Landing : Athabascau University

The War against OER

 Tony Bates put out an interesting post last month that I missed while traveling. I would like to comment on it. His post,  OERs –The good the bad and the ugly would be best  read to understand my commentary.

First off, Tony is claiming that the OER components can “smack of hypocrisy, elitism and cultural imperialism”. I would suggest to the readers and to Tony that ANY content can “smack” of anything and that this is a truism to which I would respond “So what?” This is not an argument agains OER. Can anyone claim that non-OER content is free of hypocrisy etc.

Supporters of OER do not have to be idealistic to support their claims.  We have long recognized that OER are not free (as in not costing anything).  Public education is not free although it does not cost parents directly, they pay through their taxes.  Tony argues that instructors have to be paid and who would disagree. However, the argument does not fit the reality. Schools that use proprietary content do not pay their teachers from their earnings from the content. Why does he suggest that we would have to do so when using OER?  Where is the “tension” as he writes. There are costs in the system for those who use OER or proprietary content. The fact is that proprietary content costs more than OER and you keep paying every year.

I will not challenge Tony on his use of the word “hypocrisy” to describe wealthy institutions like MIT who open their content.  (By the way, they do not “give away” – they give but still have!).  However, having a prestige institution like MIT in the OER community is great publicity for OER and helps us to fend off naysayers who claim that institutions that use OER lack quality.

Tony argues that we have to be “clear about what we mean by content”. I would respectfully disagree. We work in a confusing and unclear world. We should recognize this. As some wise man commented “If you are not confused, you don’t understand”.  On the other hand, I like his characterization of educational content as distinct from the format. Nevertheless the boundaries are seldom clear. 

I do not see any “wild swings” between the content is king camp and the content is obsolete camps. It seems to me that “never the twain shall meet”, which is too bad because I suspect that both approaches are valid.  Students can learn effectively from facts that are shoveled at them. Many of us are survivors of such learning approaches. It could be argued that there are better approaches. So, to argue as Tony does that learning “requires” questioning, testing, and feedback is quite simply not in accordance with the facts.  People learn many things all the time without “personal reflection, expert feedback and interaction with others”. I would suggest that these processes help in learning but to argue that they are “required” is unsupportable.

Tony goes on to criticize OER even in his “good” section calling it “nothing more than a glorified public library”.  I would argue comparing a public library to the access to learning content etc. that we now enjoy on the Internet is  like comparing a horse and carriage to an automobile, or even a spaceship.

Tony’s criticism of MIT materials that this would be like importing content without understanding may or may not be true depending on the instructor, but the same critique would hold for importing proprietary content, so it is not a criticism of OER. He goes on to point out his reasons for using OER and they are good ones – for use by students and by instructor groups.  I would suggest that there are innumerable other approaches that may be more or less effective. The value of the OER is that they are accessible for use in a variety of ways and are more open for such contextualization etc. than proprietary materials.

The criticisms of Health Sciences Online and Global Uni, I believe, are premature.  The first step is often just putting your materials on line as OER. Step 2 would be to make them better by adding instructional design etc.  This will take time and the intervention of knowledgeable educators. I would argue that this Third rate education is a thousand times better than no education. A dean of medicine once told me that he would not waste his time with instructional design, because his students were the cream of the crop and would learn no matter how it the content is presented.  Many (if not most) learners need the help of really well designed content and the intervention of instructors, some don’t.  Now, with OER, this minority of learners can learn – try to stop them. This hopefully will build a small cadre of knowledgeable people in developing world communities that can help others who are less able. And, they might even participate in improving the OER.  Note that this is not an argument against creating sound pedagogical OER – of course we should build good OER; it is an argument that even third rate materials can be and are useful, whether we care to admit it or not.

So, OER do not NEED to be properly designed as Tony contends. It would be great if they were, but I doubt if we could get instructional designers to all agree on what that would be. I would also contend that OER, contrary to Tony’s assertion, as they stand are useful even the powerpoints. They do not NEED skill and hard work, even though that would be desirable.  Finally I do agree with Tony that OER are not a panacea  -- neither is technology, nor constructivism, connectivism nor any anything else, but they all could have a place in any of the multiple approaches that we can develop to promote learning.


These comments are moderated. Your comment will not be visible unless accepted by the content owner.

Only simple HTML formatting is allowed and any hyperlinks will be stripped away. If you need to include a URL then please simply type it so that users can copy and paste it if needed.