OER Synthesis and Evaluation / Motives and tensions in the release of Open Educational Resources
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Motives and tensions in the release of Open Educational Resources

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Draft paper  


Motives and tensions in the release of Open Educational Resources: the JISC UKOER programme



Isobel Falconera*, Allison Littlejohnb, Lou McGillc and Helen Beethamd



*Corresponding author

aCaledonian Academy, Glasgow Caledonian University, Cowcaddens Rd, Glasgow, G4 0BA, UK, isobel.falconer@gcu.ac.uk +44 141 331 8408

bCaledonian Academy, Glasgow Caledonian University, allison.littlejohn@gcu.ac.uk

cConsultant, lou.mcgill@gmail.com

dConsultant, helen.beetham@googlemail.com



In recent years, Open Educational Resources (OER) have been widely promoted as path to universal education, supporting social and economic development and intercultural dialogue. However, uptake of OER has been slower than hoped; to realise their benefits requires an improved understanding of the factors that influence OER release, management and use.


This paper examines one aspect of the OER lifecycle – the motivations underlying release – and analyses the resultant tensions in the process of releasing OER. It draws its evidence from a major programme of OER release projects (UKOER) funded by two UK government agencies, the Joint Information Systems Committee and the Higher Education Academy.


The paper sets the UKOER programme within the global context of OER initiatives. It uses grounded theory to categorise the underlying motives of the projects, identifying five basic motive types. Next, in an analysis derived from activity theory, it examines the experience of the projects, highlighting the tensions or contradictions they encountered. Discussion focuses on the motive types as the origin of the tensions. The findings will be of interest to funding bodies, institutions and individuals intending to release OER as they reveal potentially fundamental limitations and barriers to realising the benefits of OER.



Keywords: activity systems, Activity Theory, motivation, OER, open educational resources, open practices




1. Introduction

In recent years, efforts to ensure universal access to high quality education have been viewed as a prime way of promoting sustainable social and economic development, and intercultural dialogue (Unesco, 2012; Europa 2009). At the same time, individual nations, and economic groupings such as the European Union, are calling for a fundamental transformation of education to develop new competences among their citizens if they are to remain competitive (European Commission, 2013; Barroso, 2012).  Since their inception in 2001 with MIT’s Open Courseware initiative (Livingstone-Vale and Long, 2003), the potential for open educational resources (OER) to play a major role in realising these ambitions has been mooted. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) concluded in 2007 that the idea of ‘giving knowledge away for free’ had made considerable progress and advocated greater efforts to boost OER in order to improve global access, while UNESCO views OER as providing, ‘a strategic opportunity to improve the quality of education as well as facilitate policy dialogue, knowledge sharing and capacity building’ (OECD, 2007; UNESCO, 2012). Organisations such as UNESCO, OECD, ICDE are working collaboratively through projects such as the Open Educational Quality Initiative (OPAL) to raise the profile of OER, while some individual countries such as the Netherlands, Poland, and Brazil are developing national OER strategies and policies.


However, while OER are high on the agenda of educational policies, and some potential benefits, such as encouraging innovation, promoting the concept of lifelong learning, enhancing the quality and flexibility of resources, showcasing the institution have been recognised (OECD 2007; Yuan, MacNeil & Kraan 2008; McGill, et al 2010; McGill et al 2013), OER release and use has not yet reached a critical mass. To realise the benefits requires a much better understanding than we have at present of the factors that influence the OER lifecycle. Although a number of technical barriers - such as lack of interoperability – have been identified, the main problem is our limited understanding of the practices of OER release, and the impact that supply-side activity is having, , on teaching and learning, . While there is recognition that the release of OER in itself will not automatically lead to use by others (Lane & MacAndrew, 2010; McGill et. al. 2010; Margaryan & Littlejohn, 2008), the tensions inherent in the enterprise of OER release have not been extensively explored.


