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Christine Geith - Can OER Really Impact Higher Education and Human Development?

Module by: Ken Udas. E-mail the author

Summary: Christine Geith's contribution to the OSS and OER in Education Series. In this post, she writes about how OER may be shaping the future of a new type of university.


Author - Christine Geith, "Can OER Really Impact Higher Education and Human Development?" Originally submitted February 1st, 2008 to the OSS and OER in Education Series, Terra Incognita blog (Penn State World Campus), edited by Ken Udas.

Open Educational Resources (OER) are rapidly growing and taking shape. What might it mean for higher education? The movement holds promise for opening up access and improving the quality of higher education around the world. It could even create new types of universities.

But, haven’t we heard this before?

In the early to mid 90’s, online learning held similar promise. Early adopters of online learning also focused on access and quality. The web enabled exciting new ways to design and deliver student-centered learning; it enabled the convenience of anytime-anywhere education.

Yet, when you look at online learning’s impact, at least in the U.S., it has not delivered on the promise of increased access (for quality it has faired better). Nor is online learning the disruptive innovation it was hyped to be in the 1990’s. OER shares some of the characteristics of online learning. We can look to online learning as a guidepost to OER.

Can OER live up to its promise?

Viewed as content alone, it is likely that OER will become another incremental innovation: it is an extension of existing higher education activities; it provides more options for learning and it expands reach to include those not typically served by the institution. In this way, it expands access – access to resources. But resources are only part of what is needed.

OER promises cost-reducing efficiencies. Using OER to produce teaching materials lowers costs of creation and distribution. Low-cost or free textbooks, video lectures, handouts, etc. are important for increasing access to resources around the world. New systems could be built on these efficiencies that could make education less expensive, while still being local and personal. Low-cost models have been implemented using online learning. For example, you can now earn a U.S. regionally-accredited master degree online for $4,900.

At least one concept for a new university has been discussed that is based on the efficiencies of OER content. For example, Jim Fay, California State University, and Jan Sjogren, Argosy University, proposed an open source online degree-granting institution at the Fall 2007 MIT-LINC meeting. Their Open Source Online University is modeled after a traditional university in structure and functions. It uses the innovation of OER to lower costs and increase scalability by creating a new publishing mechanism for faculty while it creates a global online open curriculum, with many variations, to be openly shared around the world.

OER are also communities. From this point of view, OER may be able to have a bigger impact on access, equity and quality because it is imbedded in a network of people and organizations that collaborate and share similar goals. Wikieducator is a good example of OER as community. Recently celebrating 2,500 users and 100,000 edits, Wikieducator has the makings of the kind of “digital university” described by John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid in their landmark paper from 1995. It is more likely that new solutions for access will come out of these kinds of community models.

What is the problem we’re trying to solve?

Perhaps the goals of access, equity and quality are too vague – what are we really trying to achieve? If we are trying to address the global need for higher education - the gap of 150 million more college graduates that Sir John Daniel of the Commonwealth of Learning talks about – then we need to think beyond traditional, formal higher education institutions as the means to closing the gap. We need to focus on the end goal – human development.

One solution is to bridge formal and informal learning. In the U.S., nearly 13% of all adults who use the Internet have taken an online class. The Pew Internet for Life project, estimates that 160 million adults use the internet and that 20.8 million say they have taken an online course for personal enrichment or fun. That total is significantly higher than those participating in higher education. Likewise, OER’s biggest users, according to the MIT data, are self-learners. What can we do to help these self-learners earn a degree? For decades, adult-serving institutions have been enabling learners to maximize their experience for transfer credit. We can look to them for models.

A model in the form of a virtual university is the Western Governor’s University (WGU). Celebrating 10 years and 8,000 students, WGU is one model that did come out of the 90’s heyday of online learning’s promise. It is a competency-based assessment-only university accredited by four of the six accrediting bodies in the U.S. (an innovation in itself). To earn your degree, you work with an advisor and a rigorous assessment process to demonstrate that you’ve achieved the knowledge, skills and behaviors required by the competencies defined for your degree. Following in the footsteps of other adult-serving institutions, it doesn’t matter how you earned the knowledge, but that you can provide evidence of your achievement.

