Sharing on the bayou….

I’m beginning to wonder if last week was all a dream and was I really on the paddle steamer the American Queen sailing the Mississippi as part of the Hewlett Foundation’s Annual OER Meeting 2016?

Well my photographs and waistline are telling me it must be so. There were so many inspirational people and conversations from the global OER community, and equally many fun discussions with the ‘boat family’ of staff who generously gave their time for discussion, tours, and two individual renditions of Johnny Mercer’s “Laura” once by Phil Westbrook on the piano deck, and once again by Phil on the calliope.

The lasting thought that stays with me is the notion and importance of sharing. The keynote talk by John White the Louisiana State Superintendent of Education had a very simple and powerful message – equality in education is simply about sharing. Of course, OER hits right at the heart of that. As John went on to say, our policy and processes however focus on local needs and do not plan for sharing.

My story?

John took me back to why I first got involved in OER. In a new lecturer position in Leicester I shared an office with a Pharmacy lecturer. I was preparing Biomedical Science sessions on heart and lung physiology, and he was reviewing his slides from last year on – yes you guessed it – heart and lung physiology for his students. When I asked if I could see his approach he muttered something like “I don’t generally do that kind of thing”. I wouldn’t mind but we were friends from a previous institution years before.

I’d come from working in industry where there was no sense of ‘ownership’ of work or resources but a great sense of working toward a common goal. I realised you don’t have that in education. No team spirit.

So when I was lucky to participate in the HEFCE-funded UK Open Educational Resource programme in 2009 (#UKOER is still live and kicking today), it made complete sense to me. Here was a way of sharing science resources that I was creating with my colleagues and beyond my university. Why they hell wouldn’t you do that? I was lucky to learn my OER ropes from the fantastic Terry McAndrew who led the Higher Education Academy Bioscience Subject Centre bid. I shall be eternally grateful to Terry for the opportunity he gave me to learn about open technologies and open licensing, and also that he very generously shared with me the workings of funding processes that led me to two further successful grants of my own in 2010 and 2011. I’d totalled over £0.5 million in funding for open science projects and generally had a ball. (All projects designed on simple WordPress platforms with sustainability in mind and all still rocking on with Reclaim Hosting).

What do we know about sharing?

In an early piece of staff research I became interested in people’s inclination to share and saw there were differences according to gender, with female colleagues far more likely to share (a significant difference to male colleagues). Staff were very happy to share resources in their subject groups and borrow materials from outside of the university, but they were less inclined (at that time) to share beyond the walls of the institution (Rolfe 2012 – staff attitudinal survey).

In my next study with Mark Fowler we interviewed senior executive staff, and there was a recognition that sharing would be good (Rolfe and Fowler 2012 – how institutional culture can change toward OER).

…it would stop institutions or people within institutions having to reinvent wheels.

…the altruistic motivation of helping other people to improve by making our stuff accessible.

Senior staff did seem wary of the idea of sharing student learning resources for free on the web, and what would our learners think of that?

…if students are paying £9,000 and part of their £9,000 is receiving a set of lectures and yet that set of lectures are available completely free on the internet what does that mean?

Well we asked that question also. In Libor Hurt’s Masters dissertation on student perceptions of OER WHICH IS WELL WORTH A READ we found that student cultures of sharing were rich and varied. Students were highly motivated to share for no personal gain:

…well if I share, then someone might share back.

…to help peers, if they need help with their work.

But there was a tension with some with just sharing openly without some boundaries around what, where information is shared, particularly in relation to important medical or health materials.

It depends what materials are shared. If it’s like full course material then I don’t think that’s right but if it’s sort of snippets of information and sort of like just touching on things, a small example, then I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Because any student studying, whether they’re paying their fees or they’re being sponsored, those fees are being paid for access to that course material.


I think that’s the problem in the medical profession anyway, when they Wikipedia things to death or anything like that and then they get 2 and 2 and come up with 9 and then an accident can be worse by the use of the internet.

Most of these students interviewed in biomedical science and midwifery were sharing within their peer groups – lecture notes, links to new resources, although there was a sense of being unsure as to what might be interpreted as collusion?

Student perceptions of OERs


So OER = sharing = equality right?

So there is no doubt in my mind that all people – students, teachers, executive and other partners buy-into the notion of OER very quickly and see that sharing makes sense. Sharing is a positive thing with many benefits, although sometimes the boundaries might require a little definition. So as John White said, if sharing is good for the championing of equality and challenging boundaries, what evidence do we have that OER has enhanced this?

In my recent systematic review of massive online open courses and the socio-ethical impact of these, there was little evidence that something – OK not technically and intellectually definable as open – had made very little inroad into education equality. In fact, such courses perpetuate the divide and favour well educated predominantly English-speaking learners (Rolfe 2015 – socio-ethical impact of MOOCs). Many other studies have confirmed this.

What about OER? Part of the difficulty today is the varied nature of OER from open textbooks to ‘chunks of learning’ and assets. Many of the open text book initiatives are indisputably lowering costs and making education more accessible (Bliss and Chow; Wiley) but for other forms of equally important OER, we don’t know.

Tides of change?

Not to beat ourselves with a stick – open education from our UK perspective has been transformatory in terms of teaching practice, establishing collaborations and sharing common goals toward a better education system. Unfortunately we have stalled in the UK with very little if any funding now for education innovation projects or research. But we can do something to chip away to complete the OER = sharing = equality loop.

As I said at the Hewlett meeting, my dream for OER was about fair and equal chances for people to access education, and to make these inroads now takes a concerted effort.

SO GO SHARE! Go share an OER story with a colleague or student that has never heard of open. We share where we feel comfortable within our own circles, but how will we ever challenge inequality if we don’t go out and meet it face on?

GO SHARE with the person in your department that you might be least likely to share with, be they someone in authority, in a different job, of a different gender of from a different country. I realise this will take a bit of honesty with ourselves, but I think we can do this and go tell the OER story more widely. Only then will we make inroads into dealing with inequality surely?

Closing note 🙂

Huge gratitude to the fantastic house band – the Steamboat Syncopators who very generously shared their stage with us delegates. A perfect ending to a beautiful week.

Courtesy of Patrick McAndrew Twitter

Courtesy of Patrick McAndrew Twitter








More #oerboat OER