Open Book Publishers logo Open Access logo
  • button
  • button
  • button
GO TO...
book cover

3. Technology Strategies for Open Educational Resource Dissemination

Phil Barker and Lorna M. Campbell

© Phil Barker and Lorna M. Campbell, CC BY 4.0

This chapter addresses issues around the discovery and use of Open Educational Resources (OER) by presenting a state of the art overview of technology strategies for the description and dissemination of content as OER. These technology strategies include institutional repositories and websites, subject specific repositories, sites for sharing specific types of content (such as video, images, ebooks) and general global repositories. There are also services that aggregate content from a range of collections, these may specialize by subject, region or resource type. A number of examples of these services are analyzed in terms of their scope, how they present resources, the technologies they use and how they promote and support a community of users. The variety of strategies for resource description taken by these platforms is also discussed. These range from formal machine-readable metadata to human readable text. It is argued that resource description should not be seen as a purely technical activity. Library and information professionals have much to contribute, however academics could also make a valuable contribution to open educational resource (OER) description if the established good practice of identifying the provenance and aims of scholarly works is applied to learning resources. The current rate of change among repositories is quite startling with several repositories and applications having either shut down or having changed radically in the year or so that the work on which this contribution is based took. With this in mind, the chapter concludes with a few words on sustainability.


In the fourteen years since MIT’s OpenCourseWare launched, the scale of the open educational resources (OER) movement has exploded in terms of projects, money invested and resources released. There have been many benefits, including a gradual shift to greater openness in educational practice and increasing awareness of licensing issues in education but, in spite of this investment, resource discovery is still cited as being a significant barrier to finding, using and repurposing open educational resources (Wiley, Bliss and McEwen, 2014; Dichev and Dicheva, 2012). This chapter will address the issue of resource discovery by presenting an overview of technology strategies for OER dissemination of relevance to individuals, groups and institutions that are releasing educational content under open licenses. The technology strategies we focus on include repositories, content management systems, aggregators and metadata. While these technologies also play an important role in managing the development, curation and licensing of OERs, dissemination and resource discovery are of paramount importance as people cannot use and repurpose resources unless they can find them, and without reuse OER cannot reach its full potential.

The technologies that can be used to disseminate OERs include institutional repositories and websites, subject specific repositories, sites for sharing specific types of content (such as video, images, ebooks) and general global repositories. There are also services that aggregate content and descriptions of content from other collections; these may specialize by subject, region or resource type. We will present a number of examples of these services and then analyze how they present resources, how they promote and support communities of users, and the strategies they have adopted for resource description. Though the specific services cited may be discontinued or morph into something new, there is much to be learned from their characteristics.

The following sections describe a variety of approaches employed by educational practitioners and institutions to developing and using repositories and aggregators for managing and disseminating OERs, classified under headings which reflect their scope: institutional, subject specific, content type specific and general or global. This selection of repositories and aggregators is not intended to be systematic or comprehensive, however it serves to illustrate the range of technical approaches employed to disseminate open educational resources.1 The second half of the chapter presents a synthetic analysis of strategies drawn from these examples, looking at what lessons can be drawn about strategies for presentation, community support or resource description. Sustainability is also discussed briefly.

Repositories and Aggregators

For the purposes of this contribution, the term “repository” is used to mean any service hosting a collection of resources, especially one that is organized thematically and facilitates resource discovery through structured resource descriptions. As well as making resources available, repositories may disseminate resource descriptions in machine-readable formats. The term “aggregator” is used for services that collect resources and resource descriptions automatically from multiple sources in order to facilitate resource discovery.

The role that repository and aggregator services play in education will depend primarily on whether one is focusing on resource creation or use. From the point of view of a creator of learning resources, repositories can be used to disseminate these resources widely. There are many factors that may motivate individuals and institutions to disseminate open educational resources including personal promotion, funded projects, showcasing courses (i.e. marketing) and a philanthropic desire to make resources more widely available for the general good. One would expect that whatever the motivation is, it should lead to a desire to see the resources widely disseminated. Services that aggregate metadata and resources from a number of OER providers can be used to amplify this dissemination. Making information and resources available through a wide range of sites and services that people use regularly improves the discovery process because it does not expect users to come to a dedicated site to find content.