This paper explores some of these tensions and the differing motivations in which they originate. It does so in the context of the UK Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and Higher Education Academy (HEA) UKOER pilot programme. Through the associated evaluation and synthesis project (McGill et al, 2010) we collected data from 29 UKOER projects in the form of reports, blog postings and outputs. Taking an activity-theoretic perspective, we categorise the motives underlying the programme and its component projects, and then identify tensions resulting from these motives. We conclude by discussing the tensions and their implications for embedding a culture of openness in education.




2. The JISC UKOER programme in the context of OER initiatives

In 2009-10 the JISC and HEA, UK government agencies, funded a programme of projects to release OER: the UKOER pilot programme.


The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines OER as,’digitised materials offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and reuse for teaching, learning and research’ (OECD, 2007). The first major OER release project was MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative of 2001 (Livingstone-Vale and Long, 2003), funded by the William and Flora Hewlett and the Andrew W. Mellon foundations. Since then a wide range of initiatives have produced resources that might be explicitly described as OER. Atkins, Seely Brown and Hammond (2007) identify five areas around which such programmes cluster, distinguished by their aims to:


1. Build capacity in developing countries for effective use of OER. Programmes include the African Virtual University, the UNESCO virtual university, and the OER Africa project


2. Build a relevant research community. Projects focus on OER, their release and use as an object of enquiry. Examples include the Commonwealth of Learning programme, which funded a Research Chair position to advance knowledge around OER.


3. Build awareness, voice, and understanding. Such projects include the OER Commons Community  and the Open Learning Network.


4. Develop general software and middleware services infrastructure for creating, federating, and finding OER resources. These projects include the UK Open University LabSpace and the University of Michigan Sakai Project.


5. Incubate high quality specialized open resources. These are projects that publish digital material with or without provision for collaborative learning around the materials. High profile initiatives in this area are MIT OpenCourseWare and the UK Open University OpenLearn.


The UKOER programme initiated projects of the fifth type, aiming to develop and release open resources. The funding call highlighted five levels of resource granularity with increasing degrees of embedded information (JISC, 2009a) based on Littlejohn, Falconer and McGill’s (2008) classification of e-learning resources.  In doing so it implicitly steered projects towards the first of the three types of resource identified by the OECD (2007):


1. Learning content: Full courses, courseware, content modules, learning objects, collections and journals;


2.Tools: Software to support the development, use, reuse and delivery of learning content, including searching and organisation of content, content and learning management systems, content development tools, and online learning communities;


3. Implementation resources: Intellectual property licenses to promote open publishing of materials, design principles of best practice and localise content.


JISC’s implicit definition was thus narrower than the OECD’s and that of previous studies (for example, Hylén, 2005; Johnstone, 2005). 


While taking a fairly narrow definition of ‘resource’, the programme’s definition of ‘open’ as, ‘free for use and repurposing worldwide’ (JISC 2009b), with the specification that resources must be released under an open licence and deposited in a national repository, JorumOpen (JISC 2009b) conformed largely with the Public Library of Science definition of ‘open’ advocated in Downes (2007):

  • Free, immediate access online
  • Unrestricted distribution and re-use
  • Author retains rights to attribution
  • Papers are deposited in a public online archive such as (eg PubMed Central).


Twenty-nine projects were funded at universities, colleges and HEA national subject centres distributed across England and Wales. Project teams were of three types: institutional, subject communities, or individuals The programme operated on two basic premises: 1) that widespread involvement of teaching staff would bring about a sustainable change in culture from focusing on content ownership, to focusing on open sharing; and 2) that building a critical mass of OER would bring about sustainable change in practices of reuse and repurposing. Thousands of resources were made available under Creative Commons licences.




3. Motives and Activity Theory

Identifying the overarching motives driving OER release is central to analysing the ways in which OER practice is changing. In the next section we identify and categorise these motives, but before doing so, we conceptualise their role in terms of activity theory.

