The aim of this study was to contribute to our understanding of the discoverability of OERs by providing a collective account of the strategies used by UK higher education institutions. Specifically the study set out to:
- Identify the range of methods chosen to release and share OERs
- Explore the processes offered by these methods to address discoverability
- Identify and explore the evidence of our understanding of online information discovery
- Identify any gaps between our understanding of information discovery and the discoverability strategies being used
- Determine if chosen strategies may hinder discoverability by the suggested beneficiaries of OERs
This study has revealed a preference for the use of management based systems such as repositories to host and share OERs and approaches which largely reinforce the traditional model of institutions as the creators of content. There was little evidence of demonstrable intent to move too far from the existing higher education population to target a globalised audience or reach a non-traditional learner base as the main beneficiaries of the OERs. Rather the primary focus was upon provision for other academic and professional staff and students already within the system.
The evidence of understanding how users approach the task of discovering OERs was found to be very limited and what does exist draws from those already within higher education. Though the very nature of a dispersed unpredictable group of users, who do not have to make themselves known, makes this a challenging aspect to overcome.
In an attempt to succinctly depict the range of discoverability strategies identified by this study a map (see Figure 9) has been produced to visualise the findings. The review identified a number of existing and potentially influential methods to aid discoverability both in the form of technical and more social-based practices which embrace the ethos demonstrated across social media and networking platforms where users in a dispersed global community act as providers, contributors and consumers. This map should be treated as a snapshot of the outcomes of this study rather than an exhaustive list of the entire field.
The explosion in the use of social media and networking platforms on the web and the range of strategies identified through this study demonstrates that methods already exist to aid the discoverability of online content, so there is no need for higher education to reinvent the wheel. Though this study identified some of these platforms were being used they were primarily treated as another location to deposit content rather than to engage with mechanisms for community engagement, feedback and sharing. In one extreme example, a twitter account was created to promote resources released by a project but was a closed access list for approved followers only.
The apparent desire to retain a safety net of controlling what users can say and easily do with resources perhaps reflects the view of Atenas and Havemann (2014) who described the culture change as ‘work in progress’ for education practitioners who are being asked by national and international bodies to open up their academic practice yet at a local level there is lack of professional incentive or recognition unlike similar practices with research which is now considered normal and desirable.
5.1 Recommendations for future research
If the emerging data of who is using MOOCs, as well as the primary audience of OERs identified from this study can be taken as an early indicator, more work is needed in order for OERs to reach the beneficiaries predicted by international organisations such as UNESCO and OECD.
Though the body of evidence identified from this study is too small to generalise more widely, it does raise questions of how OER activities are being designed and disseminated more widely not just by individual institutions but by the sector overall. The literature reviewed for this study was found to be based on a common foundation of belief that users are already searching for content and the challenge is around them being found returned. It is perhaps an easy assumption to make that the problem with discoverability is content cannot be found by people searching online as it isn’t optimised or in the right place to be found, but as well not exploiting particular tools and practices what if beneficiaries are not even looking in the first place?
There is a question of how well known the existence of OERs is outside of the higher education sector? Have the next generation of learners currently at school or further education heard of an OER? Do those who have caring responsibilities or are unable to pay for a course due to financial instability know what a MOOC is or where they would find one? Do those individuals who wish to return as a mature learner know that opportunities exist to become part of a wider online learning community on their terms? Do organisations who support people from non-traditional backgrounds know the agenda to open up access to higher education exists?
In future, it would be valuable to conduct some assessment of this to better understand how discoverability approaches should target these groups, alongside more familiar channels to reach more traditional learner base.
Originally the impetus of OERs initiatives was on achieving a critical mass, now debate seems to have shifted to topics around financial sustainability for institutions and quality concerns. If we are not careful and don’t look beyond the current walls and factor in the many facets influencing discoverability, as suggested by McMartin (2008) OERs will simply continue to serve the existing model of higher education.
5.2 Limitation and weakness
The major limitation of this study is the limited number of OER contributors from higher education institutions that could be covered in comparison to the true scale and diverse number of practices that exists across the sector. The study also includes some weakness in the application of the methodology due to the availability of only one researcher.
This study however intends to provide a starting point so others may build upon these findings to conduct further extended reviews or more targeted research based on specific interventions enabling more details analysis to take place.