Demand for higher education is growing at an exponential rate with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) predicting the global student population will reach 250 million by 2025. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) identified a number of key trends in the demographics of this student population growth which they say will result in an increasing proportion of female students, greater numbers of mature and part-time students as a result of more interest in professional and life-long learning as well as an overall broadening of the social base (OECD 2008 in Altbach et al 2009, p2).
In the UK, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) recently published a report on university demand levels as part of an impact study of significant funding reforms introduced to higher education in 2012. Stable or rising numbers of international full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students in 2012/13 were found however there has been a significant decline in part-time students since 2010 (before the reforms were introduced) with a fall of 40% in undergraduates and a fall of 27% in postgraduate students. According to HEFCE, part-time students tend to represent those who are more mature, have low or no qualifications, are from disadvantaged backgrounds or have family or caring responsibilities. Although the reasons for this decline are not yet fully understood, early indications captured by HEFCE include:
- Students and employers concerned at getting value for money as a result of recent increases in fees
- People are unwilling or unable to pay the higher fees
- Mature students are reluctant to take on student loans
- Fluctuations in the economy causing lower investments in learning
- Institutions withdrawing short courses which primarily attracted part-time students
In order to remain competitive in a globalised education market and satisfy demands for access from an increasingly diverse population, UK higher education institutions will need to demonstrate how they can adapt to these challenges. As well as the need to continue to attract both national and international learners universities also have a responsibility to ensure they are providing opportunities for anyone, regardless of their circumstances, to access higher education.
The use of technology has long been hailed as being able to revolutionise the way in which education is delivered and accessed with a number of reviews making policy recommendations for technology to be used to provide flexibility, greater choice and widen participation at both a national and international level (D’Antoni 2009). The use of technology is already widespread as part of the management of education and has been utilised to support the early distance learning practices, yet many of the same challenges remain and significant reform has yet to materialise.
The emergence of new technology does have a historical precedent of disrupting the world of knowledge and information sharing as we know it. In 1453 when the printing press was created, access to knowledge underwent a revolution and suddenly the written word was, comparatively, suddenly available to the masses rather than the few (Wiley 2010). The modern day equivalent of this revolution has been anticipated since the creation of the world-wide-web by Tim Berners-Lee in the 1980’s and the growth of the use and availability of information technology in our lives has led to great expectations for education. Gains have certainly been made and technology has infiltrated higher education primarily in terms of providing infrastructure, however the model of education delivery remains largely unchanged. Laurillard (2008) offered five possible explanations for this:
- Education has become of complex system of drivers – assessment, curriculum, quality requirements, funding flows and performance targets, which has yet to recognise what technology can offer
- Rapid pace of change in technology
- Institutional leaders not comfortable with the detail or potential technology has for education
- Education is a political activity and a national enterprise embodying the values of that country, avoiding innovation from market drivers
- Educational systems tend to be controlled by a hierarchy with lecturers and teachers having little power or means to make changes using technology
By contrast the use of technology in our professional, personal and social lives has become commonplace and as a global population we have become more connected than ever before. 78% of the developed world and 32% of the developing world are now using the internet and figures are expected to reach 3 billion worldwide by the end of this year (ITU 2014). This global network of knowledge continues to grow and change as more areas of the world are connected and the ability to share information and communicate openly and freely is embraced online through blogging, social networking and online communities, allowing individuals to form their own informal learning environments.
1.1 The growth of open education resources
Access to knowledge and information produced within higher education institutions has remained largely closed to its known student population who have enrolled and paid tuition fees for their place. In 2001 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decided that in order to exploit the potential of the internet they would open up access to all their course content for free, offering course materials as:
Ingredients of learning that can then be combined with teacher- student interaction somewhere else — or simply explored by, say, professors in Chile or precocious high school students in Bangladesh. (Goldberg 2001)
In an article through the New York Times, the then President of MIT declared their open courseware as:
A natural fit to what the Web is really all about. We’ve learned this lesson over and over again. You can’t have tight, closed-up systems. We’ve tried to open up software infrastructure in a variety of ways and that’s what unleashed the creativity of software developers; I think the same thing can happen in education. (Goldberg 2001)
Education communities are one of many who have been part of the earlier ‘Open’ movements such as open source software and open access research but MIT’s open courseware was the first radical attempt at embracing openness with educational knowledge and content. It is regarded as one of the first major milestones in the practice and exploration of Open Educational Resources (OERs), a term first used by UNESCO in 2002 to describe ‘the open provision of educational resources, enabled by information and communication technologies, for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for non-commercial purposes’. This definition has become one of many and though no single agreed definition has since emerged, to reflect the growing diversity beyond simply open courseware one of the most commonly referred to definitions is that OERs are ‘digitised materials offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and reuse for teaching, learning and research’ (OECD 2007).
