New approaches to designing OER

This blog post is a draft of a paper I am working on following on from a keynote I did at the University of Limerick in May. It focuses on new ideas around the design and reuse of Open Educational Resources (OER). My initial thinking around this can be found in an earlier blog post.

The technology paradox

A paradox exists in terms of harnessing new technologies in education.  Despite the fact that there is now a wealth of free tools and resources available that could be used to support learning and teaching, in reality technologies are not used extensively in education. Indeed teachers and learners are bewildered by the variety and lack the time and necessary skills to harness them effectively. The focus of this paper is to present Learning Design as a potential solution and in particular to describe the work we are doing as part of the Open University Learning Design Initiative (OULDI), which is developing a suite of tools and resources to support teachers to make more effective design decisions and better use of technologies in the creation of learning activities and resources for their students. The paper will highlight current research on Pedagogical Patterns, Learning Design and Open Educational Resources (OER) and will suggest that together these three areas provide a possible solution to the mismatch between the potential of new technologies and use in practice. It will conclude with an illustrative example being developed as part of a new initiative, Olnet, which is a global network to support users and researchers of OER.

Redefining openness

I argue in this paper that we need to expand the notion of openness, to take account of the affordances of new technologies and the new patterns of user behaviour we are seeing emerge. There has been a growth in recent years in activities around the Open source movement and the development of open tools and services, also the open educational resource movement (Iiyoshi & Kumar 2008). These have a common set of principles and practices: free, shared, collaborative, cumulatively better. The next logical step is a more “open” approach to design (Open Design) – where the inherent designs within learning activities and resources are made more explicit to learners and to other teachers; so that they can be picked up discussed and adapted.

 I argue in this paper that education is now facing a number of new challenges, precipitating by new technologies. Education today, operates in a context that is increasingly open and abundant:

·      Open – In terms of free resources and in terms of public gauze/scrutiny and can no longer ignore this.

·      Abundant - There are now a wealth of tools, services and resources available to support education. If tools and resources are freely available, what is the purpose of formal educational institutions?

Examples of openness include the growth of the open source moment in general and, more specifically in education, the phenomenal success of the open source Moodle tool. Moodle is now a major Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)/Learner Management System (LMS) around the world, with a large community of active developers collectively improving the core code and adding extensions and plug-ins. There are increasingly sophisticated free generic tools available - Google apps, Gmail, free blog and wiki services, communication tools such as Skype to Twitter. New products are emerging all the time, introducing new concepts and patters of user behaviour – the latest being Google Wave, which is being hyped as the next generation communication tool, a combination of email, discussion forums and wikis – enabling both synchronous and asynchronous communication.

There has been a noticeable shift in the last few years in terms of the use of technologies. We now have near ubiquitous access with wifi-enabled Internet on demand. New generation phones such as iPhone make mobile learning genuinely feasible. The number and variety of applications for the iphone is truly mind blowing; the variety of applications for learning staggering, from mindmapping tools, through digital books and dictionaries to interactive learning tutorials. More and more material for learning is available for free on the Internet. This has been accelerated by the growth of the OER movement, which believes that education should be free and is a basic right. The OER movement has powerful supporters, especially the Hewlett foundation and UNESCO and include big international players such as MIT. The OpenCourseWare consortium has over 200 worldwide members. A range of different types of OERs and models are available which differ in terms of level of granularity, format and media richness, and type of pedagogy. The Open University launched Openlearn ( in 2006 with funded from the William and Flora Hewlett foundation.

Today’s students have grown up surrounded by a technologically mediated world. Clearly new technologies offer much in an educational context, with the promise of flexible, personalised and student-centred learning. Indeed research over the past few years, looking at learners’ use of technologies, has given us a rich picture of how learners of all ages are appropriating new tools within their own context, mixing different applications for finding/managing information and for communicating with others (Sharpe and Beetham, forthcoming). They provide a summary of recent research looking at the learner perspective and in particular how learners are using technologies (Sharpe & Beetham 2010). It is evident that today’s learners are immersed in a technologically rich learning environment. They see technologies as an essential part of their tools for learning. They appropriate technologies to suit their own learning styles and use them to support all aspects of their learning. However despite having grown up in a technological environment, not all students are able to use technologies effectively in an academic context. For example they may be comfortable using Google, but not competent at critically evaluating different resources and using them for their learning. Indeed for the weaker students the complexity of the range of digital tools and resources available to them means they are more likely to get confused and lost.

