Open Educational Resources: The implications for educational development (SEDA)

This article will be published in the December 2009 issue of Educational Developments, SEDA’s Magazine (see Many thanks to James Wisdom and Co. for their help, patience and excellent suggestions.

I am not, in any sense, an opponent of openness. I think that an open sharing of ideas is healthy for the thinker and, perhaps more importantly, for the idea itself. In a world where what is known as new or current is increasingly difficult to pin down, a collaborative approach to learning, and particularly learning around technology, is critical to the survival of any practitioner (Cormier, 2008). I see open education as a method of confronting the challenges that face us as people working in the business of education. As open education and open educational resources are moving into their second decade we are moving past the time for evangelism and towards – hopefully – something a bit more pragmatic.

The field of education is being confronted with the need to teach new ideas, new tools and new theories on a seemingly daily basis. The challenge is not, as it has been in the past, the finding of ways to teach these things. The challenge, rather, is in choosing what to teach and which information and content to rely upon in order to make that choice. And even when we do make the leap to understanding these new ideas, the work that we produce is increasingly not solely our own. As our thoughts, our ideas and our content – if it ever really made sense to think of ideas as ‘ours’ – move more and more to the web they will inevitably be seen, used and reused by people far beyond the reach of reprimand or law.

There seem to be two alternative paths to follow when confronted with this mixture of the new and our own loss of control. We can give in to the openness or we can lock down on what we have and what we know. If we can’t protect our work, we can embrace the change and decide to march along with our peers. We can open our work and share it with the world. Or, alternatively, we can take our work underground, hide it behind passwords and hope to protect our investment of time and effort. In the first, we can share in the learning of others, but not benefit directly from the content we produce. In the second, we might benefit from our content, but we lose the opportunity to work together.

Truth be told, we have sharing our work for years, just on a different scale. We’ve been giving away our work for free at teaching conferences, workshops and water coolers from long before the internet revolution. The difference now is the reach that our work can have, the syndication with which good resources can spread around, the lack of control over the distribution. We are not sharing it with one person at the water cooler, 25 at a workshop or 200 at a conference. We can be, as in the case of Dr. Michael Wesch of Kansas State University, sharing it with 10 million (mwesch, 2007). There is a sense, in some peoples’ minds, that this reach is proof of the value of the content, and, because of this, the content should be monetized.

This latter alternative, protecting what is ‘ours’, pursuing legal cause with people who steal our ‘copyright’, is the alternative that has been chosen by many. Regulatory agencies are banding together to hunt down thieves as part of a multinational legal effort (as we are seeing in the music industry (Buskirk, 2009)) to preserve intellectual property. The critical difference between ourselves as teachers and some people in the music industry is that we are still, most of us, being paid the same for designing or teaching courses as we were before the revolution. Most of us were not receiving huge royalties on our ideas. There is no industry at risk. And we are still in demand.

Openness, and particularly in the form of Open Educational Resources (OER), seems to be the way many people are dealing with the new realities. But openness, and the way that people speak about OERs in particular, is a much more complicated matter than a simple confrontation with the realities of our era. OER can be, by turns, a branding operation by an educational institution, a path to grant funding, a hardening of that link to the past of objects and known knowledge and, in the extreme, a potential new thread of nationalism. This article will try to step through some of these ideas in order to separate the value of openness for educational development from the ways in which openness is being used to support other agendas. It focuses on the difference between thinking of openness as either project or practice.

What is openness?
Openness is not a panacea. It will not suddenly teach students or spread ‘good’ education, nor is it free of cultural baggage. There is a vast amount of money currently being spent on open education and some kind of return is expected, even if it is not to be the direct return of actual clients purchasing the content. Many of these projects also seem to exhibit a potentially different kind of openness, and suggest that there are different degrees and ways in which a given piece of content or educational experience can be considered as open. With the language of educational openness now reaching the national level with major OER projects in the UK and Canada the field appears to be moving into the mainstream.