A frequent starting point for teachers and learners who are looking for educational resources is Google. However, repositories and aggregators can provide more specific information about the educational properties and use of resources and also play a useful role as a focal point for communities of users, including academics, students, learning technologists and instructional designers. To this end, it may be useful for an educational institution to curate collections of resources used in its courses regardless of where they were created.

Institutional Repositories and OER Websites

The projects highlighted here represent a range of approaches developed by educational institutions to managing and disseminating OER, and they illustrate a variety of different purposes and priorities. Nearly all have some means of syndicating information about their resources to aggregators, but the emphasis placed on syndication varies.

MIT OpenCourseWare

MIT OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW) comprises a wide range of resources derived directly from MIT courses, e.g. syllabuses, recordings, notes and slides from lectures, reading lists, assessment questions and assignments (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, [n.d.]). These are presented as used at MIT with no modification to make them more generally applicable or aesthetically pleasing. Some resources are hosted on external platforms, e.g. video on YouTube, and content is also made available via iTunes U. Metadata is exported from OpenCourseWare to aggregators such as OER Commons and iTunes U and a variety of RSS feeds are available which can be ingested by aggregators such as Solvonauts.

MIT OCW has a well-established initiative with good engagement with the OER community. It provides an attractive view of the institution’s resources, based on a mix of its own technology and external services. MIT OCW is a “top-down” initiative (as is the next initiative, U-Now, and OpenLearn, below) that focusses on a single type of OER, i.e. Open CourseWare.

University of Nottingham, U-Now

The U-Now repository (The University of Nottingham, [n.d.]) contains resources, or links to resources, used in University of Nottingham courses. Most are released under Creative Commons licenses, however some have no formal license associated with them. The amount of material available from each course varies greatly from the basic syllabus through to video and text representing the bulk of a course. There are also links to third party resources related to the course. Tools to support the creation of resources (Xerte Community, [n.d.]), their discovery (Xpert, [n.d.]) and attribution (Xpert Image Attribution, [n.d.]) have also been developed. Data is syndicated via RSS feeds to aggregators such as iTunes U (a proprietary service with some extensions to the RSS specification) for further dissemination.

The significant aspect of U-Now is its role in supporting the institution’s longstanding commitment to open education in the context of other institutional strategic objectives such as internationalization by facilitating the provision of the same resources across multiple campuses.

University of Oxford, OpenSpires, etc.

The University of Oxford has a number of open education initiatives, including podcasts and projects focusing on specific topics (for example Great Writers Inspire, [n.d.], and World War I Centenary, [n.d.]). There are also more general open content initiatives that are relevant to education, such as digital archives of library and museum content (see OpenSpires, [n.d.]). Notable among the technology approaches adopted by the various Oxford initiatives is the use of podcasts, i.e. the syndication of recordings and metadata by RSS feeds. Several services aggregate these podcasts, including Apple’s iTunes U, giving them wider circulation than would otherwise be the case.

To some extent, Oxford illustrates the challenges of managing the disparate views on open education that will arise from initiatives across a large institution, however it also shows the wealth of innovation and resources that can be surfaced in this way.

Open University, OpenLearn

OpenLearn [n.d.] brings together several aspects of the UK Open University’s “external” activities, i.e. those that are not restricted to people enrolled on OU courses. This includes material linked to BBC TV series as well as course materials that have been released as OER.

