Provisioning strong and weak OER: Requirements of open informational Ecosystems
Richard Heinen and Michael Kerres, Universität Duisburg -‐Essen
Christoph Schindler and Marc Rittberger, German Institute for International Educational
This paper argues for a federated OER reference infrastructure as an open ecosystem which
offers the chance to align possible capacities of OER with various actors and practices in
educational systems. A key challenge is how a reference infrastructure can help teachers to find
or remix OER appropriate to their needs. Therefore, a federated reference infrastructure as an
open ecosystem is described and strong and weak OER are outlined, which specifies the
affordances of such a system. A federated and networked reference infrastructure in Germany is
given as a use case.
Open Educational Resource (OER), open informational ecosystem, reference infrastructure,
It can be considered as one of the main potentials of the digital world that the production and
distribution of learning materials is much easier. Since some years the Open Educational
Resource (OER) movement benefits from these possibilities. Whereas, publishing and a global
distribution of OER are parts of new capabilities; others are to maintain the material and to
provision OER addressing capacities for educational systems, its actors and various practices.
Repositories of OER (ROER) fulfill parts of these tasks, if they follow some discussed criteria
(Atenas & Havemann, 2014). Thereby, ROERs are regarded as appropriate tools to foster the
awareness for OER (McGreal et. al., 2013, UNESCO, 2012). However, this focuses on the
perspective of publishing and less on the perspective of educational systems and its entanglement
to various actors and practices, which could be regarded as a main requirement of an adequate
OER infrastructure (Star, Ruhleder 1996). Yet unsolved and underestimated is the question how
to enhance transparency between different ROERs (Conole & Alevizou, 2010) and offering an
infrastructure for provisioning the circulation of OER between creators, ROER, teachers, pupils,
learning platforms and back. The openness of the resource itself creates a barrier-free individual
digital use, its distribution and its gathering in ROER. The openness of the different metadata
produced by authors, editors and users, or even aggregated automatically creates capacities for
interconnecting resources beyond ROERs.
This intermediate level of a reference infrastructure offers possibilities to search and evaluation
for teachers and learners on various ROERs to find adequate material for their needs. This lack
of is identified as a key barrier for OER (Allan, Seaman 2014). Additionally, it enables to link to
curricula and teaching plans, which offers the consideration of local situated educational
practices and systems (Richter, Veith 2014). Furthermore, collecting descriptions, peer-reviews,
ratings and other metadata linked to a resource offers possibilities to increase the quality
assurance, transparency, and informational capacities of the user.
This paper argues for this kind of federated OER reference infrastructure as an open ecosystem
which offers the chance to align the possible capacities of OER with various actors and practices
in educational systems. A key challenge is how a reference infrastructure can help teachers to
find or remix OER appropriate to their needs and stabilizing the circulation of OER. Therefore,
the paper is organized as follows: In the following the circulation of OER and the consequence
of a federated reference infrastructure as an open ecosystem are described. Afterwards an outline
of strong and weak OER specifies the affordances of such a system, whereby a federated and
networked reference infrastructure in Germany is given as a use case. The paper ends with a
discussion and outline.
Open Ecosystems and Federated Reference Infrastructures
Following the circulation of educational resources (ER) and its open versions (OER) the concept
of an open informational ecosystem and the settings of a reference infrastructure can be
described in detail. So far an open ecosystem has been characterized (Kerres & Heinen, 2014)
and the benefits of metadata created jointly by different (types of) users have been demonstrated
(Heinen, Blees, Kerres, & Rittberger, 2014). In an open ecosystem various stakeholders come
together. Content providers offer content on their platforms. Schools, teachers and students are
using this content on their LMS or school server. On an intermediate level a reference
infrastructure of connected referatories can help teachers and learners to find and choose the
material that seems to be appropriate for their tasks. The information provided in a single
referatory can be gathered in different ways. Editorial staff can select material under different
aspects (Biffi, 2002), users can generate metadata by rating, tagging and describing material they
find useful, content providers themselves may have access to a referatory and can bring in
information about their products. Last but not least information can be collected automatically
from the web or from resources already brought in by others. An open reference infrastructure
can add substantially to the quality assurance, diversity, and transparency of OER.
