Discoverability: the final frontier for OERS?

‘if no one can find an OER no one will use it‘
‘I don’t think people knew where to look or what to do with them
Life, Beauty, Scene, Climb, Hike’ by Xiaomi Hm1s is licensed under CC0 1.0

The ‘open’ movement whilst still in relative infancy could be said to be entering ‘open 2.0’. Now that a wealth of freely available and free-to-use educational resources are out there, advocates often implore us to ‘curate, rather than create’; to ‘procure rather than produce’. Yet as others have written, this often turns out to be less than easy in practice. The task of finding relevant OERs can be so tricky that it often seems easier and quicker to create our own from scratch.

Issues with discovering OERs

To help others discover OER collections, colleagues posting in Medium last year provided several useful links. It is interesting to see how many of those urls remain valid just one year later. Try a couple:

Jisc alternative platforms

- try searching for ‘physics’ or ‘anatomy & physiology’ then accessing the results (these resources are currently sought by a colleague for use as pre-sessional bridging material).

So, where are the missing Xpert resources now? And what of the OERs that were donated to Jisc’s Jorum, many of which must surely remain relevant and useful? All we have left of the original Jorum site are snapshots in Wayback Machine, with no obvious archive of content available. Legacy assets that seem to fare best tend to be those under stewardship, such as YouTube videos.

‘Monitor 404 error problem page’ by Mocho is licensed under CC0 1.0

This disappearing OER phenomenon demonstrates a case for the adoption of something like a DOI registration system for OERs; as long as an open resource was still hosted somewhere it would never be lost, and any repository or web index would simply point to the DOI. There would be a cost associated with that, of course, but it seems a shame to lose all that valuable open knowledge. Cataloguing can be onerous.

Cataloguing for discoverability back in ‘open 1.0’

A 2004 guide for Jorum contributors provides an insight into what was involved in contributing OERs, more likely to have been known then as ‘learning objects’ and ‘assets’. The guide (I cannot find it online) walks the user through the process of uploading and making a file or ‘content package’ discoverable. To summarise:

  • the contributor would add metadata describing the item in terms conforming to the UK Learning Object Metadata Core (UK LOM Core)
  • they would then go on to classify the resource using the Joint Academic Coding (JACs) or LearnDirect subject classification systems

So far, a suitable job for a librarian! But we’re not done yet:

  • entries for a single resource could be made in more than one location of the classification structure

.. and so on for each item; an item that may be of sufficiently small granularity so as to be a single asset, such as an image. Exhausting.. off-putting.. yet, at the time, necessary - if others were to be able to discover and retrieve the resources they sought.

‘open 2.0’?: automated discovery facilitation

In an ideal world, the process of indexing for discoverability would be automated. Advances in semantic search use analytics to disambiguate natural language search terms so as to more accurately interpret the intended meaning and the context as understood by the seeker.

In addition, the project, established by big names including Google and Microsoft, is working to create schemas, defining hierarchies of ‘types’ of ‘things’ to bring structure to machine-readable data markup and so produce richer, more relevant results.

Creative Commons drawing’ by Karin Dalziel is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

So now when you generate a creative commons licence for your work, the code generated contains “rel=license” which not only links to the human-readable licence but enables search engines to facilitate the discoverability of the resource. (A really good guide to the various CC licences and how to generate a licence can be found here.)

The challenge: discoverability from the seeker’s perspective

We need to face the fact that despite OERs theoretically being available to all, they have remained accessible only to a relatively elite few. If we are to take social responsibility seriously, the beneficiaries of our OERs ought to be people from potentially any and all walks of society, with reach extending from local to global. The term ‘OER’ most likely means nothing to most.

Perhaps instead of thinking in terms of what we put out there, we should turn that on its head and get closer to the needs and preferences of people, communities, societies and contemplate how they might readily access and utilise those resources in ways with which they are familiar.

In ‘Game Changers’ chapter 6: ‘Why Openness in Education?’ (CC BY 3.0) David Wiley and Cable Green argue that education by its very nature is sharing, but that there is more to sharing than simply ‘issuing’ or imparting knowledge: “If an instructor’s attempts at sharing fail, we call that instructor a poor educator”. This should come as no surprise if we have bought in to the idea that a learner constructs their own learning, with the educator providing suitable learning opportunities in an environment facilitative to learning.

Seen from this perspective, making knowledge open cannot simply be a matter of throwing OERs out there and hoping they will somehow be taken up and made use of; and maybe this is the threshold we now encounter in the next evolution of open.

If we are to democratise access to OERs, the OERs themselves need to be both readily discoverable and relevant to the context in which the user would wish to utilise them. Perhaps then usage would be viralised at grassroots level, using local networks, but that is for another piece.

In the meantime,

Here are some currently valid links to OERs or OER repositories. Let’s see if they’re still available a year from now.


Open Course Library

Academic Earth playlists (YouTube)

OER Consortium (features Merlot)

Jisc digital resources offer, app and resource store

MIT Open Courseware

OER Commons

Free to use images

(filter Google Image search by licence)

Creative Commons

Understanding Creative Commons — Case Study (video and pdf)
 From 5m:11s: how to generate a CC licence

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