Cascade update part 3: Developing the framework

This post is third in a series of updates on recent project progress for our academic partners, following a recent project meeting on 20 January. During that meeting, we have identified a priority areas for our work in the second half of the project, and so in the next couple of months our academic partners will be busy releasing OERs and engaging their students in that process. At the same time, we are also keenly aware that we should not lose focus of the rationale underpinning these activities, as ultimately they should directly feed into our emerging cascade framework. As we are at the halfway point with the project, it is time to take stock and articulate our understanding of what that framework could be. That issue also came up during the cascade strand conversations at the recent JISC OER programme meeting on 19 January, where Helen Beetham suggested that a good way of concretising the model would be create some sort of physical representation by using diagrams or drawings. Within the C-SAP project team, we have already started the process by jotting down our thoughts in the form of a mindmap and have set yet another reflexive task for the partners.

At the recent C-SAP project meeting, we tried to tease out some generic elements of the cascade framework. Looking at the documents available from the other cascade projects, it seems that the common denominator is a model of diagnosis followed by prescription. That is, most projects start by identifying the OER-readiness of their partner institutions, with the aim of creating a tailored support package, which addresses sector/discipline/institution-specific issues.  For instance, the efforts of the CAFÉ project at Coventry University focus on an exploration of the issues, possibilities and relevance of OER involvement by HE in FE providers in general; whereas Practising Open Education project team examine department-specific and discipline-specific understandings of art, design and media OERs together with motivations for, and barriers to, their creation and use. The diagnosis stage is followed by a prescription of a tailored support package which might include workshops, recommendations for an institution-wide OER strategy in the form of an action plan as well as signposting to relevant training resources. Even if the starting point is an already existing model of OER creation (a quality and evaluation CORRE workflow developed in the context of the pilot programme), as is the case of the OSTRICH project, there is nevertheless an element of refining that model according to the needs of partner institution.

At the same time, while the support on offer is very much targeted at the needs of institutions taking part in the OER programme, all cascade projects work on the assumption that these support packages will ultimately be of benefit to the wider higher education community (and hopefully beyond). Materials from some of the workshops are already being freely disseminated as is the case with the Ripple project at Oxford University and within our own project we have shared all OER-related materials produced so far on our slideshare account. Importantly, the above approach, which assumes that the cascade models developed in the context of the OER programme will have potential for broader application, raises some interesting questions. To start with, the cascade models are being developed in the context of the OER programme, how transferable (and sustainable) will they be once the funding is removed? Will they be applicable at all to situations where OERs are developed outside of an institutional framework, in the context of informal learning? While the answers may not be immediately forthcoming, we will certainly keep them in mind as we develop our own cascade schematic.

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Cascade update part 2: OER release and open textbooks

This post is second in a series of updates on recent project progress for our academic partners, following a recent project meeting on 20 January. During that meeting, we were keen on identifying priority areas for developing the cascade framework and issues related to OER release are a strong contender. On a related note, as they are finalising their plans for OER release, some of our partners have expressed an interest in learning more about open textbooks after stumbling a number of those in US-based repositories such as MERLOT and Connexions. Thus this blog post explores what feels like uncharted territory within the UK OER programme; it also accompanies a leaflet on open textbooks we have recently posted on our slideshare account (obviously, as all other documents released by the project team the leaflet is an open educational resource itself!).

During the conversations we had at the project meeting, our partners mentioned that while their students appreciated the value of OERs to their learning, they complained that in some instances the OERs seemed to duplicate the content of the books they had to pay for. we started wondering then about the relationship between OERs and the set book and a bunch of google clicks later came upon some fascinating debates in the context of US higher education, where the cost of textbooks has long been an area of concern for students, professors, and administrators. Open textbooks, that is, openly-licensed books offered online by its author(s) or through a non-profit or commercial open-licensed publisher, are viewed as a potential solution to the ever-increasing prices and the hegemony of the publishing industry. Open textbooks, usually created under a Creative Commons license, provide users with a set book which is editable so that academic staff can customize content in response to changes in the curriculum or individual students’ needs, including accessibility-related needs. Some open textbook models, such as for instance Flat World Knowledge, an open content commercial publisher, allow users to choose between  free online access or low-cost alternate formats such as print, audio, or study aids accompanying the textbook (see the leaflet produced by C-SAP on open textbooks for an overview of existing platforms and business models currently in use).

