Paul Stacey

What I didn’t see at the Open Education Conference – using negative space to outline the future of OER

My participation in the recent Open Education Conference in Barcelona and follow on readings of posts like that of Scott Leslie and Brian Lamb and the numerous papers from presenters now available at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya’s institutional repository have led me to engage in a lot of deeper thinking about the whole field of Open Education Resources (OER). It wasn’t so much that the conference was a stellar event full of stimulating innovative sessions. To be frank it wasn’t. But sometimes it’s the things that aren’t there that make you see whats missing and think more deeply.

I have an interest in art and when I was learning to draw we were encouraged to see negative space. When you draw negative space you focus on capturing the spaces around and between a subject rather than the subject itself. Amazingly when you set out to draw the negative space the end result is that you also capture something that looks very much like the subject you wished to draw. So this post will largely be about the negative space around open educational resources.

OER are still largely invisible in the academy. Despite having been around for almost 10 years OER are still not as widely known by faculty and students as those of us immersed in the field might like to think.

Using data from Joseph Hardin’s presentation on Faculty and Students Attitudes Toward Open Access and Open Courseware 50% of faculty have never even heard of open courseware and a further third have heard of it but never been to an open courseware site. Yikes. OER are still not on the radar of most faculty.

The most widely known OER initiative is MIT’s OpenCourseWare. While MIT’s OCW initiative is laudatory as an early example of OER advocacy, in my view it falls way short of being a stellar example of OER for teaching and learning use. How unfortunate then that when faculty or students do become aware of OER and go to MIT’s site for a look they simply see lecture recordings and course notes online. I expect they must be a bit disappointed and ask themselves “Is this what everyone’s been making a fuss about?”

According to Brandon Muramatsu who presented on MIT’s Project Greenfield MIT has only recently formed three committees – one for distance learning, one for 3+2 programs (3 years undergrad+2 years grad), and a third to consider e-learning for MIT students to enhance student learning experience. Holy rummoli! The leading example of OER is only now starting to consider e-learning!

Lets be perfectly clear – for MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) is a form of digital publishing. As you can see in Brandon’s presentation OCW is not an MIT education, OCW does not grant degrees or certificates, and OCW does not provide access to MIT faculty. This outline of all the things MIT’s OCW is not is an example of what I mean about negative space. Imagine if all the things that it is not were actually reversed into things that it is. OER is used for education, OER are used in a way that grants degrees and certificates, and OER provide access to faculty. Are these missing elements the very ingredients needed to establish OER’s impact and sustainability?

Barcelona is part of Catalunya which has a long history of open thinking and activism including extensive explorations of anarchism, socialism, democracy, and communism. When the dictator Franco came to power after the Spanish civil war Catalan political and cultural autonomy was suppressed. Publication of books and discussion in open meetings on the ism’s mentioned above were forbidden and use of the Catalan language banned. How apropos then that there was an ideological undercurrent around OER at this conference.

Mike Neary and Joss Winn subjected OER to a Marxist critique through their talk Opening Education Beyond the Property Relation: From Commons to Communism the University of Utopia. As they see it “while Open Education claims to liberate intellectual work from the constrains of intellectual property law, it does nothing about liberating the intellectual worker from the constraints of the academic labour process.”

Richard Hall and Joss Winn explored the extent to which open education might enable learners to engage with uncertainty through social action. This was one of several sessions that suggested higher education in its current form needs to change and called for a form of higher education that is more resilient to economic, environmental and energy-related disruption. It raised ideological issues around the current model of education being based on consumption, commodification, and growth – a model which is unsustainable. As Hall and Winn pointed out OER sharing doesn’t require funding it requires a shift in values, a shift some described as commonism where sharing as a revolutionary act becomes a recognition of what is common.

Is education, as Neary and Winn critique it, simply a market where indebted students enter into a contract around learning content and accreditation? Is OER simply feeding an educational regime where the value of the content is, both in its form and substance, standardised so all customers receive the same quality of product and delivered with efficiency so as to reproduce it at low cost? Are OER a new form of content production that can be absorbed into business as usual practices of education? Are OER the start of users and communities reclaiming education in their specific social context as a means of engaging in an uncertain world? While questions like these tug at ideological tensions underlying OER they have yet to fully surface and be answered.

I had to smile when, later that night while walking through the streets of Barcelona and thinking about these things, I came across a store window with an alternative view of Marxism.

I met quite a few OER skeptics at this conference who were there looking to be convinced that if they make their distance learning open it won’t eat into enrollments/tuition. Many of them expressed ideological beliefs which hold that as an educator using someone else’s stuff reduces your professional status. For the skeptics OER are risky and cause fear. These concerns were voiced in the hall but for the most part absent and unaddressed in the proceedings.

For every skeptic there were numerous advocates who see OER as a transformative agent with the potential to have a huge impact on education and forever change the way that teaching and learning are done. Those advocating OER as transformative agent see OER as an educational embodiment of the culture of sharing and openness that has permeated the web in popular culture but also as exemplified by open source software, open access research publishing, government open data initiatives, and open tools like wikis and blogs. Brian Lamb, Scott Leslie and Novak Rogic showed this expanded view of “open” in action with their presentation “Never Mind the Edupunks: Open Platforms, Open Content, Open Collaboration”.

