Theoretical frameworks for researching OER

November 10, 2008, [MD]

Why do we need theories?

At some stage early in my education, I picked up the idea that theory, although perhaps often seemingly too abstract and difficult to understand to be of any use, was important to give meaning to different empirical results, and to provide predictability and transferability to other cases. This was brought home to me when I began researching the community library movement in Indonesia (later published on E-LIS). Not only was there almost no existing research available on my specific case - the community library movement in Indonesia - but to my great surprise, there was a huge dearth of research on community libraries for development in general.

The few studies that existed all “started from scratch”, and were usually simple descriptions of different individual cases, a tent library in East-Africa here, a mule library in Venezuela there… But nobody tried to develop meta-studies, overviews, theories, taxonomies… What kinds of community libraries are there? What are the criteria for success? What theories exist on how community libraries effect local education? Economic participation? Citizenship and democracy?

A map of the field

What was lacking was not just individual theories, but what the OPLRN proposal calls “a map of the field”. This description has staid with me, because it fit so perfectly, not just the OER reality, but the “community libraries in developing countries” reality:

****“…In more established fields such as cancer research, there is a consensus map of the structure of the field, the major research questions, and the different sub-communities and associated methodologies. It is possible to place oneself on the map, and to coordinate effort in a well understood way. In contrast OER research is a relatively young field, which has not yet being fully articulated and defined…”

(from the OPLRN proposal, availably by Google Cache).

Only theories provide transferability

Today I was reading a collection of papers by Jim Cummins, a researcher on bilingualism and linguistic rights at OISE. A recurring theme is the disconnect between academic research and policy; there seems to be very strong evidence in the scientific literature for certain kinds of bilingual education, however, this is not translated into policy, especially in the US. In his paper “The Role and Use of Educational Theory in Formulating Language Policy” he states explicitly:

“A major reason why many policy-makers in the United States regard the research bias for bilingual education as minimal or even non-existent is that they have failed to realize that data or ‘facts’ from bilingual programs become interpretable for policy purposes only within the context of a coherent theory. It is thetheory rather than the individual research findings that permits the generation of predictions about program outcomes under different conditions. Research findings themselves cannot bedirectly applied across contexts.


In short, although research findings cannot be applied directly across contexts, theories are almost by definition applicable across contexts in that the validity of any theoretical principle is assessed precisely by how well it can account for the research findings in a variety of contexts. If a theory cannot account for a particular set of research findings, then it is an inadequate or incomplete theory.”

This really struck home with me. (Incidentally, after spending hours transcribing interviews with children on the nature of science, and trying to grade them from level 1 to 3 in “understanding of science”, I realized that maybe politicians need courses on using science for policy formulation as well.)

Case study: Video for math education at Open Ed 2008

So where does that leave us with OER? One of the things that struck me at the Open Education 2008 conference I participated in, at Utah State University, was that very few of the attendees were from faculties of education. Furthermore, I was quite frustrated by the quality of many of the presentations from a scholarly perspective. I promised my good friend Haishuo Lee during the conference that I would rip his presentation to pieces, so I will use that as an example here (with his permission). Haishuo’s university in Taiwan put video recordings of math classes online, and designed a summer course around this - so that incoming students who were admitted in spring could follow these math classes online during summer, take an exam, and if they passed, receive credit and not have to take this class again in fall.

They wanted to evaluate this initiative, and they conducted both surveys as well as analysis of the test results of various groups of students, and all this was presented very ably by Haishuo during the conference (he is a born presenter). All well and good, but to me this was a paper that lacked an introduction and a conclusion. Where was the “literature review”? If this was simply a program evaluation for internal use, that is one thing, but if this is presented as academic research, why would you design a study without consulting the literature? What previous research has been done in this field? What are the various theories? What can this study help prove/disprove or improve our understanding of?

One problem might be that many of the proponents of open education seem to think that this is something brand new, and thus there isn’t any “literature”. To a certain extent, that is true, but slow down… The reason this study was presented at Open Education 2008, was that the videos produced were made “open access” for the whole world. However, for the students enrolled in the university, it would have made no difference if they were closed access, and only available for enrolled students through a password… So basically, this was a study on the use of online multimedia resources for self-instructed math classes - and surely there would be reams of studies on this. The use of video in teaching has been written about since the 1970’s (in fact, I just found out that the first video ever to be released on VHS was the South-Korean film “The young teacher“).

And distance education has a very rich and long history of research, as is the case with instructional design, and the topic of math instruction itself. So while it might be very challenging to grapple with all these various disciplines, some theoretical foundation would mean that this study would not only help the Taiwanese university understand the strengths and failures of its own program better, but the study would make a contribution to the scholarly literature, and help inform projects at other universities, and perhaps eventually contribute to improving the theory itself.

Where does that leave us?

Note that I am picking on Haishuo as an example here, what I listed above was typical for most of the presentations. Granted, if you conceive of the conference more of a “meeting of geeks”, where we show each other the cool things we’ve come up with, this might be acceptable. But for me, who is in an MA program and wish to write both my final MA thesis, and a number of papers on the way, on different aspects of the OER movement, this presents a problem.

There are lot’s of possible angles. Candace Thille at CMU leads the Open Learning Initiative, which is a great model of learning scientists working closely together with OER designers, and they have produced a wealth of new data and theoretical insights in what seems to be a very fruitful collaboration. She also hosted a symposium to bring learning scientists and the OER movement together, which is available online with video.

I previously posted on my blog an assignment in a class on international relations, where I tried to map different theoretical positions (compensatory liberal, realist etc) to the idea of OER from an institutional/economic/political perspective. Currently I am thinking about my final paper, and one idea I had was to use the framework of policy lending and borrowing from Gita Steiner-Khamsi (see for example “The Global Politics of Borrowing and Lending“) to look at how the idea of Open CourseWare was taken up by the Chinese government.

But I need more. So I would love to get in touch with people who are researching open learning and open educational resources from different theoretical perspectives and disciplines, and pieces of research as well. Hopefully the new OER research repository at IssueLab will help with this.


One quick note at the end, and this is something that I wish to explore more fully in a later post, is that the situation seems to be slightly different in China. During the Open Education conference in Dalian most of the Chinese participants seemed to be working for faculties of education (with many of them coming from the various open universities, thus having a background in distance education theory), and part of the “divide”, which I have written about before, was that the Chinese participants seemed to view the conference as an academic conference for them to share their research and findings, whereas the foreign participants saw it more as a place to exchange ideas and examples of what they themselves had done.

And indeed, recently I did a search for literature on the Chinese OpenCourseware project, sponsored by the Chinese government (often called China Quality OCW, CQOCW or CNQOCW - 精品课程 in Chinese), and was flabbergasted to find over 2,000 peer-reviewed articles (all in Chinese) on this topic. This is roughly as many articles as I could find about Open Courseware (MIT and other) in any other language put together - and while most of the Chinese articles were entirely about CQOCW (with most listing the term in their title), many of the articles in English mainly mention Open Courseware as one of many innovations in higher education, etc.

It will be very interesting, as I start conducting my research on this literature, what kind of theories and perspectives are employed, and how many of the articles are simply reports on a university’s own projects.


Stian Håklev November 10, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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