Into the Open: Exploring the Benefits of Open Education and OER

Transcript and slides from my keynote at the Open all Ours event at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

This talk covers a broad overview of the domain of open education before going on to provide examples of how we support engagement with open education and OER at the University of Edinburgh. Hopefully this will provide inspiration by highlighting the many different ways you can integrate different aspects of open education and OER into your teaching practice.

So what is open education?

Open education is many things to many people.

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

Cape Town Declaration

The principles of the open education were outlined in the 2008 Cape Town Declaration, one of the first initiatives to lay the foundations of the “emerging open education movement”. The Declaration advocates that everyone should have the freedom to use, customize, and redistribute educational resources without constraint, in order to nourish the kind of participatory culture of learning, sharing and cooperation that rapidly changing knowledge societies need. The Cape Town Declaration is still an influential document and it was updated last year on its 10th anniversary as Capetown +10, and I can highly recommend having a look at this if you want a broad overview of the principles of open education.

Aspects of Open Education

Although there’s no one hard and fast definition of open education, one description of the open education movement that I particularly like is 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 is highly contextual and encompasses many different things. These are just some of the aspects of open education

• Open online courses
• Open pedagogy
• Open practice
• Open assessment practices
• Open textbooks
• Open licensing
• Open data
• Open Access scholarly works
• Open educational resources (OER)


Though Open Education can encompass many different things, open educational resources, or OER, are central to any understanding of this domain.

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.”

UNESCO Policy Instruments

And the reason I’ve chosen this definition is that UNESCO is one of a number of international agencies that actively supports the global adoption of open educational resources. In 2012 UNESCO released the Paris OER Declaration which encourages governments and authorities to open license educational materials produced with public funds, in order to realize substantial benefits for their citizens and maximize the impact of investment. And in 2017 UNESCO brought together 111 member states for the 2nd OER World Congress in Slovenia, the main output of which was the UNESCO Ljubljana OER Action Plan. Central to the OER Action plan is the acknowledgement of the role that OER can play in achieving United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 and support quality education that is equitable, inclusive, open and participatory.

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 means to reach SDGs. OER are the key.”

The Action Plan acknowledges that open education and OER provide a strategic opportunity to improve knowledge sharing, capacity building and universal access to quality learning and teaching resources. And, when coupled with collaborative learning, and supported by sound pedagogical practice, OER has the transformative potential to increase access to education, opening up opportunities to create and share an array of educational resources to accommodate greater diversity of educator and learner needs.

Open Education at the University of Edinburgh

At the University of Edinburgh we believe that open education and OER are strongly in line with our institutional mission to deliver impact for society, discover, develop and share knowledge, and make a significant, sustainable and socially responsible contribution to the Scotland, the UK and the world.

OER Vision

The University has a vision for OER which 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.

OER Policy

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. The fact that this policy was approved by the Learning and Teaching Committee, rather than by the Knowledge Strategy Committee is significant because it places open education and OER squarely in the domain of teaching and learning. The University’s vision for OER is very much the brain child of Melissa Highton, Assisstant Principal Online Learning and Director of Learning and Teaching Web Services. EUSA, the student union were also instrumental in encouraging the University to adopt an OER policy, and we continue to see student engagement and co-creation as being fundamental aspects of open education.

OER Service

But of course policy is nothing without support, so we also have an OER Service that provides staff and students with advice and guidance on creating and using OER and engaging with open education. We run a wide range of digital skills workshops for staff and students focused on copyright literacy, open licencing, OER and playful engagement. the OER Service places openness at the centre of the university’s strategic initiatives by embedding digital skills training and support in the institution’s strategic initiatives including lecture recording, academic blogging, VLE foundations, MOOCs and distance learning at scale, in order to build sustainability and minimise the risk of technical debt.

And we also provide a one stop shop that provides access to open educational resources produced by staff and students across the university. We don’t have a single centralized OER repository at the university, instead we encourage colleagues to share resources where they can be easily managed and found. To this end, we maintain Open.Ed accounts on a number of channels including Media Hopper Create, our media asset management platform, Flickr, Sketchfab, and TES Resources. And we aggregate a show case of resources on the Open.Ed website, which is built on the WordPress open source platform.

