Devolved Management of OER in Irish Higher Education?

I sometimes get asked for asked for advice by people who are thinking of setting up national infrastructure for OER based on institutional open access research repositories or similar, often with the rationale that doing such would mirror what has worked for open access research papers and cultural heritage. My advice is to think hard about whether it is appropriate to treat OER in the same way as these other types of resource. This week I read a paper, Towards a Devolved Model of Management of OER? The Case of the Irish Higher Education Sectorby  Angelica Risquez, Claire McAvinia, Yvonne Desmond, Catherine Bruen, Deirdre Ryan, and Ann Coughlan which provides important evidence and analysis on this topic.

Photograph of Mon Repose
M_n Rep_se, Corfu, by Marc Ryckaert via Wikimedia Commons CC:BY

The state of the nations

For some years Ireland had a National Digital Learning Resources (NDLR) service. As the Risquez et al report

“This centralised ecosystem provided a platform for creating OER, produced from funded digital projects available nationally and internationally, while harvesting and disseminating OER from other national repositories.[…] However, the centralised model also faced substantial financial and funding challenges: the network of coordinators was resource-intensive; the project remained reliant on recurrent strategic funding, which came under threat following the unprecedented global economic downturn; and it required significant recurring technical investment. Direct financial support for the NDLR was discontinued in 2012 in the middle of severe financial cutbacks across the HEI sector.

This mirrors almost exactly what happened in the UK with UKOER and Jorum. The paper sets out to examine

the potential for using existing institutional research repository infrastructure  for the purpose of ingesting, managing, and discovering OER produced by academics. This approach would imply a move from previous strategy around a centralised repository at the national level to a devolved model that relies on institutional research repositories.

It concludes

research repositories could potentially also serve as repositories of teaching materials, fostering parity of esteem between teaching and research. However, a range of important challenges were present, and alternative solutions emerged

Reading in to the paper, that ‘however’ is a big one, it’s like my “think hard” advice and here it is supported by thorough research and analysis.

The authors rightly start by emphasising what people like Catherine Cronin have said about the  need to have “policies in place at the institutional and national level to promote the curation and dissemination of OER beyond the individual responsibility of academics” My empahsis on national, because when the strains placed on the centralised national infrastucture in for OER in Ireland is contrasted with organic sustained growth of institutional repositories in the UK and elsewhere for OA research material,  I would argue that much of what is called organic sustained growth in OA research repositories is the result of open access mandates from funders. This is coupled with commitment from many researchers involved in open science (and other reseach areas, but there are some more complex arguments there that I can’t speak to). The personal commitment for OER is there. When I tweeted about this paper Viv Rolfe replied that her UKOER blogs are ten years old and she has supported their upkeep personally; I can easily think of a dozen or more similar cases– and ALT’s OER conference is driven by people who attend as self-funded delegates. Indeed the existance of the the OER conference depends on the community-based commitment of ALT. So I was really pleased that resourcing and recognition are rightly highlighted in the paper as important issues to address properly. OER are difficult, complex beasts, the people who produce them and care for them should be looked after. This also links to recognition of teaching in Higher Education. [Aside: I want to note that many of the people I think of in connection with this commitment are women, as are the authors of this paper, as were 60% of the respondents to the questionaire for this research. There’s a gender equity point here.] Back to the comparison with what makes OA repository infrastructure “sustainable”: there is plenty of commitment to Open Education from individuals, but barely any national policy. In my own context point to the important work of my friends Joe Wilson and Lorna M Campbell in keeping Open Scotland running. Absent national policy, the insitutional policy that we see tends to be driven by committed individuals and happens only when there is co-location of the right people in the right positions, as has happened at Edinburgh University and Glasgow Caledonian (pause to remember Marion Kelt).

OA research and OER are different

Commitment in the wrong cause, or policy for the wrong thing is not helpful. So we whould ask, is a respository infrastructure right for OERs? To investigate this Risquez et al were careful “to explore the voices often unheard, those of the teachers and professional service staff with whom we are engaging”, through focus groups, questionnaire including academics, learning technologists, librarians, repository managers. The evidence from this raises the crucial caveats and surfaces some important attitudes.

Questionaire results showed a majority thinking that Insititutional research repositories are not suitable for OER (by 26 to 10 responses, when those who felt they didn’t know enough to answer were removed):

The 10 reasons (from 5% of respondents) given to support the premise that institutional repositories were suitable for educational resources included ease of access, sharing and collaboration, and raising their own profile. For example, one of the respondents stated that: “It is a means to marketing and attracting growth, cross fertilisation and collaboration, thereby ensuring a broader perspective on educational relevance and application of material.

The 26 reasons (from 14% of respondents) given for the view that repositories were inappropriate for the sharing of educational resources included: other more flexible platforms available (7); lack of visibility and critical mass (7); the need for research and teaching outputs to remain separate (3); and other concerns such as lack of culture of sharing and the need for quality control.

