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Open Educational Content for Informal Learners: Beyond the Horizon?

Paul Richardson
Last modified 14 Oct, 2009
Published 14 Oct, 2009
This article by Paul Richardson of RSC Wales explores the world of Open Educational Resources from the perspective of informal learners. Paul argues that while open content offers many opportunities a number of barriers are preventing many informal adult learners from using these resources. The article explores technical issues, business models for resource production and the context of adult community learning, and suggests ways in which these barriers can be overcome.


This article is concerned with the availability and usage of open content in informal learning. I review the current usage, and outline the potential for future enhancement and expansion in this area. I begin from the premise that the Internet and the new media afford huge opportunities for informal learners to benefit from open content. I explore the extent to which this vision has been realised, and consider the gap which currently exists between these groups in terms of access to ‘open content’, especially in the light of the rapid global growth of these resources. At the same time, I will examine the barriers which militate against the usage of these resources in informal contexts, and look at some ways in which these barriers may be lowered.

Informal Learning in the UK

The UK government White Paper ‘The Learning Revolution’ (2009) [1] defines informal learning as “a kaleidoscope of part-time, non-vocational learning where the primary purpose isn’t to gain a qualification”. Such learning may take place in public and community premises, in educational institutions, in the workplace, or at home. Informal learning may be non-accredited, but this is not always the case; often credits are offered in order to provide the learner with appropriate goals, and to exploit funding opportunities.

The tradition of democratic participation by learners is well established in these informal contexts. For example, the Workers’ Education Association (WEA) and other voluntary organisations have enabled and empowered groups of learners to set their own agenda for a century, and more. For most of this time the WEAs have acted as a network of learning groups (‘branches’), supported by teachers as and when these were requested, often on a volunteer basis [2]. The swing towards a more formal education, supported by public funding, has in recent years altered the tone of many of these learning networks, with paid tutors and often with accredited courses becoming much more widespread.

In recent years, there has been a much wider appreciation of the benefits of a learner-centred approach not only to the process of learning, but also to the running of organisations which support it. These ideas are sometimes presented as new, although they have been around for centuries. However, adoption of learner control is still limited to those organisations which have this ethos embedded into their constitutions.

Against this background, technologies are emerging which have enormous potential to empower learners to act far more independently than has been possible before. For example, online content enables individuals to learn at a range of locations, while groupware enables dispersed groups of individuals to learn together, and the potential of such technologies as videoconferencing and virtual worlds remains largely unexploited in the context of informal learning. Adult learning groups are no longer necessarily localised and dependent on tiny pockets of expertise supported by didactic media such as books and television, but are potentially part of much wider online communities incorporating teachers and learners with a vast range of skills and expertise.

A combination of internet technologies and a learner-centred ethos suggests a powerful vision, in which learners can access a wide range of high quality learning content via the Internet, and at the same time can network more freely and widely with their peers and their mentors. However, there are some serious barriers to realising this vision in practice, since those learners who perhaps stand to benefit most from these technologies may have limited (or no) access to them. Ironically, the tools associated with Web 2.0 technologies are the very things which support learner participation, in which informal learning has a long tradition, and could exhibit its greatest strength. Yet these tools, which are being embraced enthusiastically in formal settings, are rarely used in informal adult learning.

This paper explores this irony. I will focus on perhaps the simplest technology of all; that is the delivery of content for learning via the Internet, and asks whether or not informal learners are currently disadvantaged, and if so what barriers will need to be overcome in order to empower them to learn more effectively in the digital age.

The Availability of Open Educational Content in the UK

I have conducted interviews with a number of people involved in supporting Adult Community Learning (ACL) in the UK, and who have a particular interest in the technology. I asked all of them to describe the free digital content which is currently in use, and to compare this to the breadth of content of which they were aware. This typically led to a discussion of the barriers to more extensive usage. While this has not been quantified in any way, a clear consensus has emerged: vastly more content is available online than is used in any meaningful way by learners. This could be due to a number of barriers in terms of motivation, skills, and access to technology.