As it is obvious that there are many ROERs, it also seems useful to have a set of referatories,
each of the addressing special target groups (e.g. types of schools, subjects, regions). But
metadata created in different locations can be useful for others. Especially the question of user
generated metadata is crucial. Here a critical mass of active users is needed. As soon as different
platforms try to gain attraction, the important target group of active users is split up. The idea of
an open ecosystem is to make metadata created in different locations accessible in many places.
To realize this, a centralized metadata exchange service is a solution. This service collects all
data from referatories and makes them available for referatories and repositories. Thereby the
free access for all participants is guaranteed. For end users like students and teachers it is easier
to access a few (or even one preferred) referatory to search the material of various content
providers or leave own tags, ratings etc. directly at the repository (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Federated reference Infrastructure as open informational Ecosystem
Of course the described circulation of OER from content platform via reference platform to
learning platform and back can be realized in one closed ecosystem provided by one publisher or
company, whereas open informational ecosystems allow for any provider of contents to “plug
into” the ecosystem by providing metadata for the reference platform. Building federated or
decentralized systems of interconnected services seems to be a difficult task as there are not only
questions of exchange formats and APIs to be answered but also complex practices – often
invisible for users and / or authors – need to be aligned to attract different players to take part.
Although the intermediation of the reference infrastructures is challenging, it offers a great
chance at the same time; each player benefits from each other by enriching the choices of users
and the diversity of OERs.
Strong OER and its Fluidity for Reference Infrastructures
A differentiation in "weak" and "strong" OERs characterizes further the requirements of a
federated open ecosystem concerning the circulation of OER in educational practices. Two
dimensions are worth to be mentioned. Besides the granularity of OER the dimension of interest
here comprises the fluidity of OER. As Tuomi (2013) has pointed out, there are various
understandings of “open” educational resources. Basically they agree that OER are materials that
can be used by teachers and learners free of (additional) cost. In these cases OER is seen as a
fixed entity whereby the actions of teachers are restricted to looking for material that can be used
for free and accessed without any barriers. This can be called a "weak” definition of OER which
is limited to materials and licenses and focuses on availability and accessibility: OER are
considered as fixed materials which are free to use for a learner – but the practice of using and its
possible rearrangement of OER for teaching is out of scope.
A “strong” definition has been discussed in respect of sharing OER including the right to edit,
remix, and reshare materials with a license "allowing open practices”, which offers a fluidity of
OER in respect of educational practices. David Wiley (2014, based on Wiley 2010) has framed
the 5Rs (retain, reuse, revise, remix and redistribute) that can be drawn on for a “narrow” or
“strong” definition of OER. Activists of an “OER movement”, like Stephan Downes, stress the
point that OER should grant these more extensive rights. In this line of reasoning OER is often
seen as an agent for educational visions where teachers actively participate in a mutual exchange
of artifacts, ideas, and discourse.
To fulfil the promises of strong OER the complexity of the infrastructure rises because the
strength of OER only come to life, if users have the capacity to republish, to share in content
platforms and to add comments and metadata (see Figure 2). Probably they collect resources
from some platforms and want to publish the new content in another platform. The proposed
ecosystem with a metadata exchange service could help to make these workflows visible and
Figure 2: Elements of an informational ecosystem with weak and strong OER. (Kerres & Heinen, 2015)
A Federated Reference Infrastructure in Germany
For a number of years a variety of actors are producing and distributing OER in Germany and
have developed a range of ROER (Muuß-Merholz & Schaumburg; 2014; Heinen et al., 2014). In
school context teachers created non-profit organizations for OER, schoolbook publishers started
to create new business models, and new players emerged in this field. The German educational
system and its federated configuration are not fond of the establishment of a centralized OER
system. But while each federal state has its cultural sovereignty (e.g. school system) with its own
curricula and quality process for schoolbooks it offered the chance to establish a decentralized
OER reference infrastructure, which entails an open ecosystem and could be aligned to "strong"
In Germany, the federal states established in the 1990s educational servers
(“Landesbildungsserver”) to inform about their educational system. Most of the educational
servers begun as well to create references for educational resources on the Web and aggregated
these in resource databases, which were recently linked to local curricula. On the nation state
level the German Educational Server (“Deutsche Bildungsserver”)
informs about the German
educational system and creates with the federal state servers a network of expertise and
infrastructural development. On this base the network of educational servers started 2007 the
federated reference infrastructure ELIXIER
by developing a LOM-oriented metadata standard
to exchange the references and offering one common search interface to the shared pool.
