Abeywardena, I.S., & Chan, C.S. (2013). Review of the Current OER Search Dilemma.
Proceedings of the 57th World Assembly of International Council on Education for Teaching
(ICET 2013), 25-28 June 2013, Thailand.
Review of the Current OER Search Dilemma
Ishan Sudeera Abeywardena
School of Science and Technology
Wawasan Open University
54 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, Penang 10050, Malaysia
Chee Seng Chan
Faculty of Computer Science and Information Technology
University of Malaya
50603, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Accepted subtheme: Distance Education, Lifelong Learning and Multiliteracies
Open Educational Resources (OER) are fast gaining traction amongst the academic
community as a viable means of increasing access and equity in education. The concept of OER
is of especial significance to the marginalised communities in the Global South where distance
education is prominent due to the inability of conventional brick and mortar institutions to cope
with the growing demand. However, the wider adoption of OER by academics in the Global
South has been inhibited due to various socio, economic and technological reasons. One of the
major technological inhibitors is the current inability to search for OER which are academically
useful and are of an acceptable academic standard. Many technological initiatives have been
proposed over the recent past to provide potential solutions to this issue. Among these are OER
curartion standards such as GLOBE, federated search, social semantic search and search
engines such as DiscoverEd, OCW Finder, Pearson’s Project Blue Sky. The research discussed
in this paper is carried out in the form of literature review and informal interviews with experts.
The objective of the study is to document the extent of the OER search issues contributing to the
slow uptake of the concept of OER. This review paper discusses the current OER search dilemma
and the impact of some of the key initiatives which propose potential solutions.
Keywords: Open Educational Resources, OER, OER Search, OER Search Technologies
With the new drive towards accessible and open information, Open Educational Resources
(OER) have taken centre stage after being first adopted in a UNESCO forum in 2002. OER can
be defined as “web-based materials, offered freely and openly for use and re-use in teaching,
learning and research” (Joyce, 2007). Although many countries have, in theory, embraced the
concept of OER, it is still to become mainstream academic practice due to various inhibitors.
One such inhibitor is the inability to effectively search for OER which are academically useful
and are of an acceptable academic standard.
With the dramatic changes taking place in Higher Education (HE) within the past 10 years,
academics have had to adopt new cost effective approaches in order to provide individualised
learning to a more diverse student base (Littlejohn, Falconer & Mcgill, 2008). In this context,
OER has the potential to become a major source of freely reusable teaching and learning
resources, especially in higher education, due to active advocacy by organisations such as
UNESCO, the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Development (OECD); and the International Council of Distance Education (ICDE).
Despite the fact that OER were initially limited to text based material and are still predominantly
in text based formats, they are not restricted by the media types or the file types used. Many
modern OER are released as images, movie clips, animations, datasets, audio clips, podcasts,
among others, providing rich multimedia based material for use and reuse. These multimedia
resources are made available through large repositories such as YouTube
(images) and iTunesU
(podcasts) under the Creative Commons (CC) licensing scheme.
According to McGreal (2010), modern OER repositories can be classified into three categories:
• Content repositories – hosts content internally within the repository.
• Portal repositories – provides searchable catalogues of content hosted in external
• Content and portal repositories – hosts content internally in addition to providing catalogues
of content hosted externally.
Within these three types of repositories, Wiki, “…a software tool that promotes and mediates
discussion and joint working between different users…” (Leuf & Cunningham, 2001), plays a
central role in the present day OER arena. Projects such as WikiEducator, Wikibooks,
Wikimedia Commons and Wikiversity are among the popular Wiki based OER repositories.
Another widely used repository is Rhaptos developed by Rice University. This repository hosts
the popular Connexions OER repository which allows the easy creation, use and re-use of text
based learning objects (LO). The Rhaptos platform is currently also being used by other
repositories such as Vietnam Open Educational Resources (VOER) under FOSS licenses. When
considering institutional OER repositories, the popular DSPACE
repository systems is the most
commonly used due to its compatibility with existing library systems and protocols. However,
DSPACE only acts as a repository of content and does not provide features which facilitates
reuse and remix of resources.
The attribute common to all of these repositories is the use of metadata for resource curation.