The focus of this discussion is on content which is available free of any direct charge to the user. Much of this free content is also ‘open’, which is to say that it is published in a form that explicitly allows copying and modifying of its information by anyone. This includes not only Open Educational Resources (OER), i.e. resources specifically designed for learning (see JISC for full definition), but also more informal resources such as Wikipedia, and educational broadcasts.

The quality of ‘open content’ in the teaching and learning context is very variable, both with respect to the design of the material, and the reliability of the information presented. Increasingly, adult educators are attempting to inculcate a culture of ‘information literacy’ into their learners, leading to a better recognition of value in the wider range of content. While these endeavours are well intentioned, they are frequently hampered by the fact that a high proportion of the resources which emerge from, for example, a ‘Google Scholar’ search are unlikely to be available to the learner at the time and place where these are needed. Resources of known and valid provenance are frequently concealed behind the walls (real or virtual) of university libraries.

Open content is not necessarily freely accessible to all users. Barriers to access may arise from many sources, which can be economic, technical, or pedagogical. Economic barriers to home study are still very significant. Access to broadband is widespread, but uptake is far from universal, amounting to some 50% of homes in the UK [3]. Cable connections are not always available to cover the ‘last mile’ at high bandwidth, and it is not yet clear to what extent mobile networks will bridge the gap. However, connectivity is only part of the story. Other aspects which are equally important, and potentially more intractable, include a lack of awareness on the part of learners and teachers, poor hardware and software resources, and low skills and motivation. These barriers will not be the same for all groups of learners, and they are likely to be greater in the case of adults, part-time learners, and those with disabilities. Moreover, with the exception of the government sponsored initiatives for FE, most resources currently available are aimed at HE level learners.

There is a general perception that there is a great deal of material ‘out there’, but it remains a serious challenge to locate content of appropriate level and quality in any specific subject area. Wide informal sharing directly between teachers is generally limited, and may remain so in an environment where goodwill is the sole motivating force. In some sectors, government sponsored agencies, such as JORUM and NGfL Cymru are aggregating resources into repositories, acting as gatekeepers of quality and imposing standards for metadata, but a relatively small proportion of their content is directly applicable in an ACL context without modification.

Free Online Content: Who Pays?

The advent of Internet technologies has clearly made the copying and distribution of materials much cheaper, enabling far more people to participate as authors. In the wider publishing world, this has shifted the economic balance is favour of what Anderson refers to as the ‘Long Tail’ [4], enabling lesser known authors to take a share of the market. However, it is not yet clear that this is happening in the field of educational content.

It is not always clear what motivates authors to write, but it is not always money. Few people predicted the rise of Wikipedia, for example, or the host of other more-or-less erudite material which appears online in the form of web pages, blogs and wikis, much of which is provided for free. Teachers, however, have not always been quick to seize upon these resources, partly because widespread assumptions about low or variable quality are often made. These assumptions remain largely untested, although Wikipedia has emerged remarkably well from surveys of its veracity [5].

Alongside these developments, a market for paid-for authored content has emerged, in which the main clients have been government, or its agencies. Broadly speaking, content which is free at the point of use is provided via these major channels:

  • Government initiatives (e.g. JISC, NLN, NGfL)
  • Educational institutions (e.g. OpenLearn, MIT OCW)
  • Mainstream media (e.g. BBC, S4C, Guardian)
  • Informal free content (e.g. Wikipedia)
  • User Generated content, including shared teaching resources
  • The third sector

The estimated costs of content production for online education are variable, but for high quality resources of the sort produced by Open University UK, are likely to reach the order of 800 hours of staff time per learning hour (Rumble, 1997 [6]). In the UK, there has been a recognition that costs of this order could not be borne by individual providers, especially in the FE sector. As a result, there have been a number of major government sponsored initiatives which have included significant levels of content production. The foremost of these has been the National Learning Network (NLN), which is specifically about content development, and UfI (LearnDirect), which has also delivered systems for learning. However, neither of these resources is free to all learners in the community. NLN was initially free to FE institutions, and more recently to Local Education Authorities (LEAs). LearnDirect provision is chargeable to learning providers, who may be able to recover costs by state funding. The content of both of these is highly structured and with high production values, which has led to a long production cycle, so that in some cases the content lacks currency. In addition, Wales has a National Grid for Learning (NGfL Cymru), which commissions content, and also financially supports teachers to improve their own resources, and to share them online.

