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Policy changes needed for institutions

To be effective and sustainable, institutional decisions to harness OER will likely need to be accompanied by a review of policies. There are at least four main policy issues:

  1. Provision in policy of clarity on Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and copyright on works created during the course of employment (or study) and how these may be shared with and used by others.
  2. Human Resource (HR) policy guidelines regarding whether the creation of certain kinds of work (e.g. learning resources) constitutes part of the job description of staff, and the implications for development, performance management, remuneration and promotion purposes.
  3. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) policy guidelines regarding access to and use of appropriate software, hardware, the internet and technical support, as well as provision for version control and backup of any storage systems for an institution’s educational resources.
  4. Materials development and quality assurance policy guidelines to ensure appropriate selection, development, quality assurance and copyright clearance of works that may be shared.

A good starting point for consideration of OER is to have clear policies in place regarding IPR and copyright.

Related toolkits: Copyright and Licensing Toolkit

A clear policy would, for example, plainly lay out the respective rights of the institution and its employees and sub-contractors, as well as students (who might become involved in the process directly or indirectly through use of some of their assignment materials as examples) regarding intellectual capital. As part of this policy process, it is worth considering the relative merits of creating flexible copyright policies that automatically apply open licences to content unless there are compelling reasons to retain all-rights reserved copyright over those materials. Simultaneously, though, these policies should make it easy for staff to invoke all-rights reserved copyright where this is justified.

In developing curricula and learning resources, educators have always engaged with what is already available – often prescribing existing textbooks and creating reading lists of published articles, for example. Even in distance education institutions with a long history of materials development, it is arguably a rare and strange occurrence to develop completely new materials with no reference to what already exists. The increasing availability of OER widens the scope of what is available, but perhaps more importantly opens greater possibility for adapting existing resources for a better fit with local contextual and cultural requirements. At the same time, the availability of OER does away with the need to spend time in lengthy copyright negotiation processes or, failing that, to duplicate development of the same core content.

This is usually most effectively and efficiently managed if educators work within a team in which disciplinary expertise is combined with expertise in content sourcing, learning design, resource development, materials licensing and so on. If the new/revised learning resources that emanate from such a process are then shared back with the wider higher education community as OER, the possibility exists for further engagement and refinement in the form of constructive feedback. The end result should be better curricula and better materials, developed more quickly and renewed more often.

It should be clear that employment contracts with the various contributors to the development of new or revised learning resources – from whole programmes down to individual learning objects – should expressly acknowledge the right for the individual contribution to be recognized but also the intention for the final product to be made available under an open licence. Given the marketing potential of  learning resources released under the institution’s imprint, a policy commitment to clear criteria and robust processes for quality assurance would seem of particular importance.

It is important to stress the hierarchy implied here. Engagement with OER originates from the need to address curriculum requirements within the institution; the development and sharing of new OER is a product of meeting that need and not an end in itself.

Within this context, educational institutions would need to consider and answer the following
questions:

  1. To what extent do current policies motivate educators to invest at least a portion of their time in ongoing curriculum design, creation of effective teaching and learning environments within courses and programmes, and development of high-quality teaching and learning materials?

Some institutions already have policies that encourage such investments, either through inclusion of these elements in job descriptions, inclusion of these activities in rewards, incentives and promotions policies, and/or appointment of people and units dedicated to these tasks.

While different institutions may wish to incentivize these activities in different ways, according to their specific mission and vision, all would benefit from ensuring that their policies provide structural support to investment of time by educators in these activities, as part of a planned process to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

A policy recognition of and support for the development of curriculum and learning resources in multi-skilled teams should obviate the overload of educational staff, whose primary function would be identifying and quality-assuring existing OER and, where necessary, developing new content. A policy commitment to the use, adaptation and creation of appropriate OER, in support of ongoing curriculum and materials review cycles, would help to ensure that teaching and learning is seen as a continuing process of renewal.

  1. Does the institution have a defined IPR and copyright policy in place?

A good starting point for consideration of OER is to have clear policies in place regarding IPR and copyright.

A clear policy would, for example, plainly lay out the respective rights of the institution and its employees and sub-contractors, as well as students (who might become involved in the process directly or indirectly through use of some of their assignment materials as examples) regarding intellectual capital.

  1. Do institutional policies and practices reward creation of new materials more highly than adaptation of existing materials? How much is collaboration valued?

While there is no universal way of dealing with these issues, the reality is that incentive structures often reward individual, rather than collaborative, activity and encourage production of ‘new’ materials. While there are sometimes good reasons for a staff member to develop materials from scratch, such processes may often duplicate ongoing work taking place in global knowledge networks that are engaged in facilitating increasingly creative forms of collaboration and sharing of information.

The history of development of materials for distance education purposes illustrates clearly that, all other things being equal, collaboration by teams of people producing materials tends to produce higher quality results than individuals working in isolation.

