Last week we carried out a user testing of our fledgling methods site and a small focus group at Manchester University. We had five volunteers from a range of backgrounds including a learning technologist, PHD sociology student, and lecturers from anthropology and statistics. These perspectives, together with the experience of Graham Gibbs and Ian Fairweather who are part of the project, provided tremendously helpful feedback which will be used to improve the website design and content.
The user testing underlined the value of doing these sessions frequently and reminded us how easy it is to take for granted particular aspects of websites. Our project has identified discoverability and trust as barriers to the more widespread take-up of OER materials in the social sciences. One of the primary objectives in designing the website has been to promote OERs through using reviews written by academics of open teaching materials. However this part of the website did not get noticed as much as we had hoped. Once explained, the participants were very enthusiastic about the idea of reviews and felt it would help their teaching. The feedback has been very helpful in making us rethink the presentation and organisation of the site and the changes should be seen in the next few weeks.
As part of our day at Manchester we also had a mini focus group to pursue some issues that have emerged in the project associated with academics’ use and attitudes to digital resources. The group was articulate in expressing confidence in the use of Google which is seen as increasingly relevant for academic uses. There was a general enthusiasm for using digital resources, particularly videos, both in lectures and on VLEs. Technical improvements in Blackboard were identified as important in facilitating the greater use of digital resources for teaching.
The increasing use of videos and other digital resources available online has also affected the attitude of our focus group to making materials open themselves. All agreed that they would be happy to see their materials freely available online given they were of sufficient quality. The potential barriers they identified related to institutional restrictions rather than personal concerns over intellectual property. This suggests that the use of freely available digital resources (whether covered by CC licenses or not) provides a model of sharing that encourages users of such materials to contribute their own content.
Given that using digital resources may help academics accept the notion of openness, it is in the interests of universities to address the one issue that restricts the greater use of such materials identified by academics repeatedly throughout our project: basic technology problems. There is a reluctance to rely on digital resources within lectures because of a concern that the technical infrastructure will fail. This mundane consideration makes academics nervous about using materials that could help extend OER use as well as improving the pedagogical experience of students. Maybe a reliable internet connection should be considered as valuable as other more direct strategies to promote the use of OERs.