Another model for bridging formal and informal has been proposed by Jim Taylor at the University of Southern Queensland. Taylor describes a concept for an Open Courseware University. In this model, self-learners using OER from Open Courseware Consortium members would be supported by volunteer tutors and gain credit on-demand from providing institutions. Credits earned in this way from various institutions would be aggregated by a new mechanism that would award accredited degrees. This model lowers costs and increases scalability by using innovations in academic support and accreditation to leverage online learning using OER.


Unless a new solution to the world’s higher education gap is created out of the strengths of OER, and online learning, these promising innovations will have limited impact in terms of increasing access. They will certainly be used by faculty and institutions to increase the quality of their offerings and to extend their reach from existing activities. We can go a long way through incremental innovations to existing practices. But, online learning and OER alone will not be enough to make a dent in closing the gap. We need creative ways of bridging informal and formal learning. We need teaching, learning and student support systems enabled by the efficiencies of OER and online learning. We need to expand the frame of the problem, and therefore the solutions, in terms of both the means (institutions) and the ends (human development). By focusing on solutions for human development, we can realize the unique strengths of OER and online learning as significant innovations.

1. Steve Foerster - February 1st, 2008 at 11:00 am

Taylor’s “Open Courseware University” is a spin on the longstanding model of separating instruction from evaluation. Students in many countries can already prepare for credit-bearing examinations from the University of London External Programme and the like by learning the material at third party tutorial colleges. OERs could fit into such a system in many ways, such as through a consortium of tutorial colleges who would like to lower the costs of curriculum development through that sort of cooperation.

The issue that raises is that of the role of the private sector. Much of the growth of open source software has come from private companies that release their software openly to build a user base and to get attention, with a revenue model of selling ancillary services such as technical support and customization. Similarly, there’s room for proprietary institutions of higher education to develop OERs, especially institutions that understand the difference between instruction and evaluation and have a revenue model based primarily on the latter.

2. sehrmann - February 1st, 2008 at 5:00 pm

What we’re doing with the Web is a signal that Open Source is significant. We do need to beware of ‘rapture of the technology,’ however, and the other features of technology that have led to so many frustrations in past decades.

I wrote about some of those self-defeating features a few years ago, and made some suggestions about how to get past those barriers.

Most of these barriers, and strategies, are just as relevant to this generation of technology as they were to the previous ones.

3. Leigh Blackall - February 2nd, 2008 at 3:55 am

Recognition of Prior Learning and Assessment of Prior Learning are increasingly common services in Australia and New Zealand. RPL is generally known as a process that simply recognises the prior educational achievements of the candidate and aligns them with the assessment process being applied. APL is more along the lines of what you call for I think. It is more like an interview process where a trained assessor will assist the candidate to express what they know so as to meet the assessment criteria. APL is not as common as RPL in Aust and NZ, and many institutions implement the services very poorly, often resulting in the candidate electing to simply do the course to avoid the strain in the RPL or APL process!

I agree though, that it could be through these processes that an education through OER could be obtained. Institutions already working in OER have a head start, because they are familiar with their own OER. Assessing the learning done through another institution’s OER would be more difficult however.

I also agree that “competency standards” potentially gives OER currency in the assessment process. If an international initiative to develop AND maintain competency standards was established, then OER developers could look to them as assessment guides, learning objectives, content structure, even a base level curriculum… but establishing an internationally agreed set of competency standards AND maintaining them into the future is a pretty hefty thing.

I think a wiki is the natural place to develop such a thing however. We are seeing many many different courses, content and worksheets being developed on the platform, but little scope for an agreed understanding that will assist the migration and cross institutional accreditation and assessment that could make

OER a very significant pathway for education. I know that Australia and New Zealand both have comprehensive competency standards:

Australia = NTIS


And Wikibooks has the entire South African Curriculum!

So… should the educational institutions devote one employee to work on developing, negotiating and maintaining an internationally recognised wikibook of competency units to use as an OER reference point?

