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general theory of OER

1. Introduction: Systems thinking & Systems in Focus

Despite the great work of many insightful open thinkers, OER is, seen from a theoretical perspective, still an ill-defined topic. Though there are several advanced definitions of OER[1], many fundamental questions have not been finally clarified[2]. Things even become messier, when looking at closely related concepts like “Open Educational Practices”, “Open Education[3]” and “OER Ecosystems”, which are, despite engaged early attempts, still lacking sufficient definitions and explanations[4].  Arguably we are in need of a conceptual framework which helps us understanding the phenomena usually summarized under the term “OER” more comprehensively.

This post assumes that systems theory can provide essential parts of such a wider theory of OER. Systems thinking is a holistic school of thought, which developed in the middle of the 20th century, and which has been successfully applied to many complex academic and practical fields including environmental science, organizational learning and family therapy. Systems thinking can be considered rather an open methodology than a unified theoretic body. Actually many different schools of systems thinking exist, focussing on different kind of problems. Good overviews on the variety of systems approaches recently have been given by Ramage & Ship, 2009 as well as by Baecker, 2016.

One of the first things to do when taking a systems approach is to define the “system in focus”, the system which the discussion is all about. Defining a system in focus is not as trivial as it might look like on the first sight. The definition of a system can be very demanding since there usually is not one correct answer but many possible solutions which all make sense from different viewpoints. Making things worse, in the case of OER one system in focus will not be enough to explain the phenomena sufficiently. Rather I assume, that it will be necessary to determine several interacting systems in focus. As we will see, at least four interrelated levels of systems can be identified, around which a wider theory of OER can be expanded[5].

Before stepping deeper in the world of open educational systems, let`s try to define very shortly, what a system is: A system is a whole, which is divided by a border from its environment and made of several interacting parts (“components”). Every component can be seen as a system of its own. Therefore systems arguably appear in hierarchies. When trying to analyse the structure of complex systems, it is usually necessary to analyse at least three different levels: The system in focus, its components and its environment.

2. Hierarchy of systems: Four system levels

As far as I can oversee it, the actual OER discussion uses mainly two concepts to indicate different levels of scope: “OER” and “Open Education”. On the one hand, “OER” is used to describe individual resources, like openly licensed textbooks or working sheets. At the same time, the term is also used in a vague sense describing the organizational processes and structures, which are needed for the production and dissemination of the individual resources. “Open Education”, on the other hand, describes the wider educational system, the context in which OER are used and produced.

From this duality of key terms one could assume that OER ecosystems are made of two system levels. I believe this to be misleading. Rather it makes sense to me to distinguish between at least four system levels, as can be seen from figure 1:

oer-system-levels_v1-3

Figure 1: Four system levels within the field of OER

In the following these four different levels will be briefly described, concentrating on the question, what kind of system they refer to, which components they are made of and which environment they operate in. I will also try to point out which disciplines normally are concerned with each system level as every system level addresses specific discussions in different academic fields.

3. Level 1: Individual resources as manifested conceptual systems

Kind of System Manifested conceptional systems, very odd system type for systems thinker
Components Technical container, metadata, structure, content, learning objects, license
Environment Either technical infrastructure like repositories (a) or learning contexts in which resources are used for learning (b)
Goal of the system To be defined
Concerned Discipline (a)    Technicians, librarians, authors, lawyers (b) teachers, experts in media didactics,

On the most basic level it makes sense to perceive individual resources as systems. Examples could be books, working sheets or video lectures. An Individual resource can be seen as a whole (=one file), which is made of several components (e.g. technical container, metadata, structure, content, learning objects, license).

From a technical perspective, one might argue, that the system border of individual resources is determined by its document type (e.g.: .rtf, .doc, .mp4). The environment of the resource includes either technical infrastructure (repositories, interfaces, etc.) or learners and teachers, depending on whether you look at it from a technical or a didactical perspective.

A rather nerdy systems thinkers question is, what kind of system individual resources are. I thought long about this question and came up with the answer, that one could speak of manifested conceptual systems (MCS), since learning resources typically include a mental concept, a special idea in the head of the author, which she or he later on manifested by writing it down and making a file out of it. MCS are neither dynamic living systems nor machines, and therefore do not transform an input into an output. Compared to living systems MCS are actually pretty static and do not change themselves autonomously[7].