The Open University has engaged with OER since 2006, but clearly has a much wider commitment to open education. Their OpenLearn website uses OER to draw people in from casual interest to enrolled student. The content differs from the OER released by most other institutions in that it constitutes a fairly comprehensive treatment of a topic rather than a selection of resources used on a course. OpenLearn content is arguably more akin to an ebook than a collection of course materials. This clearly reflects the nature of the OU’s distance learning resources compared to materials used by other institutions for face to face learning. The OU also provide tools for the creation and remixing of content through their OpenLearn Works platform.


MOOCs are not repositories in any conventional sense of the word, and are rarely open in the OER sense, however it is useful to consider them here as examples of widely disseminated collections of learning resources. What many MOOC platforms lack, however, is the means to provide access to or disseminate information about their resources outside the context of the platform. Normally, the content in a MOOC is only accessible for the duration of the course; if the content remains available after the course has ended, it tends to be available to registered users only. However this is not always the case, for example content from the University of London International Programmes’ MOOC on English Common Law [n.d.] is both openly licensed and available to all. Some institutions may also make their MOOC resources available through other platforms including course blogs and services such as YouTube.

Subject Specific Repositories and Aggregators

Subject specific repositories and aggregators are generally designed to engage with and support subject discipline communities across multiple institutions. They may host particular domain specific resource types and use specialized resource descriptions and vocabularies.


HumBox [n.d.] contains open educational resources for humanities education, drawn from about a dozen UK HEIs. Resource formats include slide decks, text documents, images, audio and video recordings, mostly single file resources which are not arranged as courses. The repository hosts about 2000 resources, and though the project ended in 2010, new resources continue to be added. HumBox is built on the EdShare [n.d.] platform from the University of Southampton, which is based on the open source ePrints repository with extensions for education-related functions.

HumBox is a good example of a formal repository with extensions to serve a subject domain community of educators. From a wider open education perspective, this approach could also be used to encourage engagement from learners with shared interests.


CORE-Materials [n.d.] is essentially a catalogue of Materials Science and Engineering OERs that are hosted elsewhere on the web. The materials come from a variety of sources mostly associated with UK HE, but including some industry, third sector and overseas organizations and are hosted on a variety of platforms including Flickr, YouTube and creators’ own websites. The resources include images, interactive resources, texts, videos/animations, equations and data sets.

The project that developed this collection has now ended, but when it was collecting material, a resource submitted to the project would be catalogued and the description held in a local database; where appropriate a local copy was made (e.g. for images, but not for websites). This information was then used to syndicate the resource via API to suitable third party hosts, including Flickr, SlideShare, YouTube, Vimeo, Scribd and others. The central database enables local resource discovery and syndication of information about the resources to other discovery services, while hosting the resources on third party sites exploits the ability of these platforms to get resources “out there”.


Kritikos [n.d.] was originally developed to aid the discovery of visual resources for engineering education, but now has a more general scope; it is not limited to openly licensed resources and does not attempt to identify the licensing terms of the resources described. It attempts to enable learners to support their own learning by allowing communities of learners to contribute to the resource base and by having a strong focus on user (student and teacher) comment, rating and recommendation.

Kritikos is based on two technologies: the Google Custom Search Engine API, which is used to perform filtered searches of the whole web or searches of selected sites (e.g. those that host videos), and the Learning Registry [n.d.], which aggregates data about online learning resources, in this case ratings, reviews and recommendations submitted by users of the resources. The Learning Registry API allows these recommendations to be presented in other systems, e.g. recommended third party resources can be displayed for specific courses.

Content Type Specific Repositories

Some of the most successful “repositories” of learning materials are the popular online resource hosting platforms such as YouTube, Flickr, etc. By definition, these platforms focus on a single more-or-less well defined media type, as listed in Table 1. They tend to make resources available for all to view (some allow for more restricted sharing as a premium feature), rather than making them available under open license, though some will allow Creative Commons licenses to be associated with resources and provide functionality around this.

Table 1: examples of popular online resource hosting platforms listed by media type. Countless others exist.






