How open educational resources can improve virtual learning

How OERs enable the development of on-demand learning scenarios by empowering those who want to develop content to meet individual needs

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly 1.6 billion learners worldwide, with school closures impacting 94% of the world’s student population. While educational institutions worked quickly to move classes online, educators are scrambling to develop quality resources to engage their students virtually.

Open educational resources (OER) have grown in popularity worldwide at a rapid rate, allowing teaching institutions, educators, and instructors to provide a wealth of educational content to their students for free online, including textbooks, programmes, courses, homework, documents and educational software. But OER are more than free educational materials – they are tools that empower teachers to develop content and redesign courses to meet specific students’ needs.

While OER is increasingly embraced by learning institutions and students alike, 54% of college instructors have never prepared a remote learning course, creating a significant challenge for educators. By understanding what OER are and how to maximise their value, educators can create interactive online experiences for their students in their new virtual classrooms.

Understanding OER

Broadly speaking, OER and related open initiatives put teaching, learning and resources into the public domain so they may be used without payment of fees or royalties, and they may be repurposed by anybody. While there’s no single license structure, most OER is released with some type of intellectual property license to facilitate free use, distribution, and/or adaptation of the material. Because licenses are open, there’s no need to request permission from copyright holders who would traditionally include publishers, authors, photographers and illustrators.

OER is not restricted to text-based resources; they may include such resources as audio or video files, assessment tools, teaching notes or podcasts. The beauty of OER is their flexibility, as content can be presented in a digital format or produced so that students have the option to print, download, or access digital elements (like videos or podcasts) online. Essentially, they are components that can be woven together to create more effective and engaging online instruction.

OER can also provide bite-sized pieces of learning content, facilitating micro-learning. For example, OER allows educators to utilise single chapters, sections of text or images to develop content or redesign courses to meet specific learning objectives or student needs, versus expecting them to digest entire textbooks online.

Enabling the development of on-demand learning online

As its popularity grows, OER have incredible potential to change the nature of teaching and learning today by enabling educators to personalise and improve it, largely because of the ease in which digitised resources can be shared online. However, simply having free educational content available to use and adapt doesn’t automatically translate to better courseware. International surveys indicate that while many teachers and professors use OER, many are not fully utilising its potential.

According to the Babson Survey Research Group, one of the biggest roadblocks is the searchability of OER. The survey states that 48% of educators reported that the biggest hurdle in going open was that quality open content was “too hard to find”. For OER to be effective, they must provide educators with a way to customise courseware content – something which is possible through learning objects.

A learning object (LO) is a resource that can be used and re-used, or combined with other LOs, to support development. In order to better identify and utilise these LOs, they must be tagged appropriately within the school’s content management systems and data stores so teachers and professors can easily customise content. This involves appropriately organising the metadata tied to these materials based on the subject matter, grade level and whatever the desired output is. For example, is the material designed to help students become acquainted with a new topic? Will it allow them to review material they already learned to understand this new topic in a different way? Will it give them access to supplemental material or assessments?

In addition to organising LOs with more sophisticated meta-tagging for rapid discovery and retrieval, the ability to easily reuse this content across courses and other projects, and tag it for different audiences, can significantly enhance its value. These functionalities allow teachers and professors to tailor the learning experience for their students by adapting and combining materials to design comprehensive online learning programmes that meet the individual needs of students. For example, educators can customise content to design low-pressure assessments for students who may be academically at risk or offer more advanced challenges to those who are excelling in a particular subject.

As we head into the new academic year, virtual and online instruction will be the reality of education for the foreseeable future. In order to survive, universities must maximise the value of OER. By enabling educators to personalise and improve online courses and provide micro-learning experiences, properly leveraged OER can vastly improve on-demand learning at a time when teachers are facing unprecedented challenges in meeting students’ needs remotely.

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