“You need to change the way you teach in order to integrate OER”
What are the challenges of OER? How are they affecting the academic world? These are some of the questions answered by three professors from The Open University: Patrina Law, Senior Manager for Strategic Projects in the Institute of Educational Technology, Patrick Mc Andrew, Professor of Open Education and Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology.
How has been your experience with OER at your university?
Martin Weller: In terms of open access publishing, we were a pioneer a long time ago, with a journal we had called JIME before the term open access publishing was around. That was in 1996 and it’s still going on. We also have a few other open access publishings.
Patrick McAndrew: In terms of OER, The Open University launched OpenLearn back in 2006. It was an experiment for us and it succeeded. Since 2008, we’ve been operating OpenLearn as part of way the University acts. The material is available openly and for free under a Creative Commons license. That has had a big impact on the university in terms of how we work with others and how we make our material available. It has proved to attract students, so we see it as a significant actor in the world of open education.
Patrina Law: We have several hundred course texts on OpenLearn website. The challenge now is that people want our material in different formats. The heavy use of mobile devices is a new challenge. The Open University is in a quite unique position as it publishes its own resources. We have our own publishing house, we don’t use external contractors or any other suppliers to achieve these goals, we have it all here, including the most important part: research into OER.
Why is the release of open content that essential for the academic world?
Martin Weller: Open Access has changed since the university was founded in 1969. But it’s always been part of our DNA. The aim of an academic community is to get your research disseminated. You’re not going to be rich on the back of an academic book but you want to reach as many people as possible. Open Access gives you this opportunity. Every three months, I publish a “metajournal” with articles from different journals on education technologies. This wouldn’t be possible with articles behind a paywall because I wouldn’t have the right to republish them.
Patrick McAndrew: There’s so much available as free access on the internet. We need to be a part of that in order to retain the access that people need to look at what we’re doing. We not only need access to be free but also to be open. That allows users to understand how they can republish or reuse it. It’s hard to justify now an approach where openness is not part of how we operate. Those who ignore openness close themselves off from opportunities and take the risk of actually being ignored in the world today.
Patrina Law: There are over 600 courses available as OER from The Open University. There can’t be a course-writing academic amongst our staff who hasn’t come across the concept of OER. However, we’re not good at creating courses from open content. It’s not currently built into our production processes. So this is something that we’ll be looking at this year.
How important will be the OER in the future of education?
Martin Weller: It’s difficult to argue for a closed model but I don’t think we will move to a completely open world. I think universities will still have something you will have to pay for. They need to have a sustainable business model. Increasingly, the institutions will have policies on open access. Openness becomes a core component of the studies in the university. And the role of the teacher changes because you can’t give a lecture on a topic while someone can watch a video from a professor in Stanford who may be more expert than you are. So you need to change the way you teach in order to integrate OER.
Patrick McAndrew: I think a revolution is going to come and this will cause us to rethink what it means to be a learner. I think it’s vital to have an open approach; otherwise we cannot meet the scale of the challenge. We have to find new ways in which we can support learners.
Patrina Law: The Open University’s approach to distributing OER is quite different from other institutions. For example, we have a partnership with the BBC. So our audience doesn’t necessarily come across us through simply googling us or finding us on iTunesU. It could be because they watched an OU collaborative TV programme. The BBC has allowed us to reach millions. So we have a slightly different approach. It has raised the question of: who are the non web informal learners? And how can we best serve them?
How will MOOCs force teachers to rethink their way of teaching?
Martin Weller: I think MOOCs are interesting. We’re going to run a few at the OU. For certain audiences, they work very well. But there are some dangers. You might end up with a small number of global providers, which could be an ironic victory for open education, it would be less open than it used to be. Another issue is that they tend to suit experienced learners better. But in general they’re a good thing, they’re complementary to traditional education. People are scared that they would overturn universities but actually there’s a process that makes an informal learner become a formal learner, and MOOCs help do that.
Patrick McAndrew: In Minnesota, they have banned Coursera because it is providing education outside of the rules of the State. It is not approved as an official provider of higher education. That means people have seen it as a threat to the existing education system. The MOOCs show a way that higher education can be made available through the internet.
What we’re trying to do is to use a gentle approach to encourage learners. But some current MOOCs are emulating a sort of test-based culture that might put off less experienced learners. So MOOCs are part of the mix but there’s a bigger area of open education still to be tackled.
Patrina Law: From an Open University perspective, because we already have the infrastructure in place to create online open courses, the question for us is purely whether or not there is business case for doing so. And that’s the thing we need a crystal ball for.
Can OER reduce the inequalities in education?
Patrick McAndrew: Yes it can. We have found that using OER has helped us work with US Community Colleges and charities to support learners from disadvantaged backgrounds or who are struggling with starting to learn at college.
Patrina Law: It depends on the OER. Certain of the large OER projects and initiatives that we see in the US are aimed at those who are already privileged and who have the required educational background to tackle some of the subjects being offered. Hence, this is offering free education to those who have already had access to a good education. Other OER projects do help to reduce inequalities. We learnt at the OER2012 conference in Cambridge this year, that the Indonesian Department of Education is going to use OER to reach its millions of people dispersed on thousands of islands and in doing so, level the playing field in terms of access to higher education. Their challenge was to persuade academics to make their material open, and in meeting the infrastructure requirement of bringing internet connectivity to those thousands of islands.