The moniker of openness – like its much maligned cousin ‘free’ – comes in many guises. With the word free, as in free software, we might call it free because the user (as in the case of gmail) does not need to spend any money to use the product. The software is free from inherent monetary charge, but it does have hidden costs in the permission given to Google to search your email data and the subliminal viewing of advertising – an activity that most corporations would have to pay money for. Free, in the sense that The Free Software Foundations uses the word, means that it is not owned by anyone and it is not bound by any licensing that restricts what someone would like to do with it. It is also, usually, free of charge. In common usage both are “free”, but in practice they are very different things.

Openness suffers from the same confusion. A thing can be open in the sense that you may use or interact with the product of a process created by a university. This might be called OER as ‘project’. This is the sense in which Open Educational Resources like the ones at OpenLearn and MIT’s Open Course Ware OCW are open. Rebecca Attwood’s article in the Times Higher (September 2009) mentions that the tuition at MIT costs $36000 a year and claims that this is the worth of the OCW project to its users. Elsewhere in the article she reports that MIT found “it would be impossible to transfer the kind of education it provided on campus to an online environment.” This kind of openness bears a striking resemblance to the kind of software that you can get free of charge. You get access to the cold hard facts of the course, not the heart and soul.

Another kind of openness, OER as ‘practice’, opens up the learning process to the scrutiny of the watcher. It is transparent rather than free of charge. The work done by Alec Couros at the University of Regina (Couros, 2009), and the MOOCs that are being taught at the University of Manitoba, are excellent examples of these (Cormier, 2008b). In these cases, the classes are open for people not only to read the content and the syllabus, but these visitors can be part of the learning process. The role of the institution becomes one of accreditation.

It is a story of two contrasting visions of what openness can do for education. On the one side we see large ‘knowledge infrastructure’ projects, dominated by discussions of standards, intellectual property and massive amounts of cash. These are great projects for bringing money into institutions, for raising the bar for professors who maybe have not been putting the amount of work into their courses that they should have, or for raising the profile of an institution. On the other hand we have individual educators working to open their own classrooms, sharing their work with their colleagues and sharing their colleagues with their students. This is a great open method for learning, but using the internet can lead to disruptions of scale and frustrations from students and administrators with more traditional conceptions of learning.

What is an Open Educational Resource? 

By “open educational resources” the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) – Open Educational Resources project means more just “content”. Their definition embraces:

Learning Content (full courses, courseware, content modules, learning objects, collections and journals)
Tools (software to support the development, use, re-use and delivery of learning content including searching and organization of content, content and learning management systems, content development tools, and on-line learning communities)
Implementation Resources (intellectual property licenses to promote open publishing of materials, design principles of best practice, and localization of content) (OECD, 2007)

So our formal definition includes the content of individual items you may have produced, the best practices developed for a classroom and the software that might have been created to store and distribute these items.

The idea of resources of this quality and lineage being available to the general public represent a cultural shift, a massive move from the inherent protection of content and the ‘sale’ of knowledge to one where the content itself has no longer has enough intrinsic value to be for sale. The simplicity of the technological part of the creation process, the avoidance of the associated costs of paper make the creation of the resources a practical option whether one is inside or outside of academia. The value of the university as a place of experience and accreditation must necessarily take priority over content, as it seems that this can now be given away.

There is also a difference, one might say, between providing ‘the’ resource and providing ‘a’ resource. If you are creating a basket weaving video with the primary intent of conforming to a branding plan from your university that forces you to contribute in a certain way with certain things to a central repository, then you are probably part of an OER plan that intends for people to find your particular resource. An educator or a group of educators who make their weaving work public or, indeed, work in public for the reason that it makes their work better to have it interact with their peers or even to have their students interact with their peers, is providing ‘a’ resource.