Allows CC licenses. Used by some large heritage organizations. Of especial note is The Commons


Wikimedia Commons

“A database of ca. 30 million freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute” ~98% of the media files are images. Allows CC and other open licenses.



Allows CC BY license, but this is not displayed prominently, no ability to download other people’s resource which limits value of this license. YouTube Edu for educational resources.


Allows range of CC licenses.

Wikimedia Commons

See above

iTunes U

Not open, but a useful dissemination channel for audio and video podcasts and ebooks.



Allows CC licenses, mostly music.

Wikimedia Commons

See above

iTunes U

See above

Text, articles, books etc.

Google Docs

Strong on editing/content creation, various options for dissemination.


See under presentations, also allows upload of pdf and Word docs.


Openly licensed resources from the Rice Connexions project, specializing in textbooks.

iTunes U

For eBooks, see above.


See below under source code, also useful for documentation.



Allows CC licenses.

Google Slides

Strong on editing/content creation, various options for dissemination.

Source code


Allows a range of open licenses.

While these platforms are not repositories in the conventional sense, they fulfil the role of hosting materials while allowing structured information about those materials to be disseminated via their APIs. Most of these platforms will be familiar to readers so we will not describe them individually; instead we will analyze them as a class and list some significant examples.

As a result of their popularity and ubiquity, these sites set user expectations for the dissemination and delivery of resources on the web; expectations that are difficult to meet for educational repositories that do not have access to commercial revenue streams or the luxury of being able to focus exclusively on a single resource type. These sites are popular, ubiquitous and effective and generate significant revenue streams. Institutions cannot be expected to replicate the level of functionality they offer, therefore many are increasingly using these platforms alongside institutional repositories to disseminate resources. Clearly there are risks associated with using these platforms as they may change their policies or technical approach or, in rare cases, disappear altogether, with little notice. However, it should also be noted that these commercial platforms are arguably more sustainable than education sector services and institutional repositories.

General and Global Repositories and Aggregators

As open education has global reach and is not limited by subject or resource type, there is a strong argument for using services that have the widest possible scope. However, in doing so there is a risk of losing some of the advantages of specialization, for example the ability to focus on the needs of a particular community or to develop technology solutions appropriate to a single resource type. Below we consider examples of effective general and global repositories and aggregators.


MERLOT [n.d.] includes links to tens of thousands of resources with associated comments. All subjects and levels of education are covered but it should be noted that not all resources are openly licensed. Resources are classified by type, including simulations, assignments, online courses, open textbooks and other repositories. The scope is global, however there is a preponderance of material from the US and some of the resource descriptions are couched in US terminology and reference US educational frameworks. All of these items have been contributed by the MERLOT member community, who have either authored the materials or who have found them sufficiently useful to share with others. All the materials in MERLOT are reviewed to ensure they are suitable for retention in the collection and many undergo more extensive “peer review”.

Solvonauts [n.d.] aggregates metadata about openly licensed resources to provide an OER search service. It includes over 110,000 resource descriptions from over 1,400 sites. The service aggregates metadata syndicated by RSS, ATOM and and provides specialist search services for pictures, videos and audio. Solvonauts is an open source software project and the code can be downloaded and installed locally.

OER Commons

OER Commons (OER Commons, [n.d.]) includes links to resources in all subjects and levels and many resource types; in total over 100,000 resources are listed. Not all resources are open, some have limited re-use rights. The geographic scope is global, however there is a preponderance of material from the US and, as with MERLOT, some of the resource descriptions reference US terms with an emphasis on alignment to US school curricula. OER Commons also includes content creation tools and community facilities for teachers.

