The value of and issues surrounding Open Educational Resources

This blog post is a co-production of Ben Janssen (OpenEd Consult) and me. Nederlandse versie

Vision and policy are intended to promote the use of OER within higher education institutions and to ensure that such use becomes a standing practice. This means that the vision development process must clearly indicate the significance of OER for the institution, the instructors and students, while at the same time removing and answering – or at least reducing – the obstacles and questions that exist or are experienced regarding the adoption of OER.

In this fourth blog in our series, we will discuss the significance of OER. We will discuss the “value” of OER for higher education institutions, in the double sense of the word: as a public value that we consider so high that we believe we should organize it collectively, and as a value in a more economic sense. We will then discuss the issues surrounding OER.

Value of OER

Open Educational Resources are not an end in themselves, but can be seen as a means to other ends. Many publications address the (potential) value directly associated with the characteristics of OER: free (no-cost) access and rights to use, adapt and distribute the materials under certain conditions. This value can be formulated independently of a context. We refer to it as the generic value of OER. Derived from this, OER can also contribute to issues facing higher education. We will then refer to the derived value of OER. We will discuss these two types of value.

Generic value

The generic value of OER can be described from various perspectives. In the discussion and literature, we encounter the following perspectives.

Quality. A frequently used argument in advocacy for large-scale adoption of OER is the quality argument: adoption of OER increases the quality of education. Amongst others, the strategic agenda of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science uses this argument to underpin the policy objectives regarding OER (Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, 2019). The justification is  instructors and students will have more and, in terms of type, more varied learning materials at their disposal with OER. This makes it possible to better meet the needs of instructors and students. OER also make rich didactic forms possible that would be difficult or impossible to achieve without OER. Such didactic formats are also referred to as open pedagogy (Jacobi et al, 2019). Studies that support this quality perspective can be found on the website of the Open Education Group. Open sharing of learning resources also leads in many cases to a broader peer review process than the local quality assessment from the process models in the previous blog. This potentially leads to a higher quality of learning resources. See for example (Parker, 2012).

Efficiency. Sharing and reuse of learning resources will ultimately lead to cost savings in the development of learning resources, both institutionally and socially. (Semi-)open publication of learning resources provides a better internal picture (for example, between departments) of what learning resources are already available. The idea is that reusing learning resources will prevent the same learning materials being created in different places. That saves hours of development. Studies of reuse show that especially “expensive” learning materials (such as video) are reused, but that it is also often the idea behind shared learning materials that is reused rather than the learning materials themselves (see, for example, (Baas & Schuwer, 2020a)). This can indirectly contribute to raising the quality of education.

Socially, sharing and reuse of OER contribute to containing the public costs of education, a more even social distribution of high-quality learning resources, and to more equitable access to learning opportunities (Orr, Rimini & Van Damme, 2015; UNESCO, 2019).

OER thus help lower the financial barrier to access for students and thus contribute to greater inclusiveness. And that in turn contributes to realizing UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

Marketing and profiling. OER can function as an instrument with which an institution can reach new target groups and also propagate its social function.  Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in particular are used for this purpose. For Delft University of Technology, for example, this has led to a greater international reputation (TU Delft, 2020). For instructors, open sharing of their educational resources can also be a means of distinguishing themselves, comparable to what even seems to be the most important value for a researcher when publishing a journal paper. In addition to reaching new target groups, OER can also contribute to binding alumni to the institution in lifelong learning programmes.

(Study)benefits. Prospective students can benefit greatly from OER because they can use them to gain a detailed and realistic picture of the content and quality of education at a university and thus be better able to make the right study choice. This could reduce dropout rates in the first year. Studies (for example by the Open Education Group mentioned earlier) indicate that study benefits using OER are at least the same if not better than those using commercial materials.

Research and innovation. Publishing OER provide the opportunity to experiment with digital learning materials outside the (accredited) curriculum. Publishing a MOOC also has the potential to collect data for research, often via surveys of MOOC participants (Valkenburg, 2016). In addition, reusing OER from elsewhere can stimulate innovation within the institution. Consider, for example, the reuse of VR and AR content. Sharing and reusing educational resources in professional communities lowers the threshold for looking into each other’s institutions and learning from each other (Baas & Schuwer, 2020b).

Derived value

OER can contribute to answers and solutions for other issues for and within higher education institutions. We outline some of those issues.

Contributing to flexibilisation. In the recent strategic agenda of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (2019), (more) flexible higher education is one of the ambitions. More flexibility and customization in higher education meets an increasingly diverse student population. Publishing open online courses is a way of realizing low-threshold time- and place-independent offer for working people.

A possible implementation of flexible routes a student could take is described in four scenarios in a publication of the Flexible Education Zone of the Dutch Acceleration Plan. Scheers & Pinchetti (2020) analyze the impact of these scenarios on educational logistics. In all routes, to a greater or lesser extent, a freedom in time and often also in place is given. Availability of a greater variety of content through OER provides more opportunities to set up such routes. The My Diploma scenario, in which the idea of a predetermined educational programme is abandoned and the student assembles his/her own programme, can, in our view, hardly be achieved without OER. This could involve prior orientation to subjects or having to use educational resources for themes that do not occur in a regular programme.