Activity theory views human activities, such as OER release, as complex socially situated phenomena. Activity systems are socio-cultural settings where community members (subjects) work on some sort of object or ‘problem space’, transforming it into an outcome using tools which may be technological (such as software) or conceptual (such as pedagogic theory). The tool-mediated action maybe constrained or enabled by implicit and explicit rules and the broader social context (community) within which the activity takes place. Labour is divided among the community members (roles). (Centre for Activity Theory 2004). In this paper we take the project teams as subjects and OER release as the object of the activity. Engeström (1987) represented these relationships as a triangle, as illustrated in the context of one of the UKOER projects in figure 1.


The motive sits above the system, defining the problem space or object being worked on and giving the activity ‘directionality, purpose, and meaning’ (Engeström, 2005, p. 312).  The object of the activity provides a focus for the overarching motive. 



Figure 1: An activity system from the UKOER programme taking the Open Spires Project (Robinson 2010), as an example. The project team (subject) worked on open release of podcasts (objects) within an HE institutional context (community). The outcomes were released podcasts and new IPR agreements. The team used video capture and repository technologies (tools) to create and release OER.  




Motives determine the direction of the activity. They are thus distinguished from the lower level objectives through which the anticipated outcomes or proposed benefits of the activity are reached, although they are in constant dialectic with the objectives. The activity-theoretic distinction between motive and anticipated outcome corresponds to Anscombe’s (2000) distinction between a ‘general motive’ which expresses the spirit in which an activity is undertaken, and an ‘intention’ or ‘forward-looking motive’ which is the aim of the activity.


Motives, themselves, uphold higher level ‘values’ (Leontiev 2005) or ‘perspectives’ (Foot 2002). There may be multiple motives within the system as subjects negotiate the relationship of their motives with the emergent motives of the community. Such differing motives give rise to tensions in the activity system (Nardi 2005).


A premise of activity theory is that innovation is driven by ’contradictions’ or ’structural tensions’ through which the system develops from present practice (Engeström2005). The tensions may lie within a single component of the system, for example the marketing value of publicising OER through twitter versus the time needed to do so effectively, or between components, for example the educational benefit of implementing a situative pedagogy versus the legal risk to the institution of hosting the required open collaborative platform. A third form of tension arises when the guiding motives come into conflict, for example when ideals of open access to knowledge oppose existing institutional commercial practice. The UKOER project teams (subjects), whether individual, subject-based, or institutional, all operated within the context of higher education institutions (community) and motives often came into confluct.




4. Methodology

It is difficult to examine motives directly. However, being in dialectic with the objectives of an activity, they are revealed by actions (Edwards 2010). To elucidate motives, evidence for objectives and intentions in the UKOER programme came from project plans, from a brainstorming activity held at an evaluation workshop for the programme (McGill et al, 2010) and from the JISC calls for funding (JISC 2009b). However, the authors of all three sources of evidence had a vested interest in funding for OER, and used an element of rhetoric which means that the proposed benefits have to be treated with a degree of caution if they are interpreted as governing motives.  Furthermore, we cannot take for granted that the benefits stated in the funding call were actually adopted as motives by the projects (subjects) or the institutions (community) within which they were based. Despite demonstration elsewhere of these benefits, by 2009 few UK universities had adopted them as motives, even though the Good Intentions report (McGill et al 2008) had evidenced them in some detail.


To arrive at a tentative identification of high level motivations for OER release in the UKOER projects, bearing in mind the above caveats, we took a grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), clustering stated objectives and anticipated benefits into groups that appeared to correspond to similar overarching motives, either implicit or explicit. From this data we developed a typology of motivations which we then tested against motives suggested elsewhere in the literature (Atkins et al, 2007; OER Africa project; Capetown Open Declaration; Downes, 2007). More tentatively, we grouped the motive clusters into those that appeared to uphold similar higher level values.


Using this typology, we examined whether the motives that emerged helped to interpret the actions of the UKOER projects. Evidence came from our UKOER programme-wide synthesis and evaluation (McGill et al, 2010,), which used project reports, blogs, and workshop discussions to explore, 1) common issues around the release of OER; and 2) cultural differences across the sector in the norms, rules and reward structures surrounding OER practices. A coding framework was developed iteratively in collaboration with the OER projects, providing a common template for synthesising their diverse experiences and the basis for examining tensions in some components of the activity system, community, tools, and rules.



