Digital Futures for Learning: An OER assignment

This post is the second in a series of blog posts for Open Education Week.

by Dr Jen Ross, Centre for Research in Digital Education, University of Edinburgh

Embracing the challenges of personalisation in mass higher education by D. Lozza,

The Digital Futures for Learning course on the MSc in Digital Education asks students to create their own Open Educational Resources (OERs). The course itself is about the future of education, and a challenge of designing the course was how to engage with new and evolving topics. The aim of the OER assignment is to provide a high-quality, engaging introduction to topics each student has explored in a previous ‘position paper’ assignment. The instruction given to each student is to produce an OER that will be of interest and relevance to education professionals and Masters-level students working in fields including digital education, learning technology, digital futures, and e-learning. In other words, the audience is, explicitly, other students on the Digital Futures course.

The OERs are created in two stages – the first is a complete first version of each OER, which forms the content for the fourth and final block of the course, and on which each OER author receives detailed feedback from a small group of peers. Authors then revise their OERs before submitting a final version, which is marked by the tutors.

The experience of creating assignments in OER format goes well beyond a standard essay-based assignment in two key respects:

  1. They are for an audience beyond the tutor, and authors have to take into account the needs, interests and expertise of their peers.
  2. Creating genuinely open resources requires careful attention to issues such as accessibility, structure, audience and licensing.

I’ve written already about these two features of OER assignments and their design implications – what I would like to do in this post is to say a bit more about why I think it’s important that this work takes place on the open web. After all, we could assign a task that was much more limited in its audience and reach, and met the same pedagogical goals for our students we do through our OER assignment. Why do we emphasise the openness of this task?

Radical Digital Literacy, Ruth Weeks, CC BY,

Openness – of materials, processes and practices (Cronin 2017)  – has been a source of great energy and excitement in education, and the term itself has come to encompass a lot of very different – and sometimes contradictory – things (Weller 2014). We are seeing much more critical discussion of the relationship between openness and closure, amongst other things (Bayne, Knox and Ross 2015), but there is still a tendency to construct a false binary between open and closed, to homogenise learners and their contexts, and to neglect issues of power and inclusion (see Collier & Ross 2017 for more on these tendencies), and this has been a debate of great importance to students on the Digital Education programme. Our view is that the best way to critically evaluate the implications of educational trends and shifts is to engage with and explore them in a hands on way (see for example this account of our conversations at the start of the Digital Futures course in 2017 about whether and how to make the course open). We think students get a richer understanding of what openness means, and the strengths and limitations of different approaches to openness, by making the OERs in Digital Futures. Indeed, one of the key points of feedback from the most recent run of the course was that students wanted more opportunities to discuss the implications of their choices in the context of wider scholarly discussions about openness. Experiencing first-hand what it means to engage in open educational practice gives student an appetite to learn and think more.

Beyond this, we are always incredibly impressed with the work, insight and care our students put into their assignments, and we like to take opportunities to share these whenever we can – see for example our Digital Education showcase. The creation of OERs provides a platform for students to share their learning. In previous years, participants have adapted and further developed their OERs, shared them with colleagues or other audiences, or created others as part of their professional roles, building on their experiences on the course. In this way, these assignments can have ongoing, tangible value for students and for the people who encounter their work.

Images in this post are screenshots of Digital Futures for Learning OERs from 2017. More here:


Bayne, S., Knox, J., & Ross, J. (2015). Open education: the need for a critical approachLearning, Media and Technology40(3), 247–250.

Collier, A. and Ross, J. (2017). For whom, and for what? Not- yetness and thinking beyond open content. Open Praxis, 9/1

Cronin, C. (2017). Openness and Praxis: Exploring the Use of Open Educational Practices in Higher EducationInternational Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18/5.

Weller, M. (2014) The Battle For Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory. London: Ubiquity Press. Available at: (Accessed: 2 June 2015).

About the author

Jen is a senior lecturer in Digital Education and  co-director of the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh.

She is one of the team behind the MSc in Digital Education programme, the Manifesto for Teaching Online, and the E-learning and Digital Cultures MOOC.  She’s a former Beltane Parliament Engagement Fellow, and Deputy Director (KE) of Research and Knowledge Exchange in the School of Education (2015-18).  Her research interests include online distance education, digital cultural heritage learning, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), digital cultures and futures, and online reflective practices.