This lack of ‘monetary’ value has often led to one of the primary criticisms of OERs: “if the things that they were giving away were worth something, they wouldn’t give them away”. There is some sense in this. If the universities had a viable, sustainable market for this content, they might not, indeed, be offering it for free. A university may be offering up its courseware to the world, but they are not (unless committed to it through government/NGO funding) offering up the IP behind things like pharmaceuticals. Nor are they offering accreditation exams for free. The defenders of openness will see this as a redress for the way that the world should be, and say that the universities are releasing something that always should have been free. The actual connection of quality and cost, however, have long since been disproven by open source, free projects such as the Apache server software –

So what does this mean for Educational Development?
We are, I think, constantly running the gauntlet between project and practice. There are times when the project serves us more often than we serve it. As we approach new projects and consider approaches to them, the distinction between project and practice can be helpful to keep scale under control. There are some things that simply live on the scale where they should/need to be projects but others, I would argue most, are simply a matter of changing practice. A cautious educator or creator of resources might be well served keeping things as simple as possible and keeping a clear focus on curricular goals.

Overhead – Creating an OER 
The first thing that strikes me about the OER movement is the massive amount of overhead that seems to be implied in an “OER Project.” The consensus view seems to be that in order to be open, you need to be organized and you need to have the investment of your institution. The list of existing OER projects often hail from well heeled and well established universities, with an organizational staff and ‘professional’ archival systems.

Being open need not be complicated, it doesn’t need to be organized, nor does it even need to be funded. It has to respond to a need that exists. Simple solutions may require a 10% concession from the educator, but a small concession to sustainability can be important. Perhaps they need to give up the idea of the content being interconnected, or only available to some people or, again, having professional quality video.

Creating High Quality Resources – The video 
Then again, what is ‘professional’ quality video in an era where the incredible staying power of the common craft videos ( and the introductions produced by people like Michael Wesch have contributed to the belief that video is something that people can just ‘do’. When this inferred simplicity is combined with the desire for ‘high quality’ resources the consultant (be they technical or educational or both) is called upon to easily and efficiently create a video that compares to the one in a million that has filtered its way through the morass of YouTube.

If you’ve not seen the genius that is the common craft videos, they take very simple shapes and, with a clear delivery on an organized script they explain complex technical concepts in transparent understandable ways. The genius, here, however, is in the script. The ‘quality’ of the video is not very high, as it was being produced to be seen through the blurry windows of YouTube.

These videos were created, distributed and made the career of their creator without the benefit of massive underwriting or a university repository. The Wesch videos are the output of a brainwave of an educator pushed to YouTube. They are not, however, likely to be replicated by every person creating a learning object. One in a million successes of this kind encourages the desire to create ‘the’ resource, a dangerous goal for any project. The creation of ‘a’ video that achieves a particular curricular goal is a far more practical goal, and, preferably, the discovery of an existing creation that fits the need.

Legal Issues 
The copyright implications of an open approach cut in both directions. Many educators have materials that they have ‘acquired’ in their repertoire that are not, strictly, theirs. This leads to an understandable reluctance from many educators to make their work open. The reverse legal issue ‘what about my intellectual property’ is manageable in two ways. In the creation of any object, the creator owns a copyright, but it is a copyright in name only. The cost of pursuing a copyright case is huge and not practical for most. This leaves you with two viable options – the use of creative commons or staying away from the internet.

OER projects as new nationalism 
The OER projects, and the potential of significant uptake of programs like MIT open courseware offers another issue for consideration. How are local professors, debating the relative value of their curriculum against the standardizing power of a major university, going to be able to forward their own ideas?