4. Leigh Blackall - February 2nd, 2008 at 4:08 am

umm. one employee each that is ;)

5. prawstho - February 2nd, 2008 at 7:49 am

Can OER impact Higher Education?

I believe it already has and the evidence comes from places like MIT’s OCW ( and the success of initiatives like the open courseware consortium ( The amount of impact is greatest in countries outside of the “developed” world where they struggle with the costs of producing materials, wikibooks ( is a good example of this. I believe these current offerings of OER have created much dialog, even among the most traditional and proprietary institutions of higher ed. I believe this dialog is having an impact. Do I believe OER will CHANGE the nature or structure of higher ed institutions in general? No. New “global” institutions may form that use OER extensively, some institutions, departments, faculty… may move toward an OER based model with there content. I believe that Higher Ed is about individuals (and the collective) connecting with knowledge and taking ownership of the knowledge to make it their own. Once owned, mastery can be achieved, (outside of research) this is the goal of higher ed. To make new researchers who have mastered the knowledge of a domain and then, in turn, create new knowledge… So it is not the OER that creates the mastery, it is the process, experience and intimacy with OER (or any educational resource) that creates the mastery. This will not change and this is the “mission” of higher education, mastery is about the process not the resource. This then leads into the second half of your question.

Can OER impact Human Development?

Yes. I believe that all things Open are having an impact on human development. There is a growing acceptance of all things Open and a move away from those that are proprietary. This is evidenced by the global acceptance (and success) of Open Source software, of blogging (which is open knowledge exchange), of file sharing, of wikis, of microfinance (I know that is a stretch, but I do see microfinance as the open sharing of financial resources). It is this openness (and altruism) that is changing development. So back to mastery… If individuals (or collectives) take ownership of knowledge, learn it, massage it, alter it, add to it, localize it and re-release it as OER and then another individual (or collective) does the same, all within a framework of a “borderless” OER supporting infrastructure then OER and related approaches has had a huge impact on human development. I do see our present focus upon the OER is only half the equation, it is also an OER infrastructure (that is more in its infancy) that will really push all this along. The ability to utilize OER, alter it, add to it, localize it and re-release it, takes infrastructure, a global infrastructure. An infrastructure that includes versioning, histories, branching (which is particularly important for localization), cross referencing, licensing, etc… I look forward to seeing what OER and its related infrastructure looks like 15 years from now.

6. jsener - February 2nd, 2008 at 7:12 pm

As someone who is just beginning to learn more about OERs, I’m not sure how to answer the question of whether it’s living up to its promise, since I’m not exactly sure what its promise is. After reading some initial background materials (the OCWC site and the Cape Town OED site), the promise of OER is not that much clearer to me. As others have already pointed out, its impact apparently will be felt in places where educators lack resources but have the motivation to take advantage of access to free content. To get a better assessment about the perceived impact of OER, I’d go and ask some of the signatories of the Cape Town Open Education Declaration why they signed it. Why are there so many signatories from Poland, for example? What do they see in it?

The main issue I have with OER at the moment is that education is about a lot more than content, as Gary and others have pointed out. The OCW Consortium Institution Memorandum of Cooperation (the document which truly defines what it means to participate in making OERs available through OCWC; see specifies that “high-quality university level educational materials” implicitly vetted by higher education institutions is the admission ticket to the OCWC. Based on this definition, OERs are a relatively small piece of the entire puzzle. Education is an entire infrastructure in which content resources are an important component but certainly not the only one.

OERs appear to be very useful in some contexts, but hard to see how free content by itself will result in sweeping change – certainly not on the scale implied by the sweeping statements of the Cape Town Open Education Declaration, particularly in its opening statement that “Educators worldwide are developing a vast pool of educational resources on the Internet, open and free for all to use. These educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge.” Based on how OER is defined in the declaration, this statement reflects a confusion between education and knowledge and between education and learning, as if education is generated just by content-learner interaction. The second sentence is just plain pompous in its overreaching assumptions. When will everyone on the planet have access to this world of ubiquitious access? It reminds me of the label “No Child Left Behind,” frankly. It also assumes that OER will somehow become the focal point for human knowledge generation and that faculty-created and university-vetted course materials are the principal engine for human knowledge generation. I don’t buy it — how is OER any more a world for generating human knowledge than Google or the Web itself?