Strategies for Presentation

Having outlined a range of repository and aggregation services, we now discuss the strategies they adopt for presenting and describing resources, and the support they provide to communities of users. Institutional OER repositories frequently aim to present materials in such a way as to showcase the institution’s course materials or to align with the institution’s strategic aims with respect to open education. MIT OCW, for example, provides a highly visual interface to resources organized with reference to MIT’s course structures and topics, with secondary organization by resource type. Landing pages are “course home pages” with the denser content (e.g. lecture notes) available one click deeper. The Open University goes further and presents a journey from casual exploration of the OU’s material, through to greater engagement with course material to becoming an enrolled OU student, with little reference to OER as a concept. Nottingham’s U-Now repository adopts an alternative approach, being more of a back-end system to manage content that is used and exposed through the University’s other services. Consequently, the interface is rather plain with an emphasis on browse and search functionality, presented in a text-oriented interface, and with the browse function emphasizing the courses on which resources are used.

Continued access to openly licensed MOOCs offers some benefits in terms of the presentation of learning resources in comparison to depositing individual resources in repositories. Most importantly, the educational context of the resource is preserved, making it more useful for both teachers and learners. This contextualization is particularly useful for non-textual resources as they are presented in the context of a course which includes information about educational subject and level.

In contrast to institutional repositories, aggregators take their descriptions from a diverse range of sources, each potentially using a different categorization scheme, which impedes the creation of a coherent browsing interface. They therefore tend to use free text search rather than browse by category. As an example, Solvonauts’ presentation is entirely based on search, the results pages simply provide a list of resource descriptions under a link to the resource. OER Commons’ search and browse facilities are similarly clear and uncluttered, with results pages showing basic metadata and enabling filtering of results and onward browsing to similar resources. It is notable that both of these aggregators emphasize license information in the presentation of resources, which is an understandable consequence of them drawing on a range of sources with a variety of licensing regimes. Subject-specific repositories that require manual deposit of resources from a specific community of users are able to request that depositors provide metadata to categorize the resource against a relevant scheme, enabling them to provide more sophisticated browse functionality (see, for example, Core Materials). However, the extra effort required to provide this additional information may inhibit users from depositing resources. An alternative approach is to divide the content into collections, for example, Humbox’s Oral History collection (Humbox, [n.d.]), and link the collections to individual sources or communities of users.

The presentational strategies of popular online content sharing platforms typically have a strong focus on viewing and previewing resources. One strength of these platforms is that the homogeneity of resource type means that preview and display can be handled consistently. Most also promote social sharing, with user profiles and groups, which enables collections of resources to be displayed either from a single user or from groups of contributors.

Strategies for Community Support

Some repositories and aggregators aim to serve preexisting communities (e.g. an institution or subject community), while others create communities from their users. Whether the community builds the service or vice versa, the importance of communities in ensuring that the repository or aggregator can engage with and meet user needs has long been recognized (Margaryan and Littlejohn, 2007). While they are not mutually exclusive, it is useful to consider engagement with the following range of communities: the host institution, resource depositors and users (educators and learners).

One way to achieve sustainable backing is to address institutional strategic objectives. Some institutional repositories have a clearly articulated internal role in supporting the efficient reuse of learning materials while others may have an external focus. For example, within the University of Nottingham, Open Nottingham is integrated with institutional learning technology support and the delivery of courses at international campuses. By contrast, many of the University of Oxford projects, e.g. Politics in Spires (OpenSpires, [n.d.]), explicitly focus on outreach and several have active blogs aimed at engaging the public at large.

Another way to sustain a service is to build a wide-reaching community and user base. For repository and aggregator services that draw their content from a wide pool of contributors, features for community building often replicate those that are familiar from social sharing sites. For example, registered users of HumBox have profile pages which show the resources they have added and links to these pages appear in the resource metadata. OER Commons includes the ability to rate and discuss content, and to form groups for sharing and discussion. Users of OER Commons can contribute resources from the web using a bookmark button or combine content using OER Commons’ open author tool. Both OER Commons and Humbox allow users to join groups and the resources they deposit can be associated with these groups.

