The Role of Open Educational Resources in Personal Learning

Presented to the Best Practices in Upgrading Online, Calgary, via Adobe Connect, March 29, 2011. Presentation slides and audio.

The very first thing I want to do is to counter the disclaimer that frightened me as this session opened, it was very loud, and said all kinds of things about how this was all private and cannot be shared. You can share this presentation all you want. This presentation is mine and if you want to share it with people, go ahead and share it. No problem at all. 

I should have probably put a Creative Commons license on it, although everything on my website is licensed under the Creative Commons license – attribution – non-commercial – share-alike license. So don’t feel inhibited from sharing this stuff.

I do want to talk about the role of open educational resources in personal learning. I also want to talk about what they mean in personal learning. I have a challenging presentation ahead, one that I think will make you think, I hope will make you think, and rethink just what it is that we’re up to when we take resources like this presentation, and the pictures and the words and all of that, and put them online or present them in a Connect workshop, what it is that’s happening there, what it is that we’re up to.

The Idea of Openness

Here’s the argument in one slide, and the argument from my perspective really is very simple. Learning and cognition happen in a network. And I could go on and on and on about what that means, but basically, first of all, learning happens in your brain, your brain is composed of a network of interconnected neurons, and learning happens in a society, and society is composed of a bunch of interconnected people. We can depict both of those as networks. And, they are networks. 

The second thing is, networks need to be open in order to function. If those connections between the nodes and the entities in the network are broken, are blocked, then that network ceases to function. In order to function, communication has to take place from node to node. And this communication needs to be unobstructed. If the communication is obstructed, this is a network failure. 

So, the argument for open educational resources is simply: networks need openness in order to function. So we’re all done. We can all go home now.

Well, nothing’s that simple. What does it mean to say that our network is open? What is openness?
Well, there’s Richard Stallman and the traditional definition of open source as four elements (Stallman, 1994):
  • -        Freedom to run the software
  • -        Freedom to study the software
  • -        Freedom to distribute the software
  • -        Freedom to modify the software.
And this is a definition that has carried over into the open educational resources (OER) movement. And it’s a definition I think that we need to challenge because we need to consider what the perspectives are on this freedom. 

When people talk about open source software they talk about openness and freedom from the perspective of the person who already has the software, who already has it in their hands and wants to do things with it, like read it, share it, modify it, whatever. And anything that restricts what they do with it is considered an infringement on the freedom.

But what if you’re a person who does not have the software, and needs the software? Now our definition of freedom begins to change a little bit because from the perspective of someone who does not have the software freedom would be open access to the software with no restrictions. Anything that infringes on that open access is a restriction on their freedom.

And the difference between these two models comes to a head when we talk about commercial use. If you own the software then you should be able to sell it, and if somebody says you can’t sell it that’s a restriction. But if you don’t have the software somebody trying to sell it to you rather than actually giving it to you is creating a restriction. 

You have different kinds of open depending on your perspective. So the question is, what is the correct perspective to be looking at, or looking at the issue from, in the context of learning, and online learning in particular. 

David Wiley has spoken about open educational resources for many years. He’s one of the pioneers in the field. He came up with one of the first open licenses. He talks about openness and standards, and he is again one of the early pioneers in things like learning objects and learning object metadata. He talks about openness in software, and then he talks about openness in system, like open courses.

George Siemens and I, in our work offering online courses, have depicted the progression of openness in three major stages:

  • -        First of all, openness in educational resources
  • -        Secondly, open courses, and then
  • -        Third, an as yet unrealized openness, openness in assessment.

There are other kinds of openness. I was reading something from Sir John Daniel, the former president of the United Kingdom’s Open University, talking about openness as related to openness of access or admission to a university program, open resources, and then openness in being able to determine your own educational progression, your own course of studies.
So there are these different dimensions of openness we can talk about, different ways of describing the same concept. 

I’m just going to go through those six. 

The Open Standards

I’m not going to linger on this because you could spend a lifetime talking about standards. In education there’s a variety of standards intended to facilitate how we describe, how we discover, and how we reuse educational resources.

The grandfather of these is called learning object metadata, or LOM, created originally by the Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee (AICC), and then passed on by Instructional Management Systems, or IMS, and then standardized under IEEE, and then really standardized under the ISO standards organizations. 