Cooperation regionally and internationally. Other ambitions in the strategic agenda of the Dutch Ministry of Education are to promote regional anchoring and international cooperation and a better connection to the labour market and society. The collaboration ambition addresses, among other things, the issue of increasing work pressure among instructors and researchers. The generic value of the efficiency of OER can contribute to the realization of that ambition. Working within cross-institutional subject communities to develop OER is an excellent way of achieving this in a sustainable manner. In addition, open pedagogy, which we have listed under the generic value of the quality of OER, provides relatively simple opportunities for linking up the classroom with external parties (i.e. the professional field and educational institutions). Finally, publishing research results or learning materials about trends in society via open online courses provides opportunities for making this knowledge more accessible to a wider audience than just peers. This contributes to a better connection to the labour market and society.

Financial issue. The feature that OER are freely accessible to a learner can contribute to a reduced spending on learning materials by students. This financial perspective is the main driver of OER advocacy and adoption in the United States. Anecdotally, we have already heard noises about increasingly large groups of students in the Netherlands for whom the financial burden of studying is too high, leading to delay or dropout. Data we received from The Hague University of Applied Sciences and Saxion University of Applied Sciences show us that this was already the case before the current COVID19 crisis. The data concerned internally conducted surveys among students on use of digital learning materials. Most students still purchase the compulsory literature, but find it expensive.

However, to find out more precisely the extent to which students’ financial situation affects their purchasing behaviour for learning materials, more research is needed. Research in the US has shown that savings for students can be significant. A 2018 study in North Dakota shows that over a 3-year period, an initial investment of $110K led to savings for students of over $1M (Gallion, 2018). Several studies on the website of the Open Education Group also provide similar results.

Recent research by ResearchNed, commissioned by the Interstedelijk Studenten Overleg (Brink, van den Broek & Ramakers, 2021) (with a response of over 11,000 students), reveals that the current COVID19 crisis is causing financial concerns for 40% of students in the Netherlands. Although not further elaborated in this study, this could lead to a reinforcement of the behaviour of students to purchase learning materials late or not at all (a finding from research by ResearchNed (Janssen & Van Casteren, 2021)).

OER and public values

OER and, more generally, openness in education are closely linked to values that we as a society value so highly that we organise them at the level of society: public values (Pijpers et al, 2020; Dijck, Poell, & De Waal, 2018). To these we count the accessibility, quality and efficiency of education, but also the formative value of education (Bildung). Values also play an important role at the institutional and personal level. Think of philosophical and, in the context of this blog series, value of Bildung.

A common argument for adopting OER is that what has been paid for with public money must also be made publicly available. This idea is one of the drivers behind the movement to make research results freely available (Open Access), but it can also be applied in full to learning materials created by instructors.

However, there are more values at stake. Rob Farrow (2016) has presented a framework for thinking about the ethics of open education. Ethics is seen here as a structured reflection on the (possible) impact of certain choices or actions on values: do certain choices or actions promote the advocated values of education, or do they actually threaten them?  In an e-mail communication with us, Farrow provided an extension of that framework. According to Farrow, we can distinguish the following perspectives:

  • Consequentialist ethics. These are arguments by which one judges whether something is right or wrong based on the outcome or consequences of an action. For OER, the argument that policies that lead to increased use of OER are good policies is an example of this type.
  • Deontological ethics. These are arguments in which the moral rightness of adoption and use of OER is determined by a set of rules, rather than on the consequences of the action. The issue is whether the choice or action itself is right; the consequences of the choice or action are not considered. An example is to publish outcomes of a government-funded project under an open license because this was set as a condition.
  • Ethics of care. Here, the rightness of a choice or action is determined by the care and responsibility of individuals for others. People are always and everywhere dependent on each other, and are interconnected. It is not only rules and principles that determine the correctness of a choice or action, but also the social network and the attention to each other. An example of this approach is the so-called CARE framework. The purpose of that framework is “to articulate a set of shared values and a collective vision for the future of education and learning enabled by the widespread adoption and use of OER”. The framework describes rules of conduct to be followed to make adoption of OER as widespread as possible (such as the premise that OER can be published and used outside the course and platform in which it was created or initially published).
  • Decolonization ethics. This is understood as the dismantling of power relations and conceptions of knowledge that promote the reproduction of racial, gender and geopolitical hierarchies that have emerged in the modern/colonial world or have taken on new and more powerful forms of expression (Adam, 2020). From this ethic, creators of learning materials are encouraged to create open materials not only from rules or concern for the other, but to include in them less heard perspectives (e.g. from minorities). The fundamental adaptability of OER makes this possible.
  • Social justice. Sarah Lambert (2018) provides the following description for it: “A process and also a goal to achieve a fairer society which involves actions guided by the principles of redistributive justice, recognitive justice or representational justice. Redistributive justice is the most long-standing principle of social justice and involves allocation of material or human resources towards those who by circumstance have less (Rawls, 1971). Recognitive justice involves recognition and respect for cultural and gender difference, and representational justice involves equitable representation and political voice (Fraser, 1995)”. In (Hodgkinson-Williams and Trotter, 2018) the values of OER are formulated from this view. In addition to the economic dimension, which is extremely important for the Global South (OER reduce the cost of learning materials and therefore increase accessibility), they point to the cultural dimension (whereby, in particular, the adaptability of OER makes it possible, in the event of reuse, to adapt the learning materials to the cultural context of reuse) and the political dimension (OER ensure effective access and, supported by open educational practices, support less privileged participants).

