A question of OERiginality

The latest animal to join the technology-in-education zoo at the BDRA is the OTTER (Open, Transferrable, Technology-enabled Educational Resources) project. This project is focused on releasing a range of learning materials from the safety of the University’s walled garden into the big, wild, World Wide Web, in the form of OERs (open educational resources). The OTTER project is one of a number of soon-to-be-launched JISC-funded projects involving the development of OERs.

I have had conversations about OERs with various colleagues in various different places and educational settings in recent years, and have noticed that the subject often seems to generate heated debate.

Firstly, there’s the question of why to produce OERs at all: why offer something free when you can charge for it? For some people, the conversation ends there – they simply can’t see the point. And you won’t persuade them by talking about contributing to the common good. (Although in my view, that’s a perfectly valid argument.) But you might just be able to convince them that by publishing your materials free of charge, you are expanding your reach, making your name known, and thereby potentially increasing your prestige. It worked for MIT.

Then there’s the question of how: how to package the resources in such a way that other people can access them, use them, modify them and so on. For some people of a technical bent, this is what it’s all about, and they will suddenly launch into an animated monologue about the intricacies of SCORM conformance and standards for interoperability, trackability and so on.

The usual consequence of mentioning the word SCORM (which stands for Sharable Content Object Reference Model – in case you were wondering), and its attendant details, is that the eyes of most people in the room will glaze over, and at this stage, the conversation often just fizzles out. However, it might occur to someone to mention the word ‘granularity’, at which point things will get really heated: How small is a learning object? How long is a piece of string? It’s incredible how agitated people can get about these questions.

Then, if everyone is still on talking terms after the granularity debate, someone is bound to casually mention that they would never use OERs in their own teaching. This is likely to be greeted by at least a small chorus of agreement. For many of us, originality is at the heart of our value system. The thought of deliberately going out looking for course materials produced by someone else is anathema. We believe we owe it to our students to give them learning materials that are soaked with the sweat of our long hours of original work, illustrating our unique take on the subject.

Perhaps the time has come to ask ourselves how helpful this approach is, in this age of learning 2.0. Are we perhaps doing our students a disservice, trying to feed them home-grown food – running ourselves into the ground milking the cows and tending to the chickens, when we could just go to the co-op and pick up a bottle of milk and a dozen eggs, and then put some creative energy into working out how best to combine them?

A shift from ‘subsistence farming’ in education towards a more organised, cooperative approach to knowledge production and sharing might enable us to direct our energy towards new areas, freeing up time for us to think. And who knows what might happen when more educators have more time to think. 

By Gabi Witthaus

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