OER in the OU: an OLnet update

This is a liveblog from an IET Technology Coffee Morning, held on Wednesday 6 July 2011 in Meeting Room 1, Jennie Lee Building, The Open University.

Patrick McAndrew is presenting on “Open Educational Resources in the OU: an OLnet update”

He says there are many slides in the presentation – his last version had three slides, this one has 99.

Cranes In The Sky.

Much activity on Open Educational Resources (OER) in the OU. OLnet in particular is a project looking at the research, drawing it all together. Project site at olnet.org. Has been running for 2 years, one more to go.


  • Research – It is a research project, trying to understand the strange world of OER.
  • Fellowships – Two OLnet Fellows in the room – Robyn Muldoon and Susan D’Antoni are here today. We have about 27 Fellows.
  • Infrastructure – Third strand, more technical.


Not starting from scratch. Huge foundation in understanding how OER world can operate, because we’ve done it. OpenLearn – we gained experience in how to operate openly. Also flagged up that this is something to worry about: it’s not a straightforward change. We were ‘fairly unique’ – unusual, in having a research strand.

Main output – OpenLearn Research Report 2006-2008 – oro.open.ac.uk/17513

We have a partner in OLnet – Carnegie Mellon. Also unusual, their OpenLearningInitiative. Take a Learning Sciences approach to their operation.

Since then, explosion of interest in the field. Specialist journals, publications. Continuing interest in how OER can have impact.

One task was to look at the field. An analysis of Hewlett funding of other projects, and how their investment in OER happened.

OLnet research map – many different studies.

Technology development to track this – will come back to.

Work in many contexts – in Zambia, many others. Strong relationship with Brazil. Brazil adopted at Governmental level a statement about priority to OER – feedthrough and feed out from the organisations involved.

Several discipline-based studies too – Tina Wilson.

Realised there’s a need to create a simplified version of a complex field.

  • Design for openness – understanding how to design to use OER. Explaining people how to use OER was more inspiring and more efficient.
  • Elpida’s work on how people engage in social sites – shows OER content as an attractor. Social site design shouldn’t ignore content; but design is important. Crossover between lively rapid updated content, and larger, slower OER material.
  • Ways people are adopting OER – OpenLearn, P2PU – supported by volunteers. OpenLearningInitiative – studies on transfering use of OER in to new contexts, like community contexts. Also EU projects, such as OpenSE – project-based courses built around OER.

Pinnacle of these aspects was the impact at policy level: $2bn Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program (TAACCCTG Program). All about addressing credit crunch, employment – US Dept of Education (Hal Plotkin) added a rider saying everything in this program has to be open. Has changed the entire approach.

Had a direct impact on us – Next Generation Learning Challenge funding: Bridge to Success. About community college completion. The angle is scaling, not inventing. B2S is taking OU Openings material, and other OER and CC courses, to create courses to help – gentle, supportive, enabling – sits underneath the enforced testing/retesting approach community colleges have to do. Expecting to reach 750 students in colleges, but several thousand who come across it because it’s in the open.

OER can be split up in to factors – infrastructure/tools, design, use, adoption, policy.


Karen Kear: About the Openings – are you giving them to the Americans? Open to the world? Exactly the same?

Patrick: At the moment, we have the learning to learn course up there entirely in the LabSpace, anyone can access it and change it. That was the first step. And for the maths course as well. It’s a change – making complete material available. Very efficient way to deliver them to our partners, but actually the world as well. I noticed, that within four days, there was a new version of the course produced by someone with no connection to the course at all. Clearly other people are looking at it. We’re changing a course in to a learning to learn one too. SO yes, we are giving those to the world. This is a very important step. What we do makes us worry about the impact on our own learners. Our record is good so far in terms of e.g. recruitment.

Karen: Still available to OU students in the normal way?

