29 March 2013

OERs: moving towards further reusability

I'm pretty skeptical about OERs (open education resources) as I've said before.  A lot of the talk on the H817 blog aggregator is about how things are too tightly coupled – you can't break apart the courses as you'd like.

To have any real evidence of any substantial OER use in the real world, we'd need to see the same thing appear in two places... and it just so happens that I have seen the same thing occur in two places.  Take this picture:

Last year I was studying Gaelic full-time, and for a bit of variety I took anatomy and physiology as an outside course.  It was all online, and there were a lot of pictures of the same style as the above, and every time I failed to understand something in the course notes, I turned to Wikipedia for guidance and more often than not found identical pictures to the ones I was seeing in my course.  The picture above was taken from the Wikimedia Commons site, where it is free for any use, commercial or otherwise.

But more interestingly, it originated from a US federal government scheme, and all works of the federal government are property of the US people, meaning that effectively they're in the public domain as soon as they're published.

Now, the original purpose of these images was to support a basic module entitled Anatomy and Physiology on the US National Cancer Institute training site, SEER.  As I've still got an archive of my course notes on an external hard drive, I decided to see whether the course organisers had just gone to Wikipedia, or if they'd gone straight to the source.  It turns out they'd just gone to Wikipedia, and created a lot of unnecessary work for themselves in the process.  At first glance, the SEER material looks far better written than the actual course materials, in that it is less disjointed and easier to understand.  There is far more consistency in the look of the various images, whereas the course I took is a hodge-podge of widely varying drawing styles.

So there is clearly some reuse going on, but it really only seems to be starting at the level of images.

This, of course, is where it makes most sense: it's the "media" part of any course that is the hardest and most expensive to produce, so it seems only right that this is the place to begin.

Perhaps, then, the most suitable approach to improving uptake of reusable materials is to start with individual media resources, then build bundles of media resources, only once we have these bundles encourage teachers to start building text around them.

The problem with current efforts is that the text is added in too soon.  As soon as we start writing a text, we are making decisions about what to include and what to exclude from the activity/lesson/whatever.  Once we've made those decisions, we unconsciously blind ourselves to the gaps in the media set – if we don't need it for our lesson, we don't see it as required to complete the set, and the media set remains conceptually linked to our lesson.

For many types of media, no-one but the original artist/producer can mimic the style of the set.  Say one person records 101 anatomical terms so that learners can hear the pronunciation, and includes renal artery but misses renal vein.  The next guy who wants to use the set either has to adjust his lesson to suit, or record the word, but it will be in a different voice, so will be very noticeable.

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