Open Content Anecdotes

Reading Open Content is So, Like, Yesterday just now, the following bits jumped out at me:

Sometimes– maybe even most of the time– what I find myself needing is something as simple as a reading list, a single activity idea, a unit for enrichment. At those times, that often-disparaged content is pure gold. There’s a place for that lighter, shorter, smaller content… one place among many.

I absolutely agree that content is just one piece of the open education mosaic that is worth a lot less on its own than in concert with practices, context, artifacts of process, and actually– well, you know– teaching. Opening content up isn’t the sexiest activity. And there ain’t nothin’ Edupunk about it. But I would argue that in one way if it’s not the most important, it’s still to be ranked first among equals. Not just for reasons outlined above, but because for the most part educators have to create and re-create anew the learning context in their own environment. Artifacts from the processes of others– the context made visible– are powerful and useful additions that can invigorate one’s own practice, but I still have to create that context for myself, regardless of whether it is shared by others or not. Content, however, can be directly integrated and used as part of that necessary process. When all is said and done, neither content nor “context” stand on their own particularly well.

For a long time now, I’ve been confused about what ‘remixing’ and ‘reusing’ open educational content means in practical terms that will see widespread, hockey stick growth in the use of such material.

So here’s where I’m at… (err, maybe…?!)

Open educational content at the course level: I struggle to see the widespread reuse of courses, as such; that is, one insitution delivering another; if someone from another institution wants to reuse our course materials (pedagogy built in!), we license it to them; for a fee. And maybe we also run the assessment, or validate it. It might be that some institutions direct their students to a pre-existing, open ed course produced by another instituion where the former instituion doesnlt offer the course; maybe several institutions will hook up together around specialist open courses so they can offer them to small numbers of their own students in a larger, distributed cohort, and as such gain some mutual benefit from bringing the cohort up to a size where it works as a community, or where it becomes financially viable to provide an instructor to lead students through the material.

For indidividuals working through a course on their own, it’s worth bearing in mind that most OERs released by “trad” HEIs are not designed as distance education materials, created with the explicit intention that they are studied by an individual at a remote location. The distance educational materials we create at the OU often follow a “tutorial-in-print” model, with built in pacing and “pedagogical scaffolding” in the form of exercises and self-assessment questions. Expecting widespread consumption of complete courses by individuals is, I think, unlikely. As with a distributed HEI cohort model, it may be that gorups of individuals will come together around a complete course, and maybe even collectively recruit a “tutor”, but again, I think this could only ever be a niche play.

The next level of granularity down is what would probably have been termed a “learning object” not very long ago, and is probably called something like an ‘element’ or ‘item’ in a ‘learning design’, but which I shall call instead a teaching or learning anecdote (i.e. a TLA ;-); be it an exercise, a story, an explanation or an activity, it’s a narrative something that you can steal, reuse and repurpose in your own teaching or learning practice. And the open licensing means that you know you can reuse it in a fair way. You provide the context, and possibly some customisation, but the original narrative came from someone else.

And at the bottom is the media asset – an image, video, quote, or interactive that you can use in your own works, again in a fair way, without having to worry about rights clearance. It’s just stuff that you can use. (Hmmm I wonder: if you think about a course as a graph, a TLA is a fragment of that graph (a set of nodes connected by edges), and a node, (and maybe even an edge?) is an asset?)

The finer the granularity, the more likely it is that something can be reused. To reuse a whole course maybe requires that I invest hours of time on that single resource. To reuse a “teaching anecdote”, exercise or activity takes minutes. To drop in a video or an image into my teaching means I can use it for a few a seconds to illustrate a point, and then move on.

As educators, we like to put our own spin on the things we teach; as learners viewed from a constructivist or constructionist stance, we bring our own personal context to what we are learning about. The commitment required to teach, or follow, a whole course is a significant one. The risk associated with investing a large amount of attention in that resource is not trivial. But reusing an image, or quoting someone else’s trick or tip, that’s low risk… If it doesn’t work out, so waht?

