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In the 15 years since MIT announced its OpenCourseWare initiative, hundreds of thousands of open educational resources (OERs)—including syllabi, textbooks, videos, assessments, animations, and simulations—have literally flooded the Internet. As a result, we no longer face a shortage of freely-available resources (although we still see gaps in some subject areas and minority languages). Instead, the open education movement faces three big problems:

  1. Discovery. Simply put, when it comes to OERs, it can be really hard to find what you need. Have you ever performed a Google search and gotten several thousand results? It’s like that with OERs, too. Sites like Merlot and OpenStax CNX offer some curated OER collections and peer reviews as a way to cut down on clutter, but these don’t fully address the problem. 


    An example of a well-curated collection is our OpenChem initiative at the University of California, Irvine (with support from the California State University and the Chancellor’s Office of the California Community Colleges). It’s been successful because it reflects the curation inherent in departmental decisions about undergraduate and graduate curriculum. Users know that the hundreds of topics the collection covers will be of quality. And when they return, they know they can easily find what they’re looking for.

  2. Repurposing and audience. These are two sides of the same coin. One of the key benefits of OERs is that they can be repurposed for context or intended audience. But the cost of repurposing can be nearly as high as the cost of creating a new resource. And you can’t have just one great course for all audiences, so you need to either repurpose or build new resources so they fit the educational context.

    I serve on the board of directors of the African Virtual University (AVU), which organizes African universities to develop full curricula composed of OERs. AVU made a conscious decision not to download the works of others for its degree programs in secondary math and science teacher preparation or computer science. Instead, the process of curriculum harmonization and professional capacity building among African universities was seen as a beneficial activity in and of itself. So, developing content for a specific audience is extremely important—but it’s not cheap and it’s not fast.

  3. Metrics for success. One final problem is how often we substitute metrics like downloads, accesses, or visits for what we really want to measure, which is impact on learning. Since the appearance of the xMoocs around 2012, we’ve seen a greater focus on getting data from learners, although earlier projects like Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative have probably done this better and for much longer. The issue is one of creating a virtuous cycle from initial design of online courses to feedback on that design so courses become better over time.

    As part of our open education project at UCI, we’ve worked hard to release courses in chemistry and other subjects for the benefit of learners around the globe. However, we realize that resources by themselves never equal learning, so we’ve begun to experiment with software that associates video, textbook, simulation, and other resources on a topical basis inside a peer environment. We have a long way to go, but we think building social environments for learning may be the future of open education.

So, how can Canvas and YOU help solve these problems? As the past president of the Open Education Consortium, I’m grateful that Canvas, through its integrated Commons learning object repository, offers the opportunity to assign Creative Commons licenses to resources and to make them easily available to the Canvas community. Given the problems outlined above, you can make the greatest impact within Canvas by curating content shared to Commons.

So, if you’re ready to be part of the OER solution, I challenge you—and the entire Canvas community (of which UCI is also a part)—to divide up whole subject areas within Commons and to properly curate them. Beyond providing ease of reuse for Canvas users within Commons, the reach of these resources could be extended to educators everywhere through special collections within Merlot Communities and OpenStax CNX Collections.


Keep learning,

Larry Cooperman

Associate Dean for Open Education

University of California, Irvine