But there are other standards as well: Learning Design, Common Cartridge, and Learning Tools Interoperability. The United States military, under the auspices of Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) came out with the Sharable Courseware Object Reference Model (SCORM), which is the standard in commercial online learning. 

These standards have all had kind of a murky history, they’re sort of open, they’re sort of not open, they’re sort of proprietary, they’re sort of not proprietary. IMS, for example, supports itself with a membership system. If you pay them several thousands of dollars, more if you’re bigger, then you have access to the standards ahead of time. It’s about a year ahead of time. And so you can make all your products line up with the standards, and everybody else has to wait until IMS formally releases them.

IEEE by contrast will release the standards openly while they’re still being discussed and decided upon, but once IEEE settles on the formal specification it then removes it from its website and you have to pay them for it. So openness is really murky, as I said, with respect to standards.

In my world the best kind of standards are ones that are completely open, without encumbrances, which is why, out of all of these, I have tended to favour none of them, and instead favoured things like RSS or even Dublin Core, which are much more open and much more freely used.

Open Source Software
Open Source Software has had a significant impact on online learning. I imagine most people are familiar with Moodle, which is a PHP-based open source learning management system is created originally by Martin Dougiamas and then thousands of volunteer programmers. Moodle is small, portable, and useful for colleges and schools.

Another learning management system that was developed as open source software, Sakai, is exactly not that. It’s Java-based, it’s enterprise, it was built by a consortium of universities as part of MIT’s Open Knowledge Initiative. There’s Elgg, which is an open source social network software for learning, Atutor, LAMS (Learning Activity Management System), and more types of software are available a Schoolforge. And so on.

And all of these are released under one or another type of open source license. If you’re not sure about open source licenses, really – and I’m going to over generalize here – that world breaks down into two kinds of worlds: one where the open source license allows commercial development, and the other, the GPL world, where it doesn’t allow commercial development. 

Open Educational Resources

More specific to our agenda today are the open educational resource projects themselves. Here I list just a few of them. One of the earlier ones, and certainly the most famous, most heavily promoted, is MIT’s Open Courseware project (OCW). Something that’s also received a lot of attention recently (because he appeared on the TED videos) is the Khan Academy, which is a whole series of YouTube videos on mathematics, physics, and similar science and technology subjects. MERLOT is a project that was created by a consortium of North American educational institutions.

And I could go on. There are dozens of projects that have been set up specifically to create educational materials for distribution for free (or some version of free) to people around the world. 

The licensing of these resources, in order to make them available for use and reuse, used to be based on something called the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL). That was the license that accompanied open source software originally. You’d have the software, which was licensed under GPL or some other open source license, and then the documentation that came along with the software had its own license. 

More recently we’ve had Creative Commons, and Creative Commons is not the dominant mechanism for licensing open educational resources, for licensing open content of any sort. Creative Commons was devised by Lawrence Lessig and actually providers the licensor – the person who owns the material – with a series of choices. The person may apply some restriction to the license of the material. 

For example,
  • -        CC-by: that requires that the person who uses the content attribute the content to whomever wrote it in the first place. So if you use my content, and I’ve applied the ‘by’ condition, you have to say, “This content was created by Stephen Downes.”
  • -        ‘Share Alike’ means that if you share the content, you must share it under the same license that you got the content.
  • -        ‘Non-commercial’ mans that you cannot use the content to make money (and we could talk about that in more detail)
  • -        ‘Non-derivatives’ means that you have to use the content as it was created; you can’t take the content and make changes to it and effectively create derivative materials from it.
By far the most popular form of Creative Commons license is the one that I use, “Creative Commons By Non-Commercial Share-Alike,” which means that I want to be attributed, I don’t want the content to be used commercially, and I want it to be shared under the same license that it was obtained under. 

Making Things Unfree

A lot of people in the open educational resource community say that the non-commercial condition means that the content isn’t really free, because, if it were really free then you should be able to charge money for it. But this is the perspective issue again. If I don’t have the content, and want the content, and some guy’s charging money for it, it’s not free, it’s not free in any sense of the word. It’s not free in the sense that I don’t have to pay for it, but it’s also not free in the sense that I can’t use it if I don’t have the money, I just don’t have access to it.