In addition to working closely with our students, the OER Service also hosts Open Content Creation student interns every summer, and I’ll say a little more about our interns later.

Okay so that’s the big picture vision, but what I want to do now is highlight some of the benefits of engaging with OER and Open Education, highlighted by examples of innovative open education initiatives that are going on across our university.

Access to Resources

Creating and using open educational resources is an important way to ensure longevity of access to course materials, and this can benefit staff, students, and the university itself. It’s very common to think of OER 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 across projects that created great content only for those resources to become 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 licence statement, 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 the cost and reputational risk to the university could be significant if copyright is breached. 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.

In the context of online distance learning, using open licensed resources means that students can continue to access and use these resources after they have graduated. And this is an issue that is becoming increasingly pressing as there have been a number of critical press reports recently about postgraduate students who have lost access to resources after the taught component of their courses has finished but before they have submitted all their course work.

MOOCs and Open Online Courses

Continued access to educational resources can be particularly problematic when it comes to MOOCs. Educational content often gets locked into commercial MOOC platforms, regardless of whether or not it is openly licensed, and some platforms are now time limiting access to content. Clearly this is not helpful for students and, given how costly high-quality online teaching and learning resources are to produce, it also represents a poor return on investment for the University. So one of the ways that we’re addressing this at the University of Edinburgh is by ensuring that all the content we have produced for our MOOCs is also freely available to download under open licence from the Open Media Bank channel on our media asset management platform Media Hopper Create. We now have over 500 MOOC videos which are available to re-use under Creative Commons licence, covering topics as diverse as music theory, mental health, clinical psychology, programing, the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle, astrobiology and the Scottish independence referendum. And some of these resources are now being re-used for campus based teaching.


We’re extending our commitment to providing open access to high quality online learning opportunities by launching a new programme of MicroMasters in partnership with EdX. These micro credentials are flexible, open to all, and provide a stepping stone from open to formal accreditation. Openness has informed our approach to this initiative at every step of that way: edX was chosen as a not for profit organisation built on an open source platform; the technology and policies that drive our new pedagogical approaches at scale, are open and shared; and inline our OER policy, we’re building openness into the creation of all teaching materials. Our first MicroMasters in Predictive Analytics for Business Applications was launched in September, and course materials will be released under open licence following the first run of the course.

Diversifying the Curriculum

OER can also make a significant contribution to diversifying the curriculum.

This collaborative project worked with undergraduate students, to develop a suite of resources covering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual health. Although knowledge of LGBT health and of the sensitivities needed to treat LGBT patients are valuable skills for qualifying doctors, these issues are not well-covered in the Medical curricula. Using materials from the commons, this project sought to address the lack of teaching on LGBT health 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 Creative Commons 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 OER.

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 developed by the University of Oxford and based a project from Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, 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 can engage students in the co-creation of their own learning experiences, and to my mind, this is one of the most powerful affordances of open education.

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 by other communities and organisations. Each summer the OER Service employs Open Content Creation student interns, who take the materials created by the Geoscience students, make sure everything in those resources can be released under open license and then share them on TES Resources along with Curriculum for Excellence learning objectives and outcomes, so 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.

Wikipedia in the Classroom

Another way we can create open knowledge and embed open education in the curriculum is by engaging with the world’s biggest open educational resource, Wikipedia. At Edinburgh we have our very own Wikipedian in Residence, Ewan McAndrew, who works to embed open knowledge in the curriculum, through skills training sessions, editathons, Wikipedia in the classroom initiatives and Wikidata projects, in order to increase the quantity and quality of open knowledge and enhance digital and information literacy skills for both staff and students. And one of the ways that Ewan does this is by working with academic colleagues to develop Wikipedia in the Classroom assignments. Creating Wikipedia entries enables students to demonstrate the relevance of their field of study and share their scholarship in a real-world context and at the same time, contribute to the global pool of open knowledge.

To date, 11 course programmes across the University have developed Wikipedia assignments, some of which are now in their second or third iteration, these include Translation Studies MSc, World Christianity, and the MScs in Global and Public Health.