These metadata are defined according to established standards such as Dublin Core Metadata
Initiative (DCMI) and IEEE Learning Object Metadata (IEEE LOM). However, one of the key
concerns regarding OER curation is the standardisation of metadata across repositories and
ensuring the integrity of the metadata defined by content creators. The manual cataloguing of
OER has also become an issue due to the human resources required to keep up with the constant
expansion in OER volume. However, new technology platforms and initiatives are currently
being developed which will eventually lead to viable solutions to these issues. This paper briefly
introduces some promising innovations which claim to provide long term solutions to the current
OER search dilemma. The rest of the paper discusses the current OER search dilemma and looks
at some promising innovations currently in development.
2. The Current Dilemma
Over the recent past, many global OER initiatives have been established by organisations such as
UNESCO, COL and the United Nations (UN) to name a few. Among these initiatives are the
‘Education for All’ initiative by the UN and World bank (Geith & Vignare, 2008), the Open e-
Learning Content Observatory Services (OLCOS) (Geser, 2007), OER Africa (OER Africa,
2009), the African Virtual University (AVU) (Bateman, 2006), China’s Open Resources for
Education (CORE) (Downes, 2006), Japan’s Open Courseware Consortium (JCW) (Fukuhara,
2008), Teacher Education for Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA) (Moon & Wolfenden, 2007), the
European educational digital library project 'Ariadne' (Duval et al., 2001), eVrest which links
Francophone minority schools across Canada (Richards, 2007) and the Blended Learning Open
Source Science or Math Studies Initiative (BLOSSOMS) (Larson & Murray, 2008). A great
majority of these OER initiatives are based on established web based technology platforms and
have accumulated large volumes of quality resources which are shared openly. However, one
limitation inhibiting the wider adoption of OER is the current inability to effectively search for
academically useful OER from a diversity of sources (Yergler, 2010). This limitation of locating
fit-for-purpose (Calverley & Shephard, 2003) resources is further heightened by the
disconnectedness of the vast array of OER repositories currently available online. As a result,
West & Victor (2011) argue that there is no single search engine which is able to locate
resources from all the OER repositories. Furthermore, according to Dichev & Dicheva (2012),
one of the major barriers to the use and re-use of OER is the difficulty in finding quality OER
matching a specific context as it takes an amount of time comparable with creating one’s own
materials. Unwin (2005) argues that the problem with open content is not the lack of available
resources on the Internet but the inability to effectively locate suitable resources for academic
use. The Paris OER Declaration (2012) states the need for more research in this area as
“encourage the development of user-friendly tools to locate and retrieve OER that are specific
and relevant to particular needs”. Thus, the necessity of a system which could effectively search
the numerous OER repositories with the aim of locating usable materials has taken centre stage.
The most common method of OER search is generic search engines such as Google, Yahoo! or
Bing (Abeywardena, Dhanarajan & Chan, 2012). Even though this method is the most
commonly used, it is not the most effective as discussed by Pirkkalainen & Pawlowski (2010)
who argue that “…searching this way might be a long and painful process as most of the results
are not usable for educational purposes”. As possible alternatives, many methods such as
Social-Semantic Search (Piedra et al., 2011), DiscoverEd (Yergler, 2010) and OCW Finder
(Shelton et al., 2010) have been introduced. Furthermore, semantic web based alternatives such
as Agrotags (Balaji et al., 2010) have also been proposed which build ontologies of domain
specific keywords to be used for classification of OER belonging to a particular body of
knowledge. However, the creation of such ontologies for all the domains discussed within the
diverse collection of OER would be next to impossible. Furthermore, Abeywardena, Raviraja &
Tham (2012) state that despite all these initiatives there is still no generic methodology available
at present to enable search mechanisms to autonomously gauge the usefulness of an OER taking
into consideration (i) the level of openness; (ii) the level of access; and (iii) the relevance; of an
OER for ones needs. As such, new innovations need to take place to address the present
technological issues hampering the growth of the OER movement.
3. Some Promising Innovations
As discussed earlier, there are many research initiatives exploring various technological angles
trying to provide long term solutions to the current OER search dilemma. Among these research
projects, there are a few experimental or prototype initiatives which provide great promise on a
Pearson’s Project Blue Sky
One of the more exciting technologies unveiled recently is the Blue sky project (Kolowich, 2012)
by the global publishing giant Pearson. This custom search engine specifically concentrates on
searching for OER with an academic focus. The platform allows instructors to search for e-book
chapters, videos and online exercise software from approximately 25 OER repositories
distributed worldwide. However, it gives precedence to e-book material published under
Pearson. Irrespective of this possible bias towards its own products, Associate Professor David
Wiley states that “the more paths to OER there are in the world, the better” (Kolowich, 2012).
