Digital Content

Day Four: Designing for (Re)use

Open Education: From Resources to Practice

Written by Adrian Stagg and Emma Power, University of Southern Queensland

On our penultimate day, it’s time to look at some of the more practical elements of OEP. For those of you who attended the ‘Practical Openness’ presentation and panel yesterday, you would have noticed that openness isn’t as easy as many first think. This, like open assessment, is an issue that has been recognised recently, but translating this into action has been slow.

you need to read what is on the cassette, by RHINO NEAL, CC-BY-NC-ND, downloaded 25/10/17

Some of us might recall having our own ‘Awesome Remix Tape’, a less-than-legal method of remix, but a common one. Sitting by the radio with your finger on the Pause button (as Play and Record were already locked down), waiting for ‘that song’ to play took a lot of time. Then if you wanted to share it with a friend there were technology barriers (did they have a dual tape deck?), storage barriers (were their enough spare minutes on their blank tape?), and of course sequencing barriers (it took a very specialised set of skills to splice audio).

If you want, use that as the frame of reference that will extend into today’s discussion.

Open for sharing

It bears mentioning again – because of the fundamental nature of OEP – that it’s not about ‘free resources’ (well, not just about that). The ability to Retain, Reuse, Remix, Revise, and Repurpose through open licencing is the powerbase of OEP. If practitioners are only concerned with OER, then the questions are:

  • What licence do we want to use and promote?
  • Where will we store the resulting resources?

However, for OEP, the questions become more complex, namely:

  • How do we enable others to easily (re)use our work?, and
  • What is the best place to store OER so that others can find, (re)use, and share them?

The potential answers will challenge your existing practice, and your institutional norms.

Learning Activity 7

In the Comments section below, I’m interested in three things:

(1) What is the function of the resources you create as part of your work?

(2) What file formats do these resources take?

(3) Where do you most commonly store these resources?

No PDF please, we’re open

I suspect (and this will play out in the Comments) that many of you create text materials in .pdf. There is nothing wrong with that at all; it’s a file format that is ubiquitous, you don’t need proprietary software to read them (for example, Sumatra is a free open source alternative to Adobe products), and they are (within reason) fairly easy to share. Taking legacy content that already exists, and adding a Creative Commons Licence seems like a good start to engaging with OER.

Most practitioners begin their open journey with existing content, so there is nothing wrong with this approach. However, in the longer term, proprietary file formats are difficult to remix – consider what it takes to revise a PDF without the source file. Most university staff don’t have access to the full suite of Adobe products, and this presents an immediate barrier. There are plenty of ways around this, but a degree of persistence is required.

It might seem as though I’m maligning the PDF alone, but the same applies to Windows Media Player files, iTunesU lectures, and any proprietary file format (such as Amazon’s version of EPUB3, the .azw file that means you can’t read your Kindle books without a Kindle or the Kindle app).

Here’s the challenge to consider: if you are serious about sharing your work and have a desire for others to (re)use the material, provide it in multiple file formats. For example, I use Open Office to compose text documents (all the work for this course was done in .odt files). I need to create this base file if I wanted a .pdf, or if I wanted to upload it to a Learning Management System (LMS) anyway so it’s not an extra step. When I store the contents of this course, I simply upload the original working document (.odt), with the resulting other file formats. The same would apply if you were creating material for a platform like iTunesU. You need to create an .mp3 (audio file) or .mp4 (video file) to upload, so it isn’t extra work to provide a link to the source file for others.

Check back over the Comments section now and see if you can spot any trends in the file formats most often used. Do they help with OEP?

The Selfish Giant, and higher education

Dromoland Walled Garden by sportsilliterate, CC-BY, downloaded 25/10/17

For those of you unfamiliar with the Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant‘, here’s the link to a Public Domain version that you can read now. Go on, this is an online course, so I’ll still be here when you get back.

The Selfish Giant’s Walled Garden is a place of beauty, but for it to be enjoyed by more than himself, the children need to circumvent the security and essentially break in. At the risk of labouring the analogy, university repositories are the same way – lots of brilliant material is locked away with no access unless you’re either part of the staff or doing something illegal.

Due to Federal Government funding arrangements, taxpayers money was spent on repositories with the mandate to open up research to society in general. Whilst the repository movement has caught on strongly in learning and teaching, the sharing notion has not. I’d be interested to know if your institution has an open repository for educational resources, not just research.

Furthermore, many of the initial projects in OER (and some more recent ones) have been focused on building new repositories; which is counter-intuitive in light of the research. One of the key barriers to adopting OER has been that there is no ‘one central location to find them’, so obviously building another repository is the answer to that barrier?

Align that with the funding that institutions allocate to their repositories. The technical infrastructure, security, staffing, training, and the like are all expensive budget lines for a university, so I’ll suggest a challenging alternative.

Learning Activity 8: Opening the gate to the walled garden

Let’s use some hypothetical figures for our case, and say that the total real cost of running an institutional repository is $200,000 per annum. In this case, the university manages the infrastructure, security, technical support, professional learning to use the systems, upgrades, and of course staff. Even if their repository is open, potential users need to know about it in order to search.

