Skip to content

My burning question: how to provide support for OERs

May 23, 2009

The other day I mentioned to a colleague at work that my burning question is: How do we provide support for people using Open Educational Resources? His reply was: Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Not an unsurprising response, I suppose, since the point of OERs is that they are open, and therefore, by implication, it is up to the user how s/he chooses to use them.

But making learning materials available and open does not necessarily lead to learning, no matter how good the resources are. Many people need support in accessing, making sense of, and applying the knowledge that is available to them. I’ve been told that many institutions in South Africa (and presumably elsewhere in the world too) have lost credibility for putting out ‘open’ materials and then charging fees for students to enrol and take an exam. When the student fails, the provider says ‘Never mind. You can re-enrol and try again next year.’ For an additional fee, of course.

So I’m looking for models of good support for open learning. Models of open courses or communities, where the learning process is as open as the OERs that they draw from. It’s been surprisingly difficult to find such models, but below is a smattering of what I’ve found so far.

An interesting thing is that most of them are, to some extent, self-referential – they all (apart from the action research one) involve participants using the Web to learn about the Web, or to learn about learning on the Web. Anyway, here they are:

The fishbowl model – the CC08 course by Stephen Downes & George Siemens

This course had 20 signed-up members who participated actively, did assignments and received accreditation from the University of Manitoba for their efforts. In addition, there were approximately 2,200 peripheral participants who ‘lurked’, observed, joined in the discussion forums and Elluminate sessions, and made random blog postings inspired by CCK08. (I was one.) This course was not based around specially designed OERs – instead students drew on the huge volume of literature available on the Web, and in true constructivist style, created a lot of the knowledge artefacts as they went along.

The discussion forum model – Open University’s LearningSpace

The Open University doesn’t just throw its OERs out into the world – it also sets up discussion forums to support people using them. A quick glance through the Education forum though, shows that very few of the discussion threads have more than one posting – in other words, there is not much actual discussion going on in there. This must be one of the issues that Grainne Conole and her team are addressing with their creation of Olnet – here’s a link to a draft book chapter (‘A new approach to supporting the design and use of OER: harnessing the power of Web 2.0’) they’ve written and are asking for feedback on: I’ll be watching this space with interest.

The social networking model (1) – Learn Web 2.0 with Maggie

Maggie Verster, a prolific writer and extremely enthusiastic Web user, has created a social networking site on Ning, where she runs occasional free workshops (as part of a research project for the South African Dept of Education, it seems), offers advice and leads a discussion forum. It’s mainly aimed at school teachers in South Africa, although access is open to anyone. I can’t see any major activity on the site since December 2008, but it looks like a it has been great support service for many. (Updated 24 May: I missed this – it seems there was a spontaneous online blogging seminar last Thursday, arranged via Twitter – a great example of what Twitter does well.)

The social networking model (2) – Jane Hart’s social learning network on Elgg

Not sure how this works yet, but I’ve just sent Jane Hart a request to join the network. There are three groups – How to use Elgg for Social Learning, Social Media in the Workplace, and Social Media in Education. Jane is promoting Elgg as the best platform for social learning, so I’ll be interested to find out what is behind this assertion.

The social networking model (3) – Corporate Learning Trends & Innovation on Ning, by Jay Cross

This site has a relatively active, ongoing discussion forum covering a wide range of topics related to learning in the corporate sector. They have also run some webinars and conferences – a recent one was a 24-hour ‘marathon’ session of online presentations and discussions, to cater, presumably, for people in all time zones.

Open courses – Action Research by Southern Cross University

This fantastic site is a treasure chest of resources on action research – well structured, cleary written and easy to follow. It makes action research come alive and gives loads of examples of different ways of doing it. All the materials were produced by Bob Dick of SCU. The site includes a course outline for  a 14-week public course based on the materials.

OERs focusing on guidelines for using OERs

One of the funder’s (JISC) requirements for our OTTER project at Beyond Distance is that we include guidelines for users on how to either teach or learn from the materials. This seems sensible to me. An excellent example comes from Tony Carr and colleagues at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Educational Technology: a course on how to facilitate online, in the format of a PDF.

I’ll be exploring these models further in an assignment I’m writing for USQ over the next few days, so no doubt will be adding more thoughts as I go along.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 1, 2009 5:24 pm

    Hi Gabi,

    Imagine my turning up here!! 🙂

    Just to give you some background. I created the Ning as an experiment for my mathsliteracy community of practice design experiment ( to see how NING as a CoP tool could work. I also used it as a place to show teachers in one space how social networks and tools work (video/photos/blogs/forums/widgets). As I am busy developing a training initiative for subject advisors I thought I would try out a social networking platform as a training tool (and to trouble shoot and edit my OER objects that I was creating at the time).

    Well, well. It was actually quite a disaster zone as most of my participants were novice social media users and got completely lost between my group, the social interface (they got chatting to each other on their walls) the actual learning objects, and the discussions, while still having to create their actual blogs (it was a blogging online course) in another platform. But on the up side (and this is propably were sustained learning actually took place), it did create some learning and support connections between some of the participants which then resulted in them actually taking their blogging effort further and are supporting one another still.

    To get back to your question. I am a social learner so for me it is a given that OER objects need to be supported in some way. Real learning for me takes place in the interactions and discussions that you have around the OER’s. But in South Africa , maybe because the technologies are still so unfamiliar, it is an uphill battle to get teachers to engage using social media in support of OER’s. I think it is important to create organised social learning opportunities as well as impromtu ones based on on demand learning principals.

    A great OER learning platform for me was and Scope: (all their courses are great learning opportunities- moodle platform)

  2. witthaus permalink
    June 2, 2009 8:14 pm

    Hey Maggie, it’s great to see you here! Thanks so much for your description of the background to your Ning group, and for your comments on my burning question – and the links 🙂 I think the support you’re providing for teachers in South Africa through your web presence is wonderful, and I suspect your reach actually goes far beyond SA. (Look at me, for example, sitting in England!) So please keep it up!


  1. Open Courseware 2.0? « Cloud Wisdom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: