The Benefits of Open Education and OER

This is a transcript of a talk I gave as part of the Open Med Project webinar series.

What is open education?

Open education is many things to many people and there’s no one hard and fast definition.

  • A practice?
  • A philosophy?
  • A movement?
  • A licensing issue?
  • A human right?
  • A buzz word?
  • A way to save money?

This is one description of the open education movement that I particularly like from the not for profit organization OER Commons…

“The worldwide OER movement is rooted in the human right to access high-quality education. The Open Education Movement is not just about cost savings and easy access to openly licensed content; it’s about participation and co-creation.”

Open education encompasses many different things. These are just some of the aspects of open education

  • Open textbooks
  • Open licensing
  • Open assessment practices
  • Open badges
  • Open online courses
  • MOOCs (debatably)
  • Open data
  • Open Access scholarly works
  • Open source software
  • Open standards
  • Open educational resources

Open educational resources (OER)

Open educational resources are central to open education. UNESCO define open educational resources as

“teaching, learning and research materials in any medium, digital or otherwise, that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.”

OER World Congress

And the reason I’ve chosen this definition is that UNESCO is one of a number of organisations that actively supports the global adoption of open educational resources and just a few weeks ago UNESCO and the Government of Slovenia hosted the second OER World Congress in Ljubljana  which brought together 550 participants, 30 government ministers, representing 111 member states.

The theme of the Congress was “OER for Inclusive and Equitable Quality Education: From Commitment to Action” and there was a strong focus on how OER can help to support United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4.

 “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”

The main output of the Congress was the UNESCO Ljubljana OER Action Plan and accompanying Ministerial Statement.  Central to the OER Action plan is the acknowledgement of the role that OER can play in supporting quality education that is equitable, inclusive, open and participatory. The Action Plan outlines 41 recommended actions to mainstream OER and to help Member States to build knowledge societies and provide quality, lifelong education.

In his summing up at the end of the congress UNESCO Assistant Director for Education Qian Tang said

“to meet the education challenges, we can’t use the traditional way. In remote and developing areas, particularly for girls and women, OER are a crucial, crucial mean to reach SDGs. OER are the key.”

Creative Commons

One of the key characteristics of open educational resources is that they are either in the public domain or they are released under an open licence and generally that means a Creative Commons licence.

However not all Creative Commons licences are equal and only resources that are licensed for adaptation and reuse can really be considered as OER.  Resources that are licensed with the “No Derivatives” licence can not strictly be regarded as OER, and there is some debate about the status of “Non Commerical” licenced resources.

At the recent OER World Congress, Creative Commons CEO Ryan Merkley emphasized that free is not the most important thing about OER, it’s the permission to modify and adapt resources that is most important, because that is what allows us to adapt educational resources to allow us to meet the specific and diverse needs of our learners.

University of Edinburgh OER Vision

At the University of Edinburgh we believe that open educational resources are strongly in line with our institutional mission to provide the highest quality learning and teaching environment for the greater wellbeing of our students, and to make a significant, sustainable and socially responsible contribution to Scotland, the UK and the world, promoting health and economic and cultural wellbeing.

Our vision for OER has three strands, building on our excellent education and research collections, traditions of the Scottish Enlightenment and the university’s civic mission.  These are:

  • For the common good – encompassing every day teaching and learning materials.
  • Edinburgh at its best – high quality resources produced by a range of projects and initiatives.
  • Edinburgh’s Treasures – content from our world class cultural heritage collections.

This vision is backed up by an OER Policy approved by our Learning and Teaching Committee, which encourages staff and students to use, create and publish OERs to enhance the quality of the student experience.  This OER Policy is itself CC licensed and is adapted from an OER Policy that has already been adopted by a number of other institutions in the UK, so please do feel free to take a look and adopt it or adapt it as you see fit.

And we also have an OER Service which provides staff and students with advice and guidance on creating and using OER, and which provides a one stop shop where you can access open educational resources produced by staff and students across the university.  Because we believe its crucially important to back up our policy and vision with support.