“Imagine a course in ethics or social justice. You could argue, and some do, that this is the reason more people need to open their curriculum. I ask you… how will the majority of people be able to choose between the curriculum of a small town Nova Scotia university and Berkeley. Easy. They’ll either choose the most famous or the one that they were already in agreement with.” (Cormier, 2009)

Take that idea a step further, and imagine this kind of control as part of a national dialogue. There was a time when a national educational policy was about educating people within a nation. It had its benefit for the country in the way in which it was able to live, work and compete given the degree to which it had educated its people. The internet and OERs are opening a whole new venue for the “national education policy.” The recent policy document (Cook, 2009) talks about the English educational system as something that can be exported, indeed, something that should be exported (BIS press statement, June 2009). It seems the call to OER is the call to arms of the 21st century, with knowledge as the new battlefield. Sadly, the knowledge that people will be fighting over will be of the shockingly 20th century variety.


Not all openness is created equal. There is a presumption in traditional learning design that a given trainer is somehow going to be able to divine the needs of a given group of learners before a course is started. Alongside this belief is the idea that there is some kind of ‘best practice’ or ‘one way’ of doing things that can be created, sliced up and dropped into place alongside others just like it and these will serve as the core of what will be needed for learning. These are the assumptions that underlie the idea of a resource repository. All the trainer needs is access to the knowledge, the trick, the video and they will be that much further down the road to success.

The kind of openness presented in our second response to the inevitability of the sharing of our work, the openness of the process, produces no such easily transferable objects. It is, often, a clumsy and dirty process of people coming to know things, of people sharing information, of collaboration. It is remarkably human.

(Cormier references edited)

Attwood, R (2009). Get it out in the open. Times Higher.

BIS press statement, June 2009. Universities set to go online for millions

Buskirk (2009) Forrester to Music Industry: It’s the Consumer, Stupid

Cooke, R (2009) World leader in e-learning

Cormier, D. 2008. Rhizomatic education : Community as curriculum. Innovate 4 (5).

Cormier, D. (2008b), “The CCK08 MOOC-Connectivism course, 1/4 way”,

Cormier, D. (2009), “OERs shining light, new textbook model, or harbinger of a new imperialism”,

Couros, A. (2009). Open, connected, social – implications for educational design. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 26 (3),

Downes, S:

Grant 14/08: HEFCE/Academy/JISC Open Educational Resources Programme: Call for Projects

mwesch (2007)

Netcraft Survey (2009)

OECD (2007) Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) – Open Educational Resources,

Does the PLE make sense in the connectivist context?

So I posted a little tweet tonight that got a few raised eyebrows from my esteemed colleagues. I sent it out because i’d been thinking it for a while… I’m preparing for a “where we are two years later” paper on my rhizomy stuff (not for any journal in particular, just think its time to write one, and i feel the need to pull strands together) and am trying to think a little deeper about how i feel about knowledge and learning.

This is definitely first draft thinking. I’m more than willing to have someone explain to me what i’m missing… (I’ll accept whole hearted agreement as well) Lets start with a couple of quotes from George’s 2005 paper. These are both ‘first sentence’ quotes from summary sections of the paper.

Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories. Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual.

Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity.

My problem with the combination of the PLE and connectivism is that they seem to come from two different epistemic background. I guess that’s not necessarily a bad thing (to someone like me) but most people I’ve met like to live by one theory of knowledge at a time. Leaving aside the unrelenting desire to acronymize everything that has led us to the term PLE and its historicity as an opposite, learner empowered version of the VLE (virtual learning environment), it is also the current candidate as the child of the enlightenment. It is the location where the one, the individual (personal) stands their ground for learning, where they store ‘their knowledge’ where they represent their learning. We often hear of people talking about PLE’s as portfolios, this is the sense in which i mean it.

The PLN and the PLE, at any one time, are instantaneous reifications of the set of (as yet, unknown) rules which govern the complex interactions between resources, individuals and their own knowledge. Pat Parslow

The key bit here (of an excellent post) is the part about knowledge ownership. The PLE (and the PLN) are a reification (interesting choice of words here as it, to me, means that it becomes a thing, something potentially real, a far stronger term say, then snapshot) and govern the interactions between a person’s different stuffs. It is MY place to keep MY things. To represent, further, how I am connected to the world and where i sit on the knowledge spectrum.