Applying systems thinking to this kind of systems might be rather unusual, since systems thinking normally addresses complex living and social systems. Nevertheless I guess that there are special schools of knowledge engineering which use systems aproaches to analyse systems of this level.

4. Level 2: The OER publishing system

Kind of System Socio-technical system
Components Authors, quality assurance (Reviewers), readers[8], tools to publish resources, also tools to find, create and modify, disseminate and manage resources.
Environment Depends on whether an OEPS is part of an educational institution or part of its environment. In both cases, the educational institution and it`s components are important elements of the environment of an OEPS.
Goal of the system Producing open licensed material in order to achieve certain beneficial effects like saving costs, increasing access and/or quality as well as fostering innovation.
Concerned disciplines Publishers, librarians, technicians, knowledge managers, policy maker, business model experts, authors

4.1 Introducing the OER Publishing System (OERPS)

The MCS-level can be used to understand what an individual OER is, but does not help us very much in describing the processes, which have to be organized in order to produce and distribute, discover and use individual resources. When trying to describe how, by whom and why individual resources are generated, one needs to change to another system level in focus, which I call the “OER Publishing System” (OERPS). As its name already tells, the OER publishing system is concerned with publishing OER and related activity.

4.2 Type of system

In contrast to the MSC-level, the OER publishing system is a socio-technical system. This means that it is about humans, which use technology in order to archive certain goals. Human activity and technology together are connected in a co-evolutionary way, which means they constantly evolve while influencing each other. Socio-technical systems are living systems (because they are driven by humans) and therefore are much more complex than systems on the MCS level, described above.

4.3 The OERPS as a process

The OERPS concept is quite abstract and hard to grasp, since it describes a process, which can be organized in different forms depending on what kind of material is produced, for whom and by whom[9]. The organization of this process can even be distributed over several connected institutions which makes it especially difficult to identify it as one coherent system. As will be shown in a following post, the OERPS can be located within an educational institution, as well as outside of it.

4.4 Constitutional Models

The OERPS can be based on at least three different classes of business models:

  1. Public organization, e.g. production of OER within public funded universities.
  2. Commercial organization, e.g. creation and publication of material by boundless.
  3. Civil organization, e.g. publication of material by Wikimedia or serlo.

4.5 Environment

Each class of OERPS has its own type of environment. Common for all types of environment seems to be, that OER based educational institutions (see down 5.) and their elements make up the most important component (s). The (supported) learning process is always the start and end point which should focus all processes underlying an OERPS.

The differences within the types of environment still have to be analyzed in more detail. Some initial ideas might indicate how these differences could look like:

  • For a public funded OERPS other parts of the public administration are of special importance. For example the communes, which run the Norwegian Digital Learning Arena (NDLA) are an important part of NDLA`s environment.
  • For commercial driven OERPS` the commercial publishing market makes up an important part of their environment. The conventional publishing industry disposes many competences, which it could use to develop and offer OER based services[10]. On the other hand OER publishing is challenging the traditional publishing industry. This special situation has to be kept in mind, when trying to implement commercial OER solutions[11].
  • Finally foundations and other OER funders are more important for civil based organizations, than they are for public and commercial driven initiatives.

4.6 Professional Perspectives

At least three professional perspectives are focusing on the OERPS-level:

  1. The technical perspective, concentrating on the technical architecture of the needed tools and supply chains (networks of infrastructure provider).
  2. The business model perspective, concentrating on the question who provides which value for whom and who pays for it.
  3. The didactical perspective, concentrating on questions, how the produced material or the production process itself is used in order to support learning and teaching.

5. Level 3: OER based educational institutions

Type of System (Mezzo level) Social system, currently chaning into socio-technical system
Components Learners, teachers, administration, OERPS (optional)
Environment External OERPS. educational government
Goal of the system Provide students with skills and knowledge
Concerned Disciplines Educational research, sociology, public administration

On the third level we can observe OER based educational institutions, like schools and universities as systems in focus.

5.1 Type of system

Educational institutions can be described as self-organizing mezzo sized social systems with a special educational purpose (e.g. educating people). Institutions or organizations in general, tend to aim at permanent existence and are characterized by a formal and informal structure, as well as by an institutional culture.

