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Our meeting in Birmingham yesterday encouraged me to think again about the issues which OERs in particular subject areas have to addresss. The discussion raised a lot of issues. When we are thinking about what works best as an OER, we are invariably asking questions about our discipline and how we think about teaching and learning. This was why the discussion was so interesting and provoked so much thought.

The issues that have been around for me have been, in essence, focused around how face to face (traditional) teaching in social sciences can be transformed into what is an OER that will really engage students. This year I have been working with a very large group of students on my introductory criminology undergraduate course. Criminology, we may agree, is an evolving discipline but has its roots in sociology and a range of social sciences disciplines, involving an understanding of contested values. this can sometimes contradict what students new to criminology expect )something along the lines of representation from popular culture e.g. 'CSI').

So students might bring to the study of criminology representations about victimisation, offending, and the major criminal justice agencies which respond to offending, as found in the media  (here is a randomly chosen example from todays's Daily Mail) . This impacts on learning and teaching within criminology, and provides a context for the creation and design of OERs. I have a very clear idea of what works in that face to face situation, and that has been honed each year by the responses of students. There are often debates within criminology about how best to teach, conceptualise and explain the subject. It is a theoretical and empirical discipline. This raises wide ranging questions about learning and teaching in criminology, and how we might acknowledge these questions in OER design. Criminology as a discipline, I believe, is driven by theoretical debates about a variety different perspectives.

Obviously, criminology learning and teaching needs to accomplish the basic stuff (the kind of material outlined by QAA in their benchmark statements) i.e. understanding of:

  • key concepts & theoretical approaches to crime, victimisation & responses to crime (and deviance)
  • basic social research principles (particularly re. criminological topics)
  • how we evaluate the results of individual studies & what methodologies/techniques we use (also when a particular methodology/technique is appropriate)
  • ethical principles influencing (criminological) research
  • principles of human rights and civil liberties (e.g. their impact on policing, or on the different stages of the criminal justice process, or on official responses to crime)
  • scale of social divisions and social diversity in relation to criminological topics
  • construction and influence of representations of crime and victims and of responses to crime and deviance as found in official reports, the media, and public opinion
  • local, national, and international contexts of crime, victimisation, and responses to crime

These benchmarks are what criminologists work with every day, and I am familiar with the experience of teaching in what (hopefully) is a stimulating way and raises the contradictions inherent of some of these areas. However, my knowledge and experience has been borne in face to face teaching.

How are these areas best communicated in an OER? These benchmarks do not specify teaching and learning methods, which are of course created individually to suit the programme, the staff experience and above all the student body of each FE/HE institution. 

Also, there are no recommendations as to modes of assessment - another consideration.


OER Focus Group: Teesside University Staff (June 2011)

In our focus group aimed at staff, we to explored how the publication and use (and reuse) of OERs is perceived at Teesside. Do we believe that the development of open learning and the wide distribution of open educational resources is a positive development? Was there unease and apprehension about areas such as at the possibility of losing control over resources into which we have put substantial energy in writing? What were the responses of students and what was the impact of the used of OERs upon students?

We chose the focus group of staff from criminology and sociology at Teesside University’s School of Social Sciences and Law to assist us in answering these questions. This is a type of qualitative research in which a group of people (in our case, academic staff members) are asked about their perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes on a particular subject (in our case, views and experiences of OERs). We asked questions in an interactive group setting where the participants were free to talk with other colleagues. We used the dual moderator model (John Craig and Mike Teague) for this focus group. We invited all of our twenty three colleagues from criminology and sociology colleagues the change to participate and six colleagues accepted this invitation. The group was representative of the overall staff team and included colleagues at differing levels of seniority.  The discussion lasted around 90 minutes.

While we previously discussed some prompts to the areas we aimed to discuss, we did not use a verbatim script. We wanted a broad guide to the areas we hoped to address, while also ensuring that we were open to allowing group members to speak freely. John Craig briefly explained the background to our discussion, including how we were approached by CSAP who were undertaking work on OERs.

We looked at the following questions in the course of the groups:

  • What do we think when we hear open education resources?
  • Do we know what OERs are? (Is it a strange term for something which is very familiar or a strange term for something which is actually quite strange?)
  • How we as tutors might use OERs (whether we use that label or not)  if we give it that name or not.
  • How we might produce OERs ourselves.


We looked at the following questions in the course of the groups:

  • What do we think when we hear open education resources?
  • Do we know what OERs are? (Is it a strange term for something which is very familiar or a strange term for something which is actually quite strange?)
  • How we as tutors might use OERs (whether we use that label or not)  if we give it that name or not.
  • How we might produce OERs ourselves.