And here’s a few quick sketch outlines of negative space elements from the Open Education Conference that hint at OER’s future but have yet to fully emerge:

  • OER are for some an individual act that embodies a larger belief in the value of open sharing. How does this play out in education environments where not everyone feels the same way? How does choice fit into the picture and how does the value of open sharing scale?
  • There is a huge need for institutional and government education ministry representatives to step forward and show how OER are an important educational strategy that they are endorsing through policy and action plans. At this stage there is widespread support for the notion that public funding should create public resources
  • OER need to move from an individual or institutional initiative, as they exist in their current form, to system wide initiatives involving all institutions, faculty and students
  • While there were suggestions that education in its current form needs to dramatically change there weren’t a lot of examples of what a new form of OER based education might look like. (With the exception of DeLaina Tonks’ fantastic presentation on the Utah Open High School)
  • OER have long been based on the four tenets of review, revise, remix and redistribute. However, actual examples of how OER have been revised and remixed are few and far between. Where are the examples of OER that have been significantly improved to such an extent that the original author is now using the improved one in their own work?
  • One of David Wiley’s sessions asked people to identify concrete pedagogical benefits from OER. What strategies are available to a teacher/learner with an OER that are not available otherwise? Surprisingly the audience was unable to articulate many. Where are the innovative pedagogical models with OER generating deeper learning?
  • The SmartHistory presenters were surprised at the absence of librarians and museum staff at Open Ed. Where are the OER collections around disciplines? Why haven’t communities of mluti-institutional professional peers, all collectively working on OER, emerged in the same way they have in the open source software field?
  • The cost benefits of OER are first being realized in the open textbook arena. Where are the stellar examples of OER open textbooks being brought together with open OER courses?
  • We know that the primary users of existing OER are students and those engaged in self study. However, the voice and perspective of students is currently absent from the discussion. What do students think about OER? Will students end up being the primary improvers of OER through revision and remix?

My own presentation comparing Foundation funded OER initiatives with publicly funded OER initiatives led to some fruitful discussions especially with those responsible for foundation OER initiatives. Thanks to Hewlett Foundation’s Barbara Chow and Kathy Nicholson for using BCcampus as an examplar of a publicly funded OER in their Dec. 1st, 2010 presentation at the Taking Open Educational Resources (OER) beyond the OER Community, Policy and Capacity UNESCO/Commonwealth of Learning OER forum in Paris.

Special thanks to Gaudi and Salvador Dali for their oddly beautiful and frequently bizarre architectural and artistic creations which inspired me to think differently and which I’ve featured throughout this post and to Carlos Ruiz Zafón whose amazing book The Shadow of the Wind imbued Barcelona with a sense of eerie mystery in advance of my visit.


“Surprisingly the audience was unable to articulate many. Where are the innovative pedagogical models with OER generating deeper learning?”

Although not a new pedagogical model, I co-authored a paper about using PBL with OER ( That’s not to say I’m the first or last word on OER and pedagogy, but I thought I’d mention it.

I found this idea of looking at the negative space in OER interesting. However, I think some of the things you didn’t see at Open Ed 2010 reflected not necessarily an “absence” but a statement of assumptions. That’s why no one in proceedings directly addressed faculty concerns. The Open Ed community has always dealt with faculty concerns and will continue to do so. But for most attendees those concerns have been addressed and they moved on.

You can see this also with some of the grumbling in the OpenEd blogosphere about attention paid to sustainability. It seems that for some, they’ve already answered the question in their own minds, in their own unique way, and now they are moving on. For sustainability to be part of the conference theme only annoyed them, rather than enlighten.

Some of the absences are related to long-standing problems that no one wants to spear-head. Library staff (at least in Higher Ed) are busy arguing over Open Access and how clear their next paycheck amidst declining funding.

Lastly, although the OpenEd conference tries to be representative of the OpenEd community, there are obvious logistical constraints. I couldn’t work out a plane trip to Barcelona, and I doubt your average student could as well.

Comment by Seth


Thanks for the comments/feedback.

I particularly appreciate the link to your paper about using Problem Based Learning with OER. While I was actually hoping for a real (rather than hypothetical) use case your paper does identify some interesting potential ways for OER to contribute to PBL. While I acknowledge that lowering cost can be a significant benefit of OER I’m more interested in the new pedagogical approaches OER enable. You point out that PBL may improve as students go to outside OER resources beyond those provided by the teaching faculty member – I can see the benefits of that. I also appreciate you pointing out that for the PBL inquiry process to be meaningful the problem solution must be unknown to students and that if OER reveal the solution that may actually interfere with the learning process.

Hope we see way more discussion and exploration of the pedagogical benefits and potential of OER going forward. I’m thinking that new pedagogical approaches that specifically use the “open” attribute of OER will emerge.


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