To me, the results reported from a focus group of repository managers highlight differences between OER and OA research outputs. This group rightly identified curation of learning resources as new and challenging compared to collecting OA research papers, due to the OERs being complex, contextual, inhomogenous and editable. However I have less sympathy with some of the other comments, for example: “As data sets are being brought into repositories, so OER could be a type of ‘associated material’ to evidence the impact of research in teaching practice”–Nope. You won’t serve OER well by thinking of it as a side product of research, OERs are proper first-class resources to support what is the primary activity of most Universities and Colleges. Another example: “The only way I could ever see OER in my repository would be if they… have been through a rigorous peer review process and are the best of the best.” Also no, that’s not what OER are for. I mean it’s nice when you have “treasures” that you want to highlight, and it’s great if you want to share them, but for most it is better to think of sharing OER as sharing the effort in creating fantastic learning resources, not as the end point.

There were some interesting results on what would motivate sharing OER: altruistic motivations, recognition/credit/profile raising, collegiality and opportunities for collaboration and networking, and reciprocity; and equally interesting results on concerns in sharing via repository: “loss of control/ownership/intellectual property (42); repository functionality (20); time (17); lack of confidence in resources/fear of being ‘judged’ (15); lack of quality control (9), and lack of participation/reciprocity (5)”. For me the clincher is noted in the focus groups:

“those who were more experienced in OER use and production were also able to provide more historically contextualised views that were informed by their own and their colleagues’ practice. In some cases, they had taken a more flexible approach that had moved away from repositories towards the use of broader reaching social media tools, or their own professional networks: “Over time I’ve used repositories less and relied on my learning networks… with Creative Commons licenses”; “The concept of a repository is gone. It’s more about branding something within the open web environment e.g., a YouTube Channel”; and “I just put a skeleton of my course on [the Virtual Learning Environment] and share content through my WordPress blog.””

Valid concerns are reported about safeguarding the effort that has gone into producing resources, and assurance that copyright & licensing are handled properly, with interesting ideas about the repository not as a warehouse but as a point of curation. With respect to this I must note that similar concerns were raised when Cetis recommended the use of social sharing sites for disseminating OER, e.g. Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, SlideShare etc. Whatever problems Flickr and others have had, they outlived Jorum. Looking back the only qualms I have about recommending those sites centre on the use of personal data in the business models that have kept some of them running.

Analysing the evidence from research repository managers and from those experiences in OER, the authors reach what I think it the correct conclusion:

“the culture of an institutional research repository is very different to that of a teaching and learning resource repository”

They say OER in a research repository runs the risk of being a square peg in a round hole, and conclude

“Overall, the rationale for supporting the accommodation of OER in institutional research repositories, which have a long-established history and a very different culture to that of learning resource repositories, was seriously questioned.”

So what’s the alternative?

I felt challenged by a comment from Catherine Cronin “(please!) let’s imagine infrastructure beyond repositories”, so here goes.

Let’s go back to that idea of the repository not as a warehouse but as a point of curation, and learn from those most experienced in OER as to how they with to care for and disseminate their resources. Let’s think of creating services that foster the collaborative creation of OER (H5P and PressBooks are among my favourites), and let’s create conduits to the open web. We tried to create such a conduit in the Core Materials project. Sure there was a centralised point of submission and search, and a copy was held locally, but the point wasn’t that resource ‘reposed’ there (there’s no rest for OERs). So we linkeded to where they were being sourced, and used APIs to post resources from the Core Materials hub to as many apropriate sites as possible (they can still be found on Flickr, YouTube and  SlideShare etc. ). Furthermore, we collected back the comments from users on those site to inform our searches. a similar approach can  be seen in OpenEd, where content is stored in format-appropriate institutional services (media hopper, library and archive collections etc.), but there is a central service providing promotion, assistance, curation, access, and dissemination through sites like TES learning resources and Wikimedia.

Let’s also think carefully about what we have learnt over the last ten years about how internet companies make their money, and try to avoid being one of next decades ed-tech debacles. Can we avoid selling ourselves (and our students) by working together through  platform coorperatives such as OpenETC? Open collaboratives building and using open source software to support open education seems like an idea, doesn’t it? Can we get committed people to push for national policies that support it?

Finally, there is an important note in the conclusions by Risquez et al, that:

“Ultimately, in the context of the enhancement of teaching and learning, any OER initiative should have an OEP component, which includes practices that support the reuse and production of OER through institutional policies, promote innovative pedagogical models, and respect and empower learners as co-producers on their lifelong learning paths (Ehlers, 2011).”

In fact, rather than trying to define Open Education in terms of the use of OER, let’s think of OER as resources for open education, and build the infrastructure for that.


This post started as a twitter thread, and much of the further thinking to build it into a blog post was prompted by the wonderfully supportive comments made on those tweets by @magsamond @catherinecronin @francesbell @clairemca @VivienRolfe @bmuramatsu and @joecar (apologies if I missed anyone)

All the quoted text in this post is from Angelica Risquez, Claire McAvinia, Yvonne Desmond, Catherine Bruen, Deirdre Ryan, and Ann Coughlan. (2020)  Towards a Devolved Model of Management of OER? The Case of the Irish Higher Education SectorInternational Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning Vol 21, No 1, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, and isn’t this true:

The Photograph of Mon Repose, Corfu by Marc Ryckaert (MJJR)is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license (CC:BY).   (And if you’re wondering why the ‘o’s were missing in the caption watch )

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