn for the sake of learning. Maybe they don’t realize that what they are learning will be important to them down the road. Does it matter, in the end, where the learning occurred? There is nothing wrong with learning in & from libraries, or next door neighbours, or on-line, or books. Isn’t the quality of learning more important? (Note: I did not say quality of teaching.) The quality of learning can be defined by meeting the needs of the student. One problem is the quality of the knowledge being taught. Courses from MIT, Yale, & etc. make evaluating the quality easier.

    The real problem is when someone who has learned a lot from informal learning and would like to move on to formal learning. The formal institution has a problem accepting informal learning. Here at SIAST, we have a PLAR (prior learning assessment and recognition) program where students can ask to have their formal and informal learning evaluated for credit. Certification is an important function for formal teaching institutions. “Informal” students need to be encouraged to document their learning in a way that will allow them to have what they need to prove their learning.

    A related problem is to get the K-12 system, as well as ourselves, to prepare students to be good (as is thinking) consumers of informal learning. Too much is changing too fast to ever finish learning unless unemployment is a personal goal.

    Lastly, this is just the early dawn of a new day in education the likes of which haven’t been seen since the invention printing press. We don’t have a clue yet on how the day is going to turn out. We need to embrace all the options, sort through them, and see which stands the test of time. “…they all could have a place in any of the multiple approaches that we can develop to promote learning.”

  2. I think there are some logical flaws and odd analogies in his argument, and ultimately he’s arguing against a different argument than the one you made, while agreeing with you at the same time.

    I also am a bit critical of OER repositories that just dump course notes and videorecordings of class lectures online. They weren’t designed with the online learner in mind. The resources created by the Open Learning Initiative, the Khan Academy, and other sites and organizations are better in that respect, although not perfect.

    I guess I would perhaps push you or others in the opposite direction he did – because even with teacher and student interaction and so forth in traditional schools, we generally find (in K12) that only around 30% of students gain proficiency in the topic, be it math, reading, science (as measured by NAEP scores at least).

    Merely opening up access to the “content” isn’t enough, and adding in opportunities for interaction with others may not be enough either. I don’t know the solution, but a third element I would add in is more interactive educational software – simulations, games, etc. And unfortunately most teachers don’t have the time or ability to create such software and release it open source. That’s the main reason why OER repositories are mainly just “content”. The Open Learning Initiative and Khan Academy are adding some interactive software, but it is taking millions of dollars of funding.

  3. I did not respond to your (Tony’s original) post because I like good criticisms. There are good points on both sides (Tony’s and Rory’s), however politically sensitive (or even “religious”) the issue of OER may seldom appear.

    I have a comment on the epistemological side of things. It seems to me that both are trying to take an “outsider” view on this phenomenon (for Rory, in his response to Tony’s claims), in tune to the functionalist paradigm described by Burrel & Morgan (1979). There might be a flaw in supposing that the intellectual property (IP) models (proprietary v. OER), and the production models (hierarchical top-down where authors are alienated v. flat and collaborative where authors are part of a collective of owners) are static. On the contrary, I would posit that technology introduced new options leading to an on-going re-equilibration of this content production “industry”.

    Furthermore, I am more comfortable at looking at this phenomenon through an interpretative frame. As a practitioner, I acquired the perception there is cultures and sub-cultures. MIT is not surprisingly firmly positioned for OER, as it has been the very cradle of the hacker culture and the Free/Libre Open Source Software movement (see Williams “Free as in Freedom”). Other scholar sub-communities are more familiar and comfortable with selling their IP to publishers… Some of my colleagues are naturally posting their content online (for “free” access), while others have all kinds of reasons not to, some pedagogical, other professional or economical…

    I believe that, at this point (where the concept is still quite new to many), discussions about the benefits v. costs of OERs would be more helpful. OER seem nice in principle, but did we explore all the potential use of these IP and production models? What does that mean for our ways to look at knowledge and acquisition of knowledge? What are the links to innovation? with entrepreneurship? with Canada’s future in a global world?

    There are certain things we do just because we can: grabbing free and openly accessible stuff is certainly one of them. It does not deserve much thinking. As government and university administrators, on the contrary, there are good discussions to have on the benefits of funding and/or promoting OER or not.

