As open educational resources proliferate, and the number and diversity of open educational projects increase, the question of what characteristics make resources most useful is going to pick up steam. There are a number of obvious candidate characteristics: size, reusability, level of instructional automation, etc. I’d like to nominate another characteristic for the list: derivatibility, or the extent to which a resource supports the creation of derivative educational resources.
For example, a few years back I attended a WebCT conference session in which a representative of a company called AliveTek offered to make a learning object for free out of the best proposal submitted from attendees. I submitted a proposal for a learning object describing the narrative arc, a central concept in plotting, which was chosen for creation. The narrative arc learning object is a nice little Shockwave animation, which would seem to be fairly reusable. It is, however, far less derivatible than the same description of the narrative arc in the courseware. With the courseware version it would be much easier for another instructor or educational technologist to grab the text or HTML code and the accompanying images, and make changes to suit the technical, academic and cultural environment in which they are teaching.
This becomes important in situations where open educational resources are targeted at the widest possible audience. For example, while a pretty wide audience can be assumed to have read or seen a version of “A Christmas Carol,” there are certainly audiences out there who haven’t. In the case of the learning object version, this is hard to overcome. “A Christmas Carol” is deeply embedded in the object. In the case of the courseware, it might be an hour’s work by someone with minimal HTML and Photoshop skills to swap out “A Christmas Carol” for a story their audience can be assumed to know.
Likewise, the learning object version is tied to a set of technologies. You almost have to have a computer and Shockwave installed to use it. I suppose you could take screenshots and drop them into PowerPoint or print them as handouts. You could transcribe the audio perhaps, but all of these solutions are inelegant and time-consuming. The courseware version is much more derivatible in this respect as well, given that you could print the pages, copy and paste the text into a wide variety of environments, and easily capture and manipulate the images. It moves offline and into classrooms much more elegantly.
Finally, there is the legal angle. The courseware is available under the Creative Commons Non-Commercial, Attribution, Share-alike license, which makes it legally very derivatible, whereas the learning object, while owned by me in compiled form, has its source code still owned by AliveTek. I’m happy to make the content available under the CC license, but the technology is not open source.
AliveTek’s approach certainly makes for a prettier presentation, and is in some ways more self-contained and plug-and-play, but it is so at the expense of derivatibility.