The Obstacles to OER

As part of the research I’ve been doing on open educational resources — their creation and adoption — I’ve been talking to a wide variety of educators about their own OER usage. It’s hardly been a formal survey, but rather a Google survey and a handful of casual conversations. But the results are interesting nonetheless, particularly in highlighting why people do not use OER when — so the argument goes — free and openly licensed content is better.

What stands in the way of using OER? Several things stand out:

Discoverability

(I have written about this before but) Despite there being a great number of repositories and portals for openly licensed educational content, finding the right content is still a challenge, say almost every educator I talked to. (Note: I will follow up with students' responses to OER in a separate post although I think their concerns are similar in many interesting ways.)

But having looked at what's available, I do wonder how much of discoverability is a problem and how much there is the perception of a problem. In other words, how much of "I can't find what I'm looking for" is code "proprietary content is right in front of me."

Supplementary Materials

This wasn’t the most popular or frequent response to my “survey” of educators, but I think it may well be the most important. When I asked about OER usage, many responded with an emphasis on textbooks — or some sort of openly licensed would-be-sorta-like-a-textbook material. So there’s clearly a perception that OER equals open textbooks.

But the problem, according to many teachers, isn’t just the reading assignments they give their students (open or not), but all the other pieces that go along with that: the handouts, worksheets, lesson plans, videos, assignments, and tests. And while there is a growing bank of these sorts of supplementary materials (again, see: Discoverability), the proprietary publishers have done a much more skillful job of packaging all the pieces that teachers (feel like they) need.

Oh, and it doesn’t hurt either that these publishers help dictate the standardized tests . “I worry that if I use OER it won’t have the materials my students need for their exams.”

Licensing Confusion

This is the great irony, I think, of OER. Again and again, I heard from educators that the copyright is confusing (yes it is) and that Creative Commons licenses are little better (they’re still confusing, that is) — and so they found it easier to use proprietary content (that could be linked to the two factors above, of course) because they knew “the rules” and the risks of violating them.

Whither the Remix?

I went into this research with some biases against the PDF (seriously, don't get me started) and the ways in which that file format makes it difficult to copy, paste, and remix. But problems with the technology and the ways in which it prevented remixing just weren't an issue for that many people I talked to. Yes, they wanted resources to be accessible across platforms and not stuck in a file format that made it impossible to share between, say, Apple or Windows operating systems. But the reasoning for turning to OER was access and cost (i.e. free0 and not what else you can do with openly licensed material. (I do wonder how much this is connected to confusion over licensing, as well as to a sense that educational content -- readings, lessons, tests -- come pre-packaged in unchangeable ways.)

Disclosure: This research is being sponsored by FunnyMonkey, a Drupal-based education development shop in Portland, Oregon.

Image credits: Ivy Dawned



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