    It reminds me that a TDSB’s trustee appeared in CNN to say that his school board would switch to e-textbooks, saving millions of dollars to taxpayers. What does it mean for administrators and people at large to switch from a traditional (centuries old) approach to textbooks and educational resources in general , to a new paradigm where the role of creators, distributors and consumers are radically changed?

  4. I couldn’t agree more with Rory McGreal. I am personally very interested in optimizing the learning experience, which is exactly what we are trying to do at P2PU, and what I am also researching for my PhD. But the work we do at P2PU is built upon the resources generated by MIT, open access journals, and lot’s of other open content projects. Only a small fraction of what I have learnt in my life has been the result of carefully designed materials and interventions (that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate those experiences too).

    A glorified public library? Public libraries are not something to scoff at, I learnt far more from the public library in the small town where I grew up, than in school – yet it was still extremely limited. Most of the world has no access to public libraries of any size – I’ve visited the public libraries in Jakarta, New Delhi, irkutsk…

    But here are a few additional ideas:
    -when there is almost no additional cost to releasing something, just release it… When I’ve spent a ton of time preparing a talk, uploading the slides and a recording to Slideshare takes me an additional five minutes, no reason for me to worry about whether anyone will ever use them
    -but obviously if you are spending millions of dollars on an OER project, you should think much more deeply about how what you are doing will be helpful
    -and one of the ways would be to stop creating so much repetitive new content, and rather work on improving the quality of what exists. But of course, that isn’t good for branding and publicity…
    -at least try to release the stuff you create in file formats that make them easy to modify (PDFs not ideal!)

    And support the Open Access movement! Throughout my entire undergrad and post-grad, I’ve maybe had to buy one or two textbooks, all the rest was collections of journal articles. And when we’ve tried to run a few MIT OCW courses at P2PU, one of the biggest problems have been that none of the journal articles on the reading list were available, so we basically had to rewrite the entire course.

  5. The debates are interesting — however I think the future implementation and mainstream adoption of OER is more compelling 🙂

    There are a group of institutions working together who are committed to offering credit for courses based solely on OER. An international meeting was convened last month and with sponsorship was streamed worldwide to plan the inception of the OER university.

    The OER university aims to provide free learning to all students worldwide with flexible pathways for learners to gain credible credentials.

    To quote Sir John Daniel, the original “examination only” model pioneered by the University of London 150 years ago “suddenly looks very modern” . OER combined with modern technologies and the commitment of credible institutions to aware credit for OER learning will result in a parallel learning universe aimed at widening access to post-secondary provision. I suspect with the experience distance education has gained over the last 150 years combined with social media, we may be able to do a better job with the pedagogy of independent study.

    The project has developed a high-level logic model and we will commence with detailed action plans in the near future:

    If you missed the meeting, you can review the meeting highlights and video recordings:

    Watch this space. 2011 will be a quantum shift year for the mainstream adoption of OER in higher education 🙂

  6. Many of the obstacles to the use of Open Educational Resources can be eased once the ‘sage on the stage’ style of teaching is replaced by a more collaborative approach, where the learner investigates OERs and shares what seems most relevant with the tutor and fellow students. It doesn’t have to be the tutor who invests masses of time in trawling through all OERs to come up with a package to deliver to students. When learners are encouraged to discover knowledge for themselves, their active involvement provokes more excitement and enthusiasm (as Sugata Mitra’s Hole-in-the-Wall work demonstrates). In this scenario, the tutor is simply helping and mentoring the learner towards the more likely sources of relevant information.

    People who sell content (eg at BETT or The Education Show) would have us believe that buying their product will solve a teacher’s problems at one fell swoop. The reality is that content is passive: it might be good in the hands of an effective teacher and useless in the hands of a poor one, or one for whom the content is inappropriate. But this is true whether content is paid for or not. Show me a teacher who reckons a resource (whether bought or free) has solved everything for his/her class and I’ll show you a dodgy teacher.

  7. Following having not too long ago graduated from university, I have come to conditions using the truth that “education” is
    much more about how effectively you’ll be able to spit back details to show that you simply comprehend it as opposed to recognize it.
    And on top on the reality that many school college students (at the very least in the US) have to go into serious credit card debt in an effort to afford an schooling that is supposed to assist them progress socioeconomically.
    It is genuinely messed up and disheartening.


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