What do people look for when they search online for learning resources?

I’m speaking at the JISC CETIS Repositories and the Open Web meeting on Monday 19th April, even if it is my birthday. I’m not expecting a card from the audience, but cake would be acceptable.

Speakers have been asked to prepare a position paper. This isn’t quite a position paper, but it is an outline of what I’ll be speaking about. It’s not that I’m lazy, well not much, but I’m not taking any particular position on an issue at this meeting (makes a change some of you might say). Instead I’ll be reporting back on the resource discovery survey run as part of our open education resources project. I thought some of the findings might be useful as an evidence base from which to frame a discussion about repositories and sharing learning resources. The final report isn’t written yet, and I’ve not done a detailed analysis of the responses (it’s a rich data set – 155 responses) but there’s a lot I can say from the summary data so far.

I’ve titled my contribution ‘What do people look for when they search online for learning resources?’. As part of the OER project I ran a survey that asked questions about people’s search strategies, where they they look for learning resources, how they evaluate what they find, what’s useful, and what’s less so. My aim was not to formally evaluate metadata, but instead to get some insight into people’s behaviour while searching for learning resources. It’s just a different side of the same coin as far as I’m concerned.

A couple of focus groups were run to unpick some issues in more detail, one with academic staff and another with students. Perhaps not surprisingly, students used a richer collection of search sites and services than their teachers. My view is they’re more motivated to. They also seemed better skilled at searching, or at least using the advanced search facility, if one was available. Must be all that library skills training they get.

No prizes for guessing that Google is the most used search service by a considerable margin, especially when combined with Google images and scholar search. And yes Wikipedia was very popular, including with staff, although it was only the student group that told us they start with Wikipedia to get an overview, but find what they thought in their opinion were ‘more authoritative’ references to cite in their assignments. Sadly Jorum was one of the least used services. More than one focus group participant asked “what’s Jorum?”.

What do people think about provenance of learning resources, licensing, openness, reviews & ratings, to download or to link in place, and many other important issues? Well that’s what I’ll be talking about in my presentation. But for those not able to come along on Monday, our list of recommendations below more than hint at many of these issues, and if I end up doing PPT slides I’ll upload those next week too.

What are the recommendations we came up with? Well, nothing astoundingly new, but these are evidence-based, which is what we wanted, and still an important set of considerations to reflect on when sharing learning resources. So, in no particular order:

  • Make your learning resources easy to find. Clearly written descriptions of resources are always valued, especially if they contain the kinds of keywords you might use yourself if you were looking for similar resources. The more technical metadata fields are seldom used to find resources.
  • Clearly license your learning resources. Consider Creative Commons, as users find this clear licensing framework easy to use, and it takes the guesswork – and admin – out of permissions.
  • Make sure your metadata is searchable by Google. Federate your metadata to other repositories, or at the very least allow searching by third party search engines. In terms of ease of finding learning resources, many people prefer to use a small number of trusted search engines, most notably of course Google. So if you must create another repository, at least open it up to external searching.
  • Make sure your resource is downloadable. This is a common practice, so resources that require server/client interaction might be less favoured than those that are self-contained and downloadable. If you want people to use your resources, then make it easy for them to do so.
  • Make sure open really does mean open. The majority of users prefer not to have to register with a site or service to access your learning resource.
  • Don’t worry about peer review. User comments, reviews and star ratings are not as important as some might think they are. Think carefully before investing in this functionality if you are creating a new repository. Formal peer review processes can be expensive to implement and our evidence suggests it’s not that valuable.

The full OER project report will be published by the HE Academy/JISC some time over the summer, and a separate paper on the resource discovery survey is in preparation. This work will likely be a proposal I’ll submit for Open Ed in Barcelona too, so hopefully see you there. In the meantime I look forward to sharing more of the data with those attending the Repositories and the Open Web in London next week.

Learning Resource Discovery Survey

If you’re a teacher, or someone who supports the learning of others in any way, there’s a fair chance that you search online for learning resources. Perhaps you look for just the right picture to illustrate your seminar presentation, maybe you search for an e-learning package to help your learners study a topic at their own pace, or perhaps you’d like to use the latest published paper to support a class discussion, well either way these are all examples of learning resources, and there are many more besides.

There are two ways of thinking about learning resources. How you think about them, and how everybody else thinks about them. Although this initially seems a banal statement, the different perspectives are important when it comes to sharing learning resources, especially when other people describe their resources so that you can find them. Considerable amounts of money have been spent on repositories to store content, and schemes for describing content meaningfully, consistently, and perhaps in a standard way, so that your system uses the same approach as mine. This is by and large a good thing, providing it helps you find the learning resources you are looking for.

But has anyone ever asked you how you go about searching online for learning resources? Do they know what attributes of a learning resource are important to you, how you decide what’s useful and what’s not, do they even know where you look for learning resources?

