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It is difficult to discuss OER without reference to the means by which content might be shared (typically online), or about the licensing that facilitates that openness – writes my colleague Ronald Macintyre

A question raised by the JISC-funded UKOER Delores project, that was working both with teaching staff and directly with learners, is, “is licensing really an issue for learners?”  What matters for learners, they claim – after focus groups with the learners – is that the resources are freely available and accessible to them.  They are not likely to want to re-use or repurpose them, so the license does not matter.

Whilst students might in many situations benefit from the unrestricted use of material – allowing them to borrow and re-use in the manner of the teacher – as learners, often all they need is ‘read-only’ access to the material from which they can then draw new knowledge. Even the most restrictive licence would not prevent their entirely legitimate use of the resource as study material and so, it follows, that, for the purposes of an individual learner OER provision, non-restrictive licences should not be a prerequisite. Material which carries no licence at all and which has clear, and restrictive, copyright may for the student at least be of equal value to that carrying the least restrictive of licences (Delores final report).

This claim foregrounds a tension that seems to me to be developing in practices around OER, especially in the sphere of adult and lifelong learning that our OER4Adults project focuses on  – that the expectations of practice that arise from the historical development of the “OER movement” and the motivation underlying much of the funding for OER initiatives, may not match the way they are being used in practice in adult and lifelong learning.  OER have a twin history in the development of open source software and that of reusable learning objects.  In both cases, development was within a community of practitioners (software developers or teachers) to whom collaboration, reuse and repurposing was a fundamental basis for effective and efficient development.

That use is also within such a community may (but only may) be a valid assumption within formal education, where much resource use by learners is filtered by and through the teacher.  As learners become increasingly self-directed, though, there is, by definition, less and less filtering.  In adult education and lifelong learning, where much learning is non formal, we have to think very carefully, probably on a case-by-case basis, about where we can assume that the users of resources belong to the developer/reuser community.

However, and equally, we cannot assume that learners – formal or non formal – are not reusing and repurposing resources.  Increasingly (perhaps) learners are in the habit of contributing back the outputs of their learning, in blog posts, Wikipedia articles, posts to forums, etc.  As with any work of knowledge creation, sometimes their outputs are sufficiently re-worked that, provided proper references are given, licensing should not be an issue.  Sometimes not. Where learners contribute online, we have evidence that they do so – but we have no/little idea of the numbers of those who do not do so.  Is the proportion of the iceberg that is submerged changing?  Is the openness of OER instrumental in changing learner practices with resources?  In what contexts, or for what types of learner, does it matter to learners whether resources are openly licensed or not?