Good sources of further information on current technology trends and the ways in which technologies are being used in education include: Review of learning 2.0 (Ala-Mutka, 2009), Learner experience work (Conole, De Laat et al., 2008), NSF cyberlearning task force report (NSF, 2008), and a review of OER movement (Atkins et al., 2007)

Education for free

Theoretically one can now put together totally free course offerings using free tools and resources. George Siemens and Stephen Downes created an ambitious course and delivered it for the first time in 2009 – not only were the tools and resources they used in the course free, but so was the expertise! See for a reflection on the experiment by George Siemens. The twelve-week course was called ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge Online Course’.[1]  They described the course as a MOOG (Massive Open Online Course). The content, delivery and support for the course was totally free, anyone could join and an impressive 2400 did, although the actual number of very active participants was smaller (ca. 200). The course provides a nice example of an extension of the open movement, moving a step beyond the Open Educational Resource movement to providing a totally free course. Siemens reflecting on the course said the follow:

Did we change the world? No. Not yet. But we (and I mean all course participants, not just Stephen and I) managed to explore what is possible online. People self-organized in their preferred spaces. They etched away at the hallowed plaque of “what it means to be an expert”. They learned in transparent environments, and in the process, became teachers to others. Those that observed (or lurked as is the more common term), hopefully found value in the course as well. Perhaps life circumstances, personal schedule, motivation for participating, confidence, familiarity with the online environment, or numerous other factors, impacted their ability to contribute. While we can’t “measure them” the way I’ve tried to do with blog and moodle participants, their continued subscription to The Daily and the comments encountered in F2F conferences suggest they also found some value in the course.


 George Siemens and Martin Weller delivered something similar in the form of an ‘un-course’ conference (“From Courses to Dis-Course (yes/no? Am I being too cute-sy?”). See for further information. Such courses are becoming more commonplace, the immediacy of the Internet and the variety of free tools for creating content and for communicating with others, means these courses can be set up very quickly with an international team designing and delivering. What kind of impact will such courses have on traditional educational offerings? Will they sit alongside them or ultimately replace them?

Implications and the hidden conundrum

Clearly all this has profound implications for educational institutions and the provision of formal education (Grainne Conole 2009). For students in terms of the skills and experiences they come with and their expectations in terms of technologies (Sharpe & Beetham 2010)(G. Conole et al. 2008). For teachers in terms of how they design courses for students. For institutions in terms of how they support and assess students. New technologies give rise to a range of questions: To what extent have all these free tools and resources impacted on mainstream education? To what extent are the majority of teachers capitalising on these? How much are mainstream courses changing as a result?

The reality is that despite the enormous potential new technologies seem to offer for learning, uptake of them and utilisation of free resources has been slow.  Indeed there has been very little impact on mainstream education. Where technolgoies are used a lot of the use mirrors existing face-to-face practice, rather than harnessing the powerful affordances associated with them. There is little evidence of major innovations or new forms of pedagogy.

The reasons for the lack of impact of these new technologies are complex and multifaceted. But one of the key ones is that teachers lack the time and expertise to make best use of new tools and resources. Faced with a new tool – say a wiki or twitter - there are a number of questions a teacher (or indeed a learner) needs to consider: What are the special features of the tool? How can it be used to support learning? How have others used the tool? What are the implications in terms of designing and delivering a learning activity using this tool – for the teacher, for the student? Similarly just having freely available OERs is not enough, a series of similar questions arise: What is the quality of the resource? How has it been used elsewhere? How can it be incorporated into my teaching context? Am I able to adapt it; how much do I need to change to suit my teaching context? All of these are non-trivial and time-consuming questions.

