Archive for April, 2008

Cute Kitten Syndrome: Open Educational Resources

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

I was at CNIE earlier this week and participated on this panel discussingopen educational resources (OERs).
Educators are periodically afflicted with a psychological condition called “Cute Kitten Syndrome”. This syndrome manifests itself as evoking perceived universal favor for an idea or concept and with those opposing cast as lacking some key element that comprises humanity. I mean, really, who doesn’t love cute furry kittens? If a person is to speak against OERs, they are essentially revealing their callus nature. But, I must say a few critical things.
First, I’m in favor of OERs as a concept. In fact, in 2003, a group of us started a community on open educational resources based on a few articles I had posted online (Free and Open Source – Part 1 and Part 2 and Why we should share learning resources) and Stephen Downes’ concept of DLORN. Summary notes from our first meeting are here: Open Education: Moving from concept to reality. We set up a few discussions, ran a few listservs for a while, tried to organize sub-committees, but things never really moved forward as Stephen and I had hoped (well, as I had hoped, anyway). The group slowly breathed its last and the domain name went to the land of unfulfilled dreams.
Where are we now with OERs? The term is used very broadly and the landscape is shifting constantly. MITs OpenCourseWare initiative is often cited as the starting point of OERs, but David Wiley and others were already dealing with the notion of openness from a licensing perspective in the late 90’s. (Slightly off topic, David’s involved in a new project with open textbooks: Flat World Knowledge). Some view OERs as simply making resources freely available. Some – such as OCWconsortium have a required minimum commitment in order to participate. And it appears, that OERs are the new hype feature of educational conferences…almost getting to the learning object and repository level of late 90’s early 00’s. We’re in that same happy state of chaos where we find ourselves in so many areas of emerging technologies – moving too fast with too many voices to give this thing a concise name.
As we were. While I have huge appreciation for OERs and hold out for the prospect that OERs will truly make a difference to people who most need them, I still have a few critical views.
1). Why OERs? What are we trying to achieve? Marketing our institution? Reducing costs for learners? Better quality learning materials? Making the world a better place? Help people in developing countries? What’s your motivation or the motivation of your institution in pursuing OERs? I fear too many educators are talking about it because others are. Look deep within your soul. Why are you interested in OERs? What can we do with them that we cannot do under our current system?
From my perspective, resources developed with public funds should be accessible by the public. Journals publishing research funded by the government should be open. Content/curriculum created by public institutions should be made public. Additionally, education has been listed as one of the primary determinants of life expectancy, reduction of poverty, etc.
To deny people access to education has an ethical dimension. In a wealthy country, we could make the argument that learners who pay for their education possess a reasonable prospect of earning sufficient revenue from having a degree that some trade off is possible. I won’t get into this discussion here…after all, even in a prosperous country, opportunities for education are confined to a certain segment of society. In developing countries, those with greatest need to access education, are often locked out due to high resource issues. A typical learner from Africa cannot afford to attend a well known university. It’s not just that finances are a burden. Finances are an insurmountable barrier. But to withhold the prospect of education to learners in developing countries is to condemn people to the possibility of a perpetual cycle of poverty. For me, that’s the big “why” of OERs, but concerns exist with targeting this audience, as detailed in #3.
2). OERs are window dressing if systems and structures of education do not change. Toward the end of the panel, one member stated “OERs can change education”. No. They can’t. OERs, like blogs, wikis, podcasts, and other ideas and tools are daily blips in the long term trend of how we are interacting differently with information and with each other. OERs have not yet achieved divine status. I don’t think they will. They are an important reflection of the larger trend wave, but the are not driving the larger trend.
Paul A. David in The Dynamo and the Computer: An Historical Perspective on the Modern Productivity Paradox suggests systems are confined by previous innovations. New innovations, in a very McLuhanesque sort of way, are used to do the work of previous innovations. It’s only when we change the system that we change significantly. In our interaction with information, we have many constraining elements from previous innovations such as books, libraries, and even the design of school systems. Deep, significant, and systemic change is required (he says in a non-sweeping, non-overstated, kind of way).
3) OERs exhibit (are embedded with) certain ideologies/views/pedagogies, etc. For a student in the Middle East to use MITs resources requires they use the English language…or Aboriginal learner lose Indigenous knowledge when encountering resources created with a different world view. Better yet, how do we encourage people in developing countries to create their own OERs and export them to our countries?
I had a discussion following the session with an individual who felt that as other culture appropriate OERs, they would naturally inject their identity and their culture. I’m not sure.
But, in fairness, there are many things we are not sure about with regard to OERs. Who is using the resources? How are they being used? I’ve heard of Chinese students translating entire MIT courses into Chinese. How common is this? What is the impact of these courses? Why are students taking them? For personal interest or part of an academic program? And how will we sustain these initiatives? We need more research on the actual impact.
BTW, I do like cute kittens.