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,

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

15 thoughts on “Open Educational Resources: The implications for educational development (SEDA)”

  1. In a recent post I looked at openness (and other attributes) as something to which we might aspire but not necessarily an absolute. The example I used was privacy of communication and the role of (semi-) private communication in moving towards more open discourse. Your article has made me a thinkabout a paradox that OERs (and traditional publishing) raises. We (or at least I) want knowledge to be interpreted, provisional, flexible and yet the act of ‘publication’ freezes knowledge in a frame. Much has been written about authority and power and how these are created and exercised in traditional scholarly domains (perhaps what you call 20th century knowledge.
    So what is 21st Century knowledge, and perhaps more importantly, what can it be? Is it fragmented snippets of ideas expressed in blog posts and comments, linked by read counts and recognition systems. Or is it more like a dialogue where participants enter a process willing to change their minds in response to what others say? So is it better that I express my ideas here as a comment to your blog that you can easily find? or as my own blog post that appears as a pingback? (In fact I often repost longer comments I have made on my own blog so I can find them later).
    We all have to filter information that bombards us through RSS, email, Twitter, and all the other channels we add to our information sources. The really interesting questions are around why we filter and to whom we listen. Questions of power, gender, culture haven’t gone away – the network has not completely democratised communication. There is a natural tendency in OER to focus on technologies and provider-centric models. It’s difficult to show RoI if you don’t have frozen clunky resources for which read counts and accesses make sense. How would you count the development and spread of an idea, morphing as it flows? My plea is for rich qualitative research (with numbers thrown in as appropriate) that helps us understand how people do and could contribute to and use knowledge that emerges from networked communication and interaction. Cultural change (even when it seems radical) is bound to be incremental. Let’s try to understand it and shape it, and don’t let’s throw too many babies out with bathwaters. Sometimes, beneath the glove of bold, radical change is the cold, hard, hand of domination by commerce, elites or other entrenched power bases.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful blog post. Your comments about “free” are very on point. While end users may not may much if any money for OERs, there is a cost to produce, sustain and use them (time, money, etc.)

    Would be curious to hear your thoughts about Dr. Kurshan’s recent article, “Free Education: Sustaining Open Source Curriculum”:—-sustain_b_313397.html

    If you have not visited Curriki–a community of educators and repository of over 32,000 K-12 OERs, I welcome you to visit the site.

    Thanks and Happy Holidays!

    PS I welcome you to pass along some OER cheer with these holiday greetings:

  3. Pingback: curriki (Curriki)
  4. Since this post is three days old and 10 comments in I may be late to party. If OER is the dictionary, doesn’t that mean that there needs to be some representation through knowledge infrastructure projects, just a dictionaries exist? That’s not to say that we need some kind of single authoritative repository, but what’s wrong with people doing their best to present their own entries into the OER dictionary. Don’t give me the cash/power argument. I’ve talked with enough people who work for OCWs to know that this isn’t about the money or any sort of prestige.

    I’m intrigued by the idea of a post-repository sort of world, but it seems necessary that we at least fix some of these representations of information and learning for later use. People don’t scale and I’m beginning to think that conversations do as well.

  5. @Seth I’ve gotten a couple of responses like this… I think I should have made myself clearer.

    “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”

    Yes. Much like the creation of, say, the OED, knowledge infrastructure projects might be necessary. They would be the ones that simply live on that scale.

    The article was directed at specific practitioners in an attempt at encouraging them to openness without the infrastructure. It was not, in any sense, meant to discourage larger groups from infrastructure projects. I couldn’t really discourage them, I don’t think, but had it occured to me that someone might be I might have added something like your comment on knowledge infrastructure.

  6. Thank you for an incredibly insightful post about a topic that educators and education systems are wrangling with all over the world.

    If a university’s (or any educational institution’s) value lies in being a place of experience and accreditation – then there is certainly much work to be done. Educators need to be properly supported, mega classes of hundreds of students need to be re-evaluated and assessment needs to be integrated into the learning process, rather than boiling down to a digit that feeds into an OECD nation rank.


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