#loveHE: A wide-open web of potential

Releasing Open Educational Resources is not only a commendable way to broaden access to scholarship, it can cost-effectively boost your institution’s profile and student numbers, says Russell Stannard

April 24, 2010

Following the announcement of cuts in higher educational funding, universities are desperate to seek new forms of revenue and more effective ways of marketing their courses. Some will probably be looking to the “overseas market” to help fill the gaps in their budget. Yet one answer lies right under their noses in the form of the millions of digital assets that sit archived on virtual learning environments, web servers and hard disks – and they are assets that could play a vital role in the marketing of courses.

It is no secret that releasing Open Educational Resources (OER) via the web can lead to greater student numbers. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation was making the point 10 years ago, and the results from the large OER project at The Open University are well documented, with some 7,000 additional students signing up to their courses as a result.

The problem is that it is not just about releasing content. There is now so much material around and so many repositories offering material that there is intense competition for attention. Just because the content is free, it doesn’t mean that anyone will use it.

At a recent conference in Cambridge, one of the speakers told the story of an expensively funded release of university content in Ireland that was accessed by just 40 students.

However, if you are willing to push your content and get the message out there that it is free, useful and of good quality, then you may just be on to something.

The Interactive MSc at the University of Westminster has around 25 students on it, yet an average of 2,500 unique users from all over the world consume the course’s OER content, which was released under the Joint Information Systems Committee/Higher Education Academy OER pilot project called UKOER.

It is well-branded, well-targeted content and each month those 2,500 unique users are just a click away from being directed to the MSc course that the content is linked to.

Numbers have been rising over the past three years, with an almost 60 per cent increase in numbers on the course since the project started.

It is not as simple as just releasing OER on to the web or in a repository. The real work begins when you try to promote and disseminate the resources. At the University of Westminster, we decided to put a big effort into using social networking to build contacts with the wider multimedia community.

It is not just about having a Facebook account or a Twitter feed. To make these things work, you have to interact with the people who follow you (your so-called friends or followers). You need to link to other key players releasing interesting content related to your own, respond to questions and requests on a regular basis and regularly update your content with lists of the most popular and newest releases.

If you do this, you will slowly build up a group of “active” followers who will share and spread the word about your site. The impact can be very surprising. You might tweet something to your followers and then find that six or seven of your active followers have re-tweeted your message to their followers, reaching potentially thousands of users.

It is the active members who are key to social networking as they are the ones who can help to promote your resources. Our work on social networking over the past five months has resulted in an additional 1,500 users regularly making use of our OER. The hope is that at least some of them may be interested enough to click through and find out more about the course that the content was produced for.

One great thing about using the web for marketing is that you can track everything you are doing. I can tell you that today, 10 people came to our OER content via our Facebook site, 25 came via Twitter and 12 via YouTube. This is powerful stuff, because you can home in on what really works. We often spend thousands of pounds on ads and have no idea what impact they have had. But when we put our efforts into promoting our work through social networking, we can directly track the impact of our efforts.

Users are much more likely to create links to OER than to other resources. So if you release content related to your course, you are quite likely to get a good Google ranking if the site becomes popular. This helps push up the visibility of your institution. Even if students only make use of your OER and don’t enquire about the courses it is linked to, they are still exposed to your brand.

There are plenty of other spin-offs too. Students applying to your course can be directed to the content as a “taster” of the types of things they might learn on the course. This can be especially pertinent to foreign students who are normally making big spending decisions and need all the information they can find about a course.

There are plenty of barriers to this approach. Questions of intellectual property and quality, and potential problems with students not understanding why some of their lesson content is on the web for free, are just a few that come to mind. These are genuine concerns and in some cases the problems may be insurmountable. The OER approach is not for everyone or for every course, but it’s an option well worth considering.

There are plenty of other reasons to release content. It broadens access to learning and it stops replication of work, especially if content can be repurposed, and it allows staff members to showcase their work to the public.

But in these difficult times, it is the argument that OER can be sustainable and even make a contribution to a university’s bottom line that is perhaps the most pertinent one.

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