Calculating the value of open resources

Alicia Swinamer

Commonwealth in Action

Many of the open learning resources available online are failing to help learners. The Commonwealth of Learning is making high-quality resources available to students in small states through a new virtual university – and getting a good response from its users

© Jacob Lund /

© Jacob Lund /

Millions of open educational resources (OER) have been produced, but not all of them are helpful or even being used. The digital movement has created a push towards digitising content, but just like a good book doesn’t necessarily make a good movie, not all materials are cut out to be OER. Unlike commercial products that follow the laws of supply and demand to ensure profitability, OER, by definition, are free and can bypass these requirements. As a result, a lot of OER exist that are of varying quality and usefulness. However, OER have great potential for helping achieve sustainable development via mass sharing of quality materials that can be adapted to meet the local context. For this reason, the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) has embraced the OER movement and is developing and sharing high-quality OER through its Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC).

VUSSC is a network of 32 small states in the Commonwealth, created and supported by ministers of education to collaborate and develop open content resources for education, training and capacity building, and the use of information and communications technology (ICT) to broaden access to education. Through the VUSSC Transnational Qualifications Framework (TQF), endorsed earlier this year, students from different countries have access to the same quality of education and credentials. In other words, a master’s student from Saint Lucia will have the same educational standards and qualifications as a master’s student in Malta. This allows young people to transfer their skills easily and work in different countries in the Commonwealth. The underlying premise of VUSSC is to help its members overcome their lack of capacity, due to their small size, and enable them to provide access to quality education via OER.

When Leigh-Anne Perryman, a researcher at the Open University in the UK who had been conducting research on OER in the UK and India, met John Lesperance, COL’s education specialist for VUSSC, at the Seventh Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning in Abuja, Nigeria, the idea to study VUSSC took form. At the time, Perryman was a researcher with the award-winning OER Research Hub, a project that is dedicated to conducting research on the impact of OER on learning and teaching. The OER Research Hub is funded by the Open University in the UK and the Hewlett Foundation. Perryman’s VUSSC research was conducted as part of an OER Research Hub Fellowship and in April 2015 she visited the COL offices to present her research findings to COL staff. She was accompanied by fellow Open University academic Tony Coughlan, with whom she researches OER outside academia.

Perryman’s deep research on OER has led her to some controversial conclusions. For example, she notes that there is a divide in the OER world between academic elites from developed countries and those who see OER as a powerful tool for sustainable development. On the one hand, OER are developed for their own sake, textbooks are converted into OER and materials are created “as the output of discrete short-term projects that start and end and tend not to learn from each other”. In this view, large amounts of learning materials are being converted to OER without consideration of learners’ needs. Coughlan points out that “open textbooks may save a lot of money in principle, but aren’t necessarily being used to improve learning outcomes. For example, in some countries people don’t actually read printed textbooks, so they’re not likely to read an open textbook either”.

Responding to the open education movement’s emphasis on open textbooks, Coughlan adds that “it’s easier to write something big, a big textbook is easier than getting your point across in a few lines on a mobile phone. Big digital textbooks aren’t the solution to achieving educational inclusion”. Perryman continues: “There is a view that OER is the solution, that openness solves everything. However, this view of the power of openness doesn’t reflect the barriers, like limited internet connectivity. The focus on creating OER for its own purpose neglects the user, which can make the materials irrelevant or worse.”

An alternate view of OER positions the user as the primary focus. Materials are created to meet a need in a way that is easy and accessible to the learner. In this way, materials are often made into small chunks to be downloaded and consumed offline. Coughlan notes that the focus is on distilling the material into small file sizes and “getting it down to tiny things” to increase the user’s likelihood and ability of accessing the information.

This is the view that VUSSC embraces. All the materials that are created seek to improve quality and access to the learner, and are adaptable so that local context can be applied to assist the learner without compromising the quality of the materials. After conducting a comparative study on OER creation and use with VUSSC, Perryman is convinced that VUSSC has found an educational development model that is unique and effective. Instead of the “neo-colonial notion of pushing content”, VUSSC is different, she says. “It works with people who collaborate to produce materials. There is a sense of empowerment; it’s not development being done to people.”

Perryman presented the findings of this research at the Open Education Global Conference in Banff, Alberta, Canada, earlier this year. The collected data provides proof that VUSSC educators and learners are benefiting from the VUSSC model. For example, 56 per cent of VUSSC educators said that they collaborate more with colleagues as a result of OER, compared with 30 per cent of educators using open content from the UK Open University’s OpenLearn platform, and 36 per cent of educators using the platform. Furthermore, 72.5 per cent of VUSSC educators have adapted resources to fit their needs, demonstrating that collaboration has had a positive impact on the educators’ likelihood of contextualising OER. Modifying OER to meet specific needs and local context is a key goal of OER as it increases the resources’ usefulness and likely impact on the learner.

While VUSSC educators have positively responded to OER, they are not alone; formal students of VUSSC consistently showed higher use of OER, and higher perceptions of the value of OER than students using OpenLearn and did. When asked if studying OER had led to an improvement in their grades, 90 per cent of VUSSC learners agreed that it had, while only 36 and 32 per cent of OpenLearn and students, respectively, gave a positive answer. VUSSC students also rated their collaboration with peers and enthusiasm for future study higher than other learners. Of particular note for developers of online courses, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), which have high sign-up and dropout rates, VUSSC students gave a 91 per cent positive score when asked if studying OER had increased their likelihood of completing their course of study, compared to 58 and 41 per cent for OpenLearn and

Perryman cautions, however, that the VUSSC respondents could have given more positive responses because they are being taught by trained educators who value OER or because the learners may only be studying via OER. Regardless of this, the data captured demonstrates that VUSSC educators and learners are positively gaining from the VUSSC model.

While Perryman and Lesperance’s research highlighted many areas in which VUSSC and its users may be unique, the key findings have greater implications for the OER community.

Perryman believes that the VUSSC model demonstrates that when the user community’s needs are not being met by mainstream OER, development and sharing through open, transnational collaboration can offer a solution.

She notes that the VUSSC model is “presenting a compelling view of the potential of open collaboration in growing small states’ educational capacity and in helping increase educational and social inclusion in remote and isolated areas of the world”.

You can read Leigh-Anne Perryman and John Lesperance’s full paper on COL’s website

About the author:

Alicia Swinamer is the stakeholder relations manager at the Commonwealth of Learning


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