Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 28, 2010

Submitted to Huffington Post, October 27, 2010.

Through the last few weeks I have been engaged in an online conference sponsored by UNESCO on the topic of the production and use of open educational resources.

There's a whole movement behind the concept of open educational resources (or OERs). It involves not only UNESCO, but also OECD (which produced a report on them), major charities like Hewlett and Shuttleworth, and major educational institutions, like MIT.

The idea of an OER is simple enough: instead of printing educational resources like texts and workbooks on paper and selling them to students or schools, OER providers produce them digitally and make them available for free online.

Or as the Hewlett Foundation defines them, "OER are teaching, learning and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials or techniques used to support access to knowledge."

You might be inclined to say that the whole internet is made up of stuff like that, and I'd be inclined to agree, but that's not part of the story, at least not yet. This is because there are two major properties of OERs that make them a bit special:

First, because they are educational resources, they must be in some way reviewed for quality, and must incorporate some sort of educational design. Educational consortia like MERLOT, for example, encourage peer review of open learning resources.

And second, because they are intended to be reused by educators and incorporated into other learning materials, they need to be licensed appropriately. At a minimum, a Creative Commons license allowing free access and exchange is required, and many argue that the license ought also allow for the creation of derivative works and commercial reuse.

A lot of effort has gone into the production of materials that satisfy these two criteria.

MIT, for example, with the financial support of the Hewlett Foundation, launched an initiative called OpenCourseWare (OCW) to covert all of its course documents and resources into digital form, making them available for use by anyone in the world.

The MIT materials, coming as they do from a nationally accredited (and internationally recognized) university, are presumed to be of sufficient quality from the outset. And MIT employs a Creative Commons license to ensure that they could be reused by educators.

OpenCourseWare has been by all accounts a success. As of June, last materials for 2,000 courses had been posted by 696 tenure track faculty, attracting 46 million visitors, 512 million page views, and 11 million course package downloads. OCW has spawned a federation of similar initiatives known as the Open CourseWare Consortium.

What we find with these open course packages, however, is what MIT stated when the project was launched: an MIT course package is not an MIT education. "MIT OCW is intended as a publication of MIT course materials on the Web, and not as an interactive experience with MIT faculty," said MIT's Hal Abelson at the time. "It provides the content of, but is not a substitute for, an MIT education. The most fundamental cornerstone of the learning process at MIT is the interaction between faculty and students in the classroom, and among students themselves on campus."

Still, OERs have a lot of traction, and a lot of institutions are producing them. And the popularity of OERs seems to be on the rise. But there are two great questions plaguing proponents of OERs, and they are (I suggest) related.

The first question has to do with sustainability. As suggested from the large foundations and institutional projects listed above, sustainability becomes a critical issue when such large expenditures are involved. OCW's budget, for example, is $3.7 annually. Typical discussions on sustainability, such as the Leeds Manifesto, focus on creating and valuing institutional support.

That leads to the second question, the question of reuse. After all, as the Leeds authors assert, "evidence of effectiveness in use would be massively helpful." But it's not even clear OERs are being reused. A study of the Connexions repository, for example, showed that a third of all modules are not used at all, and "of the 3,519 modules used in Connexions, 861 of them were recycled in some way for a total of 1,262 uses." It is arguable this pattern applies to OERs generally.

Stian Haklev, I think, gets to the heart of the question of reuse. "Is it used mainly by self-learners, who wish to find useful material for their own studying?" he asks. "Or who want to study an entire 'collection'? Or is it used more by educators, who 'pre-package' content for their students, into collections?" Because, from the institutional point of view, reuse -- and therefore, "effectiveness" -- happens only when experts and publishers publish them and teachers use them in classrooms.

In my own study of sustainability, I looked at a range of alternative models for the production and use of open educational resources. My own feeling was that the institutional model was, in the end, unsustainable. And in contrast, I would observe, we have at our hands a model of wild, almost uncontrollable reuse in the wild -- the Internet, where the big problem seems to be that the authorities cannot stop reuse.

That's why the next part of the UNESCO discussions on OERs are so important and why the position paper authored by Ulf-Daniel Ehlers on "the next big shift" is so important. It's about how to use open educational resources, and how the practices of everyone in education need to change to support them.