I want to focus now on some of the benefits of OER and I’m going to highlight these benefits with case studies from the University of Edinburgh.

OER ensures longevity of access to resources

So firstly open licences help to ensure longevity of access to educational resources.  It’s very common to think of open licensed resources as primarily being of benefit to those outwith the institution, however open licenses also help to ensure that we can continue to use and reuse the resources that we ourselves have created.  I’m sure you’ll all have come projects that created content only for those resources to be come inaccessible once the project ends or great teaching and learning materials belonging to a colleague who has subsequently retired or moved on, and nobody quite knows if they can still be used or not. Unless teaching and learning resources carry a clear and unambiguous open licence, it is difficult to know whether and in what context they can be reused.  This is a phenomenon that my colleague Melissa Highton has referred to as copyright debt.  If you don’t get the licensing right first time round it will cost you to fix it further down the line.  And this is one of the best strategic reasons for investing in open educational resources at the institutional level. We need to ensure that we have the right use, adapt, and reuse, the educational resources we have invested in.

Continued access to educational resources can be particularly problematic when it comes to MOOCs.  MOOC content often gets locked into commercial platforms, regardless of whether or not it is openly licensed, and some platforms are now time limiting access to content.  So at the University of Edinburgh we are ensuring that all the content we have produced for our MOOCs is also freely available under open licence to download from our Open Media Bank on our Media Hopper platform.

OER can diversify the curriculum

OER can also make a significant contribution to diversifying the curriculum.  So for example A number of studies have shown that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual health is not well-covered in Medical curricula, however knowledge of LGBT health and of the sensitivities needed to treat LGBT patients are valuable skills for qualifying doctors.

Using materials from the commons, a project at the University of Edinburgh sought to address the lack of teaching on LGBT health within the curriculum through OER.  The project remixed and repurposed resources originally created by Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio, and then contributed these resources back to the commons as CC BY licensed OER.  New open resources including digital stories recorded from patient interviews and resources for Secondary School children of all ages were also created and released as CC BY OER.

OER improves digital skills

OER can also help to improve digital skills for both staff and students. 23 Things for Digital Knowledge is an award winning, open online course run by my colleague Stephanie Farley. 23 Things, was adapted from an open course originally developed by the University of Oxford, and it is designed to encourage digital literacy by exposing learners to a wide range of digital tools for personal and professional development. Learners spend a little time each week, building up and expanding their digital skills and are encouraged to share their experiences with others.  All course content and materials are licensed under a CC BY licence and the University actively encourages others to take and adapt the course. The course has already been used by many individuals and organisations outwith Edinburgh and it has recently been adapted for use by the Scottish Social Services Council as 23 digital capabilities to support practice and learning in social services.

OER engages students in co-creation

OER can also engage students in the co-creation of their own learning resources. One initiative that does this is the School of Geosciences Outreach and Engagement course. Over two semesters, students undertake an outreach project that communicates an element of GeoSciences outside the university community. Students have the opportunity to work with schools, museums, outdoor centres and community groups to create a wide range of resources for science engagement including  classroom teaching materials, leaflets, websites, and smartphone/tablet applications.  Students gain experience of science outreach, public engagement, teaching and learning, and knowledge transfer while working in new and challenging environments and developing a range of transferable skills that enhance their employability.

A key element of the Geosciences Outreach and Engagement Course is to develop resources with a legacy that can be reused and disseminated for use by other communities and organisations.  And the University is now taking this one step further by repurposing some of these materials to create open educational resources. For the last two years we have recruited Open Content Creation student interns, to take the materials created by the Geoscience students, make sure everything in those resources could be released under open license and then share them in places where they could be found and reused by other teachers and learners.

For example this resource on sea level variation is designed for students learning Geography at third and fourth level of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence and it can be downloaded under a CC BY Share alike license from Open.Ed and TES.