Mediating artefacts to support design

Teachers need guidance in understanding how they can appropriate technologies in their teaching. This guidance can be in the form of a range of ‘Mediating Artefacts’ (MAs). I draw on socio-cultural perspectives (Vygotsky 1978;  Cole et al. 1997; Engeström et al. 1999; Daniels et al. 2007), in terms of the use of the term ‘Mediating Artefacts’ (MAs). I believe the concept of mediating artefacts can help us describe and understand how technologies are being used in mediating our practice. A user intent on achieve a particular goal has a range of mediating artefacts they can draw on; both in terms of ‘information’ and mechanisms for ‘communication’. Alongside the established communication channels of the telephone, email, forums and texting, the emergence of web 2.0 technologies in recent years has added blogging (and microblogging), wikis, social networking sites and virtual worlds but also free internet-based Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and in particular popular tools such as Skype which enable virtually free, internet-based communication. Similarly information can now be distributed in multiple locations, and packaged and presented using a range of different multimedia and visual representations. Sophisticated repositories now exist for everything from shopping categories to repositories of good practice and free resources. RSS feeds and email alerts enable users to filter and personalise the information they receive. Social bookmarking and tagging means that collective value can be added to digital objects, concept and mind mapping, tag clouds and data-derived maps are only some of the ways in which information can be presented in rich and multifaceted ways.

I argue in this paper that there is a need for new mediating artefacts to support teachers and learners in making best use of these tools and resources.  See Conole (2008a) for a description of the use of the term mediating artefacts specifically for learning design. These mediating artefacts can guide and support the teacher in making design decisions. They can provide mechanisms to help teachers answer questions like those posed above, to help them make decisions on which tools and resources to use and in what ways. For example mechanisms to provide them with access to help and advice, expertise and peer support. Mechanisms to enable them to become part of an evolving peer community committed to discussing and sharing learning and teaching ideas.

I argue that this mediation is through more explicit articulation of the inherent designs associated with a particular learning activity and the way in which tools and resources are used in that particular learning activity. If we can abstract these designs and represent them in a meaningful and understandable way there is a greater chance of them being picked up, used and adapted by others, which, in turn, over time is likely to lead to an evolving understanding of how new tools and resources can be used.

Converging schools of thought

I want to focus on three types of Mediating Artefacts and look at how together they can be used to help guide the teacher’s design practice; learning design, pedagogical patterns and OER Mediating Artefacts. A brief introduction to these areas will be provided, followed by a description of how they can be used together to provide a holistic approach to designing for learning.

Pedagogical patterns

The concept of Pedagogical Patterns derives from Alexander’s work in Architecture, towards pattern languages for buildings.  Applied to an educational context, it is concerned with exploring how we generate a set of ‘patterns for good practice’; i.e. here is a problem and here is a tried and tested solution. There is now a considerable body of research on Pedagogical Patterns, such as the work of Yannis Dimitriadis and colleagues in Spain, Peter Goodyear in Australia and the Planet project in the UK. There are a number of repositories of patterns with surrounding communities of interest, see for example and Two well-known examples of patterns for collaborative learning are: “Think, Pair, Share” and “Jigsaw”.

The benefits of the pedagogical patterns approach is that the ‘patterns’ are derived from known, tried and tested examples, building on existing good practice. They all have the same format of representation – here is a problem and a potential solution, along with a powerful visual metaphors.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

The OER movement has concentrated on developing open educational resources and studying the ways in which they are used and/or adapted by learners and teachers (See for example McAndrew and Santos, 2008). The benefits of the OER movement is that it is building a word wide set of high quality free educational resources, along with opportunities to build a community around these resources - to share and critically discuss good practice in learning and teaching.

Learning design

In our own work as part of the OU Learning Design Initiative (OUDLI) we are developing a suite of tools and methods to help teachers with the design process and in particular to enable them to create more pedagogical informed learning activities and make better use of new technologies. Our work is focusing on three aspects of the design process: ways of representing pedagogy (and in particular visualising it), providing guidance and advice, and mechanisms to enable teachers to share and discuss learning and teaching ideas. In particular we have developed two tools – CompendiumLD for visualising and guiding the design process (G. Conole et al. 2008) and Cloudworks a social networking site for finding, sharing and discussing learning and teaching ideas (Conole & Culver 2009b; Conole & Culver 2009a) In addition we have been developed new schema for mapping pedagogies and technologies (Conole 2008)

The benefits of the Learning Design approach are that it provides a range of tools, methods and approaches to help teachers think differently, making the design process more explicit, means of sharing good practice.

