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The OER debate is likely to continue for a long time, mainly outside this forum, but I want here to provide if not a wrap-up at least some personal conclusions from the debate so far.

My original post, OER’s: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Rory McGreal’s lengthy critique of my post, A defence of the OER movement: Any Which Way You Can, has interestingly generated more discussion on this web site than any other topic. If OER’s are not the main trend in e-learning, they certainly seem to generate the most emotion (or maybe my original post was just more provocative than usual). I’ll come back to this point later.

First though I want to thank the many contributors to this discussion, all of whom made excellent points. I’m not going to try to summarize all of them, but if you haven’t read them, I suggest you go back to the two posts above to see all the comments, which are of a very high quality.

What I want to do here is a classic blog activity: reflect on the discussion and see what I have learned.

1. Open content is important

Well, I always believed that, but maybe I didn’t express myself well about this in my original post. It is not the principle I was criticizing , but the practice by certain advocates and institutions. Even more importantly, I believe that learners should be encouraged and rewarded for seeking, finding and applying ‘open’ content in their studies, and this should not be restricted to OERs. However, since OERs include the word ‘educational’, and provided deliberately by educational organizations for learning purposes, I argue that there are certain minimum standards they should reach.

So, I fully support the principle of academics or teachers making digital content freely available for use by others. However, if you are going to do this, there are ways to make it more useful than just by throwing up materials designed for use in a traditional classroom.

2. Quality matters

None of the arguments put forward by supporters of OERs has convinced me to change my mind on this issue. It is a simple concept. If any job is worth doing , it is worth doing well. Just because the materials might be used in developing countries, this is no justification for offering unintelligible Powerpoint slides, pdf files that can’t be adapted or modified, or rambling 50 minute recorded lectures. Those involved in development have a term for this. It’s SWEDOW: Stuff We Don’t Want. Please don’t send socks to Japan – they have enough, and it’s not the problem they are trying to address. The problem with SWEDOW OER’s is that they swamp the good stuff when you’re looking. If OERs don’t do something about their poor quality, and if poor quality OERs drown out good quality OERs, people will just stop trying to use them.

I think the experience of the UK Open University is relevant here. When it started, there was a great deal of criticism and animosity toward it, especially from the media. The OU’s response was to develop high quality course materials that were publicly available (but not free). These quickly became used by academics and students in traditional universities, and helped to rapidly establish the reputation of the OU. However, it was not the content that led to the materials being used elsewhere, which was generally what you would find in a traditional university program; it was the quality of their design. Simply put, they were designed for independent study and were therefore easy for learners (and faculty) to use. And let me state once again: there are many providers of high quality OERs (including the OU). It is the poor quality ones that I am criticizing.

We can argue about what constitutes good quality in OERs, but I was frankly shocked to see some of the commentators argue that quality doesn’t matter. Just tell that to a woman who has served several years jail time because an ‘expert’ did not due due diligence on cot deaths, or to women mis-diagnosed for breast cancer because someone wasn’t properly trained to read mammograms. Quality does matter.

It would be another long blog for me to give my thoughts on what makes a quality OER, but my main point is that if an instructor or institution is intending its digital materials to be used also by third parties, thought should be given to their secondary use before they are developed for classroom use. A simple example: instead of giving a continuous 50 minute lecture, break it into several short, self-standing sections of five to ten minutes, which can then be simply edited to insert questions, activities for learners, etc. This would not only make it more useful for independent learners, it would also improve the learning experience for the classroom students. Doing this after the event is costly and difficult. By all means let’s develop and use open educational resources, but let’s do it well.

3. The OER movement is becoming a religious movement

Increasingly, if you decide to criticise any element of open educational resources, you become treated like a heretic. Reason flies out the window. For example, Rory wrote: ‘ I would argue that this Third rate education is a thousand times better than no education.‘ Really? Tell that to the aboriginal peoples in Canada, who suffered third rate education and abuse for many years from state and church school systems.

I don’t see why developing countries should get Third Rate education. Quality education may not be delivered the same way as in developed countries, but if I’m asked to put my beliefs on the line, I do believe that good quality education is economically possible and more importantly economically needed in developing countries, and open content will be an important part of that process, but it needs to be well designed, adapted for local use, and relevant to the needs of developing countries. They deserve no less.