A large number of universities worldwide have also become significant producers of online educational content (see the survey by Yuan et al. [7]). Around 200 of these universities also collaborate as members of the Open Courseware Consortium [8]. Some of these institutions publish user statistics, and the Open University (UK) has recently published a detailed report of the usage and impact of its OpenLearn platform [9]. However, the need for more rigorous research has been recognised by the Open University and Carnegie Mellon, amongst others, and OLNet [10] has been set up as a research initiative in response to this need.

OpenLearn web site

Resources on the OpenLearn website

As more content becomes available, something approaching a market for content becomes apparent, and the content acquires a value related to the supply and demand of comparable assets. At the same time, those projects which have been externally funded, such as OpenLearn, are seeking sustainable business models to apply as funding ceases. The OpenLearn report indicates a number of strategies which could enable this. While broader definitions of sustainability have been proposed (e.g. Downes, 2006 [11]), a key component is the mechanism(s) for recovering the costs of creating and distributing content. Perhaps the most attractive (but hardest to measure), is the enhancement of core business by the recruitment of new learners to paid courses. Alternatives include the association of the content with additional, paid-for services; sponsorship and advertising; or membership and donations. However, these remain largely untested in the UK.

Technical Models & Issues

Viable technical models need to address the entire life cycle of a resource, including its design, production, distribution, usage, and eventual removal. Running throughout this cycle, there is an underlying theme of ownership, with its associated legal aspect of copyright. There is a strong case for regarding this cycle holistically, which cannot be done in depth here. However, some general trends are noteworthy.

Design has long been seen as critical, but the benefits of reuse are also self-evident. A number of projects have attempted to resolve the tension between these two, by investigating the extent to which resources may be re-used, or repurposed, to suit other contexts. These have met with varying degrees of success, but a long-running theme has been the issue of aggregation, or granularity. Essentially, the logic is that the smaller the resource, the more likely it is to be reusable in a different context. Taken to extremes, this has led to the dissemination of increasingly small, and sometimes trivial, ‘learning objects’.

Older materials have often been produced in formats inappropriate for online release, and the cost of reformatting these has constituted a significant component of projects such as OpenLearn. Many of the resources currently available were designed for a different purpose, and therefore have required significant adaptation prior to publication. Clearly, it is cheaper to tackle issues of technical formatting at the design stage, and this is now being addressed.

The cost of ensuring interoperability is closely related to the degree of alignment between the functionality and the end usage, maintaining flexibility where needed. While many learners simply view materials in situ (perhaps they have not found what they want yet, or simply wish to browse), it must be anticipated that the other modes of usage will increase over time. These include downloading the materials for use in the native format, download as content package, and embedding in a Virtual Learning Environment, to name but three. Of course, much may depend on whether these resources are used by individual learners, by classroom teachers, or even by whole faculties or departments. In the context of ACL, these possible modes of usage remain unexplored. Meanwhile, providers of resources may chose to support all of these possible modes of usage needs to be supported, in which case there is a significant cost.

Finally, the issue of copyright has been significant in these developments. Resource provision by academic institutions in HE is increasingly licensed under one of a range of Creative Commons licences, and the trend in this direction is likely to continue. However, this culture has not yet spread to other educational sectors in the UK, and it is not clear what type of changes will be needed in order for this to happen, or the precise nature of the barriers which might inhibit this process. An optimistic view of this would indicate that ACL providers will follow this path in due course, once awareness has spread amongst teachers and managers.

Realising the Vision?

The use of online materials in informal adult learning has huge potential, but there is a long way to go before we realise the vision which I outlined at the outset, wherein the wider community of teachers and learners uses, and contributes to, dynamic networks of online learning resources. So, what needs to happen, or what conditions need to be in place, before this occurs?