A new understanding of design: an illustrative example

What we can see across these three areas of research are different types of designs. Can we combine these learning design tools with the documented good practice, which has been developed in the pedagogical pattern community, with the real exemplars available in the OER world? The pedagogical patterns describe a learning and teaching activity or strategy according to a predefined template. Whereas the OERs might be considered as ‘designs in action’ and provide actual learning content. Finally, Learning Designs help give us a better understanding of the broad ways in which learning and teaching activities or strategies can be represented from narrative case studies or descriptions through to visual designs.

In a new project, OLnet, we are attempting to put these three areas together, specifically to enable better use of OER. OLnet is creating a global network to help researchers and users of OER to work together – so that research outputs inform practice and vice versa. See Conole and McAndrew (Conole & McAndrew 2010). We are interested in exploring how explicit designs might be used to help learners and teachers and how the different tools and resources from across OER, Learning Design and Pedagogical Patterns research would might be used together.  In a recent book chapter we identify four types of Mediating Artefacts from across these research domains: Learning Design visualisation tools, Learning Design methods, Pedagogical Patterns and Web 2.0 sharing and discussion tools (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Types of mediating artefacts

The following scenario provides an example of how this might work (Figure 2). It describes the creation of an OER and an associated design for the OER and shows how this can be repurposed in three different ways. Tools and resources from OER, Learning Deign and Pedagogical Patterns research are used to help design the original OER and then to share and repurpose it.


Figure 2: Initial creation of OER+design and subsequent use and repurposing


Teacher A: The design phase

The scenario begins with ‘Teacher A’. The context is that Teacher A is putting her beginners’ level Spanish material for the OU course L194. She makes the material available as an OER online in the Openlearn repository ( She uses the CompendiumLD tool for visualising to articulate different ways in which she thinks the materials can be used. Figure 3 shows part of the visual design, including the branching sequence to enable a beginner and more advanced route through the learning materials. In particular she is interested in showing how the materials can be used as both a revision exercise for an individual student and at a more advanced level for a group of students working collaboratively. Whilst developing her design in CompendiumLD she has access to ideas and tips and hints from the Cloudworks social networking site for learning and teaching site, as well as from a range of OER and Pedagogical Pattern repositories. These help her to refine her design thinking, to get ideas about how to structure activities in the sequences and suggestions of tools that be used for example for supporting a diagnostic e-assessment test or to enable students to communicate synchronously.

Learner A: Use Scenario 1 – beginners’ route

‘Learner A’ is doing Spanish.  She is a few weeks into the intermediate level Spanish course. The topic she is currently working on is ‘describing places’, she is looking for freely available tools or resources that might help her, she is also interested in finding study buddies to work with, who are at a similar level.

1.      She explores the openlearn site

2.      She finds the set of OERs for a beginners’ Spanish course – L194 – Portales from the Open University, UK, developed by Teacher A.

3.      She finds alongside these resources a visual design – which provides an example of how these resources might be used. The design consists of the following aspects:

a.       A diagnostic e-assessment test to assess her level of understanding of the topics covered in the course

b.       Two potential pathways: a) a beginners route where the learner works individually through the L194 OER material, b) an advanced route where the learner is assigned to a study group to work collaboratively around 1 aspects of the L194 OER material, Activity 2.1. In this advanced route, the existing activity (categorise 3 pictures of buildings as Latin American or Spanish) is replaced with one where the learner has to describe and compare the buildings, working collaboratively with other students and interrogating an expert for information. The activity exploits the jigsaw pedagogical pattern and also uses a free video conferencing tool to enable the study group to speak with a Spanish cultural expert. 

4.      She takes the diagnostic tests and the advice is that she takes the beginners’ route and completes the L194 OER material.

Learner B: Use Scenario 2 – advanced route

Learner B is also a student a few weeks into an intermediate level Spanish course. She works through a similar set of activities to Learner A but in this case after taking the diagnostic test the advice is that he takes the advanced route and focuses in on the adapted activity 2.1 as a collaborative exercise with other students.