While at the moment open textbooks are just one of possible avenues for OER release to explore in the context of the cascade project (and in the end we might decide this is a road less travelled by which we do not particularly want to follow), the lessons learnt from open textbooks projects are certainly of interest with regard to the larger questions being asked within the programme. In particular, the Open Access Textbooks Grant Project has produced resources on recognizing and rewarding faculty digital scholarly work which might be relevant in light of similar discussions on reward and recognition in the context of UK Open Educational Resources programme. For instance, our University Centre at Blackburn College partners have suggested that within HE in FE institutions OERs could function as a valid alternative to publishing in a situation where producing peer-reviewed research is often not a feasible option because of a huge teaching workload. Open textbooks in particular could help recognise the contributions of HE in FE colleagues to the field of teaching and potentially help them enhance their personal and scholarly reputation. By extension, such textbooks could also be used by universities as a tool of differentiation and a means to gain a competitive edge as a teaching focussed institutions, a theme which came up at recent UK OER programme meeting. As Helen Beetham argues in her blog post, in the current financial climate, institutions will be keen to demonstrate that the university experience is worth the hefty tuition fees and that it is substantially different from the experience at comparable universities. A more in-depth exploration of open textbooks, which seem to be positioned OER movement and commercial publishers, could certainly add to the debates in the UK context on the relationship between OERs and higher education institutions as well as business models for developing OERs.


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Cascade update part 1: Student engagement

This post is first in a series of updates on recent project progress for our academic partners, following a recent JISC OER programme meeting on 19 January as well as a project meeting on 20 January.  The project meeting helped us clarify our focus for the months ahead and re-state our priority areas, which include student engagement, development of a cascade framework schematic and OER release by partners.

Our first forays into the area of student engagement were quite tentative and mostly theoretical, as evidenced by this blog post from September. At this point in time, thanks to our partners’ hard work and excellent contributions to the project, we can come back with a more substantive account of concrete plans to get students involved in using and evaluating OERs.

To start with, our University Centre at Blackburn College partners have been looking at different models of introducing students to OERs. It seems there are two competing models – a controlled diet of “hand-picked OERs” versus letting the students loose in the OER-land. Our colleagues suggested that first-year students might benefit more if they are exposed to OERs through carefully selected resources on a particular theme (let’s say, research methods or basic issues in criminology) as at that point they might lack skills allowing them to evaluate the quality and usefulness of OERs for their own learning. At the same time, final year students might be ready for a much more relaxed approach and trusted to rely on their critical thinking and research skills. These assumptions will be addressed through an informal survey where students will have a chance to evaluate the resources offered by their lecturers as part of the module; our partners also plan to conduct individual interviews with four students to learn more about student attitudes to OERs and ask some further questions – where does assessment come in, especially when it comes to formal vs. informal use of OERs? This way, we will continue on the work we started within the C-SAP pilot project where one of our case studies of repurposing teaching resources in social sciences included short interviews with the students.

Our Welsh colleagues from Bangor and Cardiff have equally exciting plans for student engagement, which revolve around the use of a repurposed SPSS OpenLearn module (this is currently work in progress, the end result will be a resource in Welsh as part of the MA in Language Policy and Planning). Students will use the resource to help them design and analyse their own questionnaires, these will then be posted on an online course forum and critiqued by fellow course participants. At the end of the course, these comments will be collated and published, with students’ permission, as an OER to accompany the SPSS resource.

Another interesting issue which came up in our discussions was the relationship of OERs to the set book, as apparently some students were not so happy to discover that they paid for the book but were then offered equivalent online resources for free! At the same time, this topic ties in with a bigger discussion on open textbooks and their place within the OER movement – watch this space as this is something we will be addressing more in detail in the near future.

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You’ve been prompted: OER reflections

As we have mentioned earlier on this blog, a big chunk of our project methodology is based around encouraging our partners to reflect on their experiences of engaging with Open Educational Resources. The process of reflection goes both ways – we start by encouraging the project partners to “muck about” the OER sphere, have a go at searching for resources, making some test deposits, experiment with introducing an OER (or two) into their teaching sessions. The written accounts of these endeavours then get posted on the project wiki, which currently functions as a closed work space to be released to the general public following August 2011. These reflexive pieces then provide food for thought for the project team, and end up being incorporated in the subsequent permutations of ever-evolving cascade framework and future reflexive tasks, neatly forming a   perfect hermeneutic circle.

