Open content

Big OER and Little OER


I am in Eskisehir, Turkey currently for the final meeting of the Edushare project. This has partners from Nepal, Bhutan, Cambodia and the Maldives. Two weeks ago I was in Jamaica for a meeting of the Sidecap project, which has partners from Mauritius, Fiji and the West Indies. I took over both of these projects when Robin Mason sadly passed away earlier this year. They both came from EU funding and are both looking at the use of OERs in higher education in what we might call 'developing' (though I'm not keen on the term) countries.

Several things have struck me during these meetings, which I thought I'd share. Many of these are blindingly obvious, but it's when you put them together that the case for OERs becomes strong.

  1. The context within which higher education operates varies enormously. Many of these universities are operating across huge geographical areas for instance, but also factors such as internet access will vary from 7% of the population in one place to nearly 80% elsewhere. The demographics will vary, and when you add in political factors such as different governments or regions attitude towards education, it becomes very difficult to make many of the general assumptions we use in higher ed.
  2. The financial crisis has hit education very hard in many of these countries. One person told me their funding was 40% of what they had last year. That doesn't leave much room for experimentation with curriculum or technology.
  3. The issue of sustaining and developing local communities is becoming increasingly important. If you don't want all your smart people to disappear to get educated elsewhere, then you have to offer them decent education in their home location. Many people would like to stay, but feel they can't and thus the brain drain continues meaning the poorer areas lose the very people who might help them improve.

These three factors have made me rethink my feelings towards OERs. Obviously I was all for OERs from an idealistic perspective, but I was beginning to wonder if the institutional approach of MIT, the OU, etc wasn't a bit, well, learning objects. It is well-intentioned, it is professional, it is academic. It's also a bit dull, not very reusable, doesn't lend itself well to all the tools we like, and is a bit worthy. In short, it wasn't the sort of reusable 'learning' (or any) resource I tend to use every day – such as YouTube, Flickr, Slideshare, etc.

But, I've come to appreciate the value of university generated OERs, because they help address the three factors I set out above and also because they have one crucial advantage over the sort of user-generated, web 2.0 resource listed previously, namely status. Status is important in many countries (all?) and many partners reported resistance to the use of OERs because the academics felt that using a YouTube clip (or whatever) wouldn't be seen as proper academic material (by themselves, colleagues or students). But using OERs from internationally recognised universities where the status is not in doubt removes some of this anxiety. It also legitimises the concept of reuse and raises the status of 'free stuff'. More than one partner commented that there was a perception that if content was free, it couldn't be of good quality.

So, given the three factors outlined above it may be that OERs are the only way many countries can realise a sustainable higher education system that meets the needs of their population. And given the status issue, university-generated OERs are a major part in this.

In a response to my pedagogy of abundance talk Michelle Hoyle raised the issue about the cost of OERs, and used the term 'big and little OERs', which I think is a useful distinction (or you might prefer to think of them as top-down and bottom-up OERs).

Big OERs are institutionally generated ones that come through projects such as openlearn. Advantages = high reputation, good teaching quality, little reversioning required, easily located. Disadvantages = expensive, often not web native, reuse limited

Little OERs are the individually produced, low cost resources that those of us who mess about with blogs like to produce. Advantages = cheap, web (2) native, easily remixed and reused. Disadvantages = lowish production quality, reputation can be more difficult to ascertain, more difficult to locate.

A mixture of the two then is complementary and viable I would argue.


  • Chris Lott

    “Little OER” is at the heart of my contention that we need to stop wasting so much time worrying about content. Content is a solved problem, a non-issue that takes care of itself if we change the manner of teaching and learning to one that defaults to openness.
    Big OER isn’t a bad thing, but it is going to remain mired down with the burden of sustainability and the lack of easily quantifiable return-on-investment for bean counters and budget hacks…

  • mweller

    @Chris – yeah I’m with you, I’m a little OER guy. But I have come to appreciate the role Big OER plays in the mix – it’s not for me, but I think it is important, even if it is only to pave the way for the acceptance of little OER. Part of that changing the manner of teaching and learning might be through the use of big OER.

  • Dkernohan

    What about “middle OER” – individually led and managed but with the explicit support of an institution or other academic body? The original UKOER thesis was to support institutions in changing their processes and policies to “allow” the release of OER…

  • CogDog

    Hmmmm. Might make for a good Grimm fairy tale. Poppa OER says, “This course is too hard for me” Momma OER says “This course is too easy for me” Baby OER says, “No one is looking at meeeeeee”
    Seems like a rather artificial distinction to me. Lots of crappy and stellar ones of all sizes.
    I have some that are breadbox sized, fridge sized, house sized, penny sized…
    The status is a temp thing for now- I forsee in the future perhaps some other factor of reputation. It also says a lot of old mind set to trust brand names.

  • Martin

    @Dkemohan – yes I think that’s a good point, and is probably the way to go, a meeting of the top-down, bottom-up approach.
    @Alan – I don’t feel it is artificial, at this point in time anyway, OERs do tend to fall into these categories in terms of how they are produced anyway. HE institutions are implementing big OER projects to release their traditional material, whereas individual academics are creating new types of content. So there are different approaches to how we produce and release content, but the types of content we get from these approaches are different also (compare MIT Opencourseware/OU openlearn content with say my YouTube or SLideshare content – these are different types of things).
    I think as you say, it may be a temporary thing, but the institutional OER may well be the route through which a more varied mix becomes accepted where status is highly regarded.

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