There is a distinct difference, I’m thinking, between this view of knowledge as something that can be possessed and something like connectivism where “Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements” and “learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity”.There is a desire, it seems, to return to what “I” have and what “I” know pulling things out of their connective space. It makes sense to make the attempt, certainly. The vast majority of what we call education is premised on the idea of knowledge being something that can be owned, that you can give and receive. What, I wonder, does knowledge co-created look like when it is taken back and possessed by an individual? This seems like a critical context shift that removes knowledge (and learning) from its connective state and returns it to something countable.(as opposed to knowledge and the learning thereof being non-counting nouns)

I’ve since received a few more definitions of PLE from the twittersphere (doubt, now, that this is first draft thinking?)

Share what you discover as “best”-I’ve never come up with a general def short enough to be of use; I define by processes @fncll

The essence of our characterisation of the PLE highlights its change in the locus of control of technology from institution to learner. ( via @scottbw)

In the former case, Chris seems (i’ve got a tweet which he claims doesn’t probably cover it, so i’m winging it) that it is the place from which he shares the best of what he thinks and comes across. And he does this very well. By this argument my blog would be my PLE, and if we’re using this as a definition, then i don’t really have much of a problem. But this is only talking about a publication medium. A means by which we are communicating. It is not the communication itself.

The second quote from the JISC/Cetis study is a more profound claim, I think. It’s about control and power. In it we see the student controlled classroom where they get to decide how they handle knowledge and learning… Student centred learning… there are certainly reasons to like that… but it’s not connectivism. Connectivism is networked learning, a student is not ‘controlling’ anything really, unless its the networks that they try to blend in with.

Things I understand i’ve glossed over
I understand that a cleaner treatment of the separation of knowledge and learning is necessary here. I’m not sure how I want to do it yet (that’ll be in the paper) pick the way that sounds best.
It’s PLE as “thing we should pay for and get designed and write scads about” that referring to… not the kind that is a major broadcast platform for an individual.

So what am I saying?
I’m saying that in a connectivist model, as i understand it, the learning (and i would argue knowledge) lives in the network, it lives in the connections that are part of each thought and idea. In the print world, we have an amazing maze of interconnections in references and works cited pages that go back (in some way or other) thousands of years, one cannot speak of ‘knowledge’ as being separate from that historicity nor of ‘learning’ any part of it without it being part of the whole. One of the prime affordances we have at our fingertips with the web is the ability to create these connections very quickly, and very complexly, we can also see far larger chunks of the network at any one time.

The Personal Learning Environment may simply be a misnomer. If it is, as (i think)Chris suggests, a fancy way of talking about a medium of publication, then it is more like a “Snapshot of my personal thinking platform” (SOMPTP) if it is, however, as Pat suggests, a place where my personal knowledge lives or, say, a place where my personal learning happens, then I’m thinking that it might disagree with the ‘non-individualistic’ nature of connectivism.

Presenting with live slides – OER, literacies, libraries and the future preso

Had a great presentation yesterday and though i’d take the opportunity to lay out what i did and how the process of building live slides works. It’s pretty simple really.

The theory
Well… it may be a surprise to my mom… but i don’t know everything. Not even close. There’s a sense in which being invited to present at a conference, that you are the expert coming in to notify the locals of what they should know. You could also be presenting your own work, or, say, trying to explain a particular point… and live slides might not be best for that. Lets assume you have a broad topic like I was given for this presentation “the future of libraries”.

I’m not a librarian.

So what i decide to do is offer a platform for that discussion and a lens through which it might be useful to examine the discussion. Below are the slides that i put together with a series of questions that are about the work that i do – openness, literacies, digital stuff, learning, rhizomes – all focused towards the topic of libraries. The questions start at a controversial but audience focused (audience was supposed to be mostly librarians) so the first question i asked was “what is a library”.

