Until today, I had not come across an organisation called Open e-Learning Content Observatory Services, an EU-funded project promoting the use of open educational resources in Europe. In January 2007, they published a report called OLCOS Roadmap 2012. Despite these unpromising titles, I found the report itself an excellent summary and discussion of issues in the use of Open Educational Resources (“OER”). They note that there is no generally accepted definition of OER, but suggest that it has three characteristics:
1) Content provided free of charge
2) Content can easily be re-used in different contexts
3) Software and web services can be re-used as well as content
The authors do recognise that there are also efforts in the spirit of OER that do not necessarily meet all these criteria.
The report is lengthy, but I will pick out some ideas that particularly interested me.
In the introduction to the report, the authors identify three “inhibitors” to the use of OER. These are essentially problems to be solved if we are going to make better use of OER:
a) Changes are needed to the way educators are rewarded and recognised
b) The business model(s) are unclear
c) We need better support for “communities of practice”
It may be that we are inching towards some solutions here. Institutions will be slow to change, of course, and the route to advancement in academia is still really about formal academic publications. But those publications are increasingly available to all – with academics aiming to push this process along by boycotting Elsevier, publisher of many highly priced academic journals. There is no robust business model, although there are experiments like Khan Academy, which is funded by charitable trusts, or Udacity, a commercial venture which, as discussed in a recent thoughtful Reuters blog post, “seems to be built on the standard VC model of get scale first, worry about monetizing it later.” The “communities of practice” are gradually evolving their norms. All this suggests that OER will not be an overnight revolution, but that changes are happening and will have a major impact over time.
Another very interesting point made in the report is this:
“OLCOS’ approach is different in that it does not primarily emphasise open educational resources but open educational practices…”
In other words, a lot of OER seems to assume sharing and using content within the confines of our existing educational institutions, their syllabi, classes, VLEs and so on. But the easy availability of content means that it has never been easier to teach yourself, or assemble materials flexibly. I wrote a paper which will be published shortly in HETL where I discuss the impact of social media on education and describe phase 1 (educators sharing with each other) and phase 2 (educators broadcasting to learners). These happen within the current educational model and do not really involve much sharing from learners. Where things get interesting is when it is mixed with phase 3, where learners take control and use social media for their own blogging, or self-directed education. This has only happened to a limited extent so far, and much of it informally, but it has the potential to transform the way we do education. As the report states:
“…from the perspective of Open Educational Resources, “openness” is the core paradigm of content, tools and services in the so-called “Web 2.0” digital environments. Hence, in the future the much sought after OER will more likely be found in these “social” environments and contexts of learning than in typical “courses” that are today supported by the Virtual Learning Environments of schools/colleges and universities.” (my emphasis)
Viewing the mountain of educational material available via Twitter, YouTube and the rest, including specialist sites, the words are starting to look prophetic. It is a challenge that needs to be faced by the institutions that have traditionally “owned” education, and a glorious opportunity for anyone who wants to learn.