OER | Viewpoint

Ideas and the Public Space

The emergence of open educational resources and the implications for learning

Who owns ideas? Is it actually possible to own ideas? These questions have long been settled by academia for the most part: Ideas are public, should be shared, should be worked, and ultimately should be used well to modify and change behavior or increase knowledge in some significant manner. With the buying and selling of education, however, ideas have somehow become owned. They've become the property of institutions and individuals. In the proices, the ideas sometimes become formulated as content or course material and, when tied directly to specific course titles and numbers, are associated with that course and owned by whoever "developed" the content or teaches the content.

New technology, however, has challenged much of what we have come to understand as regular practice in education. Not only are there changes in methods and deliveries,but there are changes in access and ownership as well. Once again, we have the potential of sharing, working, and using ideas well. Only now, we can share more widely and benefit more richly owing to the wider network of the Internet. This can considerably enrich content and the learning experience for everyone.

The concept of sharing ideas to grow knowledge is not new to education. What is new is how large these communities of learners can now be and that so many can participate regardless of space or time.

Social constructivists have long espoused the benefits of social learning, and cognitive psychologists and other researchers have told us for quite a while that ideas must be worked before they become useful in learning (Vanderbilt Learning Group, 1990s). Others (Scardamelia & Bereiter, 2002) have shown through research that knowledge-building must be an intentional process and that ideas must be worked and applied before new knowledge can be achieved.

More currently, research (Stahl, Koschmann, and Suthers, 2006) has shown that learning is enriched through collaboration and group participation, particularly since the era of computer-supported collaboration has emerged. My own experience with Internet technology is that its immediacy and potential for self-authorship has positioned the central educational ideas of participation (active learning) and idea sharing even more firmly as possibilities in learning.

The evolution of distance learning, shared learning objects, online videos and podcasts, together with the growth of social media tools means that these well accepted notions of shared knowledge can again take place and now, anywhere and anytime. The idea that these should be "freely shared" (rather than bought) is also a wonderful open educational concept. We have become more used to a business model of education that is about profit and loss rather than increasing knowledge and learning. New technology allows us to "return to our roots," so to speak, and regain the central tenet of the learning process: What is shared grows.

Open Educational Resources (OERs)
The Hewlett Foundation offers the following definition for OERs:

Open Educational Resources (OER) are high-quality, openly licensed, online educational materials that offer an extraordinary opportunity for people everywhere to share, use, and reuse knowledge. They also demonstrate great potential as a mechanism for instructional innovation as networks of teachers and learners share best practices.

The foundation describes these resources as amazing opportunities for students everywhere to learn. They post pictures for students using their resources in countries in Africa, for example. Their resources include tutorials and learning materials freely accessible to anyone, anywhere. The foundation invites participation from academia in general.

OER Commons argues that "learning is sharing" and describes OER as "free-to-use teaching and learning content from around the world." OER Commons' site site provides free access to lesson content, learning activity content and ideas, and assessment methods and activities. The usefulness of this content is that it is provided not by content developers or authors but by practitioners that actually are learning and continue to learn their craft of teaching. On the front page, users are directed by educational level and subject area to expedite their search.

Similarly, Curriki.org provides open access for K-12 teachers to lesson materials, connections with active teachers, interactive resources for students and all for a membership and donation. Again, the idea is that of an active professional community of learners and teachers sharing resources and ideas that will benefit educational participants in general. Interestingly, this site also promotes resources for homeschoolers, which widens the community even further.

Pros and Cons
In general, ease of access and use are the key benefits of open resources. Students an teachers can access, download, run, and apply resources and materials from these sites to augment their own learning experience. Schools can save significantly on expenditures in some situations, and students and their parents can also save money that would normally be spent on some types of materials using these free and accessible course materials and resources.

A problem with these sites is that there is really no rigorous review process for submission of material, which means that the user must use caution and intelligence in deciphering excellent material from inadequate. As in any "wiki-type" environment, quality can be an issue as everyone is invited to participate and submit. But when problems are found with some materials, the fixes to those problems can be quick, unlike traditionally published materials (textbooks and journals) as all content, of course, is digital. This improves the modification time and means that students do not have to wait long periods for next versions of the material. Additionally, there can be technology issues as not everyone has the kind of technology needed to use all the resources available. These and other ideas of the pros and cons of open resources are discussed on a University of Maryland Web page . The same Web site suggests in relation to the future of OERs and online education:

Just as television did not replace the radio, but rather complemented it, OERs will likely not completely replace textbooks, lectures, or other traditional classroom materials. However, their role in enhancing the online learning environment, allowing faculty to collaborate in new ways, and expanding access to educational materials to people worldwide, will ensure their growth and use in education, to the benefit of students and faculty alike. This can only bode well for the future of online education.

While much of the OER use and discussion concerns online learning, for obvious reasons, there is a growing interest in conventional face-to-face environments as well. There are certain challenges with this that are emerging, however.

Challenges for K-12
While the idea is open and evolves from a long tradition of shared knowledge and understanding, as we have discussed, and the technology is now so collaborative and facilitative of the process, the actual K-12 education system itself remains lock-stepped and tied to standardized testing. What this means is that we actually have a system that does not promote or support self-directed learning to develop and often stifles teachers from expanding the horizons of students too much in case standardized content is not addressed.

I have taught K-12 teachers for many years at the graduate level, and these professionals have shared how intense their frustration is with the demands of the test and most administrations that expect the test to be taught, rather than creative and innovative knowledge-building to take place. Many risk-taking and committed teachers do try to do both with their students, and those are who will, given the current makeup of open educational resources, benefit the most from OERs. My hope is that this will change and that the K-12 system will become a freer learning space.

In the meantime, for those teachers interested in supporting and participating in a free sharing OER environment, I would suggest the following as possible courses of action.

  • Participate in an OER environment as soon as possible and submit some of your own learning resources. The biggest challenge so far is that only a few teachers are involved overall. The more teachers who involve themselves in the process, the more focused and useful these resources will be for their students.
  • Encourage and design study projects with your students for which they are expected to integrate free-share materials. This will help encourage self-direction and research skills. The projects should be guided by the teacher in terms of setup and support and managed by the students individually. Students should be expected not only to find materials but also to explain what is helpful about each one to the overall learning goal of the assignment or project.
  • Create development teams with your students and co-author resources that can then be submitted to an OER environment. This will develop authoring confidence in your students and situate you as a co-participant in their learning process.
  • Set up all-school partnerships with schools in other parts of the world to exchange authentic resources and materials that will culturally and socially enrich students and academically challenge them.

Looking Forward
I do not think that OERs will disappear; however, just as they have morphed to this point, they will continue to evolve and change according to use. One of the major changes moving forward must be the increase in multi-lingual resources and the integration of translation tools to helps with understanding and use.

While we have learned how to buy and sell education, we are being reminded of the power of ideas and the importance of sharing and working those ideas in order for them to become useful. I believe that while we may have to become more sophisticated in the reach of OERs and overcome many barriers to this kind of shared space from educational systems and institutions that make much money from textbook sales, the concept of shared learning will continue. And we will be better for it.

Certainly, the technology is there to make this happen, now our accepted operational systems must change to accommodate this level of collaboration and growth.

Works Cited

Scardamalia, Marlene, and Carl Bereiter. "Knowledge Building." Encyclopedia of Education. Ed. James W. Guthrie. Vol. 4. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002.

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1999)

Stahl, G.,Koschmann, T., Suthers, D. (2006) Computer-supported collaborative learning: an historical perspective