Teacher B: Use Scenario 3 – repurposes

Teacher B is an Associate Lecturer teaching on the intermediate level Spanish course at the Open University, En Rumbo – L140, preparing for a face-to-face tutorial with his students. The topic is describing places. Finds the design described above and adapts it to produce two new variants of the design 1. a classroom-based activity where the students describe the pictures using the Think-Pair-Share pattern and provides, 2. A similar exercise in terms of comparing three buildings but the students are asked to describe buildings from their town and then talk with an expert (a student in Spain) who then describes their home town. The activity is set as a precursor to the first assignment exercise for the course.

The design of this scenario represented in CompendiumLD was drawn by Andrew Brasher and an interactive version of it is available here. Figure 4 provides a conceptual overview and generalisation of this scenario – showing how an initial design can query existing resources such as Cloudworks and Openlearn, use these to help create and populate an OER, along with an associated design, both of which can then be deposited back into sites such as Cloudworks and OpenLearn for reuse.


The mismatch between the potential of technologies and actual use in practice is I would argue one of the most important key challenges facing modern education. The areas of Pedagogical Patterns, Learning Design and OER research have developed a range of valuable tools and resources which have proved effective in supporting teachers and learners and enabling them to decide and use educational resources more effectively. The next stage in the challenge is how to build on this; how to make more effective connections across these three areas of research.


Many people are involved in this work but want to thank in particular:

§   Olnet/Openlearn: Patrick McAndrew, Yannis Demitriadis (who is currently working with us as a visiting Olnet professor), Tina Wilson, Niall Sclater

§   OULDI: Andrew Brasher, Juliette Culver, Simon Cross, Paul Clark, Martin Weller

§   Funders: The William and Flora Hewlett foundation, the JISC, the Open University for strategic funding


Ala-Mutka, K., Bacigalupo, M., Kluzer, S., Pascu, C., Punie, Y. and Redecker, C. (2009). Review of Learning 2.0 Practices. IPTS technical report prepared for publication, IPTS: Seville, available online at [18/4/09].

Atkins, D., Seely Brown, J. and Hammond, A.L. (2007), A review of the Open Educational Resource movement: achievements, challenges and new opportunities, report to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, available online at, last accessed 5/2/09.

Cole, M., Engeström, Y. & Vasquez, O.A., 1997. Mind, culture, and activity: Seminal papers from the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, Cambridge Univ Pr.


Conole, G. (2008a) ‘Capturing practice: the role of mediating artefacts in learning design’, in Handbook of Research on Learning Design and Learning Objects: Issues, Applications and Technologies, in L. Lockyer, S. Bennett, S. Agostinho, and B Harper (Eds), 187-207, Hersey PA: IGI Global.


Conole, G. et al., 2008. Visualising learning design to foster and support good practice and creativity. Educational Media International, 45(3), 177-194.


Conole, G. & Culver, J., 2009a. Cloudworks: Social networking for learning design. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 25(5). Available at: [Accessed November 24, 2009].


Conole, G. & Culver, J., 2009b. The design of Cloudworks: Applying social networking practice to foster the exchange of learning and teaching ideas and designs. Computers & Education. Available at: [Accessed November 24, 2009].


Conole, G. et al., 2008. ‘Disruptive technologies’, ‘pedagogical innovation’: What’s new Findings from an in-depth study of students’ use and perception of technology. Computers & Education, 50(2), 511-524.


Conole, G. & McAndrew, P., 2010. A new approach to supporting the design and use of OER: Harnessing the power of web 2.0. In In M. Edner and M. Schiefner (Eds) Looking toward the future of technology enhanced education: ubiquitous learning and the digital nature.


Conole, G., McAndrew, P. & Dimitriadis, Y., The role of CSCL pedagogical patterns as mediating artefacts for repurposing Open Educational Resources’. In in F. Pozzi and D. Persico (Eds), Techniques for Fostering Collaboration in Online Learning Communities: Theoretical and Practical.  2010.


