What Role Does Theory Play in OER Success?

Last month, OER research got some serious air time. I attended a convening of researchers, school district leaders, state departments of education, and funders at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. to shine a light on where OER research has been and where it’s headed. Spurred in part by the Department of Education’s #GoOpen Initiative and state and national policies encouraging OER, as well as the groundswell from educators and technical providers, the convening allowed for the cross-pollination of ideas toward a collaborative research agenda for OER.

New to this OER convening were discussions on the role that theory plays in answering research questions about the use and impact of OER. One thing that has struck me over the course of my ten years as a researcher in the OER space is its lack of a theoretical foundation for much of the emerging empirical work. This is important because theory helps us to both explain the answer to the research questions being asked, and to pose better questions to begin with. Furthermore, theories that gain traction in a discipline help to shape the direction of the research, and therefore the knowledge and practice of the stakeholders that the research addresses.

What would it look like, for example, if we turned to theories prominent in the organizational learning literature--such as structuration theory(1) or discursive theory(2)--to think about teachers’ professional practices surrounding OER? As these theories suggest, if we start with the notion that innovations in teaching practice are simultaneously emergent and tied up in the objects and resources that they interact with, we might begin to ask things like: In what ways does the use of OER shape teachers’ practice, and at at the same time, how are teachers’ practices and their interactions with peers shaping those very resources? We may also begin to ask more in-depth questions around whether and how successful OER practices can be scaled and transferred, given the simultaneously contextual and emergent nature of innovation that these theories assume.

If we take this to the level of practice, by working from existing theory to build out more nuanced explanations of the phenomena we encounter in our research, we’re better able to provide school practitioners with concepts that they can likely relate to, and that they can in turn use in supporting educators in OER. In ISKME’s research, and in our work with educators on OER implementation, we’ve drawn on structuration and related perspectives to look closely at the role that teacher collaboration and communication plays in shaping teaching practice. When educators are provided with openly licensed, standards-aligned lesson exemplars, we’ve seen them draw simultaneously on their own local resources, on the OER exemplars themselves, and on their conversations with peers to shape their practices. Especially when educators are provided with collaborative spaces and time to work across disciplines to examine and reflect on lessons, we’ve seen them come together and develop and successfully implement inquiry-based lessons that scaffold student learning across subjects. 

Through our research we’ve also heard back from teachers that these peer-to-peer professional learning processes increased their understanding of critical instructional shifts being emphasized in their districts, and created new pathways for future collaboration with their colleagues. Within this conceptual framework for OER use, the implication for administrators is to focus on the processes surrounding OER use, and on providing educators with spaces and the infrastructure to interact with peers around OER and to reflect on its use and impact in the classroom.

All told, theory gives us new questions, deeper questions, and new perspectives through which to examine OER and its use in schools. In the end, it will help us link what we’ve learned in the past decades of education and learning research, to the new possibilities that OER provides, and ultimately toward better supports for educators in their efforts to meet student learning needs.

Cynthia Jimes, Ph.D., is the Director of Research and Learning at the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education

Photo credit: opensource.com: CC BY-SA



(1) Giddens, A. (1984) The Constitution of Society, Berkeley: University of California Press.

(2) Cooren, F. & Taylor, J.R. (1997) “Organization as an effect of mediation: Redefining the link between organization and communication,” Communication Theory, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 219-260.


July 06, 2016