Even as content, many OERs are of limited value. For example, the recent launch of Open Yale Courses exquisitely illustrates how educators can confuse content delivery with learning, with the result being open courseware of dubious quality. [also see]

Even with highly regarded open courseware such as offered by MIT’s “international Internet guru” Professor Walter Lewin, [also see]

MIT itself has noted the limitations of this approach and is moving away from it with its residential students. [also see]

What’s disappointing to me about the OCWC and CTOED sites so far is that I did not come away with a clear sense of what kind of impact OERs are making. So, perhaps OERs will have a huge impact for some learners and be an incremental innovation in other respects. Perhaps there are some unforeseen, serendipitous events which will change its effect. But I haven’t yet seen any visible reasons to expect a huge impact. Has someone else?

BTW, I also disagree with the assertions that online learning in the U.S. “has not delivered on the promise of increased access” and has fared better for quality. There are now over three million online learners annually in U.S. higher education and probably over 12 million cumulatively since its inception. The majority of this has happened at community colleges, for which access is an integral part of their mission. How does this not represent an increase in access? While I think that online learning has finally succeeded in establishing a perception and reality of quality, IMO this still lags behind relative to its achievements in improving access. If online learning failed to deliver relative to some of its initial hype, the fault is with the hype.

7. christine geith - February 2nd, 2008 at 8:12 pm

Thank you all for your comments so far.

I asked this question on LinkedIn and there are some interesting answers there as well, see

Also, Stephen Downes noted the posting in OLDaily yesterday

Answering John Sener’s questions about access - yes, the numbers are impressive, but when you dig deeper, they don’t appear to have resulted in any more degrees being produced in the U.S. (one measure of access) - you’ll be able to see our argument when the paper I did with Karen Vignare goes live here in the next day or so at and to the international series at

Thank you Steve Foerster for suggesting a look at the University of London External Programme - your idea for a consortia of tutorial colleges is a model to consider.

Leigh Blackall makes a bold suggestion and call to action for developing global competency standards - any takers? How about a pilot program - Leigh already has a start on tour guiding using the New Zealand standards at

prawstho makes the case for a more robust infrastructure - even if it’s 15 years out - for further thinking here, the Hewlett Foundation report by John Seeley Brown, Dan Atkins and Allen Hammond has a high-level description of what they call an “Open Participatory Learning Infrastructure”

Steve Ehrmann, gives us some good advice in the link to his paper - “Technology and Revolution in Education: Ending the Cycle of Failure.” In it, he suggests 7 strategies for a revolution including #1 Form a coalition - “…campaign to build support for the necessary constellation of changes in curriculum, staffing, faculty development, library resources, technology support, and assessment.” I’d say by the way OER is shaping up, these things are starting to happen which bodes well for OER’s success.

HOWEVER, as John Sener points out, much of the coalition building and many important developments are still under the radar for many who could be partners in OER’s development. As your comments have pointed out so far - many of the components for OER’s success are here or emerging: we have models, we have the start of competency standards, we have the beginning infrastructure, and we have some of the important makings of a revolution.

How can we get the word out and invite more thought-leaders and action-takers to participate?

8. Educational Imaginations - February 4th, 2008 at 8:21 am

Alternative Models of Higher Education…

Ahh, now this is nice. Writing for Terra Incognita (the blog of Penn State’s World Campus), Christine Geith searches for alternative models of higher education (here). She finds several, although evidently none which satisfy her fully. Ostensibly wri…

9. Ken Udas - February 5th, 2008 at 5:54 am

Follow Up To Leigh Blackwell

Hello Leigh, good to hear from you. I do not believe that there is a competency framework on the national level in the United States for tertiary education/study. This probably holds true for States also. I would think that in the US we would have to refer to certification, registration, and accrediting bodies to collect competencies for specific trades (pipe fitting, crane operation, electrical, etc.) and professions (nursing, engineering, teaching, law, etc.) and then build out OER (content and assessment). I would guess that a first port-of-call would be with tertiary institutions that are involved with preparing learners for professional that require competency based review for professional certification to practice. When I think about this, the task becomes a bit daunting. That said, the payoffs could be significant for self-directed learners, learners with financial challenges, and learners who have very restricted access to traditional educational programming (incarcerated for example). Am I wrong? Does anybody know of anybody in the US that is talking, thinking, or doing something about this?