There is an underlying philosophy of many supporters of OERs that individuals can learn without teachers, can identify for themselves their learning needs, can provide the appropriate context for their own learning, and can decide for themselves when they are sufficiently qualified. That seems to me to be a pretty good definition of informal learning, which we all do and which is very valuable. If people want to use OERs this way, that’s fine by me (but I would still prefer them to be well designed).

But this is only one form of learning, and is particularly not the form of learning most people are seeking in developing countries. They want qualifications, and they want help with their learning. OERs alone are not going to crack this problem, and we need to pay just as much attention, if not more, to providing the other kinds of services and help they need. My concern is that the zeal of the proponents of OERs is drowning out the discussion of these other issues, and in particular has directed funding away from these issues. Like Clint Eastwood, I just want to get the monkey off my back.


  1. Thanks, Tony.

    I’ve written about the limits of the current open content model, as well as the political quality of the “movement”. Indeed, I can remember generating a hostile reaction from colleagues back in 2001 when I suggested in an essay that the MIT initiative was primarily of symbolic value.

    For me, then, your views seem entirely appropriate.

    There’s no question that academics and institutions should share their digital resources – this is obvious. If academics and their institutions take their role as contributors to the “greater good” seriously, then they should take steps to release the materials that the taxpayers have funded. But this issue is unrelated to the question of whether these instructional materials – as they are currently produced – are any good.

    In most cases, high quality content requires significant investment, a team of specialists, and a true division of labour – none of which are in place at traditional universities. Yes, it’s possible for the lone academic to produce inexpensive, homegrown content – but it’s always going to be the exception, and exceptions should not serve as the basis of policy or institutional strategy.

    The current model for producing digital open content in higher education ensures that too much of what’s created is, as you noted, “unintelligible PowerPoint slides, PDF files that can’t be adapted or modified, or rambling 50 minute recorded lectures.”

    Content is certainly not the source of all learning. But when content can play an important role – and it will increasingly as rich media becomes commonplace – we should do everything we can to ensure that the content we provide to our students is the very best available – whether it is “open” content or not.

    I’ve seen some absolutely atrocious content come out the better-known open content initiatives. I can assure you that if someone used content of that low quality in a university course that my daughters attend (one day), for no other reason than they were advocates of “open content”, I will be seriously pissed off. As should anyone that cares about quality.

  2. Quality matters. Quality takes effort. Quality takes time.

    All of these are true, but the third, time, is tricky. Quality takes time because it involves the mistakes of practice. We don’t know what will work until we see it work. It also helps a lot to see something not work. Quality comes from refining a first effort. Practice is effective ONLY when it involes making instructive mistakes along the way. A good work may be the result of many stumbling iterations. OER has a unique avenue for that stumbling practice.

    The tone of this post and the reply by Keith Hampson provide some criticism, but seem to suggest that OER is only good in a finished form, one which has been quietly run through a gauntlet of peer review in the shadows, as it were. However, one of the main benefits of OER materials is the workflow of the community. A rough cut OER product may hold the germ of a wonderful piece of work. By putting it in a visible, shared place, an OER can be remixed. After several such remix steps, the result may please even the most harsh critics. What results may be the OER product you seek and would praise. The sequence is more in the open, though, and therefore a little more “messy” than a typical educational “product.”

    I am not suggesting that a respected institution lend its name to shoddy work. I am proposing that the OER “movement” is still young. It absolutely NEEDS masses of contributors. OER isn’t business as usual with a few experts delivering the authorized “word” to the rest of us.

    The interactive nature of the Internet, with its open borders, does not rely on the old models of scarce knowledge. New contributors can join the effort at any time. Some of their work may be weak at the beginning, but the persistent contributors will refuse to be silenced. They will keep at it. They will get feedback. They will generate new OER materials which supplant the product of the traditional educational power structure.

    Third world, indeed. Who says expertise is exclusively a first world holding? Individual learning has never required anyone to be a silent sponge in the presence of academic giants. The printing press spread the world’s expertise to the masses (gradually), breaking the grip of the old power structure. The Internet is providing a path for even broader spread. OER simply prevents the power hungry from controlling access. If work is unlocked from the monopoly of copyright, it is available to any with the basic skill of reading and reasonable access to the network.