Well gentle reader, don’t say I’ve never asked you, because now there’s a simple survey online that asks how you search online for learning resources. I’ve tried to keep the questions straightforward, and reflect the activities, decisions and behaviours most of us can identify with. The survey is anonymous, so no names, no pack-drill. And Stephen has already completed the survey so you’ll be in good company. Just click the link below and answer a few simple questions. And please feel free to share the link with your colleagues because the more evidence we collect, the better our understanding will be about how all of us search online for learning resources.


The survey is part of some funded work on an OER project I’m involved with. You can find out more about the rest of the project here.

OER dystopia?

Sadly the live stream for David and Stephen’s OER discussion broke down during the post-lunch session so I had to wait until morning to catch the uploaded audio recordings. The final session of the day promised to be the most interesting for me, and I potentially liked the idea of putting some questions to the experts so that we could hear their views. But the questions weren’t that great. Essentially along the lines of:

  1. What is your most dystopic future scenario for OER
  2. What do you expect to happen in the future for OER
  3. What would be your perfect future for OER

I didn’t catch the moderator’s name, but he elaborated on question 1 by raising a concern that what’s happening in the UK now, government investing in OER to raise the profile of the UK. This was a little uncomfortable for him. Hmm, I wonder why? There was an implied element of state control being bad for OER. As a Brit, and involved in a state-funded, well JISC funded OER project I felt I couldn’t let that pass.

Public money investment in opening up educational resources is a good thing isn’t it? After all, public money paid for the creation of a lot of content in the first place. A more dystopian society would surely suppress the release of educational resources, prevent the education of a majority, and control access to information. The investment of around £5M in OER by the JISC is in part a response to the UK being relative latecomers to OER, and if this investment raises our profile in this area then I’m all for that. The UK has a good track record at innovation in technology enhanced learning so I’m sure we have a lot to contribute to the OER agenda.

For what it’s worth, here are my answers to the three questions above:

Worse-case scenario? Either no content being released/shared by anyone because they’re too afraid they’ll get the licensing wrong, else no content being released because everyone foolishly thinks they can sell it.

Most likely scenario? We’ll do what we’ve always done and get what we’ve always got. A wide range of resources available under a spectrum of licenses to reflect the diversity of uses. There will always be some good freely usable stuff, some good stuff you’d like to use but it’s not available under a suitable license, and some good stuff that will always be commercial.

Best-case scenario? World peace and unlimited access to all knowledge and the resources to apply that knowledge for the betterment of human kind.

Easy 🙂

OER and library websites, time for integration

Tony Hirst’s post on Open Educational Resources and the University Library Website has been doing the rounds recently. It’s a good question he poses, why aren’t academic library web sites giving as much prominence to open educational resources as they do to books and journals? My answer is simply, because historically it’s not been libraries that worried about those kinds of educational resources. While libraries were cataloguing books and journals, other parts of the central institutional services were managing learning objects, multimedia resources, e-learning content, whatever you want to call the stuff. These resources were locked up in WebCT or some other VLE/LMS and were discoverable there, at least in theory. Teachers and their students knew, and still know, where to look for books & journals and where to look for other kinds of learning resources.

Tony’s point however is still a good one, it’d be great if you could have a single search interface to everything. But typically universities for example have separate systems that don’t always talk to each other. Shame. However it cuts both ways. You should be able to search the library catalogue from within a VLE. I tried out the OU website search Tony mentioned. It doesn’t seem to search the library holdings. You have to use the library catalogue for that.

It’s time that library and learning system integrated better. If FriendFeed can aggregate potentially billions of tweets, blog posts and status updates, then why can’t a single institution’s systems share their content?

Downes & Wiley discuss OER

Are you watching Stephen and David discussing open educational resources? It’s fascinating so far, with their different styles, but I’m not sure I’m hearing much to help move us forward on open educational resources. But it’s still early in the day in Vancouver (albeit late in the UK).

We’ve had quite a bit of semantic debate so far, so maybe the guys are just warming up. But how many potential producers of OERs are listening to this discussion, hoping for insight from two highly respected individuals, but are instead feeling just a little confused by what the issues are.

On the other hand maybe they’re just getting on with producing and releasing great content, selecting from a spectrum of licenses that reflect the different contexts in which content can be used. As a consumer of content I’ll make the judgement about what content is right for me and my purpose from all the content that’s licensed according to my needs. If I search content in Flickr for example I can choose whether I want to see content to use commercially or content to modify, adapt, or build upon. I don’t have to see stuff that’s not useful to me. Why should discovering educational resources be any different?

David and Stephen will be coming back refreshed from lunch soon. So let’s see where this goes. I just hope we don’t get into any false dichotomies where open educational resources all have to be either like this, or like that, because it’ll never be that black or white. Creative Commons understands this, that’s why there’s a range of licenses for a range of conditions. They may not cover every context just yet, but it’s the best framework we have so far.