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. =)

8 thoughts on “Dark Matter, Dark Reuse, and the Irrational Zeal of a Believer

  1. David,

    just to specify if that wasn’t clear from my post, I totally agree that extremely little reuse happens – in fact, I think according to my definition, it would be even lower than what Sean’s numbers show (I question whether inclusion in a collection should always count as usage). I think this is a huge problem, and it’s something I’ve thought a lot about, and would love to work to change.

    My questioning of the methodology etc was thus not questioning this basic fact.


  2. Don’t lose faith! You are working in a world that values product in the terms of dollars. I think open content should be labeled “Save 99.9%” or “going out of business sale”. Also you guys work in a society that mostly values education as a paper good…. “Content? Content! We don’t need depth of education! Just lemme spend some $$$$ and give me my stinking diploma! I’m a graduate, give me a job!” Times will change, when people will really thirst for education, but will be entirely unaffordable… Like bottled water from Tahiti.

  3. [Since I placed this comment on your earlier post about this subject, and it has not been moderated, I am posting it again here. I don’t want it to slip into dark matter :). No need to moderate the earlier posting. Thanks, Judy]

    Hi David, and thanks to you and Dr. Duncan for making plain the OER nonuse reality. I have written about two things that can cause reuse of the best of OER online nodes: search engine optimization (SEO) and unbundling (as Nick Carr describes for print media in his The Big Switch chapter “The Great Unbundling.”).

    Can I suggest that your graduate students look at the SEO and unbundling factors. Below are links to three articles in which I describe what seem to me to be the crucial role of findability that educators need to master.

    All the best, Judy

    Published in Educational Technology magazine, March-April 2009, “The Curious Case of the Polio Virus Learn Node”
    (My polio virus link described in this article has already been visited 15 times today, and has been visited 3,566 for all time. Of those visits, there were click throughs to John’s Hopkins’ OER page 2 times today and 93 times for all time.)
    This is my very popular Polio Virus Learn Node:

    Published in SES Magazine, March 2009
    “OER: The Sleeping SEO Giant”

    “Findability,” written April 2008

  4. I’m not sure if you’re suggesting that the “dark matter” reuse that happens outside projects like connexions, extends to wider (non educational) resources?

    So when Michael Wesch posts a video on Youtube and I embed it in a course blog and link to it from a course wiki and copy it to CD, is that dark reuse? And when the thousands of others evidently do it too, is that dark reuse? Or when I assign your blog post as a reading, or copy it into a text, is that dark reuse?

    Certainly, I have never reused, or even searched Connexions for content to reuse, and that’s where I whole heartedly agree with your point about OER. Also, I have not reused anything of any significance from Wikieducator either. Maybe a line of code here, or an image there, but nothing compared to the reuse I have made of a massive quantity of Flickr CC images and Youtube videos, and Wikipedia articles, or widgets I’ve embedded.

    Sorry if I’m repeating an accepted point, but I’m not sure if you accept that reuse happens everywhere BUT “educational” resources.

  5. Just rereading, I see that it is accepted sorry:

    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?

    The real work in open education then, is to work out ways ofr people to access educational process and accessment. Such as your open courses, that have been adopted by Downes and Seimens, myself and Leinonen..

  6. Kia ora e David!

    I like your ‘dark matter’ metaphor.

    You mentioned the BBC and CNN. It is well known in broadcasting that any attempt to run a survey on the worth or usefulness of a broadcast item gathers as much useful information as we have available right now on the quest for dark matter.

    I guess you’ve already worked that one out – hence the metaphor.

    Catchya later

  7. I find two things very interesting.

    First is that people expect this content to be used at all right now. To be honest Wikipedia and http://www.reference.com/ covers a lot of information in an easily accessible and explorable format. That and at least Wikipedia is well known. I don’t think the use and reuse will seriously happen while we deal with OER objects as objects. There are other places to find the info, so why should they use your OER?

    Second is that it’s a known fact that communities are mostly made up of users, not producers. Reusers would be a kind of producer. So, since I have hardly heard of their collections, I’m rather impressed at the amount of use they have.

    It seems like the real problem is that we are removing a few limitations, but not adding a lot of functionality or really showing the public what can be easily done with the materials (that could have compatibility issues). Personally, I’d like to see some alternate functionality and interoperability between the OER silos.

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