When two worlds don’t collide: the marginalisation of open educational practices outside academia

Perryman, Leigh-Anne and Coughlan, Tony (2014). When two worlds don’t collide: the marginalisation of open educational practices outside academia. In: OER14, 28-29 Apr 2014, Newcastle, UK.


A canyonesque gulf has long existed between open academia and many external subject communities. Since 2011, we have been developing and piloting the public open scholar role (Coughlan & Perryman 2012) - involving open academics discovering, sharing and discussing open educational resources (OER) with online communities outside formal education in order to help bridge this gulf. In 2013 we took the public open scholar into Facebook (Perryman & Coughlan, 2013) to reach an international audience of autism-focussed Facebook groups in India, Africa and Malaysia, with a combined membership of over 5000 people.

Performing the public open scholar role within Facebook led to our learning from group members about new resources produced outside formal education, for example by voluntary sector organisations, government and professional bodies. These resources are surprisingly numerous and compare favourably with those from universities. Seeking to source more such resources we conducted a systematic large scale search, recording not only the number of learning materials available but also how easy it was to find them.

We found that provision from formal education, especially universities, dominates the returned results when searching for free online courses. Consequently, resources from outside formal education, while they exist, are difficult to find. Indeed, most aggregators and repositories proudly state that the free online courses they list are from 'Top Universities', appearing blind to provision from outside formal education. We extended our research to cover e-textbooks and found a similar situation, with content from formal education again dominating provision and collections such as the 4000 free textbooks from The National Academies Press (www.nap.edu) being practically invisible.

The prominence of university-provided content within search aggregators not only marginalises externally produced resources, relegating them to even more obscurity than has been the case thus far, but also marginalises the open educational practices that were involved in the production of these resources. We propose that the OER movement’s questions about ways of involving end-users as co-producers may be answered by looking to external communities and, accordingly, we should be supporting and learning from these communities. Additionally, our findings indicate a need for an impartial open content search facility presenting resources from within and outside formal education in order to help discoverability of the latter. The recently launched search engine http://solvonauts.org is very much a step in the right direction.

Further research might usefully investigate in more depth the open educational practices of external subject communities, who are clearly more than just passive consumers of resources and are involved in both producing and adapting OER. There are clear parallels here with research exploring the localisation of resources produced for and by people in the developing world (e.g. Wolfenden & Buckler, 2013; Ivins, 2011) and the ways in which heavily promoted content from the developed world continues to dominate, at the expense of more relevant local provision. Our study links to several other research contexts, including the recent research into the use of OER by informal learners (e.g. Law, Perryman & Law, 2013) and the growing body of research on the impact of MOOCs (as summarised by Haggard, 2013).

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