Cute Kitten Syndrome: Open Educational Resources

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.

16 Responses to “Cute Kitten Syndrome: Open Educational Resources”

  1. Mark Nichols says:

    Nice one George. I think the questions about OERs actually needs to go deeper… I mean, where do they overlap with open content? See
    The term itself needs a firmer definition; at the moment it is a somewhat untidy term that tries to encapsulate everything with ‘open’ in it that might apply to education. I think these may go the same way as ‘learning objects’ – remember all of the excitement around them?
    Love your commentary on systems and change, not because I necessarily LIKE the situation, but because it reflects reality… one of my BIGGEST struggles with edubloggers is the way in which the difficulties of real change are ignored, or those who acknowledge them as somehow having ’sold out’.

  2. Mark Nichols says:

    BTW I like cute kittens, too. But to actually adopt one, I need to consider what it will grow into! Nice parallel.

  3. I have a friend in the disability movement who uses a similar analogy. His goes something like “we love kittens but we don’t like cats”. It does seem to be an unfortunate side of human nature to congregate around an idea and vilify those who don’t. Wish I could have seen your presentation at CNIE. From the tweets, it sounded great.

  4. Nicola says:

    Thank you for putting together such a great post and links to your previous resources – its invaluable – and perfect timing for me personally because I am looking into developing an open source app that I hope (well actually for ego purposes I want to give it a go, then I’m hoping some developers will help build it once I go wrong / realise I may be out of my depth ;-) could assist in production of some content.
    It was actually some of your previous posts about people using mobiles to write stories that gave me an idea – i.e if you can write/author stories using a phone, why not write/author applications – i.e mobile web apps/widgets. At the moment the ways I can see of doing it are to
    a) create an open source text editor for mobile (haven’t found one that exists as yet) and then I guess go the whole way and put on an Android handset? but to write an app / coding would be quite challenging if you have a phone with a regular numeric keypad and would be fairly horrendous to keep staring at small screen, so -
    b) create the open source editor but would find a way of getting hold of some of the mobile projectors (e.g. Microvision when they are on sale) so you could project onto a wall or wherever. Still doesn’t solve keypad issue so maybe
    c) Speech to text editor (again haven’t found a mobile speech to text app that can do coding) that would be great if it was open source too, also need some way of being able to save a ‘note’ on a mobile phone as a htm file (dunno of way that exists at the moment.
    d) Writing apps / coding is better done in a community, so say if did manage to get an open source editor onto a phone and then people trying to write apps – could use a community that already exists such as mobile communities or local web communities on sites like africanews etc
    Why? It seems rather arduous I guess and if people in developing countries had access to mini-laptops then great, but my understanding is that right now, mobile phones are more prolific – so maybe it could be a temporary solution? I think it has potential for distribution too – how much money could be made from coding an app, am unsure, but being able to share coding knowledge in a community has value ?
    Or maybe its just totally crazy idea…but I do believe that text editing on phones is on its way. I have already found a site that you can view on your phone which will show the html code of a page (like source view in a browser).

  5. Beth Kanter says:

    Did you read Ethan Zuckerman’s piece “Cute Cat Theory and GLobal Digital Activism” ?
    Anyway, I remixed it into the “Cute Dog Theory” of social media and nonprofit adoption.
    More here:

  6. Lanny Arvan says:

    I’m for the “OE” but am a bit down on the “R” and I wonder whether you think that parsing makes sense. YouTube is a repository, with some small fraction of the content educational (here with the restricted meaning that of education as formal courses) but one finds that stuff not by going to YouTube and searching but rather by doing a general Google search for the type of content you’re looking for. Likewise, Flickr is a repository of this sort and there are many others. There’s also good content on individual Web sites that might be referenced in somebody’s blog, such as yours. Google finds the stuff that way too.
    So I agree with your asking the question about what problem it is that we are trying to solve, but I think that for “R” to be part of the answer, when that is a repository affiliated with an institution, like OCW, that you’ll find the the problem to be solved is about the vanity of the hosting institution and not the discovery of the recipients.
    In other words, search beats browsing nowadays, and for searching the stuff can be all over the place. It really is a bit more complex than that since people do browse, but only after they’ve searched first. We’ll never get all the good stuff into one bin, so why try.

  7. Tony Toole says:

    I’m with Lanny on this one. My view of OERs is that they can be derived from any source and contextualised for educational purposes.
    At present, a lot of people are spending a lot of time and a lot of (public) money designing and developing educational content for online delivery. It’s done in a conventional institutional context with the baggage of ownership, commercial value, IPR etc. Very often it is serially re-inventing wheels.
    Similarly, large scale digital repositories (such as JORUM here in the UK) are seeking to store learning resources, seemingly for a regional or national benefit (and competitive advantage?) rather than as part of a global movement.
    I think all this misses the point about what educational resources are, where they come from, how they are used and who uses them.
    The greater part of learning is informal (ie. outside the educational system) and the pedagogy generally adopted by the learner, who is also the teacher, is based on the time honoured principles of discovery learning. The effective learner will single-mindedly exploit any resource available to achieve their goal.
    Web searching for global educational resources is available to us now. There will be resources out there developed by institutions, but there will also be stuff from industry (the new instruction manual for BMWs latest car, the maintenance manual for the new gas boiler etc), stuff from government, public bodies, special interest groups etc.
    All of this can be harvested using search techniques and the developing search technologies.
    To my mind, open educational resources means the totality of information, knowledge, advice and guidance available on the Web, from whatever source, that can be used to facilitate effective learning.