The response from the defenders of commercial use has always been that the content’s always available for free somewhere. So it doesn’t matter if, say, Penguin sells a copy of Beowulf because Beowulf is in the public domain and you can always get it for free somewhere else. But in fact, in my opinion, it’s not so simple as that. When there is commercial use of free resources there are all kinds of motivation to prohibit or prevent the free use of these resources. So even if theoretically it is the case that there could be free copies of Beowulf hanging around, the commercial publishers of Beowulf the $4.95 version have all kinds of ways of making sure you just can’t get at it. And this creates an entire infrastructure for creating open content and then managing somehow to charge for open content, which to be goes entirely against the whole concept.

I did a study in 2006 on models of sustainable open educational resources and what I found was that most of the projects that produce open educational resources are publishing projects. The resources are coming out of either commercial publishing houses, or universities that traditionally feed materials into commercial publishing houses, or foundations. And the different models for the sustainability of open educational resources were all based around that paradigm. 

So for example you have the endowment model. This model is used by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. You take a big chunk of money and put it aside, you get interest on that money every year, and you use the interest on the money to publish the resource. Which worked really well until the stock market crashed. 

Then there’s the membership model, and that’s the model I described earlier for IMS, where you charge memberships, and people can join your consortium and participate in the creation of the resource. But when people pay for memberships they usually expect privileges, and that typically means some sort of privileged access. 

Another model is the donation model. We see Wikipedia using the donation model. National Public Radio uses the donation model. And again, it’s based on this idea that there will be some organization that does some publishing. 

But even if you have these free resources hanging around commercial publishers still manage to get you to pay for them. And there’s a variety of ways they do this:

  • -        Lock-in, for example – if they lock you into a certain technology, such as, say, iTunes, or the Kindle, then the material which would normally be available for free is, within that environment, only available at a price.
  • -        Another way of making it very difficult to get free materials is to set what might be called a ‘high bar’ for free content. You pose conditions, for example, learning object metadata, which has 87 or so fields which must be filled in for it to be registered. The commercial publisher can afford to hire some guy to sit there and fill metadata fields, but free content providers don’t have that kind of resource, and so the requirement that content have metadata attached to it creates this ‘high bar’ that free content can’t get over, and so the only version of the content you’re going to get is the version where somebody paid somebody create metadata.
  • -        Another way of making you access the commercial content rather than the free content is ‘flooding’. This is what Starbucks does. When they want to move into a community they look at the downtown area, three of four square blocks, and they put 25 stores in there. You might say no area needs 25 Starbucks, and it’s true, but when they put 25 Starbucks in, that drives out all the other competition. Nobody can compete, and once Starbucks has the only coffee stores in the area, now they can start closing stores, raising prices, kicking people out if they’re hanging around on the nice sofas, etc. In the world of software, once example is with the commercial versions of Wikipedia. Wikipedia has one of these licenses where you can make a commercial version of it. There are these commercial versions of Wikipedia, and what they do is they take Wikipedia content, put it in a little tiny content window in the middle of the screen, and surround it by advertising, the more flashing and annoying the better. It used to be the case – it’s not now because Google stepped in – that if you did a search for a topic that is covered by Wikipedia, you couldn’t find the Wikipedia article. All you’d hit were these commercial versions, because they can afford to pay for search engine optimization and Wikipedia can’t. Now over time Google stepped in and like the hand of God reaching down elevated Wikipedia up in the search rank, so this doesn’t work anymore. For Wikipedia. But it still works for all the other kinds of free content that Google doesn’t elevate. You don’t notice that. But if you go the next time you do a search at Google and look at the listings, ask yourself how it is that these five are at the top of the list. They’ve been search-engine optimized. And they’re almost certainly, if they’re not Wikipedia, they’re almost certainly going to be commercial content of some sort.
  • -        There’s also ‘conversion’. That’s where you give somebody a free resource, and then you convert it to a commercial resource, and then get them to pay for it, because they’ve become so addicted to your free resource that they can’t bear to be without it. 
So you can see – and you can disagree with the details of this – but you can see that there’s this whole economy of free, of commercial, of publishing, of subscriptions, this whole infrastructure which is surrounding the idea of putatively open educational content. It’s open educational content “to a degree, with restrictions, if circumstances permit, using certain technologies.” Otherwise we’re strangled in the whole – well, as the picture goes, the interests of industrialization, work, images, etc.

