Tony Bates is one the most important thinkers in digital higher education. He understands both the organizational and educational sides of the equation – and that’s very rare.

An interesting debate is unfolding at his blog on OER – Open Educational Resources. Tony is finding himself outnumbered by the advocates of the “open content” movement. I’ve reposted my notes from that exchange below.

I’ve written and presented on the limits of the current open content model, as well as the political quality of the “movement”. Indeed, I can remember generating a hostile reaction from colleagues back in 2001 when I suggested in an essay that the MIT initiative was primarily of symbolic value.

For me, then, your views seem entirely appropriate.

There’s no question that academics and institutions should share their digital resources – this is obvious. If academics and their institutions take their role as contributors to the “greater good” seriously, then they should take steps to release the materials that the taxpayers have funded. But this issue is unrelated to the question of whether these instructional materials – as they are currently produced – are any good.

In most cases, high quality content requires significant investment, a team of specialists, and a true division of labour – none of which are in place at traditional universities. Yes, it’s possible for the lone academic to produce inexpensive, homegrown content  – but it’s always going to be the exception, and exceptions should not serve as the basis of policy or institutional strategy.

The current model for producing digital open content in higher education ensures that too much of what’s created is, as you noted, “unintelligible PowerPoint slides, PDF files that can’t be adapted or modified, or rambling 50 minute recorded lectures.”

Content is certainly not the source of all learning. But when content can play an important role – and it will increasingly as rich media becomes commonplace – we should do everything we can to ensure that the content we provide to our students is the very best available – whether it is “open” content or not.

I’ve seen some absolutely atrocious content come out the better-known open content initiatives. I can assure you that if someone used content of that low quality in a university course that my daughters attend (one day), for no other reason than they were advocates of “open content”, I will be seriously pissed off. As should anyone that cares about quality.


Mark Smithers: E-Learning at Universities:  A Quality – Free Zone

OER: Conversation Notes

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