Inclusive Design of Open Education Resources (OERs)

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the implications of Open Education Resources (OERs). If you’re  not yet familiar with OERs, the best definition that I’ve uncovered is from a bill by the California Senate Committee on Education, authorizing a pilot program to provide a coordinated statewide network of OERs. As you may be aware, Gov Schwarzenegger tasked the state with the California Open Source Textbook Project with the intent of alleviating some education costs. In the bill, OERs are defined “as learning materials or resources that are available for free use or repurposing by others without the permission of the original authors or creators of the learning materials or resources.” The “repurposing” term is particularly intriguing because it means that OER can be adapted and customized for students’ own needs and preferences. And that means all of our students, not just those who have qualifying print disabilities (and thereby eligible for copyright exemption).

The formats of OER materials go beyond the traditional textbook to include items such as courses, course materials, streaming video of classroom lectures, tests, and software. Browsing and searching OER Commons is a good way to become familiar with the types of materials.

Like California, states around the country are looking at OERs as both cost-sensible and educationally innovative. This includes Maine, which, unlike California, has lots of teachers and students with immediate and continuous access to laptop computers through the MLTI and Open 1-to-1. That is, in order for OERs to be usable and effective instructional materials, teachers and students need timely and ample access to computers. The New York Times published a relevant article last month, titled In a Digital Future, Textbooks are History.

Another way to consider OERs is through Creative Commons (CC), which provides free licenses to creators who want to share their work under a range of “some rights reserved” copyright options. This means that many materials under CC can be remixed, reused, revised, and redistributed. All kinds of works can be given CC licenses, such as videos, photos, articles, comic books, and podcasts.

OER and Creative Commons are exciting and meaningful educational initiatives in the digital age. They support the participatory culture in which all of us, including our students, are content creators, shapers, editors, and owners. But do they lead us to a UDL paradise?

Last month, at the Open Education Conference in Vancouver, Jutta Treviranus of the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto delivered a presentation titled, One Size Does Not Fit All: Supporting Diversity through Inclusive Design. I’ve attended Jutta’s presentations at conferences and, even though her expertise is highly technical, she speaks eloquently to the concepts of accessibility in teaching and learning. I didn’t attend the Open Education Conference, but her presentation was recorded. It’s the best explanation of the accessibility of OERs that I’ve uncovered to date, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to summarize what she said.

She opened with comments meant to convince the audience on why inclusive design of OERs makes sense educationally, economically, technically, and pedagogically:

  • “Accessibility” is relative. There is no such thing as a fully accessible open education resource, environment, or system. We cannot and should not make every OER accessible. There’s no need to re-create or re-tool what has been developed.
  • A disability is experienced when there is a mismatch between the OER (resource, environment, or system) and what the student needs. In this context, the disability is not a personal trait. In any given situation, any of us can experience disability. Consider an audio lecture; if you are blind, you could experience the least disability in the class.
  • What is needed is flexibility in the resource, environment, or system because accessibility is the ability of the learning environment to adjust to the needs of the learners.
  • Accessibility in design is a good business decision. It’s not charity and it’s not about accommodating a group. Inclusive designs have been shown to save time and money. Accessibility makes reusing, revising, remixing, and redistributing content more efficient because it embeds flexibility. And OERs created upon an inclusive design can be updated more easily because they’re structured for navigation and searching.
  • Inclusive design models good pedagogy by trying to meet the needs of diverse learners. It focuses the creator on the question, “What is it I’m trying to achieve?” as opposed to attention to presentation, which can distract from pedagogy.

She then addressed the question, “How do we do it? How do we implement inclusive design in open education resources, environments, and systems?”

  • An international standard has been created for inclusive design of OER, known as Access for All or ISO 24751 Parts 1-5 (link to PDF document of ISO Update:
  • The Access for All standard consists of 2 parts designed to support the matching of an OER to the needs of an individual student: (1) The first way to match student needs with an OER is by a common language for learners to express personal needs and preferences through a private learning profile. This is a way that students can functionally define the characteristics of the OER they need/want. For example, a student can define how she wants the content displayed (e.g., color contrast), how she wants to control the resource (e.g., keyboard rather than mouse), the language (e.g., Spanish), or the types of scaffolds needed (e.g., built-in dictionary). These features are for all learners, not just students who qualify for accommodations or modifications. To expand on this, Jutta explained that students declare what they need and want, not what their disability may be. (2) The second way to match student needs with an OER is by a common language for labeling tools and learner resources. For example, the original creator can label the resource with tags such as “Spanish” or “video.” But because it’s OER, someone else in the community can add to the labels (e.g. “a good resource for English language learners”). Someone else can even caption the original video and add the label, “captioned video.” And yet someone else can translate that Spanish resource to French.
  • Given the above 2 parts of the Access for All standard (ability of the learner to define what they want/need and the ability of the creator/community to label resources),  there’s no need to create an OER that fits all. The system supported by the Access for All standard is truly open because it allows for “crowd sourcing” and peer support. The onus for making sure that the resource meets diverse needs doesn’t sit solely with the original creator.
  • She concluded by referencing a set of Web services, known as TransformAble, that provides tools for accomplishing inclusive design in OER. She also brought the audience’s attention to The Inclusive Learning Exchange (TILE), ATutor, and the Fluid Project.

If you’re still reading this, then you may have the same question as I have, which is, “What does all of this mean for teachers and students who want, need, and should take advantage of high quality, effective, and meaningful OERs?” As consumers of OERs, what influence can we have on their design? As creators of OERs, how can we adopt a model for accomplishing inclusive design?


1 comment so far

  1. Inclusive OER Design « on

    […] 21, 2009 · Leave a Comment Cynthia Curry has a new post discussing accessibility and open educational resources. Curry asks how designers can shape OER to […]

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