And that’s the story of open educational resources.

The Language of LOLcats

Now I’m going to change gears, and I’m going to change gears really dramatically. What I want to propose to you is that on the internet now the new media that people use - and there’s a whole range, everything from little cartoons to videos to animations to those Flash games to the memes that go around to Twitter hashtags and all of that – all of these new media constitute a vocabulary, and that when people create artifacts in this new media they are, quite literally, “speaking in LOLcats.”

A ‘LOLcat’ is – LOL stands for ‘Laugh Out Loud’ – is typically a photograph, a digital photograph, preferably of a cat, with a funny saying on it. The original is a picture of a cat smiling, looking very smug, looking up at you, and saying “I can has cheezburger?” And there’s a whole ethos that goes into LOLcats. There’s the bad grammar, there’s tying into contemporary memes, there’s contemporary ideas, Cheshire Cat, and any of you who have spent any amount of time online know about these, especially these days, the YouTube videos are almost the dominant memes. Even if you don’t spend time online, if you watch CTV news, the weather reporter (Jeff Hutcheson) does this “I watch video so you don’t have to” segment with these cute videos.

All of these are instances of people, if you will, speaking in LOLcats. LOLcats, or any of these media, are far more than just the image and the words. Here we have a cartoon, one of my favourites, it’s XKCD, and it’s a neat little story about all of the tech things a person does to contact somebody who is inside the locked room, and of course you can read the punch line for yourself. But is that all the comic is saying? What are the messages? What are the meanings behind the comic?

Here’s an instance of something capped Gaping Void. This guy made a name for himself drawing little cartoons on the back of business cards. They don’t always mean a whole lot, but then he started putting them up online and they started getting shared a lot, and they’re very interesting. So with each one of these we can ask, what is the person saying? What is a person saying when they take one of his little business cards and put it on their own website? 

Here’s something that was popular not long after 9-11. Some said too soon. As you can see it’s the guy now known as ‘Tourist Guy’ – because they often get generic names like that – photographed on top of the World Trade Center and you can see the airplane in the background. And this is characteristic of this sort of media manipulation where you take two photos, one of an airplane and one of a guy on top of the World Trade Center, and put them together to create some sort of odd statement. 

And of course once one of these things gets going it really gets going – there’s Tourist Guy in front of the Hindenburg, and there’s Tourist Guy, and the plane is still there, but now you have Kanye West jumping in to say that “Pearl Harbor was the greatest attack.” And you can see here how the memes, the concepts, the ideas, the images merge, remerge, fold over each other, shape and create new kinds of meaning. And then people share them, and when they share them, they’re creating some kind of meaning out of that too.  Aren’t they? Because they don’t do it for no reason, it’s not rational to suppose that they do it for no reason.

These are languages. This sharing of the resource is the expression of meaning in a language. And there are all kinds of languages. These digital photographs, these videos and that, are just a few of the many many languages we use in day-to-day discourse. 

Body language, for example. Everybody reads body language, some better than others. Me, I’m practically illiterate in body language. People have their strengths. Clothing, uniforms, flags – we’ve been watching the Libya thing, one of the very first things they did was to revive the old Libyan flag, the red green and black flag with the crescent and star symbol on it. These things have meanings. The hats, the headgarb that people wear, they have meanings. The drapery in the back of the room has meaning. How many people belong to the jeans and t-shirt set? That’s almost a uniform.

Maps, diagrams and graphics have meaning, and they don’t necessarily have literal meaning. Here we have a graph of the social network environment from 2007 and what it’s doing is using the language of maps in order to talk about something that is very much not mappable. Except that it is mappable, because here’s a map of it. 

What I’m saying is that this sort of thing underlies our thought processes in general. This is a picture on this slide of a drawing on a cave wall in Kakadu National park. I took this photograph in 2004, and if you look at it really closely it’s a fish and fish guts. You might ask, why would an aboriginal draw a painting of fish guts on a cave wall. And the answer of course is that he – I assume it’s a he – wanted to communicate something about fish guts to other people and this was the mechanism for doing it. It was probably a description of what you’ll find inside a fish, what you can eat, what you can’t eat. Etc. Whatever was important about fish to them.