Another promising initiative is the Global Learning Object Brokered Exchange (GLOBE)
initiative which uses a federated search approach to solving the OER search dilemma. The
GLOBE consortium, which was founded in 2004, has now grown to 14 members representing
America, Asia, Australia, Europe and Africa. GLOBE acts as a central repository of IEEE LOM
educational metadata harvested from various member institutional repositories. Users are
provided with a single sign-on query interface where they can search for resources across
repositories, platforms, institutions, languages and regions. As of February 2012 the total number
of metadata harvested available through globe is 817,436 (Yamada, 2013). The consortium is
currently expanding its reach to more institutions worldwide. One limitation however is the
standardisation, harvesting and tagging of the constantly expanding volume of resources.
Among the highly anticipated initiatives is the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (LRMI)
launched by the Association of Educational Publishers and
Creative Commons. This project aims
to build a common metadata vocabulary for educational resources. This common metadata
framework is used for uniform tagging of web based learning resources. According to the
official website of the project, it believes that “Once a cricital mass of educational content has
been tagged to a universal framework, it becomes much easier to parse and filter that content,
opening up tremendous possibilities for search and delivery” (http://www.lrmi.net/about
retrieved May 13, 2013). The inclusion of LRMI into schema.org, a joint project by Bing,
Google and Yahoo! looking at standardising metadata, is an early indication of the potential
The desirability of OER, proposed by Abeywardena, Raviraja & Tham (2012), is a parametric
measure of the usefulness of an OER for a particular academic need. This framework provides a
breakthrough in the parametric measure of the usefulness of OER by search engines taking into
consideration (i) level of openness: the permission to use and reuse the resource; (ii) level of
access: the technical keys required to unlock the resource; and (iii) relevance: the level of match
between the resource and the needs of the user. By calculating the D-index, the measure of
desirability, for a particular set of OER search results, search engines can better present OER
which are more suitable for use and reuse in a given academic scenario. The relative simplicity
of the desirability framework allows it to be easily incorporated into any existing OER search
In contrast to the large scale projects such as Blue Sky, GLOBE and LRMI, OERScout
(Abeywardena et al., 2012) is a relatively small research project which looks at providing a
solution to the OER search dilemma by autonomously generating metadata for a particular
resources. The novelty and innovation of this project can be largely attributed to the clustering
and text mining approaches used in the design to “read” text based OER, “understand” them and
tag them using autonomously mined domain specific metadata. This approach eliminates the
need for manually tagging resources with human defined metadata. Thus, OERScout provides a
viable solution to tackle the need for increased human resources due to the exponential
expansion in OER volume. OERScout also incorporates the desirability framework and a faceted
search approach which allows users to quickly zero-in on the most suitable resources. Many
experts believe that the technological concepts behind OERScout would be a game changer
challenging the traditional norms of OER search.
Open Educational Resources (OER) are fast gaining traction in the academic community as a
viable solution to educating the masses. However, despite the fact that many governmental, non-
governmental and philanthropic organisations have heavily promoted the OER movement, it is
still to become mainstream practice in many countries and regions. One limitation hindering the
spread of OER is the current dilemma with respect to OER search. Based on the literature, no
search engine exists at present which has a keen focus on locating OER distributed worldwide.
Providing some hope are initiatives such as Pearson’s Project Blue Sky, GLOBE and LRMI
which looks at solutions to this issue on a global scale. In addition, there are other ambitious
research projects such as the desirability framework and OERScout which look at breaking the
norms in conventional OER search to provide game changing solutions. With more and more
research interests growing in this area, the future of OER seem to be positive.
This research project is funded as part of a doctoral research through the Grant (# 102791)
generously made by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada through
an umbrella study on Openness and Quality in Asian Distance Education.
Ishan Sudeera Abeywardena acknowledges the support provided by Sukhothai Thammathirat
Open University, Bangpood, Pakkret, Nonthaburi 11120, Thailand with respect to the
sponsorship of the conference registration fees and accommodation.
Ishan Sudeera Abeywardena further acknowledges the support provided by the Faculty of
Computer Science and Information Technology, University of Malaya, 50603, Kuala Lumpur,
Malaysia where he is currently pursuing his doctoral research in Computer Science and the
School of Science and Technology, Wawasan Open University, 54 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah,
10050, Penang, Malaysia where he is currently employed.
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