The recent media frenzy that surrounded the launch of the Jisc-funded Bomb Sight website, which saw visitor numbers soar to about 200k in just one day, is testimony to the wide-spread public interest in the type of content that is, in fact, often hard for people to access, if not impossible.
Until now, the only way for me to find out if the street I live in had been bombed during the Blitz would have been to go to the Reading Room at The National Archives in Kew - and luckily I live in London.
The point is that the maps that the Bomb Sight team digitised and made available in such innovative ways for everybody to use and enjoy are part of a rich, but often hidden, body of cultural and educational material – located within many universities’ ‘special’ collections and archives.
These collections typically include primary sources such as manuscripts, photographs, official records and audio-visuals and are seen as the ‘jewels in the crown’ by their host university. They also play a key role in differentiating one university from another, as a recent RLUK survey described.
Yet, environmental requirements, handling restrictions and copyright arrangements mean they can be hard to access. This is despite growing evidence of their value not just for researchers but also in teaching and learning, and the interest they generate from the public at large.
Our current content programme is pushing the boundaries. We want to make special collections more widely available through digitisation - by adopting open user licences like Creative Commons and creating Open Educational Resources (OER) from the digitised material.
Judging by the continued interest shown by the national media in these projects, see for example recent coverage of Observing the 1980s, it is clear that these activities help boost universities’ profiles and highlight their unique offering to students and researchers - something which is critical in the increasingly competitive world of higher education.
So, what is so ‘special’ about these OERs and making them available online? What do they contribute to open education? Here are just some of my favourite examples:
Access to unique primary sources
Imagine you’re a fashion student researching one of Britain’s most iconic designers, Zandra Rhodes. Her archives are privately held, in trunks, scrapbooks and her studio. The University of the Creative Arts (UCA) has been working with her in London to open up Zandra's archive and has photographed about 500 of the designer’s most important creations. They’ll be releasing these as OERs at the end of March 2013 so that students and researchers interested in cultural history, fashion and textiles can get closer to the clothes themselves and to the thoughts and ideas of the woman who dressed many of the best-known faces of the 70s and 80s.
A partnership approach is typical in the development of many OERs. Universities see working with museums, private archives, public records offices, national libraries and commercial architectural practices as crucial in the process. Observing the 80s is a project that digitised manuscripts about everyday life in the 80s from the University of Sussex’s Mass Observation archive and complemented them with oral history testimonies from the British Library Sound Archive collection. History students and 80s enthusiasts alike now have easy access to reliable resources that have benefited from the input of ‘special’ collections librarians, academics, archivists, learning technologists and students themselves.
People can also now make their own judgments about the decade via a rich range of resources that includes an augmented reality experience called Voices in your pocket.
Students as creators
Often, students themselves have been engaged in the process of creating an OER, ensuring that the resources are relevant for the end user. The Zandra Rhodes Digital Study Collection's blog gives us a fascinating insight into how students themselves value this experience and the transferable skills they have developed in the process.
Students on the OpenLives project have created interactive magazines and videos from research data about the experience of Spanish émigrés. This data had been previously accumulated by researchers at the University of Southampton but the students also carried out their own original research.
If the creation of OERs reflects primarily the requirements of specific universities and courses, the end result also finds a broader audience. It’s good to see comments such as this one from an A-level teacher using the Manufacturing Pasts resource:
“The material you've put together for Manufacturing Pasts is great because I'm always looking for good primary material to use in teaching.”
For me, all the projects involved in digitisation and OER creation did so much more than simply create content: they developed new working practices, engaged in innovative curriculum design, developed digital literacy skills in staff and students, built up institutional capacity and explored new possibilities for further work and collaboration. But that is the topic for another post. In the meantime you could take a look at my slides describing these achievements.
Find out more about the experiences of working on digitisation and OER creation by taking a look at the projects’ blogs on the programme's Netvibes pages.