Communication plays a crucial part in the emergence of organizations. Organizations can be seen as dancing patterns of communication. Actually it is so important that Niklas Luhmann, the hard to read but some times rewarding German systems thinker, argues that social systems, which institutions are a special part of, exist only of communications. So for Luhmann humans are not a components of an institution, but part of its environment!

5.2 The basic structure of educational institutions

While Luhmanns perspective certainly is a valid way to model social institutions, I do not consider it to be the only possible way. In the following a model of educational institutions will be proposed, which is more old fashioned and sees social systems primarily as groups of people. My main reason for doing so is that the resulting models are more intuitive, also for non-systems thinker and more practical to handle in a management context.

Though educational institutions may differ in multiple ways, there nevertheless are some structural elements, which are quite common and seem to appear in most western type schools and universities, as can be seen in figure 2:

educational-systems-map

Figure 2: The basic structure of an Educational Institution

5.2.1 The Teaching and Learning System

Actually the basic structure of an educational system looks surprisingly simple. In its center is the (teaching and) learning component/system, which is made of students and teachers. The learning system operates the core processes of an educational system: the teaching and learning[12]. The simplicity of the structure becomes even more surprising, when considering, that it is shared by both, schools and universities.

5.2.2 The administration

The learning system is supported, guided and controlled by an administration, which consists of the management of the educational system as well as of potential central units[13]. The size and complexity of the administration and the learning system can differ quite a lot. Small schools might be run by only one director, who -at the same time- is the only teacher of the school. On the other hand, big universities include multiple faculties and a complex administration, which includes several central units like libraries, IT departments, legal support, marketing and others. Despite the differences in scale the basic functional structure remains the same.

5.3 Making educational institutions open

One interesting question is, if and how the structure of an educational institution changes, when it shifts towards openness. I assume that, at least in the beginning, the basic structure of educational institutions will not necessarily change very much. The main difference will be that an OER Publishing System has to be added to the model, either outside of the OER based educational institution (=in its environment) or inside of it (=as a component). This topic will be described in detail within my next post. At the moment it is important to see, that simply by the use of external or internal produced OER, a conventional educational institutions arguably turns into an OER based educational institution.

Since the term “Open Education” has not been clearly defined yet, I prefer to take a rather cautious terminology speaking of “OER based institutions” instead of “Open Educational Institutions” or similar. At the moment it seems not yet clear, if a conventional educational system automatically becomes an “open educational system”, just because it uses OER. It might turn out in the future that “Open Education” is not only  characterized by the use of OER, but by the appearance of other open qualities as well, like the freedom to enter an institution independently of required degrees, the freedom to be educated by a multitude of different institutions, the freedom to determine your own learning goals or the freedom to decide on your own when and where to learn.

5.4 Environment

One important part of the environment of educational institutions is the governance system. Within many countries, formal education systems are controlled by a multi-level governance system which often is made up of different levels of governance (e.g. communal, regional, national), making efficient control quite difficult. The governance system is responsible for

  1. financing the operation of the educational system,
  2. setting strategic goals
  3. shaping framing conditions like legal regulation.

It also seems to be quite common, that it

  1. determines the concrete goals of the learning system by setting the curriculum.

5.5 Professional perspectives

The institutional level is especially relevant for various kinds of management activities. Educational managers and planners, organisational developers and change managers will deal a lot with the institutional level. Systems thinking approaches are specialized in dealing with this kind of problems and can contribute much.

6. Level 4: OER eco-systems

Kind of System Large scale socio techical systems (LSSTS)
Components OER based educational institutions, educational governance systems, OERPS, other institutions
Environment Wider society, e.g. legals system, economic system, political system, religious system,
Goal of the system To be defined
Concerned Disciplin Sociology, systems thinking, national economy,

OER ecosystems, describe on the fourth level the biggest scoped systems. Systems of this scale have been described as “Large Scale Socio Technical Systems (LSSTS)”, which gives a hint of the size of these systems.

I do have an ambivalent opinion towards the term “OER ecosystem”. On the one hand it seems to describe what in systems thinking is simply named a “system”. From this perspective, it is kind of unnecessary. On the other hand the term is more vivid and provides a tangible metaphor, which I guess fits quite well with the educational context.

