Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Reflection on OER Reuse.

I've always been a little suspicious about OER reuse within University courses. I had a nagging suspicion it was an overhyped idea, and that there would be trouble in the details, but until someone asked me about it today, I couldn't put my finger on exactly what was bugging me*.

There are obvious widely known difficulties, of course. Most of the Open Educational Resources are, in fact, simply lectures, which are a long yard from being a course, however good they may be. The transmissive elements of a course should, in an ideal world, be a fairly small part of a wider exercise in learning, much of which, discussion, formative assessment and so in, does not seem amenable to easy duplication as OERs. It may be that the big benefit of OER's is that it explicitly shifts the focus away from the transmissive stuff to the actual teaching, but that's another story.

Adapted OERs to a specific set of learning objectives in ones own course requires care and calls on the lecturer, as our higher level educators are still anachronistically known, to have much more of a curatorial role. They select the good stuff from here or there, and lay it before the students in a hopeful breadcrumb trail to knowledge. This is nothing new. Lecturers have always given out readings, papers, and so on. Directing students to a good lecture online isn't a radical invention. Hence why was a bit 'so what' about the OER movement. Of course we should share our material, but reuse never seemed like a big deal to me, at least not for individual lectures here and there. Lecturer's reuse all the time. What's news?

But now we have whole, coherent lecture courses online, and in mighty abundance. In a logical universe, for courses which are non unique, (for arguments sake, Organic Chemistry), we only need one good set of lectures. In a logical universe, we could have a word with our lecturers in those disciplines, and point out this fact, and suggest, in reasonable and measured tones, that they simply direct the students to those great online lectures from that prima donna they hate who made it big in the US. Instead, we advise, they should spend their teaching time in small, discursive groups, perhaps working closely with borderline students in the (now very large) class, or supporting them online as leader of a team of tutors, or some other teaching model that's going to be a lot harder work than performance lectures.

In the real universe, that's going to be one short, ugly conversation. First up, they have tenure, and a perfectly legal and proper right to teach however they please, for good reasons. Secondly, the job description on their contract says 'Lecturer' and trying to fiddle with that is likely to lead to long and involved conversations with Unions and HR Law specialists. OER reuse can't be directed from on high. Thirdly, they have an ego (who doesn't) which might not love the idea of being some kind of second fiddle to aforementioned prima donna.

Of course, if the lecturer decides to do that themselves, as their own idea, it's no problem. Or is it? Can one institution deliver a course for fee paying students built around an open licenced lecture course from somewhere else? In theory, I suppose if the students are paying for the discursive teaching, not the lectures, but really, I think we're gonna need another lawyer here. We've been building courses around other people's textbooks for years, but we paid them a truck of money for those textbooks. That's the whole textbook model -a course in a box. We couldn't be accused of reselling free stuff. A formal partnership with whoever made the OER in the first place would probably be smart to square that up - more lawyers please. But if we do a formal partnership, now we are, formally, of reselling someone else's lecture course, which will fly like a lead balloon with Senior Management, who won't understand that buying in lectures isn't so different from buying in textbooks and lot's of fee paying Mamas and Papas who don't really get that lectures aren't courses will start turning up with questions about what exactly they're paying for, if little Johnny is at home all day watching courses from Harvard online. And let's not forget the staff Unions, who can reasonably be expected to raise a brouhaha.

Perhaps the OER community has solved all these issues and developed model of whole course adoption that square all this away. They seem smart. I'm hopeful. Do tell.

I have an easier solution. Let's just let our own institutions lecturers, who are perfectly good at lecturing, capture their own lectures and offer them to students. They can update them a little each year, and the delivery establishes them as a trusted figure in the minds of the students, so they can effectively lead the discursive teaching. Yes, we know, it's a waste of electrons, when we have all this great OER lying around, and yes, we wind up with 200 decent sets of lectures covering the same course in organic chemistry, but really, it's the easiest way. In time, everyone will get used to OER, and the idea that lectures aren't courses and these problems will go away. That's a change of mindset, a generational change. Across the transition, much time and effort will be wasted, but that's been true since they invented videotape. Minds change slowly.  We must wait for our preconceptions to catch up with our dreams.

*To be exact, it was about two hours after someone asked me, which is always most annoying.

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