“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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