Daily Archives: October 11, 2011

What are the Key Challenges for the OER Movement?

The OLNet project (www.olnet.org) is assembling a list of the key challenges facing to Open Educational Resources. They ask the question, “What are the Key Challenges for the OER Movement?” in their blog post at http://olnet.org/node/639

This is my response.

I think that the single largest challenge in OER is the complete lack of a standardized interchange format and free/open software to create, manage, edit, and remix open educational content.

Until we have rich and powerful editing tools in the hands of the people creating the content, we will never reach “escape velocity” in the OER space. We will continue to pay large sums of money to accumulate large repositories of expensively gathered/produced materials that are uneditable.

We need tools that allow teachers to manage their materials in a way that will enhance their teaching as they teach and then as a trivial side effect, produce high-quality reusable and editable content.

Once we accomplish this a repository has a format for its artifacts and many repositories exist (i.e. like YouTube, uStream , Vimeo, etc etc) then we have the ability to actually make OER part of the teaching cycle rather than something we do long after the teaching cycle is complete.

This is a challenging task and will require significant sustained effort. There are four formats that come to mind that might serve as OER exchange: (a) SCORM, (b) IMS Common Cartridge, (c) Connexions CNXML, and (d) PowerPoint.

I add PowerPoint because of the four, it is the only one that does a really good job of remixing. While everyone ridicules PowerPoint, you must admit that it is nice to be able to send a complex, structured content collection to virtually anyone on the planet and know that they can read it, edit it and convert it to a number of useful formats. It is not because PowerPoint is an amazingly elegant file format, it is simply because we all have software to read and edit the format on our computers.

Lets briefly critique the other formats and their shortcomings.

SCORM – This format is aimed at instructional design, not teaching – it is great for training but not so good for teaching. The problem is less the file format and more the ecosystem of products aimed at a training centered market that uses a write-once run without modifications pattern. Also as more advanced features of SCORM are used, the resulting packages are less and less interoperable.

IMS Common Cartridge – IMS CC understands teaching and is designed to allow remixing, but since it is focused on maintaining interoperability of content, it is rather conservative in its scope. It is expanding its scope slowly but it needs to speed up if it is to become a real OER format that teachers would author their original courses in IMS CC. Also there are no good free open source tools that read and write IMS CC. CLosed source tools are better than nothing, but leave innovation in the hands of the software owners.

Connexions CNXML – This is a good start as a format, but it is far too wrapped up in the specialized server code developed by Connexions. Also, the CNXML is a little too focused on book-style resources and sequential ordering. CNXML would need to evolve to be able to represent the wider ranger of interoperable OER materials. I wish Connexions would be funded to start over and build a portable desktop application for authoring and then put a much simpler server infrastructure behind it rather than putting all the rich capabilities in their server software.

PowerPoint – rocks but its pedagogy is a bit limiting.


What would the software look like? Frankly the closest I have seen to the right software is SoftChalk (www.softchalk.com). It is a word-processor like interface, uses its own internal format, but can export to SCORM, IMSCC, HTML and many other formats.

The weakness of SoftChalk is that it is commercial and as such its requirements are driven by what sells. And OER is not a significant enough marketplace yet to cause commercial product roadmaps to bend in the right direction.

So I think we need to write our own.


Building such a format and software to support the format would take an amazing leap of faith. It would take millions of pounds/euros/dollars to jump-start such a project to the point that it worked well enough to build a self-sustaining community of users and developers who could maintain and innovate in the space.

Given that all the funding seems to be going to building another repository or analyzing usage logs, it is not likely this will ever get funded. But that is the nice thing about grand challenges – they stay grand.

P.S. The second biggest problem is the ability to link content together around learning objects like Khan Academy and enable highly dynamic learning paths through content with great tracking. Maybe the other great challenge is an open, extensible version of Khan Academy.

P.P.S. The third biggest challenge is to have a learning management system that allows for the dynamic formation of cohorts of learning around web content. Such a system needs to have a light touch UI-wise and be easy to figure out. My favorite example here is Edmodo – but again, closed, proprietary, and with an intent to make money off its captive customers. So again, we need to write our own open extensible Edmodo.