Interestingly enough, a recurrent theme is that of OERs being a potential time-sink. As one of our partners commented, his OER explorations initially felt like wasting time, especially when it came to wading through a multitude of resources available through OER repositories. It took him quite a long while to get comfortable enough and trust that the initial outlay of time will in the end. One way of reacting to that comment would be to point out that this experience very much mirrors the process of academic research in general, where running around in circles and engaging in potentially time-wasting  activities is very much par for the course. At the same time, if frittering time away is a primary concern, then how do you convince a target audience (which already deals with way more demands on their time than is reasonable), that it is a good idea to engage with OERs? How do you make them believe that the initial time investment will, indeed, bring some payoffs?

Judging from the reflexive responses of our academic partners, hanging out in the OER world certainly paid off, and led to some fortuitous discoveries. Among other things, they came to realise how diverse and creative OERs could be and were quite amazed to discover that full modules could be so accessible. Some of our partners were especially excited about embracing the idea of putting the student at the centre of their learning experience as opposed to their traditional role as resource-recipient. There are, of course caveats to the brave new world of students as producers, especially as students may not yet have the critical facilities to make judgements about the quality of some resources. Watch this space as the student engagement element of the cascade framework will certainly be gaining momentum in the new year, following the exam period. In the meantime, we will keep reflecting on what we are learning along the way.


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This is a public service announcement

Our cascade partners are now busy getting to grips with OERs as they are working on one of developmental tasks set by the project team, all with the intention of preparing them to start repurposing and releasing their own content fairly soon. As this is the second time we’re going through a similar process with the project partners, we’re feeling somewhat older (well…) and wiser and very keen to impress some rules from the very beginning. Rule number one: do talk about the OER club, whenever and wherever you can. Rule number two: design with openness on mind. The latter also happens to be one of the key recommendations of the pilot programme: develop content with licensing, IPR clearance, accessibility and reusability in mind, as trying to retrofit the resources later will be costly and time-consuming. If you were on the lookout for a cheesy proverb to illustrate that recommendation, “a stitch in time saves nine” comes handy. The small decisions made at the outset of designing your teaching resource (i.e. picking an accessible format or avoiding copyright nightmares), whether it is destined to become an OER further down the line or not, can make a huge difference. In addition, paraphrasing Steve Wheeler, there are so many good things about OERs that designing with openness in mind should be a win-win situation – a simple and hugely beneficial process.

At the same time, if it is such a simple yet powerful idea, why can it be so difficult sometimes to get the OER-novices to move beyond their comfort zone? I do talk about the OER club quite a lot, and especially whenever I venture beyond the close-knit OER community. Quite often, the response I get from my interlocutors is that in principle OERs seem like a great idea, destined to make it straight for the bottom of the ever-increasing to-do list. Interestingly, the larger theme of reluctance to small changes which can have beneficial long-lasting effects is quite familiar to those trying to bring about effective public health interventions. You know, the extremely boring and tedious tweaks to everyday routines – changing to a healthier diet, limiting alcohol consumption, increasing the amount and intensity of physical activity, or stopping smoking – which could potentially lower the risk of    developing major chronic diseases by up to 50%. These are precisely the changes that most people do not bother to implement, instead choosing time after time the short-lived pleasures of a take-away combined with sofa quality time. Similarly, on the education front, they might choose to stick to the safe territory and keep creating same old PowerPoint lectures destined for the VLE prison, decorated with third-party content lifted straight from Google Images, peppered with inaccessible audio and/or video content of questionable copyright. At the same time, as study after study into the efficacy of public health interventions shows, trying to scare or force people into changing is generally unsuccessful; overall, joy of living is a much better motivator than fear of dying (not to mention a well-coordinated approach at the patient, provider, and health-policy levels but this does not come with a very nice immediate cheesy metaphoric image as this blog post seems to heavily rely on them). So, how does one embed not only openness but also joy into educational practices?

