Dark Matter, Dark Reuse, and the Irrational Zeal of a Believer

I recently reported the results of Sean Duncan’s dissertation, which calls into question the actual rates of reuse of open educational resources. A number of people have expressed concern or disbelief with his results. As a highlight, if you missed the earlier post, the study looked at rates of use, reuse, and adaptation within the Connexions collection, and found that of 5,221 modules published on the site only 3,519 of these were ever reused in a collection or adapted in any manner elsewhere on the site, and that only 15 modules were used, reused, or adapted more than five times.

Perhaps the most frequent criticism I hear is that “reuse and adaptation are happening other places (outside the Connexions repository), you just can’t see them.” This line of thinking turns my mind to the construct we call “dark matter.” Dark matter, which we cannot observe directly, is an astronomical construct created to explain behavior that cannot be explained by appealing to the objects in the sky we can see directly (using the verb “see” in it’s broadest sense).

It seems to me that open educational resource apologists have created a related construct that might best be called “dark reuse.” The difference between dark matter and dark reuse is significant, however. While the dark matter construct was created to explain unanticipated-but-observed behavior, the dark reuse construct is created to explain anticipated-but-unobserved behavior. Rather than accepting the message of data which indicate that reuse is occurring only very infrequently, the apologists imagine an unobservable space offline in which reuse must surely be occurring. With the irrational zeal of the too often caricatured believer, members of the Church of Reuse seem rather resilient in the face of data. (I mean no disrespect to people of faith, writing myself as a Christian with a firm faith in Jesus Christ and a steadfast hope in a better life to come.) The OOP literature has been telling us for decades that very little reuse happens in the world of object-oriented programming. If the intellectual heritage of open education runs – at least partly – through OOP to learning objects and on to open educational resources, should we really be surprised to find similar results in our sphere? I don’t think so.

The dearth of empirically verifiable reuse of OERs begs the question – where is the “work we are doing in developing “field” of open educational resources really going? What is our real goal? If our goal is catalyzing and facilitating significant amounts of reuse and adaptation of materials, we seem to be failing. And history indicates we may experience additional failure in the future.

If our goal is to create fantastically popular websites loaded with free content visited by millions of people each month, who find great value in the content but never adapt or remix it, then we’re doing fairly well. But so are CNN, the New York Times, the BBC, and other sites chock-full of freely available copyrighted content. We all understand that clearing copyright is the most expensive part of what we do…

So… what are we doing?

This post isn’t meant as a crisis of faith, just an honest question. I’m not planning to leave the world of open education anytime soon. =)