One effective way to build communities of users is to enable them to work together to create or improve resources, an approach that is exemplified by GitHub. An interesting, but seemingly underused feature in Humbox is that registered users may clone resources, i.e. make their own copy in the repository which can be modified. The Open University’s OpenLearnWorks [n.d.] allows users from outside the OU to create courses either by modifying and remixing OpenLearn material or by creating resources from scratch. Although the extent of external contributions seems modest, OpenLearnWorks illustrates OpenLearn’s attempts to go beyond simply disseminating the OU’s own resources.

Community engagement features such as comments, ratings and recommendations are staple functionalities of popular social sharing sites, however these features are not always appropriate for academic resources. For example, while comments on GitHub can exemplify in-depth community engagement, albeit within the specific context of software development, YouTube comment streams are not a great place to discuss the academic content of a video. Kritikos demonstrates an attempt to replicate this type of functionality for educational resources by enabling recommendations to be displayed within Kritikos and shared with other environments used by teachers and learners.

Given the limited success of many OER repository services in building features that promote community engagement, it is worth considering MERLOT separately. MERLOT is significant as it is one of the longest running collections of online learning resources (the project began in 1997) and has developed a considerable community of users. All resources are either created or recommended by users and many have been peer reviewed and commented on by others. MERLOT actively supports its user community by highlighting community facilities on its homepage, organizing conferences, publishing newsletters and presenting awards for individual resources and community members. It also permits institutions to design custom pages/portals for curated content from within the larger collection.

Strategies for Resource Description

Resource description is important for managing the development, curation and dissemination of all learning resources, however it is particularly important for OER as it is one way of ensuring that licensing and copyright information is recorded. Arguably, however, the primary function of resource description is to facilitate resource discovery; people cannot use/reuse resources unless they can find them, and without discoverability OER will not function and succeed in its aims. Consequently, some understanding of resource description for discovery purposes is important for any individual, group or organization wishing to make their resources discoverable.

The description of resources in order to facilitate discovery is obviously a core function of libraries; many well-established standards and procedures exist, and over the last two decades there have been various attempts to extend these strategies to deal with online learning resources, with varying degrees of success. It is important to ask from the outset if there is anything unique about OER description that is different from the description of other types of resources. The answer is yes, in relation to both the resources’ openness and their educational value. Ideally, open resources should be made available on the open web in such a way that their text content can be fully viewed by indexing services. This means that resource discovery will not be reliant on associated abstracts or metadata. For some resource types, which are of particular value to education, e.g. images, audio, video, computer simulations, etc., it is clearly not possible to index text from the resource itself. However, such resources are frequently presented in some form of educational context, e.g. as part of an online course, so full text indexing of the associated pages and resources is often possible. Even where the educational context is lost, for example when resources are hosted on a content sharing site such as YouTube or Vimeo, it is possible to retain some context about the resource creator and the collection from which the resources are drawn. A second important factor is that traditional library approaches generally do not address the description of a resource’s educational value. Library catalogues tend to focus on the inherent properties of a resource (e.g. title, author, publication date), however many aspects of a resource that make it educationally useful (e.g. pedagogic approach, educational context) are not actually inherent properties of the resource itself, rather they are dependent on how the resource is used. Some educational aspects can be identified as properties of the resource itself, for example educational level, typical age of the learner, learning resource type (e.g. is it an assessment, a lesson plan, a tutorial?), but many of these are difficult to define or are inter-related. These factors make the creation of formal metadata difficult. In terms of describing online learning resources, context is key and shared experience within a community is important.

Description, Self-description and Metadata

Resource description can refer to both human readable textual descriptions and formal machine readable metadata. Metadata is defined by the National Information Standards Organization as

[the] structured information that describes, explains, locates, or otherwise makes it easier to retrieve, use, or manage an information resource. Metadata is often called data about data or information about information (NISO, 2004).