The term can be used in singular (“OER ecosystem”) as well as in plural (“OER ecosystems”). Speaking of „OER ecosystems“ illustrates, that there are many different forms of OER ecosystems, each addressing different “ecological niches”. In many cases, an OER ecosystem will consist of a number of OER based educational institutions, an internal or external OERPS as well as an educational governance system.

In contrast to this, speaking of “the OER ecosystem” (in singular) can be used to describe the sum of all existing ecosystems. This might make sense, e.g. when trying to distinguish the open educational approaches in general from conventional educational activity.

7. Bottom line

Systems thinking turns out to be a useful tool to model OER publishing and OER ecosystems.

One can differentiate four different levels of systems

  1. The individual resource (“Manifested conceptional systems”)
  2. The OER publishing system
  3. OER based educational institutions.
  4. OER ecosystems or OER based (open) educational systems

The structure of educational systems is surprisingly simple, being made of the learning system (teaching and learning), an administration and an external governance system. Of special importance is the introduced concept of an OER publishing system (OERPS). To understand OER more comprehensively, it is helpful to look at how the OER publishing system relates to OER based educational systems. This will be examined in the following post.


Footnotes

[1] Most common are the definitions by UNESCO (UNESCO, 2012) and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

[2] For example it is still hard to find an answer to the question, what makes a resource an educational one. Orr et al argue that every resource, which is used within a specific learning arrangement as an educational resource is an educational one. (Orr et al 2016, p. 18). While this might be a pragmatic approach, which is sufficient from a policy perspective it is hardly sufficient for operational tasks like library cataloguing, because in many cases it will be impossible to find out, if a resource has been used within specific learning arrangements or not. Potentially every ressource can be used for teaching and learning.

[3] As far as the term „Open Education“ is concerned a good summary of the actual discussion can be found at Orr, et al, 2016, page 20f.

[4] This certainly is not the fault of anybody. Social or scientific innovations are by definition ill-defined topics, since reflection can only follow the development. As soon as a phenomenon is well understood and described, it is not innovative any longer.

[5] An interesting classical reading in this context is Boulding, 1956.

[6] Miller, 19, Boulding, 1956

[7] It is true that OER does its very best to change this aspect. Nevertheless, even if OER succeeds, MCS will still rather be changed than change out of themselves.

[8] I`m not yet sure if readers should be seen as a part of the OEPS or as part of it`s environment.

[9] The OER Cube provides an aggregated view on different types of OER generation.

[10] Until today, this is a rather theoretical option. Most publishers are considering OER as a thread and do not accept the challenge of defining business models for OER publishing. Ignoring the shift towards openness bears the risk that new competitors will take care of this business opportunity, like Amazon Inspire recently did.

[11]  Actually it is quite interesting to see that many OERPS seem to be located at the intersection between the public funded educational system and the commercial driven publishing system.

[12] In the viable system model from Stafford Beer, the learning system is the system 1.

[13] Another way of modelling would be to include the central units as a component of ist own. For the sake of simplicity I did not do so. A more detailed systems map on higher education institutions can be found here.

[14] The classical use of the term refers to the OU movement and means that someone can access higher education without a degree. The term has to be redefined in the future.

Literature

Baecker, Dirk (Ed.) (2016): “Schlüsselwerke der Systemtheorie”, Wiesbaden

Banathy, Bela H. (1991): “Systems Design of Education: A Journey to Create the Future”, New Jersey

Boulding, Kenneth E. (1956): “General systems theory: The skeleton of science” in Management Science, 2: 197-208, online available under: http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/books/Boulding.pdf (31.07.2016)

Orr, Dominic; Rimini, Michele; van Damme, Dirk, (2016): “Open Educational Resources: A catalyst for innovation”, online available under http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/open-educational-resources_9789264247543-en (18.08.2016)

Ramage, Magnus & Shipp, Karen (Ed) (2009): “Systems Thinkers”, Dordrecht Heidelberg London New York

UNESCO (2012), “2012 Paris OER Declaration”, online available under http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/pdf/Events/English_Paris_OER_Declaration.pdf (18.08.2016)