Misconceptions about resuse

November 2008

I wholeheartedly approve of the OER movement. Open educational resources are an important thing to aspire to. A culture shift in the direction of openness by at least semi-default will mean that you are massively increasing the chances that the person who can't enrol at a university or buy expensive books but who wants to learn will be able to do so. The type of content being released is also very different on the whole from the type of content already out there on the internet, something that can easily bypass by the casual observer of the movement (which is incidentally, in my opinion, the main counterargument to Brian Lamb's recent post on the topic)

Anyhow, the topic of 'reuse' of educational materials obviously reared its head in the session. It's one that is continually revisited by the world of educational technology to the level that quite surprised me when I first encountered it. There's obviously lots of frustration at the extent to which the wheel gets reinvented and at the amount of effort put into things that are hardly used. I thought it might be a good time for me to say what I think are the main misconceptions about reuse.

Misconception 1: The only type of reuse is wholesale reuse

It's common for a lecturer to get inspired by an approach that they see in a textbook to teaching a particular topic, or to borrow a nice example or some good questions from a colleague. If you take into account these types of reuse then there's actually a surprising amount of reuse happening. It's just all happening quietly and unnoticed. These types of reuse of ideas and reuse of microcontent as well as 'copy-edit' reuse are just as worthwhile aiming at as the type of 'copy-exactly-as-it-is' reuse that gets most of the attention.

Misconception 2: It's easier to reuse a resource you have found than to roll your own even when you don't have to worry about IP

To give an example, suppose you find some lecture notes from another course on the topic you are teaching. You can pretty much guarantee that they will either use a slightly different syllabus from you, make different assumptions about what the student already knows, be based on a course with twice as many hours of lectures as yours or have some other reason why they'll need a lot of work before they can be used. Of course, you also won't want to use them without scrutinising them carefully first and there's a good chance that in that process you'll decide some parts of them really aren't good enough quality to use.

On the other hand, if you're teaching a subject then you almost certainly know it inside out in the first place and in the majority of cases writing your own notes feels quicker and less painful.

I'm getting into learning object territory here I realise and I can see if that if something takes lots of development effort (and e.g. needs programming skills), it makes sense to make it as encapsulated as possible for reuse elsewhere, but that's pretty much just common sense isn't it?

Misconception 3: The attitude of academics to sharing is the problem

From my experience, most lecturers are generally positive about ideas of sharing. They care deeply about their subject and want knowledge of it to be furthered.

I think instead the main stumbling block is that many lecturers don't feel happy enough with the quality of their existing materials to make them open. Realistically a large amount of teaching preparation is done last minute with the materials then refined through use over several years. Lecturers need time to get materials into a shape they would be happy sharing.  This may be along the lines of making them more nicely formatted and checking typos (and, erm, making sure they don't break the law) rather than necessarily anything more pedagogic. This quality issue is why the approach of identifying resources to share with the 'What are you most proud of approach?' question that was mentioned at the session today by Patrick McAndrew is an important one I believe.

On top of this, almost any usability obstacle, including IPR-related ones, will be enough to stop sharing happening. Lecturers are busy doing the research which their career is based on, and their are almost no obvious career benefits of making your teaching materials open, so they generally won't battle to over any barriers.

Misconception 4: It's worth spending lots of time worrying about metadata

I guess this one is more a personal standpoint rather than being based on years of drinking tea in academic common rooms. It's not the deal-breaker and debates on this can absorb lots of energy better spent elsewhere in my opinion.

As long as you don't make have a long complicated form that you need to fill in before you can share something, you do some usability testing and don't overcomplexify everything with the subset of metadata that is completely pointless (desperately resisting ranting about my pet hates here), it really isn't going to matter that much.