Is now the time for open educational resources?

After a recent conference, Maren Deepwell and Nick Lambert are energised by the potential of openly available learning materials.

Maren Deepwell is the chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT)


Nick Lambert is a former Whitehall civil servant. He led on the FELTAG Report for Matt Hancock when he was Skills Minister.

As Open COVID for Education Pledge gathers support is 2021 the breakthrough year for open educational resources in the UK?

Three years ago the Association for Learning Technology issued a Call to Action for policy makers to place Open Education at the heart of (digital) education provision – and the past year has shown how important open practice is for scaling up learning and teaching.

A missed opportunity for openness

Bringing together hundreds of professionals from across the globe, last week’s OERxDomains21 Conference showcased evidence on a global scale of how much impact open education policy and OER have, from saving students millions buying expensive textbooks to enabling educators to share resources and content. With the UK facing an anticipated peak in post-Covid lockdown unemployment of 2.2m by the end of this year, enhancing the quality and accessibility of our educational resources will be more critical than ever.

The Department for Education has attempted, through the Skills for Jobs White Paper, to position colleges as a key vehicle for reviving the economy, but it has missed an opportunity to exploit the value that could be offered by increasing the availability of free, online materials that anyone can use for learning or teaching. While the White Paper notes the value of remote and blended online teaching and learning, over the last year, there has been extensive though uncoordinated investment in online delivery across the UK, and OER has taken a back seat.

Nowhere is it proposed that all publicly funded educational research be publicly licensed, despite being an approach that speaks to the systems reform supposedly embodied by the White Paper itself. In fact, OER isn’t even mentioned once. It may be a reflection of the evidence that, although awareness of open access publications is high, awareness of OER, and open textbooks is typically very low in the UK. What makes OER distinct from just any online material is the presence of an open licence, that explicitly permits various forms of reuse. At a time when seismic shifts are happening across the UK, and the promotion of lifelong learning opportunities is increasing, might it be reasonable to hope that all taxpayer-funded educational resources across the four nations of the UK be made freely available to educators and learners?

Open Covid for education

After launching the Open Covid for Education Pledge ALT has seen hundreds of individuals and institutions supporting freely available and freely licensed resources. But with seemingly-competing education departments, is a UK wide response to OER, with a mandate that all publicly funded educational research be freely licensed, possible?

Catherine Stihler, Chief Executive of Creative Commons, argued at our recent conference that openly licensed educational resources have been critical for providing easily accessible, high quality learning materials to students of all kinds. There’s an incredible opportunity for us to leverage the increased awareness of, and experience with OER that came out of the past year

OER policymaking around the world has had a particular focus on open textbooks. The UK Open Textbook project research in 2018 showed that while there is generally low awareness of open educational resources (OER) in UK HE, there is also great enthusiasm and potential for the use of openly licensed resources such as open textbooks.

A regional, strategic approach to OER could unlock significantly greater value for government targets, avoiding the risks of silos and allowing learners to make use of shared digital learning resources, helping to deliver scalable efficiencies as well as raising the quality of provision, potentially also assisting in the development of the proposed regionally coordinated subject specialisms.

Joe Wilson, City of Glasgow College, and Co-Chair of the OERxDomains conference, has a particular interest in the use of OER across sectors and the challenges that persist. In part it is a distrust of materials found on the open web, he says, a lack of skills and confidence around understanding what can be repurposed with due attribution and a lack of understanding of the platforms and mechanisms for sharing content creators’ own work. It is also an institutional blind spot: there is no support or encouragement to seek out, utilise or publish OER. Colleges and schools have not been part of the open research journey and more work is needed to make them aware that current openly-available research in many areas now exists – the opportunities are immense.

OERxDomains21 resources from the full programme are now openly accessible at as part of ALT’s commitment to the Open COVID pledge for Education.

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