Interoperable Open Education Resources (OER)

Michael Collins
4 min readMay 27, 2016


Markdown has exploded in popularity recently for scientists, engineers, writers, and others interested in publishing in flexible and open formats. With tools like GitBook, GitHub, PanDoc, Grav, and Jekyll, a single person can write in one place and publish everywhere and in every format. Arguably, it is now easier to sustain digitally written content for longer than in the recent past due to these tools and formats. No more dissertations trapped on old floppy disks. It’s truly an exciting time, as much as a person can be excited about version control and markdown documents.

Authoring for Remix

A few months ago, I invited a small, open-minded group of Penn State educators to take part in discussions about OER. Most were new to the concept. We’ve continued to meet and discuss OER related topics, calling ourselves simply the OER Group. A major topic at a recent OER Group meeting was Git-based authoring tools. These tools let you clone, fork, publish, and otherwise remix other people’s words with the trivial click of a button — and it’s encouraged! When I’m forced to open MS Word or a Google Doc, it feels like I’m stepping back into the stone age, no matter how useful and relevant those tools might be. One caveat is that layout and styling becomes complicated or restricted with these new authoring and publishing tools, but if the way it looks is so important to you (beyond basic typography standards which everyone should care about), then hire design and publishing professionals to do that work — doing layout and graphic design yourself isn’t recommended anyway unless you really know what you’re doing.


Now that information transportability is starting to gain traction, it seems like a fine time to bring up an issue near and dear to my heart. How do we build and structure Open Education Resources for transportability?

Things we want to transport:

  1. Course structure
  • Content
  • Pedagogical strategy
  • Metadata related to communicating these aspects

Things we don’t want to transport (outside of a single learning system)

  1. Student submissions, profile information, or assessment data
  2. Discussions (unless they become part of the content)
  3. Analytics
  4. Non-licensed (copyright protected) material

“The best part is, Google might be doing all the heavy lifting.”

Let’s examine the word transportability. Transportability is made possible only when standards are in place that enable interoperability between systems. Standardization is what makes the content go-round. Here is a useful and somewhat annoying fact. There exists standards that transport the things that I have listed under the don’t want to transport list and there exists no standards for the want to transport list (content and pedagogical strategy). Here’s why: have you ever had a disagreement about whether to call something a lesson, section, topic, unit, or whatever other term describes this abstract collection of stuff that helps people learn? You are not alone. These arguments, while silly, are important because language carries meaning. The only answer is to use abstracted words to define the structure to avoid further disagreement. To accomplish this, the plan is to use standardized tagging. This tagging can be applied to existing content using existing words like lesson or exercise, and it will happen at the HTML layer. The best part is, Google might be doing all the heavy lifting. For free. Keep reading.

Interoperable OER Standards

We are developing two things concurrently. We have a collaborative GitBook for OER Standards. This will inform the schema being developed for Just as helps programmers build web applications in such a way that abstract relationships can be understood universally, OER Schema will do the same, but with extended vocabulary for learning content and pedagogy. If accepted by the larger standards community, Google may choose to incorporate OER Schema into their search and index algorithms, making OER highly findable on the web without need for supplemental aggregation.

The first iteration of this standard will be tested at a full-day workshop later this summer. The tentative plan is to create a GitBook plugin to lower the bar for faculty to experiment with the standard and quickly publish. If successful, participants will not only be able to publish OER, they will create interoperable OER, which allows anyone to participate in education remix.


  1. Transportability = Sustainable (and people are realizing it)
  2. Standards help with transportability
  3. There are no standards for OER course structure
  4. We are defining OER standards, schema, and tools for publishing and remixing [UPDATE: See]
  5. OER standards = Sustainable OER

Originally published at on May 27, 2016.