    Any “religious” reference seems gratuitously negative. Indeed, OER proponents may be reacting to the closed status structure of the citadels of authority. OER may, indeed, originate outside the walls of the university. Does that make it a “religious” effort, or does it simply a challenge to the status of the credentials system (PostDoc, PhD, Master of Arts, Baccalaureate, whatever!) Does a person really need any of those to be a producer of “content”?

    If anything, the OER “movement” might deserve “cult” status, since it bucks the authoritarian line of the “religious” hierarchy. Please note that I’m not suggesting that OER is either religious or cult-like. It does seek to wrench the world of knowledge from the hands of an educational elite. OER is an attempt to break loose from the caste system.

    • Thanks for your comment, Algot.

      The main point of disagreement I would have is with your comment ‘We don’t know what will work until we see it work.’

      I’m afraid that’s just not true. There is over 40 years experience and research on how to produce quality materials for independent learners, and I see no reason why this should be ignored merely because content becomes ‘open’. It’s trial by error that takes time, and it’s the learner who suffers the mistakes. Or, put another way: ‘If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my axe.’ (Abraham Lincoln). Spend the time on designing the materials so they are useful, not just throwing anything up on the web.

      Again, I’m making the distinction here between open content and open educational resources. Open content is the raw material, and it’s valuable, but has not been created for any specific purpose. Open educational resources though have the word ‘educational’ front and centre. They should then incorporate good educational design principles.

      The real problem that open educational resources is revealing is the lack of quality in teaching at a post-secondary level, and in this respect, the OER movement is certainly doing the world a service.

      I am not arguing that there should be no innovation in the way that OER materials are designed, but avoiding best practices through ignorance (or even worse, willfully) does not serve anyone. What I’m hearing is an argument for amateurism rather than professionalism.

  3. “What I’m hearing is an argument for amateurism rather than professionalism.”

    I think you and I are seeing OER from differing perspectives.

    In fact, you may be partially correct. Professionalism does sometimes imply “efficient” and “productive.” Unfortunately, those are really concerns of “the bottom line” and corporate success. Efficiency and productivity require a shoehorn to be seen as effective in education.

    One of the most traditional packages of education is “the semester.” If a student cannot get it by the end of the semester, then he/she should be failed. Just because that is a traditional package, it doesn’t always work as planned. Far too many students emerge from their factory/school with an accumulation of semester packages and a GPA. They don’t necessarily cross the finish line of graduation well educated.

    Many students enter the world of work with the skills that make them good at listening to lectures, taking voluminous notes, arranging their notes and answering a series of questions on an exam. Not all of those students can begin contributing to a work environment where creative thought is more valuable than “knowing the answer.” In spite of avoiding the semester’s “F”, they aren’t consistently ready for a life of “productive worker.”

    Good instructional design describes packaging to me in a couple more ways, too.

    Starting point: Raw data isn’t accessible for most learning uses. It is disorganized. It is messy.

    Good instructional design might do a couple of things:

    1) Interpret the data so it is nicely described, graphed, repackaged as statistics, etc. (Common in textbooks)
    2) Help students to read the data, organize it, graph it and create statistics from it.

    Either one can be seen as a good package, I’d guess.
    #1 is the common package used in professional circles where “the answer” is the bottom line.
    #2 is a package which doesn’t place “the answer” into prominence. Instead, it helps the learner become capable of critical judgments when, later, “the answer” is offered to them as a “fact.”

    By starting as an amateur, we practice the skills which can eventually make us into professionals. That certainly doesn’t make it certain that all amateurs will become professionals. Children begin learning before they encounter professional, packaged education. Somewhere along the path to graduation, most of them become disengaged from the process to the point that the letter grade transcends most other learning goals.

    I believe that using, and then modifying, and perhaps finally creating OER components can help teachers and even their students to take more complete command of the process of learning. The fallback assignment (after 50 minutes of lecture), “Read pages 73 to 85 and answer the even numbered questions on page 86.” is all too common in classroom practice.

