Is OER repurposing overrated?

In the UK there has already been a wave of funding to encourage the launch of repositories of open educational resources (OER). Our own OTTER project was funded during that initial wave. Now, attention has turned to ‘cascading,’ sharing practice, and evaluating impact of OER. Our current OSTRICH and TIGER projects are working in these areas. For the project I am working on, SPIDER (Sharing Practice with iTunes U Digital Educational Resources),  I am gathering evidence of individual use of iTunes U-distributed material.  So far, I have discovered quite a bit of such evidence. I find occasional evidence of someone using this material in teaching, and so far no evidence of anyone adapting or repurposing. From a technological viewpoint, iTunes U material does not lend itself easily at all to repurposing, and some universities do not even release iTunes U material under Creative Commons license anyway.

But even amongst true OER repositories, where much effort may have been put into making files editable and easy-to-repurpose, it is not clear that these qualities are being exploited. In my own recent discussions with educators interested in and working with OER, this point has come up again and again.

Photo courtesy of eldan on Flickr

On 10 December 2010, Amber Thomas wrote in her blog post ‘Rethinking the O in OER’: “There’s a spectrum of use, reuse and repurposing, as it applies to academics and other sorts of users. We shouldn’t overweight the use case of academic repurposing.  Maybe use is good enough for the majority of people.”  In other words, perhaps ‘the repurposing and reuse of OER by those using it in teaching ‘ is somewhat overrated.

I could agree with Amber except in one respect. At a seminar at the Open University this past December (read my blog post about it here), I heard from a group of educators from Ghana that it is often very important to adjust OER to fit a new cultural context. Pedagogically-sound material can be rendered nearly useless by differences in cultural context. The projects mentioned above, along with those being done at the Open University, MIT, and many other institutions, have much yet to discover in the area of reuse and repurposing of OER.

Terese Bird

Learning Technologist, Assistant Keeper of the Media Zoo, and SPIDER PI

Images: A very brief How Not To

When I’m creating PowerPoint presentations, training guides, posters, and websites I use images.  These images might be photographs or they might be graphics but whichever I use I always follow the same principles. An inappropriately used image is guaranteed to make me shudder slightly at its use but what I find even worse is some of the offenders below:


Pixellated - Photo by Vertigogen

Photo by Vertigogen

Pixellation is when an image has been increased in size so much that you can see the individual pixel squares.

If you have an image that is small in size and you want to increase it you have two options.  Either use a different image or find the original image in a larger size.  There is no way to increase a small image to a large size without it pixellating.

Too small

Comic Strip - Photo by mgrhode1

Photo by mgrhode1

The above image is too small to be able to see and read any of its content.  Sometimes you might want to include a graph or a diagram as an image but you only have a small amount of space to display the image.  One way around this is, on a website, to include the thumbnail of the image but then enable the user to click on the image to view it at its original (and easily viewable) size.

Out of proportion

Big Ben - Copyright 2008, Pilise Gabor

© 2008, Pilise Gábor

Personally I don’t remember Big Ben looking so squat! A common mistake with images is to resize the image to fit your space without keeping the proportions of the original image.  This can result in images that look ‘stretched’.  One way to avoid this happening when you are using an image is to hold down the Shift key when you resize. This tip should work in most software, if it doesn’t, try double clicking on the image and seeing if there is a Size option, you should then be able to Lock Aspect Ratio to ensure your image resizes well.

Why is this important?

Well for one thing images are used a lot here at Beyond Distance Research Alliance and for another it’s very easy to fall victim to the common mistakes when using images.  The above examples of How Not To should make it a little easier on How To use images.

One important thing that I’ll be taking away with me, specifically from my time on the OTTER project, is when looking for images to make sure that they use a Creative Commons licence (all the above images do) which allows me to re-use and re-mix if I need to.  As a final How To when using Google to search images click Advanced Search and select Usage Rights and labelled for commercial use with modification.

Emma Davies
Learning Technologist


Creative Commons (CC) licenses have been hailed by the Open Educational Resource (OER) community as an answer to the challenges posed by copyright. As an alternative to the “permission culture” of traditional “all rights reserved” law, CC licences have turned copyRIGHT into “CopyLITE” by providing creators of works the opportunity to relinquish some rights of their work for use and reuse by the wider society. In spite of the advantages CC licences bring to the Open Education movement, the multiplicity of licences available (six in total), and the conditions associated with them (four in total), means that the CC licence is not as straightforward as users would like it to be.

At a recent JISC institutional strand meeting on OER, it emerged that existing CC licences are not adequate for application to clinical materials, due to the high proportion of complex images from various sources that need clearance, and calls were made for more sophisticated CC licences to respond to the perceived gap. If such calls are heeded, CC licences will become more complex, and the list of licences will continue to grow in future. However, this complexity is likely to increase the existing confusion around licences and rights. Is there a need for a complete shift in thinking away from the “some rights reserved” philosophy which underpins CC licences?

Some have suggested opting out of the Berne Convention, arguing that CC licences are only watered-down versions of traditional copyright laws. I suggest an alternative solution: instead of copyright laws being automatically in force upon the creation of a work – a new global convention, CopyFREE – where the default position is that there is no need for any form of licence. Under copyFREE, the onus would be on creators of works to make a case for their work to be protected from copying. The copyFREE argument would be similar to the “presumed consent” position put forward by the British Medical Association for organ donation, where persons are deemed to have given their consent to organ donation unless they have registered to opt out.