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The fear factor

One of the elements of the C-SAP OER pilot project we decided to take forward to the cascade project is a collaborative method of working with our partners, with an emphasis on reflection in the process of learning about OERs. Thus, on a number of occasions, we have invited the project partners (both in the pilot and in the current project)to respond to reflexive prompts on issues pertinent to OERs – including, but not limited to their understandings of OERs, experiences of discovering resources as well as ways in which their own teaching materials could move towards being open and shareable. Overall, we found that this reflexive approach helped us “think aloud” about OERs and articulate issues of crucial relevance to the social sciences community and beyond.  One of these issues is “the fear factor”, which incidentally seems to be an underlying theme of a number of OER-related blogs, discussion fora and tweets.

So, what seems to keep the OER community awake at night (in no particular order of importance or provenance)? For starters, quality of reusable materials seems to be a major concern for a lot of participants on the international discussion forum running as part of Commonwealth of Learning – UNESCO Initiative Taking OER beyond the OER community: Policy and Capacity. What if lack of adequate quality control mechanisms (that is, if we ever manage to agree on what these mechanisms should involve!) means that the end product – a released teaching resource – is unreliable, poor quality and even potentially embarrassing? Within the OER pilot programme, some worried about the adverse impact on personal reputation if materials are poorly repurposed, especially if the resource is used without proper credit or permission. Many feared that their resources are not good enough to be shared openly and that by releasing teaching materials they are making themselves vulnerable to receiving overly critical feedback from their colleagues.

On the other hand, what if there is no feedback, or worse, nobody repurposes the resource and it dies a slow, digital death (after all, as research on the patterns of reuse within the Rice University Connexions repository demonstrates, this was the fate of about one third of the resources)? On a related note, what if there is no recognition for all the hard work which went into creating the resource – after all, personal satisfaction doesn’t quite make up for lack of institutional mechanisms of reward and recognition? What if the intended target audience (aka students) chooses not to engage with OERs, even though student engagement is one of the crucial elements of the cascade framework? Last but not least, what if we are all doing it wrong (attention all readers, random cat picture alert!)?

Peter Sefton at the Australian Digital Futures Institute addresses the above fears (and some more) in his post on “fave two reasons not to release OpenCourseware”. He points out that despite all these fears being possibly legitimate and understandable, the sky hasn’t fallen down yet and what we have to lose are above all missed opportunities. He also notes that the lessons learnt from OER programmes world-wide show that once the process of sharing and repurposing got underway, lots of objections and fears melted away. Hopefully, that’s what our conversations with the project partners will help us to achieve – here’s to cascading positive approaches to OER and dispelling fears one academic at a time!

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JISC curriculum programme and OERs

Within the cascade project, we are keen on finding ways in which we can draw on insights developed in the context of previous/on-going JISC projects, not only within the Open Educational Resources programme. Through our programme manager, we started looking at possible synergies between the OER2 cascade project and the JISC Curriculum Design and Delivery (JISC CDD) programme – after all, curriculum-related issues featured quite strongly already in the project bid. While we are still a bit unsure how exactly we can incorporate the findings from the larger curriculum programme into our own cascade framework, this blog post is the beginning of the “thinking-aloud process” (or more appropriately, “writing-aloud”).

The Curriculum Design and Delivery programme comprises 27 projects across two strands: Institutional approaches to curriculum design and Transforming curriculum delivery through technology. Within the first strand, 12 projects are broadly focusing on developing flexible and responsive curricula which address institutional challenges and are enabled by the use of technology. the second strand explores through the work of 15 projects how the appropriate integration of technology can help institutions respond to changing learner and employer needs to deliver a more engaging and flexible learning experience. The projects involve both further and higher education institutions and illustrate use of different media, tools and technologies in different areas of curriculum delivery. While Open Educational Resources are not a primary focus of the Curriculum programme (though they do feature within the list of institutional challenges relevant to the projects), there are nevertheless a number of significant paralells both with the C-SAP pilot OER project and the phase 2 cascade project.

To start with, flexibility is a key term for the JISC CDD programme and for all institutions dealing with curriculum innovation. At the same time, flexibility is at the heart of Open Educational Resources – after all, an OER-based curriculum would allow for flexible modes of participation on the part of students (and thus meet the criteria for one of the three different approaches towards curriculum flexibility within the JISC CDD programme, that is, flexibility in terms of design). Furthermore, embedding OERs within the curriculum could aid the process of creating a bespoke curriculum which meets the needs of a particular user end group (as well as employer-related needs), on top of that, using OERs could potentially save time and ensure a rapid response to the needs of the target group. Finally, OERs are ideally suited to allow for inter-disciplinary, inter-collegial curriculum; multiple modes of participation as well as learner-defined curriculum/pathways, all of which are mentioned as priorities within the curriculum programme.

