reflections and ideas on open and distance learning - by irwin devries

The challenge of OER

OER definitions vary greatly, but there are themes. The original UNESCO definition from 2002 (just celebrating its 10th anniversary!) includes ready access to educational resources, enabled by information and communication technologies. Other definitions emphasize other aspects such as the famous 4 Rs (reuse -redistribute-revise-remix), open licensing, and tools for interaction and collaboration. Elements can include full courses and components, textbooks, media, tests, and software as well as tools needed to access and reuse them. One proposed model supports courses delivered as a type of textbook that is based on self-study without a human instructor, with the use of automated support and feedback, quiz marking, and other bot-type support systems. When you add all these ideas together (and there are many more), the project becomes huge and can in fact overwhelm both the providing institutions and the re-using institutions.

It’s well known that there is a rising flood of openly available course material out there – the litany of providers read not be repeated here. But now the question arises: to what extent are OER (and specifically full courses) being created for the institutions’ existing learners, programs and other contexts, and alternatively how many are being developed to meet criteria for the various aspects of OER as described in some of the definitions? How open are they in the wider sense? For instance, are they accessible in their latest versions? Are the source files available? Is all the copyright information available for the resources used? Are the referenced texts open, or at least current? Are pieces of the course (e.g. forum discussion topics, quizzes, activities) freely available, not locked up in LMSs? Is the course in a transferable format, rather than trapped in presentation or PDF files, or in classroom capture videos with references such as “make sure you hand in your essays by Friday” or other highly localized references? Are source files available for media and can it be assumed that the re-users have access to the tools to revise them if necessary? Does the course avoid embedded language throughout referencing the existence of markers, instructors, and peers? Are marking grids and rubrics available? The answer is probably not – and for good reasons: it’s enough work producing courses for our own learners let alone create other versions for open provision. I’m pretty sure that very few of us can answer in the affirmative.

“Doing OER” is complex and hard work, but at the same time the concept is right and we need to keep doing it and learning and sharing as we go. Hopefully we’ll get it right, at least enough to start building new opportunities for so many learners worldwide for whom the words “open” and “education” are as far apart as the North and South poles.


  1. Gabi Witthaus

    Hi Irwin,

    This is a great summary of the complexities of “doing OER”! I think you could draw a nice continuum from relatively open on one side, to extremely open on the other, using the criteria you’ve given. And I agree that if we were to try to check the box next to all of them, we would probably be defeated before we start. There has been quite a bit of discussion about these things in UK OER gatherings, and it’s hard to get everyone’s agreement on what the absolutely essential elements of openness are. For example, there’s a lot of great stuff on iTunes U published under open licences. But are they “open” if they can only be accessed from the Apple software (even though that is freely downloadable on any computer)? Also, is it necessary (or even helpful) for authors to try to strip out all “local” references from their materials, so that they are immediately understandable by anyone and everyone? Paradoxically, the decontexutalisation of OERs may make them even more obscure to users in other contexts – not to mention very bland.

    I think ultimately “doing OERs” is a very messy business, with loads of grey areas… which is what makes it interesting 🙂


  2. Irwin DeVries

    Gabi thanks for the comments. I think the best way ahead is just to start doing it and learning from others as we go – just as you are doing in the UK!

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