    When teachers gather, rate, modify, and encourage students to compare OER components, it recognizes students as valued participants in the learning process. Using OER methods, teachers engage themselves in the courses they teach. They help to generate self-starting students. OER is, or could be, at the core of the “Lifelong Learning” goal. OER is a tool of engagement for the teachers. It is a tool of engagement for the students. It allows blending of the traditional roles. Yet, it is messy.

    What is most frustrating about the OER process is that it is difficult to fit in a comfortable package. It is more like the raw data mentioned earlier. It takes much more time to finish. It isn’t a neat semester package. It doesn’t come in a pre-printed textbook. In short, OER doesn’t fit well in the professionally accepted (could we say “ordained” to keep the religious thread going?) scope and sequence of the curriculum.

    OER is certainly going to be difficult to accommodate in a standardized, high stakes testing regime.

    Once again, I’m not advocating for sloppy OER components. I am arguing for engaged students, engaged teachers.
    I am for active learning.
    I am opposed to canned learning experiences, ones which are seen as “efficient.”

    Efficient adults are probably ones whose habits allow them to accomplish many tasks with almost no conscious effort. “Muscle memory” is often described for tasks like typing, riding a bicycle, installing a bolt, etc.
    Creating such efficient, productive adults was a good goal for the education system of the factory worker society.

    Today’s adults in the “first world” countries are rarely factory workers.
    I believe statistics show that most adults will not retire from their first place of employment. Many have several employers. Adults may have many different “jobs” during a working life. That suggests that the ability to break from one’s habits may be a critical adult skill.

    I suspect, though evidence may not yet be available, that maintaining a certain level of amateurism and the skills of childlike exploration may be more critical to our adult lives in the 21st century than good habits instilled through well packaged learning modules.

    In essence, I think OER methods are more appropriate today than professionally packaged materials.

    Amateur does not equal careless. Remember, George Gershwin was regarded by critics and peers as an amateur musician. I recognize and appreciate many of his works, while I might not either recognize nor appreciate works by his professional musical contemporaries.

  4. Perhaps, my argument was not as clear. Who can argue against quality? My point is that there is room for BOTH approaches: the cathedral and the bazaar. Yes, for those with the time and money do build your magnificent OERs; for others, just get it out there and work with the community to improve it. Around 85% of software projects fail because they attempt perfection first time round. The Agile approach (eXtreme Programming) is to build software iteratively. Get something out that may be primitive but works and then build on it so that it the shortest possible time you have something. This blog is an example of learning content that, I believe many people can use productively. I would say that it could be improved with instructional design. Those with the time may want to do so. Those without the time can take it “as is” and use it or build on it (assuming a cc license). TIME is an often neglected feature of quality. If it takes you two years to make a high quality product, it may be outdated by the time it is ready. Sometimes, you just have to get it out there. (and sometimes you need to spend time on quality improvements). BOTH are possible and are not mutually exclusive.

  5. I would argue too, Tony, that it’s not these materials are being designed for a “traditional classroom” that is the main problem. It’s that they are designed for a specific classroom context that suits the need of a specific teacher in a specific course sequence for a student demographic at a specific institution, where the materials may be influenced by specific goals of the university. It’s a usability problem. Teachers are not trained to create materials that serve a broad context; most have had minimal (if any) training for developing materials for their own use.

    If teachers would simply devote some time to collaborate initially with other teachers on producing resources that could be shared–that doesn’t have to require a formal peer review or a team of design specialists–the resulting OER would be more usable in a wider context outside of one individual classroom. That takes more effort up front, but because the resulting OER would be more usable, in the long run, it’s a more effective method for building a commons of good OER than recommending everyone just share whatever they happen to be creating. It seems more efficient for teachers in the long term to me.

    I’m also wondering if this is partly a perspective that comes from working collaboratively on OER. I’m part of an open textbook project that does have peer review and production process that involves many people, and I can see the benefits of collaboration on the texts.

  6. […] Tony Bates presented with his usual well-documented and researched materials on the current state of technology-enabled learning in our institutions and a view to the future. As a supporter of open education in all its forms, Tony was clear that quality remains the key factor that will help drive open educational resources (OER) from what is primarily a supply phenomenon to one that addresses demand for quality OER teaching materials, too. This particular dynamic is documented in a a recent blog post from Tony, titled “A reflection on the OER debate: every which way but loose.” […]


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