OERs also have an important role to play when it comes to managing yet another challenge that the curriculum projects are addressing, namely the issue of dealing with larger student numbers in further and higher education. After all, the use of  OERs could free up some of staff time, allowing them to provide access to resources they would not be able to create and/or access otherwise. OERs can also be used as a way of building a range of student support resources, enabling students to access a range of learning materials encompassing the same content (so as to provide for more learning styles). Student engagement is another issue which is high on the agenda of both the OER and the curriculum programmes – as noted earlier in this blog, it is one of the key issues we are hoping to explore within the project; at the same time, a number of projects within the JISC CDD programme (such as Technology-Supported Processes for Agile and Responsive Curricula (T-SPARC) and Co-Educate) are focusing on encouraging a greater involvement of stakeholders in curriculum processes.

Finally, the OER cascade project draws on lessons learnt and tools developed in the pilot phase – accordingly, we introduced our cascade partners to the toolkit developed to aid the C-SAP pilot project partners with repurposing their teaching materials into OERs. That toolkit (available for download here) allowed for creating a snapshot of the curriculum, that is,  mapping an individual’s teaching practice and putting together pedagogical descriptions to aid reuse.  Similarly, a number of projects within the JISC CDD programme have developed tools to allow for  capturing the ‘lived experience’ of curriculum design as well as representing the curriculum in a way that can be reused to meet the needs of various stakeholders (see for instance Compendium LD from OULDI and Rich Pictures of the Curriculum Design process from UG-Flex). Overall, we hope that as the cascade project progresses, there will be a lot of mutual exchange of ideas on both sides and would like to invite others to share their views on where else to search for possible synergies with the OER programme.

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Our very first project meeting!

Yesterday we finally had a chance to gather our project team in one room and start discussing OER-related issues face-to-face. It is fascinating to see the diversity of perspectives on OERs and to watch the project taking shape. As is usually the case, the meeting produced way more questions than answers but hopefully by the end of the project we will be able to address these questions more thoroughly, at the moment we will just share them and open up for discussion.

Through the day, we kept returning to the concept of “repurposing” OERs – that is, an open-ended process of transforming a teaching resource so that it can be shared with others through an online repository and then ideally enhanced by feedback from people using the resource. One of our partners from Blackburn College came up with a very useful suggestion that maybe we could start viewing OERs more as a “sharing” rather than as a “taking” process. Another way of understanding the concept of repurposing is to think in terms of a shift from “owned” to “borrowed” material, and we discussed the ways in which most teaching is actually borrowed as it builds on ideas from mentors, students etc. Some fascinating questions which came up during the meeting were as follows:

–          What about issues of accreditation/validation? Are there any examples of validated modules which purposefully incorporate OERs?

–          What if people repurpose a resource available in a repository and do it in the “wrong” way?

–          Is there any way to track the uptake of OERs – do we know in what ways OERs are repurposed once they have been deposited?

–          Can OERs be used to enhance academic reputation? Can Creative Commons licensing help with that recognition?

–          If we understand OERs as an add-on (i.e. part of formative but not really summative assessment, or maybe even something completely optional), why would the students choose to engage with OERs?

Finally, we looked at ways in which different institutions approach the concept of sharing and ways in which the OER programme attempts to stimulate a cultural change. One of our colleagues introduced the concept of “punctum” (Latin term meaning puncture or wound, used by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida, to describe how he feels touched by certain photographs, because of incidental details which trigger emotionally charged personal associations) which he uses in teaching critical film theory. Could we conceptualise OERs in a similar way, as potentially disruptive yet enriching pedagogical tools?

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OERs and accessibility

In order to turn a pre-existing resource into an OER, a number of steps have to be followed so that potential users can easily find the resource and then use it for their own teaching and learning. One of these steps would involve formatting the resource so that it is more accessible and thus meets the technical requirements of the OER programme as well as the relevant legislative requirements.

