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/.

6 thoughts on “The hunting of the OER

  1. Pingback: The hunting of the OER – or curatorial responsibility in publishing OERs « Cloud Wisdom

  2. Hi Phil,

    I’m very glad David K relocated the Angle Dutch timeline as it’s an excellent resource! This is a salutary tale though and, as you rightly said, it’s by no means unusual. I certainly agree that the root of the problem is inconsistent use of identifiers but I also can’t help wondering what “curatorial responsibility” really means in the context of open educational resources and the open web. It seems to be very much the nature of the web that resources are transient to a greater or lesser degree. Is it perhaps also the case that we have to accept that OERs will be as transient as other web resources once they are out on the open web? Or can we be smarter in the way we use technology (including repositories and identifiers) to help improve the persistence of these resources?

  3. Hi Lorna. You’re bringing in a lot different angles there :-) This resource didn’t get deleted, it got moved, nor was it an issue about it being “out on the open web” in the sense that the copy which was lost was still under the control of the publisher of the original. Losing something because it has been deleted from its original server and isn’t available elsewhere will happen. It’s arguably the easiest case to deal with, you just need to make sure that anyone trying to resolve the URI gets a 404 response. That’s a pretty minimal responsibility which falls to anyone who makes a copy of the resource available to others. (For the sake of argument let’s accept that, unless you’re in a museum, managed resource destruction is an appropriate form of curation). You could do the same for the original URL of a resource that has moved, though with a little added overhead you could also manage a 301 (moved permanently) redirect. Dealing with resources for which there are copies and versions available in multiple locations gets more difficult. Maybe there are clever things that can be done to promote curation of these, but a lot could be achieved by doing the simple things right.

  4. >You’re bringing in a lot different angles there
    Wouldn’t want to make life too easy for you ;)

    >This resource didn’t get deleted, it got moved
    Does it really matter from a users pov if the end result is that the resource is no longer accessible?

    >nor was it an issue about it being “out on the open web”
    Hmm I think that’s debatable tbh.

    >Maybe there are clever things that can be done to promote curation of these, but a lot could be achieved by doing the simple things right.
    I absolutely agree with that! So how do we help people to do the “simple things right”?

  5. > >This resource didn’t get deleted, it got moved
    > Does it really matter from a users pov if the end result is that the resource is no longer accessible?

    But that wasn’t the end result. Nor, I believe, was it the intended result. So the fact that it became more difficult for users to find the resource, and that the repositories did not help users find the resource is the issue here. (Had it been deleted there may have been a different problem in that the repositories would be suggesting that a resource was available when it wasn’t.)

    >>nor was it an issue about it being “out on the open web”
    >Hmm I think that’s debatable tbh.
    I guess I was reading into your statement about transience of resources on the open web an implication that it was no longer under the control of the institution that had released it. It was still on the same web server and still under the control of that institution. Curatorial responsibility for the OER releaser, had they cared to exercise it, would be pretty simple: serve a suitable HTTP status code for a resource that isn’t there. If we are to say that OERs are to be as transient as other web resources, then let’s at least pick something like the BBC News website as a benchmark of how transient web resources /need/ to be.

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