OER promotes engagement with the outputs of open research

Open access makes research outputs freely accessible to all. It allows research to be disseminated quickly and widely, the research process to operate more efficiently, and has the potential to increase use and understanding of research by business, government, charities and the wider public.  However it is not always easy for those outwith academia to know how to access these outputs, even though they are freely and openly available.

In order to address this issue and to foster technology transfer and innovation, we’ve created a series of open educational resources in the form of video interviews, case studies and learning materials called Innovating with Open Knowledge.  These resources are aimed at creative individuals, private researchers, entrepreneurs and small to medium enterprises to provide guidance on how to find and access the open outputs of Higher Education.  The resources focus on developing digital and data literacy skills and search strategies and feature case study interviews with creative individuals and entrepreneurs engaging with the University of Edinburgh’s world class research outputs.

Innovating with Open Knowledge demonstrates how to find and use Open Access scholarly works, open research data, archival image collections, maker spaces and open source software, and features interviews about how these resources can be used to support creative writing, visual research, citizen science, community engagement, drug discovery and open architecture.  All these resources are released under open licence and the videos can be downloaded for reuse from this url.

OER contributes to the development of open knowledge

OER can contribute to the development of open knowledge and one great way to do this is to engage with the worlds biggest open educational resource, Wikipedia.  Wikipedia is a valuable learning tool that can be used to develop a wide range of digital and information literacy skills at all levels across the curriculum however it is not without bias.  The coverage of subject matter on Wikipedia is neither uniform nor balanced and many topics and areas are underrepresented, particularly those relating to women.

At the University of Edinburgh we have employed a Wikimedian in Residence whose job it is to embed open knowledge in the curriculum, through skills training sessions and editathons, to increase the quantity and quality of open knowledge and enhance digital literacy. This project is also helping to improve the coverage and esteem of Wikipedia articles about women in science, art and technology, and redress the gender imbalance of contributors by encouraging more women to become Wikimedia editors.  And I’m delighted to say that over that last year 65% of participants at our editathons were women.

 OER enhances engagement with content and collections

This rather obscure 17th century map of Iceland was digitized by the University’s Centre for Research Collections and because it was released under open licence, one of our colleagues was able to add it to the Wikipedia page about Iceland.  Now Iceland’s Wikipedia page normally gets about 15,000 hits a day, however in June 2016 Iceland’s page got over 300,000 hits in a single day.  That was the day that Iceland put England out of the Euro 2016 championship qualifiers, so 300,000 people saw our obscure 17th century map because of a game of football.  This story was subsequently picked up by Creative Commons who included a little feature on the map in their 2016 State of the Commons report, resulting in further engagement with this historical gem.

Open Scotland

We believe that there are many benefits to using and sharing open educational resources within Higher Education and beyond, and this is one of the reasons that the University of Edinburgh support Open Scotland, a cross sector initiative that aims to raise awareness of open education, encourage the sharing of open educational resources, and explore the potential of open policy and practice to benefit all sectors of Scottish education.

Open Scotland has developed the Scottish Open Education Declaration which, in line with the UNESCO OER Action Plan, calls for all publicly funded educational resources to be made available under open licence.  I know colleagues in Morocco are already in the process of adopting a version of this Declaration and I would strongly urge you to follow their example.

Conclusion

I just want to finish up with a quote from one of our Open Content Interns that eloquently sums up the real value of OER. This is from Martin Tasker, an undergraduate Physics student who worked with us last summer and in a blog post titled “A Student Perspective on OER” he wrote:

“Open education has played such an integral part of my life so far, and has given me access to knowledge that would otherwise have been totally inaccessible to me. It has genuinely changed my life, and likely the lives of many others. This freedom of knowledge can allow us to tear down the barriers that hold people back from getting a world class education – be those barriers class, gender or race. Open education is the future, and I am both proud of my university for embracing it, and glad that I can contribute even in a small way. Because every resource we release could be a life changed. And that makes it all worth it.”

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