Patrick: Oh yes. Openings courses relatively low cost, mainly paying for the support to get through it. Whether it feels that way if the materials are freely available is another question. Also a route through for motivated students with less support. So experimenting – lab-based approach, light tough; another with more connected, intensive support. SOmeone else could come in here and do something interesting. It is OER gold – a bit attractor.

Karen: What about the assessment?

Patrick: The activities in Openings, a set of tools to enable people to do the activities – what happens on the other side depends on whether anybody gives the feedback, In colleges, they can do it, but in the open not likely. It is a lovely project.


  • First fellow was Shiela Neill, who went to OCWC Global 2009 in Mexico.
  • Then Yannis Dimitriadis – work on use of patterns to encourage collaboration around OER.
  • Engin Kursun – survey on OCW in Turkey;
  • Pauline Ngimwa – OER Readiness in Africa. Svetlana Knyazeva – UNESCO in Russia, a study of OER in the CIS, and out to other non-English-speaking countries.
  • Jenny Preece – social structures – worked with Elpida – study of social learning in OER.
  • Scott Leslie – brought in mash-up expertise, worked to develop a way to mark OER to enable tracking: a DNA marker.
  • Agnes Sandor – from Xerox, automated analysis of texts to pick out the messages around OER.
  • Jia Yimin – large scale work in China around sharing courses.
  • Chuck Severance – highly technical work to integrate standards exchange in to Moodle. Elsebeth Sorensen – creativity and innovation and how it relates to openness.
  • Cathy Casserly – worked on approach to mapping the field.
  • Four or five joint OLnet/TESSA fellowships, African context, teacher education. Murilo Mendonca, Brazil, work on influence, OER policy contect.
  • Marcelo Maina (Catalunya), Jose Vindel (UNED), Spanish work on changed approaches.
  • Helen Jelfs, Bristol, collection of resources in Cohere around Deeper Learning – talk next week.
  • Here today – Robyn Muldoon (Australia) – assessment and OER – and Susan D’Antoni (Canada) – map to bring together OER work from UNESCO.
  • Coming soon – George Siemens (Canada, MOOCs) and David Wiley – initial thinkers around open content and OER.


There is so much to tell people about: we have a challenge in how to do this. So now the technology bit comes in.

We’re building an Evidence Hub. Explored many different representations – maps, diagrams, concept maps, cartoons, tables, charts, flowcharts. Key point: the map is not the territory. Need to get people involved in sharing evidence.

We did work looking at Hewlett Grantee Reports – greatly increased our knowledge of the field. Enabled us to say something useful to the rest of the field. But how do we involve others?

Simon Buckingham Shum and his team in KMi came up with the Evidence Hub idea. Working on at the moment. First attempt, using Cohere, can gather together a lot of information: a great tool for researchers. Interlinks reports. But less comprehensible in e.g. a presentation.

Characteristics desired: a service that’s needed, for people who care about OER, dynamic (changes with new evidence), flexible, not one answer, and owned by the community. This is a generic answer to how you can get research information out, but has particular application in OER.

OER grantee meeting by the Golden Gate Bridge. Focus – how do we pool our collective intelligence. It’s about letting us listen to lots of signals and draw them together. Don’t want to filter too many things out – preliminary, early, not-entirely-founded views are also important.

Technology produced: ci.olnet.org – a live alpha site, changed yesterday! It does work. Not presented with the complexities of Cohere, but it is there behind it.

In the face-to-face context, simplified activity: gardening around the claims made. Put up a claim in the middle, provided green petals (to support), red petals (to challenge), Very valuable exercise – showed different views. But a little too brief.

Software is designed to help. Live demo of ci.olnet.org.

One part – tracking organisations and projects involved (224 so far). Shows a Google Map geographical view.

Another – challenges – exploring what are the challenges that people want to solve. Working with an advocacy group in the US, who contributed to the OER decision at Governmental level. They want to make quite simple, strong claims – e.g. that OER is a cheaper approach. Need to have behind it the evidence that supports it.