5. Results and discussion

5.1 Motives underlying the release of OERs

Our clustering of aims and anticipated benefits suggested five candidate areas of high level motivation associated with the UKOER programme:


1.Building individuals’  institutions’ or subject community’s reputation, exemplified by the Open Content Employability and OpenStaffs projects which aimed to use OER as a mechanism to showcase institutions and attract potential students (Morris 2010; Stiles and Hall 2010);


2. Improving efficiency, cost and quality of resource production, exemplified by the Unicycle project, which examined the resource release strategy from creation through to reuse (Thomson 2010);


3. Opening access to knowledge, exemplified by the ChemistryFM project which explicitly adopted a ‘teaching in public’ approach (Winn 2010);


4. Enhancing pedagogy through the creation and reuse of OER, aligned with opening access to knowledge and exemplified by the Java Bread-Board project which adopted an open-source community model to developing the tool-set (Crispin-Bailey 2010);


5. Building technological momentum (and being funded to do so), evidenced in the JISC call itself (JISC, 2009b).


These categories are summarised in Table 1



Table 1. Summary of categories of motives for OER release evident in the UKOER projects, showing also their characteristics and underpinning commitments


Reputation building

Efficiency/income generation

Open access to knowledge

Enhancing pedagogy

Technological momentum

Some characteristics

Potential students as users

Granular resources to broadcast content (eg. podcasts, videos)

Social software to advertise resources

Teachers as users

Disaggregable resources with examples of pedagogic use

Coherent body of resources, often with pedagogic wrapper

Social software to advertise resources


Often students as users and/or producers

Social software for collaborative development


Further development of existing technological infrastructure and expertise

Underlying commitments

A marketisation model of higher education

Belief in open access to knowledge and collective intelligence (an “academic commons”)

To capitalise on existing investment in technology and associated expertise and infrastructure

Existing literature

Downes (2007)

OECD (2007)

Atkins et al (2007)

Downes (2007)

OECD (2007)

Atkins et al (2007)

Downes (2007)

OECD (2007)

Atkins et al (2007)

Atkins et al (2007)

Kernohan (2011)

Beetham (2011)

Not previously identified




Table 2 (Appendix A) illustrates in more detail the clustering and the underlying motives suggested.  The motivations described in the literature mapped easily to this classification as shown in the lower rows of Table 2.  Other motives identified in the literature may be considered as an interaction between one of these five and a specific context. Sustaining minority disciplines, for example, identified in McGill et al (2008) becomes the particular form of an open access to knowledge motive held by the community of the minority discipline.


Of the five areas, the first three are well recognised and discussed, for example in Downes (2007), OECD (2007), Atkins et al (2007).  We view our fourth category, enhancing pedagogy, as fundamentally different to that of producing high quality materials efficiently or cost effectively, in that it is underpinned by altruistic positions rather than a business model approach. It puts its emphasis on the value of the OER development process, rather than the value of the OER content produced. Enhancing pedagogy was singled out as a motive by Atkins et al (2007) but has been less widely recognised generally. However, analyses arising from the UKOER programme have highlighted the importance of changes in curriculum development practices (Kernohan 2011, Beetham et al 2011). The belief that the new practices improve pedagogy is, ultimately, founded on a commitment to open access to knowledge and to a philosophy of collective intelligence. A key motive for projects such as ChemistryFM and Open Exeter has been the potential for radical transformation of higher education.


We suggest that these four motives may be further classified into motives which assume a marketisation model of higher education, based on cost-benefit analysis (ie. reputation building, efficiency), and those that repudiate marketisation as an appropriate model for higher education and are committed instead to an “academic commons” model (Bollier, 2002) (enhancing pedagogy, open access to knowledge).


