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OER: Open educational resources revisited

Roger Atkinson

This musing came from two starting points. In February 2017 New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Creative Commons organisation announced MMA's release of '375,000 digital works for remix and re-use online via CC0' [1]. In March 2017 I noted an announcement by Western Sydney University that it 'will provide all students enrolled in first-year and Diploma subjects with free digital textbooks for 2017' [2]. Though apparently quite diverse, I perceive the two announcements as closely related, and a good reason for revisiting the topic of open educational resources, and how 'OER' may be used for teaching and learning purposes as structured or unstructured resources.

Finding the announcement by New York's 'Met' was not initially related to my interest in 'OER'. Finding it was accidental, a spin off from some browsing in preparation for our next indulgence, an Eastern European tourism extravagance, in which one highlight will be the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg [3] (that's Google searching for you, can take you accidentally to a museum on the other side of the world). The Met's announcement did not mention OER specifically, but their aspirations were broad and bold:

This announcement will shape the future of public domain images online and underscores the Met's leadership role as one of the most important open museum collections in the world. ...
Sharing is fundamental to how we promote discovery, innovation, and collaboration in the digital age ... Today, 'The Met' has given the world a profound gift in service of its mission: the largest museum in the United States has eliminated the barriers that would otherwise prohibit access to its content, and invited the world to use, remix, and share their public domain collections widely and without restriction.
The Met can grab attention in that way, perhaps quite deservedly, as 375,000 is an impressively large number, it is indeed 'one of the most important open museum collections in the world', and the particular Creative Commons licence chosen, CC0 [4], is very open, being nearly equivalent to saying 'in the public domain'. Other art galleries around the world typically have much smaller numbers of digital copies online. For example, the response to an unlimited search at the website for the National Galleries of Scotland [5] is 'Found 95,465 artworks', whilst for Australia's National Portrait Gallery [6], you can 'show all 2306'.

However, exploring the simple question of how many artworks are online, open access, leads one into more complex questions, from an OER perspective, about how these resources may be used for teaching and learning purposes. Indeed, is an open resource, such as the Met's huge collection, also an open educational resource? In my view, yes, as I favour a wide ranging, concise definition for OER, such as '... freely accessible, openly licensed documents and media that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes' (from Wikipedia, a source for a convenient list of definitions of OER [7]). One key point in that simple definition is the phrase 'are useful for', because it leads into the next question, what is needed to build up from 'are useful for' to a higher level, such as 'provide courses for'? The Met's '375,000 digital works for remix and re-use online' are certainly 'useful for' educators and independent students in a number of disciplines, but the works do not provide a 'course'. The structuring and scaffolding of learning has to be somehow added. Very many museums and galleries do provide such 'adding', most notably in the form of structured learning activities such as 'worksheets' for primary and secondary school students, usually designed for groups on excursions, but some are online, offered as components of 'virtual tours'. Anecdotal evidence from my four young grandchildren and their primary schools suggests an appreciation of such activities: lesson preparation done by the zoo, botanic gardens, museum or gallery reduces the teachers' lesson prep time, and can give students access to specialised knowledge and experiences that classroom teachers cannot provide.

How does this diversion into schools education relate to OER in higher education? It's part of a search for patterns and trends amongst the diverse educational applications of open and free resources, where sometimes it seems to me that provisions for the schools and community sector are better represented than provisions for the higher education sector. Looking across all sectors will alert the reader to great diversity amongst providers and their purposes, the conditions of access they offer, the topics they present, and the structuring for learning they provide. However, within this diversity, some general trends in OER may be discerned from wider browsing, beyond the examples of galleries and museums.

Provisions of OERs, or at least open resources, are expanding rapidly on the Internet, facilitated by a wide range of contemporary trends and developments. There are the 'usuals' in ICT, namely advances in information storage technologies, in digital network transport, and the efficiency of Internet search processes, which have enabled lower costs and higher capacities for giving away learning resources and reaching much larger audiences. Notable among other developments concerning academia are the emergence of MOOCs; an increasing use of open access, online only publication of academic books and journals; and greater attention to the public and community dissemination of research.

Global OER logo (Mello, 2012[8])

However, there seems to be little attention being given to monitoring the extent to which OERs are being used for undergraduate teaching and learning in universities. Are OERs a threat to the long established dominance of the prescribed textbook? Is the amount of academic staff time required for good integration of OERs into a unit of study a barrier to expanded use in teaching and learning? One indicator we can use is to consider the strategies which could be emerging from the multinational publishing companies that provide most textbooks, especially in the case of first year undergraduate units. This brings my musing to its other starting point, Western Sydney University's recent announcement about 'free digital textbooks for 2017'[2]:

This ground-breaking initiative is one of the world's largest provisions of free textbooks for commencing university students and is exclusive to Western Sydney University. ... With the average cost of a text book being $100 per book, our students will receive up to $800 worth of value. ... this innovative initiative means every student in every first-year subject will have free and simple access to the textbooks, delivering learning benefits individually and collectively to the entire class. ... delivered as digital textbooks, providing access on campus or at home. ... can be read and used on any device.[2]
Of course these textbooks are not OERs, but from the perspective of the students and academic staff involved, free textbooks are the same as OERs. Such textbooks could be regarded as highly structured learning resources, requiring relatively little unit design and preparation time from academic staff, contrasting with unstructured OERs which may require considerable unit design and preparation time. The very likely trend could be towards textbook publishers defending their 'territory' by moving towards selling large 'bundles' of high quality online textbooks to individual universities, at attractively low (but still profitable) prices, sufficiently low to enable universities to offer students 'free' textbooks.

There are potential benefits for all parties. Textbook publishers can add a new and perhaps more sustainable business model, students will access high quality textbooks for free, and university managers can change the staffing mix to higher proportions of junior tutors and sessionals, with lower proportions of more senior staff, as the need for unit design and preparation is decreased. Reliance on traditional lectures may be decreased, thereby increasing the scope for more attention to tutoring, mentoring, and small group interactive learning. Staff time freed up by good adoption of a 'free textbook' model may go into research, or into preparation of advanced, specialised units of study.

Hopefully, some of that 'freed up' time will go into expanding the use of OERs, perhaps with emphases upon greater independence in learning, as in problem-based learning, work-integrated learning, group learning projects and peer learning. From a learning resources perspective, degree courses could aim for a judicious blending of highly structured resources, as in the new style of online textbooks, and unstructured resources, as represented by the 'Met', the Hermitage, and a great range of other providers.


  1. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art releases 375,000 digital works for remix and re-use online via CC0.
  2. Free digital textbooks 2017. Western Sydney University.
  3. Hermitage Museum.
  4. Creative Commons CC0.
  5. National Galleries of Scotland.
  6. National Portrait Gallery, Australia.
  7. Open educational resources. Wikipedia.
  8. OER Global Logo by Jonathas Mello (2012). UNESCO.
Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University in June 2001. His current activities include honorary work on the TL Forum conference series, Issues in Educational Research, and other academic conference support and publishing activities. Website (including this article in html format):

Note: The version presented here is longer than the print published version, as it includes references that were omitted for space constraint reasons.

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. J. (2017). OER: Open educational resources revisited. HERDSA News, 39(1).

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Created 13 May 2017. Last correction: 6 Oct 2017. HTML author: Roger Atkinson []
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