What Are the Benefits and Pitfalls of Open Educational Resources (OERs)?

6933249577 802506de2f z

This article is one of a series that talks about open education. Open Educational Resources (OERs) are becoming a global phenomenon. Teachers and lecturers, schools, colleges and universities are placing their learning and teaching materials on the internet for others to use. This article provides a non-committal overview of the arguments for and against the use of OER that have arisen from peer-reviewed publications.

What are the benefits of OER?

OER is the spice of life! OER can come in all shapes and sizes or "granularity". An OER can be an individual item such as a photograph available through Flickr, a diagram, a slide presentation, or can be a series of items packaged up into an entire learning unit or course such as those available through OpenCourseWare. Benefit? Plenty of choice for users to find the items they want, whether it is a student user looking for a course or an academic looking for a photograph and wanting to join the open education movement.

Stop recreating the wheel! With budgets being squeezed for education globally, such as the change to higher education looming in the UK, OER offers a wonderful opportunity for institutions to stop duplicating teaching, learning and assessment materials and to start sharing. Benefits? Save time and money in the long run, although investment of both would be required initially to develop and release OER, and to reuse them in a new teaching context.

Be inspired! Using resources developed around the world will inspire and provide new ideas on how to design effective educational strategies and provide a rich source of analogies and case studies. Benefit? Teachers and academics would become more innovative in their practice, and pupils and students benefit from a more inspiring learning experience.

Join a global network! Many OER projects, for example the UK Higher Education Academy subject centre for History's HumBox, have produced OER repositories which offer users the opportunity to network and discuss resources. The SCOOTER project run by De Montfort University in Leicester, UK, has just set up a forum and communicates using Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Benefit? Dialogue and building communities will improve educational standards and create new collaborations and opportunities for education and research.

Marketing potential. OERs can be linked to individuals and institutions if so desired, and this is facilitated by choosing an appropriate Open Licence like Creative Commons in which the author or institution must be given full attribution and acknowledgement. Branding can be placed on the OER although should not restrict the ability to reuse of the material and contradict the open philosophy. UK universities that have released OER have noted that prospective students often have viewed the materials prior to applying for courses. Benefit? OER could provide institutions with opportunities to influence decision-making of potential applicants, and provide prospective students with a more informed choice of the courses which they will be studying.

What are the pitfalls associated with OER?

OER doesn't save time! Downloading a resource, repurposing it and redeploying it in a new education setting does take time, so whilst saving time is a clear longer term benefit, using some forms of OER will require an initial investment of time. OER might need to be adapted for a new context or to contain new relevant examples. Pitfalls? Using OER might take more time if the perfect resource cannot be found, but using OER will be somewhat quicker than starting from scratch.

OER cost money to produce. OER might be free to use or download via the internet, but they are not free to produce and have associated technical and personnel costs. Institutions need to explore economic models for the development and release of OER, but in the longer run when the culture of sharing and borrowing increases, institutions should start to gain in this area. Pitfalls? OER cost money in the short-term to release, but will save money in the long run.

OER will lose their marketing power. As institutions engage in open education and release materials, OERs will float around in a melting pot on the web and there is a concern that institutions will lose their identity and uniqueness. As education markets become more competitive, the inclination to release OER might start to decline. However it is important to note that the OER is not the finished building - they are the building blocks from which the building is constructed. The uniqueness and selling point of an institution arises from the academic experience created by the place and the people within it. Pitfall? In the long run, when the market is saturated with OER it may no longer be an effective marketing tool, so institutions need to develop new competitive advantages.

Some staff end up doing all the work. Another concern is that a few individuals and institutions will contribute most to the OER movement not get the credit for producing the resources. Institutions are addressing how to reward and recognise individual efforts, and many are going through cultural transformations to create environments where borrowing and sharing is commonplace and respected. The global OER community needs to pledge that OERs are always clearly attributed to the originator. Pitfall? Despite the obvious concern that individuals or institutions might over-contribution, this has not deterred the OER movement in growing.

It is difficult to find OER. The OER movement has the danger of suffering from its success. As more OER are released, and more repositories and websites appear, finding OER becomes an increasing challenge. The OER community is therefore exploring the use of TAGS and meta-data to enhance the discoverability of material, and large repositories on all continents seem to be forming the hubs for search activity, for example Open Africa, OpenCourseWare and Merlot in the US and JorumOpen in the UK. Pitfall? OER is hard to find and users should focus their searching on the larger repositories whilst the OER community continues to work to make their resources discoverable.

Quality and currency. Another genuine concern is how to ensure OERs are good quality and up to date? OER that was released almost a decade ago has inevitably become outdated, particularly for fast-moving subjects such as science and medicine. Authors need to make the dates and versions clear on their resources. The community is much more aware now of how to make OER reusable - by producing smaller units and providing all the individual assets so resources can be updated and rebuilt. Quality is more difficult to address and quality control needs to be built into OER processes, and communities need to find means of creating dialogue to ensure standards are maintained. Pitfall? How to maintain quality and currency are challenges not so easily solved by the OER community.

Accessibility and interoperability. It is a conundrum as to what form an OER should take. With different internet connections and levels of accessibility across the globe, developers should follow guidance from professional associations in terms of maximising the accessibility of their resources and make them operable on as many browsers, computers and mobile devices as possible. Pitfall? Some OERs may be unusable since it is not possible to future-proof everything, but good repositories and projects should be accessible and release OERs in a range of formats, such as De Montfort University "Virtual Analytical Laboratory" (VAL) which caters for PC and mobile devices.

-Viv Rolfe (Article here)