10. Leigh Blackall - February 5th, 2008 at 6:24 pm

Hi Ken,

I reckon the first step would be to look at existing competencies internationally and see how useful they are to teachers in your local industries… the Australian or NZ units could offer a basic structure and expression standard that your people could use to build from, if only to begin thinking about your own versions, but more importantly I think, with a view to internationalising all our qualifiactions. Because the US doesn’t have units, I’d imagine it would be difficult for Australian and New Zealand workers to get immigration approval or recognition of their qualifications in the US. Not to mention people from other nations, or alternative approaches to learning. But thinking about it the other way around, US qualifications that somehow used or were measured with Australia/NZ units would more easily be recognised in Aust/NZ…

11. christine geith - February 6th, 2008 at 12:26 am

Posted at the request of Paul West:


You have touched on a few interesting points. We need new methods of reaching more people and it will take more than one world project to accomplish this. There should be space in this “market” for many providers from free, informal, non-formal and every kind of formal education imaginable - from government to non-profit and for-profit. Lifelong learning is all very nice for all of us wanting to learn something, but a lot of people I meet want to get a qualification from an institution and they want that qualification to mean something when they apply for a job in another country.

The Virtual University for the Small and Island States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC - is a network of Ministries of Education of the small states to help build capacity of national institutions to introduce new courses and add capacity to institutions. It should also help to provide for the transfer of courses, qualifications and learners between countries. Therein lies another of your points - the qualifications framework. Many countries have or are working on a National Qualifications Framework which is normally run by a National Qualifications Authority. With the VUSSC initiative, we hope to support the further development of national qualification frameworks (especially in countries where these are not as advanced) and to improve the transfer of qualifications between countries. The aim of the “Transnational Qualifications Framework” is to provide a translation point between national qualifications frameworks. This could help to reduce the need for bilateral agreements, thereby potentially speeding the process.

I injected the concept of an open version of qualifications standards to the expert team working on the concept and also with few ministry officials involved in these authorities. This open concept as an alternative to national standards did not seem to be a credible alternative. Not knowing who set the standard and having a standard that could change at any time seemed to be a damper. You can understand that national qualification authorities help to root out fly-by-night and vapourware institutions. Expecting a national government to suddenly accept a standard that anyone can change at any time without control mechanisms that they control, seems a little out of range - for now. I do think we will be able to create an open equivalent system that can operate in parallel. If it proves itself, it may then receive better consideration.

One thing I’m pretty sure of is that any major, world-wide system will need to encompass a diverse range of needs of very diverse partners. Insisting on sets of rules and setting strict requirements for governments and institutions to follow, is likely to stunt the sharing of OERs. We need to find ways to accept the differences in circumstances and needs of countries, institutions and individuals; trying to limit the ways or circumstances under which people share OERs may be seen as a power play (“play in my sandpit or I won’t play with you”) and treated with suspicion.

I’ve heard said that we run the risk of OER sites becoming large vanity-press websites, storing content that almost no one uses. The quality of materials on some of the wiki sites may contribute to the scepticism of OERs, and that much of these materials will remain in various stages of draft, never receiving the attention to quality and finish that proprietary, institution-generated content might receive. The use of OERs already created depends now on these being found useful by those who the authors thought would like to receive them. Have the potential users already started creating their own OERs from scratch?

The success of the OER movement will depend on reaching across the borders and divides rather than setting up more divides. We need “go betweens” or “bridgers” that help teachers and learners combine materials with all kinds of copyright licenses and websites that make materials in open formats accessible to the majority of computer users without the need to download and install different programmes and drivers than the ones they usually use. Trying to get the majority of computer users to change software before they can use OERs may be another barrier; people seldom have the connectivity,skills and authority to install and change software. We need to adapt to “where people are” rather than insisting on people “changing their ways”.