See a German description at http://www.bildungsserver.de/elixier/ueberuns.html
The educational server of Switzerland (educa.ch) followed a similar approach for his digital schoolbook library
(http://biblio.educa.ch/de). On a European level act the portal (www.openeducationeuropa.eu/) and the European
address the needs of teachers to have the capability to decide, which resource fits best for their
educational situation, open and non-open educational resources (O/ER) are indexed.
Additionally, it offers the possibility for a federated infrastructure, where the various providers of
educational resources (e.g. publisher, NPOs) contribute for a networked reference pool of O/ER
instead of competing against each other and building closed ecosystems.
To maintain the reference infrastructure and to address the federal aspect of the educational
system, ongoing alignment work is done at the network of educational servers. Editorial staff,
which are often deputated teachers with expertise in educational practice and the creation of
educational resources, are intellectual indexing the O/ER and linking these to local curricula. For
quality management an automatic proof of metadata is implemented and an exchange of
checklists (e.g. evaluating content, copyright) and good practices is realized. While this reference
infrastructure offers from its beginning the adding of relevant resources of users, the
participation was deepened with the social-bookmarking-platform edutags.de.
solution reduces the barrier to add and tag resources, whereby the selection and indexing of
O/ER is more driven by the communities of teaching practices itself, which adds a more practice
oriented layer to the reference infrastructure. Recently, some federal state educational servers
started to add these descriptions to their pools, whereby the network of educational servers is
experimenting with solutions on the level of ELIXIER.
The network of educational server in German can be regarded as a prototype for an open
ecosystem. Not yet realized is the open access to the common database for any repository and
referatory focusing on OER. Also the possibility to reflect enhanced metadata back to the
referatory needs to be established.
Discussion and Outlook
This paper argued for federated reference infrastructures to provision OER aligned to educational
systems and its various practices. In detail, by following the circulation of OER the conditions of
reference infrastructures based on an open informational ecosystem are described. Furthermore,
a separation of strong and weak OER is used to specify requirements for this infrastructure. The
established reference O/ER infrastructure in Germany served as a use case of the outlined open
informational ecosystem by addressing main parts of it. It creates an intermediate level to offer
one search interface to a shared pool of references based on a federated and maintained
infrastructure that addresses local curricula and local-situated teaching practices. Thereby, it
offers the participation of a variety of actors in the field of O/ER with the supporting structures
of ELIXIER. Alternatively the exchange of data could be organized directly between referatories
and repositories with the risk to loose a large part of information. The critical point in this
realization is that the metadata exchange service has all information. In respect of an open
ecosystem it must be ensured that this information is free for others. This can be realized, if the
service is offered as an open governmental service or run by a consortium of stakeholders as long
as this consortium is open for everyone who wants to disseminate OER. Concerning the
requirements of strong OER the current development could be improved in several aspects. One
So far eight federal educational servers and four partners created a common pool of more than 50.000 O/ER,
whereby nearly 5.000 are described as OER.
Currently, edutags.de entails about 25.000 O/ER whereby approx. 5000 are licensed with Creative Commons.
1.800 registered Users are participating to this pool and created more than 250 working groups.
capacity which is currently not addressed is the deep linking and exchange to all local curricula.
A layered metadata schema and a semi-automatic mapping and maintaining between the O/ER
references and the heterogeneous curricula could improve this aspect. To address the central
aspect of strong OER, the tracking of the circulation of O/ER with the re-arrangement of the
references and the material itself needs to establish various identifiers (e.g. O/ER, curricula).
First approaches in this direction are in process (Zierer et al. 2013) and the Open Access
movement in scholarship provides some international examples, but the needed fluidity of
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License and Citation
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/. Please cite this work as: Heinen, R.; Kerres, M.;
Schindler, C.; Rittberger, M. (2015). Provisioning strong and weak OER: Requirements of open
informational ecosystems. In Proceedings of Open Education Global 2015: Innovation and
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