The hunting of the OER

“As internet resources are being moved, they can no longer be traced.” I read in a press release from Knowledge Exchange. This struck me as important for OERs since part of their “openness” is the licence to copy them, and I have recently been on something of an OER hunt, which highlights the importance of using identifiers correctly and of “curatorial responsibility”.

The OER I was hunting was an “Interactive timeline on Anglo-Dutch relations (50 BC to 1830)” from the UKOER Open Dutch project. It was recommended at a year or so ago as great output which pretty much anyone could see the utility of that used the MIT SIMILE timeline software to create a really engaging interface. I liked it, but more importantly for what I’m considering now I used it as an example when investigating whether putting resources into a repository enhanced their visibility on Google (in this case it did).

Well, that was a year+ ago. The other week I wanted to find it again. So I went to Google and searched for “anglo dutch timeline” (without the quotes). Sure enough, I got three results for the one I am looking for on the first page (of course, your results my vary; Google’s like that now-a-days). These were, from the bottom up:

  1. A link to a record in the NDLR (the Irish National Digital Learning Resources Repository) which gave the link URL as http://open.jorum.ac.uk:80/xmlui/handle/123456789/517 (see below)
  2. A link to a resource page in HumBox, which turned out to be a manifest-only content package (i.e. metadata in a zip file). Looking into it, there’s no resource location given in the metadata, and the pointer to the content (which should be the resource being described) actually points to the Open Dutch home page.
  3. Finally, a link to a resource page in JORUM. This also describes the resource I was looking for but actually points to Open Dutch project page. The URL for Jorum page describing the resource is given as the persistent link–I believe that the NDLR harvests metadata from Jorum, so my guess is that that is why NDLR list this as the location of the resource.

Finding descriptions of a resource isn’t really helpful to many people. OK, I now know the full name and the author of the resource, which might help me track down the resource, but at this point I couldn’t. Furthermore, nobody wants to find a description of a resource that links to a description of the resource. I think one lesson concerns the importance of identifiers: “describe the thing you identify; identify the thing you describe.”

This story (and I very much suspect it is not an isolated case) has significance for debates about whether repositories should accept metadata-only “representations” of resources. Whether or not it is a good idea to deposit resources you are releasing as OERs in a third-party repository will depend on what you want to achieve by releasing them; whether or not it is a good idea for a repository to take and store resources from third parties will depend on what the repository’s sponsors wish to facilitate. Either way, someone needs to take some curatorial responsibility for the resource and for the metadata about it. That means on the one hand making sure that the resource stays on the web and on the other hand making sure that the metadata record continues to point to the right resource (automatic link checking for HTTP 404 responses etc. helps but, as this post on link rot notes, it’s not always that simple).

By the way, thanks to the incomparable David Kernohan, I now know that the timeline is currently at http://www.ucl.ac.uk/alternative-languages/OER/timeline/.