Babson Survey Research Group has recently published the results of its survey study „Opening the Curriculum: Open Education Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2014″. The study (funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and with support from Pearson) is unique in providing a statistically valid, quantitative view of the ways that American academic staff understands and uses OERs.

The study drew the attention of the OER community by providing an objective measure of the awareness of OER. 5% of respondents declare they are „very aware”, 15% that they are „aware” and 14% that they are „somewhat aware”. Is that a lot, or too little? Commentators have focused on whether this is good, or bad news for OER (see David Wiley here or Phil Hill here, for example). In my opinion. that’s not the key issued raised by the study.

The challenge of defining „open”
The study raises the fundamental issue of OER as a concept that is at one hand difficult and unknown to educators – and which at the same time has to be used, if we are to promote a proper understanding of „open”. The report describes in details the difficulties of properly defining OER, for the purpose of the questionnaire. Authors note that if the term „open educational resources” is provided without an explanation, educators understand it to mean a broad range of freely available resources, most of which don’t meet any of the accepted OER definitions. On the other hand, a definition that uses examples to become more precise „proved too leading for the respondents, and artificially boosted the proportion that could legitimately claim to be ‚aware’.” In the end, they chose the following statement:

„How aware are you of Open Educational Resources (OER)? OER is defined as „teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.” Unlike traditionally copyrighted material, these resources are available for „open” use, which means users can edit, modify, customize, and share them.”

The respondents were then asked to provide some examples, and to confirm their understanding of OER by choosing statements that they would use „to describe the concept of OER to a colleague”. Over 70% would choose availability for free, over 50% the ability to remix or ease of combining with other materials. Creative Commons licensing is mentioned most rarely (by 28% of respondents). The last item should be troubling for OER advocates, as free licensing is considered a necessary element of open education.

I don’t think that this is the correct way of measuring OER awareness. Respondents report their understanding of OER definitions only after having been provided with the very definition – which must lead to a bias. This is a general problem with the survey (and even more generally with the survey method) – it assumes a level of clarity in understanding OER, which in real life is not present among the studied faculty. Taking aside a narrow group (5-20% of respondents) who are clearly aware of OERs (and who can be asked specific questions), for other respondents the survey at the same time measures and builds awareness.

Can we speak about OER without mentioning „OER”?
One of the stranger results of the study is that those who know and use OER chose specific statements about the OER definition as often as those who are not aware of such resources. Similarly, only 34% of respondents are aware of OER (including those 13% who are „somewhat aware, but not sure how to use them”), while 50% of faculty declare use of OERs. And finally, if open licensing is commonly described as a key element of the OER model, then why only 1/3 of those who use OER consider it important? All these mysteries have a simple possible solution: academics simply don’t know what they mean, when they answer questions about „OER”).

(There’s a chance – small one, in my opinion – that people recognise OER by specific „brands” instead of the licensing model. It would have been interesting to ask about awareness of most popular OER projects, such as Openstax).

This is ultimately not a problem with the survey itself, as care was clearly taken to create a proper survey methodology. It is a problem faced by all OER advocates – in most cases, we’re not only promoting an alternative intellectual property rights model for education; we have to make educators aware of the very issue of IPRs. It’s an issue that many educators don’t understand or don’t care about – they either ignore it, or expect that it will be solved by their institution (In Poland, we gathered research data on this – but I assume that the issue is more or less similar around the world).

Without making them aware about OER, we cannot achieve change. So we have to make people care and worry about the very issue that we’d like to see becoming insignificant. Because without a „strict” understanding of OERs, we face open washing (to use David Wiley’s term), a dilution of the open model. Low declared awareness of Creative Commons licenses, and of their significance as part of an explanation of what OER is, shows just how difficult this task is. And the risk of openwashing will grow, the more OER become mainstreamed.

What I would do differently (suggestions for the next year study)
I think that a study of OERs should not map awareness of the concept itself. Similarly, asking respondents to declare willingness to use OER in the future offers little predictive power with regard to their future actions. Instead, we should try to map and understand practices around the use of resources by educators – and then decide whether they fit a definition of what OER is. For example, educators could be asked to keep digital „resource use diaries”, which could then be analysed, with links checked for open content licensing.

We also need to go beyond quantitative, survey methods – these are great for mapping well understood concepts. But when facing issues that are still being constructed in the society, qualitative studies are much more important. Surveys provide us with general driving directions instead of precise maps. Interviews and ethnographies could help to define the „real life understanding of open”, and see whether it overlaps with the formal definitions of open.

Some nuggets from the study (if you are still reading)
Cost is among the least important criteria used by academics for choosing resources. 3% worry about cost, while 20% care about ease of use, 50% about quality and 60% about efficacy. Obviously, these costs are not covered by instructors, who rationally do not worry about them. But the data suggests that the typical OER argument – „it’s free” – will not be convincing for educators.

Only 35% of educators are „very aware” about copyright (even fewer about Public Domain and Creative Commons). This is an extremely low value for a knowledge-intensive sector in a knowledge-based society. The survey asks about „licensing models” – but this is also, and more importantly, an issue of user rights.

Asked about deterrents to OER adoption, 1/3 of respondents mention lack of knowledge about permissions to use – which is the most shocking number for a study on resources with an explicit permission to use.

When asked about what types of resources they use, faculty members that declare OER use mentioned: images (89%), videos (88%), followed by video lectures and tutorials (60%). Ebooks and textbooks are relatively often used, but below the 50% mark. This suggests that some of the most often used OERs are incidental (images). It might also be a measure of a shift in American higher education away from traditional, printed resources. (It would be useful to collect similar data for non-open resources).