And we do this in general. We use these – I don’t want to say ‘representations’ because that’s too strong a word – but we use these drawings to communicate with each other. The LOLcats, the YouTube videos, the cave paintings on the wall, the body language, the maps – all of these are functioning in the same way. This means that when we’re talking about media, and we’re talking about communication, we have to get beyond the way we talk about text and books and chapters and papers and publications. We have to get beyond that very narrow discussion because when we talk about ways we communicate as being very simply text and books and publishers and things like that we talking only about a very small narrow segment of it.

What is this kind of talk that we need to get away from? Think about the assumptions that you may have had not only about educational resources but about communications in general. Something like, “messages have a sender and a receiver.” In the world of the internet that makes no sense. It really doesn’t. “Why did you publish that picture of a cat with a hot on it?” “Because I could.” “Who did you send it to?” “Well I don’t know.” 

Or conceptions like “words get meaning from what they represent.” Not so. Words – anything – get meaning from pretty much anything. Or “truth is based on the real world.” Or “events have a cause and causes can be known.” “Science is based on forming and testing hypotheses.” All of these are things that are true in this static, linear, coherent, text-based semiotic-based picture of the world, but it’s a picture that, even if it was once correct, is no longer correct. The world is just no longer like that. 

And this very point, this very distinction is the distinction between what we might say are old and new depictions of open educational resources, or educational resources generally. 

The picture that I presented top you earlier of open educational resources as things that are published, things that are presented by publishers in a very formal manner, probably charged-for and commercial, that’s the old static coherent linear picture of the world. It’s not the model that we want to use for open educational resources. 

We need to think about open educational resources not as content but as language. We need to stop treating open educational resources or online resources generally as though they were content like books, magazines, articles, etc., because the people who actually use them – the students and very often the creators – have moved far beyond that. Each one of these things is a word, if you will, in this very large post-linguistic vocabulary. They are now language. They are not composed of language, they are language.
And that’s why they need to be open. 

Think about it for a second. Suppose that everyday words that you wanted to use like, say, ‘cat’ – to pick a word at random – were owned by, say, Coca-Cola. Now we have allowed a certain limited ownership of words in our society, but by and large you can’t own words. You can’t own the use of words to create expression. And even more particularly, imagine if you had to pay royalties to use certain letters. So you could only use the letter ‘o’ if you paid money to Ford. You could only use the letter ‘i’ if you paid money to Apple. The effectiveness of language would be significantly impaired. 

And the thesis here is that the effectiveness of language would be impaired in exactly the same way the effectiveness of communication would be impaired, in exactly the same way the effectiveness of a network is impaired if you break down or block the links between entities. 

So how do we understand this new media? What – I don’t want to say ‘skills’ – what do we need to know in order to know how to deal with these open educational resources, with these online resources generally? Because, if it’s a language, there are going to be linguistic elements. 

I’ve come up with this frame, it borrows from Charles Morris, who gives us syntax, semantics and pragmatics, Derrida a little bit, Lao Tzu a little bit. 

Syntax is basically our understanding of the shapes that things can take. It’s not just rules and grammar. Rules and grammar is a way of talking about language and linguistic expression, text-based expression. Syntax can be archetypes, can be Platonic ideals, can be grammar, logical syntax, procedures, motor skills, operations, patterns, regularities, substitutivity, eggcorns and tropes, etc. Any of those words is well worth looking up. 

We think of rules of language – and it’s funny because we think that the rule tells us what to do, but the rule really is just a pattern and has come to be a rule because we’ve observed it over and over and over. Cause and effect is like that. And the skill here is in seeing and recognizing these patterns. Recognizing them and then being able to manipulate them. 

A guy called Saul Alinsky wrote a book called Rulebook for Radicals. One of the things he said was, “use their own rules against them.” Because the established order has ways of doing things, and if you follow the ways of doing things you can actually subvert the established order. The trick here is to see what those rules actually are. And then to be able to manipulate those rules to your own advantage.