In this section, we have indicated that the “value” of OER is closely associated to values that we as a society, as institutions, and as individuals consider so important that we make choices and take action on that basis. This list also reveals a trend whereby the openness of educational resources is partly determined by their content, whereby subjects are approached from a variety of perspectives, with attention paid to perspectives that are rarely heard or taken into account. The attached tweet about the recently held OERxDomains21 conference illustrates this trend.

When making policy decisions about OER adoption, it is wise to make the aforementioned values and ethical perspectives explicit and to take them into account in the formulation of vision and policy, in addition to the arguments of affordability, efficiency, quality, and accessibility. What values are promoted and/or threatened by adoption? An ethical reflection on that question helps to guide the policy for adopting OER.

Perhaps that reflection will lead to adjustments, which in turn will prompt reflection. In the publication “Weighing Values. An ethical perspective on digitisation in education” (in Dutch) (Pijpers et al, 2020) presented a “steering model for valuable digitalisation” that can be very useful for helping to guide and steer the process of adopting OER and on the basis of values and ethics.

Issues surrounding OER

Much research has been done into factors that prevent large-scale adoption of OER. A good overview of these factors is provided in various UNESCO documents that ultimately led to the OER Recommendation in 2019 (see for example (COL, 2017)). Studies in the context of higher education in the Netherlands arrive at the same lists of factors (Baas, Admiraal & Van den Berg, 2019; Schuwer & Janssen, 2018; Schophuizen et al, 2017). Various conversations we had, for example in the context of the Acceleration Plan, with administrators, faculty, and support staff, confirm that the issues mentioned in the literature are mostly also experienced in the Netherlands and indicate that these issues are present both at the individual level of faculty and staff and at the level of a department for institution (administrators). An overview:

Lecturers:

  • Lack of time
  • Lack of clarity regarding the added value of OER (what’s in it for me)
  • No perceived recognition and appreciation for sharing OER
  • Insufficient skills regarding the findability of OER, copyright issues, and the possibilities for using them
  • Lack of clarity about quality of both retrieved OER and the learning resources to be shared
  • Insufficient perceived support in the areas of educational technology, ICT, and copyright.
  • No overall solution. Commercial learning resources are often accompanied by test banks, slides, and other supplementary material. OER often lack an overall solution of this kind.

Institutions:

  • No control over guaranteeing the quality of learning resources published under the institution’s banner
  • Uncertainty regarding the added value of OER within the context of the institution
  • Lack of clarity on how to encourage instructors to adopt OER within their teaching. Support and clarity appear to be necessary but not sufficient conditions. How do you address sentiments such as “not invented here”, “my content is king”, or “I created it in my own time so the institution does not own it”?
  • Lack of clarity on how adoption of OER can be made sustainable (not dependent on one-off project subsidies).

In addition to the observation that there appears to be very little sustainability within professional communities of practice (CoP) regarding OER, little is known about the issues within a CoP regarding the sharing and reuse of OER. A study (still in progress) of this subject at the cross-institutional professional community for the Dutch Bachelor of Nursing shows that the issues concerned are largely the same as those mentioned above for instructors.

In the next blog, we will elaborate on how to arrive at vision and policy at the institutional level, taking into account the value of and issues surrounding OER.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the following people for the information they sent us on request: Marjon Baas, Tecla ten Berge, Rob Farrow and Willem van Valkenburg.

References

Adam, T. (2020). Between Social Justice and Decolonisation: Exploring South African MOOC Designers’ Conceptualisations and Approaches to Addressing Injustices. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2020(1), p.7. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/jime.557

Baas, M., Admiraal, W., & Van den Berg, E. (2019). Teachers’ Adoption of Open Educational Resources in Higher Education. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2019(1): 9, pp. 1-11. DOI: 10.5334/jime.510

Baas, M., & Schuwer, R. (2020a). What About Reuse? A Study on the Use of Open Educational Resources in Dutch Higher Education. Open Praxis12(4), 527-540. https://dx.doi.org/10.5944/openpraxis.12.4.1139

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This blog is contribution 4 in a series entitled A principled, pragmatic view of institutional OER policy. Previous contributions:

To be published:

  • The need for a vision and policy regarding OER at both institutional and community of practice level
Posted in Open Educational Resources and tagged , , , .

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