The potential of this practice and how it could be used across the world to transform the delivery and access to education has attracted significant funding from international organisations such as UNESCO and The William and Hewlett Flora Foundation as part of their ambitions to provide access to education for all, coupled with huge expectations of the potential and promise to obviate demographic, economic, and geographic educational boundaries and to promote life-long learning and personalised learning (Yuan et al 2008).
In the UK, the earliest OER contributions came from the Open University in 2006 who also released some of their materials in an open courseware format. It wasn’t until 2009 when the first large scale interest by institutions emerged as a result of significant funding from HEFCE. Under the leadership of the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and the Higher Education Academy (HEA), HEFCE launched a pilot to a three phase programme to:
Promote the sharing and reuse of learning resources, and to provide a reputational benefit to UK higher education through the promotion of high quality learning resources worldwide. (JISC no date)
The programme built upon earlier JISC funded activities for digital repositories and the sharing of digital content and was aimed at widening the range of available educational Page 9 resources as well as ensuring they could be easily found and freely re-used or repurposed by anyone1.
The programme was intentionally run with an experimental emphasis with the decision taken not to mandate the use of one single platform to disseminate resources or impose a single metadata profile to describe the content (Campbell 2009). Instead providing institutions and groups with the freedom to choose how they would produce and distribute their resources worldwide.
Since the end of this programme and as a result of wider changes to funding in higher education, far fewer initiatives have emerged yet the field as a whole continues to debate the potential as new approaches emerge, with advocates continuing to push the agenda. Although some way from being comparable to other open movements such as open access research, these movements continue to shine a spotlight on those who are embracing the practice. In 2014 the Welsh Higher Education Funding council made the first national OER policy declaration, advocating the use of OERs across all 12 of their institutions and an action plan of delivery. Scotland has recently followed up with their own draft declaration on open education with a group of supporting institutions which is awaiting similar senior acceptance. Interestingly in England, given the previous investment and enthusiasm, no similar OER policy or declaration is in evidence at this time.
1.2 Emerging challenges with open educational resources
This global movement of opening up access to education is not without its critics who question the altruistic claims of institutions who release their content for free as well as the quality of such resources and whether they can genuinely be re-used outside of their original context. In a review across the existing literature by Wiley et al (2014), the current practices around OERs was described as having five key problem areas for which a greater understanding was needed. These include Sustainability, Discoverability, Quality, Localisation and Remixing. This study focuses on contributing to our understanding of Discoverability by providing a collective account of what we know and how this issue is being tackled.
The problem of discoverability was echoed in the evaluation of the JISC/HEA OER programme which ultimately released a significant volume of educational resources from a wide range of UK higher education institutions but that with a primary drive on creating and releasing content not enough was done to consider and understand their discoverability to ensure those resources could be easily found (Thomas et al 2012).
There is little documented evidence to date of how learners are searching for open education resources or other educational content and the majority of literature on digital information discovery focuses on the technologies such as search engine optimisation and metadata schemas. Achieving a greater understanding of learner behaviour and approaches will be a critical step to tackling this issue of discoverability.
The breadth of evidence that could be covered in this global movement had to be restricted due to researcher availability. As a definable case study, the UK higher education institutions and groups who participated in the JISC/HEA OER programme and continue to demonstrate a presence of available OERs were investigated in order to gather a picture of the range of discoverability strategies that have been adopted.
The identified approaches were then mapped to the key concepts of discoverability, explored as part of a deeper literature review from both a technology and learner perspective providing a broad view of the current state of this field, highlighting themes, trends, gaps and any potential opportunities for improvements. An important driver behind open educational resources has been to make education accessible to all and its potential to overcome barriers for non-traditional learners disadvantaged by the current model of tertiary education, as such this became a recurrent theme through the study.
1 Higher Education Academy: Open Educational Resources: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/oer