Semantics. Not just theories of truth, because the minute you get into theories of truth you get into all kinds of things, all kinds of issues: what makes a sentence true? What makes a picture true? What makes a cartoon true? I look at Family Circus and I nod to myself and say, “true.” And I know that the characters depicted in Family Circus are completely fictional. It’s not just thta, though. What is the meaning, the purpose or the goal of a communications artifact? The connotation or implication of what was said? Or if I send you a picture of a very large turkey, I’m not telling you to go get a turkey. I might not even be calling you a turkey. But depending on our context, there might be some shared meaning between us on that. Three strikes in a row – bowling reference, maybe.

Semantics may be based on interpretation, it may be based on frequency, it may be based on what we’re willing to bet. Frank Ramsay came up with a theory of probability based on how much you’re willing to wager. Probability P is ‘4’ if you’re willing to wager 4 dollars to get 1 dollar back. 

And more: forms of association, contiguity, back-propagation. Meaning, semantics and networks. Decisions and decision theory – you talk to the political scientists and economists and they will time and time again go back to a world view based on decisions and decision theory. 

Pragmatics. Which means use, actions, impact. J.L. Austin wrote a book called How to do Things with Words. When people talk about freedom of speech, usually they mean ‘freedom of expression’, not ‘freedom of doing’. But there’s so much with speech that we actually do – you stand at the altar and you say “I do”, you’re not just making a statement but you’re actually committing an act. If you ask a question, you’re not simply uttering some words, but you’re creating an expectation of a response. Wittgenstein said meaning itself is based on use. 

Cognition. This is another element of this framework. I’ve defined cognition in four major areas; other people may do it differently, which is fine. Description, definition, argument and explanation. And basically what cognition means the way we transition from one thing to another thing to another thing in our language. It’s about the inferences that we make, the explanations that we make, how we go beyond a mere statement of “what is” to a statement of “what must be”, to “what could be”, “what may be”, “what we ought to do”, “what we ought to think”, etc.

Context. This has to do with environment, placement, localization, language, culture, reference. A lot of late 20th century philosophy was based on discovering the contextual sensitivity to everyday things. Explanation, for example, explored by people like Hansen and van Fraassen. If you say “the roses have grown well,” or if you ask, “why have the roses grown well?” what you mean is “why have the roses grown well instead of growing poorly?” Or “why have the roses grown well instead of tulips?” Or “why have the roses grown well instead of aliens landing from outer space?” The answer we get when we ask for an explanation depends on what we though the alternatives were. And that’s context.

Same thing with meaning. Willard van Orman Quine explores the question of meaning, the possible range of translations that could take place if we encounter a new language for the first time. Derrida explores the alternatives in a vocabulary space. Frames, as described by George Lakoff. Etc. All of these constitute an understanding of context. 

And then finally, change. There are many different ways of depicting change ranging from old Taoism, the I Ching, logical relation, to flow, the idea of change as being directional, change as being manifest in history, Marshall McLuhan examining the four aspects of change. Logic is a study of change. Gaming theory, simulations, and that sort of thing, is a theory of change. Scheduling, time-tabling, activity theory, learning as a network, all of that is looking at things as based in change. 

So we take all of this together, wrap this all up – we typically think of knowing, learning, if we don’t think of it as retaining content (and I think most people don’t any more) we think of it as acquiring skills. Henry Jenkins describes skills like ‘performance’, ‘simulation’, ‘appropriation’. But these things are all actually languages and should be understood in these six dimensions. Any of the things that we’re trying to teach people, any of the things – science, mathematics, social studies, Egyptian philosophy, whatever – should be understood as one of these languages.

So here’s an example of one of those frames using Jenkins’s skills, so we have ‘performance’, ‘simulation’, ‘appropriation’, and in ‘performance’ we have the elements of syntax, semantics, pragmatics, context, cognition and change. And then for each one of these boxes we can analyze what the details are of that aspect of that language. So what is the syntax of performance, for example? There are the different forms, patterns, rule systems, operations and similarities in performance. From something very simple as “knowing your lines” to presentation acting, method acting, Stanislavski’s system, ritual performance, all of these different ways of formalizing performance. And that constitutes ways of understanding performance.