The significance of “structured information” in this definition is that it is used “to refer to machine understandable information” (NISO, 2004). So, metadata is information that is formally structured and encoded according to a technical specification. While resource creators may not be well-versed in these technical specifications, some form of semi-structured description should be achievable. It is well accepted academic practice that resources should contain a certain amount of information to describe their content and provenance. As Robertson (2008) highlighted, academic papers follow a pattern of presenting the title, authors’ names, authors’ affiliations, date of submission and an abstract of their subject matter; if they are published in a journal they would also include information about the journal name, issue and date of publication. In many institutions, student coursework or assignments must be submitted with a cover sheet identifying the student and the course or module for which the work is submitted. Outside of academia, and with non-textual resource types, similar conventions are common, for example we would expect a professionally produced video to include titles and credits. Such resources can be considered to be self-describing. It seems a reasonable assumption that academics, students and institutions that wish to be associated with the OERs they create and publish should include certain descriptive information that is agreed by general community convention. In parallel with basic bibliographic information, it seems reasonable that this basic descriptive information should include Title, Author, Date (e.g. of creation or publication), Institution, Abstract, Keywords, Course Code or name. Although few would argue against the value of providing such basic information, in reality the provision of descriptive information as part of online educational resources has always been much more haphazard than for scholarly works or even student assignments.

A number of formal metadata standards have emerged over the last decade which attempt to address the issue of educational resource description by formalizing the encoding of this information. A comprehensive description and analysis of learning resource metadata standards is presented in Barker and Campbell (2010). There are two broad strategies behind learning resource metadata: 1) the “traditional” approach of creating catalog records which separate the metadata from the resource, creating a self-contained stand-alone metadata record that fully describes the resource; 2) augmenting web resources with semantic information to assist the discovery of resources based on their content and the links between them.

The IEEE 1484.12 Standard for Learning Object Metadata (the LOM, IEEE, 2002) is an example of the record based approach. The LOM’s conceptual data schema is a hierarchy of elements, the first level is composed of nine categories, each of which contains sub-elements; these sub-elements may simply contain data, or they may themselves be aggregate elements that contain further sub-elements. Taken as a whole, the set of elements in the LOM defines a stand-alone record based on a data schema which covers all education-specific and generic aspects of a resource.

Sitting somewhere between textual description and metadata is, an initiative launched by the search engines Google, Yahoo!, Bing and Yandex. This initiative arose from the difficulty of identifying the semantic meaning of text found on web pages, e.g. which text is the author’s name and which is their affiliation? seeks to address this problem by embedding information into web pages that identifies the meaning of the text. This is achieved either by adding tags to the HTML markup or by including islands of structured metadata (Barker and Campbell, 2014). With this information it is possible for a search engine to associate text in the page with key properties or characteristics of the resource. The URLs of the hyperlinks identify associated entities (e.g. authors and publishers) and allow further information about them to be obtained. The Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (Learning Resource Metadata Initiative, 2013) has added properties to that allow the markup of educationally significant information. It is broadly compatible with the IEEE LOM and should facilitate the indexing of textual descriptions of learning resources by Google and other big search engines.

Metadata describing the inherent properties of resources tends to be static (e.g. the author of a resource is unlikely to change), whereas educational resource descriptions benefit from being dynamic, with users adding information about how they used a resource and whether that use was effective (see Campbell, 2008, for a description of Jennifer Trant’s concept of “tombstone metadata”). Structured data describing how and in what context a resource has been used and how the user rates or recommends a resource has been termed paradata (Campbell and Barker, 2013). Paradata is generated as learning resources are used, reused, adapted, contextualized, favorited, tweeted, retweeted or shared. This type of information tends not to be captured by more traditional cataloguing methods which aim to describe what a resource is, rather than how it may be used. Paradata can complement metadata by providing an additional layer of contextual information, capturing the user activity related to the resource and helping to elucidate its potential educational utility.

All these approaches to resource description and metadata have been used to describe open educational resources. IEEE LOM has been used to facilitate interoperability between repositories where agreement can be reached on common ing standards, for example the ARIADNE Foundation’s standards-based technology infrastructure (Ariadne, [n.d.]). LRMI/ is a useful way to share information about learning resources with big search engines and paradata, stored in a Learning Registry node, is used to enhance the services provided by Kritikos.

