H817open: Considering big and little OERs


This post considers the benefits and drawbacks of ‘big’ and ‘little’ OERs as described by Weller (2012). Big OERs are institutional approaches to OER content production with MIT OpenCourseWare and OpenLearn as prominent examples, while little OERs are the potential ‘by-products’ of everyday academic practice, currently often wasted or hidden away. Weller (2011a) gives the example of a small OER where on attending a conference, instead of producing a Conference paper that few people read, he produces a blog post and if presenting uploads the slides. To this, one could add archiving the Twitter stream. All of these products are small OERs as they can be used in a teaching context.

The case for investing in small OER practices is compelling:

In terms of traffic to sites, the user-generated content sites have impressive statistics: more than 100 million monthly for YouTube, 4.3 million for Scribd and 1.75 million for Slideshare (figures from http://www.compete.com for July 2010). These dwarf the statistics for most higher education projects; for instance the most well-established OER site, MIT’s OpenCourseWare site (http://ocw.mit.edu), has 200,000 visitors monthly, the OU’s OpenLearn 21,000 and the learning object repository MERLOT 17,000.
(Weller, 2011b)

Such differences in the accessing of such resources suggests that practices that encourage ‘little OERs’ can pose significant advantages for individuals and institutions.

Arguments for: ‘Small OER good, Big OER bad’

The advantage of producing small OERs is the potential reach and the long tail effect – where the interests of a large number of people can be served if there are many groups of small numbers of people allowing for serving niche communities. As small OERs are often by-products or replace writing for a closed audience with an open audience, the cost and production effort is minimal.

Whether small OERs can really be seen as an alternative option to big OERs, it is not only the actual products of small OERs that are important. Potentially, the practice of small ‘OERing’ helps to embed practices that big OER projects might struggle, as some big OERs are seen as standalone projects are seen as someone else’s responsibility.

Big OERs on the other hand are part of more complex publishing and production cycles and liable to be subject to economic and funding constraints, as happened when the USU OER project was mothballed. Their complexity and need to serve the largest possible numbers for a particular subject limits the granularity and potential diversity. Even though they are meant to be remixed, relatively small numbers of users are remixing.

Arguments for ‘Small OER bad, Big OER good’

On the other hand, the risks with small OERs as a practice for impact are issues of quality (if anyone can put anything up, this poses risk to an institution), lack of procedures for updating and maintenance, the lack of design (if it wasn’t intended as an OER) and lack of specific educational goals may preclude use that is contextually relevant. The reliance on free services is also a risk, as attested by networks such as Ning removing a free service and blog service Posterous being shut down by Twitter. (This risk is slightly mitigated by the likelihood that, like buses, there is another free service around the corner).

Small OERs also depends on a critical mass of people willing to engage in small OER practices, otherwise the approach risks being an echo chamber, yet our understanding of participation in the social web suggests that most people will consume rather than create, and the barriers to small OER approaches are cultural, attitudinal and institutional – most people will need motivation of advancement or ‘what’s in it for me’ to be prepared to put in the extra (even of small) time and to learn skills, even if very simple.

Big OER projects on the other hand have set goals and a production process which ensures a level of quality and credibility, hence most big OERs tend to be used as is. While this militates against sharing and re-use, it does enable others to re-use without too much effort high quality teaching materials that have (hopefully) been designed effectively. Small OERs, operating at a lower level of granularity, require more effort to fit into a wider resource or teaching framework.


It is clear that both big and small OERs are not really a threat to each other.  Weller (2011a) uses the broadcasting media versus internet publishing analogy to illustrate how big and small OERs come into being and the relative advantages of small OERs to allow us to do things we haven’t been able to before. Looking at it from the potential consumer’s point of view, I can stretch this analogy by considering the motivation of going to the cinema to watch a film or going to Youtube to watch videos.

As a consumer, I know that if I go to the cinema I’ll get a full featured (possibly even 3D) experience, where I don’t have to do much more that go in, buy my popcorn and sit there. However, there’s a limited choice of what I can watch even in a multiplex and some days I will find there is nothing there for me. This is how big OER might be for a consumer. (I realise that the analogy doesn’t quite work as I can remix big OER and I can’t remix a movie, but in terms of behaviour, considering that few people do remix big OER, I’m going to keep going.)

However, if I choose to find something to watch on YouTube, I’ll have a lot of choice and I might find some brilliant and unique pieces of filming. I can construct my own viewing, as long as I have a little technical know-how and I can see what others have seen and recommended. I might even be inspired to write a review or make my own comments and connect with the film-maker. However I might not be sure if it really suits me as it seems rather random and there is so much of it.

On any given day going to the cinema or to YouTube is a valid strategy.

The big OER providers such as MIT OCW and OpenLearn have made high quality content and resources available to many people, places and institutions. Such developments can be and are being enhanced where big OERs are placed on Web 2.0 services rather than or as well as in OER-specific repositories to help their findability or that the repositories are better linked to the open web. Considering that most people seem to Google to find stuff, better SEO of big OER might make these OERs more visible and accessible. At the same time, investing in small OER practices expands the definition of OERs, while lessening the barriers to participation in the OER movement. However, training and support for small OER practices is required to get to a critical mass of participation and beyond early adopters and enthusiasts.


Weller, M. (2011a) Academic Output as Collateral Damage [online], slidecast. Available at http://www.slideshare.net/ mweller/ academic-output-as-collateral-damage

Weller, M. (2011b) ‘Public engagement as collateral damage’ in The Digital Scholar, London, Bloomsbury Academic. Also available online at http://www.bloomsburyacademic.com/ view/ DigitalScholar_9781849666275/ chapter-ba-9781849666275-chapter-007.xml

Weller, M. (2012) ‘The openness–creativity cycle in education’, Special issue on Open Educational Resources, JIME, Spring 2012 [online]. Available at http://jime.open.ac.uk/ jime/ article/ view/ 2012-02

Image courtesy of Michael Elliott / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


One thought on “H817open: Considering big and little OERs

  1. I really like your analogy of multi-plex cinema v You Tube.I personally have found many more usable small OER’s than large ones and my thinking is small ones will be more prevalent as their are easier to modify as everything we use is being constantly updated. Some of the comment threads I have seen on some of the G+ communities have resulted in one or more of the participants producing an innovative small OER as a response to the conversation.Maybe each one of us is an OER in some way or another.

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