The (Open) Language of Learning

This reaches the third and final thesis: fluency in these languages constitutes 21st century learning. Being able to speak and write and perform and act and share and whatever these different languages constitutes learning in the 21st century. We use to think there was just acquiring content and we use to think there was just acquiring skill but it’s much more involved than that. Actually being fluent in these languages, where being fluent means mastering or being capable in the semantics, the syntax, the pragmatics, the context etc., of these different languages. 

And that brings us back to what we want to think about in open educational resources. Open Educational Resources are a network – no, I don’t even way to say it that way, that trivializes it - Open Educational Resources are individually the words that we use in whatever vocabulary we’re using to conduct whatever activity it is that we’re doing or that we’re undertaking. They are the signals that we send to each other in our network.
If that is so, then what openness means in the context of open educational resources is whatever is meant by openness in a network, where we think of openness in a network as the sending of these signals back and forth, the sending of these resources back and forth. 

When I think of openness in a network I come up with four major dimensions. There may be others. I don’t pretend to be authoritative on this, or even original, but these are the ones that I see:
  • -        Autonomy – each entity in the network is self-governing
  • -        Diversity – the entities in the network are encouraged to have different states, to be different things, have different opinions, say different things
  • -        Openness – in the sense that signals can be sent freely from one entity to another, and entities have access to signals that are sent from one entity to another, that membership in the network itself is open and fluid, and then finally
  • -        Interactivity – that what is learned by the network is not constituted in the signals that are sent back and forth but rather what is created by the network as a whole that is emergent from the activities that the entities in the network undertake. 
What I mean by that is that what is learned by a brain, for example, is not a bunch of electrical impulses. That doesn’t make sense! What is learned by a brain is what emerges when these impulses are sent back and forth between ten or a hundred billion neurons. 

What is learned is greater than the content of the individual messages.  And that is key and crucial to understanding open educational resources. The resources are not content we expect people to assimilate. The content of these resources is not the learning. The learning is what happens when you take these resources and start interacting with them in a network. 

That’s the basis that George Siemens and I used to create the massive open online courses. The idea of these courses was that, and is that, we provide as much material for conversation as possible and set up this conversational network where the exchange of this material can take place. So the course itself becomes a network, the open educational resources are the concepts, the words, the vocabulary that people in this network use to communicate with each other. And that’s in fact exactly what happens.

Somebody signs up for the course, they start reading stuff being sent by other people, so the idea is we create this network, enable people to communicate using these open educational resources within this network, and the learning people undertake is not the content of these resources, but whatever they learn as a consequence of interacting with other people in this network using these resources. 

So I’ve described a process, and again it’s one of these things where there are four easy steps: aggregate, remix, repurpose, feed forward. So this is the process that we recommend to people – nothing is required in one of these courses, but this is what we recommend as the four major steps of working with the resources. You gather the resources, you remix them, join them together, mash them up, repurpose them, localize them, adapt them, mark them up, tag them, review them, lipdub them, do whatever with them, and then send them forward, communicate them to other people in the network.

That’s where we stand now with open educational resources and open learning. And there’s a whole world ahead. Our capacity for languages has greatly expanded in the last 20 years and in the next 20 years is going to expand again. We haven’t even touched in a serious way on the internet the whole idea of Big Data, the Web of Data, sensor networks. We may have two billion people online. Imagine adding to the internet 20 billion sensors, machines, and other things that can send signals.

There’s the whole way of representing information from the semantic web – RSS, geography, Friend-of-a-Friend, so on, a whole open learning ecosystem and not just a smallish network, still waiting to be grown. People are using more and more complex ‘words’ in this new language and we’re finding that we don’t need the publishers, we don’t even need the academics in many cases, to create these resources. 

And insofar as the academics and the publishers create these resources in the old linear static linguistic traditional manner they’re speaking at cross-purposes in any case to the new form of learning that’s happening now. The idea of using these resources to learn has as much to do with creating these resources as consuming these resources and it’s in the creation of these resources that we acquire the greater capacities and skills that we need in order to function in this environment. 

And that’s where I leave it now. It’s a story unfinished, it’s a story of communities still finding themselves and forming themselves, languages half-written, unwritten, undeveloped, partially developed, an ecosystem beginning to grow, and a challenge ahead.


