Order & Chaos in OER

A good portion of my career has been spent at the state system level in higher education.  That work is gratifying in many ways, and frustrating in others, with some efforts providing a little of both.  Providing grants to campus faculty for instructional technology projects is a good example.  It was great to see exciting and innovative work being done and to be helpful in advancing the efforts, but it was frustrating in a couple of ways.  First, it was hard to pass the resources along without wanting to be engaged in the implementation, but I recognized that such work was appropriately done at the campus level.  Second, and relevant to the topic of this posting, there were times when instructional materials were being developed that I knew would have utility beyond the individual faculty member’s classroom.  I wanted to make sure that the investments made in developing those resources could be extended to other campuses and faculty.

It was this interest that led me to become involved in the promotion and use of open educational resources (OER) and our state’s involvement as a founding partner in MERLOT – the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching. 

I often describe my work in higher education systems using chaos theory.  The best systems find that balance point between order and chaos, or coordination and autonomy.  There need to be certain areas where institutions work together in a coordinated way (credit transfer, for example), but others where campus autonomy should rule (like faculty issues).  OER is a concept that offers such balance.   The openness and sharability (including things like quality assurance mechanisms and technical standards) require a certain amount of coordination (order), but the decision to use them (and how and when to do so) along with their re-use and adaptation are best made at the campus or faculty level. 

Even the range of granularity in the learning objects can be a source of this balance.   OER can be simple modules that demonstrating a single concept, or complete courses, like MIT’s OpenCourseWare.  The “orderly” side of things helps set the standards for development and creates infrastructures for their collection, organization, discovery, and use.  Along the other side of the spectrum is where individual faculty (or sometimes departments) choose which OER are the best fit and assemble them into the unique mixtures that are appropriate for their students and curricula.

Open Educational Resources can be a place or environment where individual faculty can exercise their autonomy through their development and use – making the decisions on which OER are best suited to meet the needs of the learners they serve, using as few or as many as called for, some big, some small, using them as is or adapting them for their specific needs.  And OER can also be the place where coordinated efforts can pay dividends – leveraging limited resources by promoting shared use, creating communities where individuals can collaborate and share, and supporting efforts and mechanisms for quality assurance and technical standards.