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.