  8. Chris Lott says:

    For me, the motivations for developing and promoting open content that dwarf all others are ethical and creative. Ethical for all the usual reasons, creative because I find it impossible to really dedicate my efforts to creating hidden work and because the more creations we put out there the richer the environment is for others to do more and go further. Shared content is becoming the oxygen of innovative education.
    However, beyond the crudest and most obvious levels, creating “culturally appropriate” materials is a dead-end. Let the materials be filled with the culture they come from; let the blooming flowers retain their natural colors. The key is, as you ask, “how do we encourage people in developing countries to create their own OERs and export them to our countries?”

  9. I am strongly in favour of OER. Knowledge has to be publicized and shared by all. Had the old civilizations like Egypt, India, China and Greece would have kept knowledge in a closed box, we would not have seen the growth of science the way we see it today. This may be achieved through education resources available to every one. Developing countries, where most of the poor live, can not afford to buy expensive books they need. The fastest growing economies of the world, viz. India and China have to benefit from OER which will, in turn, help the developed world.

  10. Laura says:

    I work on The Open University’s OER project, OpenLearn. The essence for us is not just in making the educational resource freely available, but that it is made available under a Creative Commons license that enables reuse/remix. In that way the openness should help avoid the reinvention of the wheel that Tony talks about as happening inside the campus walls of many institutions. We have also been interested in how informal learners can support each other and become the teacher by using the technologies the site provides. Publication and sharing of learning journals, setting up learning clubs, using knowledge mapping software and video conferencing facilities to capture and communicate knowledge differently are all examples of how the learner is empowered to make the best sense of open educational resources, when they don’t have the support of a classroom setting. We have seen some people remix – translations for example – but there are cultural and technical hurdles to jump before the use and publication of OER becomes commonplace. Too many to go into here but our research is openly published for anyone who is interested in the detail:

  11. Stian Haklev says:

    Important questions worth asking. I think there are multiple purposes that can be served… one thing that Mike Caulfield pointed out with MIT OCW is the “transparency” aspect – open your windows and let us see in. I think this only works if the cost to producing OER is very low, which could work with the use of students (as the dScribes project), or with integrating it into the publishing workflow – and of course, there’s always copyright issues to external materials, etc.

    In a recent presentation, I talked about intentional and accidental OER. Intentional is stuff that was produced for the purpose of teaching (even though it might be remixed etc), whereas accidental OER is all the stuff out there that we can contextualize… whether it’s television ads from the 1950’s, that can be wonderful visual aids in a class about women studies, etc.

    My research is actually about the Chinese OpenCourseWare project, which is a huge state-funded project to produce Chinese OCW, currently involving 650 universities. I gave an initial presentation about this project here: . This summer, I am in China to do interview policy makers and institutions/professors about their involvement with this project, and one of the key questions is exactly: Why are you doing this? What is the purpose (from the initial lit review it turns out that their purpose might be quite different from what we assume).

    And yes, there are two large-scale projects to translate OCW into Chinese, one based in Taiwan (MyOOPS), and one in China (CORE).

  12. [...] 15, 2009 · No Comments George Siemans has a blog post on “Cute Kitten Syndrome” as it applies to OER. Siemans argues that OER can sometimes [...]

  13. Scott Leslie says:

    Hey George, not sure I agree with this post, but also pretty sure I don’t particularly want to get into it in your blog comments, as I feel like we are fundamentally “on the same team” and likely won’t do the discussion the justice it deserves. Instead, why not join us (and a whole host of others working on these issues) at the Open Ed conference in Vancouver this August ( and see if we maybe can’t find some ways to turn these critiques into new ways of doing open education instead? Hope we’ll see you there, cheers, Scott

    • admin says:

      Thx for the comments Scott…I’ll try to make it out to the conference – it’s shaping up to be an important event!


  14. Tom Carey says:

    Re the difference between Open Content and Open Educational Resources: we might want to think about OER as Open Content + some representation of the pedagogical content knowledge or design rationale behind the content. That way, learners or instructors seeking to use or adapt the OER has some starting point for deciding how likely it is to work in their context. If anyone is interested in pursuing this notion of the contextual nature of designs for learning, I would recommend Mike Loverude’s reflections on his attempts to apply MIT OCW in the context of a quite different university:

    Loverude, Michael, Measuring the effectiveness of research-based curriculum at a university serving a diverse student population Physics Education Research Conference – AIP Conference Proceedings 9/9/2004, 2003 Volume:720 pp. 7-10.


  15. [...] a Marx. Russell (or more broadly, philosophy) needs a Wittgenstein. OERs currently suffer from cute kitten syndrome – it seems almost unethical to have a negative stance. Scott Leslie has captured a few existing [...]