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Open educational resources: why they matter

Paul Maharg (then University of Strathclyde) led a workshop describing and defining global initiatives to develop open educational resources (OER) and introducing Simshare, the UKCLE project collecting simulation resources for open learning.

Paul’s slides are embedded below.

The term OER was first adopted at UNESCO’s 2002 Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries, funded by the Hewlett Foundation. Open educational resources are materials and resources offered freely and openly for anyone to use and under some licenses to re-mix, improve and redistribute. They can include:

  1. Learning content – full courses, course materials, content modules, learning objects, collections and journals.
  2. Tools – software to support the creation, delivery, use and improvement of open learning content including searching and organisation of content, content and learning management systems, content development tools and online learning communities.
  3. Implementation resources – intellectual property licenses to promote open publishing of materials, design principles and localisation of content.

There is of course an alignment between the aims of the open source software movement and OER (Wikipedia entry on OER ; OECD, 2007).

High profile OER projects have included MIT’s OpenCourseWare Initiative and the Open University’s OpenLearn. There is a developing literature around these projects – see for instance Koohang & Harman (2007) and Hodgkinson-Williams & Gray (2007), and a developing strategic literature (Downes, 2007). But it could be argued that while major initiatives such as these are necessary to show the possibility, the use of and the ongoing viability of OER projects, there needs to be more of a ground up approach between staff in various institutions, and for specific pedagogic and disciplinary purposes. This is already happening in some areas of the world – see for instance the Japan OCW Consortium, but much more is needed.

Simshare, the UKCLE project funded by JISC and the Higher Education Academy, is focused on providing OER to facilitate the use of simulation and related approaches to learning. Simulation is a powerful and innovative form of teaching and learning. The benefits include situated learning, active learning, the embedding of professional work patterns and practices in academic programmes, the enhancement of professional programmes and the creation of more authentic tasks and deeper student understanding of symbolic thinking as well as of professional practice. A number of simulation techniques and engines exist that can be used in higher education (largely commercial, though there are open source versions), however the full scale development of a body of widely shareable and re-purposable educational content amongst simulation designers and users has been to date almost non-existent.

This has had serious consequences for the uptake of simulation as a form of situated learning; for whilst the power of simulation as a heuristic is widely recognised, so too is the effort required by staff to create and resource simulations. Building on the success of the SIMPLE project, and going beyond it, this project will perform a vital role in the higher education community by proving that an Academy subject centre can help its community to develop and share the resources required for the creation and use of simulations.

The project will enable a community of practice to form around simulative approaches to learning by helping staff and users to create, use, evaluate and re-purpose simulations much more effectively than would have otherwise been the case. It will also enable the nucleus of research writings around simulation to develop further.


Richard de Friend (College of Law) reports:

Although the Bar Vocational Course and the Legal Practice Course already incorporate significant elements of simulation, it has largely been Paul’s own pioneering work that has demonstrated the contribution that this kind of learning, if smartly and ambitiously designed, can make, especially to ‘vocational’ legal education.
However, to produce sophisticated (complex, multi-functional, multi-media and thus realistic) simulation of this kind, and then to deliver it it effectively, may well require a significant investment in time and IT resources, a commitment to quite radical curricular reorganisation and familiarisation with untried pedagogic methods. Consequently, there must be an appreciable risk that it will either remain at the margins, or that it will be only the largest providers with the greatest resources which will be able fully to develop and exploit it.
So, there can be little doubt that the case for Simshare is both strong and timely, and Paul sensibly took it as read for purposes of his presentation. He used this, instead, to place Simshare in the context of OER initiatives more generally. As he explained, these can give access to content and/or tools (to enable resources to be created, shared or searched), can be organised by institution (for example the OU’s Open Learn or MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW)), by discipline, or, like Simshare, with reference to a particular kind of pedagogy.
OCW is extraordinarily comprehensive. It makes accessible and, subject to a small number of restrictions, licenses for adaptation and re-use, 1,900 MIT courses. By October 2009 it had received almost 88 million visits, 800 courses had been translated, and 10 million zip and 3.7 million audio and video files had been downloaded.
These impressive (even awesome) stats aside, what makes OCW so significant is that it seems so open-handed in an era (understandably) obsessed with how to protect intellectural property in the face of an increasingly Web-enabled world.
Not surprisingly, this apparent paradox was the subject of much of the discussion which followed Paul’s presentation. It was agreed that, in the case of research intensive giants like MIT, the explanation possibly lay in the (relatively limited) value which they can derive from learning resources in themselves, as compared, for example, from the large number of gifted students and researchers they are able to recruit. In terms of its direct or opportunity costs, OCW might well, therefore, be an excellent and extremely efficient means to promote the MIT brand to potential recruits.
However, the same might not hold true for institutions with different missions or business models; nor, as one contributor from the floor emphasised, for the academics who will author learning resources. In both cases, OERs could represent the same threats as those posed for their counterparts in other sectors and media by the host of other free access facilities which are now available . If so, the long term future of OERs may depend on how successfully these (potentially) competing interests are managed.

About Paul

Paul Maharg was until February 2010 a professor of law in the Glasgow Graduate School (GGSL), University of Strathclyde, and director of the innovative Learning Technologies Development Unit at the GGSL. He has now moved to Northumbria University.

Paul was director of the JISC/UKCLE funded SIMPLE project. He is the author of Transforming legal education: learning and teaching the law in the early 21st century (2007, Ashgate), and has published widely in the fields of legal education and professional learning design. He blogs at Zeugma.

Last Modified: 9 July 2010