Is OER Really Open?

 · 4 mins read

For the past few months, my colleagues and I have been trying to figure out ways to increase the use of OERs (Open Education Resources) at our institution. We conducted meetings with faculty, brainstormed over endless cups of coffee, and did a lot of writing to try to figure out what the barriers to adopting OER content are and how they can be overcome.

It wasn’t until this week that I actually decided to attempt to try using existing OER content myself. Up until now, I was taking the word of faculty and other designers at face value — that it’s easy to use and accessible.

I took to Google to do a quick search for “MIT open content,” a source I’ve heard discussed by many who are interested in OER. That lead me to the MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) site, where I proceeded to search for a course that was supposedly open and free to use.

My topic of choice was an introductory photography course. The landing page that provides more details on what to expect in the course was appealing and gave me a small taste of what topics were covered in the content. Most appealing to me was the “Download Course Materials” button. After all, what could be easier than clicking a button to obtain access to free course materials?

The next page brought me to a “Start Download” button, which sort of reminded me of those ads that have buttons that say “click here to claim your free prize!”

Screen shot from MIT OpenCourseWare

If only it were flashing, right?

Anyway, jokes aside, I was curious. Clicking the button got me a zip file, which was expected and pretty standard for packaging course content. I unzipped it and located the folder, expanded it, and hoped to see some logical subfolder structure within, perhaps organized by topic. Alas, I was disappointed.

The contents of the download.

It’s just folder after folder of images and xml files. The Start.htm file takes me back to the course landing page. The ReadMe.txt gives me no useful information. Opening any of the other files presents me with a window full of code that even someone with a technical background like mine has trouble understanding.

This is open? This is what our OER standard is? What do I do with this folder full of junk? I’m an instructional designer, and so it’s my nature to try to understand and overcome challenges like this. But to the average user who does not have the benefit of a designer to consult with (essentially the target audience for OER content, right?), they’re already turned off. The barrier to entry is too high, there’s no way to preview this content in a format that makes sense, and there’s no easy way to know what to do with it now to get into some sort of usable format. This open content is not so open after all.

This is why OER has yet to take off. I learned later that this course is in fact very usable … when you’re viewing it with MIT’s OpenCourseWare platform. But if I wanted to take it and use it in my own institution’s platform, well, there are the files. It’s “open!”

It’s no wonder instructors aren’t using this stuff. OER is marketed as user-friendly, low investment, high return content, but my experience is anything but. Granted, this is one source, but MIT is a big player in this space. I expected more from them.

In order for OER to become useful, it needs to be interoperable. I need to be able to grab it from one source and put it where I need to use it, not have it locked into whatever platform it was created in. It needs to be easy for an instructor to search for, preview, download, and reupload elsewhere. That’s where my colleagues and I are trying to develop.

Through the use of RDF technology (developed by Google), we want to make OER content portable and user-friendly. We’re creating a schema to help bridge the gap between what educators see (units, lessons, and assessments) and what computers understand (text, media, and links). And we could really use the input of designers, instructors, and anyone else who cares about opening OER.

For more on the project, check out and follow the project on Twitter (@OERSchema) for updates on our progress and to be involved in the schema’s development!