Reproductive Biomedicine have been successfully running Wikipedia assignments as part of their honours course since 2015. As part of her assignment in 2016, honours student Aine Kavanagh created a new Wikipedia article on high-grade serous carcinoma, one of the most common forms of ovarian cancer. This article, including over sixty references and open-licensed diagrams created by Áine herself, has now been viewed over 80,000 times since it was published in September 2016, it’s hard to imagine many other student assignments having this kind of impact. Not only has Aine contributed valuable health information to the global Open Knowledge community, she has also created a resource that other students and global health experts can add to and improve over time. Creating resources that will live on on the open web, and that make a real contribution to global open knowledge, has proved to be a powerful motivator for the students taking part in these assignments.

You can find out more about our Wikimdia projects here and if you’re interested in exploring how you can engage with Wikimedia in the Classroom you can contact Wikimedia UK, the UK’s national Wikimedia chapter, who employ a dedicated Scotland projects coordinator, Sara Thomas.

OER Creation Assignments

In addition to the Wikipedia in the Classroom assignments, there are also other examples of open assessment practices from around the University, including assessed blogging assignments and OER creation assignments. So for example, these resources on patient centered care and classical Japanese orthography were created by students for an assignment as part of the Digital Education module for the Postgraduate Certificate (PgCert) in Academic Practice. And OER creation assignments also form an integral part of the Digital Futures for Learning course which is part of the MSc in Digital Education. Commenting on this OER creation assignment in a recent blog post, Jen Ross who runs this course said

“Experiencing first-hand what it means to engage in open educational practice gives student an appetite to learn and think more. The creation of OERs provides a platform for students to share their learning. In this way, these assignments can have ongoing, tangible value for students and for the people who encounter their work.”

And the University has recently acknowledged the importance of open educational resources not only for excellence in student education but also for academic career progression. After undertaking a review of processes and incentives for recognition and reward in academic careers paths, a set of revised Principles and Exemplars of Excellence has been created. The Exemplars highlight the level and extent of achievement in teaching-related activities that might be used by staff seeking promotion at different grade levels. As an example of “Dissemination of excellence in student education” the Exemplars include the creation and maintenance of online materials for student education that are used beyond the University “including Open Educational Resources.”

Open Access Research

OER can also help to promote 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 public3. 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’s research outputs. All these resources are released under open licence and the videos can be downloaded for reuse from this url.

Building Community

Engaging with open education is a really effective way to build community and collegiality among your peers and students and one great way to do that is through academic blogging. Last year we set up a new centrally supported academic blogging service, which provides staff and students with a range of different blogging platforms, including a centrally supported WordPress service, to support professional development and learning, teaching and research activities. To complement the service, we provide digital skills resources and workshops, including this open licensed workshop on Blogging to Build Your Professional Profile. We have lots of examples of collaborative groups blogs across the University including The Nursing Blog where staff and students from across Nursing Studies can share their achievements, research, and work. And another nice example of community blogging is Stories from Vet School which features blogs posts written by current undergraduate veterinary medicine students. One thing both these blogs have in common is that they both carry a Creative Commons open licence, which means that the posts themselves are open educational resources that can be reused by other teachers and learners.

Engaging with content and collections

OER can also enhance 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.

And some of you may have seen recent news reports about a project that mapped the place of residence of 3,141 accused Scottish witches. Place names recorded in the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database, were uploaded into Wikidata, as linked open data and further enriched with the location of detentions, trials, place of death, etc. Student intern, Emma Carroll, worked with Wikimedian in Residence Ewan McAndrew, to Geolocate these place names and produce maps and timelines. This open data project really caught the public imagination and was reported everywhere from the Press and Journal to the New York Times, though I don’t think they’ve made it into the Stornoway gazette yet. In a Scotsman interview Ewan explained

“The tragedy is that Scotland had five times the number of executions of women. The idea of being able to plot these on a map really brings it home. These places are near everyone. There does seem to be a growing movement that we need to be remembering these women, remembering what happened and understanding what happened.”


These are just some of the ways that open education and OER is being embedded and supported across the University of Edinburgh and some of the benefits that can bring. I hope this will give you some ideas as to how open education and OER can benefit your teaching practice here at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

I want to finish with a quote from one of our Open Content Curation Student interns. This is former undergraduate Physics student Martin Tasker talking about the value of open education

“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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