Importantly, the phase 2 OER projects are taking place in the context of new equality and anti-discrimination legislation, that is, the Equality Act 2010 which was implemented on 1 October 2010, replacing the existing anti­-discrimination laws (including the 2005 Disability and Discrimination Act) with a single legal document. Full implications of the single equality act for the provision of teaching and learning in Higher Education Institutions are yet unknown. Nevertheless, as the scope of the act is broader, then issues of accessibility within educational context, including online learning and open education might also become more pressing for higher education institutions. Specifically, within the 2005 DDA, reasonable adjustments to premises, policies and practices had to be made by service providers only where a disabled person would find it “impossible or unreasonably difficult” to use the service. Now, under the new Equality Act, adjustments must be made where disabled people could experience a “substantial disadvantage”. This means that service providers, including higher education institutions creating OERs, may have to make more adjustments to cater for the needs of the learners; this might also mean that accessibility should become one of key concerns for projects engaged in developing a cascade support framework for OERs.

Within the pilot programme, a number of projects stressed the cost implied in producing fully accessible open educational resources. For instance, the Open Engineering Resources final report noted that addressing accessibility issues took up a significant chunk of partners’ time and resources devoted to the project. Some projects found out that producing accessible resources was financially out of their reach, especially if they were keen on repurposing media resources, as was noted in OpenSpace University College Falmouth final report:

One lessoned learn was the cost of producing transcripts to accompany audio and video files and the cost of close captioning. Transcripts and close captioning fall within best practice for accessibility. Quotes received from prospective service providers were prohibitively high and this work was not possible under the allocated budget.

Despite these concerns, in the long-term perspective OERs could actually spread this burden among many individuals and many institutions. Importantly, the open education movement provides free access to courses, curricula and pedagogical approaches not available locally. This way, positive approaches towards accessibility could easily be shared between creators of open content and its re-users, since OER, by definition, are amenable to different solutions, engineered by whoever has the appropriate expertise.  Furthermore, OERs, which carry an open licence (usually a Creative Commons licence(, can be transformed into alternate formats more easily than materials published under all rights reserved copyright, since there is no need to incur extra permission costs or pay royalties for adaptations to ensure accessibility. At least theoretically, OERs offer the re-users the possibility to deliver customisable teaching materials, adapted to the needs of individual learners and so the freedom to improve and adapt could be extended to making materials more accessible. Whether and if such a change takes place, remains to be seen.

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JISC OER II start-up meeting

The recent JISC meeting on 22 September marked the start of the next round of the JISC/HEA Open Educational Resources programme – or ‘OER II’ as we refer to it. The day was very useful in many ways; introducing new release projects to the range of work which took place across the pilot programme, allowing those involved in the pilots to give advice and feedback to those new to OER, and also providing discussion for the strand project looking at ‘cascading’ OER and using ‘collections’ of OER. The slides from the start up day give an overview of the background factors which all of the projects will engage with (IPR and copyright, technical and depositing strategies, evaluation, and overall programme management).

For the afternoon session I was involved in discussions for our other C-SAP OER II project in the collections strand, however our co-director Helen Howard did a great job of feeding back the headlines of our pilot project to a new audience, and then in discussing approaches to the cascading OER with other projects in the same strand. We are, of course, all right at the start of this (draft project plans recently sent off!), but already there are some common threads amongst the 5 cascade projects that are useful to note. In no particular order, some of those are:

  • working across FE/HE to cascade and share OER
  • barriers and incentives to OER use and release across institution types
  • capacity building and ‘readiness’ – cascading support and guidance to allow people to use and create OER
  • case study methodologies
  • collaborative project ethos, working together
  • iterative ongoing evaluation
  • diverse subject areas
  • involvement of students
  • integration with curriculum design / review and OER

All of the projects funded in the cascade strand are working to various extent with these issues and themes, and all are looking forward to engaging with institutional partners who are new to the OER landscape and the services, resources, and other material which is now available (a good part resulting from the OER pilot programme). New projects also recognised some of the challenges that will occur as we progress, from dealing with institutional admin to the whole notion of sustainability in OER –  one of the themes of the pilot which is difficult to ‘evidence’ (much more detail in the excellent pilot synthesis evaluation framework – part of our task in leading a cascade strand will be in communicating the messages from this to our projects). But whatever the challenges, we look forward to working closely with our partners over the next year, and contributing to this next phase of the OER programme.

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