Open Educational Resources International Symposium: Sustainable practice in OER

Sustainability is one of the buzz words of the moment. But what does it mean for OER and how can OER projects best tackle it? Three projects, three speakers and three very different approaches were on offer to the audience in this morning session in which the speakers represented the varieties of project covered in JISC’s UK OER pilot programme – individual, institutional, and subject-based.

Joss Winn from Lincoln University kicked off. He led the individual strand project Chemistry FM, which delivered a 30-credit course on introductory chemistry for forensic science.

His take on sustainability was couched in the language of Marxist critical theory and was far removed from the ‘business model’ approach often associated with discussions about sustainable resources.

“Nothing is sustainable in our world at the moment – why should OER be sustainable?” said Winn. “I do truly believe this and so sustainability in my view is not about money but about the way we wish to love, live, eat, work, play and learn – it’s about what we want in our world.”

For Winn, OER is part of the struggle against traditional forms of private property and the movement represents a radical change away from what universities are right now. Open Education is “in, against, beyond” the university and, at Lincoln, is pegged to three fundamental propositions: ‘student as producer’ – about collaborative relations between student and teacher and research-engaged teaching; ‘mass intellectuality’ – the university as a social form; and ‘pedagogy of excess’ – students not just performing their role as students but also making links between wider issues in society.

According to Winn, if the ChemistryFM project is to be sustainable within Lincoln then it has to work within these themes.

In contrast, for Simon Thomson from Leeds Metropolitan University, “sustainability means that you need to be adaptable. Our approach was about that.”

Thomson was representing the Unicycle OER project that tried to implement an OER strategy within the institution in the space of one year, and explained that his team sought to make the strategy sustainable from the outset by embedding it as part of processes the institution already had. Although the project set up a Central OER Support Unit, the two people in that team focused their energies on building up links with other people in the institution such as the copyright clearance office and the repository development team.

“Think about what your institution already has and how you can engage with them, and then use that mechanism to push out to other areas of the university,” advised Thomson.

Key to the plan were the faculty coordinator roles – senior lecturers in each department who were entrusted with long term tasks: to manage content locally; oversee quality; cascade IPR advice and support; coordinate events and workshops; raise awareness; submit content to repository; liaise with the central OER team; feedback on progress; and share good practice.

By working with all the faculties and teaching them how to manage quality control and submit resources to the repository, the OER project was putting in place a structure that would enable the work to continue even after the Central OER Support Unit was wound down.

“It was not about creating anything new but just bringing a new subject to all these places in the institution,” explained Thomson. “Communities of interest are great, especially for profile and awareness-raising but you need more than just enthusiastic individuals because communities of interest can die out. You need some underlying strategy within the institution to keep it going.”

Adam Mannis, from the Materials Subject Centre, agreed that a focus on sustainability from the outset is important, but, as his was a subject-based OER project (CORE-Materials), a community of interest was crucial. The project had 20 partners including higher education bodies, industrial agencies, and international partners and they found that the promotion of CORE-Materials through the national subject centre, UKCME, was one way to get the active people involved and raise awareness and get them to be the future contributors.

Mannis highlighted the benefits of web 2.0 tools for their “added value dimension” and also their greater functionality and marketing potential. “Move beyond the mindset of the project,” he urged. “Once the resources are up and running, the project website shouldn’t be the original website with all the project documentation up front. Instead, get into marketing mode and show what your audience what they are there for – the resources. Make a gallery in Flickr, put animations on YouTube, make portability a subset of openness.”

Mannis told the story of a colleague in Swansea who had released some of his animations as OER on web 2.0 sites and then tracked the usage of them. Through that tracking he realised that they were fulfilling a need in the oil industry in the North Sea and also in Dubai. He got in touch with the people using them, discussed their needs and, as a result, developed a short course for them which became an income stream.

“That was only possible because he put those resources out there, used web 2.0 and interacted,” said Mannis. “Those are the kinds of stories we need to capture”.