Finally, the most repeated request I’ve heard amongst senior managers from small states has been to provide complete courses that can be customised rather than a range of resources that a teacher might find useful. This might be one of the most pointed guidelines to making OERs more useable.


Commonwealth of Learning

12. Ken Udas - February 10th, 2008 at 12:09 pm

I would like to follow up on the some of the notions that “jsener” and Paul West (via Christine Geith) make about getting a good perspective of where we are right now and the ambitions of the Cape Town Open Education Declaration and various institutional models for Open Education. It seems to me that the idea of Open Education is important because it provides a goal, sort of a “magnetic north” for us to use as we refine practice.

Recognizing that open software (FLOSS) is not education and that open content (OER) is not education, are important ways to ensure that we continue to (more or less) travel north toward our goal. I would prefer to think that FLOSS and OER are enablers, necessary but not sufficient, for the incremental progress toward Open Education. David Wiley captures this in his recent posting tilted Content Is Infrastructure, in which he posits that content, like physical infrastructure such as roads, liberates possibilities by reducing barriers to travelers.

I am wondering if our next steps have something to do with helping individuals and institutions use those roads (content) to meet their own needs, while not being too overly critical about whether or not they are traveling “true north,” so long as it seems is if we are traveling with a purpose. It is important that we have trail blazers, but it is equally important that we have individuals and institutions willing to travel along those paths. So, who is using the content made available through the OCWC participants, Open Learn, WikiEducator, etc.? I see many trail blazers from which to learn, but it would be great to hear from those making good use of the paths that are have been created. I have a feeling that there is good practice and use.

13. Femina - February 12th, 2008 at 3:58 pm

We need to focus on the end goal – human development.

Open Source will help to fight against Microsoft domination, blogging will help against media moguls.

14. christine geith -February 13th, 2008 at 4:28 am

Ken, I like your notion of OER as “magnetic north,” building on David’s idea of OER as infrastructure. What matters is that we are traveling in the northerly direction, whatever route we take.

Since my post on the 1st, I’ve learned of even more OER-University proposals. It shows the growing number of people and organizations heading north.

Outside of formal organizations is where I hope there is even more OER action - where can we find those examples?

15. jsener - February 14th, 2008 at 11:50 pm

[Note: apologies if some of the links in this message are messed up -- it's not clear to me how these textboxes are formatted, whether pure HTML or sthg. else]

So who’s got the compass?

One answer to Chris’s question “How can we get the word out and invite more thought-leaders and action-takers to participate?” is to define the key operational terms in her question — What is the word, and how can people participate?

So far, I’ve yet to find a coherent answer to these questions. The “magnetic north” metaphor is appealing, but my experience so far in trying to educate myself about this initiative is more like watching a lot of well-intentioned wandering, collectively speaking. When “human development” can be defined as broadly as fighting against “Microsoft domination” or “media moguls”, or as narrowly as “free textbooks,” where is the magnetic pole in this flurry of activity?

As part of the process of , I participated earlier this week in an online presentation about OER — see

for the slide show. It was a good presentation, but much of it was focused on creating open textbooks to relieve the high cost of textbooks — naturally since it was largely a community college audience. Today Stephen Downes had a post on a site listing more than 100 free places to learn online. OER must be a mighty large umbrella to accommodate these and many other similarly unrelated initiatives, and this is a long way from UNESCO’s 2002 Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries from which the term OER is reportedly derived.

So, I suppose that one answer is that OER can be operationally defined however thought-leaders and action-takers want to define it. Hard to see how there’s a “magnetic north” in this notion, however. Another answer is to provide clearer operational definitions that would help prospective thought-leaders figure out how to think about this initiative and help action-takers to take coherent action.

One good place to start would be to keep clear the distinction between formal education and informal/lifelong learning, as an earlier comment noted. If anything, the increasing availability of open content highlights the distinction between education and learning, rather than blurring it. Put simply, when content becomes freely available, what distinguishes learning from formal education? All the forms that make education “formal” — accreditation, learning support systems, instructors, quality control measures, etc.. In other words, most of the stuff that’s missing from most of the OER content I’ve seen thus far.