What if a different business model existed? Find an existing, robust, supported repository (like the OER Commons) that has global contributions, and an on-site authoring tool that automates licencing based on your choices. Instead of the institutional repository, have staff store all resources at the OER Commons. Now, as the ‘common good’ is at the heart of OEP, the institution pays $100,000 per annum as a ‘gift’ to the OER Commons, contributing to a centralised ‘common good’.

If you wanted to take it one step further, it could become institutional practice to search the open repository first for material to (re)use or revise before authoring or purchasing original content – which includes textbooks. This would be a significant change in culture, and may have long-term value for the university.

The questions are:

(1) Would there be any merit in pursuing this sort of business model?

(2) What are the major challenges in adopting a model like this?

Preparing for tomorrow

Coffee8, by
Tanay Mondal, CC0, downloaded 25/10/17

This represents a very different way of thinking about not only how we go about ‘the business of education’, but also the value and mission of the university. As you can see, OEP extends beyond just the practitioner, potentially influencing every level and operation of university that would like to claim to be ‘a truly open university’.

This foreshadows tomorrow heavily, but there is a blend of reconceptualisation, and ‘nothing new’ in openness; the value is finding the right blend, and – we have mentioned before – honouring context.

It’s been a great experience spending the week with you all; let’s see what the discussion brings today.


The text of this work is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence.  All images and videos retain their respective licences.

5 thoughts on “Day Four: Designing for (Re)use

  1. The resources I create as part of my work are packaged university level courses and course modules (I am qualified to design whole programs but no one has asked me to do that so far). These consist of a course description, learning outcomes, skills alignment, course notes, assessment tasks, marking guides (and automated quiz answers), and tutor notes. On these I place a Creative Commons license (few are willing to pay the extra cost of exclusive access to material).

    The educational institutions I design for mostly use Moodle, so I normally use Moodle HTML/XML based format. I make point of not using PDF for notes, providing HTML based e-books instead. This way the courses work on mobile devices, particularly large screen smart phones. Any video and audio is in standard MPEG formats, but I avoid producing audio and video, due to the cost of production and maintenance.

    The resources are developed using an instance of Moodle, be it that of the institution, or a cloud based one just for editing. I then back up the work as a Zipped Moodle backup file. I also export the e-book separately as a set of HTML files.

    These resources are backed up to my company’s IT system and also provided to the client as a Zip file. If you avoid producing video and PDF, a whole semester course is a surprisingly small file. I also have produced a free on-line web version of the e-book for one course, with the Moodle file down-loadable.

    1. I’m most familiar with Moodle too and the power of backing up/zipping files from the LMS does create quite small files suitable for sharing. I recently had the experience of packaging up an entire course I’d helped to develop so that it could be shared and reuploaded at another institution that also uses Moodle. It all went surprisingly easily, I’m glad to say. It did get me thinking about again about the role of resource context – after all, as designers we spend considerable time and energy developing the structure and sequence of a course, and the decision to include certain resources (or exclude them) does really depend on where in the sequence they are intended to appear. Being able to view an entire course, with the resources in context is far more useful than viewing a collection of disparate resources.

      Do you consider the course-as-context to be valid in your experience?

  2. There is merit in pursuing an OER business model, but this presupposes a systematic long term strategy for the use of educational materials. More commonly educational materials are sought for one-off use by one instructor for one course once (as the instructor is only being paid to deliver a course once). Also the cost of running a repository is relatively low, compared to that of producing educational materials, so using a shared repository is not going to be a large saving: it would be possible to share the repository software, without sharing the contents. Lastly and most importantly, producing reusable educational materials is a very difficult and time consuming task requiring rare skills. Last year I took a course in OER: one task was to find suitable materials and present a course module based on them. I spent a considerable amount of time searching and finding very little usable OER. Instead I found lots of abandoned projects, badly formatted PDF files, course summaries acting as advertisements for proprietary course content and crackpot courses on perpetual energy.

    1. Hi Tom,
      My experience is pretty much the same as yours re finding usable content, and I share concerns around businesses buying in to a new business model wholesale. e.g. reducing the $200,000 cost of running an institutional repository by using something like OER Commons is great, and $100,000 in expenditure would be a good saving. But the opportunity is there to make $200,000 in savings by not giving anything. A business is a business after all, and there are tensions between budgets and ethics that are not always easy to manage year in and year out. I think there are some ways to do this in some shape and form, but it is a huge and complex area. The notion sounds ideal, but the practice may be a different story.

      1. You raise a really good point, Alison, and it would be simply possible to decide against any sort of giving and the institutions’ financial position is strengthened even further. In some ways, the gift to the hosting repository is predicated on a particular ideology, but those with a bent towards return-on-investment only may be able to realise other benefits by positioning this as a partnership instead. In some ways, diminishing budgets and being a ‘good citizen’ (as I believe that universities should be) don’t always align, and the environment is such that giving nothing back would be seen as a ‘win’ by an institution. As you say, the ideal world and the real aren’t the same.

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