Also – evidence – linked to organisations/projects, themese, and so on.

Proposed solutions – again links out to evidence, and all the other components too.

Many people won’t care about the details, but do care that the evidence exists.

We want to get evidence – positive and negative, nuanced – out as simply as possible.

Four large claims the advocacy group wants to continue to use, but to have evidence behind it. Next steps to gather the evidence, with OER Advocacy group, UNESCO community, OLnet fellowships. Also want to open up the system – will need to tweak, develop different views and lenses. Not all relying on automatic processing.

This is becoming the focus for year 3 in OLNet – getting our own messages out, and connecting to the important things that are happening next in OER.


Karen Cropper: How do you think we’ll get people who aren’t in our sphere to add to ci.olnet.org – at the moment, we’re doing it.

Patrick: Two-part answer. In the short term, that’s not a vital step. The vital step is to get valuable material and views available In the latest version, is very lightweight input – just flagging things as interesting, setting up paths and people to follow. It acts as an information route for people without them having to become contributors at the same level. Rob provides second part of the answer – to show how to develop approaches to do this. Hard to do this without examples and guidance. We have a few interested people playing with it today to see what it might do – but not providing evidence to us. Which fits with the system as it is. Susan is also giving a problem to solve – once that’s done, it’s solving that organisational/project part, which is not as complex.

Andrew: Examples have claims and counter-claims, not the data itself which might support those. Does this system manage the data, or where is it?

Patrick: The data sits out in the world. It’s a linking system, a metadata system rather than a data system.

Andrew: If someone wanted to test the hypotheses, is that sort of thing going on?

Rob: At the moment, anyone can say, I claim X, and my evidence is Y. It needs tweaking to distinguish your claim, and a claim that might be in the paper you’re using as evidence for your claim. What follows from particular data is debatable. There’s also a values basis too. In the system, the idea is that things are voted up or down, so a dubious claim would get voted down. If users have ability to make those judgements. It’s only as good as the people using it.

Andy Lane: Following on from the previous two questions and responses. A lot of debate now is not about OER, but about open educational practices. OER are a part. This is still seemingly a focus on OER, feels like it is therefore a researcher community. Makes difficulty in getting practitioners to put their data in. Comparison to Cloudworks – a platform for the sharing of thoughts, evidence – not just around OER, OEP, but educational technology per se. It’s not just who it’s for – Cloudworks is for a wider network of practice, more practitioner-focused than researcher-focused. Wondering about the focus of the two, and whether there’s a clear enough distinction about who should use the Evidence Hub.

Patrick: They are good partners. Not just Cloudworks – many spaces out there. We must be careful not to overload this system with the discussion and involvement side of things – there are other systems that do that well, including Cloudworks. This can be a layer above Cloudworks. Have discussed with Simon and team – should we make special effort to make it work well in Cloudworks? Also Wikieducator, UNESCO systems, we might want to plug in to.

Andy: Who’s going to be inputting the data? This is still set up for researchers to input. How do you get the practitioner community who might be able to provide those claims and evidence. Why would they come here when they get more value from elsewhere?

Patrick: Do have a bootstrapping exercise to make this work, for us. Then it has the value to others. Do know we need to have a flower-like interface, to make it really simple – that does get the practitioners to contribute. Each of these has a role to play.So much we need to represent in the system to get it started, I’m not pushing so hard on this being a place for practitioners to come. I don’t like developing a you-must-come-here solution when there’s so many places to go. Rather develop something where the value is clear when you go there. Don’t want to attract people first!

Finally: a parable – stone soup.

Two lessons. OER can act like stone soup: putting things out there gathers lots of great things around it, so hard to say whether it was the stone or the other stuff that makes it wonderful. Also, we do have some magic stones. They’re so good that they transfer in to new circumstances.

In either case, playing in the open world gives you lots of advantages.

This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
No further permission needed to reuse or remix (with attribution), but it’s nice to be notified if you do use it.

Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

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