Teachers, for example, need to learn how to work with and present user-generated content rather authoritative expert content -- you can't just recite what's stated in the textbook. Teachers must demonstrate and foster a critical awareness in students, even at a young age through conversation and storytelling, promoting self-assessment and extending to the capacity to critically appraise and integrate material from multiple sources.

Students, critically, must become autonomous learners. The vast bulk of open learning resources will be encountered outside the domain of the classroom. Thanasoulas writes, "the autonomous learner takes a (pro-) active role in the learning process, generating ideas and availing himself of learning opportunities, rather than simply reacting to various stimuli of the teacher."

But more, students and teachers must think of themselves not as passive recipients of knowledge in an epistemic system, but rather active agents extending themselves and their ideas into the wider network of teachers and learners. They may use open educational resources to learn, but they use a peer network to validate that learning, in large part by validating the open resources produced by each other.

Educational leaders, Ehlers states, "are faced with the question how they can make content which has been produced in teaching and learning processes relevant to other actors within the organisation." What that means is not merely a permissive attitude of allowing open materials to be produced, but an examination of "how an open policy can be lived within the institution and express itself not 'just' in the use of just another open educational resources repository."

Supporting OERs is not simply about supporting the production of open educational resources, it's about integrating these into the metabolism of the organization. The use of OERs in education involves far more than the mere presentation of OERs, and that therefore learning is seen as rather more than the mere acquisition of the content contained in these OERs.

The purpose of an open educational resource is not merely to transfer information, it is to stimulate this creative production in the recipient. Teachers and educational leaders should regard themselves not merely as passive transferers of received content to students, but instead as agents provocateurs.

Generally we think of agents provocateurs as officials who work undercover and infiltrate groups in order to provoke illegal acts. But in the current case it will be sufficient to contemplate the provocation of subversive acts, and at a minimum, radical acts of self-awareness.

And when we look at how in fact open educational resources are being used out there, on the wider Internet, outside the realm of structured institutions and rigid teacher-student distinctions, we see that the students -- or I should say 'learners', because there are no teachers -- are themselves acting as agents provocateurs, advancing their own education by sharing their learning with others.

Their education is not merely about receiving these materials and repeating them back to examiners when asked. It is about receiving these materials, reshaping them, tearing them to shreds if need be, and responding with a completely new statement, a completely new vocabulary, of their own.

I tried a few months ago to capture this practice with the expression "speaking in LOLcats". It expresses the idea that these artifacts, these open educational resources, have become 'words' in this new vocabulary. That our language has through new media become extended into a sort of multimedia newspeak.

If we think of OERs in this wider context, then we start saying some new things about them. We stop thinking of learning resources as something produced by publishers and institutions, and instead start thinking of them as being produced by learners themselves. And this in turn changes out thinking about how we sustain the cost of them, how we vet them for quality, and how we license and use them.

The world is full of OERs, if you only look. There are the large and famous initiatives like TED Videos, iTunesU, Wikipedia; magazines and self-help sites like WebReference or LifeHacker, and guerilla works like Khan Academy or Phil Bartle's Community Empowerment.

And as I said, there is an entire community out there thinking about these things. And through the past week, in addition to the UNESCO discussion, there has been a series of events around open access and open education. They are worth a look. You can sample a few of the papers and presentations, or if you have time, get a full education in open educational resources and open access.

For example, you could visit the WikiEducator OER week activities for presentations from people like Wayne Mackintosh, Director of the OER Foundation , Paul Stacey, Director of BCcampus or Phil Ker, Chief Executive of Otago Polytechnic. Athabasca University has also archived presentations from their Open Access Week activities. Or you can look at some from the University of Florida. Or use Google and find dozens more.

What you should see when you look at these OER initiatives or these OER presentations isn't just the collection of learning material. Yes, there is that, but to focus on the content is to miss the point. The people producing these resources are themselves agents provocateurs, today's new learners and new teachers, rewriting and redefining for themselves what it looks like to get an education, and what it looks like to offer an education.

It's easy to sit back and carp about how bad the educational system is. What we need, though, are more agents provocateurs. And a willingness to use them.


Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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