For widespread reuse of the smaller open ed fragments, then we need to be able to find them quickly and easily. A major benefit of reuse is that a reused component allows you to costruct your story quicker, because you can find readymade pieces to drop into it. But if the pieces are hard to find, then it bcomes easier to create them yourself. The bargain is soemthing like this:

if (quality of resource x fit with my story/time spent looking for that resource) > (quality of resource x fit with my story/time spent creating that resource), then I’m probably better of creating it myself…

(The “fit with my story” is the extent to which the resource moves my teaching or learning on in the direction I want it to go…)

And this is possible where the ‘we need more‘ OERs comes in; we need to populate something – probably a search engine – with enough content so that when I make my poorly formed query, something reasonable comes back; and even if the results don’t turn up the goods with my first query, the ones that are returned should give me the clues – and the hope – that I will be able to find what I need with a refinement or two of my search query.

I’m not sure if there is a “flickr for diagrams” yet (other than flickr itself, of course), maybe something along the lines of O’Reilly’s image search, but I could see that being a useful tool. Similarly, a deep search tool into the slides on slideshare (or at least the ability to easily pull out single slides from appropriately licensed presentations).

Now it might be that any individual asset is only reused once or twice; and that any individual TLA is only used once or twice; and that any given course is only used once or twice; but there will be more assets than TLAs (becasue resources can be disaggreated from TLAs), and more TLAs than courses (becuase TLAs can be disaggregated from courses), so the “volume reuse” of assets summed over all assets might well generate a hockey stick growth curve?

In terms of attention – who knows? If a course consumes 100x as much attention as a TLA, and a TLA consumes 10x as much attenion as an asset. maybe it will be the course level open content that gets the hiockey stcik in terms of “attention consumption”?

PS being able to unlock things at the “asset” level is one of the reasons why I don’t much like it when materials are released just as PDFs. For example, if a PDF is released as CC non-derivative, can I take a screenshot of a diagram contained within it and just reuse that? Or the working through of a particular mathematical proof?

PS see also “Misconceptions About Reuse”.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

6 thoughts on “Open Content Anecdotes”

  1. This makes a lot of sense to me! We recognize that one of our goals (I wrote some of them up in an earlier post) with OER materials– to serve those independent learners who are looking for a complete courses and, ideally, complete courses based wholly on open materials– is going to be a niche group no matter what! But as a distance education outfit that’s one of the areas where we feel we have something to contribute.

    That being said, I think you are right on in examining the granularity of the material access and how it relates to use. I maintain that the smallest pieces really are valuable, as you quoted, but their value has a direct relationship with their discoverability and the ease with which I can get at them.

    Being able to “construct the story quicker” (or at least more easily) seems to be the key when it comes to reusing and remixing the bits and pieces… and it is my contention that “content” is far from passe because while I can learn FROM the artifacts of others creating their stories, ultimately when I comes to it I still have to write my own and I can USE the bits and pieces (ideally) to do so!

  2. Brilliant post. I like thinking about educational content this way. What a unit of education? In what way is an educational resource the sum of its parts, and in what ways is it an emergent entity–something that’s a whole different animal? It’s a question that ends up (as many do) moving past pedagogy into ontology.

    I think, though, that perhaps you give one type of educational resource short shrift: access to social interaction. As learning built around social networks becomes more common, I think it will be increasingly important to try to understand their role in taking the place of, say, one’s tutor. Can we think of interaction as a module? Can we package it and open it up? I think the answers are complicated. I think that you’re doing a good job of getting us asking the right questions, though.

  3. It strikes me as odd that some of the scientists I work with who are great researchers but ordinary communicators are forced to trot out 8 lectures a semester on topics they could care less about.

    I think the opening up of fine-grained content might just enable a better way forward.

    Just a thought, great post!