We started by asking whether anyone used the term on a regular basis. The initial answers were unequivocal and universal.



“Not really sure what it is.”

On the question of OERs, there was widespread agreement that none of the colleagues present recognised the term, though some were willing to speculate on what the term meant. A sample of responses:

“OER – doesn’t mean a thing to me. It might be like Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme who have spoken grammar all their lives and know how it works. It may be something we are all perfectly familiar with, we have just never given it that name before.” 

 “I could try and guess....” 

 “A wiki, a thread, a chatroom, where people can contribute. Is that an open educational resource? A discussion forum.”

A colleague articulated his perception of an OER might be by giving the example of open learn resources. The group discussed how many OER resources are available on line. This gave rise to some anxieties:

“Is it not risky? Could things not be stolen? I was just thinking about what has been on the news, that new college of humanities, are they not plagiarising? There must be a risk, if your stuff is there as an available resource.” 

“I’ve got stuff now from when I taught in Manchester, which was given to me by a colleague who was there. Sharing resources doesn’t bother me... but something about it being available to anybody, anywhere, is quite strange. You have put quite a lot of time and energy into thinking about how you might deliver and share those resources with students. I don’t know how I would feel about sharing them.” 

A criminology colleague commented that they already effectively shared resources:

“But don’t you use information on the web like that anyway? I know I did, in thinking about teaching a study skills course. I went online and looked at lots of different study skills course. I didn’t think, okay, I will wholesale steal that, but I was informed by what I read.” 

“There are podcasts on Apple and they are free. There are public lectures. It is good because you can listen whenever and however often you want to.” 

A sociologist noted,

“Lots of thing I read, they’re not ‘stealable’. But Edinburgh University’s programme on intimate relationships - you could steal that if you wanted to. It’s there if you wanted it: reading lists, assessments, essay questions. I found it quite shocking that all that was available in a PDF when I was looking for a reference through google scholar.” 

We asked, would it feel like stealing?

I don’t know. I’m sure they’re aware, if it’s out there... I think it depends on the module. I used to teach a language module. It’s a common practice on language courses to share and exchange information. There are collections of lectures and materials which other tutors are willing to contribute, and they know that others will be using it. There are plenty of lessons online out there for others to take it and use. I think, in languages they maybe have a different approach to it. I have also been using been using it in teaching research methodology – using interview techniques and interview guides. Things like that, I think it’s good that some people do put them online. It means that they are aware of it being possibly used. Warwick and Cambridge Universities have got these sociology resources, you can use them.” 

A colleague observed that while OERs may not be widespread in the HE sector in her experience, she was aware of wide usage elsewhere:

“It’s much more the cultural norm at different stages of education. At secondary school, at primary school, you would see these things as a shared resource. People will download lessons plans or ideas for lessons and those sorts of things would be freely available. There’s a different culture in HE.” 

This was met with widespread agreement:

“Yeah. It’s more about intellectual property. How you created that module, and especially if you have used innovative methods. And having some kind of control.” 

Other examples were given of academics putting what they are doing in the public domain, such as the University of Columbia regularly put up addresses by their lecturing staff on YouTube, or the American Economics Association making reading lists available. This was seen as fundamentally socially useful – a type of public good philosophy. If we share our knowledge, expertise and good practice (‘knowledge without borders.’), that will is socially beneficial:

“It’s about seeing knowledge as a public good, I suppose, rather than private. And you are not controlling access to it. In a way we do that with academic work. We trust that other people are not going to nick it and say it’s there. But we’ve got a different norm.” 

The social responsibility argument for using OERs was supported by the focus group. It was generally felt to be a positive development to enable access to our learning materials for students would generally be able to find a way in to higher education. There was also the element of suspicion that arises when academics perceive they might make themselves redundant by putting everything out there. In addition, the advent of fees in a marketised environment had caused colleague to consider why they entered the job in the first place. They were mainly motivated by helping improve society overall by means of higher education, but money (as opposed to altruism, for example) was now an increasingly relevant factor in this equation. Marketing was also an issue, as was the economic context:

“And also, how we sell ourselves. We’re saying, come to Teesside, trying to market ourselves as something unique. If we put all our learning resources out there, another university could deliver the same courses that we do. How do you look great in that marketing system, if you are giving everything away.”

 “The reality is we’re charging them for education.” 

There was a huge swathe of material that we felt was ours in some way. As one colleague put it,

“Should we disclose everything in OERs? Or should we keep something back to encourage the purchase, as it were?” 

However, it was interesting to note that cost efficiencies were not quoted as a reason for focusing on OERs.