We need to acknowledge that traditional copyright laws emerged at a time in our collective development history when there were no mash-ups, digital natives or generation Y. We need a 21st century copyright treaty which is more responsive to the needs of a society where openness is a defining feature. Will CopyFREE lead to more creativity, innovation and knowledge sharing for public good as opposed to private profit? Let the debate start.

Samuel Nikoi (26 October 2009)

“Learning Objects”, “Learning Units”, “Open Educational Resource” (OER): how synonymous are these terms?

In my previous blog I highlighted current challenges faced by the OTTER team of developing quality evaluation criteria for our OERs and also issues surrounding metadata.

This week another challenge has surfaced which border on questions of definition. Do the terms “learning object”, “learning unit” and “open educational resource” mean the same thing?

My colleague Gabi objects to the use of the term “learning object”. To her this arises out of a technicist view of learning. She prefers the term “learning unit”, which, in her view is a more recognizable term to learners and educators.

My colleague Simon on the other hand prefers the term “OER” which to him is more generic and encapsulates the essence of digital learning resources. If you ask me, I will say I prefer the term “teaching material” bearing in mind I come from a part of world where learning is very much an instructionally driven activity.

I have been reading various papers and discussions on this subject in the hope that I will get a much clearer picture. The IEEE definition says a learning object is “an entity that may be used for learning, education or training”. 

Boyle of the CETL for Reusable Learning Object is very critical of this definition arguing that making available standards for storage and description would not of itself bring about the target pedagogical goal of a learning object. He thus prefers the term “generative learning object” whose primary focus of reuse is not the specific learning object but the pedagogical design patterns that underpins the generation of the learning object.

The question which for me still remains answered is “What specific feature(s) of a learning activity makes it a “learning object” or an “OER” for that matter? Is this to be found in:

  • Whether the learning activity was “born” digital or adopted, transformed and given a digital identity?
  • The degree of interactivity in the learning activity which makes it engaging?
  • Availability in different forms of multimedia?
  • An object which is suitable for open content use on the web?
  • Or should it, as Steven Downes suggests, be defined as “a resource that is used for learning” (emphasising the idea that an OER is a useless construct if it is not used by someone other than the producer)

I am off to a workshop on Creating and sharing digital content next week Thursday 16 July 2009 at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk. Hopefully I will have some answers.

Samuel Nikoi ( 9 July 2009)

What can the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement learn from Indigenous Knowledge Systems?

Over the past few years there have been growing interests in Open Educational Resources (OER)  – see for example our OTTER project – aimed at making teaching and learning materials freely available with very few restrictions. OERs are based on the philosophy that knowledge is a public good and hence should be disseminated and shared freely for the benefit of society. OERs are also based on a vision of ensuring that each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge thereby promoting lifelong and personalised learning. What was once derided by Bill Gates as “a malevolent force bent on destroying the monopolistic incentive that helps support the American dream” has today gained the support and endorsement of many governments around the world.  To this end, there are a number of initiatives aimed at the development and use of OERs such as the open source initiative, open content initiative, open access initiatives and creative commons to mention a few. 

But like any new initiative, the development of OERs has not been without challenges, not least the question of copyright and licensing which is seen as a core element that supports use of open learning resources. All over the world copyright laws are designed to legitimise and protect individual intellectual property by granting to the creator of original work exclusive economic and moral rights for a certain time period in relation to their work before the work is put in the public domain. The law requires that the idea or knowledge to be copyrighted be captured in a tangible, substantive and fixed form. Thus materials which are intended to be made freely available to the public through open learning platforms must first be cleared by right owners, usually, but not exclusively through creative common licences. Whilst creative common licences are useful for “opening up” resources for public use, the terms and conditions under which such resources are licensed can still be restrictive, for example, where materials can be accessed but not altered. This raises concerns and questions about whether “open educational resources” are indeed “open”.  What is understood by the term “openness” can also differ from society to society. In collectivist societies, the way ideas emerge, how knowledge is developed, processed, validated, stored, and shared are remarkably different when those found in individualistic societies.

Those who have looked at the world from the point of view of organised science have dismissed indigenous knowledge, found mainly in collectivist societies, as pre-logical and irrational and have downplayed such forms of knowledge, which exist within and have been developed around aspects of local people’s lives. Indigenous knowledge as a fixed corpus is co-generated through participatory and consultative processes of learning that come via observation and experimentation. Such Knowledge is dynamic, continuously being enhanced and adapted to suit local needs. It is stored not in repositories but expressed in stories, songs, folklore, dances, beliefs, language and occupational practices. The knowledge is shared not through learning management systems but through local learning systems and micro processes of networks and interaction among groups connected by kinship, friendship, community, religion and practices all based on the participatory principle. To this end, indigenous knowledge becomes open not through the expression of knowledge in a form that is saleable in the marketplace but through considerations of cultural integrity, reciprocity and presentation. Within collectivist societies, knowledge has always been seen as a public good, rather than a source of private/individual profit. It is thus treated as a kind of community-owned intellectual property developed by all, available to all and for the benefit of all. Certainly there is a lot that the OER movement can learn from the participatory principle of indigenous knowledge systems.

Samuel Nikoi ( 7 June 2009)

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