Theoretical frameworks for researching open educational resources

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Nov 11 14:13:41 UTC 2008

Theoretical frameworks for researching OERWhy 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 tounderstand to be of any use, was important to give meaning todifferent empirical results, and to provide predictability andtransferability to other cases. This was brought home to me when Ibegan researching the community library movement in Indonesia (laterpublished on E-LIS). Not only was there almost no existing researchavailable on my specific case - the community library movement inIndonesia - but to my great surprise, there was a huge dearth ofresearch on community libraries for development in general.
The few studies that existed all "started from scratch", and wereusually simple descriptions of different individual cases, a tentlibrary in East-Africa here, a mule library in Venezuela there… Butnobody tried to develop meta-studies, overviews, theories, taxonomies…What kinds of community libraries are there? What are the criteria forsuccess? What theories exist on how community libraries effect localeducation? Economic participation? Citizenship and democracy?
A map of the field
What was lacking was not just individual theories, but what the OPLRNproposal calls "a map of the field". This description has staid withme, 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 aconsensus map of the structure of the field, the major researchquestions, and the different sub-communities and associatedmethodologies. It is possible to place oneself on the map, and tocoordinate effort in a well understood way. In contrast OER researchis a relatively young field, which has not yet being fully articulatedand defined…"
(from the OPLRN proposal, availably by Google Cache).
Only theories provide transferability
Today I was reading a collection of papers by Jim Cummins, aresearcher on bilingualism and linguistic rights at OISE. A recurringtheme is the disconnect between academic research and policy; thereseems to be very strong evidence in the scientific literature forcertain kinds of bilingual education, however, this is not translatedinto policy, especially in the US. In his paper "The Role and Use ofEducational Theory in Formulating Language Policy" he statesexplicitly:
"A major reason why many policy-makers in the United States regard theresearch bias for bilingual education as minimal or even non-existentis that they have failed to realize that data or 'facts' frombilingual programs become interpretable for policy purposes onlywithin the context of a coherent theory. It is the theory rather thanthe individual research findings that permits the generation ofpredictions about program outcomes under different conditions.Research findings themselves cannot be directly applied acrosscontexts.
In short, although research findings cannot be applied directly acrosscontexts, theories are almost by definition applicable across contextsin that the validity of any theoretical principle is assessedprecisely by how well it can account for the research findings in avariety of contexts. If a theory cannot account for a particular setof research findings, then it is an inadequate or incomplete theory."
This really struck home with me. (Incidentally, after spending hourstranscribing interviews with children on the nature of science, andtrying to grade them from level 1 to 3 in "understanding of science",I realized that maybe politicians need courses on using science forpolicy 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 meat the Open Education 2008 conference I participated in, at Utah StateUniversity, was that very few of the attendees were from faculties ofeducation. Furthermore, I was quite frustrated by the quality of manyof the presentations from a scholarly perspective. I promised my goodfriend Haishuo Lee during the conference that I would rip hispresentation to pieces, so I will use that as an example here (withhis permission). Haishuo's university in Taiwan put video recordingsof math classes online, and designed a summer course around this - sothat incoming students who were admitted in spring could follow thesemath 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 bothsurveys as well as analysis of the test results of various groups ofstudents, and all this was presented very ably by Haishuo during theconference (he is a born presenter). All well and good, but to me thiswas a paper that lacked an introduction and a conclusion. Where wasthe "literature review"? If this was simply a program evaluation forinternal use, that is one thing, but if this is presented as academicresearch, why would you design a study without consulting theliterature? What previous research has been done in this field? Whatare the various theories? What can this study help prove/disprove orimprove our understanding of?
One problem might be that many of the proponents of open educationseem to think that this is something brand new, and thus there isn'tany "literature". To a certain extent, that is true, but slow down…The reason this study was presented at Open Education 2008, was thatthe videos produced were made "open access" for the whole world.However, for the students enrolled in the university, it would havemade no difference if they were closed access, and only available forenrolled students through a password… So basically, this was a studyon the use of online multimedia resources for self-instructed mathclasses - and surely there would be reams of studies on this. The useof 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 wasthe 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 mathinstruction itself. So while it might be very challenging to grapplewith all these various disciplines, some theoretical foundation wouldmean that this study would not only help the Taiwanese universityunderstand the strengths and failures of its own program better, butthe study would make a contribution to the scholarly literature, andhelp inform projects at other universities, and perhaps eventuallycontribute to improving the theory itself.
Where does that leave us?
Note that I am picking on Haishuo as an example here, what I listedabove was typical for most of the presentations. Granted, if youconceive of the conference more of a "meeting of geeks", where we showeach other the cool things we've come up with, this might beacceptable. But for me, who is in an MA program and wish to write bothmy final MA thesis, and a number of papers on the way, on differentaspects of the OER movement, this presents a problem.
There are lot's of possible angles. Candace Thille at CMU leads theOpen Learning Initiative, which is a great model of learningscientists working closely together with OER designers, and they haveproduced a wealth of new data and theoretical insights in what seemsto be a very fruitful collaboration. She also hosted a symposium tobring learning scientists and the OER movement together, which isavailable online with video.
I previously posted on my blog an assignment in a class oninternational relations, where I tried to map different theoreticalpositions (compensatory liberal, realist etc) to the idea of OER froman institutional/economic/political perspective. Currently I amthinking about my final paper, and one idea I had was to use theframework of policy lending and borrowing from Gita Steiner-Khamsi(see for example "The Global Politics of Borrowing and Lending") tolook at how the idea of Open CourseWare was taken up by the Chinesegovernment.
But I need more. So I would love to get in touch with people who areresearching open learning and open educational resources fromdifferent theoretical perspectives and disciplines, and pieces ofresearch as well. Hopefully the new OER research repository atIssueLab will help with this.
One quick note at the end, and this is something that I wish toexplore more fully in a later post, is that the situation seems to beslightly different in China. During the Open Education conference inDalian most of the Chinese participants seemed to be working forfaculties of education (with many of them coming from the various openuniversities, thus having a background in distance education theory),and part of the "divide", which I have written about before, was thatthe Chinese participants seemed to view the conference as an academicconference for them to share their research and findings, whereas theforeign participants saw it more as a place to exchange ideas andexamples of what they themselves had done.
And indeed, recently I did a search for literature on the ChineseOpenCourseware project, sponsored by the Chinese government (oftencalled China Quality OCW, CQOCW or CNQOCW - 精品课程 in Chinese), and wasflabbergasted to find over 2,000 peer-reviewed articles (all inChinese) on this topic. This is roughly as many articles as I couldfind about Open Courseware (MIT and other) in any other language puttogether - and while most of the Chinese articles were entirely aboutCQOCW (with most listing the term in their title), many of thearticles in English mainly mention Open Courseware as one of manyinnovations in higher education, etc.
It will be very interesting, as I start conducting my research on thisliterature, what kind of theories and perspectives are employed, andhow many of the articles are simply reports on a university's ownprojects.
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