In looking at some of the resources I found thus far, I’m feeling an eerie sense of deja vu: haven’t there been openly available content resources before in print form? At the same time, it seems that OER collections are often unvetted for quality. For example, I clicked on the Wikieducator link and started exploring. I ended up looking at some science exercises created for elementary school biology students by students at Saint Michael’s College. The exercises were interesting and well-structured in many ways, but they also indicated that these OERs were of variable and sometimes untested quality.

Finally, it would help if OERs included a ‘chain of custody’ of sorts, by which I mean a way to trace the resources back to their creators. For instance, I’ve tried to trace the Saint Michael’s College OERs back to the source to see if I could learn more about them. The link on the Wikieducator site led back to the college web site, but the college’s search engine turned up nothing on the resources themselves. There is a professor teaching a course with that in the title; perhaps I could contact him and find out whether or not there is a connection there. But the connection should be more transparent and traceable than that.

16. Ken Udas - February 19th, 2008 at 9:01 am

Once again, I am sorry for the delayed response. Jsener, I think that many of your observations and points are pretty accurate (and shared). The OER/FLOSS/FOSS/OSS/Open Education/etc. “community” does seem to function as a rather loosely related collective. One has suggested that OSS projects develop because an individual or organization has a need that can be met with the development of some software (they have an itch to scratch) and they decided to pursue development and/or distribution using an OSS licensing model, frequently for rather pragmatic reasons. When they make this decision, no matter the reason, they are committing to a certain level of access.

I think that the “magnetic north” might be similar for OER. What if we just suggest that for starters we are agreeing that more access is better than less access. So when we decide to create and or use OER we try to do it in such a way that it enhances access. If we keep this in mind we will consciously do things like using licensing that supports the widest opportunities for distribution, using file formats that do not require proprietary software clients to read and edit the files, store content in places that are readily searched and are open to all, etc. These examples point to a few realities that reduced access (licensing, economics, and physical access) – there are of course others.

As a side note, the existence of WikiEducator, OCWC, Connexions, OER Commons, EduCommons, etc. point to the fact that a lot of work is being done around access, and that events like the COSL sponsored OpenEd meeting point to a growing community of practitioners.

Access does not address all of the issues that jsener has raised, but it is a start. It at least allows us to think operationally about the many decisions that must be made. It helps us to slowly and incrementally move North. We might then say, not only should our OER be accessible, but they should also be Usable. We might then start asking ourselves why would folks want to use and reuse our OER? If we assume that they will actually be used for teaching and learning purposes, we might want to start making decisions that relate to “quality,” ease of customization, etc. For many applications being able to track the work back to the original authors (and contributing authors) will enhance the “usefulness” for teachers that might have questions about the content that are not obvious.

If we use basic notions such as “access” and “ usability” as our touchstones for OER we do not have to worry so much about if they are intended for formal or informal educational purposes, or if they are going to be used for relieving human suffering, home schooling, personal development, integration into a traditional university curriculum, etc. The point is that they are available, and right now, as it has been pointed out, there is a lot of content available. Could it be made more accessible or useful? Can we do anything to help teachers and learners use and modify OER in ways that make sense for them given their needs?

17. Ken Udas -February 23rd, 2008 at 11:20 am

This comment form “jsener” sort of slipped through the cracks and I think that it merits some thought.

I also disagree with the assertions that online learning in the U.S. “has not delivered on the promise of increased access” and has fared better for quality. There are now over three million online learners annually in U.S. higher education and probably over 12 million cumulatively since its inception. The majority of this has happened at community colleges, for which access is an integral part of their mission. How does this not represent an increase in access? While I think that online learning has finally succeeded in establishing a perception and reality of quality, IMO this still lags behind relative to its achievements in improving access. If online learning failed to deliver relative to some of its initial hype, the fault is with the hype.

