Emerging OER research discipline

primordial soup
The Primordial soup of OER…

One of the things I’ve become increasingly interested in is how the OER discipline emerges. Having lived through it, you get to see the field evolve. I’m not sure it counts as a field, subject, discipline, or whatever. Is it part of a new open education discipline? Is there a unifying field at all? These are general questions I have, but one I was also interested in, was what themes have emerged in research over the years?

I set out to have a look at this, by examining publications in OER Knowledge Cloud from 2001. I did a content analysis of abstracts from 2007 (chosen because it was the first year with a decent number of publications) and 2015 (the most recent full year). It’s not the most rigorous piece of research, but it does get at the emerging themes I think.

In 2007 the themes (and no papers) were:

  • Project case study (6)
  • Technical (6)
  • OER as subject (11)
  • Research with impact data (3)

In 2015 the themes I found were as follows (with number of papers):

  • Project case study (8)
  • Technical (7)
  • OER as subject (18)
  • Research with impact data (7)
  • Policy (15)
  • Practitioner (11)
  • OER in Developing Nations (2)
  • MOOCs (36)
  • Pedagogy (9)
  • Open data/practice/access (6)

The categories tell a story of how the OER field is developing. It is interesting that the four categories from 2007 are still relevant in 2015. The dominance of specific project case studies and announcements in the literature has subsided a bit. While the number of papers detailing impact research has increased, it still represents a relatively small amount overall. Emergence of robust research from the many implementation projects can be seen as one of the key elements in facilitating the movement of OER into the mainstream. This analysis suggests that while it is occurring, empirical research is still an area of the OER field that needs encouragement. OER as subject has remained a prominent category. This could be interpreted as the field being inward looking, but it highlights the early phases of a discipline that is establishing its approaches, boundaries, and potential. Constant reflection and analysis can be seen as the method through which the field differentiates
and establishes itself.

In contrast, policy related publications have grown substantially over the past few years. This indicates the maturation of OER as a practical solution, and the success of policy advocates such as Creative Commons and SPARC. Policy is regarded in these articles as a productive means of gaining uptake for OER, and thus an area worthy of resource allocation.

The use of OER by practitioners is also a reasonably large category. If this is combined with other practical focused categories such as technical and case studies then this accounts for around a quarter of the publications. The concerns of these OER practitioners might be very different from more theoretically oriented papers which can be found in the OER as subject category, or the more politically motivated policy type papers. Also, whether MOOCs should be even included in OER is a question, and a similar analysis of that as an emerging discipline could also be conducted.

Anyway, I wrote a paper about this, which is available here: Different Aspects of the Emerging OER Discipline


  1. This is very interesting. It is encouraging to see that the initial four themes are still present in 2015, even with a slight increase. I’m trying to decide upon a research for my Thesis and this has given me some ideas. I will have to consider how I could use the developing field of OER in a research paper.

    1. admin says:

      Thanks Martha – I’ve done a chapter recently which extends this a bit more, using OER as an example of a field that emerges, but pondering if there are generic aspects about the emergence of new disciplines driven by digital, networked influence. Look forward to reading about your thesis

  2. mdeimann says:

    Excellent post, Martin.
    But there might be a difference between publications on OER topics which you then classified as research and actual research. So it may be interesting to look at the research questions and how they have evolved over the years.

    Or is this involved in your approach?

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