OERs provided good promotional openings for the university, though there was some concern about whether academic colleagues developing OERs might enjoy the same traditional career development opportunities as their peers who were more focused on research (in a university with a notable research focus in a research-intensive school like SSSL). Within SSSL/SOFI, it was noted, the research culture is notable.  Enhancing one’s teaching reputation and credibility via OERs may not be rewarded in the way that publishing a journal article is.

Simply because staff can re-purpose OER materials using a Creative Commons licence, in reality do they? The answer was no. Interestingly, no one in the group raised quality control as a concern they had (no one suggested that they releasing a lecture which they might have recorded might subject them to the judgement/assessment of others with regard to their teaching skills). While it may be a reasonable assumption that there might have been concerns about the possibility of others commenting in an unflattering way about learning materials which were made publicly available, these were not articulated.

Alternative views were also voiced:

“With the Open University, the view was, why would I pay fees if I get the material for free? The OU may give you the material but not the qualification, or the tutoring. If you don’t sign up, you can’t do the assessment. Putting the material up there doesn’t detract from their core business.”  

There were questions about referencing of open resources, and comparisons made with referencing of journal articles (and peer review).


In essence, colleagues use materials which they may not call OER, but it is OER. Usability and ‘handiness’, and accessibility were key to making the decision to use them. Overall, the focus group made clear that OERs as a term may not have particular resonance in the sector, but when we actually talked about it, colleagues were well aware of the resonance of the term, and most produce some materials with free access themselves. In terms of whether they used  any type of OERs in their teaching, many sources were used (the following were specifically recommended for criminology and sociology: You Tube; Edinburgh University; Cambridge University; ESDS qualidata (the University of Essex); and Warwick University. One participant said they used OERs because,

“Sometimes I feel if I don’t explain well enough, these resources offer me other ways of explaining things. I have two hours of tutorial. I need to use a variety of resources and methods. These include online resources.” 

However, usage of OERs varied:

“I use bits and pieces from, say, other academics’ websites. But I do not systematically use teaching materials as such. It’s probably a matter of convenience really. Just as an example, in criminological theory Sutherland has nine ways in which people learn how to do crime in small groups. You could just get his book and type them out, but as somebody has already done it online, you might as well use it. It’s that sort of thing; it’s handy, rather than anything else. 

“I have used some of the OU’s approaches to study skills. The advantage is that you don’t have to remake the wheel. It’s activity based. They use some good ideas and activities. You are thinking, what’s available? That’s there, you can use that. It’s fast.” 

We also explored whether the groups had any concerns about copyright issues (from both a moral standpoint and a legal perspective). For example, when staff were looking at videos on You Tube, do they distinguish between someone uploading their own stuff and using a BBC TV programme, which clearly is not produced by them?  Do they make that distinction in their own practice?

“I think if somebody has uploaded a lecture to YouTube, they are pretty much accepting that that’s going to be shared.”

“I did check that out actually, because I wanted to put something on Blackboard from YouTube – a police video on the treatment of rape victims. I looked at the legal position and discovered that I couldn’t.” 

“As long as you’re not claiming the material as your own, and you it’s going to be shared, there’s no worry.” 

“When I came across the course guide from the MA from Edinburgh, I did note the ease of access to it. Not just core reading, but doing maps of relationships, real proper learning tools that have been thought out and created. Not just stuff that exists, that has been put together. I felt quite uncomfortable reading it. I had only been looking for a reference, but once I started to read it, I just couldn’t understand why this leading university was making an MA so readily available for other people to copy and operationalise in the market that we are in now.”

Another concern was that colleagues from competitor universities might ‘lift’ their material.

“What about staff from other universities? If you are at a different university and thinking, how can we attract postgraduates? If you’ve got a lovely course, well thought out, and the reading list is there... I think it’s a bit barmy, to be honest, to give it away. It’s more about it being copied by other institutions – I think that’s the more dangerous thing. You want to differentiate yourself in the market. How do you defend that? I don’t know.”

We looked at whether, if colleagues had developed and designed module that they were proud of, and then you saw that module used by another university, how they might feel. Responses were instructive:

“I suppose if you put it on Blackboard and students are using it, it can end up anywhere anyway.” 

“It happened to me, actually. Someone who had been studying here had taken a domestic violence module and taught it in a different context, in a community context. On the one hand I thought, that’s nice. But on the other hand, I thought, it would have been nice to be asked. I didn’t mind so much, obviously it’s public knowledge anyway, but it did feel like a courtesy was missing.” 

“The same has happened to me. A student on my first year criminology module asked me, is criminology taught the same way everywhere in the country? They had seen the module before, at another university. We can all think of connections, as it is geographically close to here. Part of me felt it was good that they felt it was good enough to use, and the other part of me felt really annoyed.” 