  1. i really like the Language of LOLcats part. new kinds of shared microcontent, new kinds of semantics.

  2. You're correct. Open Educational Resources is the way to go since online self-learning is becoming fast the perfect choice of learning for many, especially with so many great educational videos available for free.

    The only problem is to sort the good ones from the rest and present them in an organized manner.

    This effort is being done by: which presents the best educational videos available on YouTube in an organized, easy to find way to watch and learn.

    They are classified and tagged in a way that enables people to find these materials more easily and efficiently and not waste time browsing through pages of irrelevant search results.

    The website also enhances the experience using other means such as recommending related videos, Wikipedia content and so on. There's also a Spanish version called

    This is a project that YouTube should embrace itself, with curated content from academics and maybe using a different URL (Youtubersity?) so it won’t be blocked by schools.

  3. Interesting post.
    To expand upon one point....

    You have written already (and had me thinking, as you do now) about truly free OER. You have mentioned in the past that a mere sign up form, or even requesting basic information, is in fact costing 'me' something. Time, 'my' personal information, etc, etc.

    Toi this end therefore, is anything actually free? Certainly any product/service that requires me to access/consume it using a computer/laptop/tablet/smartphone, as indeed, these were not given to me for free? At some point, I bought a computer or signed up to a monthly iPhone contract, so even something that we may think of as free, isn't actually free at all - it not only presupposes that I have previously invested in means in which to consume it, but it prerequisites it.
    Furthermore, even if I were to be given such a device for free, one would expect to 'be required' to either go and collect it or at least be at home at a certain point in order to receive it - either way impeding on my life - costing me something.

    Perhaps I am getting a bit carried away here, but it certainly has me thinking. Would this mean that OER can never actually be 'Open' at all? It can never be 'free'.

    Nothing in life, is therefore free.....

    Would appreciate other's thoughts on this....

  4. > To this end therefore, is anything actually free?

    Let me recast that a bit: is there anything in our culture today to which we have not affixed a pricetag?

    If you consider everything in your life - your time, your family and friends, your home and environment - to be defined in terms of some cost, then nothing is free.

    But there's a much more *practical* sense of free: the sense in which accessing something or making use of something would not cost you *more money* than you would be spending otherwise.

    Your time, for example, will be spent whether or not you use it to access free learning resources. You might spend it watching baseball games, Charlie's Angels on TV, or maybe even earning money. But it's not like you had to (or even could) go out and buy more time in order to access OERs.

    Similarly, you probably already had a computer or smartphone, which you were using to watch YouTibe, Skype with family and friends, and poke people on Facebook. You probably did not need to go out and spend more money in order to access OERs.

    So yes - if you treat every moment of every day as money that you're spending, then there is a cost to accessing free resources. But if you think of it in the practical sense I've just sketched, then we can draw a meaningful line between resources that cost you money (or other resources) to access, and resources which do not.

  5. Thanks for your reply. I'm by no means suggesting I am as precious about my time as the hypothetical situation I described suggests, so I take your point. Also, is it not just 'society' in general that has 'affixed a pricetag' to everything we do, but also the colleges and universities in which we work? Hence the 'do more for less' argument.....

    More of a question to pose, than entering a debate, however....

    based on your assertion that it's not costing me any more to access them, and considering your earlier writing (2007) stating that 'without cost isn't necessarily without conditions', is a sign-up form for something that is 'free' such an unreasonable cost, or 'opportunity cost' as you called it?

    If I have the desire to access a resource that I feel is interesting/educational , the least I can do is give them my name (presuming they're not collecting this data to send me mail shots, etc).

    So is it a case of worth? Of value?
    Is the content/service worthy of my personal details (whatever they may be)?
    Perhaps in recognising the benefits of OER (presumably one would, given I would be accessing them in the first place), should I also recognise the difficulties in evaluating their use/importance (from the rights holder perspective), and therefore should be willing to offer some details in return, in order to enable rights holders to track their OER more effectively?

    Does such reciprocity exist? Should it?
    Does the evaluation of OER rely on it? Still there are problems in tracking if existing OER (big and small) are not only reused, but repurposed and remixed into different forms. Tracking code is one method, but it comes with that opportunity cost. Of being tracked. Is that ok? Is it an acceptable cost?



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