Broadly speaking, content needs to be discoverable, affordable and appropriate, and teachers need to know when and how to incorporate it into the learning experience. This raises question, e.g. Is the content which is currently available at the most appropriate for informal learners, either in terms of subject matter, or educational level? Much of the content comes from universities who are serving their own communities primarily. However, many ACL courses are accredited below this level, and materials may need to be selected or adapted. It is likely that some teachers shy away from this task, or believe that materials which are produced by universities cannot possibly be appropriate to the needs of their learners. However, this is partly a question of presentation and perception. Resources which may be ‘introductory’ at a higher level can also work well for informal learners at a wide range of levels.

Educational content must integrate with current activities. This raises a number of key questions, for example are online materials best suited to individual or group activities? Often, they are designed to work specifically at an individual level. Ironically, material such as online lectures, which looks like a group activity, has become an individual exercise in the same way that listening to the radio is often a solitary activity which millions of people do at the same time. This material could potentially be ‘reclaimed’ as a group activity by teachers with the necessary know-how, as part of wider discussions.

Questions also exist as to how accessible the material is, at a range of levels. Learners may not be able to access the Internet at all, or they may be able to connect only from their classroom, or perhaps only from home. All of these combinations occur at present. To get around this, resources are sometime distributed via other media (e.g. CD-ROM), but clearly such resources may not be the best available, and are unlikely to be current. Many of them are gathering dust on the shelves of teachers, or in the offices of managers and administrators in Local Education Authorities. As the rollout of broadband into homes across the UK continues (Carter 2009), this issue will diminish, but it will not disappear altogether in the foreseeable future.

Other barriers may impact at the teacher level and the organisational levels. There is currently a low awareness of the broad scope of online resources amongst adult educators in the UK. Perhaps what is needed to change this is a deeper collaboration in the actual construction and sharing of resources, including their evaluation, thus allowing teachers to feel a greater sense of ownership. Some repositories, e.g. Merlot, incorporates peer review in it structures, and OpenLearn has taken this a stage further by facilitating teacher collaboration in its ‘LabSpace’. Moodle also plans to support more collaborative content creation via its ‘Community Hubs’.

Business models are still in a state of flux, and it is unclear which of the models above will best facilitate the recovery of costs. The most successful projects to date have received considerable levels of outside support, and this revenue source will not be sustained in the longer term. The loss of these external sources will be offset, at least in part, by reduced costs arising from more efficient resource production cycles, and perhaps by enhanced benefits arising from larger markets. The availability of free online content may also be attracting new learners to institutions, and encouraging them to sign up as fee-paying learners on other courses.

Above all, what is needed is a clear and coherent dialogue between the learners, teachers and the providers about how best to create and use online content which matches the needs of the adult learning communities. If this occurs, then there is every chance that the dream of wider learning opportunities for all will be realised in full.


Thanks are due to the following for helpful discussion and comment: Andy Lane, Shri Footring, Malcolm Bodley, Christina Smart, Alastair Clarke, Oleg Liber, Esther Barrett.

Paul Richardson is a biologist and teacher who has promoted and supported eLearning since 1998. As a member of the Centre for Learning Technology at Bangor, he supported the use of ePortfolios by trainee nurses, and also contributed to the SoURCE project on reusable software, in collaboration with the Open University. He was also closely involved with an innovative online part-time degree (B.A. in Internet, Learning and Organisations). Following a period as ILT Champion at Coleg Harlech WEA, he is now an eLearning Adviser to the Adult Community Learning sector at the JISC Regional Support Centre Wales. He is also an Associate Lecturer at the Open University, facilitating an online module in Environmental Science.


[1] Informal adult learning White Paper: The Learning Revolution

[2] R.H.Tawney: The Integrated Life and The Reform of Education in England 1905-1944, Mulligan (2006)

[3] Digital Britain Report

[4] The Long Tail, Chris Anderson (2006)

[5] Special Report Internet encyclopaedias go head to head

[6] Rumble (1997) The Costs and Economics of Open and Distance Learning. Kogan Page: London.

[7] Open Educational Resources:Opportunities and Challenges for Higher Education

[8] Open Courseware Consortium

[9] Open Learn

[10] OLnet

[11] Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources, S.Downes (2006)


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