    Fang – Mike Seyfang

  4. Interesting points Tony. Granularity has long been a big issue and one important aspect is size of a course let alone the TLAs and media assets they comprise. There is also a big difference between reusing (as is) and reworking or remixing for and by whom? Many of the points you and others are making assume it is someone acting as an educator involved. Evidence from OpenLearn is that it is learners who are doing most but their form of reuse is very different. It does involve much using a unit (course?) as is but for a new context, as an individul or part of an organised group and as part of a wider set of activities, many offline (ie these are existing groups/colleagues/friends and have not just come upon each other online). They are therefore being used as fillers (complements) or extensions (supplements) to other study and learning (quite a few educators are using it as recommended reading).

    The other interesting aspect of learner behaviour is their readiness to augmment (not change) existing content by posting to forums and creating learning journal entries. These permanent and often open additions all help with self contextulisation but in a hopefully supportive environment. Most people do not want to reuse or rework content as much as reuse or rework the ideas and knowledge contained within them.

    Granularity of open contnet for learners is very much about the meaninful TLA which I surmise to be of the 0.5 – 15 hours level unless there is clear structuring within a course e.g 10 x 10 hours sessions. But that it still a big commitment when there is no prospect of assessment.

    Learners may also be interested in assets if they can be reused for content they are producing – reports, essays etc.

    BTW your query about using a sample from a non derivative CC liecenced PDF (or even a full copyright piece): the answer depend on what you are uding it for. If it is for a ‘closed and defined student’ audience then you may be ok under fair dealing or use provisions but these were designed with classroon settings in mind. With openly avilable materials you still ought to get permission (which is what OU does). To put it another way you could include a digram or screenshot from such a source in a slide presentation (with attribution) that you give in a seminar to colleagues but if you publish it on Slideshare then strictly speaking you are contravening the licence sinc you a publishing it to a ‘public’ audience. Contrast that with downloads from iTunes which are for personal use but even to ‘broadcast’ one to a group of students could be construed as breaking the iTunes terms and conditions, although even there it may successfully be argued that fair use can apply.

  5. “Evidence from OpenLearn is that it is learners who are doing most but their form of reuse is very different. It does involve much using a unit (course?) as is but for a new context, as an individul or part of an organised group and as part of a wider set of activities, many offline (ie these are existing groups/colleagues/friends and have not just come upon each other online). They are therefore being used as fillers (complements) or extensions (supplements) to other study and learning (quite a few educators are using it as recommended reading).”

    Okay – I guess what would have been *really* interesting here would have been if you find that people were finding and reusing eg images and movies, becuase they hard been searching for terms that were included in the course content? ie the course content as “full text metadata” making the associated assets discoverable through search?

    From server logs, do you know if people are embedding and reusing an OpenLearn images?

    As for video reuse, it would be interesting if embedded videos in OpenLearn were embedded as Youtube videos (pulling from the OpenLearn presence on Youtube: ). I can see there is a production qaulity thing going on here – eg it might be a bonus to geta high quality version of the video on the OpenLearn site – but if the movie was a Youtube movie, it might encourage more people to take it and reuse it in another context? Or maybe use the video as a pivot point for discovering other related resources by looking at the movie’s Youtube page and then exploring the Youtube auto-suggested “related videos”. The Youtube context also offers the possibility for asset level commenting and response (using Youtube comments or video replies).

  6. “From server logs, do you know if people are embedding and reusing an OpenLearn images?”

    I don’t think we can track this but will check. What we are tracking is downloads in various formats (40k per month with RSS at top :) and similar nos of printings) but we can’t automatically track what people are doing sasy with a zip file of assets. We could do searches but we are not set up for doing that at the moment. Perhaps it is something that can be investigated under OLnet (

    “As for video reuse, it would be interesting if embedded videos in OpenLearn were embedded as Youtube videos”

    Well we started the other way round, producing low and high resolution videos for embeding and then putting the low res on YouTube. Now we could move to doing everything as emebedded YouTube videos excpet that the ONLY reuse would be in this form. As video files on OpenLearn they have the CC by-nc-sa licence which means folk can take them and broadcsat them through public TV (ie non profit making) or chop them up and remix with other stuff, all of which you cannot do with YouTube videos.

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