Consequently, it is opportune for educational institutions to think strategically about the extent to which their policies, practices and institutional cultures reward individual endeavour over collaboration. Institutions should also consider how they unintentionally create inefficiencies by valuing, in principle, creation of ‘new’ materials over adaptation and use of existing materials and content.

As the amount of content freely accessible online proliferates, such approaches to procuring materials increasingly seem unnecessarily wasteful. Thus, there may be merit in ensuring that incentive structures and quality assurance processes make provision for judicious selection, use and adaptation of existing content (particularly that which is openly licensed and hence free to procure), as well as development of new content.

This in no way militates against academic creativity: in fact, the right to adapt materials opens up greater opportunities for creativity than the traditional all-rights reserved form of copyright.

  1. What is an appropriate starting point for initiating a sharing culture and encouraging movement towards OER publishing?

Historically, educational institutions and educators have often been actively encouraged to protect their intellectual capital closely. Thus, sharing teaching practices, approaches and materials will not necessarily be a common practice. Consequently, inviting colleagues to share materials with one another may be met with resistance and scepticism.

Recognizing that this is a historical legacy of how education has tended to function, it is important to find ways to shift this culture, and to encourage ways of sharing materials that are not threatening to educators. One way that some institutions have begun this has been to encourage educators to share online their lecture notes and/or slide shows used in particular courses. In this way, they do not feel pressurized to develop full-scale programmes – or the equivalent of a textbook. Rather, they are sharing notes they create for their students, in a way that first benefits their current students – as they can access the materials digitally – and then benefits colleagues in their own and other institutions, as their notes may be used and adapted for other purposes.

Lowering the expectation of what constitutes an OER – and not expecting the equivalent of textbooks to be available immediately – may be an important step towards shifting the culture of sharing in education. It is often worth pointing out that such resources openly shared will reach a far wider audience, creating far greater opportunities for recognition of staff as productive knowledge workers.

Similarly, institutions may require that all formal assessments for courses are published as OER. This would mean that a repository of tests, problems sets, assignments, essay questions and examinations would be available under open licenses. Like lecture notes, assessments are something that educators have to create as part of their job functions. There is little additional work required to publish these under open licence. However, the contribution to the institution, as well as to the educational community, could be significant. Release of this would also force educators to invest in ongoing redesign of assessment strategies, thus keeping assessment practices current and helping to reduce plagiarism (because the temptation of teaching staff to reuse old assessment activities would be reduced – given that such activities would be openly
accessible).

  1. Do staff members understand copyright issues and the different ways in which they can harness openly licensed resources?

By virtue of their core functions, educational institutions are positioned to be at the forefront of knowledge societies. In many institutions, though, educators have limited knowledge of or exposure to issues around copyright and the proliferation of online content, much of which is openly licensed. These issues are growing in importance, as they are central to the rapid growth and development of new, increasingly global knowledge networks, driven by the growing functionality and reach of the internet.

These emerging knowledge networks – effectively niche groups of specialized areas of interest sharing and developing knowledge across national boundaries – are complex and diverse, but have become an essential feature of the knowledge economy and of many academic endeavours. This means that educators increasingly need to understand the complex issues surrounding these knowledge networks and how they may be changing the ways in which content is both created and shared.

Accordingly, it is becoming increasingly important for institutions to ensure that they invest in awareness-raising exercises to bring these issues to the attention of their staff and to explore how the institution and the educators can benefit from them.

  1. Are there compelling reasons to retain all-rights reserved copyright over curricula and teaching and learning materials?

Assuming that institutions have copyright policies that vest the copyright of such materials in the institution, their next consideration may be whether they derive better value from retaining all rights reserved copyright or from releasing some of the rights.

While a small percentage of teaching and learning materials can – and will continue to – generate revenue through direct sales, the reality has always been that the percentage of teaching and learning materials that have commercial resale value is minimal; it is also declining further as more and more educational material is made freely accessible on the internet.

It is becoming increasingly evident that, on the teaching and learning side, educational institutions that succeed are likely to do so predominantly by understanding that their real potential educational value lies not in content itself (which is increasingly available in large volumes online) but in their ability to guide students effectively through educational resources via well-designed teaching and learning pathways; offer effective support to students (whether that be in practical sessions, tutorials, individual counselling sessions or online); and provide intelligent assessment and critical feedback to students on their performance (ultimately leading to some form of accreditation).

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, therefore, as business models are changed by the presence of ICT, the more other institutions make use of their materials, the more this will serve to build institutional reputation and thereby attract new students.

In this changing environment, there is a strong case to be made for considering the marketing value and added exposure that can be derived from making this intellectual capital easily accessible under open licences, rather than seeking to retain all-rights reserved copyright.

However, as there will be instances in which institutions and academics will need to protect all-rights reserved copyright, it remains important to create provisions in copyright policies to assert full rights over specific materials where this is considered commercially or strategically important.

Having noted this, it is worth adding that a policy that requires staff to justify the assertion of all-rights reserved copyright can help to eliminate the corrupt practice of teaching staff selling their own teaching and learning materials to their students as a separate commercial activity.