The fifth area, technological momentum, has not previously been identified explicitly as a motive underpinning OER release, although there is evidence in the literature that it may be tacitly held (for example, OECD 2007). Technological momentum is the theory that as a technology develops, interests invested in the technology come into play and determine the direction in which society develops (Hughes 1994). There is evidence in the UKOER programme, and OECD (2007) of vested interest at work to broaden the applications of technologies, exemplified by statements such as that the benefits of OER release include, ‘Making use of the significant investment that has already been made in digital content’ (JISC 2009b).


The motives we have identified are not necessarily independent and exclusive.

It is entirely possible for projects to have several motives at once. This is obvious and is sometimes easy when the motives are based on the same underlying commitment. Thus an institution might uncontroversially be aiming to improve its reputation through efficient production of high quality didactic teaching materials (eg. Open Spires; Robinson 2010).  It becomes more difficult, but certainly possible at least in the short term, when the motives are based on fundamentally different commitments.  For example, the individual-funded ChemistryFM project arose from a commitment to an academic commons philosophy but institutional ‘buy-in’ was secured on the basis of reputation building (Winn 2010).


Such multiple motivations become apparent as tensions within and between components of the activity system between hidden or implicit motives and communities, rules and tools.


5.2 Examples of tensions in activities

The object of collaborative activity in the UKOER projects was releasing OER. This object interacted with the community environment along three different axes:


1. Who does the initial development? Three models were evident - development by academics, development by central services, and development by students, often as part of project work;


2. Who is the main intended audience?  Envisaged audiences ranged from other teaching staff who will reuse the materials in new contexts, through students within the originating institution, to potential students and informal lifelong learners among the general public;


3. Who, if anyone, will develop the materials further? A spectrum was evident from materials whose integrity was intended to be preserved - they can easily be reused but not repurposed - to those where ongoing development by the user community was explicitly solicited and functionality for doing so provided.


Although there was no direct correlation between motivation and the pedagogic type of resource released, consideration of motivation may help to explain positioning on these three axes. Thus, for example, projects motivated to extend reputation (eg. Open Spires, MMTV) typically released granular resources that would broadcast content in a traditional didactic approach (such as podcast videos) and could not be developed or repurposed (Robinson 2010; Stannard 2010). This is in contrast to projects motivated to encourage collaborative pedagogic approaches; openSpace, for example, comprisesd a range of resources that could be further developed by students, associated with online discussions (di Savoia 2010). Projects motivated to improve efficiency (for example, brOME) tended to release aggregated resources including self-study assignments, open source software and collections of multiple choice questions, that could be disaggregated by teachers for use elsewhere (Van Hoorebeek 2010).


Motivation affected projects’ choice of tools for hosting and user interface. The JISC requirement that projects deposit their OER within JorumOpen contradicted the demands of projects motivated by reputation for branding and quality control. In most cases projects preferred to use their own institutional or community repositories in order to retain control of versioning and branding; this ensured thata single authoritative version existed for updating or any necessary take-down, and they used syndicationto support discoverability through more accessible sources.


Many projects capitalised on the increasing development of institutional repositories for learning and teaching resources. However, while the existence of an institutional repository might be a technological driver for open content release, it did not always support reputation, efficiency and pedagogic enhancement motives, often presenting problems, such as poor management of complex learning objects, or poor integration with other institutional technologies (Morris, 2010).


Projects that wished to adopt more open practices, collaborating across institutional boundaries for pedagogic enhancement, or opening access to social constructivist or situative teaching approaches to learners outside their institutions, often found themselves in conflict with an institution concerned for its reputation and unwilling to host resources the content of which were not under local control (Crispin-Bailey 2010; Stannard 2010)


The rules that are most likely to influence OER release are those surrounding disciplinary ways of working, intellectual property rights (IPR), institutional quality processes. Subject disciplines that already have a tradition of sharing teaching resources across institutional boundaries, particularly evident in specific sub-disciplines, are more likely to regard openness favourably and integrate it into their practice. Tensions around IPR rules were significant. Projects experiencedissues in relation to institutional branding and reputation. While some projects adopted a ‘light-touch’ approach to adhering to institutional IPR rules, others were risk-averse, particularly when based in institutions where merely 'asking the question' about open licensing led to increased scrutiny of project activities and barriers being placed in the way of project outcomes (McGill et al, 2010). The discrepancy between the current normal practice of limited adherence to IPR rules when resources are not openly available and strict application of IPR rules when resources are open means that projects may find IPR rules are a major inhibitor of OER release. 


