OER myths need to be busted

In 2011, Poland launched the “Digital school” program, the largest ICT program in primary and secondary schools to date. The program has a large open e-textbooks component, which triggered myths to appear in the media. The program generated, for the first time, considerable interest of mainstream media in the subject of open education. As the program continues (the textbooks will be ready in September 2015), in many cases media coverage is distorted by misconceptions and inaccurate information about Open Educational Resources (OER). Public debate has, to some degree, been based on these misunderstandings. OER activists and institutions involved in discussions with reluctant publishers and education specialists have gradually tackled all the misconceptions. Similar problems emerged earlier in other countries, such as Australia, Germany, USA and Spain.

In recent years we began analysing criticism of Open Educational Resources and questions raised in the public debate. These are not specific to Poland – similar problems emerged earlier in other countries, such as Australia, Germany, USA and Spain. Our goal in OER mythbusting is to demonstrate how certain negative attitudes are often based on false assumptions. Presenting, whenever possible, actual data and evidence about the functioning of OERs in a variety of countries is the best way to counter these negative views.

OER projects around the world have faced many different obstacles, from poor understanding on the part of decision makers and educators about what Open Educational Resources actually are to concerted negative PR campaigns against openness of educational or public resources. The latter are most typically arranged by the traditional publishing sector, which considers the OER model as competing with, and even dangerous for their business models. While conducting numerous workshops and training sessions with teachers, authors of school textbooks and educators, we found that most arguments levelled against Open Educational Resources are based on myths. Open Educational Resources are frequently confused with things that they are not, and unnecessarily regarded as enemies to educational resources produced by traditional publishers.

The press and other media are often also not conveying objective information to directly interested parties – teachers, learners of all ages, parents of schoolchildren. This situation is not improved by the largely adverse reaction of the publishing sector to the increasing popularity of OER, a reaction that hardens as electronic textbooks and digital educational resources gain purchase in public schools. It is typical all over the world for misconceptions to flourish when a government considers introducing publicly funded OER.

We started by conducting a survey among open education experts, coupled with a broad desk research. We were searching for cases of the various myths about OER. Interestingly, a closer look at relevant material in the press reveals a polarization of opinions: some articles describe OER as an established, successful trend in education while others caution against OER, their potential to damage the publishing market, or their low quality. Our own survey conducted among teachers and experts concluded with more insightful results.

The Open Educational Resources movement was conceived as a way to transform and democratize access to education. The movement is less then ten years old, but it has already matured to a point at which governments, companies – and, most importantly, teachers and learners around the world – are creating OERs and using them in countless ways. The number of resources and projects available to copy, remix and share without restriction is growing week by week. However, this in itself does not guarantee a systemic change in the forms of public education that currently prevail. Myths about OERs can stop people from using them and causing real educational change. The goal of this publication is to dispel those myths.

The users’ perspective

In a survey by TJ Bliss, T. Jared Robinson, John Hilton and David A. Wiley entitled “An OER COUP: College Teacher and Student Perceptions of Open Educational Resources”, 11% of participating teachers and 6% of students thought that the quality of OER textbooks was lower than that of the traditional textbooks they had used in the past. All of these respondents then pointed to technical problems or poor text formatting as reasons for the low rating. The teachers, however, have provided a detailed description of common problems with OER materials, and it appears that a perceived inferiority of OER as teaching resources was tied to difficulties with accessing content online and student practices – and not the content itself. One teacher in the survey stated that “The students have limited access to resources. They choose print materials [because] that is what they are used to.” When asked to describe the main difficulty with OER materials for students, another teacher simply wrote “It’s online.”

This survey articulates what we frequently observed while conducting OER training with teachers: a problem with perception, exacerbated by so-called “open washing”: the identifying of Open Educational Resources with any free (unpaid) online resources. Most myths about OER are rooted in this misunderstanding. This may relate not just to free educational content, but more broadly to all types of information available via the Internet that can be made open.

The 2013 reports from Boundless and EduCase have shown a significant growth of OER use (at least in Higher Education; research for K12 in this area is still limited). According to EduCase, 71% of respondents have used freely available open educational resources – OER – in the past year, while 10% have been using OER “all the time.” Both reports were limited to university students in the United States. In such countries as Belgium, Norway or the Netherlands, where government-supported open digital resource programs are well established, even higher usage rates have been noted. The Belgian OER platform KlasCement is used by 70% of teachers nationwide, and a third of Belgian teachers have created an individual user account. The number of remixes of educational resources placed on the Dutch WikiWijs platform has been growing by over 100% a year; the platform is now being expanded to include resources for higher education. Varied evidence and lack of research that measures use in a systemic manner make it difficult to analyse OER usage. Nonetheless, a growth trend is visible. Open Educational Resources continue to be supported by public institutions, and they attract ever-growing numbers of users seeking educational materials that are both cheaper and more sustainable. We should therefore be prepared to answer an increasing number of practical questions about what Open Educational Resources are and what they are not.

The authors’ perspective

In the course of projects aimed at creating new open resources, content creators can be convinced to agree to open licensing of their content. The process is often difficult – content creators need extensive information if they are to overcome initial resistance to an idea they usually do not fully understand or appreciate. Many are unfamiliar with the concepts of an open license and open educational resources, and even if they have heard about them, they voice additional worries. To quote Saylor.org, “chief concerns included the loss of control of materials, commercial reproduction, and loss of traffic/ad revenue”.

Explaining open licenses is a battle with particular perceptions and fears. Authors and publishers are often convinced that publishing in an open model is inferior to traditional publishing: they fear that quality might suffer, that open publishing means a financial loss, a decrease in website traffic, or damage to the author’s or publisher’s reputation. In negotiations with academic and scientific authors it is important to understand their workflows and funding systems. Teachers often create many resources as part of their work duties; but authors of textbooks are often paid on the basis of a contract, not through royalties on book sales. It is also important to remember here that OER can be produced and distributed on various terms and within diverse models – from voluntary work (e.g., Wikipedia) to contracted, paid and peer-reviewed work (as in Poland and the United States, where government-supported open e-textbooks had been commissioned). Authors rarely believe they might actually benefit from taking control over their work instead of depending on intermediaries – and at the same time are not aware that the OER model can also offers institutional intermediation.

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