While all these approaches have their value, none are entirely unproblematic and we would suggest that whatever approach is taken to creating metadata to describe OER, this should not be seen as an alternative to the provision of basic information so that resources are self-describing and discoverable by major search engines.

A Final Word on Sustainability

Some of the research on which this chapter is based was originally undertaken for a report written in late 2014 and it is startling that in the space of twelve months, several repositories and applications have either shut down or have changed radically. Sustainability is clearly a key issue facing OER initiatives (Rolfe, 2012). It is inevitable that grant funded programmes and projects will come to an end, so it is incumbent on those who are committed to open education to ensure that the resources created by such initiatives remain available even when programmes end. While project outputs may be deposited in a dedicated repository or platform, there is greater likelihood that they will remain available if they are deposited in multiple locations. For an example of this approach, see the Core Materials project described above. Syndicating resources (not just metadata) via aggregators and global OER repositories is another positive step that projects can take to ensure their resources continue to remain available. Consequently, we suggest that, currently, the best way forward to ensure the continued availability of OERs is to describe them in such a way that makes them discoverable by major search engines, to reduce reliance on a single point of deposit and explore what may be learned from preservation and syndication approaches employed in other domains.


Ariadne [n.d.],

Barker, P. and Campbell, L. M. (2014), What is (Cetis Briefing No. 2014:B01),

Barker, P. and Campbell, L. M. (2010), Metadata for Learning Materials: An Overview of Existing Standards and Current Developments, Technology, Instruction, Cognition and Learning, 7(3–4), pp. 225–243,

Campbell, L. M. (2008), Sharks, Tombstones and Timewarps at Dublin Core,

Campbell, L. M. and Barker, P. (2013), Activity Data and Paradata (Cetis Briefing No. 2013:B01),

CORE-Materials [n.d.],

Dichev, C. and Dicheva, D. (2012), Open Educational Resources in Computer Science Teaching, Proceedings of the 43rd ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, pp. 619–624, New York: ACM,

EdShare [n.d.],

English Common Law [n.d.],

Great Writers Inspire [n.d.],

HumBox [n.d.],

IEEE (2002), 1484.12.1-2002, Standard for Learning Object Metadata. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (Standard).

Kritikos [n.d.],

Learning Registry [n.d.],

Learning Resource Metadata Initiative (2013), LRMI Metadata Terms (Specification),

Margaryan, A. and Littlejohn, A. (2007), Repositories and Communities at Cross-purposes: Issues in Sharing and Reuse of Digital Learning Resources, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 24(4), pp. 333–347,

Massachusetts Institute of Technology [n.d.], MIT OpenCourseWare,

MERLOT [n.d.],

NISO (2004), Understanding Metadata,

OER Commons [n.d.],

OpenLearn. [n.d.],

OpenLearn Works [n.d.],

OpenSpires [n.d.],

Robertson, J. (2008), Open Educational Resources, Metadata, and Self-description,

Rolfe, V. (2012), Open Educational Resources: Staff Attitudes and Awareness, Research in Learning Technology, 20, http://www.researchin

Solvonauts [n.d.],

University of Nottingham, The [n.d.], U-Now Open Courseware,

Wiley, D., Bliss, TJ and McEwen, M. (2014), Open Educational Resources: A Review of the Literature, in J. M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. Elen, and M. J. Bishop (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, pp. 781–789, New York: Springer.

World War I Centenary [n.d.],

Xerte Community [n.d.],

Xpert [n.d.],

Xpert image attribution [n.d.],

1 Disclosure: the authors have acted in an advisory or consultancy role for some of the services described below. Specifically, Lorna M. Campbell was a member of the Jorum Steering Group; Phil Barker was a consultant to the development of Core Materials and Kritikos. The authors have no ongoing financial association with any of these projects.