I took these slides and put them into an eluminate room kindly borrowed from George Siemens and then invited some friends to come along. So, now we have 15 people in a room (i had fifty five on the first go around) and 11 questions on 13 slides. (first slide is a doodle slide to get people accustomed to doodling and the last a participant slide) We go through the questions and the “live slide guide” (me in this case) starts the discussion going. What is a library…? the audience posts their ideas into the slides… I do approx 5 min on each slide and try and present the slides as they are being built, using my own perspectives on the topic brought in through the questions and blending them with the ideas coming live from the collaborators in the elluminate conference. After 50 minutes the slides look like they do below.

At the same time, I was also doing a screencapture of the whole eluminate conference so i could post it later. The fine folks at seem willing to host this kind of stuff for us… here’s the direct link to the big video… embed below.

For me
I love working this way. I learn from the audience, my prep time is lower, and I think people are far more engaged. Both times i’ve done this people seem to have had a good time. I think we learned interesting things. The title of this presentation changed after we did it… it focused far more on literacies than i was expecting and made some very interesting links between teachers and librarians (actually, several people thought there was really no difference)

More theory
I think this presents a far more realistic vision for knowledge. When asked a question like “what is a library” a single person has to come down to a single definition that can’t possibly encompass the full cultural impact of a word. If you look at the first question slide of the presentation you’ll see a very broad ranging definition created by a collaborative of people… the definition is rhizomatic, created in time, and the record presented here is a snapshot of it… an archive of a live moment of knowledge.

I’m really excited about this.

Presentation prep/notes for -> Open Educational Resources – A potential foundation for the future.

Thursday November 5th, 4pm Eastern NA. GLOBAL TIMES

In May i had the wonderful opportunity to try a live slide build as part of the WIAOC (webheads in action online convergence). They were a great crowd, and the build was awesome. It was the first success that I’ve had with that kind of live interactive slide building, and, well, I’m going to try it again this afternoon. Here’s how it works… I put together a dozen or so slides that are mostly blank with a single question on each slide… we import that slideshow into eluminate (or some other program that will allow for whiteboarding over slides). Each member of the audience is responsible for answering the questions, and I, your confused moderator, will present from the slides as they are being built by the audience.

I don’t know the folks who invited me to speak at this conference (although i think i recognize a name or two). I don’t know if anyone is going to show up… which is a bit nerve wracking for a live presentation created by the audience. So… if your interested in libraries, OER, the future, learning or apple pie, please come along, share your ideas and have some fun.


This is the presentation description as it appears on the your school library website and below are my empty slides.
As more people turn towards opening their work to the world we are confronted with a remarkable challenge. We could change our approach to stewarding content, to encouraging learning and to teaching. We could look at this ever changing landscape of work that others have made and find new and interesting ways of working with these resources. We could decentralize the school and the teacher and connect learners directly with some of the content they are interested in. We could empower teachers to the point where they feel comfortable reusing and remixing these resources to promoted collaboration and life long learning in their students. We might also take these new resources and fit them in with existing objectives, use them to leverage our current curriculum and teaching plans. We could promote the centralization and standardization of these resources into national/provincial/state curricula. These are the decisions that stand before us… how to deal with the change from knowledge being scarce, to it being abundant.

If OERs have the potential of being the dictionary of our era. If it will be the common language, the new knowledge base upon which we work, what effect will this have on the traditional stewards of that
knowledge. Wither the librarians? What literacies will be necessary and what are the potential effects of the decisions that we make about how we deal with the new knowledge. This presentation will be a
facilitated conversation around the continuum between openness and standardization, between collaborative learning and content focused study in the context of this amazing new OER landscape. What’s that going to look like? Here is an example of a previous online presentation of this kind that I did on community learning. Come and join the fun but be ready to participate and the audience will be the most important part of this

And this is what the last one looked like when we were finished

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