Another tension related to attributing copyright. By far the most time consuming factor for projects releasing existing content as OER was identifying provenance and attribution. Frequently the effort involved in clearing rights for existing materials was not viable, especially where resources had been created from multiple sources and in multiple media (Thomson, 2010). Instead of repurposing and reusing existing resources, many projects argued that it was significantly cheaper to design new content with copyright clearance. The differential between the time to attribute copyright compared with the time to create a new resource may push future projects towards producing new resources rather than reusing existing ones, thus negating the efficiency motive - although this differential may decrease if OER release becomes more mainstream and resources are properly licensed from the outset (Van Hoorebeek, 2010; Chin & Madden, 2010).



6. Conclusion

We have analysed the experience of the UKOER pilot projects, using an activity-theoretic perspective to draw out implicit motives and inherent tensions. In doing so, some over-arching tensions have become apparent that will need to be resolved if the purposes of OER release are to be realised.


Motivations of reputation and efficiency were reflected in the forms of OER released. Yet the lifecourse of the UKOER projects was not long enough to assess uptake of the resources released or whether the forms were appropriate. For example, where reputation was a motive, many of the resources were designed for direct use by students, or reuse by teachers, but not for re-purposing. Does this, in itself, reduce the likelihood of their being reused and limit the reputational benefits gained? 


Differing motivations frequently brought rule systems into conflict, and tensions were common, often evidenced by institutions perceiving project activities as a risk to their reputation and pushing for more control in the face of novel ways of working. Such actions may call into question the claims of the institutions that they are motivated by altruism and opening up wider educational opportunities. They certainly inhibit innovation and may ultimately limit the potential efficiency gains of OER as well as curtailing the ambitions of those motivated to enhance pedagogy or open access to knowledge. In the UKOER programme, individual-funded projects were more likely to show evidence of academic commons values, while institutional projects were more likely to adhere to a marketisation model of higher education.


Reputation building, however, was a frequent motive among both individual and institutional projects. Yet it is one that imposes fundamental limits on adoption of OER unless there is a radical shift in attitudes to reuse and re-purposing. Institutions were concerned to assure quality and reluctant to take responsibility for contributions from outsiders over whom they had little control; individuals were to be incentivised to release materials by recognition and reward schemes. Such suggestions reveal an engrained cultural idea that those who originate materials are more worthy of credit than those who reuse or repurpose them. Indeed, the whole purpose of IPR and CC licensing is to ensure that originators of materials get recognition. Ultimately, though, a reputation motive is at odds with other motives in the OER activity system; institutions and individuals want to originate and disseminate their work rather than ‘merely’ reusing that of others. Yet among the main benefits of OER are said to be the efficiency of reuse and repurposing, and the enhanced quality resulting from community development. Attaching reputation to the originators of materials, but not to reusers or repurposers, will limit achievement of these efficiency or pedagogic benefits. This is especially so at present as HE institutions are encouraged to become increasingly competitive, elevating the importance of brand recognition. The consequent move away from risk-taking, which demands predictable outcomes, discourages innovation unless direct benefits can be proven in terms of, new markets, student numbers, shared costs of development and teaching. The benefits of OER in terms of institutional showcasing and attracting potential students, which may prove attractive to institutional managers and gain institutional support for OER, place inherent limitations on efficiency gains and the adoption of more open practices which are ultimately founded on a commitment to academic 




Appendix A: Typology of motives


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