Monday, July 02, 2012

Heresy: who cares about OERs?

Governing the Commons Trendy edudogma states that open educational resources (OERs) will be the salvation of higher education. Not so fast...

Over the past few weeks I've become fascinated by MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), registering and experimenting with several courses offered by Udacity and Coursera. Except that these are not classic MOOCs as originally envisioned by the connectivist pioneers. They are much more centralized and regimented than the free-form bring your own tools learning environments originally envisaged by those crazy Canadians. Courses offered freely online by providers such as Coursera, edX and Udacity are tied to the providers sites and use copyright content which is not (directly) reusable - so they are not open in the classic sense.

So what?

If Udacity teaches a course to 100,000 students (or more), that trumps an OER that only 1,000 people (and I'm being optimistic there) will ever see or use. The uptake of OERs has been a massive failure. The new online "MOOC" providers have not. I've never bought into the philosophy that Apple is inherently evil because it uses proprietary software. Neither is Microsoft inherently evil, nor the fee-charging university that you work for, or that commercially published textbook you recommend. These companies produce products that work. Just do it. Education is, and has always been, as market-driven as any other commercial transaction. And if the new providers speed the process of change, that's probably a good thing. Any market capitalists out there want to fund my microbiology µOOC? (Yes, µOOC - more of a pun than a typo.)

The current generation of providers has not got the new model quite right yet. Rumour has it that completion rates for most of these courses are low, in the 20% range. Darwinian completion rate survival of the fittest may be just as valid an assessment tool as criterion-referenced marking, but my bet is that these agile newcomers will continue to evolve and refine the model of the course until their systems work a whole lot more efficiently than they do now.

All your courses are belong to us.

"in a highly competitive environment, those that do not search for and select ... rules that enhance net benefits will lose out to those who are successful in adopting better rules"


  1. I'm not sure whether I'm more depressed by the idea that the value of OER is predicated only on the number of people that "use" (in some ill-defined way or other) the released material, or that the "Corporate MOOC" movement is anything other than the early 00s eLearning boom with the tills in a different place.

    Or that it's raining.

  2. Thanks for commenting.
    Surely utility has, in the end, to be measured by impact? What better measure of impact is there than the number of people who benefit? And if there is an economic incentive to build new, more efficient models of education, So what? Imagine a UKeU that actually works...

  3. The number of people who dis-benefit? The 80%? Besides this, is there an opportunity for the OER movement to contribute to the development of a more open academic culture? Practice which is open should be amenable to use in an Internet age.

  4. Interesting post. Agree with Nigel about OER contributing to the development of a more open academic culture. I've always felt slightly uneasy about the content centric vision of OER as it is the wider activities and courses (MOOCs or non MOOCs) that really provide an educational experience. Content alone can't drive education.

  5. We know what the potential of the OER concept is, but for whatever reason, they are not delivering substantial change.
    I think Sheila's point about content versus courses is well made, and certainly reflected in the "success" of the new providers.

  6. Hmm. I agree with David. I'm not convinced that simple numbers are a good measure of impact. They are certainly one measure, but not the only one. Also I don't think it necessarily follows that if "Corporate MOOCs" are a success, OER is a failure, that seems like a rather simplistic argument. I also think that the expectation that open educational resources alone will revolutionise educational practise is misguided. Content alone can't change practise. People with new ideas, and new models can.

    Now I've finished disagreeing with you I just want to say that this is a great post! We really need discussions like this to move the debate forward :)

  7. You're welcome, I normally specialize in moving debates backwards ;-)

    I'm not suggesting that the "success" of "corporate MOOCs" (nice phrase) and lack of impact of OERs are directly connected. But it is significant that the "new wave" consists of packaged courses rather than unstructured content.

  8. 1,000 OER uses?

    At Oxford we regularly had podcasts that are CC licensed that have more than 250,000 downloads / plays / listens. The MIT starts have thousands in them as well, but I suspect slightly more than 1.

    The problem with numbers is it always gets down to the speech from dead poets society - if you think 1,000 is a failure or a success, then that is an arbitrary measurement, and it is your right to say it is a failure.

    That doesn't make it a failure though.

    My MOOC rant here

  9. My argument isn't about numbers, it's more about ratios. I don't doubt a few isolated OERs are downloaded many times. Most never are. After years of massive investment, OERs have failed to make a significant impact on academic culture. It remains to be seen what impact MOOCs will have, but already they look like a threat to traditional providers.

  10. Interesting discussion here.

    I find the level of granularity offered by OERs out trumps the more intensive MOOC, but aren't they two different open markets? MOOCs cover a broader range of topics, whereas OERs can range from very specific elements upwards. They would be used differently.

    MOOCs still haven't really embedded themselves into other topics yet though. They are still focussing on similar topics (or at least the ones I've come across), whereas there is a little more breadth to OER coverage (but they by no means cover everything).

    Having said that, I am a little on the skeptical side in relation to OERs (see this post

    As @Pat suggests, MIT and Oxford content has been downloaded a gazillion times. BUT... that's MIT and Oxford. What about the rest of the resources from smaller post92s, for example, whose OERs have barely been seen? What role does Institutional reputation play in the (re)use of OERs? Would self-learners rather access an iTunesU course from Oxford or from Edge Hill/UCLAN/DMU? (We would like to think our learners evaluate the sources, relevance, etc, but in reality very few do).

    So as I say, an interesting discussion.

  11. I think OERs are a sad victim of the "if I paid for it, it must be good/better" mentality. Which is why people flock to anything that charges, because obviously, it's more rigorous / better thought out....

    I pretty much got told as much by my colleagues, who don't use my resources, compiled over these last 18 years. But they'll recommend Alan's book...B-(