Lesson Ten Reading

11. Limitations of OER

The take-up of OER, other than open textbooks (see next section), by instructors, is still minimal, other than by those who created the original version. For instance, in Canada in 2017, less than half the institutions reported use of OER (Donovan et al., 2018).

Quality Issues

The main criticism is of the poor quality of many of the OER available at the moment – reams of text with no interaction, often available in PDFs that cannot easily be changed or adapted, crude simulation, poorly produced graphics, and designs that fail to make clear what academic concepts they are meant to illustrate.

Falconer (2013), in a survey of potential users’ attitudes to OER in Europe came to the following conclusion:

The ability of the masses to participate in the production of OER – and a cultural mistrust of getting something for nothing – give rise to user concerns about quality. Commercial providers/publishers who generate trust through advertising, market coverage and glossy production may exploit this mistrust of the free. Belief in quality is a significant driver for OER initiatives, but the issue of scale-able ways of assuring quality in a context where all (in principle) can contribute has not been resolved, and the question of whether quality transfers unambiguously from one context to another is seldom [addressed]. A seal of the approval system is not infinitely scale-able, while the robustness of user reviews, or other contextualized measures, has not yet been sufficiently explored.

If OER is to be taken up by others than the creators of the OER, they will need to be well designed. It is perhaps not surprising then that the most used OER on iTunes University was the Open University’s until the OU set up its own OER portal, OpenLearn, which offers as OER mainly textual materials from its courses designed specifically for online, independent study. Once again, the design is a critical factor in ensuring the quality of an OER.

Instructors' Professional Self-image

Hampson (2013) has suggested another reason for the slow adoption of OER, mainly to do with the professional self-image of many faculty. Hampson argues that faculty don’t see themselves as ‘just’ teachers, but creators and disseminators of new or original knowledge. Therefore, their teaching needs to have their own stamp on it, which makes them reluctant to openly incorporate or ‘copy’ other people’s work.

OER can easily be associated with ‘packaged’, reproductive knowledge, and not original work, changing faculty from ‘artists’ to ‘artisans’. It can be argued that this reason is absurd – we all stand on the shoulders of giants – but it is the self-perception that’s important, and for research professors, there is a grain of truth in the argument. It makes sense for them to focus their teaching on their own research. But then how many Richard Feynmans are there out there?

Free or Open?

There is also considerable confusion between ‘free’ (no financial cost) and ‘open’, which is compounded by lack of clear licensing information on many OER. For instance, some Coursera MOOCs are free, but not ‘open’: it is a breach of copyright to re-use the material in most Coursera MOOCs within your own teaching without permission. The edX MOOC platform is open source, which means other institutions can adopt or adapt the portal software, but institutions even on edX tend to retain copyright. However, there are exceptions on both platforms: a few MOOCs do have an open license.

Situating OER

There is also the issue of the context-free nature of OER. Research into learning shows that content is best learned within context (situated learning), when the learner is active, and that above all, when the learner can actively construct knowledge by developing meaning and ‘layered’ understanding. Content is not static, nor a commodity like coal. In other words, content is not effectively learned if it is thought of as shoveling coal into a truck. Learning is a dynamic process that requires questioning, adjustment of prior learning to incorporate new ideas, testing of understanding, and feedback. These ‘transactional’ processes require a combination of personal reflection, feedback from an expert (the teacher or instructor), and even more importantly, feedback from and interaction with friends, family, and fellow learners.

The weakness with open content is that by its nature, at its purest it is stripped of these developmental, contextual, and ‘environmental’ components that are essential for effective learning. In other words, OER is just like coal, sitting there waiting to be loaded. Coal of course is still a very valuable product. But it has to be mined, stored, shipped, and processed.

More attention needs to be paid to those contextual elements that turn OER from raw ‘content’ into a useful learning experience. This means instructors need to build learning experiences or environments into which the OER will fit.

Study the Research

For a useful overview of the research on OER, see the Review Project from the Open Education Group. Another important research project is ROER4D, which aims to provide evidence-based research on OER adoption across a number of countries in South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

How to Use OER

Despite these limitations, teachers, and instructors are increasingly creating open educational resources, or making resources freely available for others to use under a Creative Commons license. There are increasing numbers of repositories or portals where faculty can access open educational resources. As the quantity of OER expands, it is more likely that teachers and instructors will increasingly be able to find the resources that best suit their particular teaching context.

There are therefore several choices:

  • Take OER selectively from elsewhere and incorporate or adapt them into your own courses.
  • Create your own digital resources for your own teaching, and make them available to others (see for instance 
     from Florida State University).
  • Build a course around OER, where students have to find content to solve problems, write reports or do research on a topic.
  • Take a whole course from OREu, then build student activities and assessment and provide learner support for the course.

Learners can use OER to support any type of learning. For instance, MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) could be used just for interest, or students who struggle with the topics in a classroom lecture for a credit course may well go to OCW to get an alternative approach to the same topic.

Still Worth the Effort

Despite some of the current limitations or weaknesses of OER, their use is likely to grow, simply because it makes no sense to create everything from scratch when good quality materials are freely and easily available. We have seen in Lesson 7 on selecting media that there is now an increasing amount of excellent open material available to teachers and instructors. This will only grow over time. Indeed, OER will prove to be one of the essential features of teaching in a digital age.