Another colleague suggested that this might be related to the Open University model, which he defined as promoting the University’s courses and programmes.

“Come and sign up with us, you will not just have this material but the expertise that created it. If our material is that good, think how good our tutors are. You will also get a qualification.” 

When we returned to the topic of social responsibility and sharing knowledge, a colleague offered an interesting observation about using OERs from another university:

“It wasn’t the knowledge sharing that surprised me, it was the creativity and the way that they crafted a programme. If everybody felt like that, they are teaching MAs for free.” 

We also explored the range of ‘Creative Commons’ licence, which allow the use of legal and moral infrastructure for learning materials, but our group was generally unaware of them. We also considered the use of Jorum, which was not widely used, to say the least. The search function was also criticised. People were positive about Jorum in principle, however, noting that if was accessible and useful in teaching, they would definitely use it and contribute to it themselves:

“I think I would contribute to a free site that you don’t need to subscribe. But I don’t know if I feel ok about it being out there. I think I would like it to be under an umbrella of, this is an OER site.” 

What colleagues would most welcome on Jorum would a reading list, content of a module/programme/course, the general structure and outline of the course, and a summary of the key arguments/issues/areas which it addressed.

A concluding comment was also made on the way in which technology may be changing our understanding of the nature of knowledge:

“I think, actually, knowledge is getting to be a bit different from what it was. I am now the proud possessor of a Kindle. With Kindles, essentially you can do the cutting and pasting our students do from the internet from your kindle to your computer. So it’s not just internet resources that are going to get plagiarised now, it’s books as well, via kindles... I’m increasingly feeling we’re going to have be a bit more laid back about plagiarism, and to say, you’ve plagiarised it from a good source (or not such a good source).” 


The discussion covered a number of key areas related to how academic staff working in criminology and sociology view OERs, and their experiences of using them. It was evident that while staff may not be immediately familiar with the term “OER”, and it does not resonate with them, they are nevertheless use them in their work. There were some anxieties about the potential riskiness of using an OER (“Could things not be stolen?” as one staff member put it) and a colleague commented that it the wide availability of resources in some academic areas was “quite shocking”. It was also observed that OERs may not be as widespread in the HE sector as in, for example, primary and secondary schools. The public good philosophy of freely sharing knowledge was also explored. There was also an awareness of the marketisation of higher education and a sense that OERs might offer good promotional openings for universities. At the same time, colleagues were conscious that those developing OERs should enjoy the similar career development and advancement opportunities as their colleagues. We also explored whether staff had concerns about legality and copyright issues.


Student Focus Group on TEL

"Technology-enhanced practice is likely to encompass a wide spectrum of activities, from supporting traditional practice to blended learning (the combination of traditional and e-learning practices) to learning that is delivered entirely online” - this is  what the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) say in The Effective Assessment in a Digital Age, p. 8, available at: www.jisc.ac.uk/digiassess.

As part of a broader discussion of how Teesside students experience all aspects of technology-enhanced learning, we used a focus group to explore how students used technology and what experience (if any) they had of OERs. The interview was conducted by Michael Teague and Philip Makinson in March 2011. We wanted to explore the degree of knowledge of TEL do students have and what they thought of Teesside’s use of technology? As part of this, we asked students about their their experience of OERs.

  • For OERs, in particular, students were not previously aware of this label.
  • Their initial reaction was that they had not used OERs. 
  • This may be viewed as an example of the frequently made criticism that those supporting OERs have not done enough to promote them effectively (for example the view that "OERs will not be able to help countries reach their educational goals unless awareness of their power and potential can rapidly be expanded beyond the communities of interest that they have already attracted." - UNESCO and COL promote wider use of OERs". International Council for Open and Distance Education. 2010 Retrieved from Wikipedia March 31, 2011).
  • Further discussion showed that they had, awareness of the term 'OERs' notwithstanding, our students in practice often used learning, teaching, and research resources that were in the public domain, given that this definition included course materials (often but not always accessed via the VLE), YouTube videos, streaming videos, textbooks including Google books, and other material which provided knowledge and information. This certainly gave a sense that the reality is OERs are gradually becoming incorporated and integrated into the learning and teaching process. The students generally had used resources in the public domain (although, interestingly, not resources that have been released under an intellectual property licence allowing their use or re-purposing).
  • In a broad sense, students told us that in terms of resources, they considered that their learning and teaching needs were generally being met. There was no evidence that students felt that a greater emphasis on OERs might assist them and a single student articulated the perception that the use of OERs by staff might somehow be 'cheating' and not a resource which had been explicity designedwith them in mind.




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