What Does It Mean To Be Truly Open? The Next Generation of OER
The premise of Open Educational Resources has always been that making content available to educators and students freely and universally would help accelerate educational progress and democratize educational opportunity.
To that end, a host of OER catalogs were started over the last decade. These include Curriki, OERCommons, and Connexions. All of these catalogs relied on a community of content creators building compelling resources and making them available for free through some open source license such as Creative Commons.
These catalogs are generally still rather small (all generally around 50,000 resources or less). Despite the growth of the flipped classroom their traffic is steady or shrinking. I believe that this is because, while the first generation OER catalogs benefitted from content creators opensourcing their own content, the first generation OER players haven’t practiced what they preached to the content owners that they benefit from.
Specifically we believe that its important for an effective OER catalog to practice what it preaches to constituent content creators: BE OPEN. What does that mean for a catalog? We think its several things: open source the catalog itself, provide an open API for searching and contributing resources, universal access to all partners, and openness to paid and free content. Let’s break these down one by one.
If you are truly mission-based to improve access to educational resources make your site software itself open source. OpenEd does this on GitHub. The core extensions of XWiki to support Curriki are open source. But the entire site is not. Otherwise, none of the other OERs have exposed their source right from their site. It’s also important to make sure that the code is available via MIT License or other truly free license versus something like GPL which puts restrictions on usage. Is it possible that someone else may take some of your code to do something on their own that is cooler or better than something you have done? Sure. We at OpenEd would enjoy seeing that usage, because our mission is better access to K-12 resource whether we mediate that access or not.
Along a similar vein, a catalog that wants to make it easy to access their resources should expose their content via an API. In the 1990s a protocol called Open Access Initiative-Protocol for Metadata Harvesting was promoted. It didn’t get much traction with K-12 resources and repositories. More recently the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative has proposed some standard metadata for educational resources. Some OERs have published mappings here (OpenEd will be going beyond a published mapping to an actual LRMI live query capability soon, something other OERs have not yet done).
But in addition to metadata mappings it’s important to have a resource query and contribution API. A few repositories support OAI-PMH for queries. For example OER Commons does so. But OAI-PMH is sorely lacking in metadata detail. In general the full capabilities of the site are not exposed as formal, easily accessible APIs on either Curriki or OER Commons. OpenEd has made our full catalog available to all comers without any restrictions (except that submitting resources requires an identity to be provided).
Furthermore the API definition itself should be released as Open Source under the Creative Commons License (or equivalent) and publicized on a site such as API Commons (OpenEd’s API is listed there). Specifically OpenEd has made our full API definition as an API Blueprint and exposed publicly to all comers on Apiary. It’s very easy for any developer to test and use in an almost casual way. I would challenge other OERs to make their APIs public on open API repositories. This is practicing what we preach to content owners about making their content available.
If you are truly mission-based (i.e. your goal is to help teachers get to resources) we believe its also important to make your API available to any partner who wants to search or contribute, as long as that partner uses it reasonably. Specifically they should use the exposed APIs appropriately. It is reasonable to rate limit API calls. Also providing an account for submission (so submissions are not anonymous) also makes sense. Especially in the case where not all resources can be realtime curated.
But as long as partners are using it reasonably everyone should be encouraged to use the OER’s API. For example, OER Commons has an API but they do not make it available publicly. They also attempt to block access from specific addresses if they believe they are being harvested by other sites. There are standard mechanisms on the Internet if you don’t want to be spidered by a search engine or anyone else. Just set your robots.txt file to tell accessing sites or organizations to not spider your site. If you claim to be a mission-based OER you need to follow those Internet conventions.
At OpenEd we have other content aggregators using our API. We have many people using it for retrieval only anonymously. We only ask for identity (i.e. that you request an account) for content contribution to ensure appropriate usage and of course to give appropriate credit to content owners.
Don’t disintermediate, or appear to disintermediate the content owner. Give appropriate credit to the content owner and appropriately link and extend the content owners brand. Don’t make it more than one click from the index of results to get to the site. For example, on both OER Commons and Gooru it is more than one click to get from the initial list of results to the end content page. And before you get to the end content you are not seeing a reflection of the content owners brand.
OERs should be a bully pulpit and stage for content creators. OERs should never even come close to implying that the content author’s product is their own. They should drive content to the content owner’s site and even drive followon interest to the content owner. First generation OERs have failed miserably in the spirit of encouraging content creation and making the content creator the star.
Free AND Paid Content
Most OERs focus on free content. But this is too narrow a focus. Teachers want good and relevant resources for standards and topics they are teaching. It is always good to have some free resources. It makes sense to provide paid resources as well. The variety is good. And fostering an ecosystem where content creators can make money and be compensated for their efforts is a good thing for teachers.
A Next Generation of OER
The purpose of this post is not to try to sell you on OpenEd. We are proud of what we have built. But we are truly mission-based and want to see more access to educational resources. We would like to see the older OERs try to adopt these principles. A world where teachers have access to wealth of resources on any topic is only accelerated by OERs becoming truly open in all senses of the word.