Conole, G., 2009. Stepping over the edge: the implications of new technologies for education. Available at: [Accessed November 24, 2009].


Conole, G., 2008. New Schemas for mapping pedagogies and technologies. Ariadne magazine, (56). Available at: [Accessed November 24, 2009].


Daniels, H., Cole, M. & Wertsch, J., 2007. The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky 1st ed., Cambridge University Press.


Dimitriadis, Y. et al., 2009. New design approaches to repurposing Open Educational Resources for collaborative learning using mediating artefacts. In  Auckland: ASCILITE.


Engeström, Y., Punamäki-Gitai, R.L. & Miettinen, R., 1999. Perspectives on activity theory, Cambridge University Press.


Iiyoshi, T. & Kumar, M.S.V., 2008. Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Education through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge, The MIT Press.


McAndrew, P. and A. I. Santos (Eds.) (2009). Learning from OpenLearn: Research Report 2006-2008. Milton Keynes, UK: The Open University.

NSF (2008), Fostering learning in the networked world: learning opportunity and challenge. A 21st Century agenda for the National Science Foundation, report of the NSF task force on cyberlearning, available online at, last accessed 8/2/09.


Sharpe, R. & Beetham, H., 2010. Rethinking learning for the digital age: how learnes shape their own experiences, London: Routledge.


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4 Responses to “New approaches to designing OER”

  1. Jenny Mackness Says:

    Hi Grainne - thanks for pointing me to this post from the Networked Learning Conference Hotseat. I have enjoyed reading it. It has made me think. I do have a few thoughts, but I only offer them from the perspective of a novice researcher and someone who, I have to admit, is struggling to understand what you are getting at here.

    I completely agree that tutors/teachers/learners are being slow to make use of open resources or to even understand their potential. For example, I am currently working with a group of post graduate IT managers who are having difficulty understanding the difference between a wiki and a discussion forum. My view would be that teachers and learners not only lack time and expertise to make use of open resources, they simply don’t see the point. Teachers/tutors are often teaching very successfully without them and may have the attitude ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’!

    With respect to what you are offering in a new understanding of design - whilst I can see how useful it is to be able to go to a site which will give me a whole host of ideas from others, it somehow doesn’t speak to me as person who has taught all my career. I have been trying to think why this is the case and have decided that it is because I don’t see teaching as a one way process (i.e. teacher to learner), but rather as a negotiated process between teacher and learner. I can’t see this in what you have written, but perhaps that’s me!

    I have a horrid feeling that I have probably completely missed the point here. Apologies if I have.


  2. Gráinne Says:

    Hi Jenny - yes there has been some great debate in the Networked Learning Conference hotseat forum.
    I think we really cant underestimate the challenges we are faced with in terms of bringing teachers and learners up to speed with what technologies can do. I too have held workshops and realised that some of the delegates had very little understanding of even some fairly fundamental basics. I also agree with you that many of them dont see the point, why go to the hassle of changing/using something new when your existing practice works ok?

    Hmm your final point is also a good one and I agree I am not sure the approach as I have outlined it is ‘teacher-friendly’ enough. Visualisation is very powerful but also can be problematic if you come to a complex diagam ‘cold’ or if you are not the sort of person who finds visualisation easy to interpret.
    Lots of challenges and room for lots of research work in this field I think!

  3. Frances ferreira Says:

    Hi Grainne,
    Thank you so much for this very interesting post.I am so sorry(for myself)that I only came across your name now:-)I am working with a group of teachers in the developing world , on a project where we are developing OERs.The project is sponsored by the Hewlett foundation .I have recently activated a FB page for this project and I would like to refer my teachers to your Blog (hope its okay with you).It will most definitely provide them with a very rich source of information.
    My personal experience,regarding the mismatch between the potential of technologies and actual use in practice , through this project, is that it is a whole new paradigm for most of the teachers in the developing world.It is a new culture which we have to nurture with lots and lots of patience.This is exarcebated by issues such as affordability and bandwidth, and yet, there is a dire need for content (OERs) in the developing world.Thanks for sharing.

  4. Gráinne Says:

    Hi Frances - of course delighted for you to link to this and let me know if I can help/provide more info.

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