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Ed Tech Trends | Q&A

Open Education Resources: Feedback from the Social Web

The movement toward creating and using open education resources--OERs--has been percolating for years, and a vast amount of open materials for education is now easily accessible for online course developers to incorporate in their designs.

But some key questions persist about mining this growing resource for online courses. Campus Technology's recent conversation with Michael Cottam, Rio Salado College's associate dean over instructional design and new program development, helps shed some light on how OERs may be better evaluated in the future so that course developers can leverage open resources more effectively.

Mary Grush: What's important for instructional designers to think about today, especially as we consider the latest wave of online learners--learners for whom there are unprecedented choices in online instruction?

Michael Cottam: When we talk in general about online access and instructional technology to help an increasingly diverse body of online students reach their educational goals, the realm of open education resources, or OERs, is one of the areas that always comes up. It's a movement that's been gathering steam for years, and it seems to be stronger now than ever.

There are many institutions and organizations that make course materials open to anyone who can access the Internet--take for example, what you find with OpenCourseWare. These are often materials from top-tier institutions like MIT and Yale, and the list of OCW Consortium colleges and universities is impressive and growing. Other higher education institutions have made entire course offerings, lecture series, syllabi, and other materials and learning activities available online in an open environment--so that if you want to learn something, you don't necessarily have to sign up for a course. And then there's the Khan Academy, placing thousands of videos online, on anything from basic math to economics to biology and more--small, digestible tutorials that anyone can access at any time.

So, as you are developing an online course for your institution, there's a wealth of material already online under Creative Commons licensing that you can access, link to, share, and incorporate into your class. And by leveraging what people have already done, you can offset some of the effort and certain costs of developing your class. is an example of an organization that's really leveraging OERs, having built substantial online course offerings from available OERs. Though Saylor does not offer credit for these courses, they allow anyone who is interested in learning to take a course. Learning is not limited to a 'for-credit' classroom--there is always an opportunity to learn something of value to you whether you decide to take a credit-class or not.

Grush: As you incorporate OERs in your online course, what about questions of relevance and quality? Beyond the reputation of some of the institutions and faculty who originally put their materials online, how can the potential effectiveness of uses or re-uses of the materials be determined by course developers?

Cottam: There is so much open educational content online right now. For an instructional designer or faculty course developer it's a matter of curating it and gathering it into something that will make sense for your particular learners in your particular class. Part of what an instructional designer has to do right now is to find the best resources and fit them together in such a way that the learner will be able to meet their objectives in taking the class.

To some extent, people have already been peer evaluating other people's OER content. MERLOT has been facilitating this for years. But in general it's still not easy to find and evaluate appropriate open content. And going forward, the more development that occurs in an open content arena, the more important it will be for an instructional designer to know those resources and be able to incorporate them into an educational experience in a coherent way, a way that will be effective for their particular learners.

Grush: So is the role of instructional designers not only guiding faculty in how to use technology pieces effectively in instruction, but also how to identify and use open content resources?

Cottam: Yes, I think it's both now. I think the skill set around using technology for instruction is certainly still required, but now, instructional designers also have to be very aware of the open content resources that already exist, and to guide faculty to use them in an effective way. To do that, I think we also need to be able to evaluate OERs. I think that's a direction the OER community needs to take.

Grush: What are some of the ways you might see this evaluation happening?

Cottam: The first thing is online feedback. It's becoming increasingly common, when as a consumer you investigate any product or service online, that you see other people's reviews of the product right there for you to read. Can we do the same thing with open education resources? The peer evaluation that happens naturally in an online social environment could inform instructional designers and faculty as they build courses. In a sense, it's the collision of OERs with social networking online that's going to make this work.

And importantly, part of the allure of the social Web is the fact that you can interact with anybody, any time. You don't have to be an academic to interact with academics about what they are building. This means you as an academic may get feedback coming from many different perspectives, including from swirling students, or from practitioners in the professions. In a way, the chaos of the Web can be informative and beneficial to us as designers and educators.

Grush: How does this feedback from the social Web inform students?

Cottam: Presumably students could read and offer feedback for OERs directly. But instructional designers probably still have the bigger role here. If you have an instructional designer and a faculty member who can collaborate to build an experience that incorporates the best of what's out there in OERs with the knowledge and expertise that the faculty and instructional designer have in how people learn given material, that's where the feedback from the social Web really connects to student success.

Grush: What else will help evaluate OERs?

Cottam: The other, very exciting piece that ties in with evaluating OERs is learning analytics. If we can get analytics on those open resources, we can identify the best OERs that will help students get certification or complete their degrees. Using learning analytics with a strong methodology so that we know the results are valid and reliable, and then sharing those broadly among institutions, has the potential to make widespread change in the acceptance and use of OERs.

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