I happen to agree with this. I feel that Online learning in the U.S. has, on the aggregate, increased access to higher education, but it might have done so with differential impact on different learner communities. For example in the “golden age” of paper-based distance education, incarcerated learners were relatively well served through distance education. That is, many facilities provided enough access to paper based materials to allow an inmate to engage in a formal distance education program. Very few prisons allow Internet access to inmates, significantly reducing access to that learner population for this modality. This becomes an access issue when institutions move from traditional paper-based distance learning delivery methods to online.

I wonder too, what percentage of institutions with a history in traditional distance education (Penn State, UMUC, Open Polytechnic of NZ, Open University UK, UNISA, University of Wisconsin, etc.) have moved away from paper and only offer their programs online. I also wonder if tuition and fees have risen disproportionally throughout the transition, creating another access issue for some learner populations.

18. christine geith -February 24th, 2008 at 5:03 am

Ken and John, appreciate your thoughtful responses in this thread. Regarding access, while what you’ve noted about participation is true, take a look at what’s in our paper (live at and I think you’ll see why it’s not clear that online has increased access to degrees - albeit that’s just one definition of access.

Seems to me that online to this point is an incremental innovation to existing practice - and that’s a good thing - but it’s not the disruptive innovation to the system of higher education that it was once thought to be. It has clearly increased convenience, yet the vast majority of low-income students in the U.S. still do not achieve degrees and costs continue to rise. So, its impact does not yet appear to be big enough to put a dent in some of our big problems. I think that it can, and I’d watch the for-profits and adult-serving institutions for examples.

Regarding the notion of “true north” - what exactly are we talking about asks John. First, for background, I recommend these two papers:

Giving Knowledge for Free by the OECD

OLCOS Roadmap 2012

My perspective is that “North” is decision making about intellectual property that is based on a notion of abundance, not scarcity. The world today has plenty of scarcity, but I’m talking about an abundance on the Internet of information as well as experts. Making even more abundance through sharing, and operating as though there were already abundance, is “North” in my mind.

What does this mean? For one, when creating intellectual property in the form of structured learning resources (i.e. educational resources) do not assume that their value is in making them scarce and then charging for access through publishers or through courses. In an era of abundance of resources and experts, it is likely that there is even more value in sharing them openly and benefiting in other ways, indirectly, from the act of sharing. Structuring and crafting information and resources for the purposes of teaching and learning is extremely valuable in the context in which they are used. It is the context that makes them valuable - it is the context that is scarce. Those same resources are also useful outside of their original context - for other purposes by other people in other contexts. Why not share the resources and contribute to the growing abundance? This notion has been described as the knowledge commons.

I think of OER as another layer of organization on the Internet - another layer that makes information more valuable through its structure. What will we build on top of this layer? What value-added services and contexts will emerge around the commons? What will emerge to enhance education? - Free textbooks? Free courses? Tutoring services? New ways to earn credit?

There are many elements of the commons notion that have not yet emerged that would seem to make it all work: good search tools, filters and recommender systems for one; new ways to vet quality for another; tracking systems (like the “chain of custody” John described) for another. No doubt, these are coming. Google and Creative Commons are working on a search engine, for example

Also, for this OER knowledge commons to operate similar to OSS economically, we need corporate interests, such as publishers, to participate like IBM did in Linux. See this paper by Bruce Perens for background on the economic model of OSS

Getting back to John’s comments, OER are pieces and parts of an education experience. They are not - at least not yet - the complete experience and should not be compared to online learning with all of its context-rich social, cognitive and teacher components. Unfortunately, many proponents and practitioners involved in OER are unfamiliar with the research and best practices in online learning and distance education before that. This is an opportunity for online learning veterans to bring more people on board and to help shape the OER movement. Yet, we also need to keep in mind that OER is a further disaggregation of institution-based online learning where student admissions through to graduation are usually integrated functions. We need to look at the opportunities of OER from a different perspective.

19. Andrew Plimmer - February 25th, 2008 at 1:18 am

Open Education Resource is an extension of existing higher education activities which expands access to resources. Its innovative facility not only lowers costs and increases scalability by creating a new publishing mechanism for faculty while but also a global online open curriculum, with many variations, to be openly shared around the world.

20. christine geith -March 13th, 2008 at 12:37 pm

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