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Quality in Open Educational Resources (OERs)

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By Terry Anderson March 15, 2011 - 11:24am

Tony Bates opened the preverbial can of worms, when he dared to talk about the good, bad and ugly of OER’s in a recent post. We’ve found trying to orchestrate debates on this topic, that anyone willing to say anything against OERs must either be employed by a commercial publisher or someone who hates both Motherhood and orphaned fawns.  But Tony took a good crack at it, and my colleague Rory McGreal couldn’t help responding.  I mostly agree with Rory’s points, probably because as the new UNESCO chair in Open Educational Resources, he has been preaching that gospel at me for a long time. But I wanted to add a few comments of my own.

One of  Tony’s, and an oft’ heard complaint from others, is that the quality of OERs is very low- complaints about “only powerpoint slides” or “incoherent sets of class notes”  ”nothing but taped lectures” abound. I won’t for a minute try to say these products are high quality, but as Rory argues are they better than nothing?

What we are seeing is first iterations in produsage development of educational material.  Produsage is a term coined by Axel Bruns, to describe a podcution system in which goods  are PROD-uced by the people who USE them. He defines produsage as “ the collaborative and continuous building and extending of existing content in pursuit of further improvement” and argues  that this has become a third form of production – not produced for capitalist sale, nor by governments for public good, but goods produced by and for the users who consume them.

Axel talks about the few really outstanding produsage contributions such as WikiPedia, Secondlife, Crowdsourcing apps and Open Source software in his enlightening book.  The goal is to build build upon the early contributions of MIT, OU and many later contributors to create a sustaining economy of OER use and production. Unfortunately, as one of the many who have tried to create a public wiki (my CIDERpedia wiki of Canadian distance education failed to get enough produsers, thus fatally  limiting its appeal to users), I know it is easy to start a produsage project, but hard to get critical mass.

Nonetheless, the potential is there. The first major OER repositories were established through millions of grant $$ from the Hewlett Foundation, but that money (at least for straight production of OERs) has dried up. Thus we need new models.  WikiEducator I think is one the rights track as they try to create communities and provide creation tools for teams working on OER production. Each WikiEducator team member, of course, is a user of that product as well as producer.  The commercial publishers have led educators to expect a model where they produce the quality content and educator’s buy their product. Their costs pretty well prohibit this capitalist model in developing countries and everywhere governments are becoming increasingly reluctant to fund school systems at the level that permits continuous consumption of high priced text books. It is time we trained ourselves and pre service teachers to become produsers, not whining consumers with insufficient cash to buy the products we want..

So what are the alternatives for innovative educators?  Seems the only viable alternative is as Rory has argued to make do, upgrade, enhance, edit, illustrate, customize and otherwise become produsers.  The Internet and net based tools make such collaborative production and distribution both possible and cost effective. But we are a long ways from training educators to see the opportunity, rather than the short comings of OERs. Further most educators would not (or I should say could not) dream of making their contributions accessible and actually used (and enhanced) by educators and learners around the world.  That capacity and opportunity to share and to contribute is now available to all of us.

A final point (from me, but feel free to produse a response) in the OER debate is to comment on student use of OERs. First let’s remember that OERs are Open Education Resources, not Open Learning Resources.  Most are designed to be used by educators to enhance other services provided to learners. There are a minority of ‘auto-didactically’ orientated learners who are quite capable and do benefit from these resources, but they don’t have to be full, complete learning systems in order to be of value to educators.  The value of an OER is its ability to support learning in many ways and in many contexts – including face to face classes.