The moment I realised I was an Open Education pragmatist

Michael Shaw
7 min readApr 24, 2018

I wondered if I would feel like an interloper at the first conference I’ve ever attended on Open Educational Resources (OERs).

It wasn’t a dress code issue (though in hindsight I should have worn trainers) but that most of the attendees at #OER18 were from universities, while only a few of us there worked for education businesses.

But I was determined to go. As the director of the platform that still appears to be the world’s most popular place for the free sharing of lesson plans and educational materials by school teachers it would have been weird not to be there. Plus I’d announced in my first month in my new job that I was going to make our support for OERs “overt”.

Unlocking education at #OER18 in Bristol

However, I still understood that some attendees at the event in Bristol might be wary. I work for a commercial company, one that makes money from advertising and recruitment services, plus — even more controversially in this context — by letting teachers sell resources to each other, and taking a percentage on transactions.

The scale of free OER sharing that goes on each week on Tes is staggering and seems to dwarf any other project I’ve seen on the OER world map. And I would argue that the free resources on Tes are often more pure examples of Open Education than the materials you’ll find on many supposedly “Open” MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) because our free materials have Creative Commons licences and are usually designed to be remixed and adapted.

But even I would not attempt to argue that our website offers pure Open Education, as paid content sits alongside the free. So I wondered if I’d be cold-shouldered by the purists.

As it turned out the other participants at #OER18, and the event’s organisers, the Association for Learning Technology, were incredibly welcoming — and the debates were more open than I’d expected on how commercial organisations could play a part, especially in regards to reach and sustainability.


I almost whooped during the opening keynote speech. Lorna Campbell of Edinburgh University described a brilliant free resource for secondary schools that students at the uni’s medical school had made to explain certain LGBT issues. And she illustrated it on the big cinema screen with an image of it… on Tes.

Afterwards we chatted and she explained how the OER Service at the University of Edinburgh used Tes to ensure teachers had visibility of such materials. She explained that — similar to posting videos on Youtube or pictures to Flickr — the university wanted to make sure OERs had the maximum reach, and that meant going to where the audience for them would be. For material aimed at school teachers it was Tes, and the data we provided about downloads and usage allowed her and colleagues with evidence they could present to show impact. (This made me even more convinced about the need for us to open up more data and tools to our free uploaders to match those currently only available on paid-for content.)

Campbell’s Edinburgh colleague Charlie Farley provided more details on the Open.Ed project in her own session, where she described the benefits that students at the university had making OERs, including gaining experience of “Public engagement”, “Teaching and learning” and “Knowledge transfer” as well is skills in areas such as communication, project management and digital literacy.

In answer to an audience question about whether users could adapt the resources, she also highlighted that they were available to download from Tes and teachers would then adapt them. On that occasion I think I did whoop.

However, knowledge of Tes’s role as a potential space for OER-sharing was not, it is fair to say, that widespread among the attendants, many from universities outside the UK. Partly this was because most of those there who had been involved in creating OERs had done so for HE students rather than school teachers or pupils.

Samantha Ahern of UCL mentioned Tes as a way school teachers could share materials, but her awareness of it — along with her very active understanding of the need to make learning materials accessible to those with SEN - came from her past job as a secondary school teacher.

She said a clear difference existed between the two worlds in which she had worked, with school teachers finding it “easier to share” than HE lecturers. This was partly because there was more commonality around what is taught in schools in England because of the National Curriculum, but also, she said, because university staff had more of an “It’s my IP” attitude.

That view was also expressed by another speaker, Doris Hirschmann, who has been working on a project in Germany. She said adult educators there tended to be protective of their materials as they were “part of their working capital”.


The question about whether businesses could play a greater part in the broader adoption of Open Education was most directly addressed by David Wiley, whose 5 Rs of Open Education I have quoted for years.

In his keynote he argued that “the movement needs purists and pragmatists”. “That tension has been really productive over the years,” he said.

In a brief look through the origins of the Open Source software movement he explored how there had always been an intention for it to be used by commercial businesses, and for commercial businesses to contribute back.

One example he gave was Linux. Its 4.7 release in 2016 included just under 83,000 contributions from 4,319 individual developers. “These developers represent 519 corporations,” he said. “Only 8.2% of these contributions came from people whose work on Linux was NOT supported by a company.”

The role that the commercial could play in ensuring the survival of desirable projects was also emphasised by Momodou Sallah, a THE-award-winning academic at De Montfort and a social entrepreneur.

Sallah described the pragmatism that had been involved in setting up a range of projects in the Gambia, ranging from building an education hub to launching an experimental solar-powered taxi service with a car provided by Nissan

He expressed short shrift for those who did not think about how they could make their projects sustainable. “The key thing for me is about finance and viability,” he said. “If you’re going to make all these resources available, all of these practices free, who is going to pay for it? And for me that’s why I’ve come to this conclusion that the charity model doesn’t work and I have over the past three for years transformed myself into a social entrepreneur and have more of a business hat as well.

“If you do all this wonderful work and when the funding stops it dies, is it worth it? Can we do it a better way?”

Earlier that day Lorna Campbell had noted the demise of a previous national repository of education materials that had been managed by JISC. The risk felt real.

The moment of realisation

However, the moment that really crystallised for me where I sit on the purist-pragmatist spectrum came in a session on refugee education.

It’s a subject I’m passionate about after volunteering stints on Lesvos and in Calais, and visiting a makeshift school for refugees on the Macedonian border. I’d been struck by the lack of easily obtainable OERs for refugee teachers, so in 2016 set up a basic Refugee Education Hub on Tes with developer colleagues who built it as a hackday project.

But it’s very basic, and I’d like to find ways to make it better at presenting the material that is most relevant to refugees in different countries and contexts. I believe the answer is likely to involve improved tagging and mapping — I’ve so far only found a few companies that have done any detailed subject or concept mapping between countries’ curriculums but the data’s not in the public domain and I’ve been unable to find a practical, open international standard.

So one of the biggest attractions for me at OER18 was for a session on “extending OER metadata to facilitate refugee access to open educational resources and practices” led by Wolverhampton University’s John Traxler.

The session made a thought-provoking case that further metadata could be added to OERs for refugees to reflect different cultural attitudes towards learning, with one example being how countries appear to differ in their levels of individualism vs collectivism and their general willingness to avoid or embrace uncertainty.

But to me it felt like this was quite a nuanced stage to be discussing, when there were far more basic, missing bits of agreed taxonomy to be addressed first (like subject).

That wasn’t the speaker’s fault, though — he’s done lots of terrific research into refugee education and distance learning, and the session genuinely did broaden my perspective. It was my mistake for arriving expecting directly-actionable answers instead of material for reflection.

It helped me see how purists and pragmatists can both play their part. Our refugee education hub, for instance, may be flawed in many ways, and sitting on a commercial site with ads for our products and others — but it is live and it is being used

I aspire one day to become an Open Education purist. For now — especially given my day job - I’m going to be able to help much more as a pragmatist. However, I’m looking forward to far more conversations with both purists and pragmatists. As Wiley suggests, it is the combination of both that